My enduring memories of Bolton School reflect the fact that from my entry I began to feel ‘like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken’.
REMINISCENCES OF THE GREAT HALL AND THE HEADMASTER
I grew up in a terraced house in one of the roads opposite the School, and so had known its sandstone frontage all my life: the School was commonly known as ‘the snob factory’ by my playmates at primary school, presumably a phrase picked up from adult usage. To wear the distinctive Bolton School cap in certain localities, I soon discovered, was liable to call forth comment, or mockery or even physical intimidation.
Our family was working class, academic or intellectual interests playing no discernible role in its life. We did not own a television, or a telephone; the news and such music as formed part of the light entertainment offered on the The Light Programme was the staple diet on the radio. I had been ‘up to London’, by train, only once in my life; my holidays were spent on the North Wales coast; and life’s greatest drama was in connection with summer bicycle rides from Bolton to Southport and back, either alone or with a friend.
Who was responsible for putting me in for the scholarship test I know not, but I will never forget the impact made upon me first by the longest corridor that I had ever been in – stone-floored, mullion-windowed, and adorned with boards listing the names of those boys who had achieved the distinction of being appointed as Monitors: the dates went back decades, and afforded a glimpse of a historical continuity far longer than I had previously contemplated. My name would never be inscribed.
But I was to ‘see greater things than this’. I was a choirboy in the local Church, and I had even been taken to Belle Vue in Manchester to hear Messiah (Barbirolli, the Halle, and the Huddersfield Choral Society), but nothing had prepared me, at eleven, for what seemed the vast and glorious expanses of the Great Hall. I remember nothing of the actual entrance examination except our being seated at desks in immensely long rows, in numbers far greater than the total of those attending my Primary School; the strange floor was composed of polished wooden blocks; there were tall, lead-lighted windows on each side; and, in what seemed to me the far distance, a raised platform, behind which were the organ pipes. However, my attention was drawn, and remained repeatedly drawn for eight years, to the beamed vault high above, the like of which I had never seen.
First year boys were seated at the very front of the hall for the morning assembly, so that we had to walk to our seats through the various years starting from the seniors at the back. The gowned masters sat at the ends of rows. I think that I had a dim sense – only later articulated – of this daily solemn assembly as instilling a way of being disciplined and decorous in the presence of those elders whose learning reflected a very old and intellectual tradition. Only when study of the Grey Book revealed the academic backgrounds of those who taught us, did that tradition become a little clearer to me, although it was many years before I realized not only why, when every other male teacher was ‘M.’, there was a ‘Dr’ Eccott; but also the meaning of the academic qualifications listed for some of the staff: ‘Scholar of’, ‘Exhibitioner of’, or ‘Subsizar of’ such-and-such a College.
I had never – apart from those visits to Belle Vue – been in the company of so many hundreds of people, and never before in what comprised a single community. The focus of this was Mr Poskitt, who appeared to me in my first couple of years as a figure of almost mythical grandeur. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for the event of the solemn entrance into the Great Hall of this tall, erect, physically commanding figure, with his almost leonine appearance and (it seemed) an expression of languid and superb assurance. This entry remained an occasion which never lost its power to impress, and it is indelibly stamped on my memory: almost one thousand boys, together with the staff, would rise to their feet as, in silence, the School Captain and Monitors – dressed in grey and, mirabile visu, wearing long trousers – preceded the Headmaster to the platform, took their privileged places at the sides, as he mounted the steps to the platform, from where he gazed imperiously down upon his School.
I wore short trousers until I was fifteen; in the circles from which I emerged, I remember it as normal that only men or those who, having left school early, were in the men’s world, wore long trousers; and, to me, these boys at the top of the School – ‘O what venerable creatures did [they] seem’ to me – were ‘in the School but not of it’. I still remember the names of the Captain and many of those Monitors in 1954, whose details are recorded in the corridor; among them were some who were friendly to a somewhat insecure boy almost a decade their junior.
The Headmaster would read out the extra-curricular activities due to take place that day or week, and a door onto a mysterious new world was now ajar. I do not think that any of our working-class acquaintance had a sense of ‘spare-time activities’ beyond a limited range: one man kept pigeons, my father would remove engines from cars in the back street, a third did welding in his backyard; but none of my playmates had parents who spent what came later to be known as ‘quality time’ in extending the range of their child’s experience. Thus it came as a surprise to hear of ‘The Model Aircraft Society’ or ‘The Chess Club’; the activities of ‘The Madrigal Group’ remained for some time shrouded in mystery, but when it transpired that they were to do with singing, I went along, only to be mortified by the discovery that my choir-boy skills were inadequate to the task. (In due time, of course, it dawned upon me that this wide variety of extra-curricular activities attested to the rich and varied interests, as well as the broad competence and commitment, of the members of staff who sat at the end of the rows in assembly.)
The supreme example of the arcane goings-on within the exalted intellectual world upon which the door was being opened at assembly was ‘The Debating Society’. Mr Poskitt’s announcement in 1954 was as follows: ‘The motion to be debated will be: “This House would rather have written Gray’s Elegy than scaled the Heights of Abraham”’. I could make nothing at all of this; but I think that I dimly apprehended that, in time, much – if perhaps not all – would be revealed. Clearly there were ‘giants in the land’ in 1954, for when I finally joined the Society, the debates never quite seemed to measure up to that foundational standard, nor did my contributions ever seem to rise above the second-rate.
Until my final days in School, the Great Hall never lost its hold on me: not only the morning assemblies but also the Friday afternoon service (often with the hymn The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended) impressed me, the latter even moving me. Moreover, crucially, it was in the Hall that the first spark of my lifelong love of classical music was enkindled. Musically undernourished, and having nobody in my family who evinced any active interest in music, let alone played an instrument, it is understandable that I began as a listener and have remained one. I recall my excitement at hearing Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, with the trumpet part arranged for a clarinet; with less enthusiasm, a perhaps inevitably lugubrious arrangement, for brass band, of Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op 3:2; the Sarabande from Vaughan Williams’ Job and the same composer’s In Windsor Forest; Sibelius’ Finlandia, with which one boy won the competition for the Organ Prize for several years, until a newcomer introduced French and Scandinavian works (Mulet and Peeters). And it was in the Great Hall that I observed for the first time at close quarters a pianist at the keyboard: a Sixth Former practising Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
Finally, I recall two annual occasions held in the Great Hall: first, Speech Day, when, to the accompaniment of the applause of almost a thousand, certain unusually gifted individuals at the top of the School would receive multiple prizes for achievement, heralding in some cases – as it turned out – future distinction in academic life: their names are in my memory, almost like a brief litany, and I can still see some of them in my mind’s eye making their way back and forth. I wished that I could have risen to the heights of multiple prizes, but never did.
The other annual occasion – the Carol Service – brings back the most enduring, even iconic, memory of the Headmaster. The Authorised (‘King James’) Version of the Bible had been, for over three centuries, the only one used in public worship: it was deep in the English collective memory, even the uneducated knowing passages of it by heart. At the end of the Carol Service, all would stand, and the Headmaster would read, in sonorous tones, John I, 1-14; I therefore heard him read it eight times. For over fifty years, this text – whether read aloud in public, or heard, or recited from memory – has been inextricably associated with his voice, his image, and the memory of the Great Hall in which he and nearly one thousand of us were standing: thus has he achieved a degree of immortality.
When I was about to leave School, I spent a long time in the Great Hall, among the ghosts and the memories of varied activities of eight years: the School plays in which I had taken part (the first as one of a silent group of humble citizens in Henry V, kneeling at the feet of the victorious Ian McKellen: incidentally, my having been at School with this world-famous knight has impressed my children and their peers beyond anything else that I may have done or achieved); in later Shakespeare productions senior girls from the Girls’ Division made earth-shaking appearances. There was a highly successful performance of The Magic Flute: apart from the single and necessary importation of a professional for the Queen of the Night, this production was a fully collaborative enterprise with the Girls’ Division, the long period of rehearsal and preparation for the opera supplying opportunity for repeated backstage encounters with girls new to our acquaintance – rich soil for the seeds of youthful romance. The girl who sang the part of Papagena actually went on to become a professional singer. I think that there was widespread disappointment that use was not systematically made at this period of sound and film recording facilities; all these performances remain only in memory.
Finally, among the many ghosts were those of the young goddesses who were allowed on occasion to come to us from the Girls’ Division in order to be danced with. The scene will most likely appear to today’s boys and girls as one of unnecessary (perhaps barely imaginable) stilted formality and embarrassment: we boys would sit, more or less tremulous, in a line on one side of the Hall, etiquette requiring our having to cross the vast expanse of polished floor, now cleared of chairs, to reach the partners for our hesitant attempts at Terpsichorean smoothness. On one such occasion, I recall making my way towards a new girl (with whom I was later to become great friends); as we had been instructed, I repeated the magic spell ‘May I have this dance?’ but our instructions and practice runs had not prepared me for her mortifying ‘No!’ But she will not read this and smile, for she died before her time.
No doubt, the world having changed, the young boys who now enter the School have already travelled to many more or less exotic places; have ‘heard the chimes at midnight’; and have had laid before them all that modern film and media technology has to offer. They are perhaps unlikely to be so completely overwhelmed as I was by the novelty of the School’s size, its architecture, and its character.
REMINISCENCES OF THE LIBRARY
Apart from myself, there were no assiduous readers in my family; our book-holdings comprised less than a dozen volumes, including of course the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress, stuffed into the top shelf of a wardrobe. I was, before entering Bolton School, an avid reader of adventure stories, and my reading remained voracious, becoming more varied. After the Fifth Form (possibly partly on account of my having failed dismally in my O Levels) it was my custom to stay on – usually quite alone – in the Library for up to two hours or more after the School day ended. A terraced house afforded little space for solitude and study, a folding card table in an unheated bedroom lit by a dim ceiling lamp offering the only place for homework and examination preparation.
However, it was also because I felt somehow completely at home in the library. In the daytime, Miss McGavin was an unfailingly charming, gentle, warm person, of indeterminate age; it is unlikely that she would have dressed only in fawn, but that is how I seem to remember her. I took to her very much, although I was an adult before I realized why that might have been.
In some obscure way, I knew I was ‘in the right place’ among books. I felt – romantically, foolishly and over-dramatically perhaps – that when I was there alone in the silence; the brass-handled lead-lighted swing doors closed; seated, as generations of boys before me, on a reassuringly solid chair; with my books and papers laid out on a broad table; surrounded by the oak furniture and the richly-stocked bookshelves, that I was somehow closer to that world of culture, intellect and erudition which my wide if desultory reading conjured up and presented to me, awakening lively if unfocussed interest.
The School library was the first that I was truly acquainted with; I loved to be there alone, both to study and to browse. Mr Greene knew a little of my background and circumstances: he took me aside one day and asked ‘What are you reading these days, Brear?’ – ‘I’ve just discovered Mary Webb, Sir!’ ‘Oh No! You don’t want to waste your time on that! Go and find Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes in the library’. Obedient to the suggestions of a Master whom I admired and respected, I found the novel precisely suited to my stage of life, and was struck by his sensitivity and acumen, and by his judicious choice. I remember my reading Jane Austen in the library’s lovely nineteenth-century edition in pale cream, illustrated by Brock; and I was deeply impressed by a boy in my class who was able to read from the multi-volume Gothic type-scripted Goethe Werke: he later went on to become a Fellow of King’s College Cambridge. My Latin never reached a level which allowed me to study a volume often cited (in the words of Lewis Carroll’s Dormouse) as ‘the driest thing I know’, and therefore I was somewhat in awe of that Sixth Former who was able to consult it.
But the library, where I spent so many hours, left its indelible mark, even though I remained in the comparative foothills of learning. In the far right-hand corner were the shelves devoted to Early Church and medieval history. Browsing there one early evening in winter, I came across two works of scholarship on a topic to which my interest, for no clear reason, was being drawn. And there, in that corner of Bolton School library in about 1959, the direction of one boy’s life began to be permanently and irrevocably changed.
REMINISCENCES OF THE HEADMASTER’S STUDY
The regular end-of term visit to the Headmaster’s study could be an occasion of such a portentous nature as to cause real fear and dread in the early years: I now see what a fine principle it was, to allow every boy in the School to meet the Headmaster face-to-face, but my major concern when young was not be noticed; I would have been happy just to have ‘satisfactory’ written on every report if that would remove the possibility of his passing some verbal criticism – albeit justified – upon me. But I have it in writing, at a time when I was almost at the bottom of the class: ‘What is happening to this boy? A year ago he was third!’ and his gaze fell upon me and his terrible interrogative began. I do not remember what was said, only my extreme mortification; but fortunately my classmates tended not to notice what was said to anyone other than themselves – maybe they were as afraid as I.
REMINISCENCES OF CORPORAL PUNISHMENT
In the late 50s it seemed natural and just that I should be punished physically for any conduct which was deemed to be to be disruptive or impertinent. I recall the immediate and painful punishment meted out for simple misbehaviour: in front of the class, I would hold out my hand, palm up, and either the edge (!) of a ruler or a cane was brought down once, very hard. I felt no sense of injustice, and had I ever informed anyone at home of the occurrence, there would have been an unquestioned acceptance of the system and of the justice of the punishment. The pain brought tears to the eyes, but after a while it was over and forgotten. Nevertheless, it was something to be avoided if at all possible.
However, my early years in the School were marked by much internal confusion and want of guidance and direction, and I was personally involved from time to time in activities which were at once anti-social and immoral. As a result, punishment took place at a higher level, and as I recall, usually in private. In addition to staff, the School Captain was accorded the right to administer punishment in certain cases, and I was known to that year’s Captain, he being a friendly and courteous person, though of an intimidating size: he assured me that this ‘would hurt him more than it would hurt me’. I had to take my trousers and underpants down, and bend over; and in that undignified and defenceless position I received my punishment: in this case it was the expert, powerful and repeated application of a supple gym shoe to my person. But I was also caned in the same position on at least one other occasion. Not something to look forward to.
REMINISCENCES OF SENIOR SCOUT CAMPS
So greatly has the world changed that it is almost impossible to imagine that anything like the Senior Scout camps would be possible now, and in retrospect, it seems a privilege to have been granted such total independence. Only now do I fully recognize not only the degree of confident trust which was placed in us as individuals, but also the extent of change in the last 50 years.
As I recall, the general area to be visited was chosen by the Scouts themselves from a shortlist of suggestions from the Scoutmasters. We ourselves then organised our own groups of friends, and each group was issued with the requisite tents and cooking equipment.
In the days before cheap air travel, the three journeys themselves were slow and exciting, sometimes very long: that to the Black Forest, in 1959, involved one train to London, a second to the Channel port, a ferry to Ostend and a third train (the ‘Lorelei Express’ for the return journey, and I think the ‘Rheingold Express’ for the outward) down the Rhine to the Black Forest. These trains were of a type, size and luxury very different from those to which we were accustomed, and we had few or no prior images from the media to prepare us: it was all great fun, and in those days, the international rail system was not widely used by English people. The journey to the Pyrenees in 1961 took almost two and a half days, and involved five changes of train and an overnight Channel crossing from Southampton. But in Bordeaux there was an eight-hour gap (7.30 pm-3.56 am) between trains, and my exiguous diary tells me that our group of four caught a bus into the city, wandered around in the middle of the night, visiting bars and cafés, enthralled by the novelties of vibrantly exotic nocturnal scene. We sat, in our Scout uniforms and shorts, at pavement cafes drinking St Raphael wine (one of our group being a keen cyclist, and a follower of that team in the Tour de France). At that time Manchester’s slightly sad ‘Left-wing Coffee Bar’ was famously open all night, but what Bordeaux on a Saturday night had to offer boys seemed to be somewhat richer, more varied and infinitely more attractive. As 3 am approached, the return to reality had to be made, and we found our way back to the station to board the final train, heading south again; and a bus took us to Cauterets, set in the shadow of a wall of mountain, the Cirque de Gavarnie, over which the two experts in our group had planned that we should climb.
The system for arranging these camps was that after an initial day or two of settling in, the separate groups would go off as and when they wished, and wherever they wished. As far as I recall, there was no requirement to provide any plan and certainly not an itinerary, and the only clear stipulation was that we had to be back at a certain place by a certain date in order to catch the train back. In the Black Forest set of ordered paths and camping sites, we bumped into other groups from time to time. In Denmark and Sweden in 1960 our trio never saw anyone else from the troop at all; that camp provided independent movement, bad weather, a high cost of living and entertaining camping, and memorably pretty girls, but little drama; yet it was exciting for me to sleep on the dockside in Gothenburg (no security gates then!) and awaken in the night to find that we were sharing it with large numbers of rats.
In the Pyrenees, once we had climbed to the top of the mountain wall, we were from time to time totally isolated, with our rations of Kendal Mint cake, chocolate and soups, meeting perhaps only the occasional ‘Guardia Civil’ border patrols. We had purchased in advance crampons and ropes and connectors, and thus equipped, we confidently but in comparative ignorance walked up and down glaciers, across crevasses, and into ice caves, as well as scaling small rock-faces, roped together in such a fashion that it appears, from the grainy little photographs, that the fall of one would have dragged down all. I take no personal credit for the organisation of our group’s trip – it was not I who did the hard work on what we should buy in the way of equipment, or the route that we should take. Among many adventures up in the mists, I have an enduring memory of one dramatic and potentially very dangerous day: when, having gone through the famous narrow cleft in the rock (the Breche de Roland), we later dropped down into the lush val d’Ordesa, making our way, complete with rucksacks, down a rock-face by means of stepping on and holding onto a series of rusty pegs hammered into the rock.
This sort of escapade, under the aegis of an institution, would, I imagine, not be possible in today’s world of Health and Safety. Additionally, since the mobile telephone had not yet been invented, and the ‘ET phone home’ culture was still in the future, we were in practice out of contact with home, interested family members having only the vaguest idea of where we were, and none at all of what we were up to; the occasional postcard or perhaps a letter – if a post office were available – would be all that was possible or expected. We did not have a telephone at home, and I had only ever in my life made local calls from the telephone booth; even given the possibility, the idea of telephoning never crossed my mind, nor do I recall any of our various groups on any camp ‘ringing home’.
All in all that particular Pyrenean Senior Scouts’ camp of 1961 takes on, in retrospect, the character almost of a last gasp of the old British tradition of the amateur explorer. I recently received a photograph from a friend which revealed that the area in which we met only the occasional walker, shepherd or border guard, is now criss-crossed by organised groups of tourists, kitted out – to judge from the photographs – expensively (and, no doubt, ‘healthily and safely’).
The Scoutmasters who accompanied us on the outward and return journeys, but whom we might rarely or never meet during the actual period of the independent group-camping movements, were wonderfully flexible and never interfered; the unforgettable Bill Brookes was 65 when he returned to the Pyrenees 30 years after his last visit (and he was still remembered by a lady from that earlier visit, an impressive detail noted and admired by us much younger males); I remember him as warm, fairly diffident, unassuming and always welcoming. The (as it has happily turned out) equally indefatigable David Allen was also a regular; in 1959 his eccentric friend attached his ripe Camembert cheese to a boot at night so that it would not get away. It is most gratifying and reassuring that these stalwart and self-giving members of staff, only two representatives of a group of masters who were regularly involved in camps and journeys, have been succeeded by their counterparts in School today; fifty years later, as The Boltonian reveals, staff show the same commitment, enthusiasm and support for the boys, and a similar willingness to devote their time and energy, to that shown by those who taught and nurtured us: in this, happily, the School ethos has not changed.
In the Senior Scout camps, the School allowed – to those who, after all, were still its pupils and still only boys – a degree of freedom and independence, accompanied inevitably by potential risk, which is probably no longer possible: far-reaching social and infrastructural changes, together with technical developments in communication, have transformed the world, almost removing the possibility of that degree of isolation and risky, unsupported independence which these camps allowed. Indeed, I now find myself accused by my family of irresponsibility and anti-social, immoral behaviour because I do not carry a mobile telephone all the time.
REMINISCENCES OF THE STRATFORD THEATRE CAMP
I can offer no incisive criticism of productions or performances, and I can give the names of only a couple of the plays that, over the years I was privilege to see. No doubt if I had been living in England I would have met up with old boys with whom I could exchange reminiscences and reinforce details in my memory, but the reason is that the trunk containing all my old theatre programmes, some of them autographed, was stolen years ago.
This is not to say that no memories at all relative to the actual core reason for being in Stratford persist: recently I met an old friend from those days very briefly after 40 years, and he, having worked in theatre, and having retained an active and critical interest in it, caused me some embarrassment by his questions as to whether I remembered seeing such-a-one in such-and.-such. But one fact was as clear to both of us as if it was yesterday – that numbers of boys had fallen in love with the young Geraldine McEwan, as Rosalind in As You Like It. You may picture rows of Bolton School boys sighing as she came on stage, rapt in wonder at this vision of pulchritude, lost in dreams and hopeless scenarios, and finally shaking with anticipation as they queued to receive her precious signature on her glorious photograph.
To attend the famous (and, I think, recently-built) theatre on several successive nights was exciting, and quite different even from attending concerts in such an imposing building as Bolton’s Victoria Hall. The audience was cosmopolitan, even international, and generally far better (and more fashionably) dressed than the Bolton School campers; the red carpets, sumptuous furnishings, lighting and enticing bars (with prices far beyond the pocket of some of us) reflected a level of expense, luxury and sophistication which was new to me.
Once inside the auditorium, the awareness that we – together with hundreds of others who had come from far and wide – were watching great and famous actresses and actors, on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, presenting works of our greatest dramatist, carried with it a sense of the privilege enjoyed – at least it did or me, and I think for many others. Moreover, to return to camp, knowing that on the following afternoon or evening we would be watching Coriolanus, and then Twelfth Night, and then … this really was to be in an almost uniquely privileged position. The return to camp by punt would be dominated by the more or less perceptive criticism of the production just seen, of the performances of particular actors, of the costumes or the music, by older boys of greater erudition; but this would be counterbalanced by discussion (on the part of those whose literary or histrionic interests were as yet not fully-formed) of the personal charms of the various actresses.
An additional privilege, of course, was that we never had to cook.
The camp itself was on the same site in each of the years in which I attended – it was a short distance out of town. On the day of departure we brought our bikes to School, where a flat-bottomed open lorry was waiting; onto this all the machines and luggage were stacked, and the group would then travel down by coach. (I did this only in my first year at camp: thereafter I preferred to make the journey alone by bicycle, leaving Bolton at about 3 am and arriving at camp in the late afternoon. I imagine that an unaccompanied young person might be ill-advised to do the same in 2015). We slept in large bell-tents, ready set up on our arrival, a most agreeable and sociable arrangement.
One could get to town by bicycle from the camp within a short time, along the road and over the Avon. Alternatively, the camp site being close to the river, several punts were moored, exclusively for our use – a magical privilege, really. Quite apart from the simple pleasure of punting leisurely down river to the theatre and back again, the mingling of years meant that one was in close contact with those much older than oneself, those with whom one might have little opportunity for relaxed communication in School. A precious little memory is of Ian McKellen lying back in the punt and quoting ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook’ at an appropriate moment. In that innocent pre-Internet world, I first developed a nodding acquaintance with what, at that age, seemed fairly arcane details, through listening to the topics of conversation thrown up by the older boys.
At some point, new public toilets were opened quite close to the theatre, with running hot water, and many of us would use them for ablutions; we had the place to ourselves, Stratford receiving only a fraction of the numbers of tourists that it does now. Apart from the theatre visits, the days were spent idly and as we wished, usually in the town (admirably well-supplied with pubs) but with returns to the campsite for food, cooked by the School Sergeant and assistants.
In our final year at School, three or four friends who had attended the camp regularly were entrusted with the responsibility of travelling to Stratford in order to book the tickets for the coming camp. This was a great romp – away from home, totally independent and with the sole task of sleeping out on the pavement until such time as the box office opened. For all of us, I think, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!’
REMINISCENCES OF ‘THE LITTLE THEATRE’
There used to be a large, millstone grit detached house on the corner of Chorley New Road and Dobson Road. I have a very dim memory of the layout, but I imagine that one of the rooms had been transformed into a ‘little theatre’. It was minute, intimate, cosy and homely – the auditorium seated a very small number, the stage was a pocket handkerchief, and backstage was cramped in the extreme. No doubt because of this, it was a nicely higgledy-piggledy place, pleasantly messy – just the sort of place that many a boy would have felt entirely at home in; the sort of place the serendipitous yet mysteriously organised chaos of which may be found in countless garages and garden sheds. Perhaps a similar place may have been found in the Girls’ Division (‘Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux’)? I think of it when I see the picture of the Sheep’s shop in Alice through the Looking Glass.
I acted in two plays between 1954 and about 1956: Capek’s The Insect Play and another based upon the story of Elijah in I Kings. The fact that I enjoyed myself immensely is of no relevance, but what may resonate with others’ experience is my memory of what I thought of then as the cleverness of whichever boys it was who worked on the staging and the costumes. In my first (‘Shell’) year or my second I did not know any of the older boys who worked backstage; indeed I do not even recall which Master ran the Little Theatre at that time, or who recruited me: could it have been the entertaining Mr Haigh? All I did was to dress up and act.
In the Capek play, two dung-beetles had to push around a dung-ball: this was represented by a papier maché affair, as big as the actors were tall; I seem to remember great care being taken over the insect costumes – an observation which must seem maddeningly vague to those accustomed to the immediate recording of events on mobile telephones. In the story of Elijah, the drought that he has called down on the land finally comes to an end, and it begins to rain harder and harder; the sound of this was simulated by the use of a fairly large hollow wooden box containing dried peas, tilted from side to side slowly: the greater the volume of rolling peas, the louder the noise.
Commonplaces within the theatre world though these contrivances may have been, I cannot imagine any other source for such solutions at that time than the combined ingenuity and creativity of the young minds backstage.