I HAVE often had a hunch that both the real Charterhouse and his locum tenens this week are, by force of circumstance, professional travelling men who • all the time were really home bodies, Certainly for me life has been more Fun than ever since my wife and I finally settled down, in the home we so seldom had lived in on the marches of Chelsea. Or why not let it rip and say Belgravia? Our phone did have a BEI gravia number in the pre • digital. And we still are SW I : for when the frontiers were drawn Belgravia was quietly extruded across Sloane Street over into "The Cadogans", to encompass his lordship of that ilk and all his enclave, including now us.
But it is to the Royal Borough (including Kensington) that I pay my rates. And for Mass we go to St Mary's, just around the corner in SW'3. As well as from Harrods borrow my books from the Chelsea Library, not from the Westminster firm. Above all, cheek by jowl with our parish church, we have St Thomas More School; and there's nothing more quintessentially Chelsea than the enduring presence of the great Lord Chancellor.
So being a governor of St Thomas More has been a special joy of what I insist is my "early" middle age. As a voluntary aided Catholic school run on comprehensive lines it dovetails perfectly with another facet of my life, involving the conviction that the independent and maintained school systems can coexist, cooperate and complement each other. Having a foot in both camps, it encourages me to meet in both sectors an identical dedication to the children's welfare on the part of parents, teachers and governors alike. What we governors would do without the St Thomas More Parent Teacher Association I can't imagine.
The Inner London Education Authority is accused — not always fairly — of a certain brontosaurian quality, in its case allegedly a function of ideology as much as of size and structure. Yet at times, even more than the diocesan authority, it can in truth seem remote, monolithic and intimidating: and that is when energetic and imaginative parents can come to the rescue, producing from the hat those instant "fringe benefits" to their children's education that make all the difference to a governor's peace of mind. Marvelling at such parents, I cannot think that these are people who would wish to sec the independent schools destroyed mainly because they are too good, or in the hope that in some roundabout way their corpses may add a windfall of nutriment to the nation's general educational compost. I'm sure that most of them, like me, worry that when parental choice goes out of the window, the parental option for a Christian education won't be far behind, with our Catholic voluntary aided schools all too soon only a memory also.
With continuing support and rather less timidity — on the part of government, the Chelsea comprehensive schools will offer, within a few school generations, a valid and classless alternative to the independent system, without any intervening educational guillotines. Most members of the supposedly elitist Headmasters' Conference are in fact, I find, true friends of the comprehen,e. c system.
Such reflections are largely prompted by the recent "neo pip squeezing" furores of Mr Neil Kinnock, the Labour spokesman on txtucation. The kind of aspiration they have voiced in their discussion paper for the autumn party conference — "Kill the independent to help the comprehensive" — has so far no official opposition status. But once it bulldozes its way on to the party platform it \+ill he hard to dislodge. And, with the end of parental choice, that of religious schooling won't be long delayed.
One's thoughts go automatically, if with a slightly qualified sympathy, to another prominent opposition figure, our old friend Kevin McNamara from the Herald's page three. The educational vicissitudes of his sons, callously exploited and publicised, have lifted the lid off an ugly cauldron of ensy, prejudice and calculation. At our local school we somehow don't feel the chill of such like odious breezes. But we do have forebodings of our own. As the recent Liverpool Congress saw full well, the faithful have their own ways — one of them starkly demographic in manifestation — of confronting certain encyclicals and their interpretation. As a result. at Catholic schools all over the country forms of entry (i.e. our little children, in that jargon by which "homes" become units of accommodation) have taken a spectacular downward curve. Its dimensions would have seemed unthinkable in the days when our archdiocese was incurring some share of its present astronomical debt on a contrary educational assumption.
So Kensington and Chelsea too will within the decade, they assure us, have too many Catholic schools. Retrenchment k accordingly inevitable. Among those then that will have to go, must our St Thomas More be sacrificed? As an unashamed local patriot I cannot bear the prospect. We are proud of our school. Fair enough — perhaps the odd and statistically predictable rowdy exception, male or female, does now and then invite tutt Jutting, slipping over the back gate for a quick smoke in class time, or screeching like a parrot house on the way home via Sloane Square tube station. But on the whole they are amiable and indeed rather beautiful children, a blessing to an inner city increasingly drained of youth and vitality. With their little brothers and sisters from their twin primary school, St Joseph's, at Mass on a Friday noon, they restore life to a whole locality already far too adult, mercantile and "fashionable". Apart from which, they also might one day represent the only Catholic comprehensive education between Hammersmith and Poplar. So we would hate them to leave us.
But awesome formulae ground out by remote statistical mills sound an ever more ominous death knell for our Chelsea urban equivalent of the much loved school.
Yet in the countryside those schools that fought hack seem to have justified their survival, and have reversed the tide of uniformity. So we too, and the parents, must fight back.
We must not of course be doctrinaire, or unfair to other similarly beleaguered schools. It could he a historical inevitability, objectively desirable even. that on that scrap of primcst London real estate where Catholic children have studied and played for a century and a half, should rise some momement of concrete and glass ecoinomically more viable.
The transaction might even go fur to wiping out the disastrous financial aftermath to the archdiocese of earlier educational extrapolations. And if the current statistical guess gets it wrong too, it will once more fall to a later generation to set it right, ruefully shaking their heads as they pass by some architectural brutalism where their village school might still have stood. . Come what may. one thing Catholic education in Chelsea must not lose. And that is its identification with the name of St Thomas More. A transplanted school could never of course enjoy the chapel and relic of Thomas More is St Mary's adjoining almost homonymous let alone the Moore Arms across the way for waiting dads, or even for the odd couple of governors after a particularly arduous meeting. But More's Chelsea without the enduring benison of his name for Catholic school children is unthinkable, unacceptable, unbearable. So, all you principalities and powers, and other administrative works of the Lord — he warned!
MEANWHILE, however. I really must demonstrate, before it's too late, that your temporary Charterhouse is not all premonition, admonition, even aggression. In fact, one pleasant surprise makes up for several unpleasant anticipations. So one of life's more amazing pleasures, as I have particularly found, is doing something with one end in view and finding that it also serves another. Bread on the waters in the abstract. in fact. And it has just happened to me again.
A couple of years ago I taped a little informal feature for the excellent internal "radio station" run by a devoted group of young volunteers at the Moorfields Eye Hospital.
You can't pick it up on your transistor outside, but it runs over a closed circuit to the headphones at every bed in the hospital's two branches. It could be that the word gets around. Or perhaps I was more notorious than I knew in my own north country as a young man.
At any rate, not so long ago I received a letter from my native heath asking me to help out with a "spoken newspaper" project for the blind. It involved my taping a few local colour reminiscences, and they would send me a cassette to record if I agreed. which of course I did.
But just before it arrived I had received another letter, this time complete with pre recorded cassette. from a friend whom I had last seen in 1934, when we were students together. I had had a piano in my rooms, but couldn't
play it. He could, and used to produce from his pocket a small square of parchment which unfolded into a vast sheet, listing the names of scores of popular tunes from which my friends were invited to take their pick. And he played them very nicely indeed. After all these years, it appeared, he had had news of me through old friends, and hoped I would enjoy this cassette of his latter day key bashing.
I was glad to have his news, and thanked him, Like Lord Rothschild, who didn't have a rich father, I don't own a cassette player but, I explained, my son does. So when next round there I would use his, and enjoy the tape. Next day however, the blank cassette for the blind turned up from my "spoken newspaper '. Since I didn't want to keep them waiting I thought I'd better crash the technological harrier, and hire a cassette recorder from our neighbourhood electronic wizard. In fact as soon as he saw the special postal return wallet marked "For the Blind" he lent me a machine for free, all but the batteries.
Having taped what I hoped were some cheerful and not too mendacious tales of long ago, I decided while at it to try out my college friend's tape. To my delight, and to the mystification of my wife, who wondered whether the ghosts of Billy Mayer, "Hutch", "Fats" Wailer, Charley Kunz and a few more of the epoch had materialised in my study, the house was suddenly alive with the magisterially interpreted strains of Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and Noel Coward. My old friend must not only still be in great demand, as sexagenarians go, but his unimpaired dexterity also testified to forty-odd years of steadily refined technique. He can well hold his own with the departed maestros of our youth catalogued above.
SO ONE good turn to an old friend had brought me another from another. It is not the first time bread has come back to me on the waters in an unexpected shape and setting. The last but one was in a nearby hospital to which — like our authentic Charterhouse I from time to time repair.
I was paying a brief care and maintenance excursion across the Chelsea border to the Westminster Hospital — of which, as a result of their ministrations, I now declare myself an ardent "Friend", in the technical and militant sense.
The lady in pink candy stripes behind the reception desk had seemed to ignore my arrival. Head down, she just went on scribbling till, at the last line of her document. she looked up and said "You're RC. I know," and handed me the completed form needing just my signature. Apparently among other volunteer activities she was librarian for that floor, and had recognised me from a book I once wrote. Though I had done so solely to put on record some not very entertaining facts, it was now, she explained, serving an additional purpose, as a therapy for their most depressed patients. So out of a record of evil was coming an. unexpected good.
As often happens with the best medicine and hospitals, tinkering with one part of my rather vintage machinery had prompted the surgeons to check the trimming of another. So some weeks later I was back again, but in quite another glade of the Westminster Hospital forest. My mouth plugged by a thermometer, I was sitting up in bed when a trolley laden with books was wheeled under my nose by another lady in volunteer pink. I made honking noises via my thermometer and pointed at a familiarly jacketed volume. "Oh no," she said. "That's not for you. We encourage that for severely depressed patients: and your morale's very high."
By this time the nurse had uncorked my speaking apparatus. "I don't want it," I explained "It's just that 1 wrote it!" Once again, here was something done for one purpose, but serving another, never contemplated but far more important.
At the Gloucester Road tube the other day I hurried to the slot machine for an urgent 15p ticket to Earl's Court. The queue at the ticket office reached out into the street, but I stopped gloating over bypassing it when I found that, though amply stocked with that penny of today, the 10p piece, for once I lacked the indispensable erstwhile shilling that would let me jump that endless queue.
A young woman of the reputedly heartless new generation was just turning away complete with ticket. She looked so sympathetically at my exasperating fistful of former florins that I ventured to asic ner if she had any spare 5p pieces. "I do believe I have one", she rejoiced, and put it into my full hand, waving away the other one proffering my surplus 10p piece. But her purse wasnot yet closed, so I had time to drop it in, on the ground that this would never do.
Moments later, on t he platform, there was abrupt movement behind me. "Mugged at last, and in broad daylight!" I thought, till a friendly voice said: "Look! I found the other Sp!"
Well, well! It's the same old good old England after all, thank God! So I found myself thinking. and indeed attending to my second stage thanks. "Of course • it is," my wife commented when 1 got back home,-"To wreck this place they'll really have to work at it!"