Archive for the ‘A Classical Education’ category

Simon Raven’s Younger Brother: Myles Raven, the Terror of Tormore School

October 14th, 2011

The famous ‘Desert Boot’ was invented by Nathan Clark, who died on 23 June 2011. According to the obituaries, he was inspired by the rough suede boots, knocked up in the Cairo bazaar, that had been sported by officers of the Eighth Army during the war.

His design was not immediately appreciated by the stuffy directors of his family firm, James Clark and Sons. They ‘felt that there was something louche about suede as footwear. It was for bohemian and essentially unreliable characters.’

What, then, was one to make of Myles Raven, the legendary Latin and Maths master at Tormore School (my alma mater in Kent), and terror of generations of small boys? Raven, known as ‘Bird’, was reputed to possess forty pairs of suede boots. They lined the skirting board of his bed-sitting-room at the Old House, like soldiers on parade.

It was the horror of having Raven permanently on hand, as much as the lack of plumbing, that made the Old House the most unpopular boarding house at Tormore. As Bird lurched from his room of a morning, to shave from a bowl of boiling water on the landing, one saw far more of his flabby, six-foot-three-inch frame than was palatable. He was quite naked, apart from a white towel that hung precariously from his waist.

If I stole a glance past Raven in the direction of his fetid room, where the curtains seemed to be permanently drawn, it was only to verify the tales I had heard of his suede shoes – he certainly never wore anything else. Raven was dangerously unpredictable. He was prone to terrible, uncontrollable rages, in which his florid face would metamorphose into a livid purple. These were frequently triggered by the failure of individual pupils or an entire form to understand a particular lesson (such as ‘ut’ plus the subjunctive).

As they lined up at his desk to have him mark their work, boy after boy would offer proof of his incomprehension. Bird was like a simmering volcano. Suddenly, he would erupt, scoring his red Bic biro deep into the exercise book of the nearest boy. Others would have their books cast unceremoniously through the open French doors into the garden of the Court House, where they would invariably land in a muddy flower bed or a puddle.

Mercifully, the bell would eventually sound to mark the end of the lesson (potentially a long wait, if it was a ‘double’). Ashen faced, the released boys would alert the incoming form as to what was in store. ‘Birdie’s in a bait,’ they would mutter as they scurried away, leaving the trembling new arrivals to their doom.

A further ordeal was to be placed on Bird’s table at mealtimes. There were about a dozen tables in the school dining room and a further three in the adjacent library, where Bird presided. Each dining set, made up of boys of all ages, would progress weekly between tables, in an anti-clockwise direction. All of us dreaded the three weeks when we would be in the same room as Bird, and particularly the whole week that we would have to spend on his table.

It was particularly distressing to see him devour a substantial cooked breakfast on a daily basis, while we were permanently on short rations. (We were told, unconvincingly, that it was something to do with his diabetes.) He was also prone to revolting coughing fits and, when in one of his moods, was far from pleasant company.

It struck no one as odd that Bird should habitually chain-smoke during his lessons. He was a workmanlike teacher, who believed in learning by rote. Latin tenses and declensions were drummed into us (‘dominus, domine, dominum, domini, domino, domino’; ‘bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello’ etc.). I doubt that he found his work rewarding. The hour devoted to ‘prep’ on winter evenings was an unpleasant enough experience, as the form-rooms were unheated. Under Bird’s supervision, it could be considerably worse. Heedless of our discomfort, he would sit outside the 4th Form in his green Sunbeam Rapier, turn the engine on and warm himself by the car’s heater, whilst leaving the door of the form-room wide open so that he could keep an eye on us.

My brother tells another story which illustrates Bird’s remarkable lack of consideration for his charges. The First XI, with my brother as scorer, were conveyed to a fixture at Milner Court in the masters’ cars. It was a pleasant summer’s day and, on the way back, with numerous sweaty boys crammed into the Sunbeam, Bird spotted a stall selling fresh strawberries in a lay-by (my brother passed the spot recently and recognised it at once – it is between Howe Barracks and Littlebourne). Bird hauled himself out of the car, bought two punnets, and proceeded to consume the entire contents in front of the ravenous boys.

Bird’s antics have made more sense to me since I read Michael Barber’s book The Captain, a frank and entertaining biography of his elder brother, the writer Simon Raven. An extravagant, amoral hedonist, sacked from Charterhouse and the army (he had served in Kenya as a Captain in the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry), a distracted Simon had been exiled to Deal by his publisher (‘Leave London, or leave my employ’). In my day, he lived in a tiny clapboard cottage across the road from the ‘Admiral Keppel’, which was conveniently positioned only a few doors down from the Old House.

The Raven brothers were both avowed homosexuals, yet Myles had once been engaged – to one of the under-matrons – and Simon had been briefly married. According to Barber, an anguished telegram from his abandoned wife – ‘WIFE AND BABY STARVING SEND MONEY SOONEST’ – had prompted a characteristic reply – ‘SORRY NO MONEY SUGGEST EAT BABY’. His reputation at Tormore was as the author of ‘dirty books’, which some boys’ fathers had read. Shortly after leaving Tormore I read one myself and it was, indeed, utterly filthy. (A typical line of dialogue, from a colonel addressing his mess: ‘I’ve f*****d women from every continent and most animals, but I’ve never had a woman like that!’) I remember the boys of my house, ‘Tanks’, being taken on a school treat to the cinema at Deal, to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Michael Webb briefed us beforehand that all the wittiest lines in the film had been written by Simon, whose name duly flashed up on the screen. Simon also scripted The Pallisers and Edward and Mrs Simpson for television, but it was only after the publication of The Roses of Picardie in 1980 that I became aware of his literary eminence.

The occasional sighting of the caddish Simon caused a certain frisson – usually striding past the school, clad like his brother in a tweed jacket and desert boots, with the same snub nose, prominent eyebrows and florid complexion and the furtive look of a mischievous faun. I have no recollection of ever seeing him on school premises, and wonder if he had been banned (as he was from the Royal St George’s Golf Club). However, my brother assures me that he came into the school regularly to watch our cricket matches, and at one time he wrote witty reviews of them for The School Record.

Simon used to hold court at the ‘Admiral Keppel’, where most of the masters seemed to spend their evenings. Worldy, erudite and amusing, he was, I believe, a strong and, in many ways, beneficial influence on the younger staff, men like Michael Webb and Michael Strevens. I suspect they picked up many of their odder expressions and ideas from him, including – I rather fear – their habit of referring to us boys by rather surprising terms of endearment, including ‘dear heart’ and ‘duckie’.

According to Strevens – the dashing, aloof ‘Strev’ – Myles would consume four or five pints between nine o’clock and closing time and then would stagger home with a further four pints in a jug. He is said to have suffered from appalling flatulence and smelly feet, and also, occasionally, to have wet his bed, but was immune to any form of hangover. He also never wore underpants, a legacy of his own, very peculiar prep school, where they were banned. I have a feeling that we were aware of this surprising detail at the time, but shudder to think how we can have known it. One instinctively shunned him as one would an electric eel. However, I never heard of him touching any boy. Strevens told Barber that Bird had once made a botched attempt at doing so. It had been a humiliating experience and was never repeated.

Myles Raven, described by a school contemporary as ‘the idlest Scholar elected to Charterhouse in living recollection’, must have been frustrated in many ways, but schoolmastering made few demands on him and gave him limitless opportunites to indulge his obsession with cricket, not to mention his illicit fantasies about little boys. I have a vivid memory of his enquiring of us, in a Latin lesson, what part of speech ‘Eheu’ was. No one knew. ‘It’s an ejaculation!’ he said, with relish. He seemed distinctly out of place on his rare trips to London – ‘a big lump who smelt strongly of pubs’, according to one of Simon’s smarter friends. He fell down dead in 1976, at the age of 46.

Read further memories of Tormore:

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A Day at the Dig, Part II: Further Discoveries at Roman Silchester

August 11th, 2011

The second ‘open day’ at Roman Silchester on Saturday (6 August) was as festive as the previous one. It was attended by many hundreds of visitors of all ages. Most were locals, but others had travelled great distances, including a couple from Northamptonshire, such is the fame of the event.

Professor Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke took turns to deliver hour-long guided tours. Deftly brandishing her microphone as if she were presenting X-Factor, Amanda brought us up to date with the latest discoveries. We were encouraged to look upon the dusty contours of the site with ‘archaeologists eyes’. She pointed to the remains of the first-century roadway that cut across a corner of Insula IX. Its orientation, apparently based on the rising and setting of the sun, would have been irksome to the Romans, who later imposed their preferred grid system on the town.

The early road was flanked on one side by a wooden palisade, with a ditch beyond it. On the other side, there were rubbish dumps and ‘natural geology’, as if it were on the very edge of town. One of the houses on this street was of high status (though wooden), and the owners had buried their little dog, perhaps a terrier, near one of the corners of the building. These people are said to have eaten fancy food off imported tableware.

A still more arresting discovery has been that of a latrine on the opposite side of the road, which will tell us all about their diet. This latrine is narrow enough to have been equipped with a wooden seat – all of which leads Amanda to believe that the indigenous population were far from being the ‘grunting savages’ of legend. (She admits that the expression ‘beautiful latrine’ is unlikely to be uttered by anyone other than an archaeologist.) Presumably, though, the urban population of Silchester were not typical of Britain as a whole. In any case, were not the Atrebates tribe themselves recent immigrants from the Continent?

On the subject of the ubiquitous latrines, they have discovered that a later well was carelessly sunk over the remains of one. Poisoned water from such ill-positioned wells may explain the abandonment of the city in the fifth century. Amanda will have the winter months in which to ponder the significance of such data.

On the Reading Museum stall, visitors were invited to handle some of the fruits of the Victorian and Edwardian excavations, of which they are the custodians. These included a delicate needle, looking as good as new, and a hair-pin from one of the Museum’s loans boxes, which are available for hire by schools and other organisations. The choicest artefacts on display were perhaps this glass jar – almost mother-of-pearl in its opacity – which was an import from the region of Haifa; and this unexplained round tile inscribed with the tiler’s stamp – LLVRIVSPRO-VL FECIT (Lucius Lurius Pro[c]ul[us] made this).

The bronze eagle on which Rosemary Sutcliff based her novel, The Eagle of the Ninth – recently filmed as The Eagle – is on permanent display in the Museum’s Silchester Gallery, along with further curious examples of the tiler’s art.

A Day at the Dig: The Roman Town Life Project at Silchester, Hants.

July 24th, 2011

Yesterday’s ‘Open Day’ at Silchester, or Calleva Atrebatum to the Romans, was a typically jolly event. Hosted by the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, it was an opportunity to view, at close quarters, what is currently the largest archaeological excavation in Britain.

Now in its fifteenth season, the ‘Town Life’ project focuses on a small part of the 170-acre site, the so-called ‘Insula IX’. The insulae are the various quarters of the town, neatly divided by the Roman grid system and numbered by the pioneering Victorian archaeologists for  their convenience. Insula IX merits investigation as it stood at the intersection of the main north-south and east-west roads and was densely packed with humble dwellings and workshops, rather than the better-understood public buildings.

Amanda Clarke, the Field School Director, is pictured (above) beside the north-south road at its fourth-century level. The built-up surface of the street is as solid as concrete but the ground behind her has been dug down to a much lower level, that of the first century. She also points (left) to the well-scorched hearth of a small building of that period, just off the street, which is marvellously evocative. There is speculation that this might have been part of a complex of military buildings. There is also substantial evidence of early round houses in Insula IX, suggesting that the indigenous population lived side by side with their conquerors, but were slow to adapt to the Roman way of life. The team have yet to find a Roman ballista still lodged in the backbone of some unfortunate, such as was famously discovered at Maiden Castle, but they live in hope.

There is an air of Glastonbury surrounding the tented village that arises here each summer. I was amused to see that some of the young and attractive team of diggers (see left) have been daring enough to pose naked for a calendar – ‘without the permission of Reading University’. All profits from Naked Archaeologists are donated to the Silchester Town Life Project and the Inner Hebrides Archaeological Project, in which they are also involved. I particularly like the picture for May. Five girls, clearly perishing cold on what was presumably an early-morning photo-call, are gazing into the city from the south wall. Their shivering backs are adorned with intricate spiral patterns of woad. The caption wittily reads: ‘Boudicca and her warriors plan their attack on the Roman town’. The tableau is historically accurate. According to Roman writers, the Ancient Britons daubed themselves with woad and charged naked into battle. There is also evidence of destruction at Silchester at the exact time of the Boudiccan revolt. I hope these girls know the correct pronunciation of her name: Bow-deeka.

A more questionable image is that for November. Entitled ‘An evening of bar sports in the Calleva Arms’, a naked man, snooker queue in hand, cocks his leg over the side of the table and leans over it as he aims his shot. The Calleva Arms is a family pub so let’s hope the picture was taken out of hours. Otherwise the images are very tasteful, and all the models are undoubtedly good sports.

In this picture, Roger Hammett of BBC Learning, based at Southampton, handles a sample of Roman ‘poo’ with a fine air of professional detachment. I hope he was duly grateful to his assistant, Sophia, who had spent hours, the previous day, kneading these unsavoury objects into shape. Introducing passing children to the thrill of archaeology in a sandpit, Sophia (right) showed a considerable knack of engaging with them and instructed them expertly in the significance of their various ‘finds’.

Here Hannah, a budding Oxford Classicist, pauses to rest during a bout of energetic digging, having just nonchalantly excavated a substantial part of the rim of a large bowl. Roman Silchester had a strikingly youthful population, few of whom would have lived beyond the age of thirty. It is touchingly appropriate that their modern counterparts should be uncovering their lives with such energy, grace and commitment.

See also my previous blog on Roman tilers and their literacy in Calleva Atrebatum.

Roman Silchester, St James’s Church, Bramley and the Little London Tilery

July 24th, 2011

(From the programme of the Bramley and Little London Music Festival, June 2011)


Bramley and Little London’s glorious parish church dates largely from the mid-1100s and contains notable fragments of its original murals – almost universal in medieval churches, but largely lost elsewhere – including a scene of the murder of Becket. The very walls of St James’s are thus redolent of tradition and continuity. Concealed behind the exuberant medieval paintings, there is even the possibility of a link with the Emperor Nero.

The 12th-century builders must have been intrigued and baffled by the ruins, at nearby Silchester, of a once-mighty city – the work of giants, it was said, or of the Devil. Who else could have built the formidable walls, up to eight metres in height, that surrounded it? The Saxons had never colonised the place, fearing its mournful atmosphere and its ghosts.

The site had nevertheless yielded much detritus and occasional treasure, including gold coins. Some seemed to bear the name of the ‘giant’ king, Onion. There were great quantities of dressed stone, including that from the defensive outer walls, for the taking; and the plough regularly uncovered the fallen-in roofs of the houses, with their distinctive red tiles. These proved particularly useful to the builders of our church, who imported them by the cartload to Bramley, mixing them with flint to make up the three-feet-thick walls of the new nave and chancel.

Since the 18th century, it has been understood that Silchester was a Roman city, identifiable with the Calleva Atrebatum of the Antonine Itinerary, and that the legendary Onion was probably a misreading of ‘Constantine’. Calleva has now been excavated with greater thoroughness than any other town or city in the Empire. Many magnificent objects have been discovered – from fine mosaic floors to the famous bronze eagle on which Rosemary Sutcliff based her novel, The Eagle of the Ninth – yet none, perhaps, is as evocative as those humble tiles.

They were clearly made from local material, and in 1926 Colonel Karslake of Silchester, a diligent amateur archaeologist, identified the remains at Little London, in a field opposite ‘The Plough’, of the tilery that was probably their main source. One of Karslake’s finds, a roller-patterned flue-tile, is from the period between 80 and 200 A.D.

Karslake claimed that another of his finds (now lost) bore a round stamp with the name of the Emperor, ‘NER.CL.CAE.AVG.GR.’ (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – the notorious Emperor Nero, 54-68 A.D.). Something similar had already been discovered in the baths at Calleva. The Little London tilery may thus have been an imperial concern, with the concession to satisfy most or all of Calleva’s requirements for tiles and bricks.

The particular fascination of the tiles (displayed in the Silchester Gallery at Reading Museum) is that many bear marks, inscriptions or even footprints. Each would be shaped in a wetted wooden mould and left to dry on the factory floor. The tile-maker would test its consistency with his finger-tips, leaving a distinctive impression. From time to time – much to his annoyance, no doubt – people and animals strayed into his yard, stepped carelessly on the wet tiles and left their footprints to harden in them and be preserved for all time. Among the culprits were a dog, a cat, a deer, a calf, a lamb, an infant and a man with a hob-nailed sandal, who had perhaps reeled out of an early forerunner of ‘The Plough’.

Remarkably and unexpectedly, the Silchester tiles are also evidence of the tile-maker’s literacy, for there are specimens on which he has written. Someone in the factory used an unbaked flue-tile as a surface for writing. He was an erudite man: the inscription ends with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: conticuere omnes – ‘all fell silent’. The text was probably meant to be copied as part of an on-the-job writing lesson, for tilers needed to keep written tallies. One tile is signed – fecit tubul[os] Clementinus (‘Clementinus made this flue-tile’), whilst a large brick is inscribed with the word Satis – ‘Enough’. These are truly Silchester’s equivalent of the Vindolanda tablets: intimate and personal, they are a hand-written evocation of life in Roman Britain.