Basil Nickerson's Speech

Basil Nickerson 2011

Below is the Speech made by Basil Nickerson, Guest of Honour, at this year’s President’s Dinner in March 2011. It is given “as is” – it is not meant to be an English essay, but Basil’s printed speech “notes” that he used at the lectern.

The content is copyright Basil Nickerson 2011 and reproduced with his permission.

Rev. Father Abbot, Rev. Fathers, Headmaster, ex-pupils, Academic, Sport or CCF, Ex-Colleagues, 10 of you – you must be gluttons for punishment! Old Priorians – men and ladies now! First, thank you for the honour of inviting me to be your Guest. As a member of staff; I first attended Old Priorian Dinners in the early 1960s at the Restaurant at Regents Park Zoo. I have attended at several places since, even for a period when we were only a few. In those days, Headboy – Alexander (Somerville), you had to make a Speech proposing the toast of the OPA.

I said to you Mr President when you first invited me in November “You don’t know what you have let yourself in for – someone long past his sell-by date, a dinosaur!” I think there are only two persons here slightly older than me. I don’t have a mobile phone. Though I did initiate right at the beginning the use of computer for exam entries, I am what you would call ‘computer illiterate’. I leave the computer to cheap jerseys my dear wife Clare.

So, is it to be mega biblion, mega kakon though in their writings most ancient Greeks were concise and pointed? Or, should I be conscious that like me, you come to these functions to meet as many people as possible – but you never manage because the speeches go on far too long! After my speech this year Mr President, you may well feel it a good idea to have just yourself speaking and the Headmaster in reply.

In early Summer 1956 on a lovely Sunday morning I came for an interview, a good catholic I think, but from rural, very non-Catholic Lincolnshire – so, ignorant of anything Benedictine except that I had heard of Downside and had done my TP at the Oratory School where there were Downside monks, Dom Adrian Morey as HM and Dom Nicholas Holman, the latter the last Abbot of Fort Augustus, as Bursar, both tasked to put the Oratory School back on its feet in difficult times, just as Fr Adrian had tried unsuccessfully at St Benedict’s School in 1938/39 when it nearly went out of existence (see From the Smallest Beginnings).

I met Headmaster Fr Bernard Orchard in his room: he and Mr Williamson – to become later in his 60s a monk and priest at Ramsgate – decided I would meet their requirements. Fr Bernard had been headmaster for eleven years; he was the one who put St Benedict’s School “on the map” after it nearly went out of existence. It was seen by Downside as a “not worthwhile financial drain”. As a teacher I got on well with JBO, but he was an awesome figure – on a different planet! But that is why he did so well by St Benedict’s, to which he was so dedicated as a monk and as an Old Priorian. Capable of grand gestures, typically, in 1956, my first term, when the Hungarian Revolution took place – an attempt to overthrow Russian control – he decided to voor take into St Benedict’s five Hungarian boy refugees. I had one of them in my form: no means of linguistic contact, not Latin, French or German, so I had to learn how to teach him some English after School. Fr Bernard had, almost until he died, a lovely singing voice. I will never forget the thrill of hearing him intone the Te Deum to the School in church.

Other monks on de the staff were Fr George Brown, another Old Priorian who was then, not only Second Master but also U4 Division Master. As I was for five years Form Master of U41, I got to know him well. Fr Dunstan was U4 Form Master, we became great friends. Clare and I visited him last Tuesday. He’s now 91. By 1960 I had come to know Fr Gerard when he died suddenly after only one year as Second Master and one term as Headmaster – much missed. Later on I came to know Fr Casimir well and appreciate all he did for the School as Bursar and for a while as U4 Division Master. There was too – who can forget him! – Fr Kevin, U5 Division Master, very big, strong arm I believe, in charge of CCF, very loud voiced. I thought I was finally accepted in School when one day after a couple of years I shouted at some boys in the corridor and they said “yes, father”!!
To these six add one monk from Scotland who was with us for a year. I got hauled up by the Games Master on a Monday morning because this monk felt I had usurped his authority as I had felt it necessary when we were returning from taking teams away to rebuke some boys for their behaviour on the coach. I had to apologise to him. In those days, incidentally, returning from ‘away’ matches, a boy from the Senior Team on board used to take a collection for the driver. The pennies would add up to a few shillings, perhaps even £1, little, you might think: but then my monthly pay when I started was just £49!

So, out of a total of 32 Senior School staff, 7 were monks, almost 22%. And 4 of those 7 had academic degrees and one other had been to Teacher Training College.
Dom Gregory and Dom Stanislaus joined the staff in 1957. I came to know them both well much later. It is good that like Dom Dunstan they are still with us. Fr Francis joined the staff in September 1958. We had met earlier that year when I assisted Fr Dunstan in taking a party of boys to Rome. He has been a great family and personal friend getting to know one another especially when he was in charge of games for a couple of years before being elected Abbot. Many of you will not know he was Abbot President of the English Congregation for sixteen years and in 1995/96 was Abbot Pro Primate of the Benedictines. Much later, before becoming Abbot, Fr Martin became a colleague and a friend. I hope he will still be so after tonight especially as we are spending the week-end in his company! I should mention one other monk, my pupil in 1956 in L51 for Latin, one Soper, later to become a monk, colleague, a friend and Abbot. In my first year too, I taught one Paddy Tobin ‘Latin for Unseens’ which in those dim and distant days pupils required, for whatever subjects they wish to do at Oxford or Cambridge. He was to come back as a colleague, a great friend and rise to distinguished heights in the profession, even though when as a CCF Officer driving an army truck he had an accident on Dartmoor, he reported that it was the moving rocks that damaged the vehicle!

In my first year I had Bill Twist in my first U15 XI, another, later to return as a colleague. Apart from the monks I found myself in 1956 among some wonderful colleagues, some of whom Fr Bernard had had under him for several years: they did not interfere but were most generous with help and advice when requested. Two of them to whom I owe quite a lot are still alive and we keep in touch, Paul Olsen and Cecil Friedlander. They and the pupils mattered more than the buildings: yes, even those pupils who punctured my bike one day in the late 50s so that that night they could haul it up on to the roof.

That people matter more than buildings is just as well you may say when you compare September 1956 with now. A dozen of you here know what it was like then.

First the Playing Fields, so different: Perivale Lane was a busy ‘through’ road from the A40 round two sides of the Field. The Old Pavilion was just a Tea Room, though with lovely crested crockery which Fr Casimir saw as a good investment for publicity! The other building served as Groundsman’s House and as Changing Rooms: so primitive that when eventually the staff first acquired a shower it had to be by the boys urinals! The Field had quite a ridge down from the edge of the 1st XI field with several lovely elm trees there (photo on p.67 from The Smallest Beginnings). The lower field was flooded regularly as well as the Greenford Road. I well remember a lovely June afternoon in the 60s umpiring 1st XI vs RGS, High Wycombe on the 1st XI Square when the lower field was a ‘lake’ after a heavy overnight storm. In spite of the undulating character of Perivale we held Sports Day at the field when all the Staff had different tasks to do judging and marking Events. We moved away in 1975, to an Evening Event, at West London Stadium – and went metric! Still, when the field was unfit in winter there was always Horsenden Hill to run round on Games Days!

And the School Building: In September ’56 they were building the top floor on the Eaton Rise classroom block – the Library. There was no Science Block: Biology was taught in Jeder-kann-Immobilien! a Room in East Down, Physics and Chemistry on the first floor of the classroom block overlooking Eaton Rise with U42 Classroom between them. The temporary staff room was at the top of 54 Eaton Rise, a small room looking out over the Black Pitch. The front of the top floor of Eaton Rise was the resident matron’s flat, until December ’65. The first floor bay-window room in East Down was Steve Walker’s bed-sit, where, in the day, he also taught 6th form History. Boys entered the Grounds at the corner of Eaton Rise and Montpelier Avenue and had to change into indoor shoes in an old Nissen hut roughly where the northern most toilets are now. Where the rest of the toilets are and towards 54 Eaton Rise, were the Kitchens and Refectory. There we had formal lunch in two sittings at 1pm and 1.45pm until the Orchard Hall was built in 1966. Classes finished at 4.30 pm., with Benediction after that on Mondays. Until 1966, there was an Orchard from where the Hall is now to Marchwood Crescent. The gym was where the Parish Centre is now, beyond the Junior School. It was old and cold in winter, hot in summer, but a surprising survivor of the bomb which destroyed the front half of the Church. The gym equipment was basic, wall bars, ropes, some mats, and equipment to erect a boxing ring. It served many purposes for speech days, for drama productions, for occasional social functions with the parents – dances, at which above the noise, the Inwestycji staff could meet the parents: that soon changed so that we had a more formal meeting but with all the parents in one evening! The old gym served as the exam hall, in late June/July. Between the Junior School and the classroom block was the Black Pitch ending with a big tree and the old corrugated-iron roof woodwork shed at the west edge of the present Sports Hall. Near to Montpelier Ave later were two all-weather cricket nets. Where the Parish car park is now were trees and bushes, quite a little jungle, suitable for some CCF field craft. Even the main classroom block on the ground floor was different because the rooms that look over Eaton Rise were the Assembly Hall – and in the bad snow of January 1963 I even used that area to keep the 2nd XV in some sort of training. When we first had a School Secretary, separate from the Headmaster’s secretary, in September 1965, her office was a little room at the south end of that Assembly Hall. The School and Field were primeval, you may well say, but good ethos, good headmasters, good staff, good pupils: we did perform and produce good results for good academics and for poorer ones: and it was the same at games, winning a name particularly in the 60s and thereafter for 7s. There were a number of excellent societies and a good music tradition based on the Abbey. But, even the Abbey Church was very, very different as a result of the war damage: it existed functionally only just over half way down the present nave. At weekly Mass and weekly Benediction for the whole School I had to take my form upstairs over the entrance porch: it was of course pre Vatican II so we did not go down to receive Communion.

Apart from those already mentioned, other ex-colleagues, retired , who have heard me before are David Sabin, John Bogie, a friend from Ealing C.C. who was present with us, sadly only for a few years and later did such great work cheap jerseys to see Prior Park survive under Paddy Tobin. (As you may know Prior Park now thrives under ex Headboy James Murphy O’Connor). John shared coaching 1st XI with me in 1964. It was his turn to take the team away to see John Lyon, chasing only 106, reaching 85 for 3, when one Bill Jowett was put on and took six wickets for one run. Needless to say we won the match, no surprise that Bill Jowett made the Sports Page in the National Press in the following week. Ian Potts, ex Mayor of Ealing who did a good job for Careers after Steve Walker died suddenly in harness, and another Ian, Ian Stephen who did much for Geography, Games and Careers. He organised an event for me when I ceased looking after the 1st XI, an event at which 4 of you here tonight were present. Thank you, Ian for that wonderful, memorable evening.
And ex colleagues still on the Staff: Peter Halsall – rugby! He was with me when we won the U16 7s national tournament for the second time at the London Irish rugby ground: and Marek Nalewajko who organised The Duke of Edinburgh's Award so successfully and is now doing a good job for the publicity of the School. If you are going to the event at School in May and he takes you round, as he did wholesale jerseys China with a group of us last year, you are in for a wonderful explanation of the development of the School buildings.

AND, and, there is one special person it would be very wrong of me not to mention, so dedicated to the School and to the Old Priorians, a boy at School when I began, returning as a colleague, a great help personally and a friend, a very very great friend ever since. How much Clare and I are indebted to him for his friendship – of course, it is Richard (Baker).A minimis incipe: changes have come bit by bit, but faster and faster: and they still go on rightly Fr Abbot. St Benedict’s is alive, but the most thrilling thing Headmaster, is to see that it is still boys and girls, young men and young ladies that matter. I could go on and on but thank you for hearing me out. Thank you ex-President, Robin Berger for the great honour you did me on my Retirement of presenting me with the Priorian Medal, so far the only non-pupil of the School to receive such an honour – so much treasured.

I ask you to rise and drink to the continued life and prosperity of St Benedict’s School.