Death , Sex , Food and Tragedy - CS

The first three are IMPO the three most important elements of existence, which makes it rather odd that for all its excellence none of them were key elements of the WHS curriculum. We didn't have "Domestic Science" (considered a female thing - or simply no time?), SEX did not get a look in and DEATH was covered only in a detached sort of way in biology (dissecting dead frogs doesn't really affect most teenagers much) and covered somewhat by implication in R.E. In any case, the school - especially in its early days under Smitherman - was solidly CofE, a faith in which it was a given that good people went to Heaven and bad ones to Hell. However, clear expositions and discussion of death and sex as far as they concerned us were totally absent from the classes I attended. It was considered more important that we know which King did what and when hundreds of years ago than the fundamental philosophical and psychological questions of Life itself. But at what age does a discussion of Death become appropriate for someone learning about Life?

I do not know how these topics are handled today, though I do hear some very weird things about sex education. And if you had suggested there were multiple genders in the 50s they would have put you in a straitjacket. Perhaps at the time it was felt that all three topics were things to be discovered as and when by individuals in their own way. Leaving aside Sex and Food, it was not until I got to University that I engaged in any serious philosophical thought about Death, and my conviction from an early age that an afterlife was an absurd myth was for me confirmed beyond all doubt. However theologians may try to spin it, an all-powerful and loving God would not let "good" humans die before their time or indeed suffer in any way. A world where innocent people - not least children - can experience hideous suffering and premature death is impossible to reconcile with such a God. "Original Sin"? A hopeless and indeed pathetic attempt to get round this impossible conundrum. The idea that a six-year-old should contract sepsis and die hideously because Adam bit a forbidden apple countless thousands of years ago is frankly absurd. NOBODY is to blame for what their ancestors did - which is why no German should feel guilty about the Nazis - unless they still embrace that creed.

So, logically, Death after the age of say 75 is not a tragedy. Nothing lives forever, and we are told in the Bible that we can hope for "three score years and ten". I suspect that was in the Bible not because God decreed it but because that was just about the maximum that SOME humans could hope to live for thousands of years ago. Dying over 75 is absolutely normal, inevitable and known about all our lives, so how can it be a tragedy? Well, try telling that to someone who has lost their lifetime partner at the age of 80. In truth, Death for someone in good health and spirits is horrible, no matter how old they are or how expected or inevitable death may be. It is SO horrible, that for thousands of years humans have as mentioned above invented one or more "Gods" to pretend that it does not mean eternal non-existence.

Mr Keating in "Dead Poets' Society" was troubled by this dilemma: whether to stick to tired old curricular topics which totally avoided any discussion of our existence apart from the usual Church mantra or to boldly tell his pupils the TRUTH. He chose the latter, much to the horror of his fellow teachers no doubt. "Carpe Diem" is indeed a sublime phrase, but to be honest he was a bit gruesome about it. Telling boys aged 15 that they will one day be "food for worms" is going a bit far, though of course TRUE. Is too much Truth bad for one? Up for debate, but at WHS we certainly did not get the clear and undiluted truth.

Death per se may not be philosophically tragic, but PREmature death surely is. Such deaths at WHS? I do know that deaths touched me deeply then - and still do. I did not know the much-respected WHS teacher Richard Cobb, but we learned in 1959 that he had died of cancer not long after leaving WHS. Mr Wiseman died two years after I left, but I was very sad about that. In 7 years there I never spoke to him, but I had a lot of respect for him nonetheless. Then of course there was Robert Vickers-Rowlands in 1964. Fate (or if you insist, God) decreed that he should survive WWII as a fighter pilot but then die in a stupid car-crash.

The most awful tragedy in the history of WHS was surely that of Patrick Richardson in yet another car crash in 1979. The latter death must have been truly shocking for all present at the time, and I have no idea how the clergy could spin it as "God's will."

"Janus" also records the death of a boy called Malcolm Lish very soon after leaving WHS. I never knew him either, but the “Janus” account makes one realize what a sad loss he was to parents, friends and the world. Lots of other boys have died prematurely after leaving - again, very sad. Off the top of my head: Terry Cleverly, Mark Golebiowsky, Dave Cleary, Tony Meager, Gerald Eichler, John Percival, David Odell, Cedric Carr, Felix Schroer and no doubt a good many others - such a lottery is life .....

I cannot say whether WHS had more than its fair (a strange word in the context) share of tragedy. As far as I know there was the death of only two boys while still at WHS: Laurence Coper and David Tilling, and that from natural causes - but I have not been able to find out any details. There were four other non-WHS deaths in particular that shook me while still at school: that of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash in February 1959 and then of course the assassination of JFK in November 1963. Both were awful. I remember very vividly to this day how I felt on hearing the news about both; it was very sad. Truth be told, I liked Buddy’s songs more than the Beatles or the Stones, and Kennedy seemed to give one hope for the future.

My first personal encounter with Death was at the age of 6, when a little girl I used to play with who lived down the street from us in Camberwell was killed on a pedestrian crossing. I could not make sense of that at the time, and still can't. But there IS no sense to be made of it. I think I became an atheist the day I learned about it. Jim Atkinson was a British Ambassador, including to the Congo. He retired at 60 and was dead within three years from MND. How on EARTH can one make sense of that? Now 76, every day now seems to me like a bonus, and given Jim's death an unfair one.

Religion? Jim Hyde was a WHS colossus, and not only intellectually. I can't possibly do justice to this man, who gave so many years of complete dedication to the school and boys, both as a supreme teacher of geography and as a housemaster, not to mention his "Young Farmers Club" and other activities. I wasn't in his house, but he taught me geography for several years. One Saturday on the touchline watching a 1st XV game he quite out of the blue confided in me his regret at not being able to take on a Headship, given that he was not a practising Christian and would not feel able to carry out the religious role and duties required of a Head at that time. I have no idea why he suddenly opened up to me; I was in the 4th form and certainly didn't know him all that well, but I guess this was a matter he felt quite deeply about. Perhaps he had just been turned down for a Headship and felt the need to talk about it. I felt sad for him; like Bob Rowlands and our own four Heads, he would have been a fine Headmaster.

Death is not really mysterious; it is the reversion to nomality. Non-existence is the normal state of affairs in this universe. It is LIFE which is a staggering anomaly - a quite extraordinary phenomenon given the eternal and empty deadness in the rest of the universe and the seemingly miraculous phenomenon of evolution - which will end WHERE exactly for Humans?! God and/or Aliens? I will believe in them when I have proof - and I have in my 76 years seen NO PROOF OF EITHER - just wishful thinking.

One question has always troubled me. Did WHS management discuss what if anything to teach about Death and Sex, or was what was actually (not) done simply the accepted norm for the time and not needful of discussion? I would so love to have a copy of the minutes of WHS Staff Meetings over the four decades! I wonder what happened to them!

"Carpe Diem and Memento Mori." - Chris Snuggs - Berners/Halls 58-65

PS Most of my WHS teachers have now died - along with a number of contemporary pupil friends. Intellectually, I do not believe I will ever see or hear them again, but emotionally it is almost impossible to believe that, so key a part did they play in my life and so vivid do they remain in my memory. I miss them all .....