November 2014 Although I find it hard to believe that my parents ever went to school (no reflection on their intellect, of course) if we think about it, pretty much all of us have one thing in common: we are all former school pupils. Therefore we are all Old Boys or Old Girls
To different people, this means different things, but to a former pupil of a British boarding school this ‘club’ as it is sometimes referred to, often plays a key – and positive – role in the rest of a person’s personal and professional life.
These days, when applied to the former alumni of British boarding schools, the term Old Boy or Old Girl can conjure up images of elitism, invoking envy and criticism. However, just as these schools have moved on from the days of cold showers, caning and fagging, so has the Old Boy network widened to include a more varied membership than the cigar-puffing monocled gentlemen in their London clubs.
I feel in no way superior to someone who has not been to a British boarding school or to my particular school (and I would be extremely foolish if I did). I cannot deny, however, that I feel proud of being an Old girl and I put this down to the agreeable sensation of belonging which began with my arrival at the school and never really finishes. I say this despite the fact that – for some extraordinary reason – the name bestowed upon former pupils of my all-girl boarding school is an Old Fish.
Former Old Fish include the designer Anya Hindmarch and CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour. Other boarding schools have produced a variety of well-known figures, ranging from the members of Radiohead (who all met at school), Roald Dahl, Salman Rushdie, Tony Blair and Guy Fawkes. The rest of us are average members of the public, scattered around Britain and the rest of the world, but bound by our schoolday experiences.
Former pupils of all ages are often to be found back at their old schools. Sometimes working as ‘Gappies’ whilst on their year between school and university, sometimes later on in life, coming back to give talks about their careers or experiences to the next generation. Often, however, an Old Boy or Girl will just pop back to check up on their old school and have a chat with a former teacher or housemaster or headmistress. In my own children’s school, it is always a delight to see former pupils, now fathers of current pupils, chatting to elderly members of staff who taught them when they themselves were at the school. Then, of course, there are the highly contested sports events between Old Boy or Girls and current pupils, where one realises that the competitive, team spirit has not diminished the slightest bit.
My father wore his pink, maroon and navy stripey socks (Old Carthusian*) with pride until he was a very Old Boy indeed. His wartime school days must have been extremely tough and austere, yet he wore the Old School Tie (or socks) with great pride, often reccounting those times to us with an impish grin. Most of the teaching staff, he told us, was sent off to fight and replaced by extremely elderly figures, ill-suited to dealing with young teenagers (even if children were more respectful of their elders in the ‘old days’). My father, being the elder of two brothers, was adressed as Scriven Major and his brother as Scriven Minor (sadly, I never asked him how the naming worked if there were three or more of the same family). He remembered a bomb being dropped in the school grounds and the boys – when writing their weekly letters back home – being instructed not to tell their parents how close it had fallen to the school buildings. It appears he also spent quite a lot of time in the school woods munching on wild garlic leaves so that his breath smelled appalling and he was exonerated from singing. I don’t know how much these stories hid terrible home-sickness, but he always remained proud of being an Old Boy, invariably delighted to meet a fellow Verite** and taking us back to the school to show us where he had spent many of his teenage years. The news of the introduction of girls to the school in the 70s was rather a shock to him, it has to be said, and was accompanied by mutterings of “in the old days”…..
Girls in boys’ schools, exeat week-ends, home clothes in the evenings, telephones and computers: times have changed considerably since my father’s school days. However, the traditions within live on and – given the demand for places at British boarding schools – obviously still appeal. In a world of accelerating change, increasing competition and worldwide proliferation, a firm grounding in a child’s formative years of education are paramount. And this not simply on the academic level, but in terms of acquiring social skills, confidence, independence and – dare I say it – good manners and certain standards in order to be a positive example in our giddy world.
* Old Carthusian: name given to former pupil of Charterhouse
** Verite: name of house at Charterhouse