I attended that unique British institution, the exceptionally minor public school. Two of them actually, the first in their desperation to see the back of me offering up a glowing (and utterly misleading) reference, which secured my place at the other.
At the latter joint there was a trio of masters who had all been on staff since the late 1920s (this being the early 1970s).
Willy Barron was a pudgy, rosy-cheeked old queen who naturally enough had been responsible for the Winter Theatricals since before the war. Jim Rennie was from Penrith in the Lake District and spoke with that peculiar Cumbrian accent which ostentatiously drops the ‘g’s from the ends of words as in: “Billin’ my dog Rinty has a better chance of passin’ the ‘A’ level, now take pinch of snuff.” He was addicted to snuff, which left a permanent orange stain on the heavy tweed suits he wore winter and summer, and which he dispensed from a silver snuff box to idiots like me for inattention or sheer stupidity.
Joe Hodgson looked as if he’d been hewn from a coalface. He was in fact a miner’s son who had miraculously made it to Oxford in the early 1920s where he’d gained a boxing ‘Blue’ in addition to his degree. He spoke in a rumbling growl that could have come from the lower registers of a large pipe organ.
There was a vigorous local skinhead culture back then and the school was a favoured target for the local lads. On one occasion a dozen or so were seen lurking with intent on school grounds. Joe got word of the impending assault and lumbered out to meet them. Towering over them all he removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and growled, “Right. First five.” There were no takers.
These days all three of these delightful gentlemen would have been hauled up before disciplinary boards if they even had a job: a sex abuse scandal waiting to happen, a proponent of violence as dispute resolution and a dispenser of tobacco products to minors. Oh yeah, and Joe Hodgson would probably have been stabbed to death.
The dullards are gradually correcting the eccentricity out of us all. Which is a shame because there was a time when just occasionally, the chasms between people could be bridged by sheer personality.