Is nostalgia good for you?
My 78th birthday is just a month away. It’s the school holidays and my granddaughter is staying with me. At nearly 11 she is full of questions and I can’t resist reminiscing. I like to live in the present so these travels into the past are almost an indulgence… sometimes comforting, sometimes worrying, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. I vow never to fall into the good old days trap that some of my contemporaries do.
So, after reading Vera Britain’s “A Testament of Youth”, partly about her early attempts at the turn of the 20th century to get an education, I decided to revisit my old school for the first time in 60 years. It felt important to share some of the history of female emancipation with g/d (granddaughter). I know this tenuous link must be confusing to readers of this blog but it is here as a pointer.
I went to a highly prestigious girls’ boarding school in 1947. The first of its kind, the school was founded in the mid 19th century with the specific intention of providing an academic education for girls which would equip them to go on to university and to graduate. The history attached to that is a whole other story.
For me, at 11 years old, it was a shock to be away from home and learning a premature independence. I stayed at the school for six years with none of the academic success my parents had hoped for. So I had never been back.
To cut a long story short, g/d and I went along this week and were kindly shown round the school in its modernised state. The beautiful Arts and Crafts interior and Gothic architecture hit me with a surprising sense of pride at having been part of its history and I was almost overwhelmed with the dreaded nostalgia. Who would have thought it?
G/d took it all in, including the strange 19th century statues of classical feminist role models. I couldn’t see the names on them but would have loved to know who they were. The old library and the tall elaborate stone arched windows remain unchanged. The classrooms still filled me with panic. The founding headmistress’s desk remains, still on its brass runners to allow her to push it forward to accommodate her crinoline. The beautiful vaulted painted wooden roof of the lower hall had been vandalised to fit in a mezzanine floor and the new glass and concrete extensions were in uncomfortable contrast to their more imaginative gothic neighbours. Times and tastes move on.
The girls I was at school with came from all over the world. It was a wonderful mix of cultures and experience which I now realise was the chief benefit that has stayed with me. Probably no other school at the time could have provided the same diversity. I understand that this diversity still exists with the addition of children from Russia and Eastern Europe. The school remains selective and, inevitably, the fees are extremely high.
I am confused. I can’t justify to myself such privilege and asked no questions about the modern academic syllabus. As pupils We were constantly told that with privilege comes responsibility. A rather dubious subtext today.
And g/d’s burning question ‘if they are away from home, are the girls allowed to watch TV?’. She accepts, as normal that, as a girl, she can go, a bus ride away, to the same free state school as her brother and choose a career that suits her. What matters to her is her day to day life. For this I think, in part, we have to thank those 19th century privileged female pioneers of education.
‘Have you ever been back to your old school? If not, why not? If so, how did you feel?’
Liz and Matthew (friends who help with this blog and much else) are married! Lovely afternoon tea to celebrate. Congratulations.
Late Christmas present from Gill was a delicious lunch at Akamba. This has to be the strangest garden centre in the Midlands. Yummy sweet potato bake and strange Kenyan sculpted metal animals for company!