A Downside that will never come again.
Although in my youth I studied medieval history, it is only now, looking back on my time in the school and the years when I joined the monastery in the late fifties, that I realise that Downside was then still, but only just, the last outpost of the Middle Ages. It was medieval in so many ways, in its hierarchical structure, its excess and its social bonding through personal fealty rather than financial bargain. As in the economy of the Middle Ages, the school and monastery played the part of the manor house, a centre to which everyone belonged and where everyone worked and on festal occasions feasted. Who could forget the Christmases with their good cheer and the great fire burning throughout the twelve days and the long table groaning with its barons of beef and hogsheads and whole turkeys and salmons and hams and stiltons, as much of it consumed by the retainers in the kitchens as by the monks at their refectory tables? Whole lineages of Bradys and Joneses and Moons and Maggses had worked for the monks for generations, gimlet eyed and unerringly accurate in their unpitying assessments of them but tolerant of their idiosyncracies, giving them of their hearts and minds as well as bodily labours, and occasionally cheating them in ways that were almost loving and, as they would have seen it, entirely fair.
The gang of gardeners were straight out of Shakespeare. Surely they can’t actually have been called things like Arthur Moon and Walter Bees? But they were. In the absence of housemasters’ wives, the hags – how can you explain in a pc world that this was a term of honour? – often had a most motherly relationship with the boys, comforting and advising them in their woes, colluding in their escapades and hiding the evidences of their misdemeanours from the housemasters. I remember Mary – whose surname I forget but she was a twin – telling me how feeling utterly lost and miserable on her first day working in Caverel, she was invited into his study by Simon Arbuthnot in the most kindly way, and they spent the morning drinking whiskey and playing poker before, later in the day, Simon received a huge thrashing. I cannot tell you how much she loved Simon Arbuthnot. So it was in those days.
If Chaucer is anything to go by, the vividness of personality that characterized the monks was thoroughly medieval. You cannot imagine today people like Benet Innes, Tusky, Passmore, Wappy, Father Francis (the funniest man ever) Father Brendan and Father Illtyd, Father Hilary (comically self-deprecating in rolling Augustan periods, nearly as funny as Father Francis, how one’s sides ached) Father Aelred and Father Sebastian, all living in the same institution. Each was so strong a personality and cast around them so distinctive an aura, it was as if they lived on different planets rather than dwelt in the same monastery. Imagine your physics teacher coming into class and proceeding to cook his breakfast on a bunsen burner before throwing pieces of toast round the class as Father Brendan did, or your English teacher announcing to his class, as Father Sebastian is said to have done, Oh dear it’s six weeks till the exams and we haven’t even started the syllabus yet. Yet the education he gave them was incomparable. I would cross oceans to see Sebastian, said Pat Early afterwards. I count it as one of the greatest blessings of my life that I was taught twice a day by Father Aelred for three years. In the morning we studied history in ways so original and imaginative and interesting I cannot begin to describe them. In the evening we read the great novels. It is to him that I owe so much of my love of literature and Wagner and my appreciation of all the lovely things of nature, (‘cultivate the sensibilities my dears’) as well as a scholarship to Cambridge. What wonderful educators these great men were.
How did they all manage to survive together, in so far as they did? It was partly through their fierce loyalty to the place and to each other. This trait and the idiosyncracies, too, were, I suppose, characteristics that had descended from penal times when so many of the monks had crossed the channel to live isolated lives, hiding and on the run, often for years and sometimes paying for it in the most horrible ways with their lives. What devotion to the faith they must have had. And how they must have looked back with fond love and pining longing to their alma mater in Douai. Bless this house Oh Lord we pray. But it wasn’t just the monks who lived lives larger than life, it was often the boys too. The night life of the school in those years was incredible. One night four boys stole a master’s car and careered round the lanes in it before hitting a wall. The next day Dickson Wright went to the surgery and said he’d fallen out of bed and broken his arm. Another night boys dismantled a car and re-assembled it in the church, so that when the monks came down to matins next morning they found a mini in the middle of the choir. Years later, while waiting at Paddington for a lady who later turned out to be my wife and idly leafing through a bookstall, I came across a description by Auberon Waugh of how he had run a night club in a barn in Holcombe, to which he and his friends had regularly repaired before rolling back bleary eyed to their dormitories in time for morning assembly. The enterprise was, of course, discovered and Bron received a most enormous thrashing.
Downside was not so a happy place in those days, as both school and community, for all the paucity of its numbers and the many problems it faces, one has the impression they now are. But how memorable it all was. How colourful. How much it gave me and how much I owe it. How could one not love it and lament its passing? It will never come again. But thank God I was a part of it. Thank God.
Tom Jackson 7 – ix – 2015