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40 Years On: an unsettling trip back to school

Last week, it was time to go back to school.

For the first time since I was a teenager, I returned to Wellington College. I had been invited back by Anthony Seldon, the present headmaster – or Master, as we call him – to give what he called “a fireside chat” at the Master’s Lodge. I would be talking to boys and girls who were interested in creative writing.

The idea felt slightly strange. At the Wellington I knew, the Master was a grey, vulturish presence who exuded a general disapproval rarely spoke to the boys.  I don’t think I ever set foot in his Lodge. The concept of  girl Wellingtonians would have caused a riot. Creative writing was an entirely alien concept, and anyone expressing an interest in it would have been seen as deeply odd.

I have been to a reunion at Cambridge – not an unqualified success, between you and me – but this was going to be different. It was work. Rather than a group of old boys trying to remember each other’s names, I would be the past addressing the present.

All the same, when the taxi entered the big iron gate, up the Kilometre, past the cricket pitch known as Turf, I was startled to feel a lurch in the stomach – just for a second, I was back, being dropped off on the first day of term, a heavy black tuck-box on the back seat, my mother trying unconvincingly to be cheerful.

Soon though, I discovered that while the buildings of Wellington were as self-importantly Victorian and institutional as ever, and the grounds – rhododendrons, an avenue of vast Wellingtonia trees, lake, pitches, science labs – were pretty much unchanged, everything within and around them had changed.

The modern co-ed Wellington has an aggressively liberal ethic (“I’m very left-wing, I’m afraid,” the Master said at one point). In my day the key to survival here was to avoid being  exceptional in any way – respectable mediocrity was what we were taught to aspire to. Now the school is selective, ambitious.

I had rather wanted to talk about my days at Wellington and compare it to theirs: how the institution had changed, reflecting a different, more uncertain world, whether some of the old insularity and over-defensive certainty might have lingered on, perhaps taking on a new shape.

Those years are etched deep in the memory, elbowing aside the lovers, friends and colleagues of later years. I would have liked to reminisce about Jomo, the brilliant history master who was so traumatised by the war that every time a plane flew overhead, he hid beneath a desk. Or Drag Watts, Droopy Ward, Pip Letts. What laughs I could have given them.

The fireside chat, though, was about creative writing. I feel increasingly uneasy about giving writerly advice based on what I have done – it feels like an admission that it’s all over – but it went well enough, without reminiscences.

Today’s Wellingtonians are, sensibly, not interested in the past. When I was there, the reputation of the school largely rested on its allegedly glorious history. Now tradition is no longer part of the deal; it might even be a source of mild embarrassment. The place has re-invented itself.

Early the next morning, I walked around the school quads, stood outside the Picton, the house where I lived and which contains so many memories. There is a canteen at Wellington, they take lessons in stillness and happiness. There is a a new openness and lightness to the place.

Yet, for me at least, the old ghosts were still there, in the fabric of the institution. It takes a lot to shift those.