I have been reading Justin Webb’s excellent autobiography, The Gift of a Radio, My Childhood and other Train Wrecks. He is younger than I am by about nine years, and yet much of what he writes about his childhood and school years sparks memories for me, especially as we have just had a school reunion of my own school, Cranborne Chase, where I spent my days, for better or worse, from 1962-67.
One of the topics that was raised at our school reunion was how unkind we had been to our teachers, recognising all these years later, that several of them had suffered horribly during the war, if not in battle, then in concentration camps, through displacement, or just in keeping the home fires burning. We girls, born in 1950, knew little of this, other than the stories we gleaned from parents or grandparents and were often left confused by what was not said rather than what was said. As Webb writes, we eventually woke up to what had happened to these teachers through war films or, later, through the superb series The World at War with its images of scorched buildings and Laurence Olivier saying, “nobody lives here now.”
How those words symbolise the way in which our lives have turned circles. We grew up in the aftermath of World War II and experienced for ourselves the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust through the Cuban Missile Crisis. And here we are again, with Putin, his hand on the red button, threatening the world with oblivion. We were able to laugh about it later, watching Dr Strangelove, but it is no laughing matter seeing all the scorched buildings in Ukraine and wondering where this will lead us as we are, once again, going to sleep fearing that there may be nuclear holocaust.
Despite the fears, my year group agreed that we had been lucky in so many ways, to live in that post-war era and experience the optimism of the 60s as teenagers, to go to a school that encouraged us to think and question, although it really didn’t prepare us in any way for academic life or, in fact, for life in any way. We arrived in the world as innocents, wondering what we were supposed to be doing, caught between the 1950s messages that woman should be in the kitchen, and the feminist writings of Simone de Beauvoir and later Germaine Greer. Most of us had been given the message that we should become wives as soon as possible and I think none of us had been given any useful career advice at all.
Despite this, I think we were all delighted to see how each one of us had ploughed an interesting course. The school was very arty and musical. I was good at neither but, with a young Harrison Birtwhistle as our Head of Music, I was infused by the love of music and art and many of my year group had become musicians, artists and sculptors. For myself, as a writer, we were lucky enough to have Stevie Smith visit, and the Liverpool poets among many others. Some of us became teachers, one, in all her modesty, a Dame, and some professionals. One way or another, our minds and hearts were stimulated, and how lucky we were in that.
But, of course, there were those who were unhappy at the school, and much is written about the damage that boarding school does to one – cold dormitories shared with a bunch of strangers miles from one’s parents and having to find one’s one way through the whole experience. But in that we found friendship. We may have been beastly to our teachers, in a St Trinian’s sort of way, but we agreed that we were seldom, if ever, beastly to one another.
So, if the school reunion has the potential for giving us anything, what I found, sitting in a room with my year group over fifty years after we left school, was that our support and friendship for one another was still palpable and, whether we see one another again or not, this friendship has provided, I think, a strength at the core of us that helps us withstand the tragedies and mishaps that have befallen us in our lives, as well as the moments of success. For that I believe, we are eternally grateful.