It is usually a mistake to return to places one has known as a child. I have only once been back to the large, white-stuccoed, early-Victorian manor house in Hertfordshire where I was born and brought up, and it was a dispiriting experience. Although the house was near to the town of Ware, less than an hour’s drive from central London, it was set in unspoiled country alongside a village in which the names of some of the inhabitants had been there in the Domesday Book. Apart from a small row of bleak pre-war council houses on the edge of the village, there was nothing there to offend the eye or to suggest proximity to a great city.
My parents, finding the house too expensive to run, sold it in 1959, when I was 19 years old, and I didn’t go back for some 20 years after that. But when I did, I found that everything had changed dramatically for the worse. The walled kitchen garden had had maybe a dozen houses built in it, and there were more new houses along the short drive to the house, which itself had become some kind of grim residential institution. I may have idealised my childhood somewhat, but I didn’t want my memories of it ruined for ever. So I rushed away, vowing never to return.
Last weekend I took another risk by visiting the prep school, Pinewood near Shrivenham in Wiltshire, where I had boarded for five years from the age of eight and which I had not revisited during the subsequent 60 years. An invitation had arrived out of the blue from the present headmaster, Philip Hoyland, to a lunch ‘for the Old Pinewoodians 1930–1959’, referring to the years in which we had left the school. To have left in 1930 one would now have to be nearly 100 years old, so it wasn’t surprising that there was nobody there of that vintage. The oldest person present had left in 1940, making him presumably in his late eighties. I left in 1953.
The school had changed, of course. The gravel drive from which we schoolboys were once made to sweep the leaves in autumn had become a tarmacked one with speed bumps. Modern extensions had sprouted from the side of the main building (a rather dreary neo-Jacobean manor house) as the school expanded to include not only girls as well as boys, and non-boarders as well as boarders, but also pre-prep pupils as young as three. But basically it seemed much the same. The main house didn’t feel smaller, as childhood places are supposed to when you grow up, but seemed the size that I remembered it; as did the playing fields where I once made daisy chains while fielding at cricket and earned the one-sentence rugby report: ‘Chancellor prefers to avoid the ball.’ The assembly room looked much as it had looked in 1952 when the headmaster called us together to announce the death of King George VI, and we all blubbed. And rather to my surprise, I didn’t feel sad.
On the whole, schools depress me. But a school full of old, retired people is much less depressing than one full of children (Pinewood’s students had all somehow vanished for the day). And it’s a strange and rather exciting experience to meet again men you knew only as children but who have now retired from long and fulfilling careers. It is as if you have known them only before and after their lives. As for my contemporaries, there were ones whom I remembered but who didn’t remember me, and the other way round. There was a boy called Odling-Smee, whose name had made a great impression on me and who once explained it by saying that ‘a Smee had married an Odling and added Odling to his name because the Odlings were posher than the Smees’, but he hadn’t a clue who I was.
I had accepted the invitation with some trepidation because I had written about Pinewood in The Spectator once before, suggesting that its admired headmaster of my day, G.R. Wakeham, was a closet paedophile. But only one fellow guest reproached me for it, and he in a good-natured way. I did, however, raise the issue with other veterans of that era, and nobody would confirm it or deny it or discuss it. There was clearly much reluctance to join in any possible besmirchment of the school’s reputation, and maybe also to permit any sulliment of the Old Pinewoodians’ own memories. For even then Pinewood was, as I recall, quite a happy school, and today, I suspect, it is happier still. For the warmth of the welcome we received, the generosity of the arrangements (good food, much wine), and the apparent lack of any ulterior motive in giving us has-beens a jolly day out suggested a pretty confident and contented institution.