By Graham Kings
Mrs. Housley, my primary school teacher when I was seven, claimed she did not go to church because Jesus was rude to his mother, calling her “Woman” at the Wedding at Cana (John 2) and again from the cross (John 19).
She therefore preferred the Old Testament to the New. Her Welsh lilt held us spellbound as she retold, from memory, the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, and Daniel.
In particular, I remember her getting us all to memorize the moving words of the Moabite, Ruth, to her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi:
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)
I can still recite these words of the King James Version. Learning by rote may have some long-term benefits after all. In 2019, they formed the basis for my poem “Ruth,” which expounded Silvia Dimitrova’s painting.
I attended Chigwell County Infants School, and primary school, in the county of Essex, just northeast of London. I used to walk there, for about 20 minutes, from our three-bedroom house, 42 Dickens Rise, near Chigwell’s Underground station, where we lived from 1958. My journey took me up the hill, past St. Mary’s Church and the pub opposite, The King’s Head, which appears as The Maypole in Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. The school badge on our blazers was a maypole.
Mrs. Housley also took us for nature walks in the nearby lanes, and helped us with advice on planting our school allotments. Mr. Housley was headmaster and taught us in year three. A mild-mannered man, with a neatly trimmed moustache, he would play the top line of hymns on the piano, during assembly, with one finger. We would sing from large-print hymn sheets, hung above the blackboard, such verses as “When the knight won his spurs in the stories of old.”
In year two, Mrs. Cooper taught us, and in year four Mr. Bass, who also coached our school football team, of which I was the captain. Richard James, Neil Mason, and Trevor Barber were our key footballers. Richard, Neil, and I lived near to each other and would regularly play football on our village green, with jerseys for goal posts.
On Fridays the three of us would go to Cubs, and later Scouts, in the corrugated iron hut just beyond the church. Scouts was led by Mike Housley, the son of my teachers, and I am still in touch with him.
From August 1988 to January 1989, while our family were on leave between our two terms serving at Kabare, Kenya, we lived in Chigwell. Our eldest two daughters, Rosalind and Miriam, attended Chigwell County Primary School.
One day, in 1960, the vicar, Wilfred Dickinson, came to Mrs. Housley’s class.
“Who likes to sing?” he said.
“Right. You’re in the choir.”
I loved the choir — at first. Practice was on Thursday evenings and, on Sundays, we sang the Book of Common Prayer psalms and canticle settings by Charles Villiers Stanford of the Venite, Te Deum, Jubilate Deo, and Benedictus (at Matins), and of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (at Evensong). Each service would also have anthems, such as “Blessed Be the God and Father” by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (grandson of Charles Wesley) or “O Thou, The Central Orb” by Charles Wood. On some Saturdays, choristers would earn pocket money by singing at weddings.
The choir master, John Autun, was a fine organist. After a particular wedding I vividly remember watching in astonishment his playing of Widor’s Toccata. Opposite the organ console was the famous brass plaque to Samuel Harsnett, vicar of Chigwell 1597-1605, who founded Chigwell School (now an independent public school) in 1629 on land which he had purchased next to the church. He was then vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge and later became Archbishop of York.
At the age of 11, I decided to leave the choir. I was unhappy with Mr. Autun’s strictness. The vicar told me that I would probably give up going to church. To prove him wrong, I kept going — not always regularly — till I was about 17. I was confirmed on March 31, 1968, aged 15, by the Bishop of Barking. I still have notes from his sermon, taped into my confirmation book, which include the sentence: “You are God’s witness and you have a job to do for him. Do not hide being a Christian.” Soon after the service I became a server and assisted at the 8:00 a.m. service on Sundays.
I passed the “Eleven-plus exam,” which, before the introduction of Comprehensive Education, divided state schoolchildren into secondary modern and grammar schools, and attended Buckhurst Hill Grammar School, a boys’ school.
After the first few weeks, on September 27, 1965, I wrote an essay in an English class, “My First Day at School”:
I noticed several differences between this and my junior school, for example having a different teacher for each lesson and having single desks. Before we always had one teacher and had double desks, and I had to sit next to a girl.
My walk there took about 30 minutes and included a road through open country fields. Neil Mason would call on me and we would collect Richard James, from further down Dickens Rise, before walking on together. They would often dawdle and then rush to catch up with me, just as we approached school.
Hugh Colgate became headmaster after my first year. It became clear to me later that he was a committed Christian and he encouraged me to go on a two-day conference held at Selwyn College, Cambridge, for Christians in the sixth form (aged 16-18). There I met Mary Webb, from Chelmsford, and we “went out” with each other, as boyfriend and girlfriend, for about a year.
The headmaster instituted a Sixth Form Council and, in my final year, I was elected chair — in effect, head boy. He and I would meet regularly to discuss various matters, including behavior and discipline in the school.
Every break time, my friends and I would play football in the playground with a tennis ball. Ted Moore, one of the Physical Education teachers, started coaching our school football team and once arranged for us to play former stars of Tottenham Hotspur who were then in their 50s, in a charity match. We lost, but I scored.
At Buckhurst Hill I learned to play the cello, bassoon, and timpani drums, but have not kept them up. From seven to 15 years, I had private piano lessons on Saturday mornings, practicing on the upright piano at home, which my father’s parents had passed on to us. I still play this piano now, in our small chapel in our house in Cambridge.
I enjoyed the study of Latin, French, and English in particular, and took those subjects at Advanced Level (aged 16-18). Mr. Robbins, my French master, arranged exchanges with French schoolboys. For the Christmas holidays, at the age of 15, I travelled to a Swiss village, La Forclaz, near Sion, the holiday home of Olivier Jeanson and his family, who lived in Paris. Olivier visited us in Chigwell the next year.
It was Mr. Rippon, the music master, who provided my longest lasting friendship with a French family. One day, in the corridor outside the staff room, he asked generally: “Would anyone like to teach English to a French girl and boy in the South of France for a month this summer?” I volunteered and had two weeks in the south of France, at Les Salins D’Hyeres, and two weeks at Mareil-Marly, near Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on the western outskirts of Paris.
Coryne (16 years) and Vincent (14 years) Le Manchec became my great friends. They were brought up as atheists, but in her 20s Coryne became a committed Roman Catholic. Alison and I attended the weddings of their children and, with their spouses, they came to the wedding of our eldest daughter, Rosalind, in 2019.
In early January 1971, aged 17, I went with a few other young people from St. Mary’s Church, Chigwell, to Lee Abbey, a Christian retreat center on the north coast of Devon, for a New Year house party. I was very moved by the welcome and warmth and remember making a quiet commitment to Christ in the chapel on January fourth. The warden was Geoffrey Paul, a former Church Missionary Society missionary in India at Kerala United Theological Seminary at Kannammoola. One of his daughters, Jane, who was born in India, later married Rowan Williams and teaches at St. Mellitus College, London.
I started a Christian Union at school, visiting Scripture Union near Old Street Station, London, for advice. But my commitment gradually faded.
Oxford Entrance Exams
In our school hall there was a board marking those who had gained places at Oxford or Cambridge. My teachers urged me to consider the entrance exam, which, in those days, was taken in the term after the final A-Level exams. So I stayed on at school for an extra term, having personal tuition in French (Racine and Molière) and English (T. S. Eliot and Hemingway), and applied to Hertford College, Oxford, to read jurisprudence.
I wanted to study law partly because my uncle, Tommy Butcher, who also lived in Chigwell, was a solicitor and I thought I would enjoy that profession, having discounted being a doctor because I did not like injections. Uncle Tommy’s wife, Jean, had tragically died in her early 30s, leaving him with two young daughters, Alison and Fiona, who became my closest cousins.
That extra term at school meant that I had nine months free before going up to Oxford. Another uncle, my godfather Ron Warren, came up with the key suggestion on how to spend those months. This is the subject of my next chapter.