Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Things of Darkness

New wing of Music Schools at Eton
The Third Act of my opera Mae Naak is essentially one long exorcism scene.  So we have been having an on-stage exorcism every day for about a week.

Yesterday, however, I had an exorcism of another ilk when I returned to my old school, something I have not done since around 1971.  My visit to Eton at that time was curtailed when my former housemaster summoned me to his office and told me I should get going because my presence would disrupt the delicate balance of the school.  This was, of course not really true, and no other teacher would have made me feel so unwelcome, and this is, I suppose, what the exorcism, forty years later, is really about.

My sojourn at Eton was extremely mythic in that I was literally caught between heaven and hell.  Heaven was in a sense the school itself: the boundless opportunities, the resources, the unlocking of so much creative potential.  This was personified most clearly in Michael Meredith, my tutor at Eton, who went out of his way to develop my artistic sensibilities.  When I composed my first opera, Brand, Michael lobbied the school to have the entire ms. xeroxed (not a cheap thing in the 1960s) and shipped off to an opera house to be looked at.  He was uncompromisingly critical of my poetry and short fiction in a way that always forced me to examine my motivations and become more honest with myself.  There were also incredible friends, great music, art, drama, and literature all around me, time spent handling real-live mummy parts in the Myers museum, performing in a real opera in a theatre with an orchestra pit with a cast that included future world-class opera stars like Michael Chance, and so on.  Then there were the trips to Glyndebourne that included dinner with Sir George Christie, being taken by Michael Meredith to Ian McKellen's live performances as Edward II and Richard II in London, visits to the school by such celebrities as the James Blades, one of the world's greatest percussionists, and so on.  In the "heaven" part of my experience, my horizons were being expanded on an almost daily basis.

Hell, you see, was the house I was assigned to ... whose housemaster was the notorious D.P. Simpson.  I don't really enjoy speaking ill of the dead but in this case I must.  Simpson ran a Dickensian horror of a house which was an island of Stalinist repression within a universe which, despite a system of Victorian punishments such as flagellation and writing out lines of Latin poetry, was in its own way fiercely liberal and totally committed to a forward-looking style of education.  It is in fact not possible, unless you were there, to imagine the atmosphere in that house ... Simpson thrived on belittling his boys, cutting down their egos, preventing them from exercising any creativity.  He told me for instance I must remove all imagination from my writing if it was to be acceptable to him.  Life in that house was driven by fear.  I would never allow a child of mine to endure what it was like there.

On this trip to England to do the opera, I was delighted to meet the Harding brothers who were at that house with me.  David Harding told me that some boys had been destroyed by the experience.  David told me about one boy who snapped and ended up punching out Simpson; he has ended up in a bad way, with a terrible drug problem.  Another boy, David Cruikshank, ran away from school.  I was sad about this because I really liked and admired this kid.  David Harding told me that David C. is now working with troubled kids.  I thought that was very fitting and it showed me that he had turned the trauma into something positive.

I found myself fighting back in little ways all the time, which Simpson must have found intolerable.  I got an email from Henry Ponsonby who was at that house with me recently and he said this: "I recall how your courage and endurance managed to beat the system".  To me it was not about courage or endurance, however, but about sheer survival.  (I once wrote a letter to the head master complaining about Simpson's repressiveness; naively, I believed that the powers that be would spring to my defence.  They did not, of course.  But I imagine it contributed greatly to Simpson's efforts to eradicate my individuality.)

Just how intolerable I was to Simpson only came to my attention when I returned to Eton this time and my former tutor told me things that could not then have been told ... for instance, that my former housemaster had lobbied (successfully) to have me denied admission to Worcester College, Oxford.  He had, after all, written to my parents to tell them I was not Oxbridge material, and would not have wanted to be disproved (though my rather fine A level results must already have been pretty galling.)  In any event I got a choral scholarship to Cambridge so the lobbying really was for naught.

As a child, you do not really know that the world you are in is not necessarily the way the world is supposed to be.  Forty years later, I finally understood that other elements of the school did not approve of how Simpson operated, and I finally came to understand some of the complex politics that allowed such a person to be allowed to exist in a place that was otherwise so nurturing and so respectful of young people's individualities.  I learned that Simpson's house was an anomaly and that such a place could not exist in the Eton of today and should not have existed in the Eton of the 1960s.

The Eton Choirbook, one of the most
 important manuscripts
in the history of western music.  It's in the
College Library along with assorted First Folios,
Gutenberg Bibles and other
"odds and ends".... today, boys may
to see and touch these Holy Relics.
Eton's not a museum - the past is all
very much alve.
Yesterday I arrived at an Eton from which the hellish element had been expunged.  The current headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, was a friend of mine at Eton ... that in itself was remarkable.  The brilliant Michael Meredith who taught me pretty much everything I know is still there and a person of great influence.  Incredible resources - shiny new rehearsal rooms, expansions to the theatre, have been added.  I got to do things I was never able to or allowed to do in the 1960s ... for instance, to touch and turn the pages of the 15th century manuscript The Eton Choirbook which is a priceless trove of English polyphony, to gaze into an authentic copy of Chapman'a Homer, to hold a real handwritten page of the Origin of Species in my hands, to gaze at the actual rehearsal score of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with Benjamin Britten's pencilled-in production notes.

Seeing Eton as it is now, run by people who I consider to be my friends, it is impossible to believe that this drama of light versus darkness would be played out today because I don't think that such a repressive house would be allowed to exist.  Eton today is far more light than darkness, and with the Victorian punishments now being illegal, there are few dire threats hanging over the students' heads.   And yet I have to say now, I have to admit the inadmissible: that I needed the darkness as much as needed the light.  That was the epiphany for me yesterday.  (It was Michael Meredith who taught us about epiphanies while deftly leading a group of us through the labyrinth of James Joyce's Ulysses.)

I understand now that I could not have written any of my novels or operas without drawing from the totality of this experience.  Like Prospero, I need to say that "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine."  Even for these things, I find that I am grateful.   In a sense I am more fortunate than Etonians today, who may not imagine being torn between such extremes.  I managed to get both the "growing up in an idyllic fairyland" childhood and the "growing up in a hideous concentration camp" childhood combined into a single package.   All of Eton, darkness and light, is an inextricable part of who I am.  Yesterday I was finally able to accept this.

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