When I was a wee boy I went to a private prep school in North London, called St Johns. It’s grown since then, when it was a smallish school housed in a beautiful old mansion set atop a lofty hill with panoramic views across London. The grounds included a small pond, some woodland and acres and acres of fields. We played rugby and cricket on those fields. I liked cricket, but loathed rugby. My first day was in September of 1979 and I left in the mid 80s. I just browsed through their website and I see just one teacher remains from my day. He started on the same day I did.
I have fond memories of the school, although I was not a model pupil. School bored me. To tears. Education should have an entertainment factor to it. To keep one interested. Unfortunately, I can count on my fingers the number of teachers who kept my attention. Most of them were from St Johns. It was an excellent school, and I hope it still is. I can still smell the freshly cut grass of the cricket fields. I can still remember the pain of returning from ninety minutes of rugby on soggy pitches in sub zero temperatures. I distinctly remember the agony of trying to warm my frozen hands up by placing them on the radiators in the changing rooms.
Summers were the best. If the sun was warm enough, shirt sleeve order was allowed. Off came ties and jackets, and our sleeves could be rolled up. We might, on occasion, be allowed to wander through the woods down to the bottom fields at lunch time to play. Id’ play football. Every break, every lunch hour. On the fields in summer, but usually in the car park with a plastic airflow ball. I loved football, and was ever resentful that the official school game was rugby.
I’m there in the photo above. Twelve years old? About that. It was posted on the old schools website, now only available on the Web Archive. This photo sums up my school life. Everyone has their books open, hard at work. I have an empty desk, scratching my head as I probably think up that day’s unlikely explanation as to why I’ve done sod all work. You can also tell that my mum scrimped on the cost of a barbers – a classic bowl cut. The boy to my right was my best friend at school. He lived just up the road from me, and we spent many days playing in the woods that sat between our houses. We got up to plenty of mischief. We don’t keep in touch, although we’re Facebook friends. He got married, had kids and seems to be doing very well. The boy in front was also a good friend. I spent a fair amount of time round his house playing console games and football. He was sentenced to double life for murder in the early 90s, and I have no idea what he’s doing these days.
At St Johns we were split into four Houses. We were allocated a place in a house on our first days. There was Lawrence, presumably the one of Arabic fame. Oates, of Antarctic fame. Lincoln, the token American. I can imagine our old headmaster, Mr Norman, being the embodiment of our ‘special relationship’. My house was far more British. My house was Churchill. Although pedants might want to bring up his US ancestry. But in every sense, he was very British. He was a war hero. A national hero. A global hero. Also an irascible racist, fan of eugenics and colonizer. He was a product of his age, and a good example of the complexities of humanity.
He was also a big influence in my life, in many ways. Introduced to him at school, I was always bound to look up to him, take an interest in him and his story. On that first day of school, he’d only been dead 14 years, The war had ended just 34 years earlier. He does embody everything good about Britain in the popular narrative and represents a largely rewritten account of what it means to be British.
He also represents much of what was wrong about Britain in the less popularized accounts of his life. He’s been in the news lately. His face is going to bless the reverse of the five pound note in a few years time. As per the photo above. His funeral has also been news in light of the ceremonial departure of Margaret Thatcher. There have been the predictable comparisons. But in truth, there was no comparison. Of the many positive influencers from my school days, Winston Churchill was most certainly amongst them.