Confessions of a Boarder - Hamish Adam
"Confessions of a Boarder" is a significant piece of work, about the life of a boarder in Aldenham House in the late sixties/early seventies, that is intended to amuse. Some of the "confessions" in the full version, although often very funny, could be considered by some as in bad taste or possibly even libellous. These confessions have been omitted from the abridged version on the web site. If you would like a copy of the full version please contact the author, who owns all copyright. If you enjoy the article, please let Hamish know!
In September 2002, Hamish told us he has had a lot of interest and has been emailing text-only copies of the full unexpurgated version.. He has been greatly encouraged by the response and, thanks to the feedback and support that he has received from Old Habs from all over the world, he has since filled 'Confessions Of A Boarder' out to 38,000 words (there are about 10,000 words below) and included 97 pictures. These pictures span the period 1842 to 1972. Hamish says the pictures represent a significant historical record of Aldenham House as well as a contemporary account of the life of both dayboys and boarders in the late sixties and early seventies. The full version with pictures is too large to email but he will be happy to post hard copies out to anyone if they email him with their postal address.
If they’d told me that Aldenham House had once been a Governor Of The Bank Of England’s gaff, I’d have treated the place better.
Not that it deserved it. During the winter of ’67-‘68 it was cold enough in Dorm Three to freeze the nuts off a brass housemaster. I got pneumonia and spent a fortnight in Sick Bay which was fine by me - two weeks of a life threatening fever was better than watching Dayboy child prodigies from Edgware performing in the ring side seats of Mr Sanderson’s Latin Coliseum.
Apparently, they eventually put proper heating into Dorm Three and turned it into a stationery cupboard. You know where you stand when the paper clips get better treatment than the fee-paying punters.
Evening prep was two 45-minute sessions with a halftime dinner in a grand room with columns and framed portraits as big as cricket sightscreens. These colourful wags in wigs looked like English Masters. Copperfield, who was in the year above me and knew everything, told me that they were actually portraits of former owners of Aldenham House. They looked like a well-fed pack that would have taken a dim view of the grub we ate.
For two thirds of the year Copperfield was a depressing figure. When I first met him I thought he was boring – right about everything, but boring with it. That was until the summer term when Copperfield was transformed. He returned from the Easter Hols a new man – it was the cricket term and Copperfield was a cricketer. In the autumn Copperfield re-hibernated and passed the time by reading obscure stuff that no-one else was interested in like ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep’ which came out at the end of that cricket season.
Prep was taken by fifth formers whose thankless task was to create a serene calm in which all the stuff that we had absorbed in class with the Dayboys could be honed into something truly magnificent. When I was a fifth former I contented myself with ensuring that no blood was spilt – particularly my own.
Bongo Bentall in the second form was especially difficult to control in Prep. Bongo could make your life miserable without actually doing anything obviously indictable, like gangsters that beat up the good guys without leaving a mark on them.
And like any sophisticated mobster, Bongo had a water-tight alibi. His Dad was banged up in South Africa as a political prisoner and Matron said we had to make allowances. At the time, Nelson Mandela was also doing porridge and so the entire planet was on Bongos’ Dad’s side. Everyone that is, of course, except for Warden Stompy Houtenschmooter of Khafferburg Penitentiary. Whatever, I was wary of offending world opinion and so I went easy on him even though he persecuted me for trying to keep the peace during Prep.
Looking back on it I now realise that Bongo was incapable of distinguishing between me and Warden Houtenschmooter, and I was copping it for whatever was happening to his Dad who, for crying out loud, I’d never even met.
Life in general was very civilised for Boarders. While Dayboys were waiting for buses, tubes and coaches, we rose leisurely at seven fifteen when the duty Housemaster swung open our dorm door, turned on the lights and urged us to embrace the day.
One housemaster used a bugle to introduce the bright new day until me and a couple of others booby-trapped our dorm door with beakers of water. Between swinging the door open and letting rip with the opening crotchet, his tweed jacket, knitted tie and viyella shirt were drenched by the downpour. He didn’t take it well, but it was worth it because word got around and our stock rose amongst the Dayboys.
Even the Dayboy Kapper was impressed by the drenching. And because Kapper was impressed a lot of other Dayboys were impressed too. Like many Dayboys, Kapper was reluctant to get involved in non exam related extra curricula activities. He shunned school rugby and spent every Saturday afternoon in winter yelling at an association football team at Stamford Bridge along with several thousand of west London’s other leading thugs.
Every morning, Boarders donned a freshly laundered, starched and boxed shirt and headed for the Reading Room, descending several steps at a time, seeking new personal bests as we went. Titch Clough held the record for the fastest descent down the back stairs – by swinging on the banisters he could get down 2 floors without touching a single step.
Titch was impressive. His Dad was a famous scientist and Titch was a chip off the old block. Although he was tiny, Titch played scrum half for the school and in a scrap he could run between your legs and take you from behind. So to speak.
Nobody ever rubbed Titch up the wrong way because he could also fell you with one or two choice words. Once I saw Titch reduce a Dayboy to tears with a well-aimed syllable.
Titch was usually the first down to the Reading Room with its vast east facing oak French windows that caught the morning sun and that gave out onto the perfect ornamental garden. We waited there until the Masters were seated in the Dining Room and we then trooped in to join them.
The Reading Room was always stocked with periodicals designed to improve our minds. The Economist was a favourite because when it was rolled up it became a formidable weapon. Paris Match was perhaps the most universally popular for its occasional glimpse of nipple.
Dayboys had more girls than we did. They had their sister’s friends and anyone that they could pick up on the buses and tubes that they shared with the totty from Henrietta Barnett, North London Collegiate School, and anywhere else come to that.
Because we got so little practice, getting your hands on a girl was always tricky for a Boarder. I chatted this girl up on a green bus with brass lamp holders and leather trimmed seats heading for Radlett and wrote her phone number down on the fixture list that I impressively whipped out of my “Serve and Obey” blazer pocket. But when I rang her up and gave her a quick summary of who I was and where we had met, not only did she not remember me, but at one point, in what almost passed for a conversation, she seemed to be confusing me with a horse.
The Beak’s name was Spud and he was a top bloke. Boarders knew that because he got one of the first colour tellys in Britain and he invited us over on Sunday evenings to the Beak’s House down by the Yew Tree Garden so that he could show it off under the pretence of allowing us to watch something edifying. His pretext was a programme called ‘Civilisation’ and none of us were entirely sure what it was all about. Anyway, it was presented by some upper class type called Lord Clarke who chatted on about this and that in various tourist haunts around the globe.
These evenings with Lord Clarke and the Beak cheered Boarders up no end because what we were all really interested in seeing was interference when the set went wrong; which it did a lot. Psychedelic stripes leapt around the screen as a flustered Beak made it worse by pretending that he knew what the knobs on the back of the set were for.
Aside from myself, one of the Beak’s other triumphs was the almighty Willis organ, that the noted Dayboy rugger star, Willis, always believed to be a flattering reference to himself, but was in fact a vast musical instrument, heavily specced with keyboards.
Henry Willis was a Victorian purveyor of bespoke organs to discerning punters like the Royal Albert Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral and Hove Town Hall. Hove flogged theirs to the Beak in 1959 and he did the only sensible thing that you can do when you’re designing a new school and that is to buy your Willis organ first and then build the whole of the rest of the school around it. Which is exactly what he did.
As the grounds contained hundreds of gardens within hundreds more gardens, so Aldenham House was a delightfully unreal world inside another delightfully unreal world. The smart money would go to ridiculous lengths to escape including being nauseatingly nice to a rich Arab Boarder who had a flat in Mayfair. I was not smart - I was later appalled to learn that while I was wasting my time working out how to drop kick a rugby ball through a pair of distant telegraph poles, just a few miles away great minds were creating The Avengers, Thunderbirds, The Prisoner and 2001:A Space Odyssey.
Escape to swinging London was popular with Boarders who knew what that was. Garbine was a rich kid sixth former with a big noise Dad. Garbine was also an intellectual revolutionary. We knew that because he told us. Garbine wore a red neckchief and claimed to have crashed a sit-in at the LSE. A couple of years later he came back to boast that he had set fire to a library at Oxford and was miffed to discover that a mere Dayboy had comprehensively upstaged him by bombing the Home Secretary’s house in Hadley Wood.
One day Garbine, and his friend Dross, went to a free concert in Hyde Park and listened to some poet guru called Ginsberg. The only Ginsberg we knew was a skinny Dayboy who was admittedly a bright chap but whether he had the pull to pack fifty thousand people into Hyde Park when he couldn’t even get a place on the rugger team seemed unlikely, even to us Boarders.
As surely as Garbine was a progressive intellectual, so his chum Dross was a conspicuous upper class dilettante. Aldenham House and Dross were not a good fit. The place was an appalling drag on his ability to take his rightful place in Society. “Adam,” he would say to me while fingering his only clean silk cravat, “You are a peasant. What are you?” Dross once stopped Copperfield in the courtyard just to say, “Copperfield, let’s face it, I am a better person than you are. You come from the wrong side of the county.”
Dross had my sympathies. Through some ghastly error, he was banged up in Aldenham House when he should have been receiving private tuition at Blenheim or Chatsworth or wherever it was that he had been born. Dross was in a fix and I wished that I could have helped him by arranging for a transfer out of the hell that he was in, but there was only so much that a twelve-year old plebeian Boarder could do for a displaced patrician.
Like Sebastian’s nanny at Brideshead, there was a sane and stable heart to Aldenham House. Her name was Marie Sproat, she was the Housekeeper, and she was the only one you could really rely on for down to earth common sense advice which she dispensed with a generous supply of digestives and tea in the giant airing cupboard that she lived in on the mezzanine floor opposite Dorm Ten. It was Marie Sproat who chose Carter’s Cambridge College for him and Marie Sproat that told Garbine how to get off a vandalism charge when he got nicked by plod for stealing a low flying aircraft road sign outside The Battle Axes.
Some Boarders were more likeable than others. When Alfred Danes grabbed you in a headlock and ground your nose into the acres of brown linoleum in Aldenham House, you got a face full of cheap floor polish and a reminder that early developers like Danes did what they liked to late developers like me. When I had caught up I did consider giving him a slap, but I decided that my image would suffer more than his and so I let it be.
How well you fitted into Aldenham House depended on how keen you were to stay away from whatever it was that you had come from. I never bought the idea that any parent with a few quid in the bank and noble ambitions for their progeny would automatically want to send their heir to board at Aldenham House; not when the country was awash with pukka schools with big images and five star boarding facilities.
I was on the run from a pretty hellish home life and, frankly, The Worshipful Company of Serial Killers School would have been just dandy with me. But a lot of other kids had apparently terrific home lives and were presumably tolerating their protracted exile. How they persuaded themselves that their family loved them when they sent them away to a boarding institution like Aldenham House was beyond me.
The name of the Dayboy’s school carried a lot of clout and anyone who could still see to read The Times academic rankings in the sixties knew that Haberdashers ranked sixth in the country. This meant that a lot of foreigners who didn’t know any better sent their kids to board at Aldenham House. There were a couple of malnourished Orientals who nobody took any notice of until their Dad showed up one day in a fleet of Mercs and was treated like royalty by the Beak. It turned out they really were royalty. Back in Malaysia they were, anyway.
As I was an émigré from Scotland, so a lot of Dayboys and Boarders were also immigrants to an Anglo Saxon land where we arrivistes lived in hope that a Haberdasher’s education would give us reservations for Pullman class seats on some grown-up gravy train where everyone recognised everyone else’s tie, took four hour lunches and enjoyed three day weekends in fancy country houses. It didn’t quite work out for me. I lost the tie, couldn’t afford the house and got reprimanded for coming back from lunch legless.
Aldenham House’s most zealous Christian was an African American Boarder from Poughkeepsie who could high jump higher than the school’s tallest high jump stands, played the piano like Gershwin and ran around our leafy English countryside fertilising every girl that set eyes on him.
That just made me jealous. No, what really impressed me about Roosevelt Nixon was when he took me to the Hard Rock Café a month or so after it opened in 1972 at Hyde Park Corner. After umpteen years eating Aldenham House grub, I had never seen so much fabulous food on a plate. I was so fixated on the size of the burger that I almost didn’t notice the two hot girls that insisted on sharing our booth with us. Ever since, I have tried and tried to capture the essence of Nixon’s appeal, and never quite succeeded.
During the Second World War, before it became Haberdashers, Aldenham House was requisitioned by the BBC’s Latin American Department who built a hideous annexe, that the Prep School subsequently lived in.
In between Tangos on the Croquet Lawn, a motley crew of typists, ex-rebels and fighters from the Spanish Civil War, broadcast Latin American formation-dancing tutorials to help keep Nazi elements in uppity banana republics subdued and distracted. This was a master-stroke. Every time Pedro felt an urge to jump into a Panzer and rampage around someone else’s coconut plantation, the BBC broadcast a Samba Special. If the Allies had followed their example, the War could all have been settled peacefully in patent pumps, frilly frocks and lederhosen at Arthur Murrays.
There were fascinating reminders of the BBC like the studio sound proofing wall and ceiling panels in Sick Bay that had lots of little holes that a fevered Copperfield lay in bed and counted. He claimed to have counted up to over one million. This was hard to verify as no-one in Aldenham House had ever seen a million of anything. No-one, that is, except Yasser Kakheel who threatened to beat up anyone who didn’t believe him when he said that the woman who might have been his Mum kept a million dollars escape-in-a-hurry money in a safe behind the solid gold framed Henry Moore that hung in the family home in Cairo.
Rumours spread faster around Aldenham House than fourth form acne. Like the one about the priest hole used by the patrician owners of the house to escape from roundheads. Undeterred by the historical likelihood of such a feature the intrepid Boarder Carter went in search of it. Carter was a fearless adventurer like Lord Caernarfon before him, and to whom he compared himself. Nothing phased him. Before he got to Haberdashers he used to help his Dad, who was the Police Surgeon in Bermuda, perform post mortems.
Carter was convinced that the tunnel would lead him into the Master’s wine cellar (where no boy ever went) and eventually out into the woods between Aldenham House and Watling Street. He reckoned that it started in a circular opening on the right hand side of the cupboard to the right of the walk-in fireplace in the Reading Room. He actually made some headway and got to the far side of the chapel before abandoning the search.
Carter wanted us all to enjoy the results of his historical researches and we were irritated that he interrupted a decent game of Monopoly to give us the full SP. Unconcerned, Carter tossed his mop of hair and got stuck in. “What you see today is the result of changes in Aldenham House’s use over the years,” None of us had a clue what he was going on about but we all nodded anyway while Titch bunged two houses on Coventry Street.
Carter pressed on, “They knocked down a Tudor mansion called Wigbournes and built a new Wigbournes then they moved out having bought the neighbouring mansion Pennes Place which was dumped later on when Wigbournes became popular again and they changed its name to Aldenham House. You got all that?” Titch bunged a hotel on Park Lane.
“The Chapel was converted into a Pantry and then back into a Chapel, the Kitchen became the Dining Room, the Dining Room became the Kitchen, the Reading Room was the Drawing Room, the Drawing Room was the Housemaster’s Bedroom, the Library used to be a Hall and the Hall used to be where the Sansovino window from Venice is now. The window, that is, not Venice. Alright so far?” No-one was listening because Birdcage had landed on Park Lane.
Next term, Carter said that he'd discovered that Aldenham House had once been the clubhouse of some smart polo and country club that the nearby aerodrome had been built to service. When me and Copperfield told him he was full of school grub, he disappeared for a couple of hours and returned with a muddy bit of wood that he claimed was a polo mallet, also an important archaeological artefact. It may have been a polo mallet and it may have been a rotten old bit of wood. It was hard to tell.
Carter was always open to new experiences. The old avenue that ran from the far side of the Yew Tree Garden heading east towards Watling Street, and that fifty years earlier lined up exactly with the vast windows in the Reading Room, had completely grown over by the time we got to Aldenham House. In order to summon up this lost avenue’s ghosts, Carter held a Black Mass down there and charged 5 new pence admission. Carter was irritated that Danes, who was too busy being stung by nettles, failed to see the coach and six white horses materialising. Danes was irritated that Carter wouldn’t refund his 5 pence.
Carter was a class act. He tried to persuade the Dayboy PE Department that rugby and cross-country were cheap vulgar pastimes and that horse riding should replace all other sports. To get rid of him, the PE Department agreed that Carter could go riding on games afternoons and before you could say Ark Of The Covenant, he was kitted out in a huge coat and leather boots and was galloping across nearby meadows on a rented horse like Indiana Jones fleeing from an armoured division of detentions.
The PE Department hadn’t anticipated that this would set a precedent and suddenly Boarders and Dayboys alike were all demanding customised games afternoons.
They let the Dayboy Mo Quarrel go to Porters Park to work on his swing because he was a dispensable wing forward with a handicap as low as mole piss. It was also rumoured that because Billy Hughes and Mo may have had ten quid riding on who could first play a ball into the pond in the Ornamental Garden by chipping clean over Aldenham House with an eight iron, the Beak was keen to head off a confrontation with The Department Of The Environment by averting a disaster with one of the irreplaceable Venetian windows.
The PE Department, however, drew the line when the star scrum half, Titch Clough, said that he wanted to do butterfly collecting. In protest, Titch paralysed the plumbing by flushing his jock strap down the bog.
Carter dressed in the Savile Row schmutter that his doting Mum organised when she came over from the Caribbean and stayed at her gin-wallah club in St James’s. Because his kit made him look intimidatingly superior he got away with not wearing the standard issue uniform of polar-grade serge.
But because his kit also made him look like an elegant throwback to some opulent English era that we arriviste immigrants had no connection with, claim upon or membership to, there was some resentment towards him. Carter was blissfully unconcerned.
It was a blessing that I thought about very little in those days because if I had, which I didn’t, I would have had a spectacular identity crisis fuelled by the revelation that my family had no connection with any era, opulent or otherwise, unless you count the role they played as victims of the Highland Clearances at the hands of the hated English.
With no ancestor’s names to drop and no inscribed oars from some Edwardian Boat Race hanging in the hall of the country seat to endlessly admire, it would have been only natural to attempt to live in the future. I’m glad that I didn’t because I might have ended up staring into the kind of void that was very fashionable at the time amongst hygienically challenged Dayboy sixth form intellectuals.
However, even if I had worried about what lay beyond the precipice, which, as I say, I never got around to, I would have been reassured to discover that what Haberdashers was actually promising me was a fast track to a guaranteed, albeit unknown, future.
Seventy Boarders living in an ancient pile generated some truly world-class smells. On my first day I almost puked and passed out in the Boarder’s boot room. But you got used to it - which was just as well - because as that autumn rugby season progressed, the smell ripened nicely.
But the boot room pong was nothing compared to the Great Rat Inferno of ’67.
Aldenham House’s drains were clogged with centuries of rat’s nests. One day a SWAT team arrived armed with flame-throwers and pipes that pumped petrol deep into Aldenham House’s bowels and set the catacombs ablaze. We didn’t see or hear anything but you could smell the burning rat flesh as far away as Joblings.
There were a couple of secret stone boathouses set cunningly into the banks of Tykes Water. They were covered with undergrowth and it was only because Titch Clough accidentally found one when he swam into it on a swimming dare, that anyone knew about them at all.
A year or so after the Great Rat Inferno, another SWAT team pitched up at Tykes Water, this time armed with dynamite. Titch asked them what they were doing. They said that the lake was massively overstocked because it hadn’t been fished for 50 years. Titch quietly dropped his swimming dares after he clapped his minces on the carp that floated to the surface. They were as long as a popping crease with teeth as big as cricket bails.
Boarders were always keen to see other piles and we gleefully accepted Keith Dawson’s invitation to visit Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath for a look see. Under the guise of a History Department field trip, and while dayboys were making important historical observations, Boarders hastily sized up the real estate and compared it to our own accommodation.
Personally, I liked Kenwood’s ground floor rooms and thought that the Orangery would have made an excellent indoor cricket net. But I was unimpressed by the provisions made by the architect, Robert Adam, for dormitory facilities and felt that the Capability Brown designed grounds were too heavily landscaped to accommodate a world class cricket pitch like the one in front of Aldenham House.
MRS EMMA PEEL
Wednesday night after prep was the highlight of the week. Everyone sprinted from the prep school block to get the seats closest to the telly to watch Diana Rigg strutting her stuff in The Avengers.
Because some of it was filmed in the school grounds we self importantly assumed the grandiose conceit that our school was a very important place where the future of cold war civilisation turned on whether the cove in the bowler and hand sewn whistle would bump off the baddy on the red brick bridge over Tykes Water.
Aldenham House Masters shine like theatre neon in the memory because, like prime ministers, actors or whores, in order to do the job they had to pretend to be someone larger than life. At the beginning of their careers they presumably selected some role model from their own schooldays that was itself a caricature based on a still earlier scholastic persona.
This line of succession meant that Aldenham House Masters, who were so inclined, could trace themselves back to Homer or Virgil. So it was nothing short of a ruddy miracle that, come the ides, they didn’t all prance around the Yew Tree Gardens in togas and sandals.
Even the Boarder Aloysius Centennial Birdcage III from Long Island Sound who had a handle like a Garrick Club luvvy thought that Brit House Masters, regardless of their orientation, were camper than a row of tents. Birdcage wouldn’t have been remotely surprised if the House Masters turned up for Dinner in garlanded millinery fashioned from the laurel bushes that flourished throughout Aldenham House’s grounds.
Imagine that Errol Flynn had left his sheep-shagging job in the outback and rather than go to Hollywood, he had decided to become an Aldenham House Master. That was Christopher Dixon.
Christopher Dixon was sleek, impeccably turned out, carried himself like Phil the Greek and did everything at twice the speed of sound. Captain Blood had nothing on Christopher Dixon. He never said anything fashionably profound, thought that vogue was a posh magazine and that the swinging sixties were undecided elderly voters.
But his cheery smile would get a fat-arsed fifth former enthused about anything from school margarine to facing Douglas Yeabsley’s fierce medium pace bowling that swung like laser-guided missiles in the dew soaked grass nets at dusk.
Parents loved Christopher Dixon who had only one criteria when selecting the boys that would join his House – he had to like you. You needed a mischievous and rebellious spirit and as that included just about everyone who ever applied; it was a winning commercial formula.
Williams was another Aldenham House fifth columnist. Williams lived in South Wales, could kick a penalty from the half way line, fancied himself as a socialist and read the papers so that he could imitate Harold Wilson. He even secretly practiced smoking a pipe on the horse chestnut-lined carriage drive that led to Watling Street.
When prep was out one evening Williams stood by Sick Bay door and addressed the Aldenham House tuck shop queue, “The pound in your pocket is like the white heat of technology. A week is a long time in the confectionery business…” There were various ways in Aldenham House to impose taxes on your fellow Boarder, but that was not one of them.
Robert was one of the six Rackman brothers. Rackman tried to live up to his brothers’ reputation for mayhem. It was rumoured that his brothers had such a bad reputation in Headmaster’s Conference circles that it was believed to be unsafe for any single school to admit more than one Rackman brother. Our Rackman seemed pretty harmless.
There was only one girl in Aldenham House who was potential girlfriend material and that was Jane Davies. Her Dad was a House Master and so you had to tread with care around her. Short of actually talking to her, I tried everything I could think of to get her to take an interest in me. I failed utterly. She was an attractive wholesome kind of a girl who only ever drank tap water and it was this vile character trait that I finally blamed for her perverse indifference.
Boarders had one key advantage over Dayboys. Dayboys were prey to their parent’s end-of-term audit that necessitated a detailed cost benefit analysis of their school fee investment, via an immediate and exacting study of the termly Report on the very same day that it was issued. Boarders, however, were able to stall that process.
Boarders could always claim that the Report had been posted, second class, and attribute its non-appearance to a wildcat strike at the Letchmore Heath sorting office - a lie which any Dayboy parent would immediately rumble, but which a Boarder’s parents in Northumberland or Nigeria would struggle to corroborate.
Carter had his very own designer scam that worked a treat. He routed his return trip to Bermuda via crime black spots like New York and Miami and swore blind that the piece of luggage containing the Report had been stolen in transit. Although this ruse turned out to be of immeasurable value to several other Boarders, it proved to be superfluous to Carter’s own requirement as it became rapidly obvious that Carter was only ever going to get “A+”, “Shouldn’t try so hard” and “Persevere less”.
Most Boarders have at least one shameful slur on their school records. Mine is The Great Masters Ball Booze Robbery. Birdcage masterminded it and four or five of us carried out the job. This planned and premeditated heist was the perfect crime. Or would have been, if we hadn’t got caught.
Birdcage had been helping clean up the Main Hall after the Master’s Annual Ball. He deliberately opened a ground floor window before knocking off. We all set alarm clocks for a pre-dawn raid and, sneaking out of Aldenham House via the fire escape in Dorm Fourteen at the end of the Mezzanine floor, we used the pre-opened Main Hall window to gain entry and made off with umpteen bottles of scotch and gin which we cleverly stashed back in Dorm Fourteen where anyone could find it.
To cut a long story short, before we had a chance to drink a single drop, we were nabbed, and the notorious future that I had planned for myself as a career felon was stymied.
Justice was swift and severe. We got suspended and put on probation for two terms that meant that we had to go through the tedious and humiliating process of getting each and every Master to sign our probation cards after each and every class to say that we had been model students.
Yet again a Haberdasher’s education proved to be invaluable. This ghastly experience taught me a good lesson. Always pay for your drinks. To this day I have a knee jerk reaction whenever a tab needs paying. I stump up legitimate currency without a second thought.
Aldenham House clock tower struck the hour throughout the night and so it was quite common to be woken by it. But this did not explain why Patel in Dorm 4 started to hear bells in the small hours. We eagerly questioned his sanity until Copperfield heard the bells too. After a month or so of this accumulating madness the mystery was solved. Upjohn had been wetting his bed and Matron had furnished him with a small alarm clock to wake him half way through the night.
Upjohn’s minor problem was nothing compared to what Matron had to face when a straight-faced Charlesworth announced that he was a medium with a hot line to a long dead previous owner of Aldenham House who he claimed led him out of Aldenham House at night and took him on walks across swampy battlefields strewn with bloody corpses surrounded by deep forests with giant trees.
Charlesworth said that this spectral guide was dressed in a plum-coloured gown with fur trim which made him sound a lot like one of the characters in the giant oil paintings in the Dining Room – either that or an English Master.
The School Doctor told Matron to enlist the help of Mr Hampshire from the Geography Department. He did some research and reported that the landscape that Charlesworth claimed to have seen could just conceivably have existed in the 11th & 12th centuries when the area was first built on, although there was no record of any battle.
Mr Hampshire’s report didn’t help Matron much because it failed to confirm Charlesworth’s sanity one-way or the other. And it didn’t matter anyway because he suddenly dropped his pitch about plum schmutter on medieval battlefields and started a protection racket in the tuck shop queue.
The School Doctor was revered, and feared. He was revered because he whizzed around in an open top sports car and was the British Olympic Team’s official doctor. He was feared because at the beginning of each year we used to have to stand in front of him while he clutched our cruets in his right hand and cough when he said, “cough”.
As the years went by and our scientific knowledge of what did, and didn’t, constitute a kosher medical technique improved, this ritual seemed increasingly bizarre. But because we all fancied our chances as Olympic athletes, and assumed that they wouldn’t let us onto the plane until our balls had been felt by Doc Kennedy, we went along with it. But it never got any easier and one year Upjohn even pissed all over the linoleum when it was his turn to drop his shorts.
Boarders didn’t have cars. Boarders’ parent’s cars, however, were an endlessly fascinating study in narrow-minded stereotyping. I was particularly keen on this meaningless bigotry.
A Humber meant civil servant. A Rover meant borderline civil service/professional. Jag meant professional and BMW meant borderline professional/trade. An E-type meant trade and a Jensen Interceptor meant iffy trade. Austin Cambridge meant Hertfordshire, a Mercedes meant London and a Hillman Imp meant Essex.
An Aston Martin meant that you weren’t a parent at all but either James Bond or an English Master called Simon Stuart.
Why anyone in their right mind would want to jump into their Aston Martin and drive all the way out to Herts from their expansive pad in South Ken every day to teach English to immigrant wannabes like me, beggars understanding. But Simon Stuart, Earl of Castle Stuart, did just that.
“Say.” he would say at the beginning of every class.
“Say?” whispered Niko who’d just arrived at Habs from Greece, “What is this ‘Say’?”
It was a good question and not one that any of us could easily answer. In the lengthy silence that followed, you could hear the ticking of several Dayboy’s school fees meters and I wondered what it was exactly that the Earl thought that he was teaching us.
I listened carefully to Simon Stuart and learnt absolutely nothing. At the end of my year with him, I scored some unbelievably high exam thingy and got bumped up three streams. So something must have gone in. Exactly what it was though is still hard to say. But he got me fired up about writing things down which means that you have the Earl of Castle Stuart to blame for making you wade through this little lot.
Dieting is never easy. Ask anyone. There comes a point in everyone’s life when they say enough is enough. And there came a point in this Boarder’s life when I said that if I didn’t go on a serious diet immediately, I might risk serious health problems.
The diet in Aldenham House began ordinarily enough. I changed my habits around eating between meals and treated each mealtime seriously, giving it some advanced consideration. I counted my calories, in a rough sort of way, and began to measure how much exercise I was taking.
I tried really hard but in the end I failed. I always had an excuse. I couldn’t get the quantities right. It was the wrong kind of food. It was the wrong kind of exercise.
It was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone. All around me in Aldenham House there were Boarders struggling with this same diet. In the end we all failed together. Which, in a funny sort of way, was reassuring.
I was as thin as a rake and desperately needed, but as a Boarder never did achieve, the self-confidence that a couple of extra stone would have given me.
Music swept over Aldenham House like ten thousand acres of Michaelmas Daisies. Anything went. Pete Townsend was setting Shakespeare to Beethoven. John Lennon was setting Lennon to Lennon. Upjohn was memorising the lyrics. He went on solitary singing walks around Aldenham House’s grounds in the middle of winter with only the crows that drunk icy water from muddy wheel ruts for company.
Upjohn’s greatest moment was when he memorised California Dreamin’ and in a state of distracted religious excitement belted it out inside Aldenham Parish Church which would have been fine six days out of seven. Regrettably, Upjohn chose a Sunday and it was probably just plain bad luck that one of the nine people in the congregation that morning was the local bobby who ran a chastened Upjohn back to Aldenham House in his sidecar.
Twice a term, sixth form Boarders enjoyed Friday night ‘Socials’. Garbine and Dross took charge. They invited a nearby girls boarding school to bus over their sixth form, rented a disco and put red crepe paper over the lights. Dross bought enough cider to dull the pain of listening to The Troggs and to take the edge off the terror of chatting up plump lacrosse players in crushed velvet hot pants.
Second Formers had to gather up the empty glasses, wash them and return them to the bar except that we didn’t wait until they were empty, drank the dregs and got sloshed.
SPECTRE: PT II
Although Charlesworth’s alleged visitations by that ghost stopped towards the end of the third form, during O level revision he started to receive messages again from this long dead former owner of Aldenham House. Unlike last time when Matron took charge of the investigation, this time we were all over him faster than the Welsh back row demanding details, names, times etc.
Charlesworth merrily volunteered information. Titch Clough said that attention seeking nutters always do.
Sitting in the bay window of Dorm Nine watching fog roll over the Yew Tree Gardens and the Beak’s House, Charlesworth waved a copy of Coles’ ‘How To Bluff Your Way Through English O Level’ around and said, “The spirit claims that he has lived on this land for thousands of years.”
“What? Like ‘Return Of A Pharaoh’? You always said that he was British.” said Titch Clough who’d always thought that Charlesworth was full of crap.
“He says that he owns the spirit of the land and everything and everyone on it. By haunting Aldenham House, he has driven owners out and kept them out and lived alone in the empty House for years, sometimes decades, until someone he liked wanted to move in.”
“He’s a flaming tyrant landlord,” said Carter whipping Mao’s little Red Book out of his silk-lined Anderson & Shepherd jacket pocket. “Whoever he is, he’s the unacceptable face of the capitalist spirit world.”
“He says that Aldenham House will last for a very long time.” Charlesworth pushed up the sash window and fanned himself with the cold damp air, “But he says that Boarders, like all previous occupants, will disappear one day.”
Charlesworth’s revelations could have gone on for hours and it just didn’t seem worth pursuing these with him. The fact was that Charlesworth was technically insane. But he wasn’t a danger to himself or us, didn’t dribble and could still remember what time dinner was.
Although everyone concluded that Charlesworth was a harmless lunatic, you do remember something like that all the same.
Unlike Dayboys, Boarders didn’t have to fight their way home on coaches. This gave us more time to leisurely practice our off breaks in the grass nets out by the pagoda on the far side of the cricket square.
Everywhere you looked there was something beautiful. There were giant redwoods from the Pacific Northwest and stone architecture from Venice. There were more varieties of coniferous tree than Masters, more botanical species than boys. From the bottom of Aldenham House’s ancient oak staircase you could see the sun set late in summer at the end of an avenue of Elm trees in a field beyond the magnificent terracotta boundary wall that was as smooth as a new boy’s bum.
According to Carter who had ferreted out some facts, all this beauty hadn’t come cheap. Architect to the nobs, Sir John Soanes, had made decorative changes at the beginning of the 19th Century, Sir Arthur Blomfield had been commissioned by the Bank Governor to make majorly costly improvements to Aldenham House in the 1870’s and the Governor’s son, Vicary Gibbs, started in 1898 to heap a shed load more wonga into the grounds.
As Vicary Gibbs had classified, labelled and then teased life out of the seeds and shrubs that he had gathered from the Americas, the Middle East, China, Tibet and the Far East, so Haberdashers streamed, graded, sheltered, fed and coaxed growth out of its very own seedlings – its Boarders.
As we saplings sprouted, we always had time to saunter through the gracious grounds and admire what was left of the fabulous botany that Gibbs had planted three quarters of a century earlier. And when our very own pubic botany blossomed and bloomed and we commenced buying halves in the local pubs, we somehow did not become seriously and single-mindedly determined to max out our exam results, like Dayboys.
Form at school didn’t necessarily signal what happened when a Boarder grew up. Jack Klarens could barely string 2 words together, scraped an ‘E’ grade in his English A level but today trousers a six figure salary as a…err…writer. Solly Brown ran the Aldenham House Cinema Club brilliantly and I will be forever grateful to him for getting hold of a print of Dr Strangelove, chipping the ice off the 16mm projector in the bitterly cold Main Hall and showing it to a dozen or so of us one wintry Saturday night. This enterprise betrayed his talent because although he ballsed-up his A levels he nevertheless went on to accumulate an eight figure fortune. Bradley actually failed History A level, but is now teaching the subject to unsuspecting undergrads at a pukka University, albeit one in the grim north.
Equally, Boarders that showed early promise could pull up lame half way round. Benjy Carstairs got ten great O levels, fours A’s at A Level and a Scholarship to the college of his choice but now runs an unsuccessful car wash on the outskirts of Baldock.
Benjy had a booze problem. Years later, Benjy’s ex–wife got him into a rehabilitation clinic where he bumped into Upjohn who incredibly had also just been admitted that same day. The clinic was grim and both Benjy and Upjohn were feeling even grimmer - they both shook like dogs shitting fish hooks while putting a brave face on reminiscing about the good old days in Aldenham House. Benjy is now the proprietor of a failing car wash, but he is the sober, and happy, proprietor of a failing car wash. Nobody knows what happened to Upjohn.
The vast rump of Boarders, however, performed splendidly and consistently throughout. They earned themselves fabulous salaries with banks, brokers, solicitors and accountants where they specialised in helping the rich to get richer. Others developed exciting careers in the media where they helped the poor to come to terms with the fact that the rich were going to get a lot richer.
Pubs were not without their dangers for Boarders. Not only did decimalisation change the six bob pint into what was initially a very baffling 30p pint, but strictly speaking pubs were out-of-bounds to Boarders so there was an element of risk involved in going to any of them.
The riskiest was by far and away The Battle Axes which was built by the Gibbs to liven up the foreground of their north-western aspect and named after the weapons on the coat of arms on the stain glass window half way up Aldenham House’s main stairs.
You’d only chance it at The Battle Axes if you were desperate. Not only could you be easily seen by any Master umpiring a cricket Match on Square B, but because it was within easy walking distance of the school it had become an alternative Russells House staff room favoured by Economics Masters who needed a sharpener before heading home or a stiffener before facing their afternoon classes.
The Italian Economics Master, Mr Parabola, downed several glasses before launching into his after lunch class on price theory, “Grodzinski charge 10p more than everywhere else. Why do Grodzinski do this? How do Grodzinski get away with it?” After a couple of weeks of these mystic continental incantations, the Dayboy Kapper revealed that Grodzinski was a bakers shop in Golders Green. None of this, of course, meant anything to us Boarders who were about as likely to buy a loaf of bread as we were to pursue a career in Economics.
The Housemaster’s office was the first door on the right as you entered Aldenham House, opposite the Beak’s huge office with the ante-room inhabited by a posh secretary with gorgeous tits and a Grade II listed attitude as big as a Louis Quinze escritoire.
Although they whipped out the Rubens and Reynolds when they left, the Gibbs family did leave portraits of Coghills and Hucks and genuine bits of ancient furniture in situ in the hall where Boarders queued outside the Housemaster’s office for pocket money. While I waited I passed the time by thinking about what kind of allowance your typical junior Gibbs family member pocketed every week. When I got bored with that I stared at the secretary’s legs while she was looking the other way.
At the beginning of each term parents lodged what they believed was enough to keep their sprog in the manner to which he had become accustomed at home. It was in this queue that the class differences between us first became apparent.
In a world before credit cards, cheque books said more about you than pocket money ever could. Alfred Danes had two bob a week and although my Mum was broke she divvied up a very decent sum for me each term and I was able to pretend that I was in the same league as the others. Carter had substantial funds that he generously shared around and Kakheel had seemingly unlimited funds that he kept very close to the mat of hair that had alarmingly spread across his chest by the end of the first form.
Your status as a Dayboy was a straightforward matter. In descending order of prestige, the key factors were which stream you were in, whether you were selected for a place in the rugby or cricket team and prick size.
All of the Dayboy factors had a bearing on Boarder status, but there were many other things that could make or break a Boarder’s position in the pecking order.
Boarders were always mindful of how much post was waiting for you each morning in the pigeon holes located at Aldenham House’s busiest spot where the notice board, bog, telephone booth and Reading Room all met at the bottom of the back stairs.
In a world before faxes and email, nothing spoke louder about your importance beyond Haberdashers than a good handful of envelopes. International stamps and a typed address counted for double and a pink envelope with girly writing counted for treble. It was rumoured that Alfred Danes, who was an ugly bastard, sent himself perfumed envelopes but that was never proved.
Pocket money was another obvious status marker. The more you had the more you could get away to interesting places like sit ins, demos, parties and orgies. Going to these places was, of course, unimportant per se. It was how you leveraged the experience back at Aldenham House that really counted.
Bluff was the most important factor for an upwardly mobile status-conscious Boarder. You did not actually have to go to an orgy, to claim that you had. You merely needed the ability to appear to be reluctantly divulging limited details of the carnality itself - details that a Boarder could glean from any one of several novels written by over-stimulated Californians in the sixties and that were openly available for purchase by Boarders at Stanmore tube station.
A light drizzle over Colindale was often an adequate excuse for a Dayboy skive. Dayboy parents would inscribe feeble lies in ballpoint on Basildon Bond for the amusement of Form masters. Another popular Dayboy skive excuse was blaming the hapless lower orders, such as striking bus and train drivers.
A Boarder’s skive had to be more imaginative. Patel, who came from the equator, could make himself turn from brown to blue at will whenever the temperature dropped beneath something or other Fahrenheit. He would ankle around to Matron’s Office, gabble at way over the speed limit in sentences with several hundred words apiece and earn himself a tranquilliser and a nice lie down in the Sick Bay Day Room.
Not a lot of people know that it was a Dayboy who gave Margaret Thatcher the idea that a promise to bash trade unions would get her elected to Number 10. Years earlier, when she was Education Secretary, during a school tour with the Beak, she lurched into our geography classroom with her entourage and was immediately drawn to the Dayboy Kapper, who was out on bail following a misunderstanding in the public bar of The Rattle and Bladder on the Fulham Road.
“What are you going to do when you grow up?” she enquired of Kapper. Kapper told her that he was going to nuke Labour Party Headquarters and talk everyone else to death. We all expected Kapper to be escorted straight back to the cells, or, at the very least, get a whacking from Taffy. But no! Kapper had awoken a great idea in the Education Secretary’s head. Her eyes glistened, she rehearsed an early version of her ‘Downing Street is my beat and you can all xxxx off’ smile and thanked him, gushingly.
Dayboys could be good eggs, but Dayboys could also be a pox on the face of humanity.
Carter read The Times every morning in Aldenham House’s Reading Room and appreciated that trade unions posed a threat to his pocket money allowance. Therefore, he stopped supporting Chairman Mao and started backing Oscar Wilde who Carter initially believed to be a champion of respectable capitalism until he discovered that this Wilde bird had ended up doing time along with the rest of the working classes. And so he, too, had to be dropped.
By the time ‘A’ levels came around, Carter had dumped four Roman Emperors, three Communist Dictators, two Nobel laureates and a second former from Strouts.
Boarders were of their time. Lots of things had not yet been invented like The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, The Bay City Rollers and Recycling. As far as we knew ‘The Environment’ was a gallery shop in New York where Birdcage got his ultra violet-sensitive Escher prints.
Without realising it, Boarders were actually very environmentally active. We ate sod all and spent even less. We recycled socks that had long since ceased to be socks and were now multiple layers of darns. Enforced lights out and the Aldenham House heating system meant that we consumed virtually no energy.
Harry Hitachi from Haywards Heath set a particularly vigorous environmental agenda. Every time he did anyone a big favour, like lend them his pencil sharpener, he would note it down in his little book. We told Harry straight. We said, “Harry, you are a mean git.” Harry was unmoved.
“Listen to me,” he would say tucking his little book out of reach down the front of his Y-fronts in case a major creditor mugged him, “I am happy to let you sharpen your pencil with my sharpener, but don’t let it become a habit. Before you know what, whole forests will be needlessly felled because people like you sharpen your pencils too often.”
Listening to Harry made me feel sick and put me right off my Aldenham House dinner. I never let Harry know that he made me want to vomit because if he had known, I reckon that he would have claimed it as another personal victory in his campaign against wanton consumption.
Fifth formers and above had study dorms where they had desks as well as beds and wardrobes. They were also allowed record players. It was only a matter of time before the battle of the Dansettes broke out.
Garbine and Dross shared a study dorm and they played what they believed to be classy cutting edge stuff like Floyd’s Arnold Layne and Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower. Next door to Garbine and Dross was a big Cypriot who played what he reckoned was avant garde groundbreaking stuff like Thank U Very Much by The Scaffold and Georgie Girl by The Seekers. Inevitably, the Housemaster confiscated both Dansettes, but not before Garbine had threatened to tell his Dad and the Cypriot had spat on the Housemaster’s shoe.
Between the hours of nine and four, Boarders lived like Dayboys. That is, we went to classes and blended in as best we could. Eventually, Dayboy management shoved a flowing royal blue gown in my hand and told me I was now a prefect. I spent the next two terms camping it around the quad with all the other Dayboy prefects looking for stiff headwinds.
The CCF was very unfashionable amongst the Dayboy Hampstead intelligentsia. They muttered that the CCF Chiefs of Staff, TEC Carrington and Lofty Hickman, were frenzied warmongers who would lead the free world into a conflagration. This seemed a bit unlikely to most Boarders who, in any event, were keen to take advantage of the free trips to breezy spots like Salisbury Plain and North West Scotland.
The Dayboy intelligentsia often accused Boarders of living in an outdated anachronism. Binky Thyssen was the Boarder’s self-appointed spokesman who claimed to know exactly how to expose the Dayboy’s flawed reasoning. “Rot and Balderdash!” he said to the intelligentsia when he found them lurking in Calvert’s bogs. While they were still reeling from that, he finished them off with, “Stuff and Nonsense!”
I was not a member of anybody’s intelligentsia and struggled with some subjects. Then, as now, I believe that History is manipulative bunk and anything calling itself Social or Scientific is dangerously egocentric. The Empire was stuffed by the time I got anywhere near a Kennedy Latin Primer and the job market for budding Viceroys was a tad past its liveliest.
I regret not having worked harder at Maths, English, Modern Languages and Sports. These are honest pursuits that will always help a chap to earn a good living and impress the right kind of crumpet.
There aren’t many ex-Dayboys that would agree with that. All Haberdashers ever meant to most of them was their slavish devotion to the prescribed curriculum. I blame the parents. The kindest thing you can say about them is that they were a selfish, feckless mob.
One hundred years earlier, it had been the end of the beginning for Aldenham House when Victorian railway builders stood on the dome of St. Paul's and ambitiously surveyed the route north towards the line of small hills on the horizon that almost protected Hertfordshire from their avaricious gaze.
They built their line and opened up middle England. Aldenham House was connected to it by the carriage drive and a quaint new country railway station whose opening in 1868 encouraged Henry Hucks Gibbs to take up residence some 20 years after he had inherited the property from his mother.
Aldenham House is surrounded by three of Britain’s busiest motorways and two of its most heavily used railway lines. It is right next door to Hertfordshire’s largest body of water, Elstree Reservoir, which was built to feed the Grand Union Canal that runs alongside the nearby Euston to Birmingham railway line. It is within sight of a frantic aerodrome, is slap bang underneath the approach to the world’s third busiest airport and is within a couple of miles of the Bakerloo and Northern tube lines. You couldn’t shoehorn any more trains, planes and automobiles into the manor if you tried.
By the time Haberdashers took it over, Aldenham House had become Britain’s most accessible Country House. Although this virtue was lost on private owners seeking Arcadia, it was dead handy for anonymous government propaganda apparatchiks, TV producers peddling conspiracy yarns and the Beak who was on the lookout for somewhere to unleash his grand plan.
When all seemed lost for Aldenham House, Haberdashers and its Boarders restored a noisy integrity to its compromised role and neglected environment. Oblivious to the part that we played in this redemption, but perhaps in some subtle way united by it, we Boarders stood shoulder to shoulder at the barricades that we proudly erected between Aldenham House and the Dayboy’s prefabricated exam factory.
My main realisation in writing this is that Boarding in Aldenham House was championed solely by the Beak, Dr. Thomas Taylor.
Coghill built the House and Hucks improved it. Aske founded the school. Willis built the organ and Taylor led the school out of the deserts of North West London to the promised paradise that Gibbs had prepared for it.
Dr Taylor wished to recreate, share and perhaps also to relive the excellence of his own scholastic and academic experience. The Boarding House within Aldenham House was Dr Taylor’s closest daily witness to that wish.
It was in Aldenham House, not in Strouts or Meadows or the Chemistry Department or the Maths Department, that Dr Taylor assembled his dream team of Masters. David Davies went on to become Haberdashers, and possibly Britain’s, most successful ever Rugby coach, leading the school team to an unbroken run of 65 victories over 5 full seasons. Doug Yeabsley was the cricket team’s most successful ever coach. Peter Squire and Keith Dawson both went on to become Beaks of other important public schools and, sixteen years after he had left Haberdashers, Keith Dawson even returned to Haberdashers as the Beak.
In the face of opposition, Dr Taylor created Boarding in Aldenham House. He lasted a dozen years at Elstree and Boarding outlived him, but not by much.
Which is a pity because unlike the Dayboy’s ersatz drop down menu of virtual community-spirit options, Aldenham House had been the real thing – a whole community of people whose futures depended on each other’s futures. Flawed by its exclusivity and partiality, Boarding in Aldenham House had nevertheless been a valuable and irreplaceable examination in progressive communal co-operation.
In his last weeks and days as Headmaster, Spud isolated himself in his Study in Aldenham House refusing to see anyone. After umpteen years of boarding in Aldenham House, I considered that his Study was in my House rather than I was a Boarder in his School so I just walked into the inner sanctum, unannounced and uninvited. It was my last day at Haberdashers and the last day of his career. Startled by my entry, he rose to greet me and grinned that enigmatic smile of his. I looked this fearsome man in the eye and thanked him for intervening in my life and changing its course for the better. I meant it and I’m glad that I said it.
Spud didn’t have to do what he did for me; it wasn’t as if I was a star pupil or anything - I was an average sportsman, an even more average exam taker and I only served and obeyed when it suited me. Spud was sticking his neck out to help me and he did this not just once, but twice. That’s the kind of bloke that the Beak was.
It is understandable that Boarders now characterise their school experiences by personifying them in the form of eccentric anecdotes about the Housemasters who appeared to us to be the heart and soul of Aldenham House. But, affable as they could be, House Masters were not the cause of Haberdasher’s success – they were the result of Dr Taylor’s