Saturday, March 1, 2014

7 Harrow

An education up the road


When it comes to Harrow I need to promise up front that I will not to mention my confused adolescent bodily functions regarding Astrid nor my shattered, destroyed and forever damaged teenage heart regarding Rachel.

Harrow was where I spent a fair deal of my time as I grappled and mastered the effects of puberty and Harrow was what encouraged me to expand my horizons and formulate my "ness". Such Were The Joys of Harrow, the electricity and tension below the waistline and youthful rebellion above the collar. Harrow; my George Orwell Days.

Okay. I know. I know. At least I think I know, two and two are five and George Orwell didn't go to Harrow. Orwell went to Eton. Then George went everywhere; Barcelona, Mandalay, Wigan, Paris and all over... and that eventually meant I had to go everywhere too.

And Okay. I know. I know. At least I think I know, George Orwell wasn't George Orwell. George was christened Eric. Eric Arthur Blair. Eric simply had the publishers refer to him as George when he was in print, no portrait photos in his inside the sleeve "profile" either. It was the obvious thing for a introverted guy to do. It allowed George to write free from idiotic nutters on internet sites wimpering on at him, particularly if they met Eric by chance down the pub one night.

Eric kept the Eric thing close to his loved family and trusted friends.

Eric didn't feel a need to be heard and praised as Eric at all hours and in all places. And he certainly wasn't trawling the internet looking for pals, a positive thumbs up rating or a blind date and knee trembler round the back of the car park before going home to his missus.

Rather, Eric was more interested in discussing principles and ideas than in always promoting himself. The wily tuberculosis ridden literary sage separated the facets of his private, semi private and public life and benefited from the sparkles on each. A top, intelligent fellah was Eric.

On one internet site I use I encounter one particular idiot of a Texan Tin Star Republican who can't seem to understand how people can write anonymously yet retain their credibility. He wasn't the brightest candle in the chandelier. Dangerously, he thought he was. I don't think he could understand that in England we have a long literary line of such folk, and Eric was one of them. I'm not sure if he has encountered people who chose their mates and the level of interaction they allow. Crikey, if I knew my mates told all my other mates stuff I tell them and they tell me, then we wouldn't be as good as mates as we are now. Just ask any mate of mine who knows about Astrid and Rachel. I learnt about the true value of mates and appropriate levels of interaction at Harrow. Lowlands to be precise. John, Eddie, Anup, Rachel, Sian... and Astrid.

And in the quiet Harrow time (when not up to stuff with my mates) I read the theories and tried to understand messages that Eric / George wanted to raise. Fortunately I got into George's messages early on and at the start of my joyful travelling around England and popping overseas days.

In the late 'seventies and early 'eighties Harrow had antiquarian bookshops that I couldn't stop yourself falling into. They were mainly found in the cheap rent parts of the town where Betjamen would have enjoyed strolling and talking in his short film, Metroland. Those shops were dusty, damp, peaceful places. Tinkly bells on their sticking front doors and a wise (usually grey haired) proprietors seated behind the desk.

I devoured George's writings. I did the usuals. Did his essays. With help from the blokes and ladies in the bookshops we tracked down, unearthed and did the pamphlets. Did the radio broadcasts. Did the magasines; the Tribunes, the Adelphis and The Horizons. The magasines were my favourites as they showed the context in which George wrote and what other stuff Eric was reading and living in and being advertised to with. When I wasn't on my way to being with mates I did the George Orwell lot.

I suppose the easy availability of 1st edition George's in Harrow had something to do with George's interwar middle aged readers, slightly gauche of centre, dying. Four or five decades after they bought his books and mags fresh from the newsagents and Boots their toes went up and the pages no longer needed to be showcased on their bookshelves. Half a century on from when George's stuff was penned, typed, corrected and published, his works came onto the secondhand market. It was ideal timing for me. Saturday jobs at the silk screeners and TV shop meant I had the money. A few A levels and some sport meant I had the free time.

I was lucky that in my financially and time rich adolescent time that many of Harrow's homes were having their lit and crit collections cleared out to antiquarian book sellers by weepy, tired, "what on earth do we do with all these" sons and nieces.

"Bin them."
"I can't. It seems such a shame. Someone might want them."
"Like who? Bin them."
"There must be someone. Let me check the Yellow Pages."

Aye. George's read a few times before books and magazines were all around Harrow, if you knew where to look. Bargains galore.
George's lesson  number one, read while bunking off Economics, raised questions about the muppetry in ranking people, reinforcing the class system that seemed there to simply make the privileged few near the top feel better and secure.

George's nipping out to the park in a free period lesson number two, learnt during the Falklands War, prepared me for the Two Minute Hates. Lesson Two awakened me to many folks' need to create frightening myths about never to be forgotten historical bogey men (and women), Goldsteins, Eurasias, the 'bad old' days. The Two Minute Hates are still here in our daily dose of mainstream news, internet forum chat and company planning meetings. Possibly more so.

Yet George's most valuable and always ever present lesson number three is the one about the use of history, the manipulation of the truth, and that you can't believe all you are told by the nobs on the top of the hill or the masters in charge of the game.

History is not written by those who are right, history is written by those who are left.

Thus George's finest lesson is that you should try and stay on the field till the final whistle blows and record the "as it happened" of the true game. Hang in there. Outlast the bastards.

Since schooling it up in Harrow I've been to Barcelona and walked the Ramblas, supped wine in the plazas with my Harrow purchased, Orange Penguin "Homage to Catalonia" in my bag. I've been to Mandalay and when I was taken to the spot where George shot his elephant I remembered Harrow. I've been to Delhi (on many occasions) and I've walked Luttyens' Avenue where Harrow educated Nehru walked and where Gandhi was hauled. On the Raj Path I remembered Harrow again.

Often I'm at home and I read of this Thai King or that Thai prime minister who went to Harrow. Or an Indian important fellah, or an African president who went to Harrow too.

I would suggest the next time you have some time in London pop out to the suburbs and enjoy a wander over Harrow's hill. Stand in front of the 'Old Speech Room' steps on a chilly February morning and watch the breath come out of your mouth. Consider little Winston Churchill and other little lads who's breath also billowed out, on the same spot, right after their double period of maths.

After the school you can wander through some human scaled alleys, look down and over the cricket pitches and the small trading estate where I had my Saturday silk screening job. Then visit the church on the top of the hill. I was confirmed in there. It stank of wood polish and incense if I remember right. I don't really remember much else. Truth be told I didn't have a spiritual clue as to what was going on. It was in the fields and wooded walks around the church that I fell in deeper for Rachel, when we skipped out at lunchtimes and found a peaceful private spot. Before she smashed my emotions cruelly against the wall... in case you forgot.

Please do go to Harrow if ever you have half a chance.
It's Doubleplusgood.
It put me on the right road. It helped make me.
As did George and Eric. John and Astrid. And Rachel.

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