Friday 17 May 2024

Only Connect!

The complex webs of snobbery and socially-conscious agonising that characterised the more "progressive" inhabitants of early 20th-century Britain are well, if one-sidedly explored in the work of writers like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. Woolf's The Years and Forster's Howards End are both novels about the shifting boundaries of class at that time, but of the two – although Woolf's is the better book in my judgement – it is Forster's book, with its famous epigraph "Only connect!" that is better known, and also happens to have a particular resonance for me, personally.

Why? Well, when I was growing up I had a local street map, which I would pore over like a cabbie learning The Knowledge. The New Town of Stevenage was hardly Greater London, but it seemed pretty big to me. One of its more curious features was a small black rectangle labelled "Rook's Nest" just north of the Old Town (the original small town of Stevenage around which the New Town was built). This always struck me as amusing – rookeries are not usually single, large, rectangular, or even regarded as worth noting on a map – but it was only many years later that I discovered that Forster's novel takes its name from a house, Howards End, which is modelled on Forster's own childhood home, which, to my amazement, happened to be the very same Rooks Nest marked on my map (although, like Howards End, minus the apostrophe).

So, now that's got us started, let's play Only Connect!

A British New Town was a curious sort of place to grow up, especially when it was still actually new in the 1950s and 60s, not least because of the conspicuous absence of the wealthy and the privileged, or even the property-owning middle classes. Our town was almost entirely constructed out of self-contained estates of social housing rented from the Development Corporation, each a named "neighbourhood" with its own set of local amenities: shops, schools, medical and community centres, and so on. With the result that as children we never saw the sort of high-hedged, secluded, privately-owned dwellings that denote the presence of the upper-middle classes in more organically-developed settlements. Such as the original "old" Stevenage, whose residents had vehemently opposed the imposition of a town of 65,000 homes for London's blitzed slum-dwellers onto their small town, thirty miles up the Great North Road from the capital.

They denounced it as "Silkingrad", Lewis Silkin being the government minister responsible for the development plan, and "grad", of course, implying a communistic diktat (plus a subtle touch of xenophobic antisemitism, Silkin being an East End Jew with Lithuanian parents). In the words of that sometime local resident E.M. Forster – yes, him again, he was still alive – a New Town would "fall out of the blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire". Which it did, and when the meteorite fell the wealthy left, and their houses were bought by compulsory purchase, demolished, and built over. It was as if they had never been there. [1]

Years passed, and the population grew. At the close of the 1970s the Thatcher government had given tenants the "right" to buy their own council homes at a knock-down price, destroying the egalitarian principles behind a place like Stevenage at a stroke. So – predictably, perhaps – when the time came to expand the New Town, some of the inhabitants – forgetful of their town's origins and having become property owners with an eye on the value of their asset – opposed any such new meteor strikes. This time, however, rather than invoke parallels with Stalinist Russia, they played the heritage card. They conjured up a vision of an unsullied landscape in need of protection, which they dubbed, yes, "Forster Country".

In reality, Forster Country consisted of a few not particularly remarkable farm fields surrounding Forster's not especially grand childhood home, Rooks Nest. Fields which were, in fact, the same ploughed expanses of Hertfordshire mud through which we were forced to wade on cross-country runs at my secondary school, in a sort of lightly-clad replay of the Battle of the Somme. Those claggy acres must contain hundreds of lost gym shoes, not to mention the cigarette packets and fag-ends tossed aside by boys grabbing the chance for a smoke behind a hedge. It will be a curious harvest for future archaeologists to ponder.

What now follows may seem something of a diversion, but bear with me. We're still playing Only Connect!

That school, Alleynes, was then in its 30-year heyday as a state-funded boys' grammar school – situated in the Old Town but modernised and expanded to meet the educational needs of the New Town population. It was a decent-enough school, academically, and attracted a number of boys from middle-class families who either couldn't or wouldn't pay for private schooling, and who daily rode the bus routes into town from the surrounding villages. The war still cast a long shadow over Britain in the 1950s and 60s, and these village boys were self-evidently "officer class", and inclined to identify with the school and its aims and methods. We townies, however, had inherited the uncooperative, awkward-squad attitudes of our other-ranks fathers, most of whom had either served in the wartime forces or been conscripted into post-war National Service. Ironically, as an embattled minority, often mocked and even bullied, these village boys actually represented the true continuity and traditions of the school, which had been educating the local gentry on the same site since 1558. Had Shakespeare been a North Herts lad, this could well have been his school. Sadly, from an Only Connect! point of view, it was never Forster's.

With hindsight, it is clear that this volatile mix of compliance and defiance within the school – given a vigorous shake by the advent of counter-cultural attitudes in the later 1960s and the school's conversion to "comprehensive" intake in 1968 – was problematic for teachers accustomed to a traditional grammar school ethos. As a result, a certain institutional split personality developed over the years: you might get the secret handshake reserved for the compliant minority, or more likely the professional reserve (and occasional resort to corporal punishment) offered to everyone else.

For example, there was whispered school folklore about how to behave when invited to the home of the chair of the school governors ("Never take the sixpence placed on the lavatory cistern – it's an honesty test!"). And yet no-one I knew had ever received such an invitation or, if they had, they kept very quiet about it. It was also known (and regarded as deeply suspicious) that a few of our classmates encountered teaching staff socially – at cricket clubs, classical concerts, church socials, and other such mysteriously off-the-map venues – and that some might even have been receiving private tuition. But I don't remember ever so much as glimpsing a single teacher out of school hours. Any that did live in the New Town – there were certainly some – clearly kept a very low profile.

School for most of us was, in effect, a job: you turned up, did what you were asked to do, and – apart from several hours of homework most nights – left it behind you at 4 o'clock. To be a pupil at the "snob school" was not any sort of advantage on the street; if you had any sense, you removed or covered up your uniform on the way home. Reciprocally, there was zero curiosity on the part of teaching staff  about what we got up to in our own time, unless there were concerns it might be illegal and thus endanger the school's reputation.

Quite a few boys had musical talent and ambitions, for example – those were the years when teenage rock groups were popping up everywhere you looked – but the school had no interest at all in advancing their progress, or putting them in touch with anyone who could. To have a passion for folk, blues, or rock was on a par with collecting stamps or breeding pigeons; strictly extra-curricular hobbies. Similarly, my own artistic leanings – which had been enthusiastically encouraged at primary school – were confined to doodling in the margins of my exercise books. We simply accepted this indifference: we probably were talentless dreamers, after all, and understood that, if we persisted in refusing to join in with the "life of the school", as so many of us did, then all that was required from us was good exam results or, failing that, to disappear without trace back into the sulphurous pit we had emerged from.

But for recipients of the secret handshake, doors were opened. In the years below us there was a boy we'll call Peter Weston. He had been injured playing rugby (in a ridiculous and truly snobbish move, the school had abandoned football in favour of hockey and rugby in the 1950s), so that, if my memory is correct, he was obliged to wear a crash helmet all day, rather like B.D. in Doonesbury. He was another would-be musician, but of an acceptably conventional sort, and in his very special case was granted unprecedented permission to use the school's precious and untouchable grand piano; even, it seems, at weekends [2]. Many years later I read in an obituary I came across – he had died in 2004 – that he had also been receiving tuition during those school years from Elizabeth Poston, an established composer who happened to be living locally. Despite the complete absence of formal music teaching in the school, he was able to go on to the Royal Academy of Music, and became a composer in his own right.

I don't know how or by whom the connection with Elizabeth Poston would have been made – AFAIK you couldn't simply look up "composers" in the Yellow Pages – but it was probably a combination of ambitious, well-connected parents and the school networking on his behalf. Ironically, though, you almost certainly won't have heard of "Peter Weston", but may well have heard of our school's most (only?) famous alumnus, Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep, entirely self-taught, remarkably determined and successful as a musician, and yet – so typically – noted within the school not for his extra-mural musical endeavours but as a demon fast bowler in the cricket team. [3]

So how does any of that connect to Forster or the development of the New Town?

It was many years before I realised that the isolated private house near the old parish church, just up the gravelled, chestnut-lined avenue that ran alongside Alleynes was the "Rook's Nest" of my street map. In fact, the connection only became clear when I was reading the introduction to a copy of Howards End, probably somewhere around 1978. It was surprising and amusing, obviously, to discover that Forster was a Stevenage boy of sorts. But then, some time after I had read Peter Weston's obituary, the surprise was compounded when I discovered that – from childhood right up until her death in 1986 – Rooks Nest had been occupied by none other than composer Elizabeth Poston. It appeared that her family had had a close relationship with the Forsters, and that she was a long-time friend of Forster himself, too ("Morgan" to his friends, apparently). Beyond that, she had connections with the BBC, and the entire classical music establishment. Inevitably, I suppose, among her own musical output was the score for a BBC TV dramatisation of – you've guessed – Howards End.

So, as a high-scoring Only Connect! connection, it is hard to beat the Elizabeth Poston nexus. As a final flourish, though, apparently Poston had been one of the most vociferous campaigners against the development of the New Town, and had busily exploited her many influential connections to get the development plan scrapped. I don't doubt that she was responsible for eliciting Forster's "meteor" soundbite, for example; he, after all, hadn't lived anywhere near Stevenage since 1893. [4]

But they weren't able to stop the New Town, thankfully, and so thousands of us were able to grow up as participants in a bold experiment in town planning and social engineering, and to take full advantage of all the benefits a benevolent and generous state chose to provide. Before, that is, it all started to be taken away again as "unaffordable" in the mean-spirited, penny-pinching Thatcher years.

For a decade or two, though, it had seemed that the ordinary people of Britain might finally be coming into their inheritance, however meagre. That, for example, the building of many small rentable houses might outweigh the survival of a few large private houses in the scheme of things, or that all sorts and levels of ability might be recognised and nurtured across the whole social spectrum. But it didn't last, unlike the ancient and inalienable right of the wealthy and well-connected to find ways to favour the children of the "right" people. "Only connect!", indeed.

Chauncy House flats, my home 1968-78
(now demolished and built over...)

1. I was actually born in a converted upstairs flat in one such, shortly before it was demolished. See the post Blackamoors.

2. And thereby hangs a tale, as they say, but my legal team have instructed me to leave it untold. Besides, the disgrace and downfall of a headmaster is not the sort of connection we're looking for today.

3. Ken's first real band was an Alleynes-based beat combo, Kit and the Saracens.

4. Ironically, both Forster and Poston grew up in Rooks Nest when it was rented accommodation, which Poston was only able to buy after her mother's death. Thatcher would have approved.

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