Annual Thanksgiving Service in honour of the 165th Anniversary of the School at St Peter's Church, Eaton Square, Belgravia London SW1W 9AL on Sunday 21st March 2010 at 3:00 p.m. Reminiscences: by Dr George Tregson Roberts (4817)
A Time of Our Lives
Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen
They say that for more than 90 per cent of the population, making a public speech is worse than going to the dentist. As you may notice, I have perfect teeth.
First of all, I want to thank the members of the Executive for their kindness in asking me to give these reminiscences in the 165th year of the founding of our school. There are very few institutions in the annals of education, south of the Sahara and even elsewhere, that can boast of our long and glorious history, the preservation of which is our sacred duty.
This year, 2010, if my calculations are right, would be around the 160th time that reminiscences are being delivered. And all around the world, where two or three Old Regentonians are gathered together, reminiscences, many of which would be unsuitable for recounting in this house, would be in the process of being exchanged.
I have been to innumerable reminiscences before, every one of which had been replete with anecdotes that kept us rolling in the aisles, anecdotes that were based largely on the peccadilloes of certain masters, who have attained immortality of the sort that they least suspected.
So, how does one follow those polished performances, crafted and delivered by consummate artists?
Indeed, I feel hamstrung by an additional handicap. I have an appalling memory.
And so how can someone with no memory at all be expected to recount events of the past? And as I look across to the congregation I can see at least one neurologist, who might be curious about the underlying basis of my forgetfulness. He might be wondering whether my affliction is one affecting recent or remote memory. I am sad to inform him that, unfortunately, I cannot remember which.
Bearing this in mind, when I received the invitation to deliver these reminiscences, I made a decision to return, post-haste to West Africa, where dozens of my school contemporaries with better memories still reside.
Now, as some of you might know, travelling between countries in Africa is considerably fraught and, having completed my researches in Banjul, I called up the airline to re-confirm my return booking to Freetown from where I had travelled a few weeks earlier.
Says he at the other end of the telephone: “You would have to bring your ticket in so that I can confirm it.”
Says I, “But I don’t need to come in for you to confirm my reservation.”
“But you do,” he says. “How can I confirm something that I haven’t seen?” he asked, which, on the surface sounds reasonable enough. But that is not how modern airlines work.
“I have had my reservation confirmed on scores of other occasions elsewhere without having to go to the airline office to do it,” I countered.
Said he on the airline phone. “Not here. You must come in to have your ticket confirmed. I cannot confirm something that I have not seen,” he said with an air of finality that left no room for further discourse.
So I gave up on that one and decided to try something else.
Now, I don’t know how many of you have travelled by air between West African countries. In West Africa, there is this phenomenon of free seating. What does free seating mean? You may well wonder. The answer, for those who don’t know, is that passengers are not assigned specific seats prior to boarding, as is the case in airlines in the rest of the world. To illustrate, you are not told that you are assigned a seat such as 30A or 45C or whatever in the aircraft cabin. What happens is that you are invited to board the aircraft and grab the nearest seat that takes your fancy. Just like when you get on a bus.
On the outward journey from Freetown, we had been subjected to just this way of getting passengers seated, but had been assured that the arrangements would have been improved to standard procedures by the date of our return journey.
With that assurance in mind, I then expectantly asked our intrepid airline clerk over the telephone what the seating arrangements would be for the return journey. That is, whether there was still only free seating.
"No, Sir, you have to pay for your seat,” he replied
“I know that I have to pay for my seat, and have already done so. What I mean is, how are passengers assigned seats in the aircraft cabin?”
“I don’t know, Sir”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you work for this airline?”
“I do sir.”
“Well you should know, then.”
“I don’t know sir,” he insisted.
Then a brief pause followed, during which I imagined my adversary sitting back in his swivel chair, which I could actually hear creaking. And with a smirk, he said, “I don’t know because I have never been on board an aircraft before.”
But let us go back a few decades and imagine the picture of this 12 year old youth, coming from a village school in the outskirts of Freetown, thrust into the sophisticated environment of a Sierra Leone Grammar School that, over a century earlier had been built “on an ancient site,” right in the very heart of Creoldom’s citadel. So you might understand the failure of imagination in this Dick Whittington-like figure who could not have known that among the first pupils of our ancient school were some that had come from up-country even in those early days. And it is this spirit of inclusiveness and universality that made and makes our school great. And we forget this at our peril.
But never mind that the school had been temporally located to the eastern side of the city, it had come, fully equipped with all the trappings of a history that carried the names from an illustrious past.
And as if in a deliberate attempt to emphasize our insignificance in the shadow of this grand history I, and other freshers, were marshaled, sheep-like, for our first Assembly, into the chapel on the walls of which were hung polished mahogany boards bearing the names of past heads of school and principals, all lettered in burnished gold. You would note that the heads of school have taken precedence to principals in my narrative. Senior boys were our immediate superiors and they had almost God-like attributes. It was something we would have been foolish to forget. Our lives depended on always remembering that.
It would have been unsurprising, therefore, if my memory had not suffered a permanent or semi-permanent delete by this display of glory and eminence. That was in the year 1953, another era, some of you young whippersnappers might be thinking. And that brings me to a related complaint that I have had telegraphed to me. This is namely, that reminiscences should not always be given by the Saga-rite elements. The young, we are reminded, have memories too and they tire of hearing Pa Reffel Jokes and that they too had masters who had peculiarities that could be the subject of satire. I feel for them. Perhaps, in response, we might come to an arrangement whereby, in the future, we can alternate between the old guard and the new.
To go back to my main theme: The awe that struck me happily soon wore off after I linked up with boys in my class some of whom had spent the previous year in Prep, the short form for Preparatory Year. I presently became a mouthy little brat, who, before long, forgot himself and began to think that he could teach these town rats a thing or two. But they were prepared to bide their time and wait for Penny Day, which was in fact Foundation Day, the 25th of March or the weekday that fell nearest to it. For the fresher, this was the day when you were finally accepted into the school, an event that was marked by the gift of a shiny new penny from the Principal. But more about that later. Before the dawning of that day, all of your senior classmates whom you had given cause, real or imagined to bear malice against you, had given notice that this was going to be the day of reckoning. On this day, the minor brutalities that boys are wont to inflict on their weaker mates can be exercised with impunity and without the deterrent of punishment from higher authority. The trepidation that I began to feel as the month of March approached was not helped by the lurid accounts of what had befallen cheeky chappies like me on Penny Day. Some, no doubt, were exaggerated, but I was not prepared to take the risk, and began to consider options for surviving the day, including a feigned illness that would provide a cover for absenting myself. But my father, a great traditionalist, even though he had not been an Old Regentonian –a proud Old Princewalean-God bless his soul, saw through my shabby pretence and ordered me to get ready and go to school. I cannot now specifically recall how I survived that day, but I seem to remember an inelegant strategy of bribery, avoidance and straightforward begging for mercy for my past sins. Afterward, I swore that I would, in my time, revisit that brief reign of terror on the following year’s class. But alas, most of that class were bigger than me and I found myself better advised to exercise discretion over a misplaced sense of valour.
The tradition of Penny Day, I am informed still goes on. I feel for the Principal, as there are no longer pennies but cents and Leones. Were Mr. Principal to try to keep up with the inflationary and devaluation tendencies that have afflicted our time, he would have to hand out to each boy on Foundation Day, the equivalent of Le63,000 or six million three hundred thousand cents!
I had foresworn not to tell any Pa Reffel jokes such as: “Grammar School boys. They are clever oh! I gave then thirty sums and they worked all, ma!” His legacy is firmly inscribed in the consciousness of those of us who had the ambiguous fortune to have gone under his tutelage. But there were many other masters and mistresses (I have nothing to say about the un-wisdom of setting women teachers, frequently not much older than ourselves-among boys at that stage of their development), other masters-- who left their own mark as well. One that I was reminded of recently in Freetown was Professor NGJ Ballanta, music teacher and Latin master. I remember him as a rather cerebral figure who talked to himself a lot (or perhaps he might have been re-working some musical score in his head) and who used to cham kola. Those of you who chew kola nuts would know that the nut has a tendency to dry out the oral cavity. “E dey ole you mot,” as we say.
And, as boys, we knew that that interval between class periods is a bewitching time in which all kinds of events and transactions can take place, most having nothing to do with school work or learning. It is a dangerous time too, because, if you get carried away, you may not know that the master taking the next lesson would have approached and entered the classroom, only to catch you in some proscribed activity which might result on your being ordered to stand on the form. I don’t need to explain that. However, in a well ordered class, a lookout is always posted to give advance warning of the approach of a master. And of course, as boys, we rarely cottoned on the fact that schoolmasters were once schoolboys, too, and that they nearly always had the measure of us. Pa Ballanta had been through several cycles of this lookout and warning lark and had become quite fed-up with it. And one day after entering the classroom, it was a Latin class if I recall correctly and after we had gone through the salutations of “Salve, Magister!” and “Salvete, Pueri!” he said, through teeth reddened by Kola and mouth insufficiently lubricated, “Boys, why don’t’ you behave yourselves instead of setting out a lookout who has to shout “Farrah dey cam, Farrah dey cam!”
“When the Old Boys rally round us and tell of what has been
“They may urge us to more study, they must meet us on the green.”
I do remember the constant urging that took place and I am indeed grateful for that. But what I don’t remember is that meeting on the green, which implied that an engagement of current pupils with Old boys- masters- would take place on the football field or cricket ground. I suppose I can ascribe this memory lapse to my own personal indolence and disinclination to indulge in unnecessary physical exertion.
But over the years, I have allowed myself the indulgence of a vision of a crack football team, for example, meeting current masters on the green. But before I go any further, I want to recall the schoolboy’s penchant for giving nicknames to their schoolmasters, names that, for the most part are supposed to reflect some physical or intellectual peculiarity. Those of a certain generation who knew SEE Taylor, JT Reffell, JT Anderson, Evan Johnson or HEB John, would not fail to see the intrinsic hilarity of a football team that included, Kammar Taylar, Yuba, Pigeon Chest, Okpoloh and Ducks wais.