☰ Norfolk House Alumni Blog - Christian Andree

Norfolk House Alumni Blog - Christian Andree

Posted on: June 22nd 2017

I arrived at Norfolk House in the Autumn term of 1964, having just turned four. As such, I was probably the youngest (and certainly the smallest!) member of the school that year. To this day, I can still vividly remember being whisked away from my mother, and escorted into the assembly hall with the other new boys, where I stood petrified as I looked at the row of school masters in their long black gowns.

“Andrée, you are in Wolfe,” said a tall blond boy called Fletcher, who was Head Boy and Head of Wolfe House. I was not to know it at the time, but nine years later, I was to become the first Head Boy from Wolfe since Fletcher’s departure that following year. However, I am getting ahead of myself, so will return to how it all began.

Those first words I heard would have taught me two things. Firstly, I was to be known only by my surname for the length of my time at the school. We barely knew one another’s first names unless we were good friends in the same year, and older and younger brothers (it was an all boys’ school in those days) were addressed with their surname followed by ‘primus’, ‘secondus’, ‘tertius’, and in one case ‘quartus.’ This would cause no end of confusion when a ‘primus’ left the school, and the ‘secondus’ became the new ‘primus’ etc! I assume things have probably changed since then….

Secondly, I was introduced to the concept of ‘houses.’ Maybe these remain the same today, but when I joined, there was Clive, Nelson, Wellington and Wolfe.  Those of us in Clive and Wolfe were to feel a bit left out when it came to history lessons in later years, but Wolfe House has left me with a yearning to one day visit Quebec! My housemaster was an eccentric, unpredictable man called Mick Holmes. While possibly gentle at heart, he would scare students to bits with his icy stare, and, were you to be summoned to him with a flick of index finger, you would go with utter trepidation. His ultimate threat was to give a good thrashing with a cricket bat, and while none of us ever saw him carry this out, there was always a terrible fear in one’s mind that there was a first time for everything.

I was put into the first year class which was called “K&N” (a bizarre shortened version of Kindergarten, I assume) and spent my first 18 months there and in the follow up “Pre-prep.” After this, we moved into the more conventional first, second form etc., until finishing years later in sixth and, for some, a more elite group called ‘Specials’ where performance expectations and the public embarrassment factor when getting a basic question wrong were both considerably higher

“K&N” and “Pre-prep” were located on the very top floor of the building, and were run by the most gentle of ladies, Mary Prager. She was the wife of Captain Prager who was the school’s second in command, and, when she passed away in around 1970, the whole school mourned. She was simply the most ideal person to teach a group of four and five year olds, a loving and loveable maternal figure who was compassionate to everyone, but still managed to instil all the necessary basic education for future years. I arrived in her class knowing nothing, and left able to read and to recite twelve multiplication tables. I have nothing but the fondest memories of her.

The main core of teaching staff stayed fairly constant in my years at Norfolk House.  There was tremendous staff loyalty, and changes were infrequent. The only real amount of flux took place when Captain Prager died shortly after his wife. He had been the main maths teacher, and his replacements never really filled his shoes properly, nor did they last very long. Captain Prager was a tall, smart man with moustache, gruffer than his lovely wife, but with a very kindly heart when you got to know him. It was tragic that the school lost these two fine teachers in such a short space of time.  

I cannot continue without talking about the Headmaster, William Howat. He was a large, imposing, bearded gentleman, always immaculately dressed with waistcoat and a large gem attached to a lapel, the significance of which was never made clear. A Scotsman with an incredibly deep voice but soft accent, he was respected, liked – and sometimes feared – by all. When Mr Howat spoke, you listened and obeyed, or faced the consequences. You also knew that whatever he said was right and correct, because he was utterly impartial with all his decisions. He oversaw a level of extraordinarily good academic ethos and fair discipline, and has been without doubt one of the most influential figures in my life. He has also left me with some French grammatical rules which I remember to this day! Yes, he had an oversize canvas gym shoe, which he inexplicably named ‘Algie’, and which he occasionally used as a punishment on the offender’s backside, but, if it was used, one always knew that one had done wrong and that it was not going to really hurt anyway. This may seem at odds with the way things work these days both at school and at home, but we are talking about the 1960s here, and, if you were to ask me if it did me any long term damage, I would have to say ‘no.’ But let us leave that controversial topic and put it to one side!

William Howat was ably assisted by his wife, Elizabeth, who taught the first form. She was much stricter than Mary Prager, but five and six year old boys needed to be transitioned successfully into the more senior part of the school, and she achieved this magnificently. (They also had to be readied for taking on Mick Holmes, who looked after the second form!)

Their two sons, Robin and William, also taught at the school (though William only stood in occasionally for other teachers if they were out: he seemed to have a great life, coming in on demand for a few weeks, then disappearing into what we boys assumed to be some global adventure the rest of the time. I’m sure the truth was much more mundane.)

Robin taught science and geography. He was more volatile than his laid-back brother, but never in a threatening way. He always showed an interest in trying out new things, particularly in his science class, and had an infectious enthusiasm. He brought new pieces of equipment into the school for experiments and basic research, took us on field trips to science fairs, raised locusts in a glass tank and showed us how to dissect a rabbit and a frog (though I do remember thinking this a little too gory for my tastes!)  Unfortunately, the experiment I remember him best for, however, was when he proudly arrived with some new dyes to use on microscope slides. He bragged about how good and permanent they were, opened a bottle and promptly spilled it all over his white shirt. Twenty boys then spent the rest of the hour trying not to laugh – or indeed wet themselves.

Robin was also a fairly accomplished artist, and it was in this area that I let him down completely. I was a good pupil in his other subjects, but was utterly hopeless at drawing or painting. He found this hugely disappointing especially since he knew full well that my father had some of his own works exhibited in the Royal Academy. If Robin is reading this, he may like to know that things appear to have skipped a generation, and my daughter shows a lot more promise than I was ever capable of!

He was in fairness quite an all-rounder. He would also occasionally bring in a guitar and sing to us, when covering for the music teacher, Anthony Cutbush. Mr Cutbush himself was a very kindly soul who adored his music, but had no capacity for dealing with a group of rowdy boys. His was the only class in which we could find some latitude for mischief, especially when he had his back toward us while at the piano, and we challenged him mercilessly. I doubt that any of us are particularly proud about that today.

I have left my favourite teacher to last: Charles Hurd was a real inspiration to me academically, just as William Howat was in terms of his overall sense of fair play. Mr Hurd taught history, scripture (which in real terms he treated like history set in the biblical times,) and most importantly Latin. When I tell people today that I was learning ‘amo, amas, amat’ at the age of eight, they look at me as if I must have gone to school in the Vatican, but the fact is that I adored his Latin classes, in which he mixed grammatical rules and origins of words with pertinent anecdotes. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but gave his all to any student who showed interest in the topics he loved. He set high standards, but if you made the effort to attain them, he would reward you accordingly.

Charles Hurd also looked after the football first eleven, but I rarely saw him in that capacity: my goalkeeping would probably not have got me into the fifth team! The whole school would go off twice a week by bus to local playing fields, change in freezing sheds, get divided up by talent, and then kick a rock hard ball around for an hour getting progressively more and more filthy. It was then back on the bus for the rest of the day and really was not much fun.

Summer term should have been better in that the changing rooms were warmer, but summer meant cricket, and I was worse at that than I was at football! In this term, we also got to go swimming once a week at Arnos Grove, or sometimes in a ridiculously cold outside pool in East Finchley. And, yes, many of us dreaded that too. And to finish with this summary of my Norfolk House sporting history, we also had boxing classes one evening a week, during which I was ceremoniously punched and bruised by boys twice my size. I guess all this explains why I took up tennis as soon as I left……

Winter term would see the preparation for the school play, which was directed by the Headmaster, who had himself adapted it from the original. It all got very exciting in early December when the stage was constructed in one of the ground floor classrooms, and Robin Howat started painting the scenery. Behind this scenery, during the performance, more than twenty boys plus stage managers would be cramped into a tiny space for two hours and had to remain still and silent until it was time to go on stage. It was not for anyone who suffered from claustrophobia, and I am quite sure that it would not be allowed under today’s health and safety laws! I was involved in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Peter Pan.’ In the last of these, I was cast as one of the children, and at one point I had a rope attached to a belt I was wearing, and was hauled into the air by pulley to give the pretence of flying. Five minutes after the final flight of the final night, the pulley fell out of the ceiling….

I cannot conclude on life at Norfolk House without touching on the food. The kitchen was run by a formidable lady called Olive, who stood for no nonsense, and snorted in disdain if you were to ask for a smaller portion of something that you just did not like to eat. We were always relieved when she was away, and were looked after by the lovely mild-mannered Eileen who always treated us with sympathy, and who knew for example that the mashed potato was particularly nasty. The school would all eat downstairs on the ground floor with partitions between rooms pulled back to transform the space into a vast cafeteria. Class by class, we would troop upstairs to the kitchen, take our plate, go around the kitchen table, say “Thank you, Olive” (though we did not really mean it!) and head back down to our allotted space. After eating the main course, we would do exactly the same thing for dessert. Meanwhile, the four houses would take it in turns to clear the tables and wipe then down. Straight after the meal, everyone would head to the playground except for the duty house which would tidy up and convert the space back in classrooms for the afternoon.

The menu did not vary in all the years I was there. Monday was alternated between macaroni cheese and spam, and the rest of the week was filled with fishcakes (Tuesday,) roast beef, or I think that what it was meant to be anyway (Wednesday,) sausages (Thursday,) and the quite horrible Friday mince stew. Everything was accompanied with the dreaded mashed potato which rarely avoided huge lumps in it. Many of us tried to offload food on some of our less-discerning colleagues, but this was strictly against the rules, and, if caught, we would be forced to eat under the direct supervision of a teacher.

Tea (jam sandwiches and a slice of cake) was only marginally better for those of us who stayed into the evening for extra-curricular activities like drama or for ‘prep’ sessions when students could stay on to do their homework before being collected by parents. This made for a long day with a 6pm finish, and the extra hours were compulsory for the nine of us who were prefects. (We also all had to attend Saturday school in those days.)

Prefects were treated with more privileges than the rest of the school. The Headmaster, when calling the school up for daily parade, would even refer to them as ‘patricians’ while the rest were ‘plebeians.’ There were two per house, a Head of House and his deputy, (except for the Head Boy’s house since the Head Boy was set apart even from the prefects and relinquished his Head of House responsibilities to his number two.) Prefects got to dispense with the traditional orange blazer and cap, and were issued with a dark blue blazer with gold trim and matching cap. Heads of Houses also had a tassel to hang off their lapel (which caused no end of merriment to boys from other schools on public transport.) Not even prefects however could avoid the blue corduroy baggy shorts and orange and blue woollen socks!

The band of nine prefects would line up every morning ahead of school in the Headmaster’s study to bid him good morning, and then line up again at 6pm to say goodnight and to report on anything untoward that had been spotted during the day. The Head Boy (and this was me in my final year) would lead the troop in, but would also have the extra honour of being invited to mid-morning snacks and coffee every day with Mr and Mrs Howat and the School Bursar, Commander Bowells. All this went on while every other boy was in the playground, rain or shine. I would also be given a special ‘Head Boy’ lunch which was a larger portion than usual and was kept warm in the oven along with the teaching staff meals. I would get chips rather than mashed potato when Olive cooked them for the teachers, and would soon have a swarm of colleagues begging them off me when I got downstairs to eat. The large portion did of course have its drawbacks, however. An extra sausage was most welcome, but extra mince stew was most certainly not.

The Head Boy’s life, while being totally undemocratic, was a good one. Being absolved from normal Head of House duties was a genuine relief, and the only real jobs I had were the ringing the school gong on the first floor to signify the end of each lesson slot, and the accompanying of visitors like prospective parents around the school. I also would lead the school parades on Sports Day and other events, and stand alongside the Headmaster on School Prize Giving Day. So, yes, it was an easy position for other school members to be very envious of, but the way the whole tier structure was set up by William Howat, it all seemed fair and proper right from an early age. Everyone was encouraged to aspire to his wishes, and to achieve as much as possible in the fairest way possible.

I have tried, in writing this, to give view of what life was like at Norfolk House all those years ago. I daresay that changes since then would make the place today totally unrecognisable to me and my colleagues. Perhaps I should drop by and see for myself!

I would like to finish by saying that Norfolk House did a lot for me in terms of getting me ready for my next ports of call (Highgate and then University in the USA,) and taught me lessons that I still value to this day. I feel hugely fortunate that my parents chose it for me, and can only acknowledge those fine teachers who were instrumental in my formative years.


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