Looking back at Hornsey County School

Paraphrase of Keith Beal’s Speech at the London Lunch 2013

I have avoided doing this job for many years, but I made that terrible mistake last year of saying to Eileen, “I’ll think about it”. Absolutely fatal; so here I am! Very reluctant to speak and ‘unaccustomed as I am to public speaking’, I went round and asked other friends, who have done it, and they said I had to think of a lot of jokes, as “that might keep them awake”. I’m not very good at jokes. I can’t remember which philosopher said that an optimist sees life as a tragedy and a pessimist sees life as a comedy. Well I must be a pessimist, because I see the whole of life as a comedy and I can’t think of any jokes that would improve upon this ridiculous human situation that we are in.

Anyway, I shouldn’t be upset, worried or frightened by speaking to you, (which I am), because I have performed in front of thousands of people at festivals, all over the Europe, but I’ve always had an instrument in front of me to hide behind, and there is a hell of a lot of difference in hiding behind a saxophone, where you hope people can’t see your face, or when you’re so intent on moving your fingers up and down that you forget the audience, than naturally standing here, open to the world, speaking to people.

I have noticed that year after year the number of people who come here diminish. This, of course, is a tragedy, but I had hoped, in the back of my mind, that if I could hang on long enough, I would only have myself to talk to, and, as my wife says, I am very good at that.

Then I had to think what I was going to talk about. Now, in most Old Boys’/Old Girls’ Societies, there is an obvious subject that you talk to all new members about. It is to give them “Good Unclely” advice; tell them how they should grow up, and how they should behave in school, but I can hardly do that here. I have worked out that the youngest member must be seventy-five, (although not necessarily their husbands, wives or friends), so the subject I finally thought I would make the theme of my talk would be the effect that the School has had on our lives. Now this is very dangerous, because one might go off on an ego trip, and my wife has warned me very firmly that I mustn’t do that. So! I am going to tell some of the effects that the School has had on my life, and I hope it will call to your memory some of the effects that the School has had on your lives.

One of the things I want to say is that if anyone wants to interrupt, or heckle, or say anything, I would welcome that because it will cut down the number of things I have to say myself.

I feel that what we have to realise is that we went through a very unusual School. It only had about 250 pupils and a dozen or so Staff. We knew everybody. This would be completely impossible today, where all schools have 1000 or so pupils, and nobody knows anyone. That intimacy must have had an effect on how we thought. Another important thing about the School was that it did not give a narrow education. There was a lot of sport, (although not very good) but we did have a Sports’ Day, and we had P.T. two hours a week and we had to travel to Tottenham once a week to the School field (that was always good for a skive). So they did think about our physical health as well as our mental health. Another thing was the School did not only concentrate on academic work, it included a lot of the Arts. Percy was not my favourite Headmaster, and each school is affected by its Principal Master. He considered himself a musician. Although I don’t feel he was as good as he thought he was (but we won’t go into that), we did have a lot of music in the School; we had an orchestra, which was interesting, (and we wont go into that) and we did have a choir, which was a pretty good standard We had an Arts Trophy, as well as the Sports’ Day. We used to compete in the Arts; writing and painting and things like that. Not many schools did that or do it now, as far as I can see, with the net result that we came out of the School with a very broad education.

I would like to talk a bit about Percy’s effect upon the School. He did stimulate the music, but in that, as with everything else, he was much more obsessed with procedure than content. I remember he was very keen on good handwriting. It didn’t seem to matter what it said as long as the handwriting was good. I also thought he had abominable manners. I don’t know if anybody remembers but there was a girl who sang a popular song at one of the House Parties; he slammed his book on the floor and walked out. Does anybody remember that? (No-one did). The following morning I remember going on about this in Sammy Hall’s Class, saying how disgusting this was, and what a bad example it set, and Sammy said “Keep quiet about it. We may think some things in life, but it is sometimes wise not to say anything.” That stayed with me a long, long time.

There were two teachers at the School who have had a profound effect upon my life. One was Sammy Hall and I remember one of his sayings was, “You should throw a stone at the stars because you might hit a tree, but if you throw a stone at the ground, you are only ever going to hit the ground.” I remember years later, when I started writing classical music, I said to Henk Alkema, who was the Principal at the Utrecht Conservatoire, and a very good, successful composer, “Henk, how do you write a symphony?” and he said, “Oh, I wouldn’t dare. There are too many good symphonies, already written.” And I remembered what Sammy Hall had said, so I sat down wrote a symphony, which was rubbish, but by the time I had got to the end of that symphony, I knew how to do it. My second symphony was played a dozen times, and was recorded in Kiev, and a CD was made of it. This would never have happened, if it hadn’t been for Sammy Hall. (At this point there was a call from the room, “Are you selling it today?” (laughter round the room).

I used to visit Sammy Hall, after he retired and was blind, to see him and his wife. His wife gave me a cutting of a rose that she grew in their garden, and I have taken cuttings of that rose, and planted it wherever I have been; in a window box when I had a flat in Hampstead, in the garden of a house I had in Hampstead, in the garden of my house in Hastings, in my garden in Utrecht, and in my house garden in Guestling. So it is following me around everywhere, and always reminds me of Sammy and his wife. It also adds colour to my life, literally as well as metaphorically, although not as much colour as Sammy’s socks. Do you remember on V.E. day how he stomped up onto the stage, crossed his legs with great majesty, as he usually did, and there were red, white and blue socks!?

The other teacher who has had a very profound effect on my life is Miss Choppin. She threw me out of her classes because I never did my homework, but what she didn’t know is that she instilled in me a love of poetry, and particularly, a love of Shakespeare. Another way she opened my eyes were with the Essays of ‘Alpha of the Plough’ which, when I first opened the book, I thought would be boring. However, the structure the material there, and how Miss Chopin explained it all, has stood me in very good stead, when writing academic papers. When I’m down, I always go back to that book of essays that we had to read with her.

She has also sustained me at very difficult times, by the philosophy she brought out in the literature. When I first went to live in Holland, for a while I was absolutely broke, so I played the saxophone in an African pop group. I was the nominal white face. Sometimes, we were playing in African nightclubs where I was the only white face in the whole place, and I remembered what she said about Othello. She explained the difficulties he had with being a black man in a white society, and I thought I now know what this is all about, and how he must have felt. I also remember Romeo & Juliet and her saying “This is you lot, you keep on changing the object of your love”. Romeo & Juliet starts with Romeo talking about this wonderful girl he is in love with (not Juliet). Then Juliet walks by and suddenly his love is transferred to her. She said “You are all like that at your age”. I remember a few other things about her, which I shouldn’t repeat, so we will move on.

I believe she had also studied music, which I didn’t know at the time. She kept very quiet about it, when we were at Hornsey County. Perhaps it was because she would have had to criticise Percy and the terrible songs he wrote; the School Song, and, even worse, “An Anthem for Hornsey”. Anyhow, I did send her a CD of my second symphony, but I don’t know if she ever got it, because I was abroad at the time. Later on, when I heard that she was in a home, in Cornwall, on the way back from Lands End, I called in, hoping to give her a copy of my second novel, but we got there to be told she had died three days earlier. It would have been nice to show her that all her efforts had not been wasted.

Another teacher, who I never knew, and with whom I was not particularly enamoured by her character, but who did have an effect on my life at a more remote distance, was Miss Tesh. This is because I remember, in the first form, her storming into the room, her gown splaying out behind her, and telling us all about the Battle of Marathon, and it was enthralling. It awoke an interest that I have had throughout my life. I have been reading History ever since. This has also stood me in very good stead in a practical way. First of all, I took an A Level in Ancient Greek & Persian History to get me into The London School of Economics but, more than this, while I was there I earned my way through my studies by filming. I worked as a Sound Man, and one of the very good jobs I did, not just as a Soundman, but as an Historic Advisor for a film on Persia. I went to see Persepolis: that fantastic city, come building, and that goes back to the interest given me by Miss Tesh.

Also, while I was filming (my wife has said that I should mention this as it would be interesting, although I don’t know. It is not part of my theme.) I was driven around the Le Mans circuit by Graham Hill, in the Lotus that had just won that year, at full speed which was absolutely terrifying. Another thing with the filming, is that I did all the test flights on the Corcorde so that, not only have I been on the Concorde but also did ‘loop the loop’ and various maneuvers not available to the biggest millionaire. It was an amazing aircraft and on one occasion, while I was sitting next to the in-flight engineer, strapped into the seat, I said, “gosh we were going down fast” and he said that we were diving down faster than we could freefall and that “if we were to get out we would be left behind”. Another thing on that particular job; we were doing altitude tests to see if the engines would cut out without oxygen, and if they could be started again at over 75,000 feet. The normal height flown is at 52,000, maybe 55,000 feet. So, one is on the edge of space. The sky is black, the sun is shining bright, and you can see all the stars. It’s really eerie, and you look down and see the blue Earth, looking just like a school atlas. I can quite understand why some of the astronauts got God or went mad or whatever.

Another thing that the School gave me is much more amorphous. I didn’t appreciate it at the time. It was the feeling for a need for fortitude. I had always been somewhat rebellious, and all my life I had a tendency towards the Left. I thought at the time the School was trying to ape public schools, and it really wasn’t important. Mind you, I got thrown out of the Socialist Society at the L.S.E. because I made fun of their Sunday afternoon readings of Karl Marx which I called Sunday School. Also, before I went to the L.S.E., I had had success with the exhibition of my paintings in Bond Street and had sold the lot, the proceeds of which bought my house in Hastings. So I was obviously one of the bourgeois land-owning class. Anyway, I got thrown out. Perhaps I have stronger Bourgoise tendencies than I think, for this fortitude has been very important in times of stress, either sitting in a French police cell, or fighting a force nine severe gale, in the middle of the North Sea on my yacht, and waves twice the height of this room breaking over the top of us. It was quite exciting and I thought “What do I do now? I just sit back and let fate take its course?” Fortitude was the word!

A teacher that I really did not appreciate, or take advantage of what he tried to do for me, was Mr. Paterson, the Science Master, at the end of my period there. When I left Hornsey County, he fixed me up with a very good job at The Imperial Institute as a laboratory assistant in a biochemical laboratory. There were just two scientists, myself and a porter. The idea was that I studied Biochemistry. I did a couple of nights at Regent Street Poly, but I was bored. I didn’t appreciate what a good job he had fixed up and I have often regretted that. My life could have taken a completely different line. I was much more interested in jazz in those days, so I decided to jack it all in and go and do my National Service.

Going back to one of the things that I admire about the School, was the mixture of Science and the Arts. Both of those things were of great value later in my life. I worked for the BBC as a technician for a while where the background of Mathematics and Science helped. I was supposedly a trainee engineer there, but again I didn’t really appreciate what a good job I had got. Later on, after I had been to the L.S.E., I was invited to join a recording company and started off in charge of all the technical things; the equipment and recordings but eventually, I became the General Manager and did all the non-technical things as well, and the background knowledge that I had, let me choose albums that I wanted to produce myself for example, as well as looking after contracts and things like that. And that period, in its turn, because I could do the technical, as well as the artistic side, led to me becoming a musician.

So, after Maggie Thatcher had wrecked our company, (another story that I will not go into now) I retired and went back to Hastings. One of the musicians, whose albums I had produced, came to live on the opposite hill facing me, in Hastings. He would come round each afternoon and we would play a few things on two Saxophones. One day he said “I am doing a Radio 3 broadcast on Tuesday, would you like to do it with me?” So my first gig was a Radio 3 broadcast and, as a result of that, we were invited to play at the Camden Jazz Festival I was sitting there shaking in my shoes. I was playing in a ten piece band, knowing there were a couple of thousand out there watching. At that point Lizzie came up to me and said “You’re very lucky playing with this band. The others are all much better than you”. (laughter) I played very few notes during that gig. I wanted to sink through the floor and I longed for a Victorian stage trap door to disappear down. The band was then invited to play at the Bracknell Jazz Festival and, again I remembered what Sammy Hall had said and thought I had nothing to lose, so I went on stage to an even bigger audience and really “gave it one.” After that I spent the next 4½ years with this band, and we played at almost every jazz festival in Europe and I had a fantastic time. Again, this was with thoughts of what I had been taught at school underlying everything

Finally, where I think I can’t completely commend Hornsey County and where it did fail us, was that it never gave us much ambition academically. Since I left school, I went, as a mature student to the London School of Economics and got a BSc. in Economics and then Sociology. I got an M.A. in Music from Sussex University and have, twice, been offered the chance to do a PhD, which I have turned down. This suggests that I did have academic potential, and I am quite sure that it is not just me and that there are some more here who could have gone on and got degrees, and had a good academic career, or at least got some very good jobs. I don’t think they pushed us enough in that direction. However, what I will say is that, as far as I’m concerned and I hope as far as you are concerned, it did give us a very good broad education; physically, scientifically and artistically for a good life and for that reason I am very pleased that I went to Hornsey County School.