1 August 2016

Love Life by Zeruya Shalev

A powerful and psychologically rich penetration into the mind of woman having an affair with an older man.

The plot of the book is very simple. Ya’ara, a young Israeli woman, is married to a man of the same age, who is portrayed through her eyes as being well meaning but uninspiring. She meets Aryeh, an older man and a lifelong friend of her father, and starts a relationship with him. After a stormy emotional and sexual affair,  exciting for her at first and then revolting, the relationship implodes. Throughout the book the reader is waiting to hear the response of her husband, Yonny, to her admission of infidelity and that suspense is kept up until the last page of the book.

The book is entirely written through the eyes, thoughts and delusions of the protagonist, and contains numerous psychological insights. At first, the reader is encouraged to think that Ya'ara is merely displaying what could be regarded as an excessive “feminine” perspective on the people and the world, but as the novel progress we begin to realise that she is mentally unbalanced and has at least partially lost her grip on reality.

While engaging, the book is not always written in an easily accessible style. Long paragraphs of poetic, but deluded, introspection can be difficult to plough through. Moreover, the book shuns the conventions of direct speech altogether, and relies on inserting conversation into the body of paragraphs.

Despite these possible shortcomings, the book is powerful and engaging. It engraves on the memory of the reader the personality and outlook of one particular young woman.

SHALEV, Zeruya, Love Life, Cannongate 2002

31 July 2016

Brexit: the nightmare becomes reality

On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a referendum, 52 to 48 percent, to leave the European Union.

Brexit is a political, economic, and cultural disaster for Britain. The right-wing politicians who spearheaded the Leave campaign were the xenophobe, Nigel Farage (UKIP leader) and the Tory opportunist and showman Boris Johnson (former mayor of London), a man who aspired to replace Cameron as Prime Minister, but was stopped in his tracks by the Tory establishment.

The success of the Leave campaign was due to their hammering a single point: if Britain left the EU the number non-British workers and immigrants in the country could be reduced. Their campaign was openly xenophobic and sometimes racist. Yet the fact that this xenophobia bore fruit in Labour-voting heartlands outside the multi-cultural metropolitan areas was that it tapped into a well of anomic anger arising from the pains inflicted on working people by unbridled market fundamentalism (under both Tory and New Labour) since the 1980s.

Enhanced in English politics today, as a result of the Leave campaign, are two unpleasant right-wing forces. The first is the strengthening of illiberal, xenophobic and nationalistic ideologies, promoted by UKIP and right-wing elements in the Tory Party. This has already led to a string of street attacks on people judged “non-British.” The second force is an accelerated neo-economic liberalism advocating a bonfire of worker and consumer protections along with welfare rights and benefits. These two, xenophobic nationalists and free-market fantasists, may at times collide, but their dialectical dance on the political right will probably drown out the voices of the metropolitan liberal left, social democracy and wider progressive left.

The ramifications for British politics resulting from Brexit are huge, especially for Scotland which voted heavily to remain in the EU, and for Northern Ireland where some sort of re-imposed border with the Republic seems almost inevitable. Exactly when, or at what speed, Brexit will occur remains to be seen. But the threat and reality of a Britain excluded from the single market promises economic pain, which will in turn exacerbate the political tensions.

1 June 2016

Woolmer Hill Teachers 1973-78


This essay contains memory portraits of teachers from Woolmer Hill Secondary School in Haslemere, Surrey from 1973 to 1978.

(Photo: taken in 1967. In the line of six teachers, left to right, No.2: Mr Anning, No.5 Mr Glover, No.6: Mr Sellars. The others are unknown to me)

This lengthy piece of writing consists of several sections. You may wish to scroll down to the part which interests you.
  • Remembering school days: an essay Amended May 2016
  • List of remembered teachers at Woolmer Hill Secondary School 1973-78 
  • Mr Anning
  • Mrs Blewett
  • Mr Howell 
  • Mrs James Added June 2016
  • Mr Jimpson
  • Mr Kyte
  • Mr McNally
  • Mr McShane
  • Mr Metcalf
  • Mrs Myall
  • Mr Pavey
  • Mrs Sales
  • Mrs Thackery
  • Mr Trench

Remembering school days

“I visit for parent's evening twice a year, and I swear I can still hear Anning's ghostly footsteps along the main corridor.” Jon B.

One of the most distinctive features of memory is that we have so little control over what we are able to remember from our own past. We can choose today to try to remember something in the future by making a note of it, taking a photograph, made easy today by cameras on our mobile phones, but after the event, particularly in the absence of anything to “jog the memory,” whether we remember something or not is largely out of our control. The more important something has been in our lives the more likely we are to remember it, but what we can actually summon up into consciousness from the mass of events that comprise our own pasts is not easily predictable.

Yet however unpredictable memory is, the mind nonetheless retains a great deal. When we do attempt to think back to our own past, the flashes of memory which come into our minds resemble photo-stills, rather than pieces of moving film. Our minds can summon up any number of these mental snapshots. And if we concentrate long enough, these images, despite the obvious gaps and muddles, will overflow with detail and can trigger powerful emotional responses within us, which we call nostalgia. So as we consciously connect the images together in our minds, we have the raw material for writing about our past.

Our memories of events are incomplete and occasionally wrong, but also our minds cannot in any sense be objective either because they are inevitably tied to us and our subjective perspective on events. So to understand our memories from the past it is not only a question of remembering where we were, who we were with and the situation that we were in, but we must also consider our mental state at the time. And in school memories, mental states are particularly important: the impressions and feelings of a prepubescent eleven-year old are very different from those of the sixteen year-old adolescent, so what will be remembered is clearly age and maturity dependent.

Also significant is the unstable object on which memory is focussed. In this study particularly so: Woolmer Hill School and more specifically those teachers working in the years 1973-78. Schools, like rivers, are never the same at any two moments. There are personnel changes. there is turnover of pupils, with new children arriving and adolescents leaving each year; and teachers themselves often come and go, including in the case of Woolmer Hill a change in head teacher in 1977. But even if the object under investigation is constantly shifting, there is still sufficient consistency to talk of a continuing institution, even if change within it has be given central place in the comments on teachers.

Focussing on the properties of memory is important because in memoir writing the content of one’s own memory comprises at least ninety percent of the input material. But sometimes there is other information available too, and to ignore external sources, or contradict it without good reason, weakens and discredits our own written testimony, so consult and use it we must.

The richest sources of information, apart from our own minds, is the testimony of fellow pupils who also witnessed and experienced the same events. Their testimony is important in three ways: first, by providing hitherto unknown information; second by correcting our own false recollections and third by jogging our memory and bringing to the fore memories which we had forgotten we even had. Let me consider each of these.

New information is often not so useful because it concerns a time, class or situation in a school which the writer did not experience. Let me give an example. The discussion boards of Friends Reunited, my main secondary source for writing about Woolmer Hill School before the site closed in January 2016, included several references to a teacher known by the nickname Crusher Heinz. He had left the school shortly before I joined; and I am unable to picture him and his alleged antics in a school regime so tightly controlled by Headmaster Anning. I cannot reconcile that information with my own experiences, but since my memoir is about what I personally experienced and thought, such material can be sidelined.

Yet in other ways new information can be extremely helpful in, for instance, rebutting general statements which the memoir writer makes which then turn out to be incorrect. In my memoir of Headmaster Anning, the first draft of which was written in 2009, I said that corporal punishment in the school was comparatively rare, mainly because it did not feature prominently in my or my cohort’s experience in the school. However after a raft of internet messages providing instances of corporal punishment, I was forced to alter and qualify what I had written.

More useful than new information are my contemporaries giving me corrections of detail. Let me take an example: during a summer swimming competition in the mid 1970s, I vaguely remember a young female teacher getting out of the swimming pool and her swimming costume top slipping down while she was on the steps of the pool ladder. Yet, my memory was wrong; Sue W. a fellow pupil standing at the side of the pool recalled clearly that the female teacher had stood up in the the shallow end of the pool, and it was there that her swimming top had slipped. Her distinct memory trumped my vague pictorialisation of what I had been told. Trivial though that correction may be, repeated inaccuracies of factual details undermines the credibility of a piece of memoir in the eyes of the reader who also experienced the same events.

Secondary information doesn't just provide new facts and correct the memoir writer’s mistakes, it also jogs the memory and allows him to remember things which he had forgotten to remember. For instance, I finished an entry on one teacher, completely forgetting that she had been unable to control the behaviour of a pupil and had banished him to a separate room. When the pupil concerned jogged my memory, the full details of the incident flowed back and I was able to fully describe and contextualise the sequence of events.

In much historical research, documentary evidence holds central place: in memoir it does not, usually because it simply does not exist. Nevertheless, when we have it, we should use it. Documentary evidence, such as an old teacher’s report, a diary note or a photograph, or even a Google map not only jogs the memory, but it also corrects false impressions which we now have in the head. In this extended essay, however, documentary evidence has played a minimal role, if only because very little of it exists for the topics under consideration.

One non-memory source of documentary information does however require some further consideration: the role of official photographs. At one level old photographs can establish facts, for example that Mr X or Mrs Y had already joined the school in 1973 when a particular photograph was taken. But there is nothing life-catching or spontaneous in these formal and staged school photographs from the 1970s. Digital photography within mobile phones capturing people in action was decades away, and in the 1970s for a pupil to have a camera in school was unusual, and probably forbidden. So the only photographs that exist are formal school photos, often taken at the end of the school year with the whole school, staff and pupils, assembled in rows outside in the school grounds for the solemn occasion.

These all-school photographs hide as much as they reveal. Yes, they show the hierarchy: Headmaster Anning in the centre, his deputy Mrs Hollingdale to his right and his second deputy, Mr Macshane to his left. Seated in a long line either side of them are the teachers, who are themselves surrounded by pupils, left, right, in front and behind. Boys are on one side and girls on the other; older pupils are standing at the back: younger ones are sitting on the ground at the front. This configuration of people would never come into existence other than to take a photograph. But the artificiality goes beyond the absurd assemblage. Male teachers who normally wore 1970s style sports jackets wore suits that day. Pupils - even a majority of the girls, who rarely wore them otherwise - were wearing ties for the occasion. Even more telling of the artificiality of it all is the serious but empty look on everybody’s face, a strange still and silent circus of hundreds of people acting together. Decades later few can remember the occasion: what happened after the photograph, and how normal life stopped so that the school could be photographed for posterity.

Yet the school photograph is one of the few pieces of memorabilia that remain. Today the technology exists to cut out the opaque grainy black and white heads of teachers and append these dead images to the script which tries to bring them alive. And I sometimes have done that. Yet these severed heads pasted next to the text tell us nothing, save perhaps the sex and age of the teacher - and on the latter point not even that. My memory, for instance, of Mrs Blewett is mainly from 1978 but the only photograph of her which I possess was taken in 1973, and it was only with difficulty that I was able to marry my mental image of her with the photographic one.

Old photographs of Woolmer Hill School necessarily portray people and situations at the moment they happened, but fortunately some of these frozen images have survived four decades to speak to us as evidence of the past in the present. But whereas old photographs can be said to travel forwards in time, by contrast the Internet can only look backwards, simply because in the 1970s it did not exist as a tool for inputting and accessing banks of reminiscences. Whatever can be found on the web today was inputted long after the mid 1970s. The scanned grainy pictures, information and comment that one finds of Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s were selected, recorded or written years after the events to which they pertain. Yet despite that being so, the Internet is a vital ingredient and tool in making the study of memory possible. Why?

Most obviously this study is made available to its readers by means of the Internet. It could of course be written and published in book form but few sales would result. Precisely because it cost the author nothing apart from time to make this essay available on the net, he was prepared to write it; and precisely because the reader can glance through it for free, he or she has access to it. Moreover, the study is an eternal work-in-progress: more memory can always be added and the structure and content can easily be revised. In fact the first drafts of the first parts of this essay were written a decade and a half ago in 2003.

In the UK the pioneers of the Internet nostalgia industry in the early 2000s were the creators of Friends Reunited. Their site, amid its flashing banners, permitted users to register themselves as alumni of educational institutions and add and share heavily monitored reminiscences and potted autobiographies with their former peers. Old school mates could read each other’s profiles, but in the early years users were to not allowed to exchange email without paying a fee. Yet even this controlled and limited service generated much excitement and provided a bank of testimony which the author was able to use.

Even before the closure of Friends Reunited in January 2016, the site had long before been eclipsed by Facebook, which was more multi-focussed, and lacked the special emphasis on school days and nostalgia. I found a few pieces of information here, but social media in the 2010s is far more oriented to brief elliptical exchanges on comment, than it is on detailed exposition. In contrast Friends Reunited often contained several paragraphs of connected text on a subject. Nevertheless, Facebook provided useful in contacting former school mates, asking questions, sending drafts of text about teachers and often receiving comments in reply, enabling me to further improve the text.

Friends Reunited and Facebook both work at the level of personal connection, but of course the anonymous Google Search facility has also yielded valuable information. Those teachers whose full names I knew and with distinct as opposed to common names proved easiest to investigate. I was thus able to discover the death records for Headmaster Leslie Anning, Mrs Odile Blewitt and Mr Godfrey Chenevix-Trench, as well as snippets of information for the current life of Mr Robert Cantan - and most surprisingly for Mr Alex McShane who was mentioned in someone else’s reminiscences. And even Google Maps and Street View enabled me to check out names, locations and distances. Thus the internet is an integral part of this study.

Yet even when we have summoned up the raw material of memory in our minds, talked to others and gathered whatever evidence we can, it is still not enough. Our understanding remains private and unique to us. So rather like stray photographs found in a grandparent's loft, our emotionally-laden images – whether presented to others in word or text - make little sense to anyone else in the absence of commentary and context. If we wish to transform our memories into a coherent narrative accessible to other people, we need to anchor the memories into a meaningful discourse. Organising, linking and providing background information is the other half of the job in memoir writing.

Of course a lot of people, usually writing on internet message boards, don’t contextualise, explain their memory or even date it. Usually they believe the mere use of names is sufficient to stimulate memory recall in others and summon up nostalgia, and to a certain extent they are right. Look for instance at the following post on a noticeboard about Haslemere by Si on 9 November 2002:

Anyone remember these idiots...The Hammer crew: Andy Weir, Phil Hack [younger brother of Roger], Phil Johnson, John Elsey, Michael Envis [Slug],Jimmy Cooper....The girls: Marianne [Maz] who lived on Woolmer Hill....Emma and Louise Waterhouse,Rachel Barrett who lived in Chilcroft Rd...The Haslemere crew: Nobby, Ian Hill [Hilly], Colin Bicknell [Biscuit],Darren Hampton [Hammy]

Now unless you were one of the named people in this message, or someone who knew them and their nicknames well, this message is utterly meaningless. I can tell you the message concerns pupils from Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s, who lived in Haslemere or its environs. Certainly by using the names and the associating them with each other and with places, one can feel the call on nostalgia. But that is all, and to be fair that is perhaps all the author intended. Yet beyond the nostalgic cry we have nothing. What bound these people together? What did they do? What did they feel about things? We simply don’t know, and that is a pity.

However, when we do expand, explain and contextualise, our explication of memory flows through filters. Some filters we have discussed above, forgetting, unintentional distortion and our different perspectives as we grew up, but that is not all. When we write, we have to select and place our flashes of memory into a narrative stream according to some logic that originates not in the mid 1970s but from something in the writer's head at the time of writing many years later. My desk on my first day at school had a hole where there was once a inkwell; I ignore that fact because it doesn’t fit into anything I want to say when I am writing in 2016. We can thus see that writing about the past through selection and framing is as much about writing about what is important in the present.

Our perspective on past events is never the same today as it was when we experienced them, as I cannot write today about an event or experience in the past without knowing what happened afterwards. Let me take an example. Corporal punishment, though not rampant at Woolmer Hill, nonetheless cast its abusive shadow over the school; yet in the 1970s it was a normal occurrence and nobody then could have known that in the following decade it would be abolished, and later interpreted quite differently. People always, by necessity, always behave in ignorance of the future; the memoirist, precisely because he knows the flow of subsequent events, is apt to misunderstand and misinterpret the past. His knowledge of events between then and writing it down impedes his ability to see into the minds of those living in the past.

All the time the memoirist is dancing with ghosts who haunt and play tricks on his mind. Who is dead and who is alive? The mind tends to remember a person as looking as he or she did on the last occasion that we saw him or her. Of course we know that the person has aged, but we cannot know what the person looks like now. It was 1978 or earlier when I last saw any of the teachers in this essay, except for three brief chance meetings in public places immediately after I left Woolmer Hill. The teachers I met were Anning, Jimpson and Kyte, and issues of ageing did not arise. If we say that in 1978 their maximum age range was 23-65, then now in 2016 the range would be 61-103. In other words, these teachers are now nearly all retirees, or in many cases dead. The only three whom I actually know are dead are Headmaster Anning (1990), my final year English teacher, Mrs Blewett (1997) and my history teacher Mr Trench (2005). But on a happier note in the mid 2010s I found evidence of the living. An aged Mr Sellars, still living apparently in Hammer, was spotted shopping in Tescos in Shottermill. Mrs Hollingdale, living in Godalming, was registered as an owner of a company. Mrs Chaney, I was told, is connected to a flower business in Liphook. Mrs Prizeman, now living in Durham, was found on Facebook. And Mr Cantan spends his retirement putting on children’s theatrical performances with his wife. No doubt there are others.

People age, whither and forget. Situations and events don’t recur; aspects of them remain in our memory, in photographs, letters and in forgotten pieces of memorabilia, but places endure. Yes, buildings can be renovated, knocked down and land can be re-landscaped, but the place itself can never be fully abolished. Jon B. now has two sons at Woolmer Hill and he says, “I visit for parent's evening twice a year, and I swear I can still hear Anning's ghostly footsteps along the main corridor.” I myself recall my last visit to Woolmer Hill School during those empty days between Christmas and New Year in 2003. Of course the building had been renovated in places and new prefabs had gone up, but essentially the school premises were the same, even if my mind had remembered the dimensions and distances slightly differently. I went on from the school to the Little Chef cafe, then still standing on the A3, recalling the hours I had spent in there after school will my friend Jill. Being in there for the sake of nostalgia reminded me of the central truth: he who suffers from nostalgia often claims to want to return to a place, but it is in fact a time he wants to revisit - and that is always impossible.

So given the pain of nostalgia, why write any of this at all? And who is interested? I can outline three people or types of people who are or might be interested. Of course, the most interested is the author himself. I, like everyone else, am merely the sum of the experiences I have had in my life and the decisions I made along the way. So It is only by thinking through my own past, that I can value that past and really understand who I am today. Apart from me, there are those, mostly our fellow pupils, who experienced much of what I did, who have an interest in accounts of events which they lived through and who are sometimes even personally mentioned in the text. Much of what is of value to the writer is also reaped by his co-experiencers, although unlike the writer their personal perspective is absent.

And finally, the text may be of interest to those who were not part of the events in time or place. Assuming the material is still available in years to come, our children and grandchildren, perhaps interested in how we lived as young people in the 1970s, may find it and learn something from it. I have even received messages from current pupils at Woolmer Hill School who found something of interest in the material. And our contemporaries elsewhere in England, or further away, may wish to compare their own experiences with those described in the memoir.

But before the reader tackles the pieces of writing below, it is helpful to comment on what this study is not. The organisation of this essay could be seen to suggest that Woolmer Hill Secondary School in the mid 1970s can be best understood simply by a summation of the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of these teachers. I don’t believe this is true. Of course these teachers brought their personalities into the school, but how they behaved was as members of a social group, even if not a homogeneous one. It was not personalities, but the wider society and the institutional structure of Woolmer Hill School, governed itself by the laws and customs of the time, that gave meaning to and ordered the behaviour of the teachers – and not just the teachers, but also pupils parents and others. Life at the school was certainly influenced by the combined effects of the idiosyncrasies of individual teachers, but what happened cannot be adequately explained in that way. Understanding the social structures which caused the school to be as it was would be necessary for a more comprehensive explanation, but it is beyond the current study.

With all the reservation expressed above, this study can nevertheless, I hope, provide a perspective on its subject, if not a full understanding.

List of teachers in alphabetical order

The following alphabetical list of Woolmer Hill staff (1973-78) has been compiled from memory, so no doubt it omits some teachers, and, of course, not all the teachers were employed throughout the five years that I attended the school. For each teacher, I have noted down the subject that I remember him or her teaching, but the teacher may have taught other subjects. The initials PT indicate a part time teacher.

Interestingly, there seems no pattern to whether I ever knew or can remember today the teachers’ first names. Where I can remember the given names, I have included them on the table below.

Mr Leslie Anning (Geography, head), Mrs Ashworth (Biology), Mr Chris Baker (Metalwork), Mr E. Baker (PT anything), Miss Catharine Bishop (Biology), Mrs Odile Blewett (English), Miss Britnell (Geography), Cdr. Campbell (Maths), Miss Campbell, (Physics), Mr Robert Cantan (Chemistry), Mrs Cash (English), Mrs Chaney (Biology), Mrs Christopher (Geography), Mr Gabriel Cohen (Music), Mr Gordon Glover (Maths), Mrs Gray (English), Mrs Green (German), Mr Greenwood (French & German), Mrs Grice (Music), Mr Heslop (English), Mrs Kay Hollingdale (Maths), Mr Howell (Religious Education), Mrs James (PT German),Mrs Jenner (PT Physical Education) Mr Jimpson(anything), Mr King (Religious Education), Mr Nicolas Kite (French, Spanish), Mr Alex MacShane (German), Mr McNally (Maths), Mr Metcalf (PT anything). Mrs Morgan nee Davis (English), Mr Richard Murffit (Woodwork), Mrs Myall (Maths), Mr Pavey (Technical Drawing). Mrs Iris Prizeman (Geography), Mrs Sampson (History), Mrs Scales (Physical Education), Miss Margaret Savage (History), Mr Sellars (Physical Education), Mrs Stevens (English), Mrs Thackeray (Current Affairs), Miss Topliss (French), Mr Godfrey Trench aka Chenevix-Trench (History), Mr Williams (Science), Mr Andrew Winter (Physical Education)

I have organised my comments on teachers in alphabetic order of surnames.

Mr Anning: the demon headmaster


“Anning was the sort of headmaster that should run schools now. No messing with him about! Total respect.” Natalie Y.

“Horrible bastard” Les R.

Mr Anning had a reputation that preceded him. At Junior School we knew the name of the man whom we would later become subject to, but not the man himself. When I first met him, aged eleven, at a pre-school induction day I was surprised by how small he was. He came across as smoothly polite.

Leslie Anning was headmaster of Woolmer Hill from its foundation in 1950 - or soon afterwards - until his retirement in 1977. It was he, his choices and idiosyncrasies, which more than anything else designed the regime at Woolmer Hill Secondary School.

Anning, in his early sixties when I joined the school in September 1973, styled every aspect of his persona to instil unease, distance and fear: the dark grey suit, the sun glasses hiding his eyes in summer and the ever-present condescending sneer. In winter his trilby gave him the look of a Soviet politburo member from the Brezhnev era. But the key to this diminutive and portly man’s ability to generate terror was his deliberate unpredictably; the pat on the shoulder could be just that, or it could signal something worse. One day out of the blue the seventh pupil on the register in each class had to take him or herself and all their exercise books to Mr Anning. On another occasion two girls wearing make-up (forbidden along with chewing-gum, elastic bands and shandy) were called out to the stage at the front of the assembly and were forced to parade themselves there. Not only did Anning shun empathy with his pupils (to whom he was know as the old man, pop, or the cunt), but seemingly also with his teachers. Nobody ever expected to find him ensconced in the staffroom or to share lunch in the school hall with the rest of the staff.

Though Anning, perhaps unintentionally, radiated an aura of an ordinary man carrying out the official function of being a headmaster, he nonetheless exploited his position to cultivate his own pomposity and his otherness apart from his staff. Every morning he was the only teacher permitted to drive his car up to a small parking space next to a back door of the school. Whether Anning’s car was ever vandalised in its prominent position, I don’t know. His office next to the front doors of the school, which pupils were never allowed to use, had an electronic sign board beside the door which illuminated three lights; “Engaged” which meant, presumably, “Go away, I’m busy, don’t knock,” Below that was “Wait” which meant you stood there until he pushed the third button which illuminated a sign “Come in.” The signboard, resembling the vacant/engaged sign on a toilet door, spelled out his two dominant characteristics: arrogance and functionality.

He wandered around the school corridors menacingly and quietly. Yet at the same time he stood apart from all practical decision making such as timetabling. His appearance in classrooms and corridors served only to instil unease and fear. He entered classrooms and triggered the automatic requirement on pupils to stand up, but invariably the scraping and rumble of chairs led to a dismissive wave of the hand which signalled that we should sit down.

In a thread on the social media site Friends Reunited, some commentators have talked about corporal punishment with the implied suggestion that the school functioned around the liberal use of canes and slippers. This is not true. Corporal punishment undoubtedly played a role in creating an ambience of fear and humiliation that intruded into every aspect of the school. Yet it was precisely Anning’s mostly secret and selective use of corporal punishment, most often the slipper with the cane having only a “display of terror” function, that enhanced fear. For most pupils most of time beatings were what could be rather than what was actually experienced.

Woolmer Hill School in those years functioned as a highly authoritarian, yet usually not sadistically cruel, educational establishment. Rules covered every aspect of institutional life: what you wore, which grass you could walk or sit on, which doors you could use, which side of the corridor you walked, whether you could come inside in the cold. No school can function without rules and structure, but it was the sheer volume of rules linked to a regime of fear that stunted the development of personal responsibility in the pupils.

Anning, a former soldier, presented himself as a reactionary against the social changes of post war Britain. He saw his role as a disciplinarian who would mould into shape the lower orders of society, so they could function as orderly cogs in British society. Yet the 1970s were a decade of change. No longer were his younger teachers products of National Service; and no more did parents or pupils stand in automatic deference to his authority. He slipped from his high horse and step by step became isolated from his own school; he could be seen, for instance, at sports’ day sitting with his wife, both in dark glasses, alone and apart.

At morning assembly he appeared on the stage with his academic gown. Along the side of the assembly room sat the staff with the pupils on the floor. Only a few of those teachers seemed to hold him in much respect. Most probably disapproved of his cold regime; there was always something barren about the school under his leadership. Many teachers tended to be more liberal or tolerant. The majority would save you from the clutches of Mr Anning if they could.

Events overtook Anning. One weekend some school vandals daubed the school with the slogan Colditz, a Second World War prisoner of war camp depicted in a popular 1970s TV drama, and smashed some windows in the Upper School Building. In the morning assembly he let forth. We were all “guttersnipes,” so were our parents. Our generation would never have won the War. The workers on the Grunwick picket line were labelled as a foul role models. We were standing for a long time and younger children started fainting; his only response was that we were all weak. He had lost the plot: we knew it; the staff knew it.

Then he retired. On his last day he stood at the exit to the school grounds in dark glasses wearing a single black glove. He shook hands with everybody. He wasn’t made of stone; he was just an anachronism.

Was there anything good about the man and his regime? In a purely practical way his authority and systems created a functioning school. Nobody was at a loss of what they had to do. Within that framework things got done. True his mind-rotting systems allowed awful teachers to carry on unquestioned, but for those teachers who wanted to teach there was a structure in which they could do so. Some of his rules served practical purposes, not pomposity; e.g. walking on the right in corridors and on the stairs, or at the end of the school year bringing in string to tie up one’s books so they wouldn’t become mixed in storage.

Some former pupils rank his regime more highly. Steve M. wrote on Friends Reunited:

I think it was his rule that made a shy lad like me feel fairly safe at the school. Coming from Shottermill school where I was bullied a fair amount I found the strict atmosphere where you knew the rules and pretty well knew the punishments very welcome.

Steve is making a point which I in part agree with. Anning’s system did in fact work in the sense that the regime was one whose rules most pupils could internalise and accommodate their behaviour within. Those teachers who wished to teach could do so; disorder and violence did not pollute life outside the classroom.

The assumption behind Steve’s comment is a familiar one in conservative thought. The case is made for the status quo by contrasting what actually is with an alternative of anarchy, violence and disorder. A binary opposition is created without a third option. The conservative has safety and meaning in the ordered patterns of life which actually exist (or in this case existed) and seeks to defend them.

Going further than Steve M., Natalie Y. posted the following comment on Facebook:

...and the demon headmaster himself Mr Anning. In fact Anning was the sort of headmaster that should run schools now. NO MESSING with him about! Total respect.

Undoubtedly, Natalie shares Steve’s views on the value of order, although she goes on in her post to describe in fond terms various acts of disorder and breaches in the rules. Yet there is something else in her contribution which does not occur in the functional conservatism of Steve’s thought; namely, the notion of respect.

Natalie believes that because Mr Anning was “a demon” and because there was “no messing with him about” that he earned respect. Respect, though, originates not in the exercise of power - an armed robber has power over his victims - but from the possession of legitimacy. Even when I was eleven I could see that he had enormous power over the school and over me, but I never felt the slightest respect for his opinions or behaviour. Too much of what he did was - even though my young eyes - illegitimate. Natalie, by contrast, is arguing that Anning’s authoritarian regime was not simply necessary to prevent greater evils, but was desirable - and indeed something she would wish to inflict on her own children.

Steve and Natalie’s views would carry more weight in my view only if they could exclude every kind of third option. I find no difficulty in opposing and regretting the Mr Anning’s authoritarianism and remaining solidly opposed to violence and disorder. But perhaps I simply have a more positive view of human nature - or what was possible with teenage children in mid-1970s England.

Yet whoever is right on these issues, his regime was a stifling one of petty rules enforced through humiliation. Then in my fifth year he was gone. And some fresh air blew through the school.

I met him only once after I left Woolmer Hill. In 1979 I was walking past the Hindhead golf course and he was there at the edge of the green with his wife. I suppose I stared at him for a second too long and surprisingly - we had never had much contact - he recognised me. In the very brief conversation that followed I must have said something political because I clearly remember his retort, “Politics, I never discuss politics with my friends.”

When he retired in 1977 he must have been in his early to mid sixties, so by 2010s it was highly unlikely that he was still among the living. I googled the name “Leslie Anning” but found no internet obituary for him. His name was not usual so a search of the birth, marriage and death registers would yield results. A Leslie Anning had been born in Camberwell, London in 1913; and I tend to think I had found him. So at the start of the Second World War he was in his mid twenties and he became a headmaster in his mid forties. He was sixty-four when he retired in 1977. I also found a record of a death of a Lesley Anning in 1990 in the County of Surrey. Well if that was indeed the right Lesley Anning - and I strongly suspect that it was - he lived to be seventy-seven.

Mrs Blewett: the self-proclaimed gatekeeper to adulthood (remembered 1973-78)

Entering the school aged eleven in 1973, I soon realised that Mrs Blewett was one of those teacherswho taught and dealt with the affairs and concerns of the older pupils in their penultimate and final years. Her base in the school was in the so-called Upper School, a modern two-floor 1970s building intended to accommodate the extra pupils now remaining in school as result of the raising of the compulsory school leaving age to sixteen. While she could periodically be seen engaging in a friendly camaraderie with fifth formers, I only ever saw her being harsh with younger pupils.

I developed an apprehension of her early on. I remember in my second year during an English lesson with Mrs Cash, the arrival of the more senior Mrs Blewett to remonstrate with Sean H. because he had yet again failed to complete homework. She marched into the room, made Sean H. stand up at his desk and let rip with a torrent of criticism and threats. The dressing down was according to formula: stand up straight, don’t lean on the desk, look at me. Sean H. could only answer yes and no in the correct slots until it was over. Even if Blewett were right and Sean H. should have done his homework, it is hard to respect a teacher who chooses to humiliate a child in public.

In my first three years at Woolmer Hill, I can only recall one personal interaction with her. The day after one of the 1974 general elections - I can’t remember which - the fifth formers had placed a blackboard outside the Upper School building and were updating the party seat tally as the results came in. Taking an interest during the lunch hour, I strayed with Gavin W. some metres from the tennis court which marked the boundary of the younger boys’ authorised play area. Given my reason for being there, I did not expect remonstration, but Mrs Blewett took me through the full rhetorics: Why are you here? Where should you be? etc. Perhaps she just didn’t like the fact that Labour was ahead in the seat count.

At the start of my fourth year, aged fourteen, I was selected for the top English set which was to be taught by Mrs Blewett. Every class has its ambience and logic, but some leave deeper psychological imprints than others. And in terms of psychological impact, Mrs Blewett was a highly influential teacher, but not in ways that she intended or would have anticipated.

It is broadly possible to divide teachers into two categories: subject-oriented and student-oriented. The former, of whom a good example would be Mr Cowley who taught physics, are those teachers who engage only that much of the student’s mind as is necessary to teach the subject. Otherwise, in all other matters, from the pen you use to the name of your girlfriend, these teachers do not seek to invade the student’s personal mental space. Student-oriented teachers by contrast want access to the whole adolescent in attempt to mould the personality and the maturation process. Mrs Blewett par excellence fell into the latter category.

The governing principle of Mrs Blewett’s pedagogy was her belief that she held a monopoly of necessary knowledge, a knowledge which ranged beyond her teaching subject English to that “practical kit” of know-how that all adults should, in her view, possess. She regarded what she did not know as unessential technical detail, which she once compared to Mastermind information. With this self-defined basket of knowledge and skills, Blewett sought to play gatekeeper and set the terms and conditions under which her pupils, a captive audience, could be admitted into an adult world whose boundaries were stipulated by her. Without reference to Blewett’s conservative pedagogical worldview, it is impossible to understand the disconcerting psychology present in her classes.

Mrs Blewett projected her conservatism though several varied types of behaviour, and it was only thinking back later in life that I saw how each added yet another layer to the overall person which was manifested in her teaching philosophy. Blewett was a corpulent woman, probably then in her early fifties, who selected plain skirts and tops to emphasise her very middle-class ordinariness. Though married with children, she was a keen keeper of cats: these dumb animals she claimed had personalities which paralleled human ones. Like us, the cats could not escape her personal control.

Unsurprisingly for an English teacher, clear articulation was something that Mrs Blewett valued highly and practised. It was she who volunteered her voice to the endless stream of announcements on school sports’ day. She also led a drama group which of course required clear articulation of lines learnt by rote. Precise language, rather than thought about what one was saying, was what was emphasised. Content was all merely a matter of common sense and teaching for her was just about getting her pupils to see that common sense and express it in middle-class English.

The two most direct results of Mrs Blewett’s Weltanschauung were her creation of hierarchies among her pupils and her recourse to humiliation. Precisely because she held herself out as gatekeeper to adulthood, she could order the queue of those waiting to go through. Some students were labelled mature others less so, and for teenagers edging their way into an adult world nothing was more painful than to be labelled immature, which, of course, she fully realised. And as with any kind of labelling by an authority figure, it was subsequently adopted by pupils amongst themselves.

My position on her maturity scale was for the most part indeterminate. There were some pupils who suffered the direct insult of being labelled immature. In our final year we had to read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in which there was a passage where the protagonist slept with a woman with his hand between her legs. That was too much for John C. who chuckled in embarrassment. Blewett fixed her stare on him and asked what he was laughing at? The reason was obvious, but she tried to force him to say it. In response to his silence, she labelled him as immature.

Her tactic was repeated in her choice of stories which she periodically read to the class. One such tale had a distinct sado-masochistic edge: a man flirts with several women who in turn capture and imprison the man and force him to choose one of them. The woman he chooses then rejects him. She was indeed able to create her embarrassed silence in the class. I, and perhaps a majority of the others, were now used to her ploy and just smiled politely at the story.

If she could entrap and condemn those she regarded as immature, she could also nominate pupils who were mature in her view. In one lesson she informed Jill, who had written a review of a poem for homework, that she was the best and most mature person in the class and that her analysis was way above everyone else's. Jill did not particularly welcome that kind of public praise, but it had a particular meaning for me as Jill and I were by that stage attached to one another. If that were true of her, then perhaps at least part of that praise could rub off on me. That fleeting thought, almost forgotten after it had occurred to me was to explode in my head later in the year.

Mrs Blewett would have liked to believe that she could control her class though such psychological methods and within that framework could tolerate an element of free debate, as her pupils worked through their still immature ideas to reach the conclusions she believed to be correct. But the reality was that such flexibility was limited, and she ended up resorting to measures, not undertaken, as far as I can remember, by any other teacher.

None of the labelling of immaturity could dent the cheek of Jon B. who, strangely enough, sat nearest to her in the class. A number of sensible options were open to Blewett, such as removing him from the central table which gave him a platform to perform to the whole class. Yet instead she took drastic steps as Jon B. describes:

"I had mucked about in class once too often, or used the expression "no way" in some written dialogue instead of "I disagree, good sir!" haha. She just said there and then, in front of the whole class "Jonathan B., you have no interest in my class and I have no interest in teaching you... get out and don't come back" or words to that effect."

Jon B. was exiled to the small room along the corridor in which Christian Union and other such meetings were held. Periodically, Mrs Blewett had to leave the class to see what he was doing. The whole incident proved that behind her defences of psychological manipulation, vicious as those might be at times, there was little else in the armoury.

English and maths were the two main teaching subjects in school, so we spent several lessons a week with Mrs Blewett. Our first year was taken up in preparation for English language O level and in the summer of 1977 the whole class, except poor taciturn Judith M, passed and went on to study English literature in our final school year. Several points emerge from the teaching itself.

From the English language course I can remember learning nothing, no grammar, stylistics or discourse, except for Blewett teaching the distinction between metaphor and simile. We had to write in fountain pen, which I found messy and inconvenient, and with regard to the subject material I was never sure what we were doing and why. English literature left a few more traces. Of most interest was the sociological study of an imaginary/real village Akenfield in East Anglia. Why it was an option on the literature syllabus was never clear, but it threw up plenty of areas for embarrassment in class.

Akenfield, parts of which we read in class and parts at home for homework, generally had a progressive edge. It presented this East Anglian village in memory portraits, not as idyllic rural England, but in terms of rural ignorance, class division and suffering. The most psychologically disturbing parts were the several descriptions of vicious corporal punishment, involving fathers being summoned into schools to hold their sons down while they were thrashed. Interestingly, Blewett never had these sections read in open class, but required them to be read for homework. One can only speculate on the reason, as these sections would have made excellent material for teenage embarrassment.

Maybe the reason was this: Ronald Blythe presumably intended his work as a radical critique and his inclusion of accounts of vicious corporal punishment was an attack on the rural idyllic. Blewett’s conservatism was of a definite moderate character, so she could neither identify with the practices of early twentieth century rural England, nor with radical attacks on them. But, as I say, that is mere speculation.

It would be wrong to suggest that Mrs Blewett was somehow unpopular among all pupils. Steve M, then in her registration group writes that she was friendly and helpful. Another pupil writing on Friends Reunited states:

"I must say thank you to Mrs Blewett. I had a terrible stutter and without her help,I would have never spoken properly, also to Mr Glover and Mr Jimpson who were the first people to help me to understand, how to cope with my dyslexia, (I still cannot spell it) at a time when it was still a very new concept." (Spelling corrected).

Nevertheless, as the paragraphs above would suggest, I did not find Mrs Blewett’s classes a comfortable place to be. Though I was rarely in the firing line, I felt keeping a low profile the best strategy. Yet one of the two big personal crises which I experienced at Woolmer Hill was about to happen.

Some time before the end of my final year there was a staff-parent meeting. The procedure was pretty routine: my teachers said generally positive things about me, but added the comment that I could better; and when my mother came home after the meetings she would stress only the negative aspects. In these years my relations with my parents were not close, and the whole event passed off as a matter of course. However on this occasion my mother returned and told me that one of my teachers had described me as immature. Not wanting to highlight the issue, I appeared uninterested but inside I was in turmoil: who had said that and why.

Of course Mrs Blewett was top of the list, but I also considered other key teachers, Mrs Myall (maths) and Mr Trench (history), as from either of them the charge would have been more hurtful and would have needed some kind of explanation. I began to feel as if there might be parallel worlds: the one I thought I was living in at school and then a real one. Quite simply, the idea was driving me mad and I wandered around for a couple of days in a state of zombie-like distraction. In the end, I approached my mother to demand the teacher’s name and, as I had expected, the culprit was Blewett. Apparently, she had been surprised to learn from my mother that I had never spoken of my relationship with Jill at home and had labelled my behaviour immature. There were perfectly good reasons, about which Blewett knew nothing, for me not talk about Jill with my parents; and, besides, none of this was Blewett’s business.

I never discussed this trauma with anyone, but the incident prompted me to evaluate Mrs Blewett and her behaviour. In contrast, rejecting the attempted macho-style humiliation techniques of teachers like Mr Jimpson had been easy; the influence of Mrs Blewett had been more subtle. Against Blewett, I was able to develop ideas of equal worth and non-evaluative dignity for all. I could see the road to adulthood as a process, not single event and certainly not something that any one person could determine, authorise or define. The world was more complex than Blewett’s “common sense” nonsense and her cats could go to hell.

But some traces of Mrs Blewett did remain which continued to influence me for some time afterwards. In her praise of Jill, and in her view of what was adult and important against mere technical detail, was a rejection of what we might term today as geekery, a behaviour and outlook present among maths, computing and physics students. Quite unintentionally, she had forced me, in combating her, to take up issues of inter-personal affairs and I subconsciously adopted her rejection of geekery. At sixth-form college, psychology was not available for study, but I did end up electing sociology, while rejecting my, until then, strongest subject, maths.

It is perhaps due to the psychological imprint of Mrs Blewett’s classes, aided no doubt by the fact that all her lessons were in the same room, that my clearest memory of a class at Woolmer Hill is hers. I wrote in 2003:

The architecture of her room with a central block of seats surrounded by a horseshoe has allowed me to retain a vista of the class. In the central block sat (Darryl B, Tracey C, Jacqui B, Susan B, Christopher E and Jonathan B). The horseshoe contained Judith M, Diana B, Rosemary W, Francis O, David R, Martin S, John C, Brian B, Me, Sue T. I know I have forgotten people, so the picture is not complete.

I was glad to leave Woolmer Hill school in the summer of 1978. Once in the early summer of that year, Jill and I had taken a massive detour on our way home from school and Mrs Blewett passed us in her car on her way home to Headley Down. We waved. My disapproval was never hate. I neither saw nor heard anything about Blewett after leaving Woolmer Hill; and she disappeared into the mists of forgotten memory until I decided a quarter of a century later to jot down my feelings and thoughts of my teenage years spent at Woolmer Hill.

Postscript: In April 2012 I completed this piece of writing, and like the other discussions of teachers I felt satisfied with the text and was prepared to consign it to its life on the internet. Before doing so, I made a cursory search of the internet to see if I could discover anything more about Mrs Blewett. For most Woolmer Hill teachers from the 1970s, internet searching is not easy, as I know nothing about them other than their surname. However, with Mrs Blewett, I was aided by one simple additional fact: she told us one day in a lesson, for a reason that I have forgotten, that her first name was Odile, a name which was fortunately rare in England. Had her first name been Joan or Margaret, for instance, internet searchers would have thrown up thousands of women with one of those first names along with the family name Blewett. But even given the rarity of her name, my hurried search yielded nothing.

I had no idea whether Mrs Blewett was still living. I supposed her to be in her fifties when we knew her at Woolmer Hill in the 1970s, so that would mean, if she were alive, that she would be in her nineties today. In March 2013 I repeated the search and was surprised to find that an Odile Elizabeth Blewett had been living in Bordon in Hampshire in the mid 1990s, not far from Headley Down where she lived in the 1970s. Then I discovered that an Odile Elizabeth Blewett had had died in West Surrey in 1997. I felt sorry that she had died rather young, but felt that was the end of the matter from my point of view.

Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of August 2013 a message was posted under the article by someone claiming, almost certainly genuinely, to be one of her children. The message addressed to me was short, so I will quote it in full:

Your memories of Odile Blewett are quite amazing and also extremely spiteful. A dead woman cannot defend herself. My family do not recognise the person you are writing about. She was a much loved mother and grandmother, kind and loyal. I still meet ex pupils of hers, who all remember her with great affection. You obviously, looking at your vast amount of essays, have many issues in your life. You have caused great upset to my family in your attack on a dead woman. By the by, my mother did not particularly like cats.

I welcomed the contribution and I think it deserves a response. Let me deal now with the issues in the message which are controversial in some way.

First, the writer alleges that my memories are “quite amazing and extremely spiteful.” I suppose she - I somehow presume the writer to be female - means that the article is unexpected/unusual in addition to being “spiteful.” The former may be true, but my motives in writing are not spiteful at all - and even if they were, against whom would the spite be directed? I wrote honestly about the effects and influence that Mrs Blewett had on me when I was a teenager. Blewett believed she was teaching and inculcating in youth what she thought to be right in her world view, so I make no accusation of hypocrisy or dishonesty against her. She did help pupils and many pupils liked her; indeed every positive remark about her that I could find on the net or which had been communicated to me was included in the text. Thus, I reject utterly the allegation of poisoned pen writing.

Second, the writer says that her family “do not recognise the person {...I am...} writing about.” and that, “She was a much loved mother and grandmother, kind and loyal.” I have no information about her role as mother or grandmother, nor have I commented upon the subject. But it should be pointed out that the perspective one has of a parent is completely different from the one a pupil has of the same person as a teacher. It is therefore unsurprising that the writer cannot recognise her mother in the text.

Third, the writer comments, “You obviously, looking at your vast amount of essays, have many issues in your life.” In the language of the 2010s to “have issues” is a politically correct way of saying that someone is mentally unbalanced. Whether I am or not is not something I am capable of judging, but to say that someone is crazy merely because he or she writes at length about his or her own youth is simply wrong.

And finally, the throw-away comment about cats at the end of comment is of interest. Perhaps Mrs Blewett did not “particularly like cats,” as the writer suggests, but Blewett certainly made use of the alleged personalities of cats and their similarities to human beings on several occasions. I even recall her one distant morning some four decades giving an assembly on the topic - memorable less because of her talk about cats than the oddity of someone other than headmaster Anning giving the assembly.

What I have tried to do in this piece on Mrs Blewett is to prise out piece by piece the psychological elements of her influence. But let me conclude my comments by emphasising that not everything that Blewett did was bad, and I do not believe her overall purpose was to hurt her pupils, but she does remain in my memory as a teacher who did much to humiliate the adolescent spirit. For me Mrs Blewett was not so much a helping hand on the road to adulthood, but an obstacle to be overcome. For others their experience might have been different.

Mr Howell: the ditherer

I became aware of Mr Howell, the school’s religious education teacher, on my very first day atWoolmer Hill in September 1973. Next to the wing of the school housing the woodwork classroom stood three prefabs to cater for the overspill of pupils resulting from the raising of school leaving age to sixteen. I was in the first with our class teacher, Miss Savage, and the middle prefab in the row was the home base of Mr Howell. As several of my friends from Junior School were in Howell’s registration group, I often wandered into his classroom, or waited for friends outside.

Mr Howell struck me a decent man from the outset. Dithering and self-critical, he lacked the macho arrogance of so many of the male teachers. Howell was then middle aged with a face so ruddy that it suggested severe hypertension. Dressed in his 1970s style sports jacket, terracotta pullover, narrow-collared shirt and small-knotted tie, he looked something of the country bumpkin. For all his jollity, he was often agitated, breaking into sudden runs while walking along, and was sometimes seen punching walls with his fist. With us in class he would occasionally erupt into a shouting rage which intimidated nobody, before collapsing into a fit of apologies. Few liked him much, but nobody hated him.

Mr Howell taught religious education in a secular age. Nothing indicated that better than the arrival of a boxful of bibles for the pupils from the Gideons. Our class teacher, Miss Savage, was faced with the task of distributing them after morning registration, but there was a hitch. There is a minor difference between the Catholic and Protestant bibles, so to hand them out she needed to know the denomination of the pupils. One girl was excluded completely as she was a Jehovah's witness, and another claimed to be Catholic. But among much of the rest of the class there was confusion, with some pupils knowing nothing of their own religious background - and less so whether they were Protestants or not. In the end, save for the two girls, we were all given a Protestant bible, many of which ended up as footballs in the break, as two teams kicked them backwards and forwards in the boys’ playground.

My parents and Headmaster Anning had little in common, but one thing they shared was a superficial belief in religion rather than in God. At no time in my life did anything move me to believe that God existed. As a young boy religion seemed to me to resemble the story of Tom Thumb, the boy who sucked his thumb, so along came a genie and cut it off. The story was nonsense but something children were told to make them do the “right” thing. Religion, I thought, was the same, so it came as huge surprise, when I was about eleven - the age I started at Woolmer Hill - to discover that there were people who really believed in God. I thought at the time they were either stupid, liars or a little crazy.

My parents themselves had a confused religious background; both had attended Catholic schools, though neither was Catholic. Religion played no role at all in my very young childhood, but at the age of seven we started attending the United Reformed Church on the High Pavement in Haslemere, though neither of my parents were believers. For them it was part of being a member of the community, and something my father could mention on his Liberal Party election leaflets when he was candidate for the town council. He even rose to become chairman of the ecumenical Surrey Council of Churches for a while. Headmaster Anning - perhaps inadvertently - created the same functional-hypocritical impression in the school assembly. We would sing Christian hymns and hear Christian prayers, but once in a fit of anger following some misdemeanour or other he stated Christian forgiveness was all very well (meaning of course that he didn’t believe in it) but he was not going to forgive the wrongdoers, if he caught them.

Mr Howell did believe in God, as he didn’t forget to remind us. He could have attempted to drive biblical doctrine into us, made us recite it, and test us on it, but fortunately he didn’t try anything like that. Even if he had wanted to proselytise, he would have faced heavy obstacles. Most pupils, even if not atheists, were not active believers, and tended to see religious education classes as not serious and an easy lesson in the weekly timetable. And teachers who only met pupils once a week tended to lack pull and authority over the class. Thus Howell’s pedagogic desire and the force of necessity drove him towards a futile attempt to make the lessons participatory, interesting and discursive.

An absurd muddle characterised his weekly classes. He once handed out a roneoed sheet of paper with various letter codes to indicate marks and comments which he would write on our written work. Great hilarity followed when it was pointed out to him that “E” occurred twice: once as the lowest grade for really bad work but also to signal excellence. Ian B. asked him in another lesson whether he believed in life before death - and mistaking the “before” for an “after” he launched into a diatribe about the “old, old question,” while not understanding why we were laughing our heads off.

Mr Howell’s religion nevertheless became an asset. On colder days, I was in search of any means to spare me from the concrete tennis court which was the boys’ playground during breaks and the lunch-hour. In my first year being outside had actually been painful as a sadistic game involving tennis balls being thrown at bodies and legs was in vogue, but by the second year, and now able to avoid that mindless bullying, incarceration in the playground tennis court was simply unpleasant and boring. So the lunchtime Christian Union meeting in the small group room upstairs in the Upper School building was a way out.

As atheism was my default setting it was actually easier for me to attend Christian Union as a way of getting into the warm during the lunch-break once or twice a week than it was for the half-believers. I noticed in some of my friends that religion, the myths and rituals, did impact on them and pull strings in their souls. For me it did not, even though I was probably more interested than they were in talking about the moral and existential issues which religion inevitably threw up - even if I did not know what “existential” meant in those days. Mr Howell praised my interest and gave me good marks in my end of year report - and to his credit he never barred me from the Christian Union meetings although I made it clear to him that I did not believe in God.

Whatever else it was, religion was clearly useful. In my third year I remember serving out a week standing outside Mr Macshane’s cupboard in the corridor for continued defiance: I had been deliberately inactive in stacking away the lunch tables. Though it was warm in the corridor, it was also, as was clearly intended, boring. But I got off one lunchtime by telling Macshane that I was worried about missing Christian Union. Obviously, Macshane, a Christian himself, felt that religion had a salutary effect on a young wrongdoer, so he yielded to my request. Yet nothing I heard at the Christian Union meetings ever endeared me to religion. I remember one teacher, herself a Christian, telling the pupils present that they should welcome God into their hearts to avoid an eternity in Hell. Yes, they could do that up till the moment they died, but people could die suddenly in car accidents or in their sleep. Then as now I believed this to be nothing more than evil nonsense. And indeed if it were true, what a bastard God surely was.

In my fourth year, starting in 1976, we could choose our subjects and religious education was not among them. Even before Headmaster Anning’s departure at the end of that school year, rules for staying indoors at breaks and lunchtimes were liberalised, so Mr Howell and the Christian Union faded away from my field of consciousness. Mr Howell cropped up only occasionally, when he was allocated a slot in the morning assembly. Of all the staff who from time to time took morning assemblies - apart from Anning himself, there was Hollingdale, Macshane, Blewett and McNally - Mr Howell was by far the most excruciatingly embarrassing. You felt the pain he could not feel himself.

All of that made Mr Howell a bit of loner among the staff. He was not part of old reactionary band of teachers which encompassed the likes of Pavey, Metcalf and Thackery. He did not ally himself with the respect and disciplinarian brigade, such as Macshane, Jimpson and Morgan (nee Davis). He seemingly aspired to no management position in the school, like Myall or Murfitt. He was tied into his own world and his own understanding of things. As for Headmaster Anning’s authoritarian regime he slotted into it, disengaged and idiosyncratic, as he would have found his corner in any set-up.

My last memory of Mr Howell was his playing a Johnny Cash song in a morning assembly. The song’s crass lyrics were about the members of the family each playing their own instruments in a family band, with “Daddy playing bass and Mommy playing fiddle” - if I remember correctly. His message of the virtues of family cooperation was so crude and was so painfully presented that his audience of assembled pupils and teachers listened to this tacky country-and western song with their heads lowered in embarrassment. Yet that was Howell’s fate.

Mr Howell remained at the school until after I left in June 1978.

Mrs James: always a smile on her face

Among the teachers at Woolmer Hill in the mid 1970s, Mrs James, then probably in her mid forties, must be one of the least widely known. Like Mrs Thackery and Mr E. Baker, she was part-time, but unlike them she rarely, if ever, appeared as a substitute teacher. Her teaching subject was exclusively German, which further limited her exposure to pupils in the school. Yet as she made her way along the crowded corridors, this large chubby woman, often dressed in trousers and smart casuals, stood out on account of the perennial smile on her face, a fixed smile that seemed to result from the stitching of her skin, or the paralysis of her facial muscles.

Mrs James was the only Woolmer Hill School teacher whom my parents knew personally. My mother had once shared a maternity ward with James. And while the two women had got on amicably enough, my mother found James a little haughty, her perennial smile irritating and the fact that she lived in the Stoatley Rise something to be deplored. Stoatley Rise was, and still is, a small estate on the outskirts of Haslemere, consisting of late 1960s or early 1970s housing built for the better-off. It suited people who could afford a modern four bedroom house and wanted to be surrounded by similar house owners and nobody else. The location of the estate required car ownership for every journey in and out the settlement, and this kind of bourgeois exclusiveness irritated my parents.

I have no memory today of Mrs James before my fourth year. In my third year at the school, I started to study German with Fergus, the black-bearded, bespeckled and portly Mr Greenwood. At the outset, I had been a little nervous of him, but any fear soon evaporated, and though I found German harder than French, I started to make reasonable progress. Greenwood arranged for us to have a German penfriend - and I still recall her name, Kerstin Stamp - but lacking even a dictionary at home, I had to trek into Haslemere Library on Saturday mornings to use one in the reading room, if I wanted to write to her. But my key purpose here is to spell out Mr Greenwood’s teaching method. It was this: apart from learning a few language functions like, “Thank You” and “Good Morning,” the thrust of the coursebook and the lesson were to progressively master one piece of grammar after another, with each unit in the book also introducing a raft of new vocabulary. This traditional approach, known as the grammar-translation method, may not be the best as it teaches the learner more about language than how to use it, but it does engage the mind in language learning. But Mr Greenwood’s was not the teaching methodology of Mrs James in whose O level German class I landed for my fourth year?

As a positive, Mrs James was certainly more enthusiastic about teaching than the tired Mr Greenwood, who had left at the end of my third year. But James had learned to teach in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the disastrous audio lingual method was in vogue. The core idea of that theory was to treat the language learner not as a problem solver or communicator, but like one of Pavlov’s dogs - i.e. a behaviour learning machine. He or she was instructed to learn chunks of language by heart and then repeat it back for praise. I had never learnt anything well with this method: I liked trying things out, asking questions and finding out for myself. But when I actually tried to integrate some complex tenses into my homework, James was only critical. By contrast, Mr Kyte, my French teacher, would have probably spent a couple of minutes explaining and correcting my work, and therefore encouraging me, rather than demotivating me as Mrs James in fact did. I become a reluctant dissident in her class, utterly frustrated that I couldn’t learn.

In time, my motivation started to fade in a class that was otherwise well organised. Mrs James was one of the teachers who taught, rather than intervened in pupils’ lives; she never engaged in the theatrics of “respect and discipline.” She maintained a calm in her classes. Headmaster Anning’s cold regime was outside the classroom, not inside it. James won a group of admirers around her and I was sad not to be part of it. But then something else went wrong, which affected the whole group.

Mrs James believed that the only way she could get her students through the O-Level exam, was to demote the weaker pupils into the CSE group. The class was subject to progressive purges. I survived the first couple of demotions, but finally fell foul to the last one. I was demoted along with my close friend Jill and a boy, Steve M. All three of us were newcomers to CSE classes and we sat together as three. Our CSE teacher, the young Mrs Green, had a crowded classroom of disorderly demotivated pupils and it soon became apparent to us that all further study of German was now impossible. The three of us mostly just chatted in the lessons, and I wished I had never chosen the subject in the first place.

Just before Christmas in my fifth year I took my French O-Level early. I had always got on well with my French teacher, Mr Kyte, and he had helped me a great deal. It was decided that I, and about ten others, were able to take the exam six months before the rest of the class. One girl, Sue T., who had recently joined the school, achieved an A grade, but I with a B came second, and the rest either passed with a C or else failed. One morning Mrs Hollingdale, now head teacher, came into our French lesson to tell us the results, and on leaving the room that day I bumped into Mrs James. She congratulated me, but I hung on to see what else she would say. She opined that some people could find one language easy and another difficult, but I knew the truth was otherwise. My failure at German was her teaching method, which for me, at least, didn’t work. But she did not admit that, certainly not to me and probably not to herself either.

Strangely, despite the hurt that Mrs James had obviously caused me, I never felt the tinge of resentment against her which I felt against Mrs Christopher, the Alsatian-dog owning geography teacher, who, though never demoting me, nonetheless questioned my abilities. James always seemed to me thoroughly decent despite or because of her very middle-class demeanour. Interestingly, my close friend during my last year at Woomer Hill, Martin S. became a favourite of both James and Christopher and went on take A Levels in both German and Geography.

Overall, Mrs James played a relatively minor role in my Woolmer Hill experience, yet her background and personality was such that at the end of my fourth year, quite by accident, she made one further contribution to my psychological upbringing, this time outside the classroom. June 1977 saw Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. I remember the celebration for two reasons, most embarrassingly because my father, on behalf of Haslemere Town Council, appeared on the stage with Headmaster Anning during a morning assembly to announce that every pupil would receive a ceremonial mug. But of more influence was the street party held in Haslemere's wide High Street on the night of the jubilee itself. Mrs James was only Woolmer Hill Teacher whom I saw there.

I was mentally torn over the Jubilee. By the age of fifteen I was a convinced republican and hated the existence of the Royal Family and everything that archaic institution stood for. Yet, I was also fascinated by the festivities, particularly the evening “knees-up” provided by a fat young fellow playing a keyboard with powerful amplifiers. I watched the bodies bopping around; dancing was something I had never done before, or indeed thought much about. I knew my mother would disapprove of such “silliness among today’s youth,” even though that sort of entertainment was more of her youth than mine. But then, as the vulgar chords of the conga rang out across Haslemere High Street, and as a stooping, winding snake of dancers passed me, I glimpsed first the face and then the ample backside of Mrs James.

So the very middle-class Mrs James was dancing. By the age of fifteen I had no problem rejecting my mother’s condescending attitude to today’s young, but the mere fact that Mrs James, a mother herself of teenagers, was a participant proved that my own mother did not speak for all adults, not even for all bourgeois ones. I made my first movements in dancing, by bending my legs in time with the music as “Knee-Up Mother Brown” played. And then much to my relief, a schoolmate, Morag M, stepped out of the dancing mass and pulled me into it. I continued to dance.

After leaving Woolmer Hill in June 1978, I never saw or heard anything about Mrs James again. And strangely, later in my life German was to play a much larger role than French.

Mr Jimpson: the roaming disciplinarian

From my arrival in the school in September 1973, Mr Jimpson always struck me as a strange teacher. He wasn’t part of management with his own office like Headmaster Anning, or his deputy, Mrs Hollingdale - or even like the third-in-charge, Mr MacShane, who had dominion over a walk-in cupboard in the main corridor. Jimpson had no clearly identified teaching subject, which was significant as we pupils always linked teachers to their subjects. And added to all that, he seemed to have no classroom of his own.

As he patrolled and hovered around the school, one could work out that his main area of concern, like Mrs Blewett’s, was with the final year fifth-formers in the Upper School School Building. But that did not prevent him poking his nose into the behaviour of younger pupils. Teachers we soon learnt were to two kinds. There were those like Mr Trench, the much respected and liked history teacher, who taught their lessons, but avoided, unless absolutely necessary, intervening in behaviour issues outside the classroom, and then there those like Mr Jimpson, who actively sought out trouble.

Though not devoid of a sense of humour, Jimpson managed to convey the impression of being permanently angry as he came across one violation of school rules after another on his perambulations. He sniffed out breaches of school uniform - the tie skew-wiff, the remains of makeup on a girl’s face - or the pupil who was running indoors, or who had gone through a door he was not permitted to use. Most of all, he raved at what he considered rudeness or disrespectful behaviour. Dressed in his 1970s style sports jacket, and staring through powerfully-lensed, plastic-rimmed glasses, he strode around the school with a nose for trouble. Aged then in his late thirties, he was one of those ex-military teachers for whom the instillation in the young of what he would regard as “respect” trumped the acquisition of skills and knowledge. His view of youth, it seemed to me, was unreservedly pessimistic: only the constant intervention of a raised voice and sometimes worse would coral the young onto what he saw as the right path.

Yet for all that, he was not frightening. His bark was invariably worse than his bite. He always seemed to be offering the deal: “So you’ve done wrong, you did this or that, now you just say sorry, show me respect and we’ll forget it - perhaps I’ll even give you a some licence to carry on, but you must show me respect.” Some pupils affectionately called him “Jimbo” - and I am sure he took satisfaction in that. What he sought more than anything else was endorsement and reassurance.

Shortly after my arrival at the school a decision was made to divide the pupils into “houses” in a half-hearted attempt to ape the practice in public schools. Of course, there were no houses as such, but merely the random allocation of the pupils from each class and the teachers across the school into one of six house groups; each house consisted of some eighty or so people. These artificially created entities - each one given the family name of one the six wives of Henry VIII - had little meaning and fostered little sense of group identity. Every fortnight or so the house met for a separate morning assembly; their only other function, as far as I can remember, was to create house-based teams to compete against one another at the annual sports day. Otherwise the only sign that they existed were the six wooden name plaques in the school assembly hall, three on each side and evenly dispersed along the wall.

On announcing the formation of these six houses in morning assembly, Headmaster Anning, in a rare break from collective responsibility, noted his scepticism, if not opposition, to the whole project. One can only suspect that the pressure for their creation came from a desire of some humanistically-minded teachers to put some colour into the the grey, authoritarian school system. But in the end, Anning turned out to be right: the houses were pointless; they won no loyalty or affection; and when they were finally abolished, and the plaques in the assembly hall quietly taken down, nobody noticed.

There were only two teachers, as far as I can remember, who ever showed any enthusiasm for the houses. One was Mr Jimpson; the other was a young English teacher, a Miss Davis, who soon became a Mrs Morgan. In the youthful Davis, Jimpson had found a kindred spirit in matters relating to school management, discipline and his view of the proper relations between staff and students.

In my first year at Woolmer Hill the newly appointed Miss Davis was my English teacher. Three things immediately struck me about her lessons: first, due to her fault or mine, I had little idea of what I supposed to be doing; second, she showed a marked preference for chatting and relating to a small group of girls in the class, which left me feeling somewhat irritated; and, third, she seemed obsessed with matters of respect. Her repertoire was the same basket of issues that excited Jimpson: how to speak to teachers, observing rules, etc.. In breaks and at lunch time it became common to see Davis accompanying Jimpson on his rule enforcement patrols. They both seemed to enjoy the job and the company of each other.

Whether by accident or not, both Jimpson and Davis ended up in Aragon House. No image is stronger in my mind than at one of those Woolmer Hill summer sports days seeing Jimpson and Davis side by side cajoling and cheering on their Aragon team in comical chorus. What made it so ridiculous was their disingenuous denial of the obvious: nobody cared much which house won, not Headmaster Anning and his wife both primly seated and clad in dark sunglasses, not Mrs Blewett practising her articulation over the microphone, not the rest of the staff, and not the pupils. For Jimpson, with Davis in tow, the exaggerated mock enthusiasm was an attempt to fantasise their ideal school, namely one in which pupils were forcibly divided into groups and then forced to compete against one another, and all supposedly done with respect and enthusiasm.

Mr Jimpson was never my teacher for anything; I only encountered him - or more often avoided him - whenever he was on patrol with his a nose for trouble. Of his intellect I know nothing, but his vocation was to teach lower level and remedial classes, where the emphasis fell less on the subject matter and more on issues of classroom management. Though I never experienced these kinds of classes, I imagine that Jimpson was an effective teacher. Nevertheless, the only two occasions when I saw him operate in an academic context his performance did not impress.

On one rainy afternoon we ended up with Mr Jimpson for a maths lesson, presumably because our maths teacher, Mrs Myall, was absent. In an attempt to engage us, he came up with what must amount to the most absurd activity possible. He drew a square with some twenty-five boxes and put random numbers in each box. He then asked us to add up the horizontal rows and then add all these totals together. The next step was to add up all the vertical columns and then add all those totals together. And finally we were to find the difference between the two grand totals.

Of course, everyone is the class could see at first glance that the final result must be zero. It was not necessary to go through the drudgery in those pre-calculator days of adding up all those numbers. Stephen H. even offered to provide Jimpson with an algebraic proof to show that the final total must be zero. Sadly, though, rather than accept that he had been outmanoeuvred, he resorted, as was his character, to pulling rank: no arguments, just do it. Uninspired, we wasted the remaining time doodling away with our pens.

Jimpson’s second academic intervention was at exam time. Headmaster Anning believed, perhaps not wrongly, that practice in doing exams and revising for them was a valuable part of the schooling system. Thus for one week a year the normal school timetable was abandoned and exams were held in the assembly hall and in classrooms across the school. I recall filing into the assembly hall ready to do my history exam and seeing Jimpson as chief invigilator on the stage, waiting to pour forth. Before we put pen to paper, he announced that he was going to give us an important piece of advice. I actually listened because I thought it might be of some use, but all he had to say was that when answering a history question, not to write all that you know on a subject, but to answer the specific question. The very idea that if asked why Hitler had come to power, I would dream of writing a potted history of everything I knew about Hitler was so outrageous that my estimation of Jimpson fell even further.

In 1977 the long-serving Headmaster Anning retired, and he was succeeded as head by his former deputy Mrs Hollingdale, who heralded in a series of reforms, such as widening the range of clothing pupils were permitted to wear. Paradoxically, Hollingdale’s more liberal regime inflated Mr Jimpson’s role in the school. Earlier, under Headmaster Anning’s authoritarianism, Jimpson’s own brand of discipline had little room to flourish. Now with a female headteacher, who was attempting to humanise the cold and grey regime which she had inherited, Jimpson was able to police the boundaries of the new order. And he took to that like a duck to water.

Not long after Mrs Hollingdale became the head, a wet lunchtime led to an outbreak of pointless stupidity and disorder. I was not involved and, ensconced in an Upper School classroom, I remember only some shouting outside. Apparently, various things had been deposited into toilets and a bag had been thrown onto the roof of the building. The following morning in assembly, Hollingdale informed us about various punishments were were available in the event of repetition: boys could be slippered by Mr MacShane or Mr Jimpson, and girls would get a “good slapping.”

Throughout my time at the school, I never received a slippering from Jimpson, nor do I know anyone who did. Yet, Mrs Hollingdale’s assumption of the headship and the elevation in Mr Jimpson’s disciplinary role coincided with my arrival in the fifth form. For the most part, I was able to steer clear of him - he did not teach me, and I was not inclined to the arbitrary breaking of school rules.

Nevertheless, Jimpson’s influence was pervasive and was for the most part negative. I recall on one occasion coming down the stairs of the Upper School Building and seeing him yelling at two fifth-year girls for some misdemeanor or other. The girls were obviously distressed; it was humiliating for them and embarrassing for those witnessing it. It seemed utterly unnecessary, but it did serve to define who Jimpson was and the role he played.

In my final year, I had three run-ins with Mr Jimpson. The first and the most serious even after thirty-five years I choose not to talk about, but the other two were typical and fairly minor.

One of Mrs Hollingdale’s reforms following her assumption of the headship was to expand the range of permitted clothing in the school. Under Headmaster Anning, colours for jumpers were restricted to grey and black, but now blue - and if anyone were interested scarlet - were permitted. I had settled into a form of clothing which more or less suited me, black cotton trousers and a blue high-necked pullover, and this attire garnered no opposition from teachers. I was thus completely put out when one day I was pulled up by Mr Jimpson, not on account of my jumper which had a very slight pattern around the collar and the ends of the sleeves, but because of my trousers.

The trousers were so much standard school uniform that I was completely baffled. Of course I realised that the hassle I was receiving had little to do with the supposed violation of school uniform rules and everything to do with some unspecified lack of respect I had supposedly shown Jimpson - not that I had done anything disrespectful, but merely hadn’t shown enough respect when he felt it due. Though it was several weeks before the start of the summer exams, Jimpson bizarrely informed me that had it not been for these exams, I would have been sent home to change. The situation was ridiculous, but I knew what I had to do: I agreed that he was right, apologised and for the next few days wore another pair of trousers.

More embarrassingly, Mr Jimpson decided to intervene in the relationship I was having with a fellow fifth-former. Jill and I, for several reasons, avoided publicising our relationship and did not engage in public displays of affection. Nevertheless, we did spend time together talking in breaks and at lunchtime. Much to my annoyance, once while walking in front of the Upper School building, Jimpson came up behind us and told us to separate or else he would through a bucket of water over us. Of course, there was an element of humour in the command - and had the remark come from a fellow pupil we might have laughed - but from a teacher, the remark was deeply humiliating to us both. I remember turning to him with a painful half-smile - and on that occasion, much to his credit, he walked off.

It would be wrong to paint Mr Jimpson as an sadistic or bad-intentioned man: he was not. One pupil writing on Friends Reunited mentions him among several other teachers:

I must say thank you to Mrs Blewett. I had a terrible stutter and without her help,I would have never spoken properly, also to Mr Glover and Mr Jimpson who were the first people to help me to understand, how to cope with my dyslexia, (I still cannot spell it) at a time when it was still a very new concept. (Spelling corrected).

Others such as Frances B. have gone so far as to describe Mr Jimpson as sweet. Yet if you desired to fraternise with Jimpson, you had to do so according to his narrow authoritarian norms and values. I never did that, so despite my best efforts to avoid him, I was occasionally in the firing line. Annoying though his behaviour was, my own disapproval of him was never hate.

Nevertheless, I was happy to see the back of Jimpson in June 1978 when I left Woolmer Hill following my O Level examinations. Whatever his intentions, Jimpson was a nuisance, like a dog snapping around your feet. Having a serious discussion with him about anything was out of the question; he was only there, watching, prowling and shouting, with the intention of finding some fault, real or imagined, in what you had done. His behaviour was humiliating and reminded you that you would never be treated with respect - but also when he treated you in a disrespectful way, there was nothing you could do about it. True, most schools had Jimpson-like characters, so Woolmer Hill was not especially plagued, and, of course, I am sure that many Jimpsons elsewhere were much worse than ours.

Then he and Woolmer Hill were gone. At Godalming Sixth Form College, the default setting among the teaching staff was to show respect to pupils - and, happily for me, there was no equivalent of Mr Jimpson. Only once after leaving Woolmer Hill, did I encounter Jimpson. A year or so later I was in Farnham for some reason and I was just about to leave Sainsbury's. I looked round and there was Jimpson clearing the checkout counter of his purchases. He didn’t see me, but I saw how much he had shrunk, as he packed away his favourite orange juice. No longer was he a disciplinarian riding a high horse, for he needed an institutional role and near helpless subjects to play that role. Instead, he was nothing more than an indistinguishable middle-aged man going shopping. I thought of walking past him, attracting his gaze, so I could ignore him, but I didn’t; I just walked out of the shop.

Mr Kyte (remembered 1973-78)

School students always have a special affinity with teachers who joined the school at the same time as they do. In September 1973 Mr Kyte and I shared that experience at Woolmer Hill.

I liked him. Small but flamboyant, he strode around with his jacket over his shoulders. True, he radiated a sense of arrogance, but that was not solely directed towards the pupils, but also towards the absurdities of headmaster Anning’s ossified authoritarian regime then running the school.

Mr Kyte taught French. Several times a week we poured into his disorderly class. Never did we hear a French tape or speak the language, but instead we were given exciting tasks like writing ten sentences in the past tense using a selected set of verbs. Yet, I learnt French to O level standard under him, when most in the class did not. Why?

By allowing chaos to prevail unhindered, he had time on his hands to deal with those who wanted to learn. I, with a couple of others, asked him what we wanted to know and he helped us. For us at least he was a good teacher.

In my second year he was my class teacher. His ease of manner and non-intrusive approach to dealing with students was much appreciated after the Victorian governess approach of Miss Savage in our first year.

As to his so-called scandalous behaviour, I cannot now remember whether I didn’t know about it at the time – or whether I knew about it, but simply didn’t consider scandalous and worth remembering.

Mr McNally: a little man in a baggy suit

As a nervous eleven-year-old who had just started the school, I recall traipsing through the building with my 1A classmates into Mr McNally’s room on the first floor of the wing that housed the maths and science departments. His classroom windows enjoyed the best views of the front gardens, but we had little time to gaze out of the window. McNally demanded attention as he presented factorisation, algebra and geometry. In his orderly classroom, the feeling that one was not understanding was something to worry about. Fortunately, I understood better than most, so I usually felt comfortable and began to enjoy his lessons.

Maths teacher, Mr McNally, was one of a minority of teachers at Woolmer Hill who took teaching seriously. The majority of teachers were engaged in organised time wasting. In geography, for instance, we spent many an hour tracing a map from an atlas and marking rivers and towns on it. Yes, it kept us busy and it confirmed that I could trace and copy, but I learned nothing from doing it. Yet from McNally I acquired the rudiments of algebra and geometry, and though my study of maths with McNally ended after my first year, and altogether when I was sixteen, I nonetheless have gone on in life to be reasonably confident when meeting mathematical problems.

Mr McNally would probably have preferred a position at a grammar school, but he seemed a permanent fixture of Woolmer Hill. He cut a strange figure: a short middle-aged man, who unlike his contemporaries, wore not a sports jacket, but a baggy dark grey suit several sizes too big for him and a tie that was unnecessarily long. Never looking for trouble that he could avoid, he nonetheless radiated an authority and seriousness that contrasted with his diminutive size. On one occasion in a maths lesson Chris E., on account of some misdemeanour or other, was told to leave the room and stand in the corridor. For some reason, the incident struck me as absurdly funny, and as I attempted to stifle uncontrollable giggles, McNally suddenly appeared, hovering over me, threatening to exile me, too, into the corridor. I managed to control the giggles.

I was only taught by him in my first year and was quite put out when at the start of my second year in 1974 I found myself in the top maths group, presided over by the newly appointed Mrs Myall. Yet, Mr McNally had left his mark on us: he had insisted from the outset that when we had worked out an answer to a maths question, we should always underline it. In her first days in post, Mrs Myall complained about all this heavy and unnecessary underlining. But merely saying that we were doing so, because Mr McNally had insisted upon it, shut her up immediately.

McNally always emphasised his connection to maths, science and engineering. Several times he brought into school machines which his son had made - the one I remember most was of a pendulum connected to a pencil which drew patterns on a paper. Given computer graphics today, the machine would garner little interest, but then it was a source of fascination. Yet beneath McNally’s scientific exterior was a sensitive man. He was one of the few who took up the challenge of replacing Headmaster Anning and giving a morning assembly. What he said I have long forgotten, but, using the best cassette recorder he could find, he played a piece of classical music, which he found moving. School assemblies were no place for sentimentality, and I admired him for doing that, even if I felt a little embarrassed for him.

After my first year, I had little to do with Mr McNally. He was a man who exercised authority in the classroom and was largely invisible outside it. Yet in my fourth year, my registration class teacher was the nose-picking Commander Campbell, who occupied the classroom next to McNally. One afternoon at the end of school, I along with several classmates were engaged in our good-humoured attempt to crack the combination padlock with which Campbell secured his cupboard behind the classroom blackboard. Someone came up with the idea of trying pi, 3.142, and the lock sprung open. None of us was intent on harm, but seeing the box of class reports on a shelf, we thought it was worth a look, so the box was taken out and its contents examined.

For some reason, I became bored with the whole matter, and left the room. While walking along the corridor I saw McNally coming towards me. Knowing that he would stick his head into Campbell’s classroom, I abruptly turned around and sprinted back to the classroom to warn the others. By the time McNally arrived in the classroom there was nothing amiss. He wandered around attempting to find something out of order, but nothing was. The box of reports was now back in the re-locked cupboard. The only person, who had anything to account for was me, who had in McNally’s words “run back to warn the others.” I didn’t say anything. In the end I was threatened with being sent to Headmaster Mr Anning, but I didn’t budge. And finally McNally saw the absurdity of the position. Even in Anning’s regime, I couldn’t be punished for doing something unknown. The matter was left there.

Today, in 2014, Mr McNally is either a man at least in late eighties or else dead. In the 1970s he was a peripheral figure at Woolmer Hill, neither associated with Anning’s regime, nor a member of the cliques of younger teachers. He was neither progressive nor conservative in his teaching or attitude; he sought to do his job, and generally he did it rather well.

Mr McShane: the third in charge

“A real charmer who loved strict discipline.” Simon W.

Throughout my five years at Woolmer Hill, Mr Alec “Jock” McShane entered my consciousness  as a shadowy background figure. Though then only in his mid thirties, he seemed much older on account of his perennial dourness. Though later McShane was widely known as “Jock,” in our first year, he was the only teacher we didn’t simply refer to among ourselves by his or her surname. For instance, if we weren’t being especially rude about him, Headmaster Anning was simply referred to as “Anning,” his deputy Mrs Hollingdale as “Hollingdale” and so on. McShane, tall, severe, with a penetrating stare through black-rimmed glasses and often clad in a dark suit, was referred to in our cohort by his position in the the school, the “third in charge.” That was how we saw him, as some kind of manager, with an indistinct function at the bottom of management hierarchy. So among the body of teachers, it was his lowly management rank, not his name or teaching subject, which defined his existence in our minds.

Whereas Headmaster Anning and Mrs Hollingdale had their own offices in the school, Mr McShane had to make do with a walk-in cupboard, slightly beyond Anning’s office at the end of the main corridor. As his role and function in the school was unclear, we supposed he was responsible for supplies of chalk, toilet paper and other such things, which he kept in his locked cupboard. McShane elevated himself by promoting his own sense of dignity, making him distant from not only the rabble of pupils but also from his fellow teachers. He could often be seen alone staring at rooms, people and corridors through his black-rimmed glasses.

Though Mr McShane remained at the school throughout my five years, he did not have a huge impact on me. Twice he appeared as a substitute teacher. I remember him turning up for an English lesson instead of Mrs Cash in my second year. As he hadn’t taught us before, we were apprehensive, but in fact all he did was sit on an unused desk in the front row, feet on the chair, and entertain us with chatter. The details of what he said have now faded from my mind, but I do remember him stressing discipline, the need for discipline when learning German and the importance of politeness, which he emphasised after a girl was seen looking at her watch during the lesson to see how much longer we had to endure this diatribe.

My only other encounter with Mr McShane in lessons was when he appeared during games/PE and sought to organise rugby. I hated games, particularly competitive sports, but fortunately with our regular PE teacher, Mr Winter, I had been able to spend the time doing very little on the rugby or football field. If Graham F. the bulkiest lad in the class came running towards me with the rugby ball, I politely stepped out of his way. McShane had other ideas, and I can remember the discomfort and distress of being heavily persuaded to be part of a neck-breaking scrum. McShane was in no way sadistic; he merely believed that playing rugby was a good thing and all the pupils on the field should take part. Fortunately, McShane only appeared once during my time of doing PE at Woolmer Hill.

It would be unfair for me not to include a positive aspect of Mr McShane’s seriousness. In my first year there was boy in the year above who had the habit of lashing out at younger kids without reason. Given my size and relative strength I was rarely a victim. But on one occasion, going down the stairs which led from the geography rooms and walking on the right-hand side as was the rule, I passed him going up. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I received a karate-style chop to my head which made me see stars. I had little option other than to report sick and go to the medical room. Mrs Hollingdale and Mr McShane came in. I told McShane the boy’s name, but the boy denied it - and quite possibly I had the wrong name, though I could easily have pointed a finger at the boy’s face. Nonetheless, it was decided that I should go home immediately. McShane drove me and we made polite conversation in the car.

Yet it must be emphasised that his main role in the school was that of disciplinarian, and every reminiscence of him on Friends Reunited and elsewhere discusses him in this context. In that sense his role was similar to Mr Jimpson, but the two men could not have been more different in their approach. Jimpson patrolled the school, particularly the fifth form, indirectly proposing a deal: you basically obey the rules and respect me personally and in exchange I will grant you some license to misbehave. Jimpson was moody and unpredictable and I tend to think over sensitive. McShane, in contrast, showed little or no emotion and displayed no desire for personal status aggrandisement. His disciplinary approach was cold and methodical.

Nothing showed that better than his role at the annual school sports’ day, when normal school was suspended and the pupils poured out onto the games’ field. For those not participating in the races, watched over by Anning and his staff with feigned enthusiasm, the real sport was to escape school. The difficulty was not leaving the premises, but walking along the roads until the escapee could disappear in a crowd. And here Mr McShane came into play, driving along, a big man in a small car, attempting to spot Woolmer Hill pupils on the street. What other teacher would have volunteered to do this? Mr Jimpson was running around the sports field checking up on any number of misdeeds he could find there.

It also fell to Mr McShane to patrol the corridor at lunchtime and hang up one of three large printed signs which hung from a nail on a piece of string above the back door leading to the outside playgrounds. One sign read "In" which meant that pupils had to spend their lunchtime in their classrooms; the second, "Out," which logically enough, meant that weather was deemed good enough for pupils to be forced out of the building, and the third "optional" which gave pupils a choice. Kim B. had a low opinion of his pupil management abilities:

"A man of poor judgement - told me off for pushing in the dinner queue, because I was the only one on the floor - hard to push people when you're flat on your bum!"

I only ever had one run in with Mr McShane. In my third year, when I was thirteen, the boys who did not have sporting activities during lunchtime were compelled on a class rota system to pile away the tables and chairs which had been used for lunch in the main hall. I objected to this, primarily on the grounds that it seemed that boys were being punished because they did not play sport and on the grounds that they were boys. To be fair on that point, the girls had an even worse task of waiting on the teachers at lunchtime who sat at three blocks of tables at the far end of the hall.

I was not openly defiant with the rather disreputable caretaker who oversaw our lunchtime work, but was more sly. I was late; I would take five minutes to put away a single chair, and generally drag my feet. In the end the caretaker, whose name now escapes me, sent me to Mr McShane. I admitted to being lazy and not liking moving the furniture, to which McShane, rather puzzled by my own self-criticism and uncharacteristic behaviour, sentenced me every lunchtime and break to stand outside his cupboard at the end of the main corridor until I changed my mind. The trouble for him - and for me, too - was that I wouldn’t promise him to alter my ways, so there I stood for much of the week. The boredom and irritation of it was unbearable, as McShane intended it to be. My only relief was my successful petition to McShane to attend the weekly Christian Union meeting in the Upper School. I was not a believer, but McShane was so he granted my request.

Other than this rather strange conflict with Mr McShane, I never had any difficulties with him. He liked rules, and generally I had no problem in complying with them, so we kept out of each other’s way. In my fifth year I fell in love, and though for several reasons Jill and I did not flaunt our relationship with public displays of affection, so on no occasion did I fall foul of McShane's puritanism, which one former pupil described an instance of on Friends Reunited:

“[He was]...responsible for throwing me and 3 others off the Canterbury walk in the 4th year for something daft such as holding hands with a girl.” Simon W.

Like every other teacher at Woolmer Hill, Mr McShane’s aspirations and ideas for the school were suppressed during Headmaster Anning’s autocratic regime. McShane was no liberal, and based on what I know of his opinions he would probably have liked to tighten discipline and impose it into areas like teaching, private behaviour and school uniform. Anning’s cold regime was hard, but it was limited: it did not intrude into lessons much nor for instance affect how you spoke to or about your classmates. In short, Anning’s regime was functional: when there was order in the appearance of things he was happy, but what was happening underneath he let float free. McShane’s ideas were more total: he wanted to shape the pupil’s character. Anning didn’t bother.

In the summer of 1977, Headmaster Anning retired, and I believe Mr McShane threw his hat into the ring. But fortunately he was not successful. Instead Anning’s deputy, Mrs Hollingdale emerged triumphant. It was not McShane's tightening of discipline that followed, but a significant liberalisation and humanisation of Anning’s cold regime. Yet not all was lost for McShane: with Anning gone, he and Mr Jimpson were now charged with the role of administering slipperings, though I don’t know of anyone who was actually slippered by McShane. And of McShane in my final year with Mrs Hollingdale at the helm I now remember nothing.

Mr McShane, never prominent in my school life, disappeared from my consciousness totally when I left Woolmer Hill in June 1978. Then at some point in the 1980s, while visiting Haslemere, I read in a local newspaper that he was opposing the screening of Silence of the Lambs at Haslemere Hall’s film evenings. He was still true to his conservative beliefs.

When I started composing memory portraits of teachers at Woolmer Hill in the mid-2000s, my first, and the one which gathered the most responses, was understandably enough my portrait of Headmaster Anning. But of interest was that many former pupils who reacted negatively to Anning also expressed similar opinions of McShane. No clear explanation was ever forthcoming. I bore no grudge against McShane and saw him as a decent man, even if I disagreed with him.

I wrote this piece in the autumn of 2015, so it is now over thirty-seven years since I left Woolmer Hill. What could a Google search find for Alec McShane? Very little I thought, particularly as his name was so common. Yet, I managed to find out that in 1976-7 Mr McShane was the leader of the Liss Training Band. I never knew that McShane was musical, though the discipline of a brass band would appeal to his character. The source was a memoir in the May-August 2006 newsletter of the Liss Band by its oldest member, a maths and science teacher called Peter Williams (was this by any chance the eccentric science teacher at Woolmer Hill? I don’t know, but probably not).

Time has moved on. If in the mid 1970s, Mr McShane was in his mid-thirties, by the mid 2010s he must be in his mid-seventies. There is no reason why he shouldn’t be still with us, but I don’t know.

Mr Metcalf: yesterday's man

"He hit me round the face for smiling." Mark S.

It is an inescapable fact of human existence that each one of us only sees the world from our own unique position in it. We realise how egocentric we are when for some reason we consider people whom we have only met briefly in the past, but had no reason to think about until recently. Though we know such people had full personalities, we can only recall one or two aspects of them, so we build up a stereotype of them on very limited information. That is certainly true for me of Mr Metcalf, a teacher who must have lived a full life, did many things, and was probably married with children, yet whose existence has only left a few fragments in my mind.

Even when I was eleven, for he left the school during my first year at Woolmer Hill, Mr Metcalf only induced laughter in me, a giggling laughter shared with my friend Gavin W. Dressed in a checkered sports jacket, bespectacled with thinning hair and wearing loose dark green trousers, this near retirement part-time teacher shuffled forwards, legs apart as if he had just got off a horse. He appeared constantly irritated and angry. Partially deaf - he may have worn a hearing aid - he had to stoop down to listen to what any child was telling him, and invariably responded by promising a “clip round the ear” if this or that were not done.

We could always raise a laugh in the classroom or playground by aping his absurd mannerisms. We mimicked his teaching instructions by parodying each one, ending it with the promise of a clip round the ear, if it were not fully obeyed. Gavin W., who was taught maths for a time by Metcalf, had learned than formerly this unfortunate man had been a headmaster of a school, so we joked about a whole school made up teachers constantly giving clips round the ear.

No doubt, Metcalf dragged himself into Woolmer Hill several times a week with the purpose of earning a few shekels from school teaching before retirement. He would have preferred, presumably, to have been at home with his feet up or tottering around his garden. As a part-time teacher, he always appeared to us to be a little detached from the school. But in breaks and at lunchtime he was often seen with another part-time teacher, the elderly Mrs Thackery, who in name taught current affairs, but in reality used the occasion to try to instil Conservative ideas into young impressionable minds.

It was from Mrs Thackery that we learnt that Mr Metcalf had lost his holiday and retirement home in Cyprus following the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island. That would certainly explain his incessant irritation and anger with the world. Presumably, Metcalf had fallen in love with the sun and easy life in Cyprus while serving in the British Army, vowed to retire there, but had lost his investment.

Mr Metcalf was not an important man in the school. He teamed up with Mrs Thackery and perhaps Mr Pavy, the morose technical drawing teacher, to represent a geriatric old-guard in the school, which was unduly supportive of Headmaster Anning’s regime. Metcalf’s call at every turn for clips round the ear was not something that was echoed by the younger breed of disciplinarians in the 1970s, such as Mr MacShane and Mr Jimpson. And to that extent even in 1974, Metcalf was very much yesterday's man. He left the school without being noticed or missed.

Mrs Myall: the little dragon

My second year at Woolmer Hill, starting in September 1974, found me for several subjects in lessons taught by different teachers. But in every case except one our new teacher was known to us by sight and reputation, as well as being someone we passed daily in the corridors; the exception was our new maths teacher, Mrs Myall, who was new to the school. I was put out by this abrupt change in maths because I had liked and made progress with our former teacher, the strict but fair Mr McNally, and regretted that he would no longer be teaching me.

Our first lesson with Mrs Myall was in the classroom of our registration group. As a newcomer Myall was not allocated a room of her own, but was forced to wander around the school to available classrooms. She was already sitting at the teacher’s desk when we streamed in after morning break. Aged then probably in her late thirties and diminutive in stature, she was dressed in a tight fitting pullover and medium length skirt. Her hair was cropped short, giving her head a strange oblong look; her mouth was locked into a permanent sarcastic smile. From her first utterance to the class, Myall pumped out dissatisfaction, anger and sarcasm without any seeming cause. Most of us in her group - the top set from the A stream - were happy enough to learn maths, and she just appeared to be punching at air with her insults. Why tell a pupil who had diligently been working and then got the question right, “Well, at least you can add up!” So my first experiences of Mrs Myall in the classroom made her seem like a dreadful person. And the thought of spending years with her left me rather depressed.

I was lucky to be able puncture her arrogance very slightly in that first lesson. Pleased that I had done all the work the she had set for the class to do, I was wondering how she would respond to me when she came to look at my work as she circulated the room. “Well,” she said, “at least you’ve got the answers right, but why waste ink by double underlining them all?” My reply was easy. I explained that Mr McNally had insisted on answers being unlined, so that they could quickly be identified. My retort momentarily shut her up.

Despite her initial behaviour, Myall gradually won the respect of those of us who were interested in learning maths. Her presentations on the board were clear, and she was always willing to help and explain something a further time when it was not understood. And from her help I can still recall today the off-smell of her breath as she leaned over me at my desk to write in my notebook, with the result that I much preferred to go to the teacher’s desk and tower over her. She seldom rebuffed the questions of those of us who wanted to learn more. Oddly, she set one huge amount of homework each month - given on the first working day of the month and due in on the last. The system was administratively straightforward but it lent itself to abuse; we could do the work collaboratively and share answers, but I seldom if ever copied the work of others. Later on she was granted her own classroom and registration group, and she welcomed pupils to come to her in the mornings before school for extra help, and several times I availed myself of the opportunity.

Mrs Myall, at least in the first few years under Headmaster Anning, was a teacher who only existed in the classroom. Outside it you would see her walking briskly to somewhere, interfering as little as possible with the routine tumble of school life. She seemed also strangely alone, as if she had treated her fellow teachers to the same doses of sarcasm which she had bestowed on us and they had turned her back on her.

Discipline was also something she managed alone and I never recall her mentioning or threatening the involvement of Headmaster Anning. Her means of control on the rare occasions in which it was required was pure verbal aggression, often involving insult and sarcasm. In her lessons you felt as if you answered to her, not to the authority structure of the wider school; so I thus had her down as a silent critic of Headmaster Anning’s grey regime in the school. And the fact that she flourished after his departure tended to confirm my view.

If her strength was her independence and ability to get things done in the classroom, her weakness was her unpredictability, her blowing hot and cold and her granting of licence to pupils and then suddenly drawing in the reins and pulling rank. One moment a group of us would be jokingly guessing her given names - she signed herself M. M. Myall - and she would be joining in the fun, but then suddenly, seemingly without reason, she would find some fault, and with a sarcasm that could never be reciprocated rebuke someone. An embarrassed silence would fall over the room.

Worse still was her obvious favouritism shown to some pupils. I had first consciously met favouritism in my first year with our young, and new to the school, English teacher Miss Davis. Initially, she showed interest in everyone, but gradually she started granting licence to a small group of girls, who could talk to her openly and whose opinions were prioritised. The discomfort of exclusion gradually made me disengage from her lessons. Now the situation was reversed. With Myall, I could see that I and some other boys were granted the same privilege: we could talk to her more openly without being pulled up for disrespect than the rest of the class. That didn’t mean that there weren’t limits, but merely that we had more space to manoeuvre. On one occasion, probably in my fourth year, I remember coming into the classroom with my hair still wet from swimming. No one else was there. Myall said she abhorred sport and wouldn’t even run for a bus. But as a pupil I had no choice other than to go to PE, and I expressed my point of view in a boyish way by shaking my head and spraying her with droplets of water. She cowered and I did it again; she laughed. Only on the third attempted occasion did she tell me to stop.

Thus Mrs Myall was in essence a contradiction. On the one hand we were treated to the aggressive and sarcastic assaults that made initial contact with her most unpleasant. Her aggression was undoubtedly motivated by insecurity and a fear of losing authority in the classroom. But when I first met her, aged only twelve, I had no idea of why she was being so horrible and did not foresee how she would later reveal the positive aspects of her personality. I was not alone in my experience. Steve. M. summarises our experience precisely:

She scared the hell out of me when she first arrived. As I got older though, and started to understand her sarcasm and her jokes, she slowly became one of my favourite teachers.

More than that, we were gradually able to see under her outbreaks of anger and sarcasm, which had their roots in her lack of self-confidence, that she cared deeply about her pupils. Tim P. movingly recalls the following incident:

An apparently fearsome lady, but I saw the other side of her once. In late 1978 I was badly injured in a football match (refereed by Mr Sellars!!). I didn't realise it, but I had had my nose broken and lost 3 teeth. [One teacher saw the injury and ran away but...] It was Mrs Myall who responded, and I was dumbfounded to see her gently take me into the office, arrange and administer first aid, personally call my parents and then wait with me until I was taken to the Royal Surrey, even helping me into my parents car.

I was first taught maths by Mrs Myall in September 1974 when I was twelve. She was still teaching me in the early summer of 1978, and over those four years we had both changed, though the change in me was obviously greater.

In the summer of 1977, Headmaster Anning retired and was replaced by his deputy Mrs Hollingdale, who took steps to humanise the school in several ways. Anning had cultivated aloofness from his staff and had monopolised decision-making in his hands, leaving other teachers little room to contribute to school decision-making and management. Hollingdale by contrast was more collaborative and brought a team of teachers round her - and among those was Mrs Myall, who took responsibility as a “year head” and played a role in careers. Nevertheless, her inflated role in the school did not impact heavily on her teaching or personae in the classroom.

I continued to like Mrs Myall, though I was a little more reserved towards her as I resented her camaraderie which could so easily turn lead to her pulling rank over some minor matter. I thus moved myself to the back of the group of boys who had most favoured status, but I retained strong and positive relations with her. Despite my disengagement my final year at Woolmer Hill with Myall was marked by two remembered incidents involving Myall.

I had an afternoon maths lesson with Mrs Myall. At that time in the week she appeared to have a free period before the lesson, so I often hurried to the room so I could chat to her before the start of the maths lesson. There were a couple of other pupils who did the same; however, on this occasion I was the first pupil to reach the classroom. I suppose I knocked at the door before going into the classroom, but I might have done so in a fairly casual way. Once inside, it became obvious that a teacher (whom I will call Mr Z) and Mrs Myall had been having a confidential conversation which I had interrupted. Had I been told by either of them to go out of the room and wait, I would have meekly accepted the situation and no doubt have forgotten about it by now. What in fact happened was quite different Mr Z loudly remonstrated with me, and at some point during his spiel decided to punch me on the side of my head.

Quite obviously, this was not an act of formal corporal punishment in the sense understood in the 1970s; it was a simple assault. The pain in my ear and at the side of my face was severe enough, so without asking for permission I went over to a desk and sat down. Despite the pain, thoughts were running through my head about how to deal with the incident. I rightly made the decisions not to hit back, nor to try to hide how much pain I was in. The look on Mrs Myall’s face showed that, however much she might have wished to show solidarity with Mr Z, she was horrified at what had happened. Mr Z, now reduced to some speechless zombie, left the room.

The punch had the potential to disrupt the rather safe orderly life that I was having at Woolmer Hill in my final year. I could have complained to my parents, but like many victims of abuse I saw that the easiest way of dealing with it was to behave as if it had never happened. Some other pupils arrived, knowing nothing about the incident, and the lesson took its normal course. Mrs Myall asked me during the lesson whether I was alright, and I answered truthfully that I was. I appreciated her concern.

Why did Mr Z hit me in that way? To be fair to him he was neither a psychopath nor a a sadist. In retrospect, I believe that there was an immediate and a background cause. The immediate impulse to hit out was his understandable annoyance at what he saw as my barging into the room when he was in the middle of a private and perhaps sensitive conversation with Mrs Myall. But why wasn’t telling me to go and wait outside enough?

Mr Z was not a clever man. He tended to teach remedial classes; and in so far as he could be regarded as a teacher his ability lay in building a give-and-take modus operandi with his pupils. I had never crossed him, but I preferred to ignore and sideline him whenever possible because I found his endless diatribes about respect and discipline rather tedious and pointless. What angered him the most, I believe, was the enthusiasm I showed for talking to the much more intellectually able, Mrs Myall. And like a jealous delinquent, he lashed out. He resorted to violence, not because he regarded it as the right thing to do, but because he rightly knew that he could get away with it - if only once.

Strangely, I forgot about the incident with Mr Z. rather quickly and I classified it my mind as I would an accident caused by walking into a door frame. The second incident was far more mentally troubling, and somewhat surprising. Mrs Myall did not normally try to delve into our private lives, and even if she criticised pupils more than many teachers, Myall generally attacked the behaviour rather than the person. When I learnt through Jill, a girl I liked and was spending a great deal of time with, that Myall had taken her aside and had warned her that I was having a bad influence on her, I was extremely surprised. I saw neither reason nor evidence for such a claim, yet, paradoxically, her remark boosted my confidence in relation to Jill because Myall’s criticism of me implied that I was the stronger party. Jill herself utterly dismissed Mrs Myall’s opinions as an invasion of her privacy. Yet the very fact that Myall had attempted to undermine my private relationships upset and disturbed me. To this day I have no explanation of that out-of-character event.

Leaving Woolmer Hill in June 1978 meant not seeing Mrs Myall any longer and I felt no sadness about that. With some reservations, I liked her and I was grateful for all she taught me in maths. I achieved a grade A at O-level with ease. But by the time I left Woolmer Hill I was tired of her idiosyncratic discipline and qualified favouritism and wished to be my own person and retain my own sense of dignity.

Mr Pavey: not my favourite teacher

“Horrid man. I managed to get banned from technical drawing.” Mark S.

If there were a competition for the least pleasant teacher at Woolmer Hill School between 1973 and 1978, then Mr Pavey would be ranked pretty near the top. Pavey taught technical drawing, and thinking back, he must have been part-time, though his behaviour suggested someone more firmly ensconced in the school. Whenever the staff were gathered together, Pavey lurked sour-faced at the back, exchanging what seemed like snide remarks with those colleagues of his generation, such as the bitter Mr Metcalf or the blue-rinsed Mrs Thackeray, who together shared a disdain for youth and the modern world. If a smile ever crossed Pavey’s lips, one looked for the pupil suffering the misfortune. But generally speaking, unless you were taught by Pavey, you had nothing to do with him.

Pavey, probably then in his late fifties, was a thin balding man with a pallor complexion. He wore half-moon glasses perched on the end of his nose and bent his head forward to see the world over his glasses. I never recall him wearing a jacket, but always shirt, tie, a V-necked pullover and baggy grey trousers. Though mostly invisible around the school, Pavey commanded the technical drawing room upstairs in the Upper School building with a classroom view of the school swimming pool.

My earliest memory of Mr Pavey was in the summer of 1975. The swimming gala, watched over by Headmaster Anning, his staff and pupils, had just come to an end, and Anning, to address the assembled crowd, had clambered onto the concrete platform that overlooked the deep end of the raised tank, which was the swimming pool. Moments later a girl came up behind him and pushed the unsuspecting Anning into the water. After her deed she bolted down the steps and attempted escape round the side of the Upper School building, but ran straight into the arms of Mr Pavey. My memory of Pavey is of him clutching the girl and shouting to other members of staff for instructions.

I first had personal contact with Mr Pavey in my third year when I was thirteen. The boys in the class were separated from the girls, who were dispatched to do to do cooking or needlework. Apart from physical education, only technical drawing, wood and metal work were gender segregated. So we boys, starting in September 1975, made our way to the Upper School building for our afternoon technical drawing lessons. If Pavey ever smiled or joked, I never noticed it. The drudgery of it all started the moment we entered. The normal practice, when entering a classroom for the first time, was for the pupils to select their desks. Not with Pavey. He decided that we sit in alphabetical order according to our surnames along the two sides of the long bench that ran the length of the room. The blackboard was at one end of the room and Pavey’s desk was at the other. From the outset it seemed that Pavey was only interested in imparting rules and checking their implementation. Discussion was out. Much to our youthful amusement, Pavely explained in the first lesson that he had crumbling neckbones and a fall might well be fatal, so we were instructed to place our bags well under the bench and not on any account to leave them in the gangway. Other rules followed: rulers were not to be twanged and pencils were only to be sharpened minimally in the electric pencil sharpener, and then only if absolutely necessary.

Technical drawing lessons took up the whole afternoon and were mind rotting. We started off with a piece of A3 paper and had to draw a one centimetre pencil border round the page. We were then informed how to draw straight lines and make angles and shapes without use of a protractor. Most what we were doing was obvious to anyone who had studied geometry and the afternoon progressed slowly. Inevitably, we become bored and resorted to chattering and fidgeting to fill the time, but Pavey expected us to endure our boredom in silence. When not explaining something on the blackboard, Pavey sat at his desk at the back of the room and periodically admonished the class for chatting or other misdemeanors. His favourite theme was corporal punishment, the very mention of which gave him an obvious thrill.

Mr Pavey was not the only teacher who took satisfaction in drooling over thoughts of corporal punishment, but among the minority which did, Pavey was the worst. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the technical drawing class was a boys-only group; and that made such talk all the easier. It is worthy of note that in my other boys-only classes, Mr Winter for games and the Mr Bakers - yes there were two of them - who took us for metal and woodwork, the topic of corporal punishment was never mentioned.

On one boring afternoon, Pavey took delight in mentioning that “when Mr Anning administers it, he takes the skin off.” which was coupled with a story of a caning that Pavey had apparently witnessed in which after the first stroke the boy “was grovelling on the deck even though he had another five to go.” All that left me wondering: was the caning on the bare bottom or on the hand? Bleeding bottoms or broken hand bones at Woolmer Hill I did not believe. Pavey was doing more to entertain himself with all this silly talk than he was threatening anybody.

Then one afternoon a couple of classmates and I passed the time writing inane notes to one another. Pavey noticed it and demanded the scrap of paper be brought to him. I didn’t particularly worry because the note contained nothing defamatory or obscene. I was thus surprised when I was told to take it down to Mr Anning. Two other boys were told to join me, Michael H. and Anthony H. Pavey said he would be down shortly. Anning received us in his office although he was in the middle of a meeting with the deputy head, Mrs Hollingdale, who diplomatically turned to face the window during the whole proceedings. Pavey came in and mumbled a few words about how the whole matter needed to be referred to the Headmaster. He clearly wanted to see some corporal punishment.

Anning showed all the signs of being annoyed at being interrupted with this trivial matter but asked the three of us whether we wanted the note to be shown to our fathers. We all gave the required negative answer, though given the innocuous nature of the note I didn’t see why not. Anning then took out a gym slipper and a cane. The slipper, he said was for minor offences, and the cane for more serious ones. Yet when I saw the cane, over a metre long and a centimetre thick - something akin to the instruments used in Singapore’s judicial canings - it seemed clear that we were only being intimidated. It was a physical impossibility to be caned in that office with that instrument - and if we had been the injuries would have been terrible. We were sent away untouched, leaving Pavey disappointed.

Headmaster Anning’s and Mr Pavey’s attitudes to corporal punishment were shown to be completely different. For Anning corporal punishment was a tool for maintaining control over children, more by means of fear than pain: hence his presentation of the giant cane. There has never been any suggestion that Anning took sadistic pleasure in administering pain; it was just part of doing a job. In Anning’s eyes there was no reason to beat us for some trivial matter like scribbling a note - and to have done so would have undermined his whole strategy of using controlled corporal punishment and the threat of it for maximum effect. For Pavey, on the other hand, corporal punishment was something he seemingly relished - and the injustice of seeing boys caned for scribbling an innocuous note in his lesson would not of have worried him one jot.

To the best of my knowledge, Pavey never hit a pupil himself. That might be because formal corporal punishment was the preserve of Anning and a few teachers delegated the power, though that did not stop a tiny minority of teachers from hitting their pupils. But more probably Pavey was a passive consumer of the pain of others; he was the man drooling at the back of lynch mob, not the man with the rope in his hands.

At the end of my third year I was glad to give up technical drawing. I neither liked the subject nor the teacher. Pavey disappeared from sight and memory and I think left the school at some point soon after without anybody really noticing. His classroom was re-ordered with rows of desks, and in my final year at the school it became my registration group under the dominion of Mr Glover. I have tried to think of something positive to say about Pavey, and can come up with only one thing: he once said a girl had chosen to do O Level technical drawing and she had been good at it. But that’s about it. Though I should say that even today I can still recall how to bisect an angle with a pair of compasses.

Mrs Sales: icon of teenage sex imagery

Writing down and sharing my personal memories of Woolmer Hill School in the 1970s has, as one might expect, provoked others to think back, reminisce and make comments themselves. Of all the themes being tossed around, two claim the most interest: way out in front are comments from men writing about their experiences of, and feelings towards, corporal punishment at the school, but in a firm second place is an incident concerning the young PE teacher, Mrs Sales. I had little to do with Sales: she had no administrative role in the school; she taught games and physical education to the girls, not the boys, and she left during my first few years at Woolmer Hill.

Among the boys, Mrs Sales was a focus of interest for one simple reason: she was young, fit and attractive. Pubescent boys (and some male staff members, it would seem) fixated their sexual desires onto her, with the result that a fair amount of smutty talk circulated. My only distinct memory of her was also of this kind; it is memory from a morning school assembly. We pupils sat on the floor in the hall facing the stage, girls on the right and boys on the left. Between the boys and the wall, looking into the room, was a line of chairs for the staff. And I recall sitting on the floor looking up at Mrs Sales on her chair, her bare legs crossed under her short gym skirt, and my imagination focussed. What was being said in the assembly I have since forgotten.

I assumed at the time that every other boy was also attracted to her and that Mrs Sales was providing every opportunity for that to happen. After all Sales did not have to cross her legs and wear a gym skirt to morning assembly. I even recall an element of private resentment at her allure and was secretly pleased that she didn’t teach me. Yet not every boy fell for her charms. Writing on Friends Reunited Adam F., after describing an accidental sexually-charged encounter with another female teacher, commented, “Can't say I remember any other fanciable teachers in my time there, Miss Sales was far too butch for me.” Well, OK, but I don’t agree.

Let me now turn to the incident which made Mrs Sales an object of Woolmer School mythology. Every summer on a judiciously chosen afternoon there was a swimming gala, in which the whole school, staff and pupils alike, were compelled to participate, either as swimmers or as observers. Mrs Sales as the leading female PE teacher entered the teachers’ swimming race. I did not witness the event itself, but Sue W. was standing, not among the mass of pupils watching the gala from the piece of grass at the side of the pool, but with her back to the brick wall of the gymnasium and observing the shallow end of the pool. Sue writes, “[Mrs Sales]... stood up within the pool, as it was not very deep, and the water pulled one side down. She was totally unaware, until a young male teacher in the water at the time pointed it out! I … got the complete full frontal view!!”

What had happened is that Mrs Sales’ bikini top had slipped down and she had exposed a nipple to those staff and pupils who were watching the pool from the side of the gymnasium. In reality, probably only a few appropriately-positioned people could have witnessed Sales’ humiliation, and though she apparently was not immediately aware of the exposure, the time taken for her to re-cover her breast was probably not that long.

For most people, myself included, the story of the exposed nipple is based on second-hand evidence. The fact that the nipple had been exposed at all was what was important; in what circumstances and for how long were irrelevant. In my own mental reconstruction of the event based on gossip, the exposure had occurred when Sales was getting out of the pool. And it was only thanks to testimony from Sue W. that this misconception was corrected. Memories are rarely in correspondence with all the facts.

The incident caused a stir because it breached the boundary between what can be thought and talked about in private and what can be recognised in the public domain. Schools, then as now, deny and conceal sexuality, particularly of desire between staff and pupils, even though the heads of pupils, if not staff, overflow with sexuality. Everyone knew that Mrs Sales was an icon of teenage sexual imagery, but it was an unmentionable topic in the public sphere. But with the public exposure of the nipple, the barrier was breached and thoughts which had been confined to private chat in small groups were thrust into the open. Sexuality and Mrs Sales had been connected in public. The genie was out of the bottle.

But the desire to savour the woman’s embarrassment, both then and afterwards, was also propelled by something else. There is a contradictory process in male sexual attraction: one element is to put the object of unattainable desire on a pedestal; the other is to savour the humiliation of the woman, as if it were her just punishment for being unattainable and/or sexually attractive. And in that way, Sales’ obvious humiliation was enjoyed then, as it has been in banter ever since.

Who was Mrs Sales as a person? In both my own memory and in the banter about the exposed nipple the answer to that question is ignored, forgotten or was never known. Today, among ex-pupils, Mrs Sales is remembered only on account of her nipple. That is the truth; the truth is always how things are, not as they perhaps ought to be.

Mrs Thackery: the Tory Teacher

“She lived very close to me in Haslemere unfortunately for her. I personally had nothing against her, but my mate Mark J. didn't get on with her at all. I clearly remember we could see over the fence into her back garden, and played many a cruel prank on her and her husband.” John B.

“I can't remember her at all.” Karen B.

On our first day at Woolmer Hill in September 1973, our new class teacher, Miss Savage, had us copy our weekly timetable of lessons from the blackboard into our newly issued general note books. All but one of the lessons had readily recognisable names like maths, English and history. But one lesson, abbreviated to CA, and scheduled to a single slot before double games one afternoon, left us clueless, even though we diligently copied it down without question or comment. At home, and in the car belonging to a friend’s father which ferried us to school in those first few days, there was much debate about the mysterious lesson; the best but wrong guess was that CA stood for crafts and arts.

On the day of the lesson Miss Savage told us that CA stood for “current affairs,” a session in which we would discuss the news. The lesson was immediately before games and we need not take books or writing materials with us, which seemed at the time quite a luxury as much of our day in other lessons was spent with monotonous copying. And there on a sunny autumn afternoon we met the part-time Mrs Thackery, a woman who even then seemed past retirement age. She was below average height, well built but not fat, fit for her age, and conventionally dressed in a medium-length skirt blouse and cardigan. Her greying, but still abundant, hair showed the benefits of regular visits to hairdressers. On her face she wore the smug smile of someone who knew best; and of a person who knew all that it was necessary to know. Yet, she was no ogress: she was polite and pleasant in her manner and most undemanding in her teaching.

Mrs Thackery informed us that for current affairs all we needed to do was to talk as a class, so in practice one could sleep or participate as one wanted. To set off discussion she had recorded the morning radio news onto an audio cassette, so all she had to do was play a news item, ascertain whether we knew what it was about - and if not input her own explanation or the views of her husband, the unknown Mr Thackery - before inviting contributions from the class. When discussion dried up - or failed to start - she moved onto the next news item.

From the outset Mrs Thackery explained that we could proffer any opinion we wished, which in one sense we could. Party politics was a delicate subject in school, and to be fair Mrs Thackery never prevented the exposure of non-Tory thinking, but there was no mistaking that in the background was her view that the Tory view of the world was the correct one. To be blunt she oozed Toryism - though, unlike the opinionated English teacher Mrs Blewett whom I would meet later in the school, she never actually dismissed dissenting opinion as immature and illegitimate. You had to be teenager to be insulted by that.

In the early 1970s Toryism was more of a behavioural and cultural identification than it is today. To be Tory in Haslemere then was to accept and identify with the hierarchies and prejudices of class stratified Britain along with opposing the progress of the modern age. The 1960s and 1970s, to the horrors of Tories, were a time when conservative values were powerfully questioned, as legislation partly decriminalised homosexuality, made divorce easier, permitted abortion lowered the age of majority to eighteen, and ended the death penalty - while at the same time growing trade union power pushed for greater economic equality in Britain.

Haslemere was a wealthy Tory town in which local opposition to Toryism came, not from Britain’s second party, Labour, but from the then nationally small Liberal Party, which did surprisingly well in local and national elections in 1973 and 1974. Liberal thinking did not so much engage in a frontal assault on the Tory worldview, but rather questioned it piecemeal and refused to show knee-jerk approval of establishment thinking. Support for the Liberals was heaviest amongst less well-off locals; i.e. people who were born, lived and worked in Haslemere, rather than commuters. Voting for the party was heaviest on council housing estates, like High Lane, though the activists were mostly drawn from local white collar employees.

My childlike affiliation at the time was not in doubt: I sided with the Liberals against Toryism. My father, then sixty-five years old, displayed a life-long visceral dislike of Toryism, which he liked to describe as an “arrogant vested interest.” That was enough to drive him into the Liberal Party on moving to Haslemere in 1963, and when he successfully stood for the newly created Waverly District Council in 1974, I delivered leaflets evening after evening in the campaign. I knew little of politics, but I knew that Mrs Thackery was a Tory and was therefore on the other side. It showed in her assumptions rather than in bold assertion.

Until February 1974 the Tory government of Edward Heath was in office. And of course Conservative government spokespeople had their slot on the news, so to explain or round off discussion Thackery would always stress that point of view. The 1974 miners’ strike did bring her out of her “impartial” corner, with her condemning the strike on the grounds that many miners already earned nearly as much as Headmaster Anning - and for her and by implication all sensible people - that was utterly shocking. I had never thought of the comparison before, but it did seem to me at the time that Anning’s job was more pleasant than that of a miner. Today, of course, I doubt whether Thackery’s assertion was even true.

Not all of the lessons were taken up with the discussion of politics. Later on she decided to also record the Radio 4 quiz show “Brain of Britain” and see if we knew the answers. Out of ten questions, it was rare for us to know one answer. One question asked about the first British prime minister to make use the country residence Chequers. We didn’t know of course, so she asked us what Chequers was. I completely misheard and thought the question was about the component parts of the then Czechoslovakia, and then made a fool of myself by talking about the Czechs. Thackery just smiled.

Outside the classroom, Mrs Thackery formed part of a trio of older, pro-headmaster teachers. The other members were the ear-clipping Mr Metcalf and the morose technical drawing teacher Mr Pavey. Each bemoaned youth and the modern age, though of the three Thackery was by far the most pleasant. Apart from the current affairs lesson, which ended after our first year, Mrs Thackery turned up from time to time only as a substitute teacher.

One afternoon our English teacher, Miss Davis, was absent and in her place Mrs Thackery arrived. We knew we were in for an easy time when she asked us all to design a Christmas card. Immediately Sarah B. shot up her hand to say that as a Jehovah’s Witness she did not celebrate Christmas - or at least not at this time of year. Thackery accepted this and asked Sarah B. to design a birthday card instead. Again, Sarah objected on the grounds that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not celebrate birthdays. To this Mrs Thackery retorted, “Oh, Goodness, what a miserable lot you are,” with the class bursting into laughter - and Mrs Thackery enjoying the effect of her comment. Thackery’s world view was clear and to her absolutely obvious - and at least on that point it coincided with mine, though in retrospect it was wrong to embarrass a young child in that way.

Mrs Thackery was not an important teacher in the school. Her certainty in her views and her status stemmed from the fact that she did not have to make living from her part-time teaching, but relied on the unknown - but often referred to - Mr Thackery. At some time in our second year, Mrs Thackery disappeared from the school into permanent retirement without her departure being noticed.

Mr Trench: the man everyone liked

Mr Trench taught history. In my first year at the school 1973-74, he did not teach us eleven-year-olds, so he became one of those teachers you knew by name and passed in the corridor. He was then in his mid-fifties. Wearing a jacket that had seen better days, he strode manically along the corridors between lessons, his head strangely skewed to one side clutching in each hand a cloth carrier bag filled with papers. The fact that he never pulled you up for inappropriate behaviour, but looked on with a slight grin, strangely made him a little frightening. I always wondered what he would be like, if he really did lose his temper. But I never found out.

I first encountered him in lessons in my second year. His methods were traditional. He talked and asked questions; we copied from books and from the blackboard; and we wrote things up for homework. Yet, he tried to make everything we did as interesting as possible and was never averse to jokes and funny stories. Rarely for Woolmer Hill, he showed respect to his pupils. That endowed Mr Trench with an authority which engendered a respect that I and my classmates valued to the extent that we didn’t muck around in his lessons.

He took the time to rent films for his history lessons, which brightened up the subject. If there were time at the end of the lessons, we were allowed to see them backwards for a laugh. Invariably, before Christmas he showed us the Pickwick Papers and from time to time even read us stories.

His influence on me extended outside the classroom. Physical education was always a bore for me, and I made no effort during games such as football, attempting to avoid the ball and not caring who won. On one occasion, Mr Trench was sent outside to supervise football and I remember my attitude changing. I wanted to impress him by playing my best, a best which in fact was not very good.

His attitude to authority was askew. The never said anything that suggested criticism of authority, but he was no sycophant for Headmaster Anning’s suffocating regime in the school. I always remember during a break, when we were meant to be outside, taking refuge in the toilets during one of Mr Anning’s corridor patrols. Mr Trench was asked check the toilets; he saw us but went out, telling Mr Anning that there was nobody there. Even more, I remember the heavy grin on Mr Trench’s face after sixteen-year-old Gayle Weingartner, in the school swimming gala in 1975, managed to topple Mr Anning into the swimming pool.

I came to know Mr Trench most in my fourth and fifth years when I studied twentieth century world history with him. We were a small group of five or six pupils. Though Maths and French had also engaged my interest, there was no doubt that history was my favourite subject. Mr Trench recommended and lent out books and I read them avidly. I began to better plan and structure my writing.

For me, aged fourteen to sixteen, history was still understood only as an interconnected narrative. Though I held liberal views on matters, I had no access to social theory of any kind; and Mr Trench never presented me with any. Yet within that space, Mr Trench was remarkably tolerant and respectful of differing opinions. I had learnt that from him in my second year in the school when he had asked us to evaluate laissez faire philosophy. Everybody got top marks irrespective of our views.

To this day, I do not know whether Mr Trench was a wet aristocratic Tory who believed that kindness and tolerance brought out the best in the lower orders - or whether he had deliberately taken up state school teaching to further progressive ends. Whichever it was, he influenced my academic life.

When I came to select my A-level subject, my first choice was history, and I selected sociology and economics because these subjects were the closest to history. As it turned out, I found A-level history, requiring study of the sixteenth century, relatively uninteresting. Mr Trench was also left behind in another sense: with my discovery of Marxism, a new light was shed on the twentieth century and a mental re-organisation of events took place. Yet I retained a clear picture of people, events, dates and places, 1914-78, thanks to Mr Trench.

I never saw Mr Trench again after I left Woolmer Hill in June 1978, so I don’t know when he retired, nor when he left Haslemere. My re-discovery of him only occurred in the late 2000s when by chance I decided to google his name and found biographical information - something not possible for other former teachers. Mr Trench stands apart in that his family has a publicly available history. A few points drawn from it may serve to shed further light on the man.

The first point is that the surname “Trench” was only the second part of a double-barrelled aristocratic name “Chenevix-Trench.” He had obviously chosen to be known by the name “Trench” either to conceal his aristocratic past or to hide references to his notorious brother - or both. Mr Trench was decorated in the Second World War and rose to the rank of Commander in the British Navy, but unlike the maths teacher at Woolmer Hill, Commander Campbell, he used the simple title, “Mr Trench.” His modesty enhanced his authority.

So what of his brother? His younger brother Anthony (1919-79) was also a school teacher but one of a very different kind. As a public school housemaster at Shrewsbury and later headmaster of Eton (1964-70), he gave full expression to his flagellomania, applying belts and canes to bare bottoms with glee, as former pupil testimony amply details. Against a brother with this reputation, Mr Trench did well to conceal his rather conspicuous surname. Yet no man should be judged by the behaviour of his brother.

In conclusion, the underlying beliefs and motives of Mr Trench must remain unknown. Yet for me he was a rare beacon of kindness at Woolmer Hill: one of the few teachers who would always try to make your life easier. I recall fondly how he sent me a personal letter of congratulation when I obtained a Grade A in my O level history exam. Though I never visited it, I remember his house on the outskirts of Haslemere and I always thought of him whenever I passed it, even long after he had ceased to live there. He was a good man and a good teacher, who should not be forgotten.

Commander Godfrey Maxwell Chenevix-Trench (1917-2005)

Other former pupils have commented on Mr Trench:

I read about Mr Trench with interest I remember him well as he did teach me and was a tutor at one point and would always say on wet days "nice weather for ducks today".

Karen B.

Ah Mr Trench. I too really enjoyed his lessons. Remember how he used to hang onto the top of the blackboard with one hand while writing with the other? And of course Pickwick EVERY Christmas. He wrote a very nice letter to me (& I assume all his class) congratulating me on my O level. He once described the conditions his grandmother lived through in Paris whilst it was beseiged by the Russian army - that would tie in with what you say about his family history.

David R.