Tom Sutcliffe goes to school

I do not remember much about being ill with bronchitis when I was three. It must have been after my big sister and I went with our mother in 1946 to spend three months in Denmark where our dad, a Royal Navy Lieutenant-Commander captaining the lendlease minesweeper HMS Gazelle which he had collected from Savannah and commissioned in 1943 when I was being born in Norwich, was mine-sweeping in the Baltic. I was a caesarean birth and my mum quite early on showed me the vertical scar right up her stomach which showed where I came out after she’d been in labour for 24 hours and the doctors finally decided my head was just too big to pull through. She was five foot tall and I was over eight pounds, which explains it all. (In those days they did not do horizontal caesarean sections in the lower abdomen as is now normal.)

I later learned that the bronchitis had given me a very high temperature, 103 I think. I was dosed with a thick pink fluid called M&B which tasted sweetish, and which I now learn was a sulphonamide developed in 1938 that had saved Winston Churchill’s life when he got pneumonia during the war. Three years later aged six I caught measles at school or at ballet class. I was in bed a week or so with it and at first felt very ill confined to the small bedroom by our kitchen where a towering work-permit Swiss girl called Susie (who was living with us and helping my mum) usually slept. She moved in with my baby bro Francis then about a year old and I don’t think he got measles. When the fever went, I started voraciously reading an encyclopedia article about dinosaurs. Living in Southsea of course I had never back then been to the Natural History Museum. Being ill at the Prebendal School in Chichester was more fun than one might have expected because one was bored and so were the other boys stuck in a bedroom with four of five beds – a small dormitory converted for the purpose. Chickenpox I shared with an older chorister called Roger Gooding and we became good friends. I lived six miles west of Chichester and he was in Bognor Regis much the same distance away – which meant, in those far off days when choristers continued singing services till some weeks after the other pupils at the Preb had broken up and gone on holiday, that on dumb days (Thursday when we did not sing evensong) a bus-trip home by oneself was possible and one could be away from the school from morning till suppertime, which was a nice pay-back for having to work on with our role as choirboys when normal prep school boys were off on hols enjoying themselves.

We called those extra weeks tagged on after the end of each term “choir hols”. All the choristers and probationers together, as far as I recall, were moved into the Long Dormitory on the top floor of the oldest (14th-century?) building in our group – where the panelling (until it was disgracefully and insensitively removed and replaced by formica some years after I had left) was marked with signatures carved by suffering choirboys in the 18th century. Wooden panelling was our history in that dorm. Other stupid changes since my time include making the choirboys wear silly cloaks on their way to the cathedral for choir practice and services, as of they are extras in a sequel to Lord of the Flies. Choir Hols were a very nice time if you did not know any other lads your own age where your parents lived – which was one of the penalties of being at a boarding school. Especially nice was the fact that we choirboys got to know each other very much better than prep school boys ordinarily did, because we had to pass time together to a far greater extent that most lads did.

Those of us who were readers (in fact this was most of us, I think) could go and take out what books we wanted from the wonderful children’s library immediately opposite the Prebendal. across West Street. There was almost always somebody in that children’s library – which filled what had been a huge sitting-room giving on a garden in a private house. She would help one find books one was looking for, or suggest books one might enjoy reading.  During the choir hols we were more or less allowed to roam round the town as we wished. I remember exploring the river Lavant as it runs alongside the Roman walls (perhaps not really that old) which enclose the garden of the Bishop’s Palace. Westgate Fields in those days were the other side of the gate in the Deanery Garden through the wall – which was how we used to get to our Prebendal sports field now on a different alignment. Frankly it was sheer vandalism by the city council or by West Sussex County Council to permit what is now called Chichester University (and I rather think back in the 1950s was Bishop Otter College, a teachers’ training establishment) to be built where cows grazed in a glorious evocation of the many centuries of stable life since Chichester was made the diocesan see after the Norman invasion. The Saxon bishopric was named after Selsey and somewhere out there beyond Selsey Bill there is said to be the ruin of the Saxon cathedral under the water – St Wilfrid of course its saint. A stimulus to something musical, one might like to think: highly romantic! Proof of how much we all liked things at Chichester in the 1950s – and above all how loyal and devoted we all felt to our extremely aged organist and choirmaster Horace Hawkins (who had been Widor’s favourite organ pupil before the first world war in Paris, and in fact had started an Anglican choirschool there in 1912 to serve St George – the CofE church in rue Auguste Vacquerie in the XVIeme arrondissement –  is the fact that we choirboys from the late 1940s and the 1950s still gather at intervals to hold a reunion just for us.

Everything changed when John Birch took over, including the repertoire. No more Widor Mass sung with the theologs from the Theological College over which John Moorman presided in Chichester, and no more Hawkins Te Deum to end the summer term – a rollicking work which we all adored and which he had probably composed when he was at Hurst. Hawkey as we affectionately called him got the job from Dean Duncan-Jones aged 58 when director of music at Hurst. He did not retire till he was 78 in 1958 – going back to the rural cottage he had built for himself north of the main cricket pitch at Hurst and living on till 1966. I attended his funeral. He was buried alongside his wife who had died in childbirth in the 1920s when their daughter Anne was born (whose godparents were Siegfried and Winifred Wagner, son and daughter-in-law of the great Richard). Hawkey had studied plainchant with the Solesmes monks in Normandy – and as well as “Sarum rite” Chi in the 1950s had plainchant psalms Monday to Wednesday evensong, and Friday mattins, and fauxbourdon settings of the Mag and Nunc and Te Deum. A unique English cathedral.

I got the flu in 1957 at Hurstpierpoint College where I was a choral scholar for four years as well as being supported by various other scholarship funds designed to help those not blessed with ready money to attend fee-paying schools, one run by the Royal Navy. (Of course educational establishments for the male and female children of impecunious naval officers had existed since 1840 when benefit from selling a captured French or Spanish ship to the Lords of the Admiralty was no longer on the cards – grace à Trafalgar). My sister Jane went to the Royal Naval School which because of the 1940 bombing of its Thames-side premises at St Margaret’s relocated to Stoakley Hall, Haslemere under an energetic head Miss Oakley Hill. Sent to Chichester High School for Girls in 1951, a couple of terms before I got into the Preb she was pretty fed up and felt deprived. But actually Hurst was no better a school than Midhurst Grammar or Chi High for Boys – except perhaps thanks to its Shakespeare Play tradition dating back to 1851 and its superb music at the time I was there under director of music Wilfred Smith, who at the end of the war had served as organist and choirmaster of Calcutta Cathedral.

That flu at Hurst did not seem like any kind of serious illness. And thanks to the arrival of a former King’s Cambridge tenor choral scholar called Peter Bingham in 1959 I was lucky enough to be well prepared to apply for and gain an Academical Clerkship under Dr Bernard Rose at Magdalen College, Oxford when I was 16 years and eight months. My church singing career veered towards opera at Darmstadt when I was Ottone in L’incoronazione di Poppea in 1970 – and concluded with a bit under four years as countertenor at Westminster Cathedral. All that music in childhood and young adulthood was a wonderful start to a fortunate and happy life. Thank God!