Vox Clamantis in Deserto
Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Links to chapters:

Londonderry, Northern Ireland

The Learning Years

Courtney's Journal - Man's Flight Through Life is Sustained by the Power of his Learning

On this page: Londonderry,   The Space Race,   Peter Symond's Grammar School,   William Walker.


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All good things, as they say, must come to an end and my wonderful, formative years in Singapore were, alas, no exception.  In 1965, we moved to Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Our flight back from Singapore was in one of BOAC's new fleet of VC10 aircraft, designed and built by Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd as a long-range British airliner. First flown in 1962, the VC10 was designed to operate on long distance routes at high subsonic speeds and also be capable of 'hot and high operations' from African airports. I was thrilled by this aircraft; I loved its sleek, streamlined shape and the fact that it was a jet. The flight to the UK was long for a youngster, but I still loved the adventure.

Vickers VC10 of the BOAC Fleet - Photo by British Aerospace

My Dad (now promoted to Group Captain) took command of the Joint Anti-Submarine School (JASS) at HMS Sea Eagle.  He also carried the impressive title of Senior Royal Air Force Officer Northern Ireland (SRAFONI).  Ulster was firmly in the grips of the civil rights movement and sectarian battles between Protestant and Catholic groups were escalating towards the worst riots in living memory, which occurred slightly later in 1971.

I need to point something out to you at this point. People often use the terms 'Ulster' and 'Northern Ireland' interchangeably. They are not the same thing. Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland and it comprises 9 counties: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Tyrone, Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. Of these, the first six are in Northern Ireland and the last three are part of the Republic. So, Ulster is Northern Ireland plus six counties of the South. Here's a map:


Northern Ireland


Although altogether less exotic than Singapore, I found Ireland thoroughly charming.  My time there led me to develop many ideas and lasting concepts. The remarkable religious segregation exposed me, for the first time, to prejudice and irrational hatred.  I was shocked to find that destruction and persecution were 'justified' in the name of religion - an interesting idea when you think about it and by no means a new concept.  Consider that 'Holy Wars' (the crusades, Spanish Inquisition, the English persecution of the Catholics etc.) had been going on for centuries under the banner of 'God's Cause'. You might ask where I stand in all this.  Well, at the time it was confusing.  To start with, I didn't really understand enough about it all (being young and used to the racial harmony of Singapore) and, secondly, I found myself so closely surrounded by total intolerance that it was hard to form a balanced opinion; sit too close to the telly and you see dots but can't make out the picture.  I was seven years old and, understandably, considered too young to have all this explained to me.  That could easily have been a dangerous assumption - rather like entering the lion's den not knowing that a large feline's eating habits are fundamentally different to those of a rabbit.

Group Captain Kenneth Courtnage Group Captain Kenneth Courtnage


A fortunate turn of events had, some years earlier, provided me a crucial piece of knowledge.  When I had joined my new school in Singapore, I had been asked whether I was a Catholic or a Protestant.  I really wasn't sure.  Protestant wasn't a familiar term to me (Church of England would probably have rung a bell – no pun intended) so I assumed that I must be a Catholic as I'd heard of that – probably in the Apostle's Creed. This choice simply determined which morning assembly I should attend and strengthened my belief that protestants, catholics (or indeed those of any faith) were freely socially and educationally mixable.

I soon discovered that I was mistaken as to my denomination, finding that I didn't understand a thing that was going on at the catholic morning service and so transferred to the other lot and thought nothing more of it.  Thank Goodness I made that particular error in Singapore and not in Northern Ireland where my liberal views and factional naivety were truly unusual. That would have been a very dangerous ignorance indeed!

The point was that I now had to come to terms with, even pretended to understand, the affairs of a society where real violence was commonplace and where catholics and protestants were not friends.  Many of the kids in Ulster had obviously grown up with this angry attitude ingrained into them, not through reasoned argument, but through indoctrination starting in the cradle.

These feelings were as entrenched in the individual as they had become in history since the severance of 26 Irish counties from the United Kingdom in 1922.  In the school I attended 'Pope' was a dirty, four letter word to most of my classmates and they were willing to get very nasty with anybody who said otherwise.  I don't think I even really knew who he was then!

Fighting between the factions was frequent in the city of Londonderry or Derry, if you prefer. Colourful, proud graffiti proclaimed the feelings of both sides. The Union Flag or the Red Hand of Ulster signified the pro-British, Unionist (mainly Protestant) areas. Tricolours adorned the Republican areas and both displayed slogans aimed at the other.  Tear gas and rubber bullets were often used to disperse riots. As my time there passed, the level of aggression increased steadily. Ebrington Primary School was, therefore, as much an education in life as it was a purely academic phase.

My home in Northern Ireland was beautiful, a large house of three floors, six bedrooms and more bathrooms than I could reasonably use in an evening, on the Limavady Road.  We had a housekeeper (Mrs. Brown) and a butler (Mr Walk) who were delightful, efficient and attentive.  The house backed onto sports fields where I watched Hockey, Rugby and Athletics and attempted to continue my investigations into the differences between the sexes. 

One afternoon, while watching a hockey match, I was adopted by my first dog - a black and tan stray mutt who became known as Sean.  Some years later, he went to live with my paternal Grandparents after their dog Brandy (a lovely Collie who had adopted my parents during a previous tour in Ulster) had sadly died.

As usual, in the comfortable environment of Service married quarters there were always other children of my own age. So I always had company. I had a marvellous train set, Hornby OO, of course. I had corgi cars, model aircraft, roller skates, my bicycle and collections of 'stuff'. My education was taken care of at school and Dad arranged for the Education Officer at HMS Sea Eagle to give me extra lessons one evening a week. I had everything I needed and I was happy there.

My parents and I didn't travel that much; people didn't travel so much in the 1960s. But we did go to wonderful beaches around the north coast of Ireland. Mum and Dad took me to see the Giant's Causeway. I especially recall a fine vacation that my parents took me on in the Republic of Ireland.  We drove all around the South and took in all the sights that a visitor should see.  We spent time in Limerick exploring old castles. We visited the beautiful lakes of Kilarney. At Cork Castle I kissed the Blarney Stone that, as legend has it, imparts the gift of eloquence, 'the gift of the gab'.  The non-believer will discard this as superstitious nonsense, but I was most certainly gifted that day with a very fine line in bullshit that has served me well ever since.




The US Space Program

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Those were also the days of the 'Space Race', the United States head-to-head with the Soviet Union, competing to gain a foothold in space.  I, like many boys of my age, was fascinated by all this. On 12th April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to journey into outer space, when his Vostok spacecraft completed a full orbit of the Earth.

The Americans were running Project Mercury with the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth. Mercury ran from 1959 to 1963, the first sub-orbital flight was achieved by Alan Shepard on 5th May 1961. When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket waiting for liftoff he replied, 'The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.' The first Mercury orbital flight was achieved by astronaut John Glenn on 20th February 1962, far behind the Soviets.

Following six manned flights, Mercury was replaced by Project Gemini, ten manned missions in 1965 and 1966, the Americans going all out to beat Russia to the moon. The purpose of the Gemini programme was to develop the techniques required for the Apollo lunar programme: missions long enough for a trip to the Moon and back, spacewalks, orbital rendezvous and docking two spacecraft.

The Apollo programme ran from 1961 to 1975 with the aim of landing man on the moon (and returning him safely to the Earth). The United States launched Apollo 11 on 16th July 1969.  Four days later astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. walked on the moon's surface.  As Armstrong took his first step, he radioed his famous message to the world:

'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'

There's a short video (click the button below/left) showing the mission. Well worth a view. The pictures in the slideshow below are from NASA - press F5 to restart the show.


The tones you hear during transmissions
are called Quindar Tones. They are used
to trigger earth transmitters. To hear
an example, press the play button below.

ActiveX must be enabled and
you need Adobe Flash Player

The first tone (2,525 Hz) triggers the start of transmission, the second tone (2,475 Hz) ends the transmission.

Apollo 11


These photographs of the Apollo 11 mission are
courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration History Office and the NASA JSC
Media Services Center.

Peter Symonds School, Winchester.

Paul Courtnage 1970
Paul Courtnage, 1970

Peter Symonds School, Winchester

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One of the drawbacks of service life is that, even if you only move around the UK, no two schools have the same syllabus.  This made the preparation for GCE O levels (national exams taken at 16 years) and A levels (at 18 years) something of a challenge.  So, like many service brats, I went away to boarding school at the age of ten - Peter Symond's Grammar School in Winchester, Hampshire. 

Leaving home was a huge adventure and not without its pain.  Settling into the lifestyle of an old English school of considerable renown turned out to be all that Thomas Hughes had described a hundred years before I was born in Tom Brown's School Days.  The school rules were strict, the uniform (including straw boater in the summer) was mandatory all day - including in town on Saturdays.  The prefects pretty much ran the boarding house - 'ruled' would probably be a better word.

Peter Symonds ("The Founder") was a merchant born in 1528, died 1587, who established a number of almshouses for the poor, one of which was Christ's Hospital, later to become Peter Symonds School. Founders Day is marked every 29th June by an Evensong is held in Winchester Cathedral.

Initially I lived at Wyke Lodge, 38 Bereweke Road, one of Peter Symond's boarding houses. I started in in Dorm 1, which was for first- and second-formers.  There were seven of us in the dormitory.  Each had one drawer of an anchient chest, a wooden bedside chair, a 'pigeon-hole' downstairs for his laundry and an old cream, iron-framed hospital bed with a very old, lumpy horsehair mattress and two thin blankets. Each boy was issued a single clean sheet every Saturday morning; the old top sheet was demoted to the bottom sheet and the old bottom sheet was sent off to the laundry. Beds had to be fully stripped each day before breakfast and then remade after breakfast with proper hospital-corners (with a perfect 45° fold). The prefects held surprise bed inspections to ensure that the hospital corners were perfectly constructed and that the sheet was tight enough to bounce a 2 shilling piece. Failure to meet required standards would earn punishment, which we'll come to in a moment. We were required to have a tartan travelling rug at the foot of the bed, which had to be neatly folded when not in use.

Our bedside chair was not for sitting on. It was for hanging up tomorrow's clothes - generally the same as today's clothes. We would also keep our sponge back there with flannel, toothbrush comb and soap. Life was pretty simple.

The Wyke Lodge floors were bare boards, brown and polished by time and the feet of countless former residents.  They were also good at consigning splinters to the feet of current inhabitants, some of them quite excruciatingly huge.  Some of the boards were loose and could be lifted to make excellent hiding holes for our stashes for midnight feasts.  In the winter, icy fingers of wind jabbed effortlessly through the sash windows, which rattled endlessly at the slightest nocturnal breeze. Old Victorian boarding houses are not naturally cosy.

Peter Symonds Grammar School
The Old Buildings, Peter Symonds School Winchester - many years later, a college.

Paul Courtnage, Wyke Lodge, Peter Symond's Grammar School, Winchester - 1969
Very smart young man
Peter Symond's School uniform


The daily routine in Wyke Lodge was rich with ritual. The first-formers would be the first to rise in the mornings. Having laid the tables for breakfast, we would wake the others in the house; the sixth-formers were to be roused gently and respectfully with a cup of tea (and one would better know how each took it), the rest of the house woken with less ceremony.  Later we would summon the house to breakfast using a battered, old, giant, brass spoon to bang an aged, cracked, Chinese gong.  Juniors would serve the seniors at breakfast and tea and perform additional duties including cleaning the garage, boot-shed and annex - three dilapidated wooden outbuildings used for storage and shoe cleaning. These would be inspected after tea by the day's duty prefect. Failure to meet the required standards of cleanliness would be rewarded by swift retribution.

In Wyke Lodge, punishment was generously distributed after breakfast for night time offences (food in dorm, talking after lights out, walking upstairs with outdoor shoes on, stepping on the cracks in the pavement, etc) or after tea for infractions uncovered at other times of day (including failure to clean the garage, boot shed and annex).  Actually, the only two real crimes were getting caught or it being your turn to carry the can - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one (Spock, Star Trek).  The preferred method involved the speedy application of an old, shiny-soled, size nine Dunlop gym shoe called Zeke.  Zeke was kept in the prefects' cupboard in the house common room.  His lace had been removed from the fastening holes and secured to the heel of the shoe so that it could be wrapped around the wielder's hand to ensure a secure grip.  The criminal would have to bend over at one end of the room and Zeke would be employed on his rear – the process known as 'coshing' or 'getting the cosh'.  Sometimes the punishment would be carried out in public, sometimes in the presence of the mighty prefects alone.

Various, intriguing methods were employed.  Some would stand still and swing the body in the manner of a Greg Norman golf stroke while others preferred a delivery from a run-up in the cricketing style.  The effects were all similar - it hurt!  Three or four strokes were usual for a poultry offence, six for something more serious.  One never knew how many were coming, one stood up and left only when told it was over.  However, Zeke never delivered in fives (I have no idea why this should be) so if you counted five you knew there was another, usually conclusive, stroke to come.  I suppose this all sounds rather barbaric today - the concept of big boys beating younger ones.  But corporal punishment was generally not cruel.  It acted as a frightening deterrent and was over fairly quickly.  I took a few 'coshings' in my time and, although the waiting was scary, would far rather face that than detention, punishment essay (2,000 words on Napoleon's left testicle by Monday morning) or writing 500 lines.  The more time consuming punishments were seldom constructive and usually ensured that you missed something fun like the Sunday night movie, swimming or house games.  Sometimes the punishment would be being gated, whereby all rights of exit from the School and its grounds were withdrawn - usually for one or two weeks. Being stuck in School when everyone else was in town was horrible.

So you see, corporal punishment was often better to receive than some of the alternatives. It really wasn't all that savage – I have no physical scars and don't think my mind is that odd as a result.

That said, the prefects had a number of methods for trying to catch out the scrots; finding us juniors doing something wrong meant they got to play with Zeke, you see. One particular technique was to creep up to dorm doors at night and listening for boys talking after lights out - fortunately, Dorm 1 had a squeaky floorboard just outside, which could often provide a quiet warning. Another trap was the dreaded shoe inspection. At the end of breakfast or tea the Head Prefect would announce that a shoe inspection was to take place immediately after the meal. Everyone would shuffle off the the shoe cage in the downstairs toilets and every pair of school shoes checked to see that they had been polished. Any boy who failed to present a newly polished pair of shoes got a rendez vous with Zeke.

Peter Symond's Grammar School and Wyke Lodge
The Old Buildings, Peter Symond's School Winchester - 1968. Wyke Lodge is at the top, just right of centre.
Worth looking at their new website and Google Earth to see how much this has changed.

Wyke Lodge
My boarding house, Wyke Lodge, at Peter Symond's Grammar School, Winchester - 1969

cassette recorder

Now that I've shown you a less macabre face of our old discipline system let me shatter your warm, cosy feeling by telling you this.  One tall, athletic prefect left Wyke Lodge at the end of my second year, to go up to Cambridge.  He decided that Zeke was too heavy to inflict a decent sting and so, by way of a leaving gift for all to 'enjoy', he set about modifying one of his own plimsolls (size 11) to provide future prefects with a choice of weapons.  The all-new 'Zeke GT' was the same basic idea (including the security lace), but with the uppers cut off leaving just the rubber sole.  On this was inscribed 'Zeke GT with the new Dunlop Arsegripper sole - I will get you in the end, on your end.'  So then they had the option of the old heavy favourite with its slap and bruise or the new 'high tech' instrument with its enhanced sting.  Gruesome, eh?

Fagging was still in vogue – American readers, don't despair.  Each first and second former was chosen by one of the prefects to be their 'Fag'. This had nothing to do with one's sexual preferences, but involved cleaning football boots, cricket bats or CCF uniform.  CCF was the  Combined Cadet Force - more on that later.  The rewards for a job well done were slim - usually ten shillings at the end of term.  The rewards for sloppiness or forgetfulness normally meant a rendezvous with Zeke or his younger brother.  I guess I drew the short straw in my second year; I fagged for Elliott, junior. He was a sportsman (school and county hockey in winter, cricket in summer). This meant two things.  Firstly he always had tons of muddy sports kit that was required to shine the next time he put it on and, secondly, when he wished to show his displeasure he had the physique to lay-on Zeke with enthusiasm. He was not a cruel person - he set himself high standards and expected me to live up to them. I tried.

Before I leave the prefects alone, I must give fair measure to the positive side of the old system.  After tea, the Wyke Lodge boarders went back into one of the school classrooms for prep. Homework was done en masse. The duty prefect would run the session and was always on hand to assist the juniors with any difficulties they may encounter. It is interesting to note that one in the process of learning can often educate his juniors more effectively than the wrinkled Master who is more distant from his pupil.  The prefects also trained us out of hours in sports and games and social matters. Any trouble with an 'outsider' (someone not from Wyke Lodge) was often sorted out by a protective sixth former. No one messed with their charges.

Like most schools, Peter Symond's was divided into four 'houses' for competitive purposes.  Simonds, Kirby, Mackenzie and Northbrook (blue, red, yellow and green respectively - my thanks to Old Symondian Bernard Webber from The Peter Symonds Nostalgia Corner for correcting my memory of the colours here).  Simonds comprised the boarders and, therefore, won most things most of the time. This was because we were kept occupied by loads of compulsory sport at weekends and in the evenings. For example after Sunday lunch we got to go on a five mile cross country run.  It was a miserable route, composed mostly of hills (all of which went steeply up!) and mud (all of which was slippery!). Oh, and I definitely remember that it was always cold and raining. Swimming was my sport of choice and I swam for Simonds House, the School and the Hampshire Juniors.  My years in Singapore had given me a considerable edge in the water.

We had no access to a television and so games, the radio and sports were the chief pastimes. Our boarding house common room boasted a wonderful old valve wireless radio - three minutes to warm up and with a beautiful warm, rich sound quality - results of the valve technology of the day. Cassette recorders were popular and Sunday evenings were traditionally spent recording the 'Top 20'.  It would be a fair, but risky, question to ask what we were listening to on the radio in the 1970s. In case you can't remember (many can't) click here for a pdf of the top 100 singles of the 70s.



Wireless Ah, the wonderful Wyke Lodge - our window on the world. Take a close look at the station labels on the dial.

King Alfred's Statue, Winchester
King Alfred's Statue, Winchester


During the evenings in the summer we could swim or play cricket and in the winter we had to play football; rugby was reserved for school time. New boys in Wyke Lodge were given a two-week grace period to learn the house rules and the house seniority list.  Seniority was by date of birth and this was the sole basis of our hierarchy.  Decades later, it remains etched on my mind.  For the record, here is my boarding house seniority list as it was in 1969:

Retzler, Saul, Elliot, Morrish, Grant, Forder, Hall, Mallet, Horn, Stupart, Elliot, Dennison, Brenton, Berridge, Sharrock, Herriot, Maisey, Dennison, Aplin, Adams, Dean, Williams, Goodenough, Price, Winsey, Price, Courtnage, Coleborn, Jones.

Dave Price (senior boy in my year and second Price in the list above) kindly corrected this for me very recently, some forty years or more after we all had to learn it. Good memory, Dave!      (Amended 20 Aug 2010)

School swimmers 1969
Peter Symond's School swimming team 1969. Paul Courtnage is second from left, back row.

Sundays had their own structure and routine. After breakfast we would all go to 'letter prep' where we were required to write letters to parents telling how wonderful life was and how well we were all doing at our studies. After prep, we'd line up outside Wyke Lodge, in uniform, to form a 'crocodile' (a line of boys in pairs, juniors at the front) for our walk to walk to St Bartholomew Church, Hyde.

The service at St Bartholomew was traditional Church of England High Church, with many psalms, chanted responses and hymns, as well as a long and serious 'fire and brimstone' sermon. Most of us joined Confirmation Classes at the first opportunity. There were two reasons for doing this. One was to become confirmed in the Church of England. The other was that being confirmed meant that you could go to early communion instead of the usual Morning Service. Communion was only a 30 minute service and, of course, some boys were brave enough to bet that no one would be there to check that they actually went.

Lunch was taken in the Wyke Lodge dining room and consisted of a pretty decent roast of some form with vegetables and gravy. Boarders were always hungry and house food didn't seem too bad so there wasn't much waste; besides, we had no choice.  After lunch we'd be allowed to 'enjoy' some form of organized, compulsory sport; sometimes this was football, swimming or cricket, but when it was too dismal to do anything else we'd be sent on a ghastly, gruelling cross-country run. Assuming we'd anything left after the cross-country, we could do as we liked for the rest of Sunday afternoon and, in the winter months, the boarders would have an evening film show in the school hall.

Our house mistress was an asthmatic, grey motherly lady named Joyce Renton.  She smoked Peter Stuyvesant by the carton, presumably to help her asthma.  She was, predictably, known as 'Ma R' (pronounced 'mahrah,).  Her sons were all Rock musicians; in fact, they were, among other things, the Wombles under Mike Batt, if you can remember them.  If you can't, I wouldn't worry.

Her husband, Mr Allon Baron Renton, had joined Peter Symond's School as head of the Arts department in 1937, having captained the Dorset badminton team and represented England on ten occasions.  He spent the war years in the Army and was demobilized in 1946 in the rank of Major and the couple ran Varley's Lodge boarding house before moving to Wyke Lodge in 1956.  Although he retired from the school in 1972, they continued to run the house for some years until he died.  How anybody could do a job like that, God only knows.  Live in a rambling old house with twenty-five 11 to 18 year olds and remain sane!

Winchester Cathedral.

William Walker
William Walker saved Winchester Cathedral's foundations (1906 - 1911)

William Walker

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Peter Symond's School had a close relationship with Winchester Cathedral and I was lucky to have performed there many times, both with the school orchestra and the choir.  We also used to hold our Founder's Day service there each year.  It is a beautiful cathedral with an interesting story.  The visitor may notice that the whole building is not quite straight.  The reason for this is that the East end of the building, a 13th century addition, had been built on a timber raft designed to spread the load of the walls on the soft boggy ground beneath.

To cut a long story short, the peat on which this raft sat had compressed, leading to subsidence and causing the raft to break.  The East end was shored-up and a permanent solution sought. In 1906, a diver named William Walker began work to remove the damaged beech wood raft and to construct concrete piles to allow the weight of the Cathedral to bear directly on the hard gravel beds below the peat. His work was dangerous, cold and extremely hard.  He worked in total darkness in unlit tunnels surrounded by a thick soup of black, peaty water. William Walker worked entirely by touch, the work taking over five years and extending under virtually the whole building.  His diver's dress weighed over 200 lbs and he is thought to have handled over 25,000 bags of concrete and nearly 115,000 concrete blocks. William Walker's supreme, lone efforts certainly saved Winchester Cathedral. Look for a small statue of a diver near the East end – virtually the only visible record of this brave man's extraordinary efforts that saved this glorious building.

Actually, it transpires that even this statue is not of William Walker. Norman Pierce, a distinguished local sculptor, was commissioned to create the sculpture and had been given a photograph from which to work.  Unfortunately, he picked the wrong man from the photo and so the statue bears the sharper features of the resident engineer, Sir Francis Fox rather than the intended subject William Walker. [Addendum] Revisiting Winchester Cathedral in the Summer of 2010 led me to believe that the statue has been replaced with one of William Walker himself.

Winchester itself started out as Venta Belgarum, a Roman fort. It became the capital of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (871-900AD). Later it was the capital of Saxon England and this continued under William the Conqueror (1066 and all that stuff). The Cathedral was started by the Normans around 1079. Unfortunately, the tower collapsed in 1107 - I think I'm starting to recognise a pattern here; perhaps the building standards of the day left something to be desired. Anyway, there was a lot of rebuilding during the 14th century, which eventually lead to William Walker's involvement and brings us up to date. Incidentally, it boasts the oldest book room in Europe, the library, which dates from 1150.

Despite my enthusiasm for chronicles concerned with the past (especially of the city and cathedral), I actually didn't care much for history when I was at Peter Symond's School.  I wasn't mad on English literature, Latin or French either.  However, I applied myself to my studies and managed to do well in my academics, even those that didn't really turn me on.  Actually, I quite like French, but my enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by our French Master, whom I recall only as "Boggers".

My established interest in the sciences served me well and I enjoyed music, art and geography.  Our headmaster was a very upright Yorkshireman called Mr Ashurst - Jake to the boys, but never to his face.  He taught Latin - or rather beat it into us.  He commanded the total respect of every boy in the school and he ran a tight ship.  His deputy was a slimy grease-ball named Silas Cooksie who was, I still believe, a sadistic, sad little man whose only twinges of pleasure were obtained by caning young boys.  You don't come across many people called Silas these days.

Peter Symonds Grammar School, Winchester
Peter Symonds Grammar School, Winchester

Family move to Edinburgh.

Hampshire Youth Orchestra



Emerson Lake and Palmer

Dark Side of the Moon

Music, Aircraft and Losing My Way

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I mentioned the choir and orchestra.  Music was becoming a dominant influence in my life and Peter Symond's offered me lots of opportunities in this direction.  I sang in the school choir as a soprano, alto and eventually a tenor.  I picked up the Tuba for a week or two and then quickly put it down again. Brass wasn't for me. Eventually, I settled on the Cello; a strange choice at the time as the damned thing was bigger than I was. This lead naturally to the Peter Symond's School orchestra and eventually to the Hampshire Youth Orchestra.  These were great times, apart from the strange tastes of our music master who had an over-enthusiastic interest in young boys. Although no explanation was ever forthcoming, we guessed that his inclination had more than a little to do with his very sudden and unexpected departure from the school. I have to say, though, he had been a very good music master.

Whilst father had been at Londonderry, you will recall, he commanded JASS.  This was to change as the Anti-submarine School was to move to the RAF side of Edinburgh Airport (RAF Turnhouse) and he was to move it there.  Its title was to change also; it became the Joint Maritime Operational Training School (JMOTS).  So, we made a move back to Scotland for 6 months followed by a further move to Northwood, the maritime headquarters (18 Group). The RAF married quarters at Northwood were very pleasant, looking well established with plenty of trees and being in a very expensive part of the country.  It sits adjacent to Moor Park - very much the 'stock-broker belt'.

I was quite comfortable with Grammar school life; I was doing well and knew my place.  I could see a bright future; O and A levels, hopefully earn my School Colours for swimming and a good career to follow. It was time to look ahead somewhat, beyond the comfortable confines of childhood, adolesence and school to a career. In anticipation, I applied to join the Royal Air Force and attended the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Biggin Hill.  I was accepted and awarded a sixth form scholarship, a university cadetship and a flying scholarship.  The last of these meant 2 weeks at Cambridge Airport learning to fly Cessna 150s at the RAF's expense and earning my Private Pilot's License.

Cessna 150
Cessna 150

Yes, life looked promising indeed.  But all that was about to change. Despite being an old school of great repute with a continuing record of excellence, the Labour Government of the day had decided to abolish the grammar school system in favour of comprehensive secondary schools (Comprehensive Education in place of a comprehensive education).  You see, the problem had been that brighter children had been able to attend schools that would make the most of their abilities. But this, of course, was unfair to the kids that weren't as clever or hadn't worked hard enough to be selected for a better school. So the obvious answer was to take away the opportunity for the better pupils and bring the standard of their education down to the lowest common level. Equality, it seemed, meant dragging everyone down together. Much better that way, of course, as it meant that Britain no longer had to worry about producing too many great engineers, scientists, doctors, etc. But, the cost was shaping up to be the loss of some of our best schools. The Peter Symonds Board of Governors decided that the only way to save Peter Symond's from that fate was to convert it into a sixth form college.  So in 1973, the intake of first-formers stopped in order slowly to deplete the lower school.  Old Jake resigned (as a matter of principle) and a new, more progressive head master (a new principal of new principles) took over. With him came many new ideas.  Showing his hand early, he revealed an apparent disdain for the very virtues on which the School was built - tradition, discipline, teamwork and honour – or so it seemed to many of us at the time.  He was, eventually, to replace these with their more modern counterparts; progress, deregulation, a school committee and self gain.  All the classrooms, halls and laboratories in the School had been named in remembrance of past masters; these commemorations were to be swept away and replaced by room numbers.

If I may quote one of the school's old head masters, Reverend Telford Varley (after whom our school hall was named), when answering a challenge to the tried and tested grammar school system many years before:

'I would only say this; it is my conviction that the traditions of Peter Symond's, spanning as it does, nearly four centuries, cannot fail to ensure that we will measure up to the challenges of today and tomorrow, whatever they may hold.'

I think that more or less said it all.  Unfortunately, nobody was going to listen to those words from the past and so the new college bulldozed its way through.  In 1975, I joined the lower sixth-form in the new Peter Symonds College, with no school uniform, with girls, with none of the old discipline and none of the old routines that, in retrospect, regulated my life and gave me comfort.  I was to discover that I needed the discipline and regulation of the old school and was not at all prepared for this new sweep of progressive modernism.  I was a schoolboy, not a college pupil.

Now please do not get me wrong. Peter Symonds went on to be a superb college. It continues to excel today and I would love to study there. My problem then was making the transition between two very different styles. I was poorly equipped to make this transition and the staff of the day didn't seem to offer much support to those of us needed a little direction.

So, to many of us that had grown up through Peter Symond's Grammar School, these were difficult times.  We now had 'tutors', 'seminars' and a 'campus'.  But we had lost the old values that had, for so many years, guided young men on their way to Sandhurst, Oxford, the Civil Service or many other (apparently archaic) bastions of British tradition.  The inhabitants of Wyke Lodge were evicted to make way for the girls and we were relocated in School House run by a complete fascist of a housemaster who thought he was running an army barracks - I could have a jolly enjoyable rant here, but shall refrain for now.  Apart from a fascist housemaster, I was now lacking effective control and found myself slightly at odds with authority.  I disliked what they had done to my school and honestly did not know what was expected of me.  I bucked against the system; not enough to get me into real trouble, but enough to get menoticed.

During my lower sixth-form I bumped along, never really understanding that I wasn't getting into the spirit of college life, but never really rebelling against it.  Having passed 9 of my 11 O levels the previous year I decided to take Physics, Maths and Geography to A level.  The subjects I was studying were not hard and I found myself with empty spaces in my days.  Various influences competed for my attention.  Still having a strong interest in music, I took up percussion to broaden my musical horizons a little.  Although my formal training was orchestral, I quickly became involved with a rock band called Blue Mountain as their drummer.  Although it is true to say that we never fulfilled our true potential, I believe that we had a lot of it.  Anyway, we performed on many occasions at Peter Symond's and around Winchester and had a thoroughly good time doing it.

Blue Mountain, 1976
Blue Mountain, 1976 (Peter Symond's School, Winchester)

In the mean time, my parents had bought a house in Leverstock Green near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.  It was a comfortable, four bedroom place in the 'Green Belt'.  Fortunately, I found somebody there of my own age and interests who lived three doors away.  We shared the same taste in music too so we had a good time listening to those sounds of the 70's: Emerson Lake and Palmer (whom we went to see at the Empire Pool, Wembley), Pink Floyd, Yes, Greenslade, Curved Air, Genesis and many others.  As an aside, it was about this time that I went to see Queen at the Gaumont Theatre in Southampton.  What a show!  Whatever else people thought of him, Freddie Mercury was certainly an outstanding entertainer.  We also went to see the Who at Charlton Athletic, an excellent show supported by, among others, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. But I digress.

Dark times

Meter reading high.

.303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield
.303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield

But, then it all went down hill a bit. I found myself mixing with a fascinating breed of student who were not grammar school boys. They were more independent of thought, not endowed with such an ingrained respect for authority and rather more fun. I quite liked that, but probably didn't know how to use it and, consequently, did little to shine in the eyes of my tutors. They all liked me, but it was clear that I was becoming a bit of a rebel and not applying myself to my studies as much as I should have.

There is a saying that I learned later in life that would have served me well at this time.  It relates to the story of a sparrow that is freezing and alone in the middle of winter.  He is dying of cold in a meadow when, seemingly adding insult to injury, a cow wanders past and craps on the unfortunate bird.  At this he reflects that life just can't get any worse.  However, the cow's deposit is warm and the heat quickly revives the sparrow, saving his life.  Rapidly recovered he feels so happy that he starts to sing at the top of his voice.  Unfortunately his fanfare attracts the attention of a nearby cat that promptly eats the sparrow.  The moral of this story is: 'If you're in the shit, but warm and happy, keep your mouth shut'.  Alternatively, I guess you could equally say that everyone who shits on you isn't necessarily your enemy and everyone who listens to you isn't necessarily your friend, but that isn't the point of the story.

In my case, you see, it wouldn't pay to stand in the spotlight having already been marked as a rebel. But I did. I kept on rebelling and kept on speaking out, expressing my dissatisfaction with the new college - failing to make the effort to adapt to the environment and this was a real shame. By the time I took my A Levels and left the college I think it would be fair to say that I hadn't covered myself in glory.

Of course, I wasn't the only rebel at that time. Many others seemed to fail to fulfil their potential and didn't get on with the new regime. So much so that I wonder to this day whether the college had its formula quite right to start with. Interestingly, way back in its long and often distinguished history, the school had endured a rebellion much more interesting than mine. Two years before I was born, one of the school's most well respected headmasters, Dr. P. T. Freeman, had sadly died and a senior chemistry master had been appointed acting headmaster in his place.  It would seem that this bloke was an appalling head and, as a result, discipline and morale in the school disintegrated; I shall refrain from making any comments about chemists.  Unable to watch the debasement of their school any longer, the sixth-formers seized control of the CCF armoury, broke out the stock of Lee Enfield rifles and .303 ammunition and took the school by force. The Head was besieged in his chemistry laboratory and 550 pupils paraded the streets of Winchester.  When the police were called, they were shown, by the sixth-formers, the lack of security that had allowed them access to the weapons in the first place and the story of the masters' questionable treatment of pupils was revealed. The demonstration terminated peacefully (unlike the more dramatic interpretation of similar events in the film If, on which this incident was a minor influence) although classes were cancelled for the day and many pupils refused to return to school until a new head was appointed later that year.

Even earlier, two boarders had 'liberated', a couple of loaded .303s from the same armoury.  With these they had plotted to assassinate their housemaster - not entirely unreasonable but, perhaps a little excessive.  Their cunning plan had, apparently, included slashing his car tyres in order to prompt him to pursue them on foot so that they could ambush and shoot him.  I understand this attempt was not successful.

Anyway, back to the point.  It was time to take stock of my achievements, to get back on track and to find a suitable future for myself.

Paul Courtnage

Paul Courtnage
Paul Courtnage - 1976

Paul Courtnage

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