My old junior “prep” school is closing. It was in the news today because it happens to be the same place that our illustrious Prime Minister attended as a young’un. Being sent over the Irish Sea to this isolated school in Sussex to live there for large parts of the year was initially quite alien to my childish brain. I didn’t get it at all. But it was the thing, and it seemed inevitable despite my childish reservations. I was always sad to be wrenched from the family unit at the start of the term. But along with all the other kids from all over the world, we made the best of it.
We created our own crazes. “Blimph” was a chaos drawing game I invented with obscure and shifting rules depending on how much I wanted to make people feel included. “No you’re doing it wrong.”
We put disproportionate value in arbitrarily chosen pop culture items. I traded one Masters of the Universe figure for a whole black bin bag full of Star Wars toys. Garbage Pail Kids. Fighting Fantasy books. Shiny shiny junk.
We traded and we chased and we fought and we played.
When I was there they were building a theatre and I concealed a time capsule in the concrete of the foundations. It took the form of rolled up piece of paper in a Bic biro shell, with my stated intention to be an actor scrawled on it, probably involving blood harvested carefully from one of my inevitable constant injuries.
The first play in the new theatre was Macbeth and Mr Wimbush the maths teacher directed it so I didn’t stand a chance of a good part. O couldn’t be bothered with him or with maths. Still I got to play Seyton. One line was kept in the cut. “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” My instinct was to milk it so the only note I got was “say it quickly”. Actually it’s usually a good note. Don’t let them get ahead of you. Even more important for comedy.
Then there was “the jungle”. In my memory it was huge and overgrown. Weekends were about the jungle. Some of the kids would go home. Sometimes I’d get to hang out with someone’s family – Navin or Mark or James would pick me up for the weekend. But just as often I’d be left there to run loose in the jungle and get myself covered in filth running around inventing mountain ranges and tribes and whatever the heck else we could come up with.
Apart from the wrench from our parents it was a terrific privilege to attend that school. It’s sad to think that I wasn’t to get long with mum and dad after I came out of the remarkable and expensive education their hope and money had sent me to. I’m using it, but not perhaps in the way they anticipated.
Maybe it prepared me psychologically for the reality of their early passing, although I never stopped being an open heart and man I miss them. But for a kid who is going to be sent somewhere no matter what, I can think of a lot worse places than Ashdown House. You could see the fringe of the forest from the window where we all brushed our teeth at a long sink. Someone had planted “Wellingtonia” Redwood trees in the grounds a long time ago, and much of my time was spent clambering through the lower branches of its secondary growths. There was freedom and kindness and individuality available there. And I learnt stuff too, but that was never the focus for me at school. I was lucky that, of all places, that’s the one they chose. Farewell, old place. If someone wants to buy the grounds and turn it into a theatre-making community, I’m in.