2. Was it all for the best?

 

All for the best, then. That said, my music rather drew me apart, and this is where I have to recognize a downside. As music gradually required more and more of my time, it effectively created a barrier between myself and those who could not see the point of it. I obviously attended school and did my homework, but I was gradually exonerated from many other communal activities in order to do my practice. Betty Rayment fought for this, probably much more than I ever knew. Not all the staff thought it was a good idea. Even in my West Wing days, I think Miss Travers was not entirely happy with the way things were shaping. Mr. Marshall would have had me joining in with the rest far more, willy-nilly. The music could fit around it. Betty spent much time arguing this point with Miss Leila and Miss Dave. She got her way, but it was a sore issue and many other staff took Mr. Marshall’s side.

I have to admit they were not completely wrong. I did truly, at least in part, live in an alternative Caldecott. Many of my contemporaries resented the “special” treatment I was getting, so the divide grew. If things had gone another way, I do not think they would ever have made a footballer or a cricketer or a rounders player out of me, but even doing these things badly fosters a team spirit. There were others who were no better at them and had no escape. Outside the music, in my last couple of years I also took the habit of going for long walks by myself, sometimes to the Downs and back. Nobody raised any objections, but surely one or two others might have gone with me? Oddly, neither Mr. Marshall nor anyone else suggested this innocent form of social interaction. The result is that mingling with other people has never been my strongest point and I am still not the easiest of people to deal with when faced with alternative opinions. This was one of the reasons why I was sent to the Caldecott in the first place and it was only partly resolved, though I certainly emerged better than before.

I shall mention two episodes that brought home to me rather brutally the way in which I was gradually moving apart into an alternative Caldecott. They both regard the same person, Fabian Doyle, a boy for whom I felt considerable affection. He was quiet, sensible and intelligent (went to the Grammar School). He was uninterested in music, but that did not have to matter. We did actually spend some pleasant times together, probably in the first year in the West Wing. Once we were sitting opposite each other in the West Wing playroom, I imagine we were doing our prep. Fabian was silent for a long time, staring pensively at the floor. At a certain point, he evidently thought he had somebody else in front of him. “Git” (Grant Heath), he said, still looking down thoughtfully, “do you think it’s right that Howelly should be special because he does music?” Then he looked up and saw that “Howelly” (my usual nickname), and not “Git”, was there in front of him. If we had been older, it might have been a moment of truth. We were only twelve or thirteen, so he just got very red and said he was sorry, he did not mean it.

The other incident may have been slightly earlier or slightly later. We were still in the West Wing. Having met the demands of prep and music practice, I found I had nothing in particular to do till suppertime. Back in my Senior Study years, it had seemed quite natural that spare moments were filled roaming the woods with the other boys. In my mind, this sort of thing had not stopped but had been continually postponed. Prep and practice had to come first, then the supper bell rang and that was that. Perhaps I had not realized just to what extent my contemporaries took it for granted that I would not join whatever they were doing. I suggested to Fabian that we might go to the woods for a bit before supper. He did not say either yes or no. Instead, he went round to all the others in turn, saying, “D’you know what Howelly’s just said to me? …”, as though it was the funniest thing he had heard in his life. The fact that Fabian was not by nature a cruel boy made it hit all the harder. But what could I do? Without the practice, I could not do the music. And the alienation, the retreat into an alternative Caldecott, seemed irreversible anyway.

All the same, it was a little unfair of Nathan James to nickname me “Antisocial”. “Hello, Antisocial” was his inevitable greeting. “Unsociable” would have been more reasonable. I have never been opposed to socializing, it is just that, especially when the company is numerous and noisy, I am not very good at it and remain on the fringe. But we can never be sure how others see us. I would have said that Nathan was always in there, chumming with the rest, yet he himself says he was unable to relate to people in that period. Perhaps he realized later that combining in hazardous escapades or rule-breaking sprees was a surrogate for relating to the people concerned, not the real thing.

And hazardous some of the escapades were. As such I was well out of them. One was the plan to brew homemade wine on Mr. Marshall’s day off. For cost-related reasons, the decision was made to use potatoes rather than grapes. The brewers were unaware that hastily concocted potato wine is, with the possible exception of methylated spirits, the most pungent of spirits, one that even seasoned tipplers of vodka, schnapps and grappa approach with caution. This raises the question why only one of the group was seriously affected. Discounting the theory that the others were already such advanced alcoholics as to take rough potato wine in their stride, I conclude they found it so disgusting that they left it virtually untouched. Whereas Nathan quaffed a tooth-mug-full of the fiery spirit and was soon belligerently, uncontrollably and abusively drunk. The first reaction of his companions, fearing the consequences of detection, was try to get him quietly into bed. But Nathan only became more fired up than ever. In the end, his drinking companions decided to face the music and fetch Mr. King. Who, to judge from his tone, was more worried about the possible consequences for Nathan than angry with the perpetrators. Even he could not do much, but he did manage to get Nathan under the cold shower, sobering him sufficiently to lie him down and leave him to sleep it off. I think it was decided that the holy drinkers had learnt their lesson without further punishment, beyond tipping away their remaining stock and confiscating their equipment.

Perhaps I should paraphrase Winston Churchill’s remark on parliamentary democracy and say that music was the worst thing that could have happened to me, except for all the other things that could have happened to me. If I could wind back to 1961, I would not try to relive my Caldecott years without music and I do not wish to appear ungrateful for all that was done for me. I would not have it otherwise. All the same, there were negative aspects.

One downside that might not have occurred to my contemporaries was that I sometimes got a double dressing down when they got only one. Here I have to explain that my behaviour at Ashford Grammar School, particularly in my first three years there, tended to be diametrically opposite to my behaviour at Caldecott. Since I was aware that I was receiving certain privileges at Caldecott on account of my music, and that there were plenty of people who would jump at an excuse to stop them, I kept a low profile there. I felt no such constraints when sent out to Ashford Grammar School, and the catalogue of my misdemeanours was unedifying. I was threatened with expulsion at least once.

It was actually quite common for Caldecott people to act differently at school in Ashford compared with how they acted at Caldecott, but it usually went the other way. Girls, in particularly, could be prefect material at the Grammar or Secondary Modern Schools and transform into loud-mouthed show-offs the moment they got off the bus at Mersham Turning. There were girls, too, who took an active part in the choir at their Ashford school while rubbishing any idea that they might sing in Betty Rayment’s little group.

I was naïve if I thought my behaviour at the Grammar School would not be reported back to Caldecott in due course. Mr. Marshall’s solution when anyone did something wrong was to talk to them about it interminably without concluding anything beyond wasted time on both sides. Released at last, I would go over to the Music Room and I suppose Mr. Marshall (and others) thought I was going to play the piano merrily and forget everything he had said. Instead, the grape vine had been buzzing and Betty Rayment would be ready and waiting to give me another lecture that often ended only when the supper bell rang. “Trying to get yourself some cheap popularity by being cheeky to the teachers” was a favourite line.

Even minor events reached Betty’s ears before the day was out. One winter, the Colt House boys thought it macho not to wear vests under their shirts. Mrs. Griffiths told us we deserved to catch our deaths of cold and left it at that. Or nearly. That evening, I arrived at the Music Room for my practice and was assailed with a lecture on the unwisdom of not wearing vests under your shirts in winter. Even Miss E’s opinion had been sought and she had instructed Betty to “tell that stupid boy I won’t have him in the sickroom if he’s ill”.