Old Farnhamians' Association
Somehow, I can't bring myself even to write George Baxter in the Subject. He was never George, except of course, when we thought we were being terribly daring and disrespectful, and were a very long way from earshot.
Which in some ways is odd, because my time at FGS was from 1966 to 1973, a time of great social upheaval and revolution. Looking back at the school photos of the early 70s, it is clear that very few of the boys had had a haircut from one year to the next. One of the motions at The Debating Society was whether school uniform should be abolished. We were being encouraged through the media to do our own thing (man) – they were the days of the Oz Schoolkids trial (I naturally obtained a copy), The Beatles, the 1968 Paris riots, the London School of Economics, Woodstock, progressive music, interesting substances in the air at the Jolly Farmer...
And yet. There we were, 400 teenagers in school uniform, being taught by masters whom we addressed as Sir (and, later, Lady Teachers!), and a headmaster who, frankly, we loved. We grew our hair, we had amusing nicknames for the masters (which of course they never knew!), we were occasionally troublesome, and we got put in detention for our troubles. Apart from the dormitory (which had gone by the time I arrived) FGS could have been something out of a book by Frank Richards.
And presiding over this cauldron was Mr Baxter. Wise, fair, firm, frightening, approachable, strict, amusing. We got on well, Mr Baxter and I. Maybe he had an idea of my troubled background. Whether he did or not, we had several little chats in his study during my time there. Not to tell me off, not to do anything except to see if I was OK, and to tell me I could do anything I wanted, I could be anyone I wanted to be. My love of English flourished under him, and I still have an exercise book with some of the essays and stories I wrote in his class.
I don't remember
any disrespect for Mr Baxter from anyone: and those were the days when the
And when the time came for me to choose a secondary school for my stepson, I had no hesitation in deciding on the one which described itself as a grammar school in all but name. I wanted him to have the same experience I had of school: whatever else was going on in my life, I enjoyed going to Mr Baxter's school (even if Physics was and is a complete mystery to me, and PE was a Purgatorial Experience!).
What was the secret of Mr Baxter's success? Why do so many old boys love him and miss him? Simple. He loved us. He didn't say so, but we knew it. 'Happiness is having something to do, something to aim for and someone to love', as the Chinese proverb says. Thank you, Mr Baxter, for making me happy at school.
One day, I'll thank you in person, but until then, may you be loved as you have loved.
31 January, 2005
I started as a new boy
Eventually I managed to find my feet. My form master 'Fag End' Wills, the bohemian (by FGS standards) art master was patient and sympathetic and by the second year I was doing well in a number of subjects. and enjoying life at the school. FGS was fortunate in possessing a number of first class masters and well as some real characters. For example, there was the Mr Chips figure of 'Buzz' Varey who seemed like someone from another age. Buzz was a great friend to all the new boys and it was a sad day when he finally retired.
Another notable character was 'Chubba' Godsil, who as deputy headmaster acted as George Baxter's 'enforcer'. Chubba appeared a fearsome authority figure to most boys whilst the headmaster, by contrast, seemed a much more approachable man. George even took the first forms for some special classes where he broached the 'facts of life' with us. I was precocious enough to have some knowledge of the subject already, but judging from the question and answer sessions George held at the end of the lessons, many of my classmates were blissfully ignorant of the mechanics of sexual reproduction.
George Baxter cut a very fine figure of a man, possessing a commanding presence and mellifluous speaking voice which was an ornament to the morning assemblies. I recall that my mother thought he looked a little like the actor Michael Denison, then very popular on television as 'Boyd QC.'
On the whole
I was fascinated to
read Ian Sargeant's account of FGS under George Baxter in the 1950s and to
compare it with my own memories of the 1960s. In 1961, when I started out, all
the pupils at
By the time I left FGS in 1968 there had been a sea change. Caps had gone the way of the dodo, long hair was sprouting in all directions and the once unquestioning respect for authority was in headlong retreat. It must be said that George Baxter reacted to the changing ethos of the 1960s with adroitness and reasonableness. I recall that a school council was established where boys could have their say and George also did his best to mollify the concerns of the more conservative members of his staff.
For example, a certain science master launched a personal crusade against boys who wore non-uniform scarves and took to waiting at the school gates in the morning to intercept 'offenders'. The same man was also fearfully upset about 'Beatle' haircuts and other manifestations of that swinging decade. George must have taken him aside for a quiet word, for his lone campaign soon petered out.
The one time I really crossed swords with George Baxter was in the sixth form when I was one of the ringleaders of a campaign to boycott the annual school cross country. This hallowed event consisted of a junior and senior race, in which the entire school had to take part. Now that we were in the sixth form many of us saw no reason why we should have to participate in this pointless purgatory and we produced a leaflet calling for a boycott. I recall that the leaflet urged protesters to leave their running kit at home and, when the cross country started, to go to the library and engage in private study.
A copy of the leaflet came to George's attention and the sixth form was summoned to a special assembly in the school hall. The headmaster held up the incriminating document and asked the perpetrators to step forward. About a dozen of us did so and our punishment was to be suspended from school for a week. In addition, a few of the rebels who were prefects were demoted back to the ranks. Nowadays suspension is a commonplace sanction in schools but back in the 1960s it was a rarity. Letters were sent to our homes detailing the serious nature of the offence and I must confess, all these years later, that I intercepted the letter to my parents. They never saw it. I think I told them that we had been given a week off for mock A Level revision and they accepted my story.
Our cross country boycott even made it into the national press and I wish I still had the cuttings. It would make an amusing page for this website! I can still recall the Daily Mail headline: THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNERS. The next year we found that the annual cross country was no longer compulsory for sixth formers - a small triumph for rebellious youth and an even greater triumph for George Baxter's diplomatic nous.
I referred earlier to George Baxter's initial judgement of me as a callow first former and I am pleased to say that in my final sixth form report, commenting on my A Level work, George has written just two words: 'Well done.' My achievements, such as they are both then and since, owe much to my good fortune in having been educated under the guidance of such a fine teacher and headmaster.
1 February, 2005
Mr. Baxter, you probably wouldn't consider me one of your successes. You had the misfortune to fill the boss's chair while I metamorphosed from a 9-year-old over-achiever into a bored and indifferent teenager. If I think back over that era the only bright spots that surface are that I was a reasonably good swimmer and an enthusiastic protagonist in the great School Cap Rebellion, so the advantages of tradition took longer to sink in than usual.
It came as no surprise, then, at the end of my fifth year, when you summoned me to your office under the stairs and told me 'Lickfold, you don't fit in this school any more and, frankly, you won't fit in University either so there isn't a place for you in the sixth form.' You went on to say 'You could do well, though, if you make proper use of your innate qualities, which are quieter and deeper than the face you present.'
The misfit story was an extraordinary insight on your part and a revelation to me, which I have used to guide my choices and ease me around the worst pitfalls ever since. More importantly, though, your admonition to live according my own lights opened the way for me to draw great satisfaction and pleasure from the journey through life. In fact, while I may never be wealthy, those less tangible rewards have made me a rich man.
What I'm trying to say is that, even as
a misfit, I benefited enormously from the ambience and traditions of
1 July, 2008
Additional tributes, memories, comments etc will be welcomed.