In 1956 Gordonstoun School was in transition between the founding spirit of Kurt Hahn, an educational genius who ran the school by force of his (warm, eccentric) personality and a more traditional headmaster and his colleagues. It is not widely appreciated today, perhaps because of the distraction of the royal connection to the school, that Hahn was a unique and highly influential educational polymath. He had previously founded Schule Schloss Salem in Germany in the 1920s until driven to Britain by the nazi regime. He founded Gordonstoun originally in Wales in the 30s and eventually in Scotland.
It was Kurt Hahn who inspired and helped to found the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme as well as the United World College of the Atlantic, an affiliate of United World Colleges, which also derive their inspiration from his work and ideas. The liberal and progressive education of the Atlantic schools has spread across the world with centres in China, Africa, the USA, Singapore and elsewhere. His ideas and assistance created half a dozen other schools: Anavryta in Greece, Louisenlund in Germany, Boxhill and Rannoch in the UK, Ibadan in Nigeria and the Athenian School in the USA.
As if this were not enough, Hahn was the inspiration, origination and guiding hand in the Outward Bound movement, which has flourished over 50 years with some 40 schools and 200,000 pupils each year seeking to develop inter-personal growth and leadership skills through the use of challenging outdoor activities.
Gordonstoun’s school motto was a simple one: Plus est en vous
. In 1956, just three years after Hahn had retired, a handful of the teachers were still left over from the ancien régime, one or two of them among the best teachers I was ever to experience. Especially in English, which some spoke with a heavy German accent but with a passion and freshness unparalleled in mere English schools. Their pastoral interest in the boys was undoubted. Gordonstoun was, in those days, a boys only school. The prep school, also boys only, was situated a dozen miles away in a valley of the river Spey. The pre-prep, which no longer exists, was – curiously – a mixed boarding school, though at ages up to 11 the boys had a limited interest in what girls might contribute to their social lives.
Gordonstoun itself consisted then of about eight large buildings, sprawled across a fairly bleak landscape in what was once called the Laich of Moray. The school was wedged in its sprawl between the end of a very active runway and some fairly spectacular sea cliffs which plunged down to and overlooked the coldest sea in the British Isles. Pilots from the royal naval airbase adjoining the school grounds were told that landing in the Moray Firth without protective equipment gave one a life expectancy of about 20 minutes. This was in July or August, so the temperature of the sea was a significant factor in the weather patterns of the school’s micro-climate.
During my time there in the mid to late 50s, fighter planes had only recently been developed to fly at speeds in excess of the sound barrier. This resulted in sonic booms – a kind of explosive crash of sound – interrupting classes several times during the day. The airbase hadn’t been told that a plane flying faster than the sound barrier was environmentally unwelcome and the flights over school and aerodrome occurred regularly each week for two or three years.
I managed to appoint myself as roving reporter for the school 'newspaper' which I had founded along with the rather senior and superior Anthony Haden-Guest. But while Anthony stayed in his study and wrote think pieces (for the rest of his productive and colourful life) I was permitted to accompany our various rescue services on their call outs. The fire service was once summoned to the site of a crashed plane at the naval airbase. Your rugged reporter accompanied them as they arrived, somewhat late, at the site where there was little to do but gaze at the twisted wreckage and the burned broom surrounding it. The pilot’s body had been removed. But the rugged reporter was nonetheless able to take a fairly grisly photograph of the late pilot’s helmet lying on the ground with just a few stains of ash inside its metal curves.
The photo was pulled down from the early edition and replaced with a general scene of the crash site alongside an anodyne report of the event. But it haunts me to this day.
My housemaster was one of Hahn’s friends from Salem. Erich Meissner looked like an animated cartoon of an absent-minded professor with his shock of white hair, his large black-rimmed glasses, his wayward duffle coat and his full-sized poodle, Ponto, ever at his side. No child who lived in the Round Square house was ever in doubt about Meissner’s genuine pastoral interest in each of us. Sudden impulsive gestures of kindness or praise were interspersed with curious distancing or apparent disinterest. He was a brilliant teacher. English and ancient history were his main subjects, certainly his main enthusiasms. It is hard now to recall the ways in which passion for a subject communicates to a child studying the subject, but Meissner’s interest, knowledge and love for literature and history were his teaching methods of genius.
I was once paying little heed as he read something aloud to the class from a Churchill biography. It was dull and he was rarely dull. At the end of the reading he asked the class to write a precis of what he had just read to us. My inattention led to my daring to write a single sentence because I knew no more. Fearing a severe dressing down, I wrote what I knew and that was little enough: 'War does not always solve political problems nor does victory always go to the most just cause'. It was obviously going to receive a very poor mark and would identify the boy in the class who cared least about the topic.
'A brilliant precis', said Meissner, flourishing my essay. 'Concise, accurate and brief. This receives an alpha plus and the class is dismissed to enjoy some free time'.
The only other time when my unwillingness to be involved resulted in a happy outcome for everyone was when playing cricket for the Round Square against Duffus House during a summer term. I loathed cricket but my friend Henry Head was keeping score that day so I contrived to be placed on the boundary, close to the pavilion and far enough away from the cricketing activity to enjoy a natter with the scorer on a pleasant afternoon. A shout of warning was the first I knew that a hard, spherical object was heading straight for me. I raised my hands in self defence and prevented the ball from breaking my nose. The headmaster, Henry Brereton, happened to be walking past at this moment and declared it the best catch he had ever seen on the front lawn. So good, indeed, that to celebrate it he cancelled all classes for the rest of the day.
The school uniform at that time was dark blue shorts, grey shirt and dark blue sweater in the mornings. After sports activities and a shower, a light grey uniform in the afternoons. Only new boys wore the dark blue uniform all day long to denote their status. The ultimate punishment was the shame of being reduced to the status of dark blue all day long. I saw it happen only twice and in both cases witnessed the boys earn their way back to the light grey uniform. It seems so curious that a sanction like that really worked but Gordonstoun had peculiar institutional rules and regulations, many of them based on a so-called trust system.
One major item of the trust system was called the training plan. This was a small diary which each pupil kept and filled out on a daily basis. It required the pupil to fulfil a number of simple activities and mark whether these had been carried out or not with a tick or a cross. Any prize for best boarding school trivia would surely have been led by the questions on a training plan. Eating between meals? Brush teeth twice daily? Twenty press-ups? Ten rope climbs? A dozen specified activities were recorded by the pupil (more usually once a week in a hurry than the daily observance sought) and the boys were told that no punishment would follow if they had not carried out these tasks; it was merely to provide a record for the child himself to monitor his own behaviour.
Dr Meissner would ask for your training plan from time to time and scowl over it before returning it without comment. The only omission which might lead to punishment was failure to fill the diary in on a daily basis.
I was a middling student, content within the school yet fairly miserable at the separation from family. Despite my home being less than five miles away, I was not permitted visits and only made contact by one or two telephone calls and several letters per term, as was common to all the residents. ('The Boarding School Syndrome', by Joy Schaverien, brilliantly demonstrates how these unique British institutions turn healthy young men into lifelong emotionally closed and crippled ones.)
My father had died in a car crash one wintry morning when I was eight years old, during the Christmas holiday. Nevertheless I was returned to boarding at the pre-prep school barely five days after his funeral. This might nowadays be thought too early after such a shattering event in a family, but in the 50s, after a war which had elevated hardship to heroism, it was simply thought the best way for life to carry on.
In some ways Gordonstoun was linked exceptionally into my home life since, after my father’s death, my mother turned to Kurt Hahn for occasional counsel and advice. Impressive and distant as he was – and an unlikely person in my mother’s life who saw her, I suspect, out of sympathy rather than friendship – it was curiously consoling to know that I would be going to the school where Hahn still loomed on the horizon.
My mother’s counsellor, when not in Germany or elsewhere in the world, resided with his sister in a charming house called Burnside, adjoining the grounds of the school and a short walk from the dramatic cliffs of the Moray Firth.
Although occasionally deployed in later life as a boast, there is no humiliation greater than to be expelled from a boarding school. Expulsion is not merely separation from lessons but from friends, colleagues and routines. It is a public statement of revulsion at your presence in a community, a statement that you are no longer tolerable in that society. Expulsion was both rare and devastating. During my time at Gordonstoun only one pupil was expelled and that for a crime of adolescent urges.
During the summer holidays, when I was 15 or 16 and a senior boy in the school with responsibilities and exams at every turn, my mother had invited two old men friends to dinner with their families. Both the men had been at Gordonstoun though neither was close to the faculty nor had any lingering association with the school. But they were curious and I was voluble. I told them how the so-called trust system seemed to me not to be working any longer. The training plan was barely taken seriously, the daily exercises only fulfilled by the most punctilious or junior. I noted that it was a significant additional burden upon children to describe these essentially trivial things as part of a trust system. To break trust is a serious matter. To neglect your rope skipping was a minor misdemeanour, yet was to be taken as a breach of trust.
I went on to explain that the punishment system – which mainly consisted of being given formal country walks of between two and five miles depending on the gravity of the offence, was also carried out on the basis of trust. Nobody checked you in or out of your punishment, but you were trusted to carry it out yourself. And everyone knew somebody who had been punished and had made a great show of only the first 500 yards of their punishment.
The following term, immediately after breakfast, I was summoned to Dr Meissner’s suite, consisting of a large living room in which he executed his impressive paintings at a permanent easel. Off some dark recess beyond were his private study, his bedroom and bath room.
I had come to know the room when, as a younger student, he had asked me to pose for him, to be a model for a painting. This required me to stand naked while he sketched. I was not the first subject of this flattery, others had done the same without incident. But there is a certain compulsion to comply when the man in charge of your life and school career suggests you attend as a nude model. Pupils were well aware of their housemaster’s frequent presence at shower or bath time. He did absolutely nothing except paint, nor was there any hint of impropriety, yet by today’s standards it was both risky and dishonourable. Ars gratia artist, I think.
On this occasion my arrival in his study was less than warm and did not include nudity. Dr Meissner accused me of an expellable offence. The charge was 'profound disloyalty to the school'. He reported that an unnamed old boy had detailed how I had libelled the school, claimed the honour system wasn’t working and in general denigrated everything Meissner and his colleagues had done to sustain the great work of our great founder. There was no latitude if I admitted to these charges. But first and in fairness I was asked if his was an accurate description of what I had been saying.
I promptly admitted I had said more or less the words attributed to me but not out of disloyalty. I claimed the defence of truth. Nothing I had alleged was untrue no matter how it might have offended him and his colleagues to hear it.
As one allegation was made and rebutted, as one claim was made and discounted, as the day wore on and Meissner’s classes were cancelled so that he might give all his time and concentration to this sudden, shocking set of charges, I sat in my dark blue uniform in his study and defended myself.
I gradually began to realise that while my defence – that the trust system was lightly and carelessly abused on a frequent basis was a simple truth – to Dr Meissner and the headmaster, Henry Brereton, this assertion, if indeed it were true, then demolished the very foundation of all that Kurt Hahn and the Gordonstoun ethos were about. This was, in effect, the end of their most profound beliefs.
From time to time Meissner left me in his study while he consulted with Brereton. He seemed oddly disinterested each time he returned as if he had been charged with a simple task and now needed to carry it out. We broke for lunch. I was instructed to return immediately afterwards and not to discuss the matter with anyone. As I entered the dining room, Meissner gave a grand wave over the seated pupils in the dining room.
'You cast aspersions on them. All of them. Your darken them with your allegations'.
He went off to dine elsewhere and left me to avoid ways of explaining my absences from class and common room.
The pause in the interrogation is now a memory blur. It was a day of which, 60 years later, I have both the most vivid recall and no recall at all. Bright, enduring images and foggy interstices. On going back to the study, I was again instructed to attend afternoon activities – athletics – after which the older boys showered and changed into their evening clothes, the distinctive light grey uniform of all but new boys. Or those humiliated by being demoted to the lowest rank.
I was instructed not to change into the evening uniform. Was this likely to be my punishment? Desperately unfair though I felt it to be, I was prepared to endure it. Because by then I had glimpsed that I was in the midst of a bigger, more important battle. Like the Winslow Boy I would eventually have to depend upon the only defence available, that of the simple truth.
By the evening, with the interrogation resumed in Meissner’s study, I now had two interlocutors, not one. Headmaster Brereton’s brisk Anglo-Saxon scepticism allied to Meissner’s dark anger over the very possibility that the trust system was failing or being exploited. My own position was invidious since I couldn’t name names. But, did boys fill out their training plans during study periods and complete answers for two or three weeks in a few minutes? Yes. So every answer in their training plan was either untrue or merely guessed? Yes. Because the questions were considered trivial.
Did I know of boys who had been set punishment walks who did not actually carry these out? Yes, several, in fact the majority unless the punishments were given by school prefects (known as colour bearers) in which case the risk of being supervised was too great. Was I being so foolish and so extreme as to be charging the whole school with dishonesty?
I didn’t think dishonesty was the issue. The boys I knew who laughed at the so-called system were not so much being dishonest as merely seeking to placate the fools who had instituted these 'trust' systems.
The afternoon had lengthened into evening. I was not offered a break for the evening meal and indeed was surprised to realise how late it was when eventually Meissner summoned two of the senior boys from my house, the house of which he was house master, the wonderfully named Round Square. (An entirely circular building, like a bicyle tyre laid flat on the ground, rising two storeys and each filled with dormitories, classrooms, libraries or work spaces. The centre of the circle was filled with a bright green lawn upon which only senior masters were entitled to tread. Ah, the wonderful complexity of scholastic hierarchies.)
The senior boys were asked if it was now past 'lights out'. It was. Nonetheless, said Meissner, only recently? The boys nodded. 'Then summon everyone to this study. The headmaster and I have a question or two to put to everyone. Slippers and dressing gowns'.
While the senior boys went off to gather all the pupils from their dormitories, Meissner with his instinctive eye for drama dragged a desk chair into the centre of the room and sat me upon it, facing the door. He stood behind his desk, behind me, and together we waited in uncompanionable silence as all the Round Square boys entered and formed, as directed, a three-line semi-circle in front of me.
I was barely three feet from all the boys I knew well. Sixty of them, wrapped in dressing gowns, looking about with interest and apprehension. What could this mean? And why was this person, whom all knew well, still in morning uniform? Had he been reduced to the ranks? What was conceivably his offence?
Meissner began with an iteration of the charges. I had been profoundly disloyal to the school. My principal allegation of disloyalty was that I had claimed that the trust system, upon which the school was based, was a mere charade and was not properly observed.
'There will be no individual punishment', said Meissner, 'for anyone who admits to having abused or otherwise failed to comply in any way. I will not be taking names. I merely wish to demonstrate that this boy’s allegations are wholly false'.
I shifted uncomfortably because I could see the inevitable path this was taking – and I didn’t entirely trust the serried rows of friends and acquaintances to admit to the truth.
'Will you please raise your hand', Meissner’s voice had dropped an octave, 'if you have abused the training plan, ignored a punishment or otherwise failed to honour an obligation under our system of trust'.
He paused. The moment for action was delayed.
'Raise your hand if you have ever been less than observant of any of the trusts we place in you'.
He stood back. I stared at my friend Pitro Zafiropulo. I stared at the older boys, my immediate colleagues and at the younger ones whose names I barely knew.
Not a single hand was raised.
Meissner seemed to choke. And then Pitro’s hand went up. And James’s, too. And another, and another and another. Until among the 60 boys there were at least 45 with their hands raised in the air.
Everyone was dismissed. Meissner could hardly speak as he sent me back to my bed without a further word. He was crushed. The boys themselves – the boys whose lives he cherished and taught and knew – had, by simply raising their hands, utterly devastated him.
So, I was not expelled nor sanctioned in any way. Over the years which followed, the masters of my day were replaced and the Hahn ethos gradually adapted to modern thinking. Girls were admitted – long a Hahn priority – and the nature of the school gradually changed. Short trousers were eliminated, cold showers and other elements of the so-called Spartan regime are gone and the training plan (did you brush your teeth twice?) may or may not still exist to taunt children or staff.
Meissner to his credit never said another word about the incident nor against me. Only Brereton sought perhaps some small consolation by writing on my leaving report – the document upon which I would hope to enter a university – 'this is not an academic boy'. The two universities to which I applied appeared to ignore the comment and admitted me anyway.
Kurt Hahn, Henry Brereton and Erich Meissner are dead – their lives fulfilled by their accomplishments and genuine passion for education and belief in the potential for improvement of every child. Plus est en vous
Allan Shiach is a film and theatre producer and one of the UK’s best established screenwriters ('Don’t Look Now', 'Castaway', 'Regeneration'); he is a former chairman of several public bodies and the recipient of honorary doctorates from two Scottish universities.