School photo

John Webb

Lodge 1959

I was dispatched to Ramsgate aged 12 as my brother Christopher was there.  At his funeral in 2012, the vicar referred to his time at St Lawrence as not having been particularly happy ‘and he never talked about it’.  I suppose in any community there are those who can or enjoy making life uncomfortable and I believe, with some evidence, this to have been so for Christopher.

That it was probable is reinforced by my experience.  True there were happy, enjoyable times and whilst any unpleasantness was not physical it was psychological which possibly worse.

Further I found, surprisingly for an establishment who presented Christian ethics as a ‘USP’ the application of regulation and rule anything but dispassionate, more akin to that currently meted out by football/rugby referees.  Looking back over some 65 years or so since I believe now this was the first step in a journey to reach in later life a more philosophical/pragmatic approach to the world of belief and religious faith.  There is in any community the good, bad and indifferent.  That I have observed over many years is as true of faith communities as those not aligned to any faith.

My achievements at SLC were modest.  Although not built for sport I won Athletic Standards points for the House and was part of the Platoon that won The Drill Cup for it for the first time.  Notwithstanding expectations I passed the 4 O levels I had been limited to, rocketing me at the first attempt into the Sixth Form.

My favourite subject – if I had one – or the one where my talent was recognised was Art.  Being in the B Stream that finished after year one.  I can still hear the Art Master (Mr Smith?) declaiming at the end of our final session: ‘there are two who should continue in the Art Room, Hatch and Webb.’  ‘This place produces no end of doctors but no artists’.  I thought that would filter up to those who determined timetables or the like.  But no.  Apart from one term ‘doing art’ in the ‘hobby period’ there was no contact at all – of which more later.

Another was science, especially Physics.  Not least the personality and stunning teaching ability of Mr Garden (R A Garden – known as ‘RAG’ Garden)

The powers that be had, probably with little expectation of success determined that for A Level I would study History and Geography.  Ugh!  The Careers Master felt I’d make a good Civil Engineer.  But then he never struck me as equipped with the highest of wise perception.  If I did not know to my cost that he had no sense of humour I’d have thought he was joking.  I assume his advice was a) as I was good at physics, b) by then Chris was studying to be a Quantity Surveyor and c) my father was a Building Contractor – he built aerodromes in the war – of which a little more later.

So it was that in the summer I researched course requirements for professions with an art element but which did not require A levels.  Ie I could get out in a year.

Architecture.  I would just need two more O levels to accompany RE, English Language, English Literature and General Science.  Elementary Maths and joy of joy Physics.  My timetable included every class possible with ‘RAG’ Garden.

For good measure, I had to study some A levels.  They were RE and English – the later meant I also went on every theatre trip – about which more later.

Thus after a year, I escaped into the freedom of The Brixton School of Building not having had any artistic education to help me start but qualifying in the late 1960s.  My ‘Design Thesis’ was The National Theatre (long before Denis Lasdun’s splendid version was a seed of an idea) But it did mean I would have to go to the theatre regularly, research theatre buildings in detail and do so convincing my tutors it was work.

All this percolated into my professional life and came into its own in later charitable life/work.

I set up my practice inviting partners to share in a growing workload and providing jobs for some 15 – 18 persons.  I get a huge buzz from that.  I retired from it after some 30 years having designed humble house extensions through ecclesiastical projects for most denominations, won appeals, conducted a public enquiry, appeared as expert witness but probably most fun were the recording studios for amongst others Hans Zimmer and David Gilmore.

I took a keen interest in the Planning process and was for two years Chairman of one of the RIBA’s Planning Groups and served on its Regional Council.

Early in the life of the practice I ‘donated’ half of my time to a church-based youth music organisation producing and designing shows and tours.  My theatre studies being useful.

This included ‘business managing’ artists including Gordon Giltrap, the folk group Parchment and the poet Stewart Henderson who I introduced to the BBC and who since became one of Radio 4’s regular presenters.  A great friend.

I produced and lit some of Cliff Richards’ charity concerts around the UK and in The Royal Albert Hall.

Somehow in these work years, I found time to be a Local Authority Councillor, vice-chairman of Policy and Resources of Richmond-upon-Thames and pioneering the adoption of its Charter for the Environment.  It was there I worked alongside a fellow Councillor, now in the House of Lords, with whom I worked closely as political advisor to and fundraiser for Vince Cable.

I retired from all that including architecture at the turn of the millennium and since have continued a consultancy solving people’s problems with Planners.

Before retirement I was appointed a trustee of one of our largest local grant making trusts which had recently sold land to Sainsbury’s, going from being almost ‘broke’ to worth £22.6 million.  During my 8 years as Chairman of Trustees we by careful investment saw that rise to some £36m.  On retirement it was gratifying to be described as ‘having put it onto a proper business footing’ and by ‘creative thinking gained more worth for the grants made’.

In my 40s I qualified for my Private Pilot’s Licence to which I added Instrument Meteorological and Night Ratings flying several types including from WWII a Chipmunk, Piper Cub and Spitfire.  Flying kindled a yen to find airfields my father had built, eventually landing my plane at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire where I met folk he had known in the War and their families.  One who had flown for several seasons the BBMF Lancaster.  Small world.  ‘RAG’ of the CCF RAF Platoon would be impressed – or maybe not.

Retired I can now do what I would have relished back in school days – paint.  My paintings are in several private collections and have been exhibited at The Guardian Witness Awards, Chelsea Old Town Hall, Shoreditch Triangle Festival, Orleans House Gallery in Richmond.  Currently, I am a site artist for the new stadium being built for Brentford Football Club.  But oh, if only the view of Mr Smith had been heeded what might have been?  I am now Artist in residence at BAFTA for 2 years 2019-2021 for the Multi-Million reconstruction of 195 Piccadilly, the former home of The Royal Institution of Painters in Watercolours.  Here is a link to view some of my work  https://johnawebb.weebly.com/bafta.html

Watercolour-bafta-march-2020 

My wife Sarah and I were married on Christmas Eve in 1977 in Hampton Court.  It being an auspicious year for her The Queen sent a letter of best wishes to us which was nice.  We have two sons – Simon who is blind runs marathons and works in the Music festival sector.  His book on running the London Marathon receiving high praise on the BBC’s Marathon coverage from John Inverdale.  And Edward who is forging a successful career in film.  Two satisfyingly creative men.

Thus in all from an inauspicious start in Ramsgate, some might say ‘the boy done good’.  I’m just glad to have ‘done some good’ – not much, but some.  And on the way since SLC had a huge life of thoughtful discovery, satisfaction, fun and contribution to a variety of sectors.

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Copyright St Lawrence College 2018