School photo Liz Mooney

 Elizabeth Mooney 
Laing 1990-1992

For me, being at St Lawrence wasn’t just about receiving an academic education, although the aim was to leave with at least a couple of A-levels! We were also educated in essential life skills, either absorbed by the environment or learned in our extra-curricular activities … One of the things I really appreciated was the fact that whoever you were, and whatever your circumstances you were accepted … We all came from different cultures and social backgrounds, but somehow our differences drew us together … This was one of the aspects I valued most about St Lawrence: its inclusivity.”

 

When did you go to St Lawrence any why?

I forget the exact circumstances that led my parents and I to board the Ramsgate train to take me down to St Lawrence. I was 15 years old and my memories of this day are rather sketchy. I was there to interview for a music scholarship but recall nothing of how my parents found out about the opportunity nor the actual selection process; I suppose I sat a test of some kind, and must have played my flute.

My recollection of that day is a series of disjointed images, strolling through the grounds in the sunshine, chatting to other would-be scholars, Bex, Tony and Helen (who I would meet again on the first day of term), the library, and the smell of percolated coffee in and around the Head’s office. It’s strange how smells can evoke such powerful images. Visiting the College last year I was passing through that area and, incredibly, it smelled exactly the same!  It evoked a bout of nostalgia that took me back 20+ years to that very day.

My most distinct memory is sitting in Mr Binfield’s office (he was Head at that time) and him advising me to take Music, English and either Classics or Religious Education. He was very perceptive and I always had a great respect for him. He could obviously recognise my strengths from that brief meeting, but me being me insisted that I wanted to do Maths and Physics (and of course Music) as I was going to become and engineer and join the Army!

Despite my challenge of his judgement, he not only granted me a music scholarship and bursary but graciously allowed me to take Maths and Physics. And so, later that year in September 1990 I joined Laing House and my SLC journey began.

What were your favourite subjects, and did you receive any School recognition or colours?

Throwing myself into my life as a boarder, I kept busy from dawn to dusk. Up and out of Sutton House (this is where girls joining SLC in the sixth form lived) and down the road to breakfast in the main building. After breakfast it was over to the practice rooms to work on a flute / piano / percussion piece, then to the Library to dash up the spiral stairs to sit with the choir for Chapel. All this before the first lesson!

Looking back, attending St Lawrence was a huge privilege. Alongside my flute lessons I also learned the piano and percussion as part of my scholarship, and as there were only three of us doing A-level music we very much received individual attention.  Which was good and bad … we struggled getting our heads round writing Bach chorales but couldn’t crib off each other because if one got it wrong we all would have! I’m sure Mr Perkins, the music teacher, used to tear his hair out sometimes with our incompetence but we got through nevertheless.

It was during these years I learned to singing in four-part harmony. While we weren’t always angels in choir practice our performances at Sunday Chapel were certainly angelic each week, testament to Mr Perkins’ determination and patience. Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus was one of my favourites and every time I hear it I’m reminded of St Lawrence.

My musical life was quite hectic what with my lessons, performing solo in the concerts (and receiving kind write-ups in The Lawrentian magazine) as well as being in the choir and orchestra. I’ll never forget an ambitious endeavour to perform David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus, in which I was singing and playing the bongos! This is evidenced by a photo in the 1991 edition of The Lawrentian, showing me looking very serious in my attempt to keep the complicated rhythms going while mayhem ensued.

Being a music scholar you were expected to turn your hand to anything musical. One day I arrived at the music room to be presented with a bass guitar; the Stage Band had a gig to perform and a bass guitarist was required. I set about teaching myself how to play a walking bass and hey presto the Stage Band was complete! I’m not quite sure how I did it to be honest; I had no lessons, no instruction manual, and there was no handy YouTube video, but it was fun to do and to be given the opportunity to do.

These days music provision in many schools is woefully lacking. For a time I was a music teacher while I did my M.A. in Music, and it was a challenge to operate in schools that had next to no facilities and music was not seen as a subject that added value. Music, of a certain sort, is making a comeback with the rise of X-Factor and the like, and much more is being made of the positive aspects that learning music provides as well as its impact on our mental health and wellbeing. My firm belief is that every child should be exposed to learning music, and I’m glad to see that SLC still offers music scholarships and bursaries.

So while my musical activities were successful – I won the Dyer Music prize in 1991 and both the Simon Dixon Music and Macfarlane prizes in 1992 – my Maths and Physics endeavours weren’t. After a disappointing set of exam results after the second term, I took myself off to the Head’s office and asked the Secretary if I could see him. After waiting in the coffee-aromared room for a short while I was ushered into his office, and proceeded to tell him he had been “absolutely right and please could I change to English and Classics?”. “Yes, of course” was the answer, and in term three I switched to my new subjects. In hindsight I should have probably gone to my Head of Year and explained everything, but I think I must have felt the need to tell Mr Binfield he was right.

This incident taught me two important life lessons. Firstly, you don’t always achieve everything you set out to do in life and you have to accept that there will be bumps in the road. I’d tried something and it didn’t work out, and it is at these times you learn about yourself, find your strengths and pick yourself up and start again.

Secondly, it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. Mr Binfield’s quiet acceptance of this life-changing decision for me (remember, I wanted to be an engineer and join the Army) and his support was exactly what I needed.  That is one of the things that I found amazing about St Lawrence; the belief that the staff were there for you and wanted the best for you. They really understood that being a teenager meant you didn’t always make the right decisions and were on hand to guide you or give you the space to work things out in your own way.

Who were your favourite teachers?

As well as doing my A-Levels, I found myself learning GCSE German. At my previous school, languages weren’t compulsory after the third year (Year 9) so perhaps I thought I’d better do something. One teacher I remember very vividly was Mr Gunning, the German teacher, who gave me 1:1 tutoring every so often for a year and somehow I scrapped a ‘C’. He was very serious and slightly intense, but at the same time very enthusiastic and conscientious about his teaching. I always looked forward to these lessons with delight and some trepidation!

I enjoyed Mr Binfield’s English lessons on Shakespeare in the Library, and we had an excellent trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to watch a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. However, my affection for a couple of members of staff in particular lay in my extra-curricular activities; namely shooting and the Combined Cadet Force (CCF).

I’d been in the Army cadets back home and was very excited to find out that we could do ‘Army-stuff’ at school! CCF was optional for sixth formers therefore those of us who did it formed a tight bond. I always looked forward to Wednesday afternoons when we’d don our Army greens, practice drill and do all sorts of fun activities. After the A-level subject change, my ambition to join the Army was in question but my enthusiasm for ‘Corps’ didn’t wane. I even did it twice per week as I was allowed to attend the local Army Cadet Force (Royal Tank Regiment) one night a week after supper!

While Mr Fletcher was CCF’s driving force, the person whom we all adored was the gruff ex-Army RSM, Mr Holland. Amongst other things, he was the Store Master and I used to love walking around the slightly musty racks of camouflaged kit and equipment when we helped tidy up. He liked to make us think he was strict but he had a heart of gold, and his gentle encouragement (well, sometimes not so gentle!) helped us achieve things we found difficult.

I’ll never forget our ‘weekend camps’. I was always excited to go but I’m sure I hated it at times because it always seemed to rain! We had to trudge to a campsite with heavy packs and the tents let all the rain in, so we spent most of the weekend wet and miserable. All I can really remember is cooking beans and spam in a mess tin and trying to (unsuccessfully) avoid the drips in the tent.

This was good training however for our Duke of Edinburgh expedition when we went to Scotland. I was in the Gold group, which consisted of me, one other girl called Athalie, and a group of boys including my friend Daniel and his dad, who was the Geography teacher. I remember one night we stayed in a ‘Bothy’, a basic one-room shelter that is free to use by anyone passing by. It was a tight squeeze, everyone was wet as it had been raining and then snowing, so we made a big fire to hang the clothes up to dry.

To pass the time before we got into our sleeping bags, the boys thought it would be amusing to take turns throwing milk powder from the ration packs into the fire. As the powder hit the flames it flared up and went a lovely colour just like indoor fireworks. This was actually a pretty dangerous activity and after a particularly big flare that almost set one of the jumpers on fire, the powder was hastily put away and we said our goodnights.

I’m not sure why I was put in the Gold group. I had only my Bronze at the time and would have preferred to be in the Silver group with my good friends Bex, Tara and Matt. Their activities were slightly less arduous than ours, and the punishing treks through the knee-high heather and across the snowy hills weren’t kind to me and I ended up with acute tendinitis in my Achilles. I spent the remainder of the time in the base in Dunkeld, with occasional ventures out in the Land Rover to visit the various teams out on the hills. I didn’t end up earning either my Gold or Silver DofE but I’d enjoyed it despite the injury.

What were your favourite sports?

One of my other favourite teachers was Mr Bendall, who I believe was the French teacher and still teaches at SLC. He and Mr Holland ran the range, and shooting was one of the activities I enjoyed the most. I never excelled at sports and was overjoyed to find that instead of running around on a muddy field I could do my sport lying down! Just because it was indoors didn’t mean that we were sheltered from the elements. Oh no. We had to trudge from the armoury and over the road with the rifles in all weathers. In the winter when we were waiting our turn to get down onto the point it was freezing as there was no heating. I cherish the memories of those happy afternoons. As long as we obeyed the rules of the range, Mr Bendall and Mr Holland were quite relaxed and the whole atmosphere was very comfortable.

Occasionally we visited the outdoor ranges at Hythe to shoot ‘elephant guns’ and there was a memorable trip to Bisley for a competition where we camped out for a couple of nights. I haven’t a clue how we did in the competition, but we did meet some boys from Welbeck College and somehow they fixed it for us to shoot on the 1,000m range – imagine shooting at a target 1km away when you’re 16 years old!

What was most memorable about it was an incident that happened one evening. We’d been playing pool at the Clubhouse but had to vacate at a certain time as we were under-18. We found ourselves back at the tents and were a bit bored. Mr Bendall and Mr Holland had stayed in the Clubhouse so as there was nothing else to do we came up with a great idea to move their tent as a joke. We found something to use as a flagpole and rigged up a pair of stars and stripes shorts I’d brought with me as a flag. As with all hastily laid plans, this one kind-of backfired. By the time they got back from the Clubhouse it was pitch-black and we therefore missed seeing the reaction on their faces when they saw their tent had been moved.

After realising their tent was missing – and with it being too dark to find – they were naturally annoyed. Mr Holland shouted at us all to get up and made us sleep (in our sleeping bags) out in the open on the ground all night! Luckily, it was summer and quite warm. It was worth it because as dawn broke the next morning it was hilarious to see their tent in the middle of the next field with my limp-looking shorts occasionally flapping in the light breeze. I was very sad when I heard that Mr Holland had passed away in 2015, and was lucky enough to attend a dinner in the Library with a small group of others to honour his memory.

In September 2017 I joined the OL Rifle Club and found myself back at Bisley; I hadn’t shot a rifle for over 20 years! The old Clubhouse looks much the same and it’s great to come full circle and feel once again that I am part of SLC.

Who were your closest friends, and are you still in touch with fellow Old Lawrentians?

Funnily enough when I went down to Bisley for that first OLRC shoot I found the only other female on the team was Sandra; she was in the year below me and a fellow-CCF adventurer. Sandra wasn’t one of my closest friends but we shared enough experiences together that it feels now as if all those intervening years haven’t passed.

I always found St Lawrence to be a friendly and welcoming place, and having already met some people at the scholarship weekend, it was nice to see those familiar faces on Day 1. Being a boarder you get close to the people you live with and there are a handful of people I hope will remain lifelong friends.

Twelve boarders, eight lower and four upper sixths, stayed with the Jones’s (the sports teachers) at Sutton House and my closest friend there was my roommate, Isabelle. There was a slightly traumatic start to this relationship as, for reasons unknown, my original room-mate decided she’d move next door without telling me – or poor Isabelle, who she and the other girl moved into my room while we were both out somewhere! Isabelle and I came together under adversity and maybe this was what made us firm friends. We kept in touch regularly for a long time and I attended her wedding in Scotland.

Another two people were our neighbours on the other side, Bex and Josie, with whom I still chat occasionally. I went out to South Africa for Bex’s wedding back in the early 2000’s, and visited Josie and her newborn twin sons in Peru five years ago before tackling the Inca Trail!

Bianca, another Sutton House boarder, was also someone of whom I was very fond. She was a whizz at maths and physics and in those first two terms spent a fair few hours with me trying to explain how on earth she got the answer to a complex maths question that was our homework. I’m sure she gave a sigh of relief when I jumped ship to the world of arts.

I’ll forever be in debt to Laura, who lent me all her English and Classics notes so I could try and catch up on two terms of work. We kept in touch regularly over the years and meet up from time to time. Lucy was also one of my English/Classics pals and, like Laura, we corresponded over the years and managed to spend time together just before the 2019 OL Day in March.

Tara was one of my close friends who wasn’t a boarder and I remember going to her house, putting the record player on and dancing to Vanilla Ice in her bedroom. Happy days. We used to do Social Service together and visit an elderly couple who lived close by. It was my first introduction to ‘Royal Tea’ biscuits, which were Rich Teas with chocolate on one side. It meant a lot to them that we visited and it was exciting for us, as we felt very posh sitting in their front room sipping our drinks and nibbling our Royal Teas.

Another life lesson was learned from this activity. During the two years we visited them they both passed away, first the wife closely followed by the husband. It was an upsetting period as this was the first time people I knew had died. The school Chaplain was very supportive and this situation made me realise that we have to make the most of things, which is probably the reason I have such an active life.

Another non-boarder friend was Kini with whom I played duets sometimes; Kevin who was my boyfriend in the upper sixth; Matt and Mark from CCF and shooting respectively and a whole host of others with whom I did various activities. In fact, our year was very close and quite often all the boarders would go out together at weekends and if it was someone’s birthday everyone would be invited.

This was one of the aspects I valued most about St Lawrence: its inclusivity.

What did you value most from your education and what qualities and values did St Lawrence teach you?

For me, being at St Lawrence wasn’t just about receiving an academic education, although the aim was to leave with at least a couple of A-levels! We were also educated in essential life skills, either absorbed by the environment or learned in our extra-curricular activities. Basic manners were an expectation; holding the door for someone, being respectful to the teachers, obeying the rule to not walk on Chapel Green J and in doing this you learned to be respectful and conscientious towards others.

One of the things I really appreciated was the fact that whoever you were and whatever your circumstances, you were accepted. This meant a lot to me as I’d experienced bullying in my previous school, and being a penniless scholar I was worried that people might look down on me. For the first time I felt it was ok to be me and this really boosted my confidence.

One of the reasons for this, I think, is because SLC is a very multicultural place attracting people from all over the world. We all came from different cultures and social backgrounds, but somehow our differences drew us together. One of the boys on the shooting team was Iraqi.  It was a difficult time for him as the Gulf War was in progress, and it was rumoured that another person was Afghani royalty. None of that really mattered because we were all in the same boat and no one appeared to receive preferential treatment. The exposure to people of all creeds and cultures quite possibly influenced my desire to travel, and with OLs spread across many countries, I feel like I am part of a worldwide community.

Our moral compass was guided by activities like Social Service, and in doing this, I realised that you can make a difference in someone’s life even if it is just to have a cup of tea with them (and eat their Royal Tea biscuits!). This value has always stayed with me, and my life since has been shaped by my desire to do things for others. Much later on when I was working at the BBC, I volunteered to take part in their Corporate and Social Responsibility programme. I visited a local primary school in West London to help children with reading difficulties. It was rewarding to see their progress every week and I hope that all the children I met are now avid readers!

While I didn’t pursue a career in music, the musical foundations I received at St Lawrence enabled me to use my abilities to connect with music activities in other ways. Over the years I have been on committees and taken on the roles of Chair or Treasurer in various non-profit musical charities and societies. I’m currently the Treasurer of the music club where I work and an orchestra I’ve been connected with since I was a teenager. Even though I am not a professional musician, I regularly perform in charity or community concerts in London and my local area.

Having the opportunity to attend St Lawrence on a scholarship I’ve always felt the need to ‘give back’ financially in some way. I’ve taken part in at least six Cancer Research Race for Life events, amongst other charity endeavours such as organising Macmillan bake sales etc. In 2017 I trekked to Everest Base Camp with a medical research team called Xtreme Everest who, for the last ten years, have been investigating the effects of hypoxia on the human body at altitude. The aim is that their findings might improve mortality rates for critically ill patients who develop hypoxia after undergoing an operation.

During the trip I contributed to the research by being a test subject, and in the lead-up raised money to help fund the research further (as Xtreme Everest is a charity). Since my return I occasionally give talks on my trek experiences and raise awareness about the research.

What career did you follow?

Xtreme Everest was actually founded at University College London (UCL) where I’ve worked for the last ten years. My career doesn’t necessarily reflect the qualifications I gained at St Lawrence, however the essence of the values I learned there influenced the type of job I do and the type of organisations in which I’ve chosen to work.

Apart from a brief sojourn in an energy company, I’ve exclusively worked in the public sector. While the private sector has certain attractions, I feel I flourish better in an environment that focuses on public service. The BBC was my first love and I worked there for eight and a half years before being made redundant. I had exciting times working for BBC Sport, meeting some great sporting heroes and being involved in various outside broadcasts such as Wimbledon and the London Marathon. I had a busy but fun nine months in the Classical Music television department, and worked on the Proms for a season and on concerts in the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall.

While working in production was exciting, I realised that my talents lay more in the administrative side looking after managers and teams. I thrived as a PA /Office Manager in Central Finance for quite a few years, and had a spell in the Director General’s office under Greg Dyke for a period. In my last year I worked in a project management role reporting to the COO of BBC World Service, and loved walking around Bush House in London and getting to know people from all over the world.

Not long after my redundancy the COO moved to UCL to take on the position of Finance Director and some months later I joined her and began my UCL journey. These days I am more of an operations manager, looking after a small team providing admin, HR and IT services to a department of over 200 staff. I also manage the website, communications and a whole host of other services. I am frequently invited to sit on various Boards/Steering Groups and project teams outside of my department, and get involved in UCL-wide projects that allow me to interact with staff at all levels around the institution.

Public sector organisations are quite generous with their annual leave allocation, and this has enabled me to spend my time off travelling and exploring new places. The focus of my travels of late has shifted slightly and in 2017 I took three months off work and circumnavigated the globe, stopping off here and there to do interesting things. The first stop was Nepal and Everest Base Camp, and along the way I stayed in a Zen Monastery for a week, visited volcanoes in Nicaragua, worked on a farm in Uruguay for a few days and spent two weeks volunteering on a Creative Arts Programme on a small island in the Galapagos.

The placement was with an organisation called Projects Abroad and I stayed with a local family for the duration.  I spent my time at school from 7am to 1pm, home for lunch, and then taught English and creative arts to some pre-school children in the afternoon with two of the other volunteers.  My housemate, also a volunteer, was a musician too and a few times per week we helped out with a tiny music school in the late afternoon. In the evenings and weekends we explored the island or hung out with the other volunteers.  We were a very multicultural group and, apart from me, they were all in their late teens/early 20’s. They were a friendly bunch and my prowess on the pool table (an activity I used to do regularly on Saturday evenings at St Lawrence!) earned me a place in the group, and we had some fun times together.

There were also social events organised by the local Projects Abroad team and one of them was a ‘cultural evening’ of music, song and dance performed by the volunteers and staff.  I was asked to take part but politely declined, saying I didn’t have an instrument or music. I then remembered I’d purchased a beautiful wooden flute in Nepal to donate to the school at the end of the placement and had an idea. Finding some spare time I composed a piece inspired by the nature, wildlife and beautiful scenery I had experienced during my stay, and duly performed in the show. I think they like it – it was certainly different at any rate!

All in all it was a wonderful and rewarding experience and encouraged me to try something else. I discovered a journalism placement in Ethiopia, volunteering for an English language newspaper called The Reporter in Addis Ababa. In October 2018 I boarded a plane to Africa and spent a wonderful three weeks, the first two spent writing about the sights and sounds of Addis which resulted in four published articles. I then visited a most intriguing place called the Danakil Depression, close to the border with Eritrea, and marvelled over the 12th century rock churches in the historical town of Lalibela. I have my sights set on my next volunteer adventure which will probably be in 2020!

How would your friends describe you?

I’m not quite sure what my family and friends think about my exploits, and how they might describe me when I’m out of earshot. My family calmly accept the news when I announce I am going to go on another adventure, and leave me to get on with it! My friends think I’m slightly crazy and often ask me when I’m going to go on a ‘proper’ holiday. I recently went through a 360-degree feedback process at work and when asked to highlight my strengths and achievements I was touched by the responses.

How would you like to be remembered?

I think that the qualities highlighted in the report is how I’d like to be remembered. Someone who is loyal, honest, trustworthy, hard-working, organised, positive, has a can-do attitude, is patient, fun, adventurous, helpful, approachable, friendly and a dab hand at anything I put my mind to do (apart from maths and physics of course!).

I set up a website for my 2017 trip, initially for my family and friends so that they could see where I was and what I was doing while I was away. The website is now public. I’ve added my Ethiopian adventure and soon I’ll get round to adding my 2019 visit to Cuba! I hope to write a book in the near future, and maybe this will be my legacy.

 

Elizabeth Mooney
May 2019

Copyright St Lawrence College 2018