I never actually lived in Sentry Hill. My attendance at the boarding house reunion in July was a complete fluke. A week after booking my summer vacation in the UK, David Milsom emailed to announce the pending “last ever” Sentry Hill reunion, just in case I was interested. It was smack bang in the middle of the two week visit that I had just booked!
Sentry Hill was, from 1961 to 1985, the boarding house of Sir William Borlase’s School in Marlow. I started at the school as a day boy in January 1967, midway through secondary school, after a miserable year boarding myself in Solihull School near Birmingham. So I always felt a kinship with the boarders at Borlase’s. This reunion was a lucky break. I had often wondered how other boarders of my generation had done in life, and here was a way to find out right from the horses’ mouths, as it were.
The main reunion took place on the school grounds. After drinks and getting acquainted, or reacquainted, the first organized event was a film viewing in the school’s new drama auditorium. It began with a film portraying Sentry Hill, walking along its corridors, panning its rooms and grounds, made right after the boarding house closed in 1985, and before the house was sold back into the private sector. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. I don’t think that I imagined it: every man there must have been remembering where he had slept, eaten, played his sports, spent time with friends, done his prep (homework), and bathed during those lonely childhood years away from home.
Then came the next brief video, the first striking reminder of the inherent meanness of that world of 1960s boarding. Michael Symons, the reunion’s organizer, had called the boarding house’s matron before an earlier reunion in 2000 to ask for her comments for the reuniting “boys.” Matron was one of Sentry Hill’s most present women, along with Mrs. Hazelton, the House Master’s wife. The phone call was played against the backdrop of a photo of matron. “I used to think that you were very unpromising material, really,” she announced. “I was really rather surprised at how well most of you have turned out.” Ouch! The most important woman in these boarders’ lives not only thought that her charges were pretty much worthless, but also told them so!
I was asking myself whether anyone else noticed her put-downs when Michael chimed in with his opinion that matron was talking with tongue in cheek. Perhaps, but even if an adult can appreciate such humour, a young boy in a world as “savagely fathered and unmothered” (with apologies to Adrienne Rich) as a 1960s boarding house would never have got it.
Possible put-downs notwithstanding, this was an impressively accomplished group of men, with a wide range of careers, hobbies and tasks undertaken and an impressively independent and unfettered range of interests. Many had lived in different countries, on different continents. I had the sense that they were pretty uniformly driven, as I am. The summary biographies that Michael Symons circulated (put together by John Conry: thanks John!) were quite fascinating and conveyed very clearly that, with a few exceptions, boarding had had little effect on the boarders’ professional or work lives.
As to their personal lives, that’s harder to glean from self-reported bios.
The boarders themselves had begun the reunion by posing for group photographs of former boarders organized at Sentry Hill itself. The old boarding house, now in private hands, had agreed to open its grounds to the reuniting “old boys” (the increasingly accurate phrase for alumni in the UK), if not the house.
Andrew Milsom mentioned the photo shoot as we shared a beer before the film viewing. The photographer’s assistant was quite something, he opined. She was apparently the wife of the photographer, himself a former boarder at Sentry Hill. According to Andrew, the old boys were a little distracted by her presence at the shoot. I flashed on the immortal words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “nudge, nudge, say no more!”
The next video in the auditorium confirmed that something unusual was afoot amid the reunion conventions. The photographer’s assistant, now identified in the video as Jan Burton, was filmed walking across Marlow Bridge and up the High Street. She looked great! Cut to the school, where she is next seen playing the role of a teacher punishing two female students. Ah-hah! You get the picture, right? The film was cut tantalizingly short, and the announcement went out that the full video, with a lot more to see, was available in exchange for a contribution to a children’s charity. Alternatively, it was available for free to anyone who agreed to be caned by Ms. Burton!
At least, I think that was the deal, but at this point it was all very confusing, unlike any reunion I had ever attended. Perhaps someone was trying it on, trying to see how far he could push the old boys. Which was actually quite far: several of the former boarders accepted Jan’s invitation to be photographed doing a pantomime of caning her! At other times, it all seemed perfectly normal. Later in the hotel bar where we all repaired to after dinner, I actually met Jan briefly, and she was a perfectly normal attractive woman. While the mock caning was still happening, I remained wary and snuck around, not wanting to get too close. But I did manage to venture sufficiently close at one point to take the most peculiar reunion photo ever, just to prove that I wasn’t making it all up. There it is!
We ate dinner in the school’s own cafe, which is a serious upgrade from the dump that we ate in while we attended Borlase’s. In fact the whole school is a serious upgrade from our time there, which was a pleasure to see. It was also a pleasure to check in with the few boarders I knew. Rupert Scrivener had made a career out of engineering film and TV music: anyone heard of “Star Wars?” He was on that, working with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Likewise, it was a pleasure to meet the boarders I’d never gotten to know. There was Stuart Le Cornu, who had apparently begun his career at Reed International, where dad worked in Personnel, James Hood, who was working for Total, the French oil company, somewhere in Africa, and Graham Allen, who had apparently been with Andrew when the latter met his wife at the Red Cross Hall, all the way back in 1969.
All told, a fascinating day visiting the strange world of a single sex boarding house.
The film “Love Actually” is a charming and heart-warming collage of love stories, written and directed by the talented Richard Curtis. Hugh Grant plays a shy Prime Minister (only he could carry that off!), Emma Thompson his earnest sister who finds out (at Christmas, of course!) that her husband cheated on her, Keira Knightley a new bride unaware that her husband’s best man is in love with her, Bill Nighy a jaded pop star and Colin Firth a cuckolded boyfriend (his brother is the guilty party) who finds solace with his maid. It’s lovely stuff.
But dispersed through the film are these odd scenes of two porn stars (played by Joanna Page and Martin Freeman) meeting and hitting it off. No, not that way! Rather, they hit it off as a timid boy and girl can hit it off despite themselves if they are obliged to work together for a period. Somehow, the otherwise perceptive writer did not realize that porn stars are unlikely to be timid on an interpersonal or intimate level. The scenes rather disrupt the film, especially if you want to recommend it to friends with children, as I do.
From this I deduce that Richard Curtis was a boarder somewhere, and thus that some of his romantic synapses didn’t quite get linked in the proper way. Even when he can successfully put together a vivid and wonderful collage of romantic stories, there’s got to be porn somewhere. I suspect something similar to be the case with those who attended Sentry Hill: here and there, but certainly not everywhere, those synapses tend to misfire. I know that it’s the case with me, and I only boarded for a year.
Another reunion video arrived in the mail about a month after the reunion itself. Michael sent over his collection of Sentry Hill biographies and included three videos on a DVD. The first two were described above. The third was of a Sentry Hill favorite, Pan’s People.
Who? A little cultural background. In the late 1960s, the BBC put on a weekly show of popular music called “Top of the Pops” at 7.30 pm on Thursdays. It was pretty much required viewing for anyone who cared about popular music, as we boys all did, day boys and boarders alike. We saw the Beatles several times on Top of the Pops, as well as Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, you name them, they were there.
So were Pan’s People, five or six slim, lithe and attractive young women who danced to songs whose singers were unavailable that week. They wore tight and skimpy clothes, and their dances, which owed a lot to Pan and unashamedly showed off their assets, made a generation of English schoolboys very happy. For most of us attending single sex schools, and especially for boarders at places like Sentry Hill, Pan’s People did a lot to shape our early view of women.
So there you have it, a reunion of an interesting and diverse group of accomplished men, complete with an echo of matronly put downs and more than an echo of schoolboy fantasies, still alive and well and reuniting in Buckinghamshire. Not bad!