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Brian Sewell on House Rugby


Brian Sewell writes: “I am the little one in the back row [far right] of this photograph, next to Gainsborough, the captain. I am 16. We have just won the school’s inter-house seven-a-side competition, a fleeter form of rugby in which scrums and line-outs are over in a moment, and fast running and flying tackles are the order of the day. We are on the school’s playing fields at Chase Lodge, Mill Hill. Most of us have cycled the five miles from Hampstead, where its grim Victorian buildings lay, burdened by its faintly Dickensian name, Haberdashers’. We shall cycle back again – all this muscular activity on the short post-war rations of 1947.

The photographer, Michael Grabow, an elder boy mysteriously able to find film for his camera, is in command. We shall be last into the communal bath, the water very much off the boil.

I had some aptitude for rugger and enjoyed it. There were fewer rules then (or referees were less pernickety) and the game had a fluency that it lacks now. We were also lighter and less likely to be injured in a collapsing scrum or by a brutal tackle. I played in the Army (national service) and occasionally later, always as hooker.

At school we played each other on Wednesdays and teams from kindred schools on Saturdays. There was then (and perhaps is still) a category of private day school that had pretensions to be public, but Haberdashers’ was no Eton and drew its boys from, at best, the middle of the middle classes. Its motto, ‘Serve and obey,’ suited the shopkeeper parents of so many boys, most of whom shortened Haberdashers’ to the execrable ‘Habs’. I resolved never to use abbreviations.

Apart from rugger I grew up away from the school. Music and art were my consuming passions, but neither was on the syllabus. Teaching myself the history of art, I was the perfect example of the adage that he who teaches himself has a poor master. I read Walter Pater on the Renaissance and wrote exquisite ekphrastic essays on Fra Angelico and Raphael.

I realise now that a handful of masters in English and history could not have been better, but those attempting to teach me physics were wasting their time and mine. Education should be based on aptitude, not compulsion. Were I at school now, I would sink without trace.

Of the other boys in the seven, I recall the names of three – Miller, Hughes and Thomas. One of them, the ugliest, when he had left school and I was in the Courtauld Institute, I bumped into in Baker Street. Grabow, the photographer, gifted in languages, set up a travel agency in Regent Street. I became whatever it is that I am.”

An article by Angela Wintle taken from the Daily Telegraph magazine 7th March 2015 

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