Humphrey Hawksley's Speech
Posted: 5th December 2010
Nick, Thank you very much, and – so far – for organizing such a brilliant evening. Being St Lawrence, of course, anything could happen in the next couple of hours. I must say coming back here for the first time in about forty years, I was filled with a mix of terror, trepidation and excitement. But, in fact, it’s been great fun and relaxing.
After getting the call some months ago from Nick to speak tonight, I had half expected another call from him sacking me from the job. You touched upon it just now, Nick, but the first warning came in an e-mail from Kerry Brown, our Alumni Secretary, to my younger brother Thomas who was head boy of Grange. It said: “In introducing our speakers we do like to mention something about their time here at the school. Unfortunately at present I have not been able to source ..... and she went to say that there was barely a record of my ever having been at the school.
I will now try to explain why.
Back in the dark days of 1965, I was a founding member of Cameron House. There were only a handful of us and we were guinea pigs. I see now that St Lawrence takes pupils from 3 – 18 and is fully co-educational. Well, those of us in Cameron were the beginning of this experimental expansion. In those days you went to prep school at seven and then the big school at 13. Someone must have had the bright idea of finding the market share of 10-year-olds and brought us in.
I’m not sure if they were ready for us.
We had a common room somewhere in the old building here, but we slept in the sanitorium which was a Nissen-hut type building somewhere down past the headmaster’s house. In between our sleeping quarters and living quarters was a patch of grass known as the Privilege Plot across which masters and prefects could walk, but we were never allowed to venture.
Aged ten, I didn’t know that a sanatorium was a clinic. But one amongst us, John Hodgkinson did, and that once its security was breached it would provide many interesting things for the young Cameronians to play with. So in the dead of night, Hodgkinson broke into the Sister’s office and emerged with a clutch of syringes – minus the needles, I hasten to add.
In the morning, he brought out tooth mugs filled with water and taught us how to load up the syringes. He then ramped things up by leading us all onto the Privilege Plot, dividing us into teams and starting a syringe water fight.
Until we were caught – by the house master Tom Lilley.
It was then that I detected – or at least recognise it now – the spirit that I believe encapsulates the Lawrentian as a brave, honourable, risk-taker. As Tom Lilley marched us back inside, John Hodgkinson, uncowered, argued that he and only he was responsible; he had led us on; and only he should be punished. Tom Lilley listened.
The year before moving up to the big school, one the prefects told us in a hushed voice: “You’re lucky to be going next year because the prefects will be banned from carrying out canings.”
What misdemeanours do they cane you for, we asked.
“Oh, anything. Not knowing how many inches a window should be open in winter; having you jacket unbuttoned; wearing the wrong socks on the tennis court.”
“What socks are you meant to wear,” I asked.
The answer came with a knowing smile. “That’s the point. They never tell you.”
Elevation to the big school came with the choice – although I’m not sure I had one – of the array of house to which we would move – to which was a distinct pecking order. I suspect that political correctness might now have diluted the stark chasms that divided the sacred grounds of – in alphabetical order – Courtney, Grange, Lodge, Manor, Tower – and for the day boys, Newlands.
Now, many of you may argue with my take on it, and I will brace myself. But here goes.
At the top was Tower. It was a magnet for the rich, the privileged, the aristocracy of St Lawrence. That’s not to say they were better people, but that is how it was. And the house master of Tower was the Reverend Martin Harvey – and never was name from St Lawrence more widely exported than that of Martin Harvey.
- In a film he would have been played by Alec Guiness, with the ivy-coated walls of St Lawrence juxtaposed against a Conradian setting from a far-flung land.
A couple of years ago, I was with American troops in Iraq. We had been out in a Humvee convoy, then came back because someone got hurt, and milling around at the small camp, I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned and saw a chaplain, dog collar and all, who was Canadian.
“You’re Humphrey Hawksley?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“And did you go to St Lawrence College?”
“I did,” I said, a little taken aback. But if you embed yourself with the Americans you’ve been CIA-ed, FBI-ed,. Googled and the rest. They certainly know where you went to school.
“You didn’t happen to know a teacher there called the Reverend Martin Martin Harvey, did you?”
So that was Tower. And after Tower, there was Lodge, which was – I don’t know how to say that because that prize-gathering brain-box John Vernon we’ve just heard about was in Lodge. But I’ll say it anyway. Lodge wasn’t Tower. I suppose you could say if Tower was the aristocracy, then Lodge was the nouveau-riche.
Next came Manor, wedged uneasily between the more gentile houses and those yet to come. Manor sat up there in the Balcony of this dining hall and it carried with it an air of cosmopolitan exoticism. This was where the wild and uncontrollable pre-revolution Iranians were housed.
I remember Newlands sat up on the balcony as well. I may be wrong and Newlands, the day house, was partly a conglomeration of all of us – but mostly not. They were the local boys, the sons of Kent’s business and commerce, not of the diplomats, spies, missionaries and soldiers who packed their heirs off here while pacing foreign lands to civilize the world. And with Newlands, we knew that however turbulent the waters of St Lawrence they always had the sanctuary of home and were therefore always a step apart.
Which brings me to Grange – my house. I have no idea why I ended up in Grange – whose common room has now been turned into a Costa Coffee shop, and I heard this evening that Grange had actually been abolished to make way for a girl’s house!
Suffice to say that Grange had the finest and most intelligent pupils, brilliant on both the playing fields and in the classroom. We were generous, caring, adventurous. Thoroughly good people. Our cosmopolitan edge came not from Iran but the Far East with the Chinese from Malaysia and Hong Kong who taught us the art of negotiation and trade. Our housemaster was the incredibly tall, yet serene, Harold Clifford, an exceptionally wise man and even now I miss his guiding hand.
Our Bible – apart from the one used in the Chapel – was the Mafia thriller, The Godfather, which taught us how to live with an edge of risk and violence that was needed because of our proximity to the grittiest house of them all -- Courtney.
Courtney was rough. Courtney were the button men of St Lawrence. With Courtney you kept your head down or lived on your wits. I have no idea why, but that is how it was. Courtney, for the most part, was a no-go area and only a fool would walk through the corridors of Courtney at night and expect to emerge unscathed.
So having been allocated my house, I found myself torn from the protected Cameronian, Tom Lilley-esque era of 1965 and thrust into Harold Clifford’s permissive, love-fest days of 1968.
While Harold Clifford – or Goatie as we knew him, John Bindfield, Martin Harvey and others tried to steer us towards the values of Harold Macmillan, Montgomery and Vera Lynn, the lore of the street led us into the more questionable world of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Martin Luther King and Che Guevara.
When Nick Marchant asked me what I remembered doing at St Lawrence, I had to reply honestly that after class and sports, it was listening to music, the usual smoking things and going to the cinema.
And the films of that era did nothing to help.
John and Mary – with Mia Farrow, slated then as the first film to show a woman completely topless. Unmissable for a 14-year-old posing as 16 to get into an X rated movie.
Easy Rider – with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding their Harley Davidsons around America in a drug-filled quest for freedom.
And to cap it all -- If -- where in a public school that was a mirror image of St Lawrence Malcom McDowell raids the CCF armoury, sets up machine gun positions around the grounds and kills all prefects and teachers that cross the field of fire.
Amazingly, this film was brought in by the St Lawrence College film society and shown to us in the Taylor Hall. Needless to say the film society was run by Tower boys – no morality up there at all.
So for those of you either too young or old to have been caught up in the 60s revolution, you have to imagine the competing influences on our young minds.
With no canings by prefects, discipline disintegrated. In Grange, we lived under Goatie’s benign and liberal leadership which allowed our hair to grow to lengths that almost matched the styles of Carnaby Street and the King’s Road. And if this was not enough to skew our path to adulthood, some bright spark – probably the one that created Cameron House – decided there was a new market (I won’t say a virgin one) in bringing girls into the classrooms from a school down the road called St Stephens.
Now….placing a pretty 15-year-old girl, immaculately dressed in a maroon uniform, in a classroom next to a 15-year-old boy at boarding school is a high-risk education strategy.
Priorities get turned on their head, and no longer is an understanding of the Lutheran reformation the pinnacle of all dreams.
Sprinkle, say, 20 such girls, among 150 boys, all with racing teenage hormones, and you create both a revolution and a completely new reason from getting out of bed in the morning.
I was smitten several times over the two years between ‘O’ Levels and ‘A’ Levels, and one of those who took my heart was tracked down by my fellow founding Cameron and Grange boy, Ray Eaton – whom by coincidence I am going to see in Broome, Western Australia, next week. Like Nick and Kerry, Ray was trying to find some anecdotes. But despite my heart-stopping smitteness, he got back a sobering reply:-
“I’m trying to think of stories about Humphrey at SLC,” she wrote. “I can remember smoking legal tobacco, and sitting next to him in English as he spoke Chaucer English when reading The Merchants Tale! Can't think of anything really bad and interesting but then I was a good girl, wasn't I!
Somewhere in this mix, fighting for attention, came the exams. In those days, we did them in The Taylor Hall. The exam paper had 15 – 20 questions on them, several on topics we hadn’t even been taught as we only had to write an essay on two or three.
So we did that for a couple of hours, then left.
I took history sitting next to Ray Eaton. On the way out, I asked him how he thought he did.
“Fine,” he said confidently.
“Which ones did you do?” I asked. “I did the Reformation and the American Civil War.”
He shook his head. “No. I did the Russian Revolution.”
I stopped dead. “What are you talking about?” I protested. “It’s not even on our syllabus.”
“Yeah, I know. But remember we went to see that Nicholas and Alexandra movie last week about the end of the Tsar. It was fresh in my mind so I thought it made sense to do that one.”
Like I said earlier – the mark of St Lawrence – a brave, honourable risk-taker.
Ray got a respectable history grade, but pointed out – forty years later – that his formula didn’t always work. “The next week was geography,” he e-mailed, “and I’d just been to see Dirty Harry.”
For some reason, they didn’t throw us out straight after the exams. We weren’t going to get the results for a couple of months, which was a millennium in those days. We had lazily filled out university applications – UCCA forms, I think they were called. But the wide world beckoned and the thought of spending three more years in classes being rejected by beautiful women was too dreadful to imagine.
And, I can say happily, that the man responsible for what was probably the biggest decision of my life is now sitting directly opposite me on this top table – my history teacher, Chris Throndsen.
He was sensible enough to realize the Lutheran reformation had no place in the post-exam classroom so instead brought along a slide projector of pictures of him in Australia. He was younger then, of course, and there was snapshot of him running down a surf beach, bright yellow sand, crashing blue sea and waves, wearing swimming trunks and a flowing cape. Chris Throndsen looked like a cross between Baywatch and Dracula.
As we saw more slides of the dramatic big skies and landscapes, I glanced across at Ray Eaton. Between us were a couple of St Stephen’s girls who suddenly became irrelevant. Ray just nodded. Yep, that’s where we’d go.
A few months later, we joined the Merchant Navy to work our passage to Australia. Ray stayed and I kept travelling the world. Still am. Still on my gap year and if Nick would allow me a few more minutes, I would like to tell you how after that the name St Lawrence College resonated in the strangest of places and situations.
In the early eighties, I applied to join the BBC. They use a civil service-style boarding system where you sit in front of an editor, a manager, a personnel officer and someone else. Towards the end, the personnel officer said: “I see you went to St Lawrence College.”
“Yes,” I answered, and began the usual explanation – “it’s down in Kent a town called….
“I went there, too,” he interrupted.
Oh sh.., I thought. How’s this going to pan out?
“I don’t think our paths crossed,’ he said. Thank God! “I’m a little bit older than you.”
“Wonderful school,” I said. “Very solid.”
“Which house were you in?”
Sh.. – again.
“Grange,” I said tempering pride, just in case…..
“Lodge,” he said.
I wasn’t sure where that left us. Others butted in, asking questions, and then the personnel officer, who clearly held sway, interjected and returned to St Lawrence. “Was Harold Clifford your housemaster?” he asked gently.
“Yes, he was.”
- He paused, allowing just enough tension to gather. Then with a smile, said: “Goatie. A very good man.”
And I’ve been working for the BBC ever since.
A couple of years ago -- I found myself in Liberia in West Africa, making a BBC documentary about how it was recovering from its civil war. You might remember some years television pictures of Liberian soldiers cross dressed in pink sequins, frogman’s outfits and ballet dresses wielding machetes and rocket propelled grenades. That was mix of Christian evangelism, drug crazed warlords and the sobering influence of honest African witch craft. I went back to see how it was all going.
One of the elements we were looking was Devil worship. So one evening – in the middle of the jungle – we headed off to the village of Zogorwee where we had heard that a Devil Dancer was to perform.
My driver and guide was Robert Mickey Luther Watkins who had already shown himself to be a man of great initiative. He was a wiry and powerful and expert in making things work when they were broken.
The village was preparing to greet the Devil. The sun was fading. Fires were being lit. Drums beaten. Music started up. Children gathered. And Mickey took me off to meet the chief. Except he didn’t want to see us. Dressing in great tribal finery, he waved us away.
“He needs some dash,” explained Mickey.
“What’s dash,” I asked, reaching for the money roll in my pocket. “A bribe?”
“No. It’s a personal present from you to him.” He paused thinking. “I think those biscuits in the car will do. They come from London.”
He was referring to a half-eaten packet of digestive biscuits from Tesco’s. We delivered the chief the biscuits. He inspected the wrapping, ran his fingers down, smelt it, tasted a biscuit and then his face lit up. He got to his feet, preening himself and smoothing down his costume.
"My name is Jacob Kermon," he said in a booming voice that carried above the sound of singing and drums heralding the arrival of the devil. "And Jesus Christ is my personal saviour."
"Then, why are we here worshipping the devil?" I asked, slightly confused.
"When the devil comes out people feel good," he said. "He brings happiness and reconciliation within the community."
I left it there. My education at St Lawrence had well prepared me to accept life’s contradictions.
Then, behind us, through the wood smoke and encroaching darkness, a stilted Devil Dancer walked out of the jungle. He stood six metres high. His face was covered with a black mask, his head rimmed with shells. He was dressed in orange pyjamas, his hands sealed within the cotton.
One by one the devil plucked us from the crowd. He came for me, of course. I had to stretch up my hands to hold his, staring through smoke at the mask and on to a star-filled sky, as he twirled me round and round.
On the way back, we ran into trouble. The road to Zogorwee was narrow. That is to say it was the width of a bridle path, flanked by thick jungle, with pot holes like moon craters and flimsy bridges over creeks made of hewn off tree trunk.
A flat bed truck had skewed through one of these. Its front wheels were in a ditch and the road was blocked.
We stopped and got out. My torch beam picked up piles of bananas on the side of the road. I then saw sacks of rice, a huddle of people - maybe 20 or 30 – who were the passengers.
I heard what I thought was a baby's cry and ran forward only to find that four bleating goats -- part of the truck's cargo. They were strapped onto the side, hanging and wrapped in brown cotton sheeting.
"We'll have to return to the village," I muttered to Mickey.
"No, we'll fix it," he said confidently.
He stalked around the hapless vehicle, speaking softly to some people, raising his voice to others. Tree branches went under the wheels. Men lined up to push. The bonnet was lifted and dropped. A new driver got in. The helpers waiting waited for Mickey’s cue which he delayed while the bleating goats were unhooked from the side.
Then with a heave, the wheels spun and caught. The truck lurched, and to much cheering, it bounced back onto the road.
Mickey gave me a knowing look. I said: “How did you manage that?”
"The chief back in the village is happy because we gave him the dash and worshipped the devil with him. So the devil is happy.”
No seriously, I said. It was brilliant. He thought for a moment, then said. “I had a very good teacher. His name was John Grange. He was a missionary. He went to a school called St Lawrence College.
My God! There we were in the middle of the jungle, past midnight, shadowy sillouettes in the jungle
“He told me everything about handling power and problems,” explained Mickey.
“That’s the school I went to,” he said.
Mickey’s eyes brightened. “Do you know John Grange,” he said.
“I don’t,” I said. “But I was in Grange House.”
He paused. Thoughts tumbled through both our minds with this unexpected common ground. A strange quietness. We got into our vehicle.
“Did you know Tower House,” he asked after a few moments.
“Yes. I did.”
“Ah. Good. Then did you know a teacher called the Reverend Martin Harvey.”
And you have it Mickey Watkins in Liberia – who carried all the benchmarks of a fine Lawrentian -- initiative, kindness, bravery and an honourable risk taker.
Thank you, Nick, for inviting me. It’s good fun here and thank you all for your patience.
Humphrey Hawksley was at St Lawrence from 1965 – 1972. He is a BBC World Affairs Correspondent. His latest book is Democracy Kills; What’s So Good About Having The Vote.
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