Teaching at Gordonstoun’s prep school

How Jeremy Black filled the ten months between leaving school and starting Cambridge

Artillery Row
Cambridge’s entry procedures in the 1970s meant Jeremy Black had ten months to fill between leaving school and starting at university.   The charms of the Hendon branch of a bank soon bored him and he thus took himself off to teach at Aberlour House, Gordonstoun’s prep school. This was the start of a thirty-nine year teaching career – albeit subsequently to rather older children.


In the dim and distant past before everything wanted the breath of modern perfection, I took seventh term entry for Cambridge, which meant that I finished my schooling at Haberdashers’ Aske’s in November 1974 (the Cambridge college decided I did not need an interview), and would not turn up in Cambridge till the following October. I had no idea what to do bar being aware of the need to earn money, so got a job at the Hendon Central branch of the (late) National Westminster Bank. In a vanished age of banking, this suburban branch had 30 employees. I was the ‘Assistant to the Standing Orders Clerk,’ which meant that I spent hours in a dark cubbyhole looking back at microfilm of past transactions when people queried their statements. My other job was to print customers’ names on their cheque books. This was done one cheque at a time. I had to get the cheque in the correct place and failure to do so, which was frequent, in theory meant reprinting the entire book, but, a Greta avant le temps, I would save time and the environment by passing my work as okay, and no-one ever complained.

I was quickly bored: one of my many failings. Indeed, before the age of irony, let alone facetiousness, ended in universities, I used to tell my opening lecture that the students might think I was there to stop them getting bored, but in fact they were there to stop me getting bored.  Of course, students then could take a joke.

Bored, I determined to do something else, but there were no connections and Edgware was not flush with jobs unless you fancied stacking shelves. So, I put my name down at a prep school agency and went on working at the bank. Being helpful around the place, I got on with the Branch Manager and, for the Christmas party, the Area Manager descended and, sitting next to me for some reason, said I could have a job at the bank after Cambridge but he would recommend instead the Bank of England. Indeed, in 1978, I got a graduate entry job at the B of E ahead of a flock of Cambridge economists – but that is another story.

Come January, and still at the bank, I get home on a Thursday evening to be told by my mother that someone telephoned during the day and would ring back. Sure enough, the phone later rings. I, alas, have perfect recall (which has got me in all sorts of trouble – people hate being told, however gently, that their recollection is inaccurate), but the humour of that conversation owed much to the two different accents. I speak ‘Estuarine Twang,’ but Sir Toby Coghill Bt. certainly did not. Time presses, so to trim this down, he was seeking an English Master, he had spoken to my Headmaster and I seemed OK. Was I available? Could I teach hockey? Well, I had an inspired moment in the rich comedy of life. In school and life, I, to my eternal loss of course in terms of camaraderie, fitness, being a chap et al, have never cared a fig for sport: I was Captain of Debating at school, and even before sport became optional for me (and, at that Sixth-Form stage, I had only been swimming having given up an imaginative reconsideration of the course at cross-country), I had myself allocated to be the Prefect supposed to find smokers skipping games. Since I was in effect doing the same, I never reported anyone but persuaded them to smoke a little further off.

So, inspired moment, since I loathed hockey when I had had to play it, I said I knew the rules. He then asked about cricket and got the same answer. As an interlude, two other instances of my love for sport, and then two more charitable comments. First, suffering overwork-related stress in the mid-1990s, my GP told me I had to take up golf which led me to say to Sarah I had never been so misunderstood in my life. Secondly, in the early 2000s, we all went on holiday to Nova Scotia and PEI (flying direct from Exeter – the Age of Miracles had not passed). It was very hot – in the 90s – and I thought we could cool down if we went to watch ice hockey – Canada A was playing (actually armour-clad combat with sticks) Canada B. Purchasing the tickets, I asked the sales lady if, given the heat, we could have seats on the shady side of the arena. She thought I was mad, but I did not know.

More charitably, I do like the spectacle and sense of occasion of a big match, and have been fortunate to see football, rugby (Exeter Chiefs beat Saracens), cricket, baseball and American football, and enjoyed all of them. My fondest memory is of seeing West Point beat Colgate when I was a Visiting Professor at West Point. As the guests of the Superintendent, a very pleasant and bright Lieutenant-General, Sarah and I were with him, and a colonel got deputed to look after the two young children. When West Point scored, a 75 mm in the ground fired, which was a signal for a battery of 125 mms on the other side of the valley to boom forth; and then all over again when they got the conversion. When Colgate scored, nothing. Tim asked the colonel, Scott Wheeler, great guy and wrote good history in retirement, why not, and he replied that Colgate had not brought their cannon with them.

Satisfied with my responses, Coghill said I could come ‘up’ tomorrow, and if I seemed okay he would pay the fare up (he never did), but, if not, I would have to pay my own way back. I asked where ‘up’ was and he said ‘Banffshire. Do you know where that is?’ I said yes [albeit only from a prior knowledge of the map; I have never been further north in the UK than Darlington], and asked could I come up on Monday, which he conceded.

Monday saw my Dad kindly take me to Heathrow and for £25 I flew up to Inverness. Then the train took me to Elgin. I was to be collected from the bus station, but not knowing how to get there, I asked two policemen outside if they could show me. They said they would give me a lift, and fell about laughing when I tried to get out of the police car: I did not know that their rear-doors have to be opened from the outside.

Collected at the bus station, I made the mistake of trying to be pleasant to the driver of the Bedford as we drove through the Glen of Rothes. Commenting on the beauty of the surroundings, he snarled that a Bedford had come off the road on ice in the pass the previous week, turned over, and the driver was killed.

Arriving at Aberlour House, I had the interview, which consisted, as an earlier letter indicated, with Coghill looking at me, giving me his view on boys and girls (the school was a mixed prep boarding one), and then saying I should get out and be told my duties by his deputy.

Thus, I became a teacher. The parent school, Gordonstoun, was on the coastal plain north of Elgin, but Aberlour House was a 1830s’ country house on the side of the Spey Valley. It had a full size of 120 students, but only had 114 then. I was the English Master, responsible for teaching English to the senior half, and History and Geography as well to my form. I was also a duty master etc. There was no syllabus because, as Coghill told me, all the pupils, while required to take exams, had already, prior to them, been accepted by Gordonstoun. Anyway, he thought formal teaching and exams terrible. On the Hahn model, he believed in character development, which (he would not have got the joke, indeed had no sense of humour, so we were ill-matched) meant that he ran a Sparta of exposing infants to the snowy clime. The only subject he taught was leadership.

I enjoyed teaching English. As there was a long day – morning, tea-time and après dinner classes, sport in the early afternoon, and teaching on Saturdays – I had masses of time, and there were also plenty of school texts, so we could do composition, reading, plays, comprehension. I cannot spell, but Coghill, on one of his only two instructions to me about teaching, said there should be some spelling tests. As a result, with an open dictionary thigh-poised precariously behind the desk, I held the very occasional test: through/thorough/though, that sort of thing. His only other intervention was before a parents’ day in early June: it snowed extremely heavily, which led one parent, a vicar, to tell me that it showed that God had a sense of humour; I smiled thinly. Coghill wanted some work to show. I said, I would set them as the next composition to write a play set in the dorm. He thought this a good idea: for some reason, I had a stream of them at that age and, as Coghill had none, bar being a chap, he was apt to adopt mine. The students duly obliged, but some wrote about a visit by the boys to the senior girls’ dorm, which I established had been the case. Panic on their behalf on my part, with a hasty process of writing lots of plays to produce enough stuff. I might not have bothered, as Coghill did not read any of them. I set reading a passage of the Bible as a punishment since I was not in favour of the school zeal for cross-country in that role as a punishment. Indeed, when I was duty master and responsible for starting the daily pre-breakfast run for the entire school, I always told the pupils I couldn’t care if they ran out of sight and then returned without completing the course. I am sure character-building meant avoiding such temptations, but, as an instance of the fatuous culture, the key was left in the outside of the food-store room so that pupils could steel themselves against the temptation of taking biscuits/oranges etc. Coghill was furious that large quantities went missing and expected me as duty master to do something about this. I did not bother to tell him that I also usually popped in during my rounds.

As you may have gathered, we did not hit it off, but, actually, I got on better with him than most of the staff as they felt stuck with him. A former School Captain of Gordonstoun and Cambridge rower, Coghill was a chap without much merit other than that he looked the part. He had applied to be head of the main school and, being turned down, was given the prep school as a consolation prize. In practice, his deputy, a dedicated Scot, did all the work of the head, and ran the staff, doing so very well. Coghill was waiting for another chance at the main school, which never came his way. His habit of shooting at salmon as they leapt did not endear him to local society, but guns were part of the ethos of the head: pupils (at least the 11 and 12 year olds) were allowed by him to shoot in the grounds, but their guns had to be kept in the head’s study.

On Sundays, most of the staff, being married, were at home with their families. Coghill took a favoured group of pupils skiing. I, in charge of the rest of the school who did not have the sense to find an excuse, was taken to map reference A, some freezing spot on a Cairngorms slope, and told that coaches would collect us from spot B five hours later, the lighter for our packed lunches. In hindsight, this was madness, not least as there were no mobile phones; but I worked out that I needed a staff-trusty pupils at the column front and rear while I moved between the two, usually at the front consulting my OS map – even though everything was white – but sometimes at rear, spreading chocolate biscuits I had store-swiped; if not encouragement. Unlike the fat slob I am now, I had done a lot of youth hostelling in my youth, was a member of the Ramblers Association, and was fit, so the activity was not too bad. I let the pupils throw snowballs at me (they called me Black Jack), and never lost anyone, so that must rate as a success. Saturday afternoons, I would read or walk. The school was in the centre of the malt-whisky industry, so I could wander to Glenfiddich, Aberlour Glenlivet, Dufftown (the local saying was Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown on seven stills), go on a distillery tour (Glenfiddich I recall explained why it added caramel, and I can remember why), and have a drink: the distillery workers drank whisky chasers in the pubs.

I did not like my horrible room, but Coghill said that I could have the West Lodge in the summer term and I was quite happy. Then disaster struck, entirely due to my own stupidity. I was asked to speak to the Gordonstoun History Sixth, did so, was given dinner, and after dinner, my host, a History teacher, asked me how Coghill was seen in Aberlour. I said he was unpopular. Carpeted by Coghill next day, I was told I could not have the West Lodge. This did not go down well with me as it broke my rule of being fair. I saw the Deputy, told him what had happened, remarked that it was a pity but I could not return for the summer term under those circs, and wondered how Coghill would explain to the parents three English teachers in one year. As so often, standing up to a bully (Coghill not the number 2) worked. We had no more disagreements and, indeed, he asked me to find him a cricket master for the summer term, and accepted my suggestion of a school-friend, Peter Cull.

The summer term really worked well, indeed was a happy time which was not all that common for me in those years. Having a four-room 1830s lodge and grounds to myself including my own kitchen was great. My mother lent me her car, Coghill allowed me to jack in chess (which I had inherited) as my non-sport afternoon activity and accepted my suggestion of Castle Group, which meant I got a Bedford, a group of students, and the right to go anywhere on school-paid petrol visiting castles, which we did from Urquhart on Loch Ness to the valleys of the Don and the Dee.  Long evenings were a delight – I could read outside after 11 pm, Peter and I camped opposite Skye in half-term, and my sport responsibility was ‘the others’ for cricket, which meant stopping fights in the beautiful open air overlooking the Spey: the boys fought while the girls chatted, a description of cricket I suppose.

There was an activity week. My form was offered the option of canoeing on the Spey which I greatly enjoyed, though nearly drowning when, in spate waters, my overturned canoe was stuck against the shore with my head under but no ability to kick out as practised in deeper water. Fortunately, another canoe crashed into me and I was able to follow the routine. Then sailing on Loch Insch which I found boring, although the views were fantastic.

July brought this to a close. I was invited by the parents of pupils to stay on the Black Isle, which I greatly enjoyed, although I could not quite see the pleasure in shooting rabbits. Coghill died in 2000. The school was moved to the main site. Aberlour House is now the headquarters of Walker Shortbread. A former pupil, Nicky Hill, was a student at Durham when I was teaching there, but I have not met the others, and sometimes wonder what happened to them. They were a very good bunch, enthusiastic, inquisitive, bright, and full of fun. Their can-do spirit was exemplified by Ian Loyn and Ben Mundle who agreed to use some of their armaments- knives and steel bow and arrow – rat-hunting in the attic of the West Lodge. I have never been back in person, but is that not so often the case in life?

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