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AN Wilson’s school days

Memories come flooding back as writer speaks at street party in Bloomsbury, celebrating the 450th anniversary of the founding of his old school

05 May, 2017 — By John Gulliver

AN Wilson, right, with Tim Day, housemaster from his old school

WHO saved the beautiful Georgian Rugby Street houses and shops from a plan to demolish them 50 years ago?

The popular novelist and biographer AN Wilson, quite rightly, claimed credit – a little tongue in cheek, of course – when he addressed a fancy street party in Bloomsbury on Friday evening, celebrating the 450th anniversary of the founding of his old school, Rugby.

He said he broke the story as editor of his school’s paper forcing the school’s élite to abandon their idea to bulldoze the estate and redevelop it.

The mad idea may not have been made public without AN Wilson’s scoop but it was campaigners like the late Brian Woodrow as well as Frank Dobson, then the council’s leader, who put a final halt to it.

The estate of scores of once magnificent houses in Rugby Street, Harpur Street and Great Ormond Street was falling into decay – many of the houses were virtually uninhabitable.

The canny Dobson persuaded the committee that ran the Rugby estate to sell dozens of their properties to the council, which were then restored to their former magnificence.

The rest of the estate was slowly refurbished by the school, and today it consists of a mixture of tenants and private owners for, of course, dozens of flats were bought under the Right to Buy scheme.

Michael Pountney, chairman of the Rugby and Harpur tenants’ association, seemed slightly irked at the street party – tenants hadn’t been specially invited and hardly any mention was made about them by the school’s headmaster, Peter RA Green, in his speech to the crowd.

From left, Old Rugbeian Gerald Cowan with Bloomsbury residents Abdul-Carim Jhavari and Micheal Pountney

But if it wasn’t for the rents of the tenants and several of the shop­keepers in Lambs Conduit Street, the school wouldn’t be able to fund bursaries for about 50 “day” boys. An annual net figure of about £2million from rents keeps them at school.

Today, rents are much higher than in the 1970s and 80s but the management are quite good landlords, Michael Pountney told me, and rents are pegged at comparatively fair levels.

As for AN Wilson, he was in a buoyant mood, nostalgic memories of his school days kept on flooding back, it seemed.

He uncovered layers of himself that perhaps he didn’t quite intend to make public. In his speech he let a “lefty” side of him peep out when he mentioned the “wonderful” old boys, all “great prophets”, who “changed the country” – including TH Green, in whose ideas serious, devoted Labour Party members were steeped, the philosopher RG Collingwood who was profoundly influential on Beveridge, thought by some to be the creator of the welfare state, and RH Tawney and his famous book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

Referring to TH Green, he said it was his teaching, and the fact that “well-educated, privileged people like most of ourselves, had an obligation not just to make life rich and comfortable for themselves, but to make society a better place for other people”.

A less honourable moment flashed back when Field Marshall Montgomery came to inspect the school’s corps and made the most glorious and patriotic speech about how Rugby had sent out sons of the Empire. “He was greeted with open tittering and laughter which was rather awful when you think about it,” he said.

He also remember a towering figure, Regimental Sergeant Bates, “an absolutely terrifying man, who used to make him take rifles to bits and put them back together”. RSM Bates, he said, bellowed at his brother, who didn’t want to join the corps, that he would “leave with nothing, nothing – except ignominy”.

Later, when I asked AN Wilson to expand on RSM Bates, he said, he was a frightening figure but I had to remember that it wasn’t him that was threatened with “ignominy” but his brother.

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