Learning in the Cathedral Close

A few months back, some old school friends and I met up again after 27 years apart. There was much to talk about and we enjoyed many laughs. We have promised to meet again not too long from now: certainly there is no plan to wait another 27 years before our next meeting all together. A long time ago, we had all been boarders and choristers together at school in Winchester, where our school fees were mainly covered by the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral in exchange for several years of hard but life-enriching work. We had lived together 11 months of the year between the ages of 9 and 13, singing in 7 services per week, while taking part in countless rehearsals, recordings and concert performances – and much more besides. We also went away on tours abroad – most memorably to Australia and the USA. Doing all this was an incredible and life-forming experience which left its mark on all of us in different ways, but in ways of which we all seem to be very conscious.

The school we were privileged to attend was, then, a home as well as an educational site to us. And the site in question occupies a beautiful location, inside the Cathedral Close of Winchester itself, a short walk from the medieval cathedral building. The bells of the cathedral could sometimes be heard after lights-out through our dormitory windows. And our sports fields were surrounded by the amazing ruins of Wolvesey Castle, the site of a medieval palace. It would be difficult, over years spent attending the school, not to pick up a sense of wonder at the grand sweep of history on display in the architecture all around you: the sights and even the sounds of the place put you directly in touch with ages gone by and with the passage of time. And of course there was the music we had come to the Close to sing: everything from medieval plainsong to the late twentieth century compositions of William Walton and Judith Weir. We even sung compositions by our own choirmaster David Hill, and one of the lay clerks, Francis Pott. Old blended with new, the splendour of the past enriched by the innovations of the present. It was a spellbinding experience – and one I have written about a little elsewhere.

At the heart of the education of those in the school was, of course, our interaction with our teachers – and there was perhaps no more influential teacher in the school at the time I was there than our quirky but brilliant English teacher Mr Robin Perry. I learnt when meeting my friends that Mr Perry had sadly passed away a couple of years ago, aged only 60, and it was partly with him in mind that I decided I wanted to write up a few memories about life in the school, and about him as a teacher. Others have already written of their fond memories of Mr Perry elsewhere; the following are a few of my own.

Mr Perry was unusual for how he took the trouble to relate to us boys as individuals: he used our first names (not all teachers did), sometimes giving us nicknames; he laughed and joked with us; most importantly, though, there was a sense that he was treating us all seriously as young minds – not so much as boys, but as young adults capable of interesting thoughts of our own. I cannot remember him ever shouting. Certainly he could get cross, but he wasn’t one to lose his rag. He would speak of being ‘disappointed’ with us if we got out of line, but he didn’t use aggression or harsh words (something other teachers did use, at times!).

I remember well the thoroughness of his marking: at the end of our assignments, paragraphs of slanted red writing would make an appearance, thoroughly feeding back thoughts on what we had submitted. This must have taken him hours to do for each pupil, but do it he did – and it had a big impact. Every piece of English work I submitted was done in the knowledge that it would be thoroughly absorbed and scrutinised. This teacher was going to turn what I’d done inside out, so I’d better give a good account of myself.

As a teacher now myself, Mr Perry’s approach to feedback is exactly the approach I try to use also: treat what a pupil has written with the utmost seriousness and give them a full and honest sense of what you think about it. It wasn’t until university level that I started to receive feedback on my own work like that which I had received from Mr Perry – but I had seen that it was possible to be similarly thorough and incisive before that stage.

Mr Perry taught me to read. He supervised the small bookstall in the school library, from where you could buy books on certain days of the week (I remember doing so every so often). If you went to make a purchase, he’d ask you about your choice and what drew you to it. You were always made to think and probe your own reasons. I remember his pleasure on seeing that I had selected a book by Paul Theroux on one visit to his stall! I was, I think, 11 at the time. He stocked some fun and oddball choices alongside more serious reading: I remember once buying a romance novel by Jackie Collins – hardly an obvious item of stock in an all boys’ boarding school. And I remember reading it too!

In class we studied John Buchan’s novel The Thirty Nine Steps. In some ways this was a conventional text to explore with schoolboys: exciting, with political and military themes, if a little timeworn; well-known, and centred on a male protagonist. The way Mr Perry taught it wasn’t at all conventional, though: he used TV! While reading the text we got to know three different film productions of the novel – one made in the 30s by Hitchcock, one from 1959, one in the late 70s starring Robert Powell.

I remember being infuriated when we did this at how Mr Perry would stop the excerpts of video from these different productions which he showed us in class to engage in long discussions about minute details of what the different film directors were up to. He pointed toward the different ways in which they departed from the original novel; the nuance and detail of how particular special effects were achieved; the camerawork; the various ways a director can manipulate or subtly suggest things to an audience; to gaffes; to plot holes. Seeing the humanness, the directorial decision-making and skills, the mistakes, and the striking differences between the 3 productions laid bare like this was a really memorable educational experience: for all of us who had grown up in an age saturated by television, seeing the workings of this medium scrutinised and laid bare like this was a revelation. It gave us the distance we needed properly to criticise this medium, even as we were now better able to admire the skills involved in achieving particular effects, and more aware of the ideological agendas in play in given productions.

Another thing about Mr Perry was his quirkiness. I remember a lesson in which we were ushered out of our classroom and into the school hall next door. We had to remove our shoes, form a circle and close our eyes. He made us zone out and try to picture a scene of complete serenity. A few minutes later we had to join with partners and imagine ourselves falling backwards, trusting that someone would be there to catch us. Would they in fact be there? That was the question he wanted us to consider. We had to think about trust, assumptions of trust, learning to live while trusting those who might not, in fact, be entirely reliable behind our backs! Or at least, that’s what I think the message of that lesson was. What was going on that day was never really fully spelled out to us!

Teaching at our school was Mr Perry’s life, or at least a very big part of it. He was involved with boarding, with Saturday games, with teaching Latin as well as English. Teaching was his vocation and, when I was at the school, he lived it fully. I have often thought over the years about how I would like to thank him for all he did for me and my own studies. In a job interview several years back, I was asked if I could think of a memorable teacher from my own days of schooling, and what it was about them that made them special. It was a good question. I immediately thought of Mr Perry and spoke about him: his attention to detail, his devotion to each student, his quirkiness, his insistence that a student must really think about what they write and about what they see. Really think. And bring this into play not just in the classroom but beyond it.

It is a sadness that I never got to say these things to the man himself. No doubt he would have played it all down, modest as he was.

I wrote at the outset of this post about the sense of history I gained from attending the Pilgrims’ School, and about how it was impossible not to absorb this and be a little mesmerised by it, particularly as a chorister in the Cathedral. I’d come to the school from the suburbs of a nearby city, Southampton. The grandeur of the Cathedral Close was not something I’d previously known. I’d also come into the school as a Catholic, an identity of which I’d grown quite conscious in my years at Catholic primary school and particularly since receiving my first holy communion. Now I was part of an Anglican world, one which was a natural environment for almost all of my (Anglican) school friends. Fortunately I did not feel very much like a fish out of water in their company: there were a few different traditions and prayers to get used to in the cathedral, and strangely enough I could now no longer receive communion (Anglicans don’t do this until they’re confirmed, I learned), but much of the music we sung would have been very much at home in the Roman Catholic world – particularly the Masses we sung for Sunday morning Eucharist. It was certainly not difficult for me to discover a deep and lasting affection for the whole Anglican choral tradition, a tradition which my family and I had never known before I arrived in the Cathedral close. And as a liberal Catholic family, it was a tradition we were very much open to getting to know.

As a parent of young children now myself, I ask myself whether I’d want my own children to go away and board to be choristers in a Cathedral. Of course there may be no option to do this anyway, as competitive voice trials would need to be passed for any such thing to happen – but the question occurs to me even so. I think it would be difficult to say goodbye to a 9 year old for seven nights of the week, eleven months of the year, just as it was for my own parents (albeit that they came to visit each week and enjoyed attending additional services from time to time also). But, then, when I think of the most formative period of my education, I think directly of those years in the Cathedral Close and what they did for me. I had pleaded with my parents to be able to sing and board: they had been reluctant, unfamiliar as they were with the whole tradition of singing and boarding, to allow it – but I myself, aged 8, had gained a clear sense of how exciting it all was, and wanted to be a part of it. So they had let me. If my own son or daughter wanted the same, could my wife and I turn them down?

And if you could add teachers like Mr Perry into the equation – teachers who would inspire and encourage while really making you think – then the attractions of such a schooling could only grow.

If I were constructing an ideal society, all schools might be located in a beautiful and inspiring setting like the Cathedral Close, where culture in the form of beautiful music and architecture, as well as religious tradition, would blend effortlessly with an exposure to the innovations, challenges and achievements of modernity (and postmodernity). And all schools would have inspiring, highly dedicated staff who wish to challenge and nurture each student as an individual – staff like Mr Perry. In the world as we find it, the standards of these ideals are not always realised – but that, I guess, is at least something we can work on.

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