Sunday, 15 June 2014

stowe, memories, reclaiming, sarte, nausea



















Returned to my old school, Stowe, yesterday for the first time in sixteen years to take part in a careers event.

I enjoyed going back and meeting other old Stoics and the sixth formers.

I was amazed by how the place had changed. All the temples and garden buildings are so well looked after - thanks to the National Trust. The school itself is extremely smart compared to when I was there in the 1970s. I wonder if my dad noticed similar changes when I started - he had been at the school in the last years of the Second World War when there couldn't have been much money for the buildings' and grounds' upkeep.

What remained strikingly the same yesterday was the beauty of the school's location in the gentle Buckinghamshire countryside. When I was a schoolboy one of my greatest pleasures was walking along the nearby lanes and through the fields. Not that my mind was quiet at such times. Mostly it was fizzing with ideas and attempts to puzzle through my experiences and the things I was learning. Not least TS Eliot's The Waste Land. Though the effects of David Bowie's music and how it made me feel and the thoughts it provoked were also pretty major.

Yesterday, it was interesting to be asked what Stowe gave me that has helped me in later life. As I explained, Stowe was something of a refuge from upsets at home. As a result of those upsets and how they preoccupied me, I wasn't able to concentrate much on my academic studies, although I could do practical things. My chief interest was working behind the stage at the Roxburgh Hall, the school's theatre. I rose to become the school stage manger and my biggest achievement was designing and building the set for the Congreve Club production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. By cunning use of a picture rail that extended outwards, three-quarter-height flats could be slotted over the main ones during the interval, so that a large drawing-room, with a dining area at the back, was transformed into a newspaper office.

And being stage manager transformed my life. It gave responsibility and helped me to achieve things. I had about 20 people working with me and I had a budget to manage. I could also work through the night in the theatre without anyone being bothered about it. I presume the teachers turned a blind eye. Good for them because the work I did and how I managed my time made me feel that I was in charge of my life, that I was living like an adult rather than a schoolboy, and gave me the chance to succeed at the one thing through which I could express myself. Did my studies suffer? No more than they would've done otherwise, I don't think. And during the two terms after the play was performed, I began to learn about academic subjects in ways which were new and exciting precisely because I was feeling confident for the first time in my life after the success of the set and getting the only colour tie I received during my school career (looped over and over so there was just this enormous knot and a tiny stub of tie tucked into my tank top!).

I loved my time at Stowe. Though often the unhappy episodes from childhood overshadowed my return visits as an adult somehow. Yesterday those memories had no power. I suppose because all the background sadnesses have eventually played themselves out with the events of four years ago - how the mess that lay behind the upsets (which I didn't know about) took so long to come to a head! Yesterday, I felt relaxed and happy and reclaimed my schoolboy life as my own, unencumbered by the problems of others.

Meeting the students and hearing about their interests and plans for the future was a pleasure. Are sixth formers really that much more mature and switched on than we were? They did seem so.

At work in Oxford, with the end of the financial year approaching, things are busy. There are lots of meetings about the evolving library landscape and future projects too.

I've also been reading Satre's Nausea for the first time, using the excellent PlayEpub app on my BlackBerry.

To begin with, the book grates - the author doesn't exactly encourage you to like his central character, who comes across as a distinctly weird and at times creepy person. What's the infantile desire to pick up soiled bits of paper and put them to his mouth all about? Why does the fact that one day he can't let himself pick up a piece of paper upset him so? Perhaps it's an acknowledgement of his growing up. And indeed he does become a more likeable and fascinating companion as the book develops. I loved the section about a typical 1930s provincial Sunday with everyone promenading in their finest clothes and impressing each other, which describes the day in great detail from morning till the lyrically beautiful setting of the sun.

The meditations on the narrator's relationship with the world (is it changed or is he?), the way we perceive the past (we want to relive it in the fresh, unknowing way it was the first time, yet the curse of hindsight ensures we can never do so), the fallibility of so-called experience (often just a means for the misuse of power) - all these subjects are intriguingly explored. The narration proves utterly compelling also.

I look forward to reading more this coming week. Reading the novel also reminds me of the sources of introspection and concern with ideas in my own work - for better or for worse. Of childhood, teenage and early-twenties fascinations with Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert, Zola, Camus - and yes, Satre and Robbe-Grillet.

Balzac in particular pre-dated Stowe. But without Stowe and my unacademic career there paradoxically my academic life would never have developed, I can't help thinking. It gave me confidence to be myself in a time of need.

2 comments:

  1. Proof that we experience unique yet similar emotions through our time on this planet :-)

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  2. Thank you for your Stowe reflections, Frank, and for the whole post which links the material very interestingly and makes that crucial point that no experience is wasted in our lives, especially for a writer.

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