by Vincent Guy
Vincent at Pates Junior
Among my vivid memories of schooldays are some cutting comments from my teachers. They seemed harsh at the time. Reflecting on them now, sixty years later, I discern a subtle kind of truth.
At Junior School
“You don’t know that; you’ve only read it”
This was from Miss Travers, my teacher in Pates Junior One, responding to my jumping in first whenever she put a question to the class. Perhaps hers was not the best way of encouraging the reading habit in her charges. My mother had ensured I could read at least a year before, and I already had under my belt Winnie the Pooh and The Adventures of Curly Wee. My battle royal with Miss Travers had kicked off earlier over a fundamental question of Number Theory. She’d laid down a premise:
“When you cut an apple in two, you cut it in half”.
My voice piped up from the front row, just under her nose –
Not quite on the level of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but you must agree I had a point.
The conflict went on throughout the year, at one point going underground. There was a craze for collecting and swapping cigarette cards, and the classroom had several well-stocked albums to encourage the youngsters’ interest. Inevitably the kids, well, probably the boys, started surreptitiously peeling out likely-looking pictures of battleships, footballers, rare birds, to add to their own collections. Miss Travers discovered the loss and confronted the class. Not being cut out for a life of crime, and always keen to put my hand up, I immediately confessed, the only one to do so. The relevant cards had long disappeared into the lively swap market, so my pocket money for the rest of the term was requisitioned to pay for them.
This precociousness included an early interest in the opposite sex. All the Pates Junior teachers were known as Miss. Whether they were obliged to retire if they got married or whether this was an honorific title, I am still not sure. There was Miss Ferguson, tall, slim, Scottish, and suitably red-haired. I would hug her knees with the passion of a minor Greek deity pleading a favour from Zeus; Miss Mills, with a guiding, encouraging touch; Miss Kennard, petite and energetic, representing the discipline that is always part of pedagogy. But real discipline – the crack of the cane – had to wait a while. My classmates were all delightful: Joyce, blonde and athletic, the twins, Sally and - oh, what was the other one’s name? - and especially Lisa. Lisa Bronowski was my closest friend as well as my rival. We would compete for the academic glittering prizes. She, the daughter of a distinguished scientist, would win in times-tables and nature study; my field was linguistics: spelling and writing stories. Our friendship led me to visit Dr Bronowski’s house, full of 20th century sculptural masterpieces, a white modernist building with commanding views from the Cotswold escarpment.
Decades later my schoolfriend had become Lisa Jardine, described in The Guardian as “Britain’s leading female public intellectual”.
My sister met her signing her latest book at the Cheltenham Literary Festival:
“Hello, I’m the sister of Vincent Guy.”
“Oh” said Lisa “a name to conjure with.”
Not sure what she meant, but it’s nice to be remembered.
This junior idyll could not last. My parents decided I would benefit from private school education, otherwise known as public school education. So I was enrolled at St Kenelm’s preparatory school, with a view to going on to Cheltenham College, the local fee-paying ‘public school’ for posh boys. St Kenelm’s had only just opened, with a cohort of 17 boys, most of them quite different from me: rich misfits, poor at their studies. Some had even been thrown out of other prep schools. The only thing I had in common with them was a tendency to break school rules, which was duly celebrated with a caning from the headmaster on my tenth birthday.
Just for practice in taking exams, I sat the 11-Plus (which gave access to the state grammar schools). I passed. At just that moment, the College announced an increase in fees. For the first time my parents invited me to join in a family conference: we decided that, after all, I would go to the grammar school.
Even as a youngster, I was glad things went this way. As a lower-middle-class boy short of cash, I would have been at the bottom of the pecking order. My keenness for reading would probably have provoked teasing at best, bullying at worst; and I was never much good at sport. Pates Grammar School was excellent then and remains in the top rank of schools today. I still take a certain fond pride in the fact that Pates was a going concern several centuries before Cheltenham College was a glint in its founder’s eye.
At Cheltenham Grammar School
“He’s not as clever as he thinks he is”.
This comment appeared in an end-of-term report from my form master in the Sixth. In his own way Mr Yates was an excellent teacher. But it does seem a strange view of the teacher’s role: not to encourage, but to discourage his pupils. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in what he wrote; my wife often expresses similar views. And I did fail French A-Level, though in my opinion I spoke better French than the teacher. Well, to be precise, I had a better accent. The reason I flunked was that I couldn’t face the crushingly dull set texts. The news of my failure reached me when I was too far away to do much about it: by the time results came out, I was in Peru, on what is nowadays called a Gap Year.
But I won an Open Scholarship to Oxford. How? The English teacher, Jim Dodge, had been bold enough to include me in a special group coaching us for Oxbridge. We’d spend happy after-school hours reading between the lines of The Great Books.
Despite mention of the Protestant Work Ethic in history classes, I had yet to take it on board as a guide to life. Work had to compete with the attractions of the Cheltenham Jazz Club (where Brian Jones was getting inspiration for the Rolling Stones) and hitch-hiking to the wilds of Scotland. When the season approached for putting candidates forward, Jim patiently took me aside to say I wasn’t yet ready.
However, another boy had just sat an Oxford exam in History. He came home with his exam papers and an Exhibition**. I glanced at the questions and thought “Hey, I could do that!”. So I went to the history master (Mr Yates above) and offered my services. “Hmm” he replied and went away to think about it.
But next day it was Jim Dodge who came to me. “The school has some ancient links with Pembroke Oxford through the Tudor founder, Richard Pate. There’s a Closed Scholarship in English Lit coming up, limited to Cheltenham and a handful of other schools. You’re not likely to win it, but you could try your hand just for practice”. So off I went.
By a stroke of luck, I’d played Hotspur in the school production of Henry IV and the “cream-faced loon” and other messengers to Macbeth with the local amateurs, so I could lace my answers with copious quotations. I threw in a sprinkling from John Donne’s love poems as I’d just been reading them to my long-suffering girlfriend. I was almost as surprised as my teachers when I got the offer of an Open. At that point, naturally, I stopped work altogether.
Ironically the most valuable thing I learned at university was the point of hard systematic work and how to go about it, including the areas that might seem like uphill drudgery. In the third term of my final year, this came a bit late in the day.
Though blessed with some gifts and energy, I have notched up no great achievements as an artist, as a citizen, as a leader. Friends with sharper intellects, more driving ambition, have achieved much more than me. Some people go about setting a goal among the stars and work unceasingly to reach it, and of course only some succeed. For a brief while after university I did have a goal clear in my mind: to become a successful theatre director, the new Peter Brook. In practice this cramped my view of life and my activities to the narrow field of the stage. Anything that wasn’t theatre seemed a waste of time. When my dramatic dreams eventually collapsed, there came a burst of new enthusiasm, new discoveries, new delights.
Not quite born again, but more completely alive.
6th-Former hopes Ice-Cream will get him work at the National Theatre
From then on I’ve felt free to be open to what comes up. If it seems worthwhile, I give it all I can. My life has been full of variety and satisfaction at a modest level, albeit the impervious arrogance that so annoyed those teachers has been tempered by the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: failures, rejections, disappointments. My motto might be not so much “My head is bloody but unbowed”, rather “Seize the day”.
The acerbic comments from my teachers did little to dent my confidence. But now, at age seventy-eight, I recognise some truth concealed within their words. I have indeed read heaps of books on many subjects, but acute penetrating analysis does not loom large in my repertoire. By contrast, my wife Tina, while happy to pass the time watching box sets on TV, can assess in a twinkling the interior structure of a complex building or spot the flaw in an argument (especially mine). A keen crossword puzzler, she’ll turn to me for the random facts that might be called for. So without recourse to Google, I can tell her that the head of RAF Fighter Command in 1940 was Dowding and his first name began with an H, but when she shows how it solves the cryptic clue I am totally baffled. I spy a glimmer of unconscious wisdom in Miss Travers’ description of my intellectual limits: I may have read it, but I don’t really know it. I’m not as clever as I thought I was.
But the guidance of a teacher may not suit everyone. As an adult I’ve spent some time looking for a mentor. Though I’ve met many people with greater knowledge or greater skills, none ever filled that role. For example, I’ve done a fair bit of acting on the fringes of the theatre world, and people sometimes ask me “Where did you train?”, to which I reply, “Well, I once trained young actors at the London drama schools, but no one ever trained me.”
Thomas Young (described as the last man to know everything) wrote in 1798:
“Masters and mistresses are very necessary to compensate for want of inclination and exertion, but whoever would arrive at excellence must be self-taught”
Oscar Wilde, as always, put it more pithily: “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”.
*From the All the world’s a stage speech, spoken by Jaques in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
**Oxford and Cambridge colleges each set their own entry exams. A pass gives you an Entrance. A good performance gets you an Exhibition. A better one gets you a Scholarship. There are two kinds: a Closed Scholarship is restricted to applicants from a particular group such as certain schools; an Open Scholarship is for all comers to compete for, so entails the highest standard of all.