The Old School Tie

This phenomenon doesn’t really occur in the United States because schoolboys don’t wear ties. Okay, I joke: it’s because school affiliation in the U.S. happens at university rather than in high school (but they still don’t wear ties).

Here’s how the thing works among the private school set, and it’s true in Britain and all its former colonies (in Britain, they’re called “public” schools, which is massively confusing to non-Britons so I’ll just use “private”, to be consistent). To be sent to an exclusive private school was a sign of both wealth and breeding (the latter more so in Britain than in the colonies, of course). The bonds one formed at school, in an age when a university degree was not a prerequisite for employment, would help one through life in no uncertain terms, because one always tried to help a fellow private schoolboy (called an “Old Boy”) where one could.

The reason for this was quite simple, and understandable. If a manager, an Old Boy from St. John’s, say, discovered that a prospective employee had been to Michaelhouse or Bishop’s, the applicant would automatically get a more favorable review than someone not wearing the old school tie: Old Boys were essentially a known quantity, having been through pretty much the same grinder that all the others had. As any employer will tell you, a known quantity is almost always better than an unknown one — a former U.S. Marine will favor another Marine for precisely the same reason, and it has to do with character rather than anything else. One of my former classmates owns a highly-successful tech company, for example. and it came as no surprise to me when I learned that his CFO was yet another of our classmates. No chance of financial skulduggery there, I bet. Unthinkable.

I once got a job because the H.R. manager saw my Old Boy’s tie and after chatting about the school for a while, she sent me off for a final interview with my future manager with barely a question. (She gave me a sealed envelope for him, and he showed it to me much later. It read simply, “Hire this man — he’s exactly what we’re looking for.”) It turned out that the H.R. manager’s young son was at St. John’s Preparatory, so she knew exactly what kind of man I was, because she wanted her son to become the same kind of man. My First from St. John’s College. along with a couple of other notable schoolboy achievements, were all she needed.

This causes all sorts of problems in today’s oh-so egalitarian society, but if we’ve learned nothing else over the years, it’s that when it comes to leadership, character matters. By the middle of the First World War, St. John’s had graduated just over one hundred and twenty boys in its history; twenty-two ended up killed on the Western Front, and one (Oswald Reid) won the Victoria Cross (posthumously). The death toll among Old Etonians, Old Harrovians and their like was equally appalling, because it was from the private schools that most of the officers were drawn. Yes, it was part of the class system; but it was also true that leadership was one of the virtues taught and encouraged — and it had been duly noted by the Duke of Wellington in a much earlier war, who said that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

And he was right. Character matters, and it seems to be that because of the harsh regimen of private school education in the past, it was inculcated as much as Latin, Greek or the Classics — and possibly even more so, because up to my time, one of the worst insults you could bestow in someone was that they were a “swot”, someone who worked hard at their studies. A “gentleman’s C” was highly regarded because it meant that one had achieved a passing grade without working too hard at it. (I should also point out that academic standards were far higher then than they are today, and a “C” back then would today equate to a B+ or even A-, depending on the subject.) I remember winning some award in a magazine for an essay I’d written, and there was considerable amusement when it was discovered that my English teacher had given me a grade of 68% (27/40) for that same essay. When he was asked about it, he shrugged and said, “His conclusion wasn’t that good.” Nobody got an A in his class, ever, so strict were his standards. What that meant was that we were forced to sweat blood to get a decent overall grade; but when we wrote our finals (graded by other teachers), most of us in his English class got distinctions for our essays.

I have mentioned that sports was a compulsory activity in all private boys’ schools of the time, and we produced our share of decent sportsmen. But when we were up against the local state (“government”) schools, we would usually get thrashed — much as, say, Harvard’s football team would fare against Michigan or Alabama — because our two senior classes of about a hundred boys stood no chance against the same pool of a thousand boys from the much-larger King Edward’s School down the road. It didn’t matter, though; as a cheer from St. Stithian’s College went, whenever they were beaten by a government school: “Your dads work for our dads!”

We at St. John’s would never have been so crass, but then St. Stithian’s was a Methodist school, after all.

But even being crap at sports against other schools was instructive: learning how to lose with grace meant that we won with equal grace; and in its turn, sportsmanship was not only welcomed, but treasured. Good sportsmanship, by the way, means following not just the letter but the spirit of the rules — which is why I’m always hammering on that something may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right. (A no-class boor like Bill Clinton would never understand that, which is why he and his equally-classless wife are such terrible people. Former BritPM and Old Etonian David Cameron, while an appalling politician, is actually quite a decent man, especially when compared to the horrible Gordon Brown. The same is true of the equally-inept but privately-schooled and very likeable George W. Bush when compared to the awful Bernie Sanders.)

The Old School Tie goes deeper than that. As a rule, our dating pool was the local girls’ private schools: Roedean, St. Andrew’s, Kingsmead and St. Mary’s Schools for Girls. (I think I first seriously dated a government-school girl when I was twenty-four, and my experience was not uncommon.) Once again, it was because the girls were a known quantity: of good / wealthy families, well brought up, with ladylike and genteel manners. (Yeah, they were bitchy and obnoxious because teenagers, but it was a very ladylike obnoxiousness.) It also worked for the good. One of the Old Boys date-raped one of the Old Girls one night; word got out, and he never dated in our circle again — he ended up marrying some tart from Cape Town who didn’t know his story. The last I heard, he was miserably unhappy because he was savagely cut from the group and lost all his friends. To be called “a nasty piece of work” was pretty much a death sentence, socially speaking, and he was. The very tightness of the circle thus gave security against nonsense like that, just as it would almost guarantee that my tech-company owner friend would be inured against financial impropriety by his CFO.

So there it is: the Old School Tie, the Old Boys’ Club; call it what you may, sneer at it all you like, but the fact of the matter is that without the efforts of this tiny group of men and women over the past few centuries, society and civilization would be much the poorer.

Your opinion may vary, of course, but we don’t really care.

Guilty As Charged

From Longtime Reader SKB comes this point:

“Usually, your social commentary is just a bit too aristocratic, or ‘posh’, for my taste.”

SKB, round about now my old housemaster and various teachers who were entrusted with turning this young hooligan into a gentleman are beaming with pride. Mostly, I suspect, they would be relieved because let’s face it, this must have seemed at times to be a daunting, if not insuperable task.

Here’s the thing. For the last five years of my school life I had the great good fortune to attend a seriously “posh” (and spendy) boys-only private school in Johannesburg called St. John’s College. It was founded in the late 1890s and when I was there it was one of the the top five private boy’s schools in South Africa (the others being St. Andrew’s, Bishop’s, Michaelhouse and Hilton Colleges), and at the time all five were rated in the top 100 high schools in the world. Our “brother” school was Eton College in the U.K., and we had a continuous exchange program with both teachers and students. Here’s a sample pic of the school, taken from the “A” rugby field:

The large building on the left of the pic is the chapel — and actually, there are three chapels: the Crypt (semi-underground, and the oldest part of the school), the Main Chapel above it, and to the side the tiny All Souls Chapel which commemorates those past students and teachers killed in the various world wars. Here’s the Delville Wood Cross in the All Souls, made from one of the trees chopped down by shellfire in the 1916 battle and one of only five in existence:

And if you’ve been paying attention to my writings, Delville Wood was where my grandfather Charles Loxton fought and was wounded.

The buildings were designed by architect Sir Herbert Baker, who went on to design the South African Parliament buildings, in much the same style. This is the David Quad:

…and another view, taken from the other side:

The Darragh (dining) Hall:

Yeah, I know: Hogwarts. Except that all our teachers were like Snape. And finally, this is the “A” cricket field, which is on the other side of the school, on top of the ridge (the school is to the right):

In the traditional sense, a “college” is not a university; a university is a university. A college is a preparatory school for university. And so it was. Our academic life was rigorous to a degree which would nowadays be called “brutal”: bi-weekly (called “fortnightly” in the British fashion) examinations and report cards which went home to be signed and commented on by parents, and yes, we were “streamed” in A through D classes. So demanding was the work that a first-class pass (a “First”) in the final examination meant that one did not have to sit the entrance examinations for universities like Oxford or Cambridge; indeed, for a couple of subjects (e.g. Latin, which I took for all seven years), one could skip the first term at either of those universities. There was a post-grad year (called “The Sixth”) which offered U.K. A-levels, which I never took (and have regretted ever since).

Schoolwork wasn’t all. Sports, of course, were compulsory: cricket, swimming and athletics, along with electives of tennis and squash in the summer; and either rugby or field hockey in the winter. (Basketball was added much later — we called it “netball”, and it was only played in girls’ schools.) To say we were fit would be an understatement: pre-breakfast runs, calisthenics (“P.T.”) during school hours, and at least three afternoons a week devoted to sports (more if you played for a school team against other schools on Wednesdays and Saturdays). It wasn’t so much fitness as torture, but we were almost as fit as Olympic athletes as a result.

Discipline was likewise brutal (caning, detention, “hard labor” and suchlike exotica were routine), and it should come as no surprise for anyone to learn that I have the all-time record for the number of caning strokes — one hundred and twenty-eight — administered to my mischievous and it must be said deserving backside over the five years spent in College. (I only had a few, maybe a half-dozen or so, given to me in my two years in the Prep.) Caning was later abolished, which is why my total is the all-time record.

Above all, however, it should be said that St. John’s stressed two things: severely-circumscribed behavior (appearance, manners, discipline and religious discipline) and absolute freedom of thought. My last public speech at College, delivered without pre-censorship to the school, parents and staff, argued that prostitution should be legalized on health grounds. (Yes, I’ve changed the 16-year-old Kim’s opinion, although I still support the “health” rationale.) The next speaker’s topic was “Is religion still necessary in the modern world?” Neither speech drew anything but a dry “Interesting” from the Headmaster in his concluding comments, and all three speakers went on to get Firsts in the finals.

In short, St. John’s made absolutely no bones about the fact that we boys were going on to become productive citizens as part of the elite stratum of society. What we got out of our schooling was an absolute belief in ourselves and our worth to society, provided we didn’t take the wrong road (and lamentably, some did; but most didn’t). To be an Old Johannian means being a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and we can hold our head up in any company. As one of my school friends once put it: “There may be other places called ‘St. John’s College’ in the world; but ours is the only one that counts.”

So yes, SKB, my commentary is occasionally aristocratic and posh, not to mention elitist. You can blame St. John’s College for my upbringing, indoctrination and education, but I am unashamedly proud to be that way. Later this week, I’ll talk about The Club — otherwise known as “The Old School Tie Set”.

And for those who care, the School Prayer (from memory):

Lord God our Father, who art Light, Life and Love,
Look down with love upon our College of St. John.
Make it to be a home of religious discipline, sound learning and goodwill,
Which may send forth many, rightly-trained in body, mind and character,
To serve Thee well in church and state.
Supply our wants, and give us increase as shall seem Thee good;
And let Thine angels drive away all evil from us,
Through Thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Thoughts From The Road

Been back a couple days from my road trip, and now that I’ve washed the dust off, a couple of salient observations have suggested themselves to me.

I hate, absolutely loathe interstate highway travel.

My trip was to Colorado, and I took the familiar route of US 380 west, US 287 north, and after a brief trip along I-40 west, US 87 north, and I-25 north to my eventual destination, Denver.

I was actually looking forward to the part of the trip from Raton NM to Pueblo because unlike most other interstates, that section of I-25 passes through some extraordinary scenery. Sadly, I spent a lot of time looking at said scenery because a rock fall had covered the northbound side of the highway and we were reduced to crawling along at walking pace in a single lane along the southbound road. Once clear of the construction area, I thought my problems were over, except that from Pueblo all the way to my destination, the traffic was the same density as rush-hour on the various Dallas interstates, i.e. parking-lot speed.

So coming back, I turned off at Castle Rock and after a short drive east, found my old friend US 287.

Unfortunately, US 287 outside northwest Texas is terrible: a two-lane road with only occasional (and too-short) overtaking lanes, and which was almost as bad as an interstate in terms of stressful driving. All the way through southern Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle was white-knuckle driving, which was only bearable because I had set myself no time deadlines for my return, and could spend long stretches behind 18-wheeler trucks without ever feeling the need to overtake them. And then I crossed the border into Texas.

I love US 287 in Texas.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would abolish all interstate highways and make them all like US 287 in Texas. Here’s why.

It’s a four-lane divided highway. This means that while the speed limit is 75mph, you have to be aware of the road and traffic because there are “turnarounds” from the left lane (with an added left-turn lane so traffic is not obstructed), and frequent intersections — even driveways — so once again, ya gotta pay attention.

Best of all, though, are the frequent signs which say “Left lane may only be used for overtaking”. And the Texas state troopers enforce this little rule with gusto, you betcha, which means that people (even truckers) actually drive like Germans, and only use the left lane for overtaking. After the horrorshow of a two-lane road and the earlier interstate highways, travel was not only easy but enjoyable. (A simple indicator of this is the fact that for hours, I had a spoken conversation with myself about various topics, in French — which means that I was completely relaxed.)

Another good thing about US 287 in Texas is that until you get closer to the DFW area, you don’t bypass the many little towns, you go through them. You know that you are approaching a town because there are speed-limit change warnings posted as the limit drops from 75 to 60 to 50 to 40 and finally to 35 within the city limits, and follow the reverse order once you leave town. Why is this a Good Thing? Because what happens is that you slow down figuratively as well as literally, and stopping for gas, food, or even just to stretch your legs is not the same ordeal as when hurtling along an interstate. Here’s one such town:

Dare I say this also gives one a chance to try local eateries such as K-Bob’s, instead of the same chain crap along interstates? (Yes, I did; an excellent steak, perfect baked potato and wonderful cole slaw, all for $12. I left an $8 tip for Sandy, which made her day.)

When I first arrived in the United States, I drove along many roads like these (usually with my friend Trevor), and trips like this made me fall hopelessly, helplessly in love with America. This last trip? It happened all over again, only more so.

I cannot express how good a thing this whole approach is when you’re driving long distances, and no doubt it added to the fact that I arrived home completely relaxed and at ease, and not with the frazzled thank-God-that’s-over! nerves of a typical road trip on interstate highways.

As my Loyal Readers know, at the end of the month I’m off to Britishland for an extended sabbatical which will deposit me back in the United States only in early January. As soon as winter is over, probably in April, I’m going to take another road trip, this time from Plano to Bar Harbor, Maine* and back (along a different route). I will only use the interstate highway to get me clear of Texas and Arkansas to my first stop in Memphis (because boring, done it many times). Thereafter there will be no interstate highways in the plan except for unavoidable things like mountain passes, and even then, I’ll try to find an alternate route. Five days up, five days driving along the Maine coast, five days back. Maybe more, I don’t care.

William Least Heat-Moon once wrote a book, Blue Highways, about this kind of travel. Well, from now on, all my highways will be blue — because I intend to fall in love with America all over again, and again, and again.


*Why Bar Harbor? Why not?

 

Well, Duh

Apparently, the world is agog about the ingredients of Nutella, the sickly-sweet-chocolate-y spread beloved by Euros. (They put it on their bread or toast for breakfast, as if anyone needed confirmation of Euro-decadence.) Here’s the offending pic at Reddit:

I am a little iffy about the proportions as shown — but only of the cocoa, because I’m not sure that so small an amount of the stuff could make the whole thing as dark-brown as it is. Whatever. I don’t like Nutella, possibly because I don’t really like the taste of hazelnuts. 

So, for the first time ever, I am going to reveal to the world the sooper-seekrit recipe for my own favorite spread. (Be warned, it is highly addictive, super-fattening, and probably causes all sorts of health problems, not to mention fainting fits among dieticians and weight-loss gurus.)

Here are the two ingredients (no substitutions allowed):

  

The mix proportions are approximately 4:1 (Jif : syrup), although obviously you can adjust that to make the spread more or less sweet. Adding syrup alleviates the dryness of peanut butter and adds just the necessary sweetness.

The optimal delivery method for this variation of PB&J (or peanut-butter-syrup, as I call it) is on lightly-buttered white bread, or even deadlier, on lightly-buttered white toast. I sometimes make myself a sweet snack by using a heaped tablespoon of Jif with just a tiny squirt (or teaspoon) of Golden Syrup. It also makes a superb dipping sauce for Thai Chicken Satay.

Here’s what it looks like in its final form:

For reasons unknown, Lyle’s Golden Syrup is not commonly found in U.S. supermarkets (Kroger carries it, as does H.E.B. down here in Texas), but it can be ordered online. It also comes in glass jars or tins. Because I hate maple syrup (it makes my throat close up, similar in effect to cigarette smoke), I’ve eaten Lyle’s either with peanut butter or by itself on bread/toast and on waffles since I was a child, and my life has been all the richer for it.

In the interests of Extremely Stupid People Who Need This Shit Explained To Them, this spread contains peanuts and sugar (NO!!!!) so if you are allergic to either, don’t eat it. Ditto the bread if you’re gluten-averse. Sucks to be you.

Final warning: if you become addicted to this stuff, as I am, don’t come crying to me when your weight balloons or you become pre-diabetic. That’s like complaining to me of your hangover when you follow my advice to drink single-malt Scotch, and get wasted on it.

And for the record: it tastes far better than that Nutella shit.

On The Road (1)

Blogging will be scarce, and possibly even of lower quality than normal, as I’m driving to visit a friend in another state. (No flying until I have to, thank you very much.) I’ll try to post while on the road, but I’ll be at the mercy of the Fleabagge Motel’s wi-fi, so if nothing appears, that’s the reason.

In the meantime, enjoy a little eye candy:

It’s the Beretta Model 75 in .22LR, and it’s the gun I learned to shoot handguns with. I’ve been spoiled ever since by the experience.

Oh, you wanted that kind of eye candy? For shame, for shame. Okay, here’s Janine Turner, suitably dressed:

 

Bucket List Entry #6: Monaco Grand Prix

Today sees the Formula 1 Grand Prix at Monaco, and while I’ve seen a couple of Grands Prix before (at the old Kyalami track in South Africa, back when SA was still on the F1 calendar), this one is #6 on Ye Olde Buckette Lyste.

So why Monaco, you ask?

For pretty much the same reasons as to why I would want to watch cricket at Lord’s: because Monaco is one of the oldest racing venues — hell, they were racing at Monaco (1929) before there was Formula 1 — and unlike most of the other F1 venues, it takes place inside a city, on city streets. It is one of the crown jewels of motor racing (Le Mans and the Indy 500 being the other two), and it’s one of the few times I can be swayed by that awful word “prestige” when applied to an event.

Besides, it’s Monaco, FFS, itself the crown jewel of of the Midi.

But enough about the place. The race itself is impossibly difficult: winding through narrow city streets, there are no gravel runoffs, very few cushioned buffers (mostly, they’re stern, unforgiving Armco barriers), and if it starts to rain… oy.

Pole position in qualifying the day before almost guarantees victory the next day, so difficult it is to overtake someone. Here’s the famous Fairmont Hotel hairpin (taken at 30mph):

But let there be a slip-up in the pits, a bad tire decision or even a millisecond’s inattention by a driver during the race, and everything can change in a heartbeat.

Fortunately, I can get in to watch the race from a decent location (at time of writing, good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise) because Longtime Friend and Bandmate “Knob” lives in Monaco, and I have a standing invitation to visit and stay with him for the occasion. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t make it to Monaco this year — e.g. poverty, bad timing etc. — but next year, Rodders [obscure British TV show reference]