A Tribute to Two Teachers
I was recently invited to contribute to an account of Christ’s Hospital, the “Charity” Bluecoat school in West Sussex which I attended from 1956 to 1964. Writing about it has stirred up all kinds of memories. In theory one should have been unhappy at boarding school but, as I found out later in life when teaching at a State boarding school in Norfolk, boarding can provide an alternative feeling of ‘belonging’ and ‘support’, especially to those who come from an insecure home background. My parents being medical missionaries in Northern Nigeria, I was in fact a boarder from the age of five – first at Hillcrest, an American boarding school in Nigeria, and then, “sent back” to England at the age of ten, for the next eight years at Christ’s Hospital. I know a lot of people who would say that they were damaged by their boarding experience; by contrast the longer I stayed at my secondary school the more “at home” I felt there and the more fulfilling, at least academically, it became for me.
Anyway, invited to remember something of my education at Christs Hospital, here are memories of the two teachers who in their different ways became alternative parental figures to the adolescent me. Possibly they were more influential than my real family. I think the following are mostly true accounts – ’though one can never be quite sure how much they have been distorted by fond memory (or fond dotage?)
First, here is an account of David Herbert, who for five years was my English teacher: “I was taught by David Herbert at G.C.E. and then A Level. His classroom walls were decorated by a metre-high frieze of characters from The Canterbury Tales which, as a natural drifter-off, caught my imagination. ‘Mr Herbert’ as we called him – he would have disdained the more familiar appellations which some of his colleagues seemed to invite – had, above all, a huge enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, English poetry and Elizabethan drama. His Penguin Book of Narrative Verse is still, I think, the most thorough guide to that genre. He soon infected me with his love of stories in verse, from Langland to Robert Frost – an enthusiasm which has lasted and influenced my own attempts to write poetry. David Herbert was the most gentle and encouraging of teachers – I can still visualise those kindly grey-blue eyes as he surveyed us, a supercilious group of sixth formers, with patience and good humour. I was rather “put off” by the posturings and gimmicks of one or two members of the English Department, but with David Herbert his teaching methods were straightforward: first a lively reading followed by discussion and then the systematic analysis of selected passages. What with his idyllic house by Doctor’s Lake to which we were sometimes invited for Literary Society evenings, and his never less than courteous manner, he seemed to me to be semi–detached from the rough and tumble of daily boarding school life. Somehow I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had left teaching to set up his own publishing business. ‘Gentleman and Scholar’ – sounds old-fashioned, but to me and many others he was a lifeline to more civilised pleasures than were routinely to be found in a post-war all-male boarding school.”
Secondly, here is my portrait of Nell Todd, who was my Art Teacher and, I’d like to think, a personal friend for the last 4 years I was at Christs Hospital: “Nell Todd imported a wonderful spirit of gaiety and colour into the CH cultural life of the 1950s. With her red hair and lipstick in varying shades of shocking-ness and her flamboyant dress sense she brought a real sense of vitality and creative energy into what sometimes felt like a male-dominated and semi-militaristic school routine. Nell’s ‘teaching methods’ were far from methodical – from the huge gong which she struck to signal the beginning and end of each lesson, to the life-sized Sicilian marionettes which she kept propped up splay-legged as models for us to draw, to the Bach motets which boomed out of loudspeakers over both sides of the Art School, to the banner hung over her balcony which announced: “The Eye when it is Opened beholds all the Wonders of the Universe”. I remember how for a short time she kept baby ducklings in her courtyard garden because she loved the tinkling cheeping sounds they made. Always there seemed to be wonderful props, fountains or fairground rides, and gorgeous or fantastic costumes in the process of being prepared for some forthcoming Shakespearian production. One of the few potentially motherly members of staff Nell inevitably attracted misfits like myself to her afternoon Art Club, where she set us up with as much clay or paint as we could wish for in what she kindly called her “Genius Corner”. What an extraordinarily vivid and generous presence Nell Todd was. Everything she did was done ‘con brio’, whether it was playing the cello, or bringing back stacks of still sticky oil paintings from her holidays in Majorca to show us, or organising whole class “art trips” to London and even occasional picnics for some lucky few of us to experience “real opera” at Glyndebourne. I wonder what our contemporary Ofsted Inspectors, with their box-ticking propensities and preference for carefully planned lessons, would have made of Nell Todd!?”