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Heroes of Mine

In 2011 I had an article about the Norwich School published in the magazine distributed amongst former pupils. The article paid tribute to five teachers who engendered in me a love of the arts, literature and music. You can read the article below.

One of my biggest regrets in life is not acknowledging the debt I owe to my latter years at Norwich School. 

So in order to assuage any guilty feelings I decided to put pen to paper with a few reminiscences from the days at the school that I still consider to be the “start of the modern era” from the date that Stuart Andrews was appointed Head. 

Up to that point I have to admit that I floundered rather in a system that owed more to Dickensian and Victorian values than those of the swinging 60s. 

Comedian Alan Davies recently wrote an autobiography “My Favourite People and Me” which focused on his heroes and the people who had shaped his life and turned him into the man he became. That got me thinking about the people who have had the biggest influence on my life and I suddenly realised there was a primary quartet – all staff members from my schooldays. 

It hit me like a sledgehammer that my love of music (both classical and rock), the written word and many of the things I hold dear were shaped by the quartet – Peter Mackintosh, Peter Clayton, Stuart Andrews and Bernard Burrell. I owe these men much more than can be set down on paper, but at least this article may in some small way thank them. 

My biggest regret in this area came a few years ago when I missed the opportunity to personally thank two of those teachers who had such a huge affect on my life. I was dining with a friend in the garden of Hethersett Queen’s Head. Retired staff from the school were having some kind of re-union. The two Peters were there and it was my intention to make myself known. Call it shyness or perhaps still a feeling of awe but I failed to do so and shortly after I read that Mac had died and the opportunity was lost forever. 

As has already been said in various articles, the two Peters were very different (and I’m not referring here to the massive difference in height). Everyone loved Mac. His kindness and generosity (I remember him giving me a much treasured Winston Churchill commemorative coin for doing the register for him) were enough alone to make him hugely respected amongst pupils. Nobody “ragged” or messed about in Mac’s lessons, purely because we all loved him. 

I remember vividly thoroughly enjoying his English lessons and the ability he had to make everyone feel special. I also remember the praise he had for one of my early poems which he published in a school anthology and which, to be honest and from the hindsight of over 40 years, was and is truly terrible. I remember the only time he lost his temper when a personal remark was made by a fellow pupil and how guilty we all felt. I remember the excellent careers advice he gave me when I made it known that I wanted to go to journalism college rather than tread the usual university path. 

Peter Clayton was altogether a different teacher. I had tremendous respect for his knowledge and love of literature and how he made it come alive in a disciplined environment. He treated sixth formers like adults rather than boys and I have him to thank for my love of the metaphysical poets, the Bronte novels and the poetry of WB Yeats. Even he failed to explain the attraction of Jane Austin, however. 

Bernard Burrell is almost singlehandedly responsible for getting me into music. I remember double periods with him when he would play “his music” in period one and we would play ours in period two. There were only two rules. Firstly we had to listen to his music and in return he would listen to ours. Secondly he would tell us what he loved about his music and we would tell him what we loved about ours. That may have been my first steps into reviewing music – something I have spent virtually all my life doing in one form or another. 

So he played us Smetana and Dvorak and we played him Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, Chicago and The Who. I can still see him standing by the window in the music room in Bishop’s Palace, running his hands characteristically down his cheeks in pensive fashion. “So just why do you enjoy listening to a pseudo American voice” he said about Gary Brooker’s vocals on Harum’s number one hit Whiter Shade of Pale. The great thing was here was a music teacher learning along with us whilst at the same time teaching us to be analytical. 

A few years ago I visited Prague and visited the tombs of Smetena and Dvorak in Slavin Cemetery. In some ways it was my way of thanking Bernard who had died many years before – a kind of tribute to him. 

The fourth member of the quartet was the Head himself. He was a great moderniser in many ways, although his changes would today look and seem relatively small. Again he fostered in me a love of English Lit. I remember being praised for an essay about Richard III where I described the world that might have existed if he had not been killed at Bosworth Field. “Highly original” was his comment. I later acted as counsel in a mock court drama defending Richard. These were probably small incidents in the great scheme of things but ones that have stayed with me along with a jocular comment made on my school report when I was in the sixth form. “Peter has enjoyed a good term but 17 year olds shouldn’t get mumps.” 

Stuart Andrews had a sharp sense of humour and irony (probably still has) and there were two other things I remember him for. First was the legendary sixth form social club in the bowels of the chapel. Here we were allowed to “hang out” outside of school hours and enjoy our music. It must have been very strange for visitors to the Cathedral to hear Black Sabbath’s Paranoid being played at monster volume from the direction of the chapel. He also allowed us to have social evenings on Saturday evenings where alcohol was banned but for some unknown reason rough cider was okay! Then sixth formers were allowed to hold their own morning services in the chapel. I never did quite see the relevance of Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4 as a religious song! 

The second involved moves around this time, led by teacher Howard Thomas, to bring football to the school – that’s soccer as opposed to rugby. I enjoyed playing rugby but football was my first love (and still is for that matter). Stuart listened to our requests and allowed football to be played in the sixth form on Britannia Barracks. As a consequence I was able to represent the school at football as well as cricket and tennis – something I never thought would happen. Again this may have been a relatively small decision for the Head – but to us it illustrated that he listened to the opinions of us youngsters. 

A couple of years later as a reporter with the Eastern Daily Press I was sent along to cover a lunch at Norwich Rotary Club (I believe the speaker was football league referee Norman Burtenshaw). Stuart took me under his wing that day not only insisting that I sit next to him but also that I called him Stuart rather than Sir (something that took me quite some time to acclimatise to). 

Of course all this is small fry in the great scheme of things but these four gentlemen (and indeed gentle men they were) set me on a road to a lifetime’s love of the arts and gave me a wealth of good memories of my latter days at the Norwich School.