AT 8.53 a.m. on Friday. October 16, I discovered one of the last of an endangered species alive and wen in a leafy square of London's Gloucester Road. St Philip's is a survivor of the dwindling breed of privatelyowned Catholic day preparatory schools. It celebrates its 50th birthday in 1984.
The atmosphere of the school struck me almost a physical blow. Solid nostalgia. It was just like my own prep school all those years ago, down to that slightly shabby air that little boys manage to give to wooden desks and gloss paint wainscotting, and the little bottles of milk with their straws laid out ready on the dining room table. Just right.
My introductory glimpse of Mr David Atkinson, the headmaster, was through the hatch or trap door to his study, into which a succession of boys were explaining their black marks of the day before or the lack of their history homework. Inside, the headmaster leant over a steel filing cabinet to issue summary judgment. Behind him the gas fire whispered.
"Don't put your hand down suddenly." were his first words to me, referring to what once had been a kind of small smooth haired terrier. now camouflaged in a cocoon of fat, like a sausage in a roll. His name was Tim. presumably after his tigerish appetite for fingers, and he soon turned his attention from attacking a bone to wiping his nose on my trouser turnups. He had been at the school ten years.
People tend to stay on at St Philip's. The youngest master, Harry Biggs-Davison, son of the NIP. was a boy there himself. Later I found Mrs Deidre Tolmie explaining atm to a small class for the 25th season.
Assembly:— or do they call it prayers? — a hymn (Faith of Our Fathers ). The soloists fail through lack of practice. Mr Atkinson exhorts the whole school to supply for them. Then a decade of the Rosary. Those boys without share with neighbours, using different decades to tell.
The astonishing thing is that neither the headmaster nor the other part-owner of the school, his aunt and the widow of its founder. Mrs Muriel Tibbits, are Catholics. Richard Tibbits was. Everyone follows in his mould. Ten per cent of the boys are non-Catholics, but there is no discrimination. "You're from a Catholic family, aren't you Church?" "No, Sir, Church of England." Sorry headmaster, wrong Church.
A boy stands on a chair to read the Gospel, quite well. Render unto Caeser... It is expounded by Mr John Milward, brother of the saintly (he seemed to us boys) Richard Milward, the best history master a Catholic comprehensive has ever heard of, also brother to Fr Peter \Iilward, the Japan-based Jesuit historian.
Caesar ( not Julius but Tiberius), it appears, was a bad hat.
Exactly the phrase, by the way, used by the British Consul of Sebastian Flyte's German companion in Morocco in Brideshead Revisited Nero too, we are told, was a bad hat, though St Paul says "Fear God and honour the king", talking of him. And St Thomas More fell out with in some ways an even worse hat, Henry VIII, but died for what his conscience told him was right. It is not always eas), to see what that is. Well, that's true enough.
The register ... rapid dispersal ... classes. Stephen de la Bedoyere, son of the famous ( yes he was) editor of the Catholic Herald is teaching French with an immaculate accent. It is impossible to deny that these are great men. With the absolute power of petty potentates, they choose not to tyrannise, but to inspire hundreds of boys to learning and Faith.
The top forms are preparing for the Common Entrance. Half the Catholics seem to want to go to Westminster. An odd choice. But then, Catholic parents sometimes prefer to send their boys to non-Catholic prep schools in the area. Perhaps they are deluded by facilitieslike Spenser's Bower of Blisse). I can't think why. And what should Socrates want with an overhead projector?
They even showed me the kitchens. Just the same as when Anne, our school cook, used to boil up mince. A vast kettle is already steaming. A scales with marked weights sits on the dresser. On a slate is chalked "Flour, Cold Meat, Disinfectant, Bleach". Not the menu, I hope.
Mr Atkinson wants to build science labs on the roof. He had the plans, but no funds. "We showed you how the school runs, warts and all, you can say what you like." I was impressed. It must be supported.