I’m rereading recollections in the school magazine about compulsory siesta after lunch at Frensham Heights School (FH), Surrey. They trigger memories on conflicting timelines. The odd fact of my first and second years both spent in Group 4, also fudge my memory.
I always believed that on my arrival at school, I came into a dormitory at Bracken Hill. Now I think my career began at the Flottage, at the teaching block near the Main House. I begin to recollect walking back from there idly, or more often ambitiously and skillfully aiming kicks at the larger yellow stones on the rough gravelled drive to the Flottage.
Until the early ’60s, after lunch at Main House, all students would have to observe “Silence” lying down on metal frame, lightly sprung beds with their regulation issue thin woollen scarlet blanket. I once used a sewing needle to assess the thickness of the horsehair mattresses. Both ends of the needle protruded from each side. This traditional digestion time of Silence was a hangover from very early theories of how to nurture children.
I must have been there for some time, because I remember a summer infestation by a fascination of swarming tiny yellowish flies covered some of the east facing upper window panes. Housekeeping staff had to be despatched to get rid of them.
Michael Campbell, talented, charismatic, English and Drama teacher, was Housemaster. I had to be “spoken to”. He informed me that while my button sewing and sock darning skills were commendable, payments of a penny a time contravened School Rules.
My earliest memories of school are somewhat hidden from me by my own efforts to suppress feelings of brokenness and homesickness. Many at FH had arrived, placed in boarding school at a safe distance from parents’ problematic relationships and/or lifestyles. None spoke about their lives outside this school, which was set in large grounds, with phenomenal extensive views of rolling Surrey hills south towards Frensham Ponds, Elstead, Hindhead and beyond.
Some 200 pupils formed a cohesive community. It had and it still boasts various institutions, clubs and associations, social, sporting, and in music and the arts, which contributed to a sense of purpose and belonging. These developed into a springboard later helping some to establish an active professional. Lifelong enduring relationships formed. I recall my time at the school with high esteem and affection, just like many all down the years since the founding in 1925.
The UK system of schooling was never fertile ground for an inclusive, humanist, coeducational and progressive boarding regime. Others might fill me in on why the UK tends to prefer single-sex, disciplinarian and generally prescriptive or repressive styles of education.
It was a complex task to schedule the Rota of classes, both the lessons and the “Optionals”.
It needs to be said that times were made available during the working week for students to choose to write their homework. These class times were known in Frensham Heights as “Optionals”. It was a point of pride for us that we were given the free choice of which set homework we worked on, in which “Optional” study times. Rather like adults at University, we were given freedom and responsibility to calculate best use of free study time in order to accompllsh our tasks.
This was a highly commendable and adult way of learning the skills of self-guided work. Unfortunately, my over-imaginative, free-spirited mind was seriously lacking in self-discipline. I would use these Optionals to daydream, doodle, or later on, to compose love poems.
Inevitably, I would fall behind the deadline for submitting the homework. It would morph into a looming terror, similar to a living nightmare, a sort of real-life Pit And The Pendulum story by Edgar Allan Poe. I learned to use the dead of night to save myself from the dread consequences of shameful failure to submit my homework. This cycle of frozen inaction followed by intense bursts of emergency action was to dog me all my working life.
A quarter of a century before Microsoft Spreadsheets made light work of certain complicated clerical tasks, a hapless member of the teaching staff had to curtail summer holidays and spend three full days before the start of term writing out on a grid by hand the Lessons Rota and allocating the new intake into dormitories.
The Term Lessons Rota was a neat chart displayed under glass in a big hardwood frame for all to refer to (often in a tearing hurry) on a wall near the History room in the Teaching Block.
For some reason, my name had been missed out on the list of beds for my Group 4 in Bracken Hill in September 1959. Maybe that’s why I was placed to begin with in the Flottage.
Perhaps it was in Spring term in 1960, that I found myself transferred to Bracken Hill, temporarily billeted on a bunk bed (same thin matresses and pillarbox red blankets) along with a bunch of Group Sixers.
These boys, four years senior, were bigger than my peers physically, and they would lumber around, in the way adult persons are more inclined to locomote, reserved in thought, rather than to caper, hop skip or jump like lambs.
Above me slept arguably the most eccentric among all the FH eccentrics of that time – Nicky Mason. It was remarkable to me that after lights out, neither words nor movement came from my upper bunk bedfellow.
I joined a few boys in the basement Jazz Club. We’d generously been given the use of the groundman’s former potting shed, under a room opposite the Flottage study block.
My instrument was a makeshift bass. It was an old thin plywood cube – a Tea Chest, all it’s edges reinforced with metal. A length of sisal was inserted in a hole pierced in the centre of one face. The other end was tied to an old broomstick. By tensioning the broomstick perched near the edge, I could pluck at the sisal and the Tea Chest would provide the semblance of a rhythmic bass tone backing.
We each played our chosen instruments. There was a genuine vintage glass Washboard, a guitar, a harmonica and Nick Mason’s clarinet. We sang loudly and played along to Skiffle favourites.
Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, When The Saints Go Marching In, Sinner Man, The Train I Ride Is Twenty-one Coaches Long. We’d improvise bawdy versions of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.
Nick studied music, the violin, under the gentle and formal instruction of Mr Teddy Rice. That amiable and placid white-haired man, was not in favour of Nick accompanying us in the Jazz Club playing his clarinet.
Fifty-four years later, retired in Bournemouth where I now live out my retirement, I developed my own group DrumJam, with Djembé drummers, percussionists and other instrumentalists.
No one there present could have had any prescience of Pink Floyd to come. Nick had interests in musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, who were not simply not mainstream, but utterly unheard of, which further set him apart from the rest of us.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Mason But that’s another story.
Of course, we knew the words and tunes from the raucous singalongs which broke out spontaneously among us on occasional school coach outings to distant events, sporting or cultural.
I now realise that the majority of Pink Floyd albums were produced during my early twenties, while shuttered off in hospitals or medicated to numbness. I have huge empty spaces in me which so many of my peer group lived through and remember as The Sixties.
Among all the Frenshamians who were naturally “different”, Nick was on another planet. His speaking voice was in the last stages of breaking.
Everything about Nick Mason was above. He was taller than average, and loped his lanky frame along apparently preoccupied with quantities unknowable.
He came to Morning Talk (school assembly) one day in early February 1960, wearing a black armband on his regulation green Harris Tweed jacket with slubs. Group Four onwards could, up to a point, interpret our own self-expression regarding the wearing of uniform. Only Day Pupils had no choice. Nick, a boarder like us, looked uniquely formal in wearing his jacket.
Outside the Mummery, a newly converted teaching classroom, I plucked up courage to stop him and ask who he was wearing the armband for.
Nick looked in a downwards direction towards me. I can hear it even today, he said in a flat tone, “Buddy Holly’s dead”. There was nothing more to be said. I got a sense of how important music was to him.
I learned while writing this, that the tragic air crash incident became known as The Day The Music Died, after Don McLean.