Sunday, December 23, 2012

St Olave's School 1945-1951 -- part II

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The Tradition of the Public School,

3. A call to prayer.
It never occurred to me that there was anything strange about morning worship and indeed evening worship at school. Every day the whole school went to the hall first thing in the morning, and at quarter to four in the afternoon just before all went home, we met again for a few minutes of prayer and a hymn.
I am a profound agnostic. La question fondamentale is a constant worrying phrase in my head.
Nevertheless this part of the British Culture did no harm. The lesson for me was it made me ponder and wonder at the Universe.
In 1945 all the boys were issued with the school’s own hymnal – The Olavian Hymnal. This beautiful and fascinating book was abolished later and replaced with a second rate book of hymns called ‘Songs of Praise’. The Olavian hymnal was bound in red covers. On each page was some aphorism in Latin, Greek, or less often English. In these acts of worship we learned the general campus of Anglican Hymns. It was promised that each boy could keep his copy at the end of his school career. Unhappily because of the change this was not to be.
I hugely regretted the removal of my Olavian Hymnal. It was, in its contents, way out of its time. Few understood the Latin, and even less any Greek. But the principle of the book seems to me even today to be sound. It would be possible even today to produce such a book with aphorisms and comments on one’s daily life on every page – in English. Such aphorisms make you think. The concept recalls to me the Quaker approach. They have a wide searching view of the Universe, without cant, without certainty; ‘Remember, it is possible thou canst be wrong!” Quakerism has much to offer. To seek for a meaning and let your thoughts lead you to a better understanding of the ways of the World seems to produce a quietness of spirit and more than that an understanding of the hopes and fears of other people. "No man is an island unto himself".
The Roman Catholics in the school were allowed to be excused from these services, except that at the end of the service they entered the Hall to hear the general school announcements at the end. I myself was born a Roman Catholic – but no one at school knew that! These RC boys had to hang around in the entrance foyer to the school before being allowed in to the hall. It was ridiculous. Who demanded that they did this? Was it their parents? After I left, one of these boys became Head of School and later a prison officer. Some relaxation and tolerance must have entered in the scheme of things. The separation because of some mistaken difference of attitude between catholics and protestants was divisive and stupid. It remains stupid. All organised religion is surely stupid. If only people who are convinced of the certainty of their belief could be persuaded to ask themselves ‘Is it possible that I am wrong?”. The Quakers have a totally unorganised religion and profound doubt. Whatever the Profound Origin of the Universe is (or is not) it is not that uttered by any Pope, Archbishop or Ayatollah, and all 'fundamental' religion must be anathema to any thinking person
4. The School Hall.
The impact of the architecture of this building on my developing spirit was considerable. Wooden panelling in a grand style was on all sides. Many panels carried names of ex-pupils gilded onto the panels. These were the names of those who had won scholarships to the universities. I never knew if my name was ever so presented as a State Scholar to Oxford. At the far end was the War Memorial to those students killed in the Ist World War. It was (and is?) a curiously androgynous bronze sculpture. It was a cross between male and female and some Greek God. Does it still exist? It was also far too small!
This Hall was the focus of cultural education. Around its walls the Headmaster had chosen to mount prints of great artists. Only one print still impresses itself on my memory. It was some jungle scene by Rousseau.
Stretching along two sides of the hall was a wide ornate balcony, constructed in massive wood. At the far end above the main dais below, was the organ. To its left was the doorway to the Headmaster’s study. He, every morning, would leave the study and pass in front of the organ then leave the balcony to descend the stairs and enter the main concourse of the Hall by a lower door. Meanwhile the Music master would be playing a ‘voluntary’ on the instrument. It was impressive bit of ‘theatre’.
The musical heritage of Western Europe was through the voluntaries conveyed to us all. The menu of voluntaries was announced each week. In this way we learned the general range of music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and much more. Through such familiarity the amused titter of the school could be understood when the Headmaster’s morning parade was accompanied by the teetering tune of the ‘dance of the sugar plum fairy’.

Then we might sing the hymn written by Rudyard Kipling ‘Recessional’…
Far called our navies melt away,
On dune and headland sinks away,
Lo! All the pomp of yesterday,
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.
Judge of the nations, spare us yet!
Lest we forget… Lest we forget.
So significant was this to the memory of the ex-students who died in the wars of Britain and for whom the androgynous sculpture seemed so insignificant.

I and no doubt others imbibed a sense of Britain’s cultural heritage and also the responsibility we carried to bear the pride and duty of Britain in the World.
The same feeling of continuity and responsibility came through the ritual of the Annual Day and the song we sang (borrowed from Harrow School) even though that same song irritated me with its absurd chorus of ‘Follow Up.. the tramp of the 22 men’ and its reference to football! – Play up and play the game….!

But the verse… still sounds in my cavernous head.

Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back, and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then, it may be, there will often come o’er you,
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song –
Visions of boyhood shall float then before you,

It happens that for me, it is sixty years on. The notes of that song, bellowed out by a few hundred broken and breaking male voices on the edge of manhood, echo still.