STROUD SCHOOL and our prime minister
Hearing that Rishi Sunak attended a prep school in Hampshire where I once taught evinced a flood of happy memories.
It was the end of the season, always a melancholy time for cricketers. It was more than melancholy for me; the job I had in South Africa, coaching and playing for a club in Port Elizabeth, had fallen through and I was now seriously worried, a worry that I had suppressed for weeks, about what I was going to do during the winter months. This was in 1975 and professional cricketers (pre-Packer) were only employed for the six months of the season. For the intervening six months, we had to shift for ourselves, and cricketers were paid a pittance back then. It was at Southampton, Hampshire’s headquarters, and I was distractedly flinging kit into my ‘coffin’ (cricket bags for some macabre reason were known as ‘coffins’) before I picked up my towel and headed for the showers.
Rubbing the soap from my eyes, I became aware of an unfamiliar voice. Standing in the open doorway was a portly man, dressed in a three-piece, bottle-green, serge suit. He was swaying alarmingly.
“Sanger-Davies,” he introduced himself, “Been a member here for years.”
I went as if to shake his hand, as my parents had sedulously taught me, but then I thought I would only cover him in soap, so I sort of gave a weak, ineffectual wave of greeting.
“Hear you’re looking for a job?”
“Er, well… I haven’t given it much----”
“You’re a teacher, aren’t you?”
In fact, I was a professional cricketer but, yes, I had a degree and my ultimate aim, once I had stopped playing, was to enter that noble profession.
“COME AND TEACH AT STROUD!”
I put that in capital letters in order to give you some sense of the gruff, strident way he bellowed the invitation.
“Good, that’s settled then.”
I was aware of no agreement on my part but then he was gone. A minute later, he returned.
“By the way, what’s your subject?”
“BUGGER! Just filled that post.”
A moment or two elapsed as he gave the matter some thought.
“Never mind. Come and teach some Religious Studies!”
“Are you Andy?”
“Well, yes I am, but my mother always calls me Andrew.”
“No! No! Not are you Andy. Are you ANTI?”
Anti? Anti what? Or maybe it was ‘ante’.
“ANTI-HUNTING!” he roared, “You’re not one of those damned saboteurs, are you?”
I had no thoughts about hunting foxes whatsoever. We played against the Foxes (Leicestershire) but that was as far as it got.I shook my head. He seemed satisfied with that and took his leave. I remained dumbfounded. Did that really just happen?
Indeed, it had, and I exaggerate not one bit in my portrayal of the scene; it was exactly as I describe. Quite possibly the only interview in the history of education when the applicant has been stark naked. Maybe the Greeks, who were fond of a bit of nude wrestling in their ancient games, but I have not heard of the practice in modern times. In such a way did I end up teaching, first RS and latterly English, at Stroud School for two terms of the year whilst playing for Hampshire in the summer. Andrew Sanger-Davies, the proprietor and headmaster of the school, was without doubt the most intriguing, idiosyncratic, yet lovable, man I have ever met. It is unlikely that such characters exist in modern-day schooling, and more’s the pity, for he was a one-off, quirky, unconventional, whimsically amusing yet principled and devoted to his charges. He was Mr Stroud, writ large.
His greatest gift was to appoint the right people, those who shared his values, who would work hard, have their pupils’ best interests at heart, but not take life too seriously. If you can’t have fun working in a prep school, then what is the point? Certainly not the pay, which was meagre. I loved it there. I was paid two-thirds of a salary and then could earn six months’ wages playing for Hampshire. Sanger-Davies, or ‘the old man’, as we affectionally called him, invariably appointed young men and women to do the teaching. We all brought our individual talents to the classroom, but we worked as a team, ever-willing to go the extra mile, because the old man inspired that kind of loyalty among his staff. He was the eminence-grise, the living, breathing soul of the place, and we were his willing acolytes. It was a lively, vibrant community, happy and at ease with itself.
Nevertheless, there were times when we would roll our eyes wondering how on earth the old man was going to get away with this or not come a cropper over that, but he always sailed through choppy waters unscathed, utterly serene and sanguine. This is the way we do it at Stroud, he seemed to be saying; if we were doing it wrong, I would have been BANKRUPT BY NOW. Which he clearly wasn’t.
Stories of his eccentricities abound, and none needsembellishment. His assemblies were legendary. “Do you know whose birthday it is today?” he asked of the toddlers sitting cross-legged in front of him, with the senior boys and girls standing to the rear. “It is the anniversary of the birth of RANJITSINHJI.”
Even the staff looked nonplussed at that. I started to laugh. Probably alone among my colleagues, I knew that Prince Ranjitsinhji Jab Saheb of Nawananagar was a noted ruler of an Indian satrap and a famous cricketer, who played for Sussex and England. He was a contemporary of WG Grace, CB Fry, RE Foster, Archie MacLaren et al, and, with his flourishing strokeplay, was the exotic jewel in the crown of what became known as the Golden Age of Cricket. The story of Ranji, as recounted by the old man, went right over the heads of the kids but had us in stitches at the back, trying to hide our stifled guffaws.
At close of play – I beg your pardon – at the conclusion of last period on Saturday morning, we would all congregate in the Sanger-Davies’ sitting room.
“Fancy a DRINK?” the old man would bellow.
No wait for a reply. He would pour half-a-pint of gin into a glass and splash – I use the word advisedly, for there was barely room for anything more – some tonic over the top. The rest would trickle down his trousers and onto his shoes.
“What about you, Andy? Fancy a SNIFTER?”
I don’t drink gin so I would tentatively suggest a small sherry.“BUGGER! Damned rolling stock IN THE WRONG PLACE.”
He would disappear down into the cellar and emerge a bit later, red-faced and wheezing, with the requisite bottle clutched in his hand.
His two great passions – apart from hunting – were cricket and rugby. Football hardly got a look-in. “Damn poofter’s game.” I worked out once that during the month of June, Stroud 1st XI played more matches than Hampshire. He kept a large leather-bound book in which was recorded the full scorecard of each match, together with a report, all meticulously inscribed in his beautiful, flowing hand. If we won against any of our closest rivals, the celebratory drinks would flow. If we lost, he would be cast down in the slough of despond. It seemed to me at times that Stroud floated along on a river of booze.
Yet for all that, the boys and girls flourished, academically, physically, socially. Boys would get into Eton and Winchester and other major schools, and the girls would make their way to the best girls’ schools. It was a gloriously chaotic environment, but it worked.
I guess Andrew, with his copious alcohol intake, was never destined to make old bones. I was greatly saddened to hear that he had died, age 57, some four years after I left to come to teach at Malvern College (which was not gloriously chaotic). I believe the school passed into the hands of his daughter and son-in-law, but I am not sure what has happened in recent years. I would hope that the unique spirit and atmosphere that the old man fostered still lives on. I can imagine a small, bright-eyed Rishi Sunak sitting cross-legged, nodding his head sagely, listening to the headmaster’s address. “Of course I know who Ranji is. He was an Indian. Just like me.” Thank heavens I had left long before Sunak attended the school. I would not have fancied trying to teach Hinduism to a boy who clearly knew more about it then I did.