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Prepped for life, writes Quentin Letts

Blog | By Quentin Letts | Jan 11, 2024

Letts Minimus, front row right

Gordon Brown is a son of the manse. John Major’s dad was a circus performer who sold garden gnomes. My own father, R F B ‘Dick’ Letts, was a prep-school headmaster at Oakley Hall, Cirencester, from 1962 to 1992.

Having a boarding school for one’s home was odd but never dull. We lived with over 100 children and staff. Privacy was rare. One afternoon in my teens, I was taking a bath and a visiting clergyman wandered in. He stayed for a long, amiable chat while my bath water slowly cooled.

Family evenings could be interrupted by a knock on the drawing-room door and a dormitory prefect saying, ‘Willoughby’s been sick!’ or an under-matron complaining that Kaminski simply would not stop talking after lights out.

Seconds later, we’d hear Kaminski being given three of the best before Father, with a sighing ‘Now where was I?’, returned to his supper tray of baked eggs and Birds Eye strawberry mousse. His canes were kept in the same wooden chest as the Christmas wrapping paper.

From infancy, I was reared to the toll of the great school bell, summoning pupils off the playing fields for high tea. The boys used to push me round in my pram and later let me join them on the big wooden seesaw in Chapel Yard. No one had as many big brothers as I.

The school secretary, chain-smoking Miss Catton, was my adored godmother. I would sit at a roll-top desk alongside ‘Cat-Cat’ and pretend to be her assistant, cranking out exam papers on the Roneo machine and reading confidential school reports. No wonder I became a newspaper diarist.

For lunch, I sometimes joined the gardeners – Morse, Scotford, his son John and wizened, nut-brown Micky Moss, who said three words a day – in the potting sheds. Aged five, I listened rapt as, in their slow Gloucestershire burrs, they discussed the issues of the day, chewed their baps and smoked roll-ups. God knows what they thought of me, but I worshipped them.

I can still summon the heady mix of geranium leaf, wet spade and Golden Virginia as we sat there on upturned wooden Schweppes crates while rain fell lightly on the patch of grass outside, where the Muscovy ducks had a run and a discarded bath collected water. It’s all long gone, flattened for a housing development.

As young children, we often think our fathers are big and powerful. When mine entered a dining room of 100 bawling children, everyone hushed. He’d take chapel services in his academic gown and we all stood for his billowing arrival.

I was scared of him in those days, though I later loved him for the shy, slightly autistic personality under that magisterial mask. His own father had been headmaster before him.

Father was terrified of the more glamorous and pushy school mums. When ‘Sambo’ Brown’s mother motored up the drive in her Jaguar Mark 2, he would jump on his rickety Swift bicycle and pedal for Top Field, claiming he had an urgent cricket net to take. My own mother, outward-going and as capable as Sibyl Fawlty, basically ran the place.

Horace Walpole’s locusts occasionally escaped. Smiling Horace, a retired submarine commander, taught science.

The rugby-playing husband of a pretty new French mistress caught her in flagrante with the hairy beanpole who taught geography. Boys watched agog as a mattress was hurled out of a top-floor window.

One afternoon, my father made the regional news after grappling on the touchline with some visiting team’s parent who was being unsporting during a 1st XV match.

His occasional explosions of exasperation at morning roll-call would reverberate through the house, a crenellated mid-Victorian hall with roaring fireplaces. The back stairs became worn by generations of thudding feet. Children ran everywhere despite my father’s yelling, ‘Gently bentley, boy!’

The constant company has made me, in later life, sociable but always longing to be on my own.

The house was an advent calendar of noises: There Is a Tavern in the Town being sung by eight-year-olds in the library with Mr Noble on the grand piano; Commander Baird-Smith earning yelps of laughter during his English lessons in Big School; Eric the handyman’s fruity whistling as he repaired another door that had been swung off its hinges; and, from the chapel, a wheezing and whirring as my imperious grandmother did battle with the harmonium, practising for Sunday matins.

My mother’s galley kitchen had a sliding door that opened on to Big Dorm. The half- starved occupants would lick the sole bonne femme dish after she’d cooked for a public-school headmaster from whom my father was trying to extract scholarships.

Every evening, the older boys would crowd into our drawing-room in their dressing-gowns, smelling of Vosene, to watch telly. Corridors shimmered with boiled cabbage and chalk dust and a pong of distant urinals.

In the holidays, a local chap, Mr Bennett, arrived to paint walls the boys had left grubby with their sticky hands and muddy shoes.

Mr Bennett had a dirty, gurgling laugh. He liked my mother. It was like being backstage during an am-dram opera. Somehow my darling parents kept it all going, despite constant threats of abolition from socialist ministers and the nightmare of Opec inflation.

Another world. Almost another life.