World War II changed many things. Among these was Fettes. David Bryces Chateau-au-Loire still intimidates the landscape high over Comely Bank. Gargoyles may have dived, but the red railings, painted as we thought with leftovers from the Forth Bridge, still march defiantly round the splendid arboretum and playing fields. I, a pre-war relic, peering through the wrong end of the telescope, can see my old school as it once was – Sparta, redolent of ligament and rugby football, suspended in a time-warp between two World Wars, and not a cloud on the horizon. Judging by Robert Bruce Lockhart, Ian Fleming's model for James Bond, nothing had changed since 1900.
The building influenced the school. The same could not be said of the uniform. Sixty years ago a stranger, negotiating Stockbridge on a Sunday morning, might have been surprised to run into a convention of funeral directors (youth section) advancing in loose order – lum hats aslant, claw-hammer coats flying, with brollies in various degrees of furl, decrepitude and lethal posture. Here and there dusty trousers indicated prefects' studies had already been cleaned. Jolly as if homeward bound from a funeral, Fettesians in all shapes and sizes were returning from the Rev. 'Tombstone's' kirk of St Stephen. 'Piskies' went to Holy Trinity across the Dean Bridge. There were no Catholics, no Free Presbyterians, no Moslems, no Buddhists, no foreigners – and no girls.
Individual birds in a skein of wild geese change place yet maintain order and hierarchical precedence for reasons not obvious to the casual observer. Adolescents, who so recently behaved not too differently from Richmal Crompton's Outlaws, had been transmuted willy nilly into 'men' – Fettes style. Like the geese they now conformed instinctively to a variety of rules of behaviour, precedence and social contact. Unwritten, together with associated jargon, this took a week for fledglings to absorb.
A taboo on mixing with others of a different age dictated pecking order. Surnames were de rigueur. Ahead strode elders and betters – swans not geese. The nearly nineteen-year-old extrovert head of Glencorse, reputedly the most philistine of the six boarding houses, would return later that day from Exeat at the last minute, double declutching his shagged-out Fraser Nash in a shower of College gravel in a turn that would have impressed a Neapolitan taxi driver. Of the others, one was about to commission his artistic fag to paint a '45 rebel complete with claymore for his girlfriend. Another, his reputation enhanced by having picked up a tart in Jermyn Street SW1, was planning to coach 'volunteers' for the dreaded boxing competition. The fourth, built like a tank and an unlikely looking poet, worried about the house junior rugger XV, his baby. They ignored the riff-raff that followed in descending order of importance.
Along the pavements of soot black (pre-Clean Air Bill) Stockbridge, a top hat proclaimed snob, but generated no comment, being a weekly spectacle. In other venues the uniform (its ultimate demise Hitler's single contribution to civilisation) triggered reaction ranging from astonishment to abuse – returned with interest subject to parity in numbers. Unlike the Blue Coat School, passage of time had deprived the Fettes Sunday outfit of any glamour that it presumably enjoyed in the eyes of founding fathers. The hat did have one advantage. It could accommodate three eggs to scramble surreptitiously on the study fire. What quantity of beta blockers, LSD, cannabis or Temazepam can be concealed in a top hat is now only of hypothetical interest, but the veto placed on an organic pre-battery hen's egg suggests more innocent times. On meeting a superior, lifting one's hat clearly called for considerable legerdemain to avoid doubly egg-on-face.
To be caught smoking earned the cane. But, apart from the discomfort of lying on backs to puff up chimneys, the habit was not fashionable due to the Fettes fetish of fitness at all cost. We knew that smoking was bad for 'training' – like whisky and masturbation (tut, tut) or an excessive diet of tuckshop tinned cream and Mars bars.
Among this raggle taggle a group of six or seven followed well astern. 'Old hands' now with a year at Glencorse, they had been promoted to educate new arrivals in the important skills of beating carpets, cleaning rugger boots, cricket pads, Cadet Corps uniforms, and other arcane duties on behalf of house prefects. Reward was an end-of-term feast, the 'Fags Groise,' funded by prefects after which several 'new men' would show their appreciation by being sick. Central heating did not figure among the delights of an Edinburgh winter. A fag rapidly learned how to light his prefect's coal fire with three sticks for kindling. Failure was supposed to earn a beating. Nobody failed in this now probably lost art.
Beating by cane on the bottom was a punishment applied by prefects, supposedly by permission of the housemaster, who ran affairs with a loose rein. It hurt; was in the main fair; and was certainly a deterrent, which provided prefects with authority to control bolshie or noisy juniors. 'Flogging' was considered more acceptable by the recipient than having to write 'lines'. These were labour-intensive and time-consuming. Besides, special paper had to be bought from the bursar's office. Once when, called upon to provide hot buttered toast at the rush, I failed to observe that the commodity kept by the houseman in Coopers Oxford marmalade jars was actually soft soap. The consequence was quick and well deserved.
The school was in effect an exclusive club, which confidently provided fairly top people in the professions, civil service, industry, and administrators in far off places, the Scottish XV, and now and again a promising politician. He would have sharpened his oratory in the school debating society, usually advocating a motion with which he disagreed. Empire and Commonwealth dominated the world – or so we thought. The curriculum was determined by the Scottish leaving certificate, yet curiously the Highland Clearances did not figure, while the Tolpuddle Martyrs did. The Boer War was the end of history in spite of Sarajevo and Archduke Ferdinand.
A Fettesians' background was not often smart or luxurious. Massive school fees could indicate either a comfortably off family or much scrape and hold back by hard-pressed parents. Scholarships were there for the exceptionally clever; bursaries for those described as 'victims of innocent misfortune' – interpreted often with some irony as sons of the manse, and their winners (but not scholars) housed separately. This segregation was a mistake, giving rise to the unkind nickname, 'free feeder,' fortunately rarely heard after the first year. Even though most of us would know how to wield a fish knife, this equipment was not available at table.
It was an egalitarian community. No one cared a hoot about caste, status or what each other's fathers did, or did not do, for a living. For instance the boys already mentioned totted up a farmer; a miller; a Scots law lord; a doctor; a retired industrialist, who had played rugger for Scotland; a struggling cotton broker based in Egypt and mine whose Scottish company grew rubber, tea and coffee in Java and elsewhere. My parents travelled back every three years – the passage one way (before air travel) taking five weeks. Many others were similarly placed. Our fathers and uncles had fought in the First World War and our mothers had nursed. They did not talk about it.
Attitudes to working class and the very poor varied with individual experience, but was not a subject we discussed. I had happily worked as a farm boy in the holidays from the age of nine; fed with the hands and knew how to shift muck. The poverty-stricken tenements to which we sold skimmed milk were appalling. At Glencorse a shilling pocket money (approximately £1, today's prices) was doled out personally by the housemaster each week. A contemporary whose sad school clothes resembled cast-offs I later discovered to be a millionaire, having followed in his father's footsteps.
The teaching staff seemed strangely aloof outwith their classrooms and specialised subjects. With a few remarkable exceptions they did not appear to exert much personal influence, or even want to. The housemaster of Carrington was an exception. A bachelor, immensely tall, covered from top to toe in an astrakhan collared overcoat, a character with style and humour, yet he failed to interest his pupils in physics, of which he himself was an acknowledged master, unless they happened to be born scientists. Absorbed in the history of his subject rather than its future, his laboratory resembled, with its antique equipment and stained brown panelling, a provincial museum – which indeed it was. Too clever by half to inspire the run-of-mill pupil, the boys day-dreamed disillusioned in the back row. His chemistry colleague had no redeeming features and bad breath, which created a scramble for the back row.
Unlike science, classics dominated teaching. The headmaster, an England rugby international and DSO, taught the classical sixth. Fair and kind, it was surprising that with all his other duties he seemed to know who everybody was. The quality of teaching on the classical side attracted the cleverest boys. Results spoke for themselves. But one unwritten rule affected school and athlete alike. Success in anything must seem effortless. It was a gaffe to be seen to be actually trying. This affectation induced ingenious camouflage along the lines of the proverbial paddling duck. That the Fettes emblem is an active bee, and the motto Industria, added a nice touch of irony to a scholastic institution where, unless a pupil was the recipient of a school bursary, attention in class was largely optional. Apart from classics, few masters were inspirational. They filled the trough. It was not their business to make the contents attractive – nor to prepare a pupil for his career. Like most boys we were idle and only worked at what interested us without much thought of tomorrow.
Insouciance was linked to the importance of modesty in success, a posture carried to Vestal Virginal extremes to avoid what was called 'side' – the ultimate sin of showing off. These beliefs may well have put a cap on high achievement. They were scarcely a preparation for a competitive world. The rugby XV, accustomed to take on senior Edinburgh club A teams, and considered to be one of the best in Scotland, discovered that it was only second class when it came up against a school touring side from Australia.
It might seem to a stranger that it was the senior 'men' who ruled, and not the teaching staff. The captain of rugger picked the three school XVs. He assessed every boy's capability and placed him in the appropriate games. He refereed and nominated referees. He coached juniors and had little time for anything else, even work. On the other hand it was useful experience in administration and leadership.
For some inexplicable reason, although most boys were Scots, Anglo-Scots, or Northern Irish, the masters were English with a sprinkling from Wales and Ireland. There was indeed one Scot, a raw boned young-old, somewhat serious, but kindly academic, who knew how to put across not only classics, but rugby and English. Freddy Macdonald (no relation) epitomised the best of Fettes. His unworldliness – inevitably subject to schoolboy jest – was forgiven not only because he could thrash the much younger rector of Edinburgh Academy at Fives, or was it squash? Boys treated masters politely, and occasionally even with respect, but each kept the other at arm's length. Teacher's pets were a rarity. One form master was upset not by many Scots accents but by indifferent elocution. Shibboleths were displayed. A jook list recorded those who pronounced words such as dew, duly, duty or duke as if spelled with J.
Senior boys were role models approaching deity, their perceived perfection protected by segregation – except in games and work where capability, not age, determined position. Some became mature students in lower forms. Such a topsy turvy arrangement should have been doomed to failure or ridden with crises. That it worked may have been because all the players – headmaster, masters, prefects, 'dooks' (senior boys but not prefects), fags, even employees – were willing actors in a remarkable example of real-life theatre featuring an endless serial comedy of which Aristophanes might have boasted.
A paradox existed. Ethos demanded conformity, but not clones. Each individual had freedom to write his own script and play the part, provided he kept within the scenario and guidelines established by preceding generations. These were controlled by age, pecking order and individual capability. To show open enthusiasm was as bad as to try too hard – except for spectators on the touchline. Fettes was undoubtedly Top School in our eyes. It was 'not on' to criticise it outwith the red railings. Conversely, when within, it was considered ultra fashionable to decry everything. We certainly did – the food, the discomfort (this with perverse pride), the teaching, even the performance of the rugger XV and so on. This was no ordinary grumble. Criticism was expected to be larded with wit, while intolerance of each other's many foibles was assumed. There were no thought police or narks. Aldous Huxley – his 'Brave New World' then a popular read – would not have thought the set up authoritarian. Saki would have been delighted.
This was an inbred community. Television was unborn. There was no access to cinema. Marconi might not have existed because wireless sets were forbidden. Brave boys built and installed secret crystal apparatus within hollowed-out books – useful training for future spies and POWs. The Glencorse housemaster, a roly poly unmarried senior wrangler, owned no radio and his media input consisted of the Daily Mail sports page. To allow the house to hear Edward VIII's abdication speech – for twenty four hours we were either Roundheads or Cavaliers – followed later by Chamberlain's 'Peace in our time,' the temporary loan of a boy’s illegal equipment was negotiated. Such a matrix bred eccentricity – perhaps its safety valve. In later years I came across similar, albeit missionary-adjusted, taboos among jungle tribes in Borneo. No wonder Rajah Brooke was such a success.
Just like a Sarawak long house there was no privacy at Fettes – no locks on any doors, whether of studies or lavatories. Showers were public. Individual cubicles in dormitories were open-ended. This literally 'open door' policy made it impossible to get up to something (if anyone had wanted to), not consistent with what was considered acceptable form. In this Fettes departed from Sparta. Buggery, which was supposed to be fashionable at Eton, was a non-starter. Segregation of age groups played its part. Spare time was filled by sport or extra-mural activity. Those not selected for an organised game went automatically on a road run whatever the weather. Classroom work began at 7.30 after a cold shower and before breakfast and chapel. The headmaster of my prep school in Moffat had alerted us to 'danger ahead' by reading aloud the pathetic trial of Oscar Wilde and his 'Ballad of Reading Gaol.' An 'unnatural' offence at Fettes would have led to a short conversation in the headmaster's study swiftly followed by taxi with luggage to the station.
Two members of staff were suspect on this score because of favouritism shown to good-looking boys. In the heated swimming pool everyone, including masters, swam in the 'all together.' Frequent attendance of a myopic but fully dressed housemaster, taking a special interest in pretty, small boys, known in school jargon as 'cupids', inevitably inspired ribald jokes. One day on entering his classroom the poor man found it necessary to turn a blind eye towards a decorative Renaissance print, on which a wag to our delight had clothed every little winged putti with its own paper nappy. The general distraction this created allowed me to draw undetected a picture of Edinburgh on the modishly high collar of the occupant of the desk in front – prophetic, as the owner was a Festival director to be.
Bullying is sometimes linked with homosexuality. Discounting a flick with a wet towel, wielded by a 'dook' to discourage a junior from sauntering through his changing room, I can recollect no bullying at Fettes. This may surprise some because it differs from the supposed practice at many public schools.
Drama, music and art, together with those so gifted, were respected. Here individual staff did play a significant part. The thriving dramatic society bred its own boy 'actresses'. An agile, but macho, scrum-half would, with grease paint, wig and two judiciously inserted grapefruit, blossom into a bouncy Restoration trollop. Accompanied by the ambitious school orchestra in a homespun operetta, a young Canadian, voice as yet unbroken, sang a comic but upbeat Eurydice to an equally homespun Orpheus from another house. Real live lovelies did not exist. Female school employees were clearly vetted with a view to safety rather than pulchritude. A busty wee lass was once, through an oversight, employed as a house laundry maid. She lasted one day, creating a traffic jam for button replacement. Unclad lady pin-ups such as today's page three did not exist. Erotic literature except in French was rare. This is the reason why, although few Fettesians spoke French fluently, all could sight-read 'La Vie Parisienne.' Only one housemaster was married. Most junior staff were bachelors, and the head's elegant wife was seen once a year only – on founders' day wearing gloves up to her elbows, but not for washing-up.
The OTC (Cadet Corps) was, except for the well-tutored pipe band, not taken too seriously. A teenage 'Dad's Army' practised parade drill with Lee Enfield rifles which were never fired. Machine guns were represented by a red flag and a wooden rattle. Some masters, too old to be called up even for the war before, appeared in extraordinary uniforms. Others were well-known pacifists. The gifted music master, with the object of demonstrating the importance of rhythm, once required everybody in turn to beat on the seat of a chair any tune and he would identify it. My choice was 'Rule Britannia.' I had just completed two bars when there was an explosion. 'Never again,' he shouted, 'do I want to hear that disgusting Jingo in my classroom.' This was at the time of Munich and well before the Henry Wood proms. By contrast the long-suffering art master, whom I knew to be pacifist, went out of his way to drive me to South Queensferry so that I should see the visiting Home Fleet at anchor.
Domestic politics did not cut any ice, though it was rumoured that behind drawn curtains in college a Marxist cell – almost certainly budding merchant bankers and stockbrokers – had mutilated an effigy of the headmaster to the sound of the 'Red Flag' on a wind-up gramophone. International current affairs, in which we were all for obvious personal reasons concerned, attracted no staff guidance – not even Jean Brodie style. If the staff had thoughts on the Spanish Civil War or the storm gathering round Czechoslovakia they kept these to themselves. No outside lecturer was engaged to illuminate.
We boys read Sunday papers bought on the way back from church. Leaders in the broadsheets seemed as confused as politicians' speeches – except of course for Churchill who was 'not to be trusted' according to a friend's important legal father. A long letter that reached me from a thirteen-year-old German boy, who had been a neighbour in Java, couched in too perfect English, I left unanswered. It was propaganda on behalf of the Hitler Jugend – 'Oh, what a fantastic leader is Herr H.' The Oban Times appealed for homes for German Jewish refugee children. Mussolini beat up unarmed Abyssinians – and claimed he made Italian trains run on time. Telegraph poles everywhere were plastered with pamphlets calling on British to disarm – 'Trust the League of Nations and sanctions.' Most of us knew that war would be rough. We felt it inevitable.
My diary entry for 28 September 1938 records that 'Chamberlain seemed absolutely done – the break in his voice hardly an orator's trick'; while Hitler's latest broadcast was 'a hoarse and guttural scream interspersed with cheer leader’s Heils.' I mention that the school had started to dig air raid shelters – resembling First World War trenches – illustrated by a photograph from the Evening Despatch; and 'in the wrong place – so vulnerable to a collapse of the main building.' I grumble that by giving the shifts to the (inefficient) OTC to organise instead of the captain of rugger (me) every game was disrupted. Reflecting on the Parliamentary news I remarked that 'the Opposition, notably the advanced (sic) Labour wing, who a few years ago were chastising the Government into a frenzy of disarmament, are now complaining at the inefficiency of our war administration, the inadequacy of the Air Force and the unpreparedness of the Royal Navy – and are drawing up a vote of censure in the House concerning the Government’s policy of Peace at Practically any Price.'
The OTC together with other Edinburgh schools travelled at the end of the summer term to the annual camp at Elie by train. On embarking, kilted and in immaculate khaki, brass buttons shining and fares paid, there was noticeably, what is nowadays called, a negative reaction to the unexpectedly derelict and dirty carriages provided by the London & North Eastern Railway Company. All was quiet till the train slowed down to cross the Forth Bridge. As usual some rolls of lavatory paper were lobbed at a passing merchant ship below. Then suddenly and spontaneously, without organisation or ringleader, the train was noisily vandalised from one end to the other. Blinds, cushions, lavatory seats, notice boards and lamp shades went whistling out through the passing girders. Boys climbed onto the roof and buffers. Kilts were removed and waved at scandalised old ladies on Inverkeithing station platform. Every school was involved. Apart from a route march by way of punishment there was no reaction from school, the law, press or railway company to what was, we knew, low grade behaviour. Perhaps the railway company accepted a proportion of blame.
During the Coronation Royal visit to Edinburgh, the Fettes contingent lined one side of George Street and marched down Princes Street led by the pipe band. During this proud performance a wee girl lifted my kilt up to see what I had on underneath, which was the regulation nothing. Later at the moment critique, just as we marched past the King and Queen at Holyrood, to our dismay a front rank piper's ornamental horse hair sporran fell off. The two young princesses, visibly enchanted, clapped. It had made their day.
Boy, nervously entering housemaster's study. 'Sir, I sent for the Navy exam syllabus and some former question papers on maths. I cannot answer any of them. Could I have some extra tuition, please?'
Senior wrangler, waving aside syllabus and questions, draws a perfect parabola with ink on a clean sheet of foolscap. 'There now, this is how you calculate the track of a missile in space allowing for the effect of gravity. Just a few easy figures. We can leave air pressure till later.'
Boy spends two holidays at well-known Edinburgh crammer, living in digs; learns essential answers to maths, science and physics; also how to palais glide from landlady's butch daughter; much vicarious entertainment enjoyed at all-in wrestling establishment down Leith Walk.
Auld Reekie was firmly out of bounds. Unless his family lived there Fettesians knew not Edinburgh, nor did Edinburgh know Fettes. Yet classical cribs and a Chinese restaurant were sometimes surreptitiously sampled in Chambers Street – excuse: a visit to the dentist. The first XV lost its privilege of wearing light-coloured trousers through being caught after an away match sampling beer in Rose Street, reputedly a red light district. Seniors were required to wear dinner jackets to see a third-rate 'Macbeth' in the Theatre Royal. The Caledonian Railway Hotel offered the best end-of-term breakfast.
Of the boys referred to earlier, two with whom I shared a study were killed in the first year of World War II – one in the RAF and the other sunk in an armed merchant cruiser. Of three brothers, two died in action in different regiments, one having won an MC. The third was severely wounded. The head of house, a fighter ace, died in action as a squadron leader with a DSO and DFC. The Fettes war memorial records 118 killed in World War II, including one of the best young masters. The school only numbered 275.
When invited to speak at Fettes on Founders' Day in 1980 I suggested that one way to improve an already good school would be to correct a deficiency that existed in my day. Why not introduce girls? 'Funny you should say that,' the headmaster remarked afterwards, 'we have just been discussing this at a governors' meeting.' I visited Fettes the other day. I could see for myself that I had for once been right.
Vice Admiral Sir Roderick Douglas Macdonald KBE (1921-2001) was chief of staff of Naval Home Command
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