BY BRIAN BRINDLEY
How can I ever forget VE Day? It so happened that it fell on the first day of my first term at a new school. I had been waiting with even more impatience than most people for victory, hoping that I might celebrate it at home while it was still the Easter holidays.
When the likely coincidence became apparent, 1 lived in hope that my first day at Stowe might be postponed; but my parents, who were law-abiding folk, telephoned the school and were told, "Yes, we're starting as planned". So, on the day before, off I was sent, with trunk and tuck box, on the special train from Euston station. As it turned out, not everybody's parents were quite so submissive: about half the school turned up, the other half staying at home to keep VE Day and appearing two days late.
At the time I resented being away from home for all the festivities; but in retrospect I think it may have softened the blow of moving from a school where I had been a senior boy and one of the brainiest to one where I was an insignificant "new bug" who knew nothing. In any case, I can hardly imagine that in my parents' tree-lined suburban road there were any of the thrilling street parties that everyone else seems to remember; at Stowe, on the other hand, there was certainly some corporate rejoicing.
Naturally there were no lessons on the first day; this was given over to finding and breaking up the blackout screens, made of wooden batons covered with thick black paper, that had filled all the windows of the school after dark for five years and were now no longer needed. I remember climbing up to the flat roof of the main building (strictly out of bounds on other occasions) by a terrifying fire escape ladder; it was a lovely sunny day, and I liked roaming over the roof and taking in the stunning views; I didn't
much enjoy scraping black paint from the roof lights. At the end of the day I discovered that there was a perfectly serviceable staircase; we had only used the fire-escape to add to the fun!
That evening there was a tremendous bonfire on the grass to the south of the school buildings, well away from the cricket pitch; it left a scar for months. All the blackout went up in flames, and we were treated to a little bit of hot food (everything was still rationed) and some sort of soft drink.
An upright piano had been loaded onto a farm cart, and my housemaster accompanied us in old community songs like Clementine and Ten Green Bottles. Some readers may know Stowe, which is a palatial Georgian house set in the most beautiful landscaped gardens in England (and therefore the world) and so may be able to imagine the beauty of the scene. (1 am glad to say that in recent years the gardens have passed into the possession of the National Trust, who are able to look after them better than we could). Nothing like this ever happened again in my time at school; it was a memorable, and exciting, beginning. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
I suppose there must have been some sort of service of thanksgiving in the school chapel, but I have to confess I have no recollection of it. Indeed, in all my five years at the school, there are only two services that I can remember though I know that I was once punished (not very severely) for laughing at the inept choice of a hymn.
I do remember the time when a visiting preacher, (hoping, I presume, to "interest boys"), likened the Operation of divine grace to an clectro-magnet that could be switched 'On' if you were right with God, and 'Off' if you were not. Rashly, he produced in the pulpit just such an electro-magnet: when it was turned 'On', the bottom bit of the gadget clung to the top; when it was turned Off... Oh dear! It quite failed to detach itself! (This was in itself a useful lesson: in all my years as a preacher I never produced a "visual aid" in the pulpit).
The other service that I can remember (not altogether unconnected with VE Day) was the visit of Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury to dedicate the war memorial a sort of screen in the chapel. Stowe had been a 1.ow Church foundation; I think the founders would have liked to use the word Evangelical, but the fastidi, ous first headmaster, the great JF Roxburgh, had carefully eliminated any trace of religious fervour, so l.ow Church is the right phrase. (If I tell you that behind the chapel altar there hung a wooden model of a crusader's sword, to give the appearance of, without actually being, an altar cross, you will. understand something of that strange Protestant underworld). No Bishop of
Oxford had been permitted to wear cope and mitre (let alone eucharistic vestments) in the chapel: I remember once seeing Bishop Kirk (a notable Anglo-Catholic, and father-in-law of the present Bishop of Chichester) being escorted to chapel in the headmaster's car, wearing a rochet and black chimere (very Low) topped with a purple biretta (very High) which he did not wear into chapel.
Fisher, though no High churchman, had been a headmaster himself, and was used to getting his own way. So the decree went forth: "No cope and mitre, no Archbishop". On the day of the dedication, Fisher, of course, had his way; in front of him, also gorgeously arrayed in cope and mitre, walked Bishop Kirk, triumphantly wielding a huge baroque crosier. Episcopal visits were never drab again.
Brian Rrindlev was an Anglican vicar for thirty years, and is now a Catholic layman.