George Aspden

Former teacher at Wennington School (French, 1950-53)


Two of the events which took place in my time at the school (1950-1953) were the performance of Shakespeare's Henry V, and the Medieval Fair. In 1951 the new GCE was to replace the old School Cert of my day. Either that year, or more likely the following year, one of the set books for English Lit was Henry V. Also, a wonderful film had recently been made of the play--one I would willingly see again and again if I have the opportunity. It was decided to do this as a school play. Sybil Bensusan, the music teacher, was doing the incidental music, and I must have volunteered to do the effects. We had a record of sound effects, so Sybil and I would have to share the record player. Martin Eden and his henchmen assembled the box-like wooden sections of the stage in the so-called 'Music Room', which was in fact the assembly hall cum dining-room cum everything else, and began to erect tubular steel scaffolding. We even had a proscenium arch (plywood, I believe, bolted on to the scaffolding, probably constructed by Frank Burgess and painted by Louis Jones). Casting completed, rehearsals began. Under Louis, the art-room became a scene of activity, with scenery and backcloths being painted, and costumes being fashioned, following the illustrations in my set of Shakespeare's Works (a school prize, which still bears the honourable scar of the odd splodge of paint). High up in the wings, and near the ceiling, Martin had constructed a small platform, on which the switching gear for the stage lighting was mounted, to be operated by Jack, one of the pupils. Sybil and I hauled up the gramophone and amplifier, together with a couple of chairs--no mean feat, as access was by a ladder consisting of a vertical plank of wood with footholds cut alternately into opposite sides. By that time Sybil and I were very close friends, though I do not remember whether we had as yet considered marriage; so we easily liaised over the sound effects and music. The music chosen was William Walton's music for the film, from which we selected the 'tuckets' with which Shakespeare was wont to sprinkle his plays. One of these, played on the trumpet in a major key, announced the victorious English, while another, a more mournful minor theme on the French horn, announced the arrival of Mountjoy, the French herald, come to acknowledge defeat. The great art was to be able to drop the pick-up into the right groove at the precise moment--happily, the disks were 78 vinyls, not LPs. On the night (nights? I believe there were two performances), and before that for rehearsals, the adjacent Staff Room became a green room, where actors were getting dressed and being made up by Frances Barnes.

I believe the play was a great success, though I never saw it from the front--only a bird's eye view. At any rate, I enjoyed it, as I think the School and the parents did who formed the greater part of the audience.

The Medieval Fair was the brainchild of Wolfgang Mendl, the history teacher. I had known Wolf, though not well, during our undergraduate years in Cambridge, where we were members of the same College. His idea was to get everyone involved by having them dress up for the day in medieval costume, the whole Fair being open to the public. I went as a medieval friar: my Cambridge MA gown formed a suitable monastic habit when sewn up at the front, while the hood really is a hood, which can be worn over the head. Bare feet and sandals completed the costume--easily made, only a bit of tacking needed down the front! The Fair was opened with a trumpet fanfare and a proclamation by Martin, one of the pupils who was learning the trumpet. Kenneth Barnes, who kept bees, had made some mead from his own honey. The idea was to sell glasses of mead in aid of school funds: unfortunately for this plan, Kenneth discovered he would have to have a licence to sell it, so it was supplied free to those who wished to try it. I did, but was not unduly impressed. I took a number of photos at the time, but I regret to say most of them have since been destroyed, as I didn't know of the existence of the Society, and didn't think I would ever connect with anyone who knew those days.

Sybil, I remember, went as a wandering minstrel: that is how I shall always remember her, in her green tights and jerkin, playing medieval music on her somewhat post-medieval viola. Alas, she found someone else, and I was left, not quite waiting at the church, but pretty near it. Although I didn't think so at the time, now that I can reason with my head rather than my heart, I know it was all for the best--for both of us. I don't think it would have worked out; and I should have missed nearly 50 years of marriage to another Wennington personality, Margaret Kinsey. Nor would I have had my two delightful daughters, or my two lovely grandchildren. Still, it came as a jolt to read of her death.

Margaret had embarked on an Institutional Management course at the Yorkshire Training College of Housecraft in Leeds. One of the requirements for the Diploma was that after two years training in College, they had to spend a probationary year of practical work, and for this purpose she had secured a year as assistant cook at Wennington. I first met her when she was moving into her flat, which was up some external steps, next to Irene (Stuart's mother). Ian Sellar roped me in to help carry an armchair up these steps. At the time I thought she looked rather snooty: years later, she told me she was scared stiff!

Staff often used to go into Leeds on their free weekends. Since the bus left from Wetherby, and in any case Ingmanthorpe Hall had a very long drive, we had bicycles, and used to ride down the drive, and into Wetherby, where we left our bikes in the yard of a friendly pub. One weekend Margaret and I must have travelled home on the same bus, since we met at the pub yard to pick up our bikes. As we rode back together, Margaret was having some problem with her bicycle front light, so I offered to look at it for her next day. The following day I went up to her flat and fixed the light, and she made me some tomato sandwiches--and the rest, as they say, is history. I suppose one might say I got Margaret on the rebound, but it has never seemed like that. Let's just say that I'm very thankful that things happened the way they did.

What happened after? Well, at first Margaret stayed on after her probationary year, this time as assistant matron, while I taught at the Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone. She left Wennington to become a Dining Room Supervisor at Barts Hospital. We were married in the summer vacation of 1954. Shortly after our first daughter was born, we moved to Maghull, whence I commuted to the Liverpool College of Commerce; during that time our younger daughter was born. Followed a stint at Maidstone Technical College, after which I joined what was intended to be an 18 month contract with the British Council writing English language teaching materials for the schools. In the event this developed into a stay of nine and a half years, in a team writing English textbooks for Tunisian schools. After that we went to Saudi Arabia, where for my sins I spent thirteen years teaching English to Saudi engineering undergraduates at the English Language Center of King Abdulaziz University. After that I was only too happy to retire. One day, driving in the area on our annual leave, we decided to look up the old place. It was a depressing sight. The cottage, where I had had my room, had gone. The pool was cracked and fallen in, and all overgrown. We felt we never wanted to see the place again. Some men came out of the building to see what we were doing on the property; when we told them, they didn't mind us looking round. After a while we left, wishing we'd never gone there.

Sadly, Margaret died in 2003. Shortly afterwards, my son-in-law and daughter tried googling my name, and came up with a hit. It was a mention in the obituary of Tony Cash, my predecessor at Wennington. It was then I discovered that there was an organisation devoted to seeing that Wennington's name shouldn't disappear from history.


P.S. One other memory I don't think I shall ever forget: One evening around dusk I had gone for a walk alone in the wood when out of the undergrowth came a badger. I stood still while (s)he took no notice of me, and lumbered along the path ahead of me before disappearing into the undergrowth again. It's the only time in my life I've ever seen a badger.



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