John Ironmonger School photo

John Ironmonger
Lodge 1972

‘Who do you support?’

It was 1966, the first day of term, and I was sitting forlornly on the end of my dormitory bed. A boy bounded in and dumped his suitcase on the bed next to mine. ‘Who do you support?’ he demanded. This was my first encounter with a fellow pupil at St Lawrence College. My only visit to England, before this trip, had been as a six year old. I barely remembered it. My family lived in Kenya, and I had been to prep school in Nairobi. Now, everything about Britain (in general) and Ramsgate (in particular) was odd and unfamiliar to me; the strange weather, the trains, the rather dismal beaches, seagulls, the ocean. I had expected the Isle of Thanet to be an island … imagine my disappointment. And now this. Who did I support? I had no idea what might constitute a suitable answer for such a question.

‘Who do you support?’ I batted back.

‘Leeds,’ the boy said with enormous enthusiasm.

I made a mental note. ‘I support Leeds too,’ I said. This was clearly a good answer. The boy thought so anyway. But it left me mystified. Who, or what, was Leeds? And why was it so important to support it?

The boy who asked me the question was John Dodson. I would later know him by his initials – JETH. His father, apparently, was a bishop. Well there you go. This was Lodge House and I was about to discover a host of equally odd and unfamiliar things; along with football fanatics, came fagging, fighting, flogging, fire practice, floor polish, the fourth form, Fanny Fisher (head of catering and loved by everyone), fencing, flying lessons (yes actual flying lessons), fish on Fridays ... and those were just the ‘Fs.’ I spent that first term in a state of semi-bewilderment. Would I ever make sense of this place?

I re-visited the school in 2017. It was the first time I had been back in, oh, forty years or so. It was the annual careers fair, and I was there, provisioned with a box of books, to talk to sixth formers about being a novelist. All good fun of course, but once again I was wholly perplexed. Who were these creatures wearing skirts? What had become of the CCF Parade Ground? Where was the Taylor Hall where once I had strutted the stage as Mariana of the Moated Grange? Where were the dormitories?

But schools are supposed to be confusing places aren’t they? It is part of their armour; part of their allure. Maybe St Lawrence College makes a special effort to befuddle us. Other boys in my first year, by the way, included Colin Greenland, Mark Bartle, Nigel Jennings, Chris Pollock, Paul Linscott, David Tutton, Steve Longley, Dave Hamill, Dave Chong … and if I’ve got those names wrong, or if other names escape me now (which of course, they do), I apologise. I don’t think any of these boys shared my bafflement – at least not to the extent it afflicted me. Or maybe they did, but they hid it well. Maybe I hid it well too.

So what can I say about my years at SLC? That I think about it with great affection? I can say that. But when you’re sixty something, everything about your teens inspires a rosy sense of nostalgia, so perhaps we ought to discount this. I miss the place. It feels strange to have typed those words. But they are true. SLC was a kind of family. Sometimes we struggled to get along. But other times were sublime. On the evening of the final performance of John Binfield’s production of Hamlet (I played Laertes), with applause still ringing in our ears, we wiped the greasepaint off our faces and a dozen of us from the cast slipped, under cover of darkness, into town to celebrate Hamlet with an illicit beer. We found a pub at random. I don’t think we even knew the pub name. That was our technique. There were over eighty pubs in Ramsgate, we knew the teachers couldn’t search them all.  Half an hour later the door swung open, and in in strode Binfield himself, and another master whose name I forget. ‘Finish your drinks,’ they said, agreeably. ‘We’re going back to school.’ How did you know where to find us?’ we asked. ‘We’re not daft,’ they replied. ‘We knew you’d be in the “King of Denmark.”’

Faces tumble into the past. You make good friends at school. And yet. And yet. We waved each other goodbye on the last day of term, we made empty promises to keep in touch, and we went our separate ways. We had no social media then. We couldn’t brag about university parties or post selfies from summer holidays or swap notes on careers. We couldn’t pick up a phone and invite an old friend to stay. A set of iron railings had appeared between our new selves and the people we had been at St Lawrence. We could peer through the railings. We could see glimpses of the past we had left behind. But we couldn’t go back. The years flickered by. I went, this week, to the funeral of a friend. When you bury your friends, you begin to reflect upon your own mortality. You can’t go back. But you can look back. I do look back on my time at St Lawrence. I look at the teachers who changed my life. Donald Drew my housemaster who came out to Nairobi one summer and drove me to see Baden Powell’s grave near Mount Kenya. James Sanderson who taught biology. Mr Lloyd (I forget his first name) who taught Latin and timed every race I ever ran as an athlete with his trusty stopwatch. John Binfield; of course; who made me love English and Shakespeare. A chemistry teacher whose name I forget who hosted chemistry-with-jazz sessions in his home. Sam Speakman who taught Spanish. Thank you to all of these. And to all the others. I didn’t realise it at the time, but they made a difference to me.

So there is my school profile. Today I’m a grandfather. I write novels. If you ever come across one, and if you enjoy it, drop me a line to let me know. We writers need flattery every now and again. And look me up if ever you’re in Wirral. My house overlooks the RSPB Marshes. I like having visitors.

Oh. And who do I support?

Liverpool. Of course.

Copyright St Lawrence College 2018