North East People

My teenage years

Audio version of this article.

When I left my boys’ preparatory boarding school at the age of 13½, Major Reynolds had retired as headmaster and his role had been taken over by a duumvirate of Mr Potter and Mr Peel.

Mr Potter had been in a Japanese prison camp for three years during the war and it showed in his volatile temper: rages followed by periods of withdrawal. Mr Peel was much more even-tempered.

Before I left at the end of the autumn term, Mr Peel called me into his office and gave me a talk about the evils of public school life. “You will encounter wicked boys there,” he said. “Boys will try to get you to do things that you know are wrong. Stand up to them, Walker; stand up to them.”

“Blimey,” I thought, “he must be warning me about something like Fagin’s gang or …” and I couldn’t think of what other evils he could be thinking of. I suppose I should have had a hint on one occasion when Major Reynolds got really angry with me and another boy one night. We weren’t allowed to talk after lights-out in our dormitories but, when we were about ten years old, my friend and I got into bed together to whisper stories to each other. And I just could not understand why Major Reynolds was so irate. “Never never let me see you in another boy’s bed!” he roared. Yes, OK: we had broken a rule but why the uproar about it?

When I got to Stowe, a boys’ public school in the Buckinghamshire countryside, I soon found out. I was quite a handsome boy and pretty soon got the attention of older boys and finally understood why getting into another boy’s bed was considered wrong and what Mr Peel had been warning me about. You can’t expect to throw 600 teenage boys together for ten weeks at a time and not have their raging hormones want an outlet. Some boys already knew that they were gay but for most it was just matey puppy-like mucking about.

Stowe School
Photo from geograph

From 1945 until 1957 we spent our summer holidays in Wales. At first, my parents hired a cottage called Gaerwen a few miles south of Cardigan and later another cottage, called Gwtws, just south of Fishguard. Neither cottage had electricity or inside running water; we used paraffin lamps for lighting and heating and a bucket as a lavatory. My cousin David and I were charged with digging a big hole in the nearby field and tipping the bucket into it when it got full – not a job we welcomed. We got drinking water from a nearby spring and other water from a little stream that was closer to the cottage.

Just across the valley from Gaerwen was a farm with a dairy herd. Every morning, Idwel, the farmer’s son, used to load the full milk churns onto the trap, harness his horse and drive to the main road in Moylegrove, the local village, from where the milk would be loaded into the Milk Marketing Board tanker. And we were allowed to ride in the trap with him.

One Sunday, we turned up at the farm as usual to ride in the milk trap. “Not today,” said Idwel. “Chapel people ‘ave been complaining so from now on there’ll be no more joy-riding on the Sabbath.” And restrictions on Sundays applied not only to “joy-riding”: one Sunday, my aunt hung out our wet bathing costumes and towels on the washing line and was severely censured by a local farmer. And on another occasion we returned from a day out to find that a young couple had tried to drive their little car down the track that ran alongside a stream, found it was a dead end, tried to reverse back again and had tipped the car over the bank, one side in the stream and one still on the track. A group of about ten men from the village, all dressed in their Sunday suits, had been watching this little drama from a little hillock above the track. But it was the sabbath; so there was no help from them. The car was finally put back on the track by my uncle, my father and its owner.

Another place I went for a few summer holidays was Germany. Before the war, my aunt Nancy had married Fritz Schmidt and she was in Germany when the war started so had to stay there. He was a factory inspector and joined the Nazi party (only to further his career, he said later). Under the shortlived denazification process after the war, Fritz was relieved of his job and, in order to feed the family, Nancy and her surviving son, Robin, came over to stay with us. (I say “surviving son” because his older brother had been killed in an RAF air-raid on Augsburg.) Denazification did not last long; Fritz got his job back, Nancy and Robin returned to Germany and I was invited for the holidays, first in Regensburg and then in Coburg.

From 1948, our winter holiday was spent in Wengen in the Swiss Bernese Oberland. That’s where I learnt to ski – but obviously not well enough, for in 1951 I broke my leg in three places. My two older brothers had challenged me to a race down part of the Lauberhorn race track and had sent me down first. I was in plaster for 2½ months.

My teenage years were not fraught with angst. I enjoyed summer holidays in Wales and Germany. I succeeded at school but now disagree very strongly with the private education system: so-called “public” schools should be put out of business.

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