NOTABLE OLD BOYS, GRESHAM’S SCHOOL, HOLT, NORFOLK

(AUTOBIOGRAPHY 39)

At the beginning of the 20th century that great headmaster G. W. S. Howson created Gresham’s as a nation institution. Besides building the new campus on the Cromer Road he modernised the curriculum. Before his reforms it was just a rather sleepy little market town school, ancient certainly, but of no great reputation even within the county of Norfolk. The Paston School at North Walsham and the Norwich Free Grammar School were better regarded. In the 17th century an occasional soldier may have obtained a certain degree of temporary fame or a parliamentarian from the 18th century may appear among its alumni; but no one you will ever have heard of came from the Holt school. Things have been very different since.

I will not refer to those towering figures of the literary and musical worlds like Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden; some of whom I have already referred to in past blogs. Let me instead mention men like Sir Christopher Cockerell, best known as the inventor of the hovercraft. This was but one of his inventions, and the radio direction finding apparatus fitted to every British bomber in World War II was his personal favourite. His work on harnessing tidal energy is still to bear fruit, but it certainly will. He was at the house Woodlands for four years from 1924. Another Old Greshamian aeronautical inventor was Professor David Keith Lucas whose pioneering VSTOL work resulted in the Harrier aircraft. His granddaughter is better known today of course, as the weather presenter on BBC TV.

Another Woodlands boy is Peter Brook. He is not quite so well known now in this country, perhaps because he has lived for the last forty years in France. But he was by far the most respected male theatre producer in this country in the 1950s and 60s. Only Joan Littlewood came close to him in reputation. He worked at the Royal Opera House with such set designers as Salvador Dali. A list of his stage productions features most of the major names in mid 20th century theatre in Europe. He has also worked extensively on films.

Another name in film is that of Stephen Frears. He was at Farfield in the 1950s and I certainly saw him in the 1959 Farfield House play. I was only ten at the time and cannot remember it, but we went to all the house plays so I must have been there. Only a few years later I was strutting my stuff on the same stage. Joining me there was a young teenager called Nigel Dick and his is now a well-known name in video production and film. He now lives in the USA. Of Frears’s many films since the 1980s my own favourite is Dangerous Liaisons.

JAMES DYSON,inventor of the DYSON vacuum cleaner.

JAMES DYSON,inventor of the DYSON vacuum cleaner.

As I say, I was at Gresham’s at the same time as Stephen Frears but I do not not actually remember him. There are other old boys who were there with me who I do remember, like Robert Eagle. He was just a year older than me at Crossways and like me he went on to Farfield, but I dare say you do not know who he is. He is certainly not as famous as Christopher Cockerell. For those who were wondering he is a writer of television documentaries. One Old Greshamian who I remember well and who is possibly even better known than the inventor of the hovercraft is the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, James Dyson. It never occurred to me that any of my contemporaries would achieve fame and fortune when we were all little boys with dirty knees in shorts. James Dyson was a competent artist but he never did anything remotely to do with engineering at school. He never went anywhere near the handicraft rooms where a certain amount of basic engineering was taught. I remember him most clearly playing his bassoon in the school orchestra while I played the double bass.

The headline of this post refers to Old Boys but I really should have referred to Old Greshamians because since the 1970s former pupils have included Old Girls. These too have produced their stars. I will mention Olivia Colman who follows the other theatrical names in this list. She is one of the most accomplished actors of her generation. She is a three time BAFTA TV Award winner and played Carol Thatcher in the recent production The Iron Lady. What has produced all these notable people?

It must be something about the bracing North Sea air coming straight down from the arctic.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA

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