Shrewsbury School

A Week in the Life of a Housemaster: Peter Middleton, Rigg's

Thursday 15 March 2012

Ah, Monday morning!… I awoke, bright-eyed and eager, ready for an exciting new week- as ever, I felt full of bounce and vigour.  Slowly making my way down the Private Side staircase, I noticed with satisfaction that the daily broadsheets were awaiting me, freshly ironed by one of my delightful 3rd Formers.  My two-year old daughter Isla greeted me in the kitchen having already been up for two hours learning Latin Grammar and practising the harpsichord, whilst the Upper Sixth were busy preparing me a typically hearty Full English Breakfast.  “Well done boys,” I cried out as the entire L6th jogged past the kitchen window having returned from their daily 20-mile run, and - conscious that my morning game of croquet with the other Housemasters was just two hours away - I quickly drained my champagne and asked my valet to prepare a selection of cravats to choose from.

And then I woke up.  Urgh, Monday morning!  I awoke, bleary-eyed and exhausted.  Looking in the bathroom mirror, I saw with horror what looked to be a grey hair erupting from my right eyebrow.   Oh well, at least people would perhaps stop confusing me for the Head of House.

Hastily dressed in an ink-stained, dribble-drenched suit (the ink was my fault, the dribble I hasten to add was my daughter’s), matron and I held our weekly meeting and discussed the week ahead, compiling a list of breakfast truants for Tardy Book that seemed fairly similar to our overall House list.  Double-5th form was next, which is actually far less daunting than it sounds as the mighty set 4 are a top bunch and always great fun.  It’s revision time, and I can safely say we all enjoy ‘reliving the magic’ (good, healthy pedagogical propaganda there) of Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome. On the whole a good session, though towards the end of the lesson, whilst discussing the depiction of Zeena Frome in the book as a grotesque and abhorrent creature, somebody decides to point out that I have “a wonky nose”.  Thanks.  Then somebody pipes up, ‘Yeh, and you’ve got a weird running style,’ which is met with a chorus of agreement and nodding heads.  Hang on - who are these people who watch me run, tutting critically as I pass?  And do I really run that strangely?  To their credit, as I am about to launch myself out of the window and onto the concrete slabs below in a moment of self-conscious angst, one or two of the more sensitive members of the class hastily throw in a few compliments, and I have to agree that, yes, I suppose I am a fun teacher, and yes, my mother probably does love me.

The afternoon passes by in a haze of further lessons, a prospective parent tour, a Housemaster’s Meeting, and somewhere along the line Isla presents me with a smiley face sticker.  It’s just the encouragement I need - I must be doing something right!  With lessons over it’s time for Monday Benjies, an historic Hunt run of 2.3km that is essentially a time-trial, and one that is always fiercely contested.  Typically we have well over 50 boys running the event, and I have long resigned myself to the fact that I am regularly beaten by a good handful of them (probably due to my “weird running style” and, oh yeah, my “freakishly skinny ankles”).  Isla just about dies when she decides to run into the middle of the starting area just when the starter’s orders are being given, though thankfully she is spotted just in time.  I run a rather sluggish time, but there are terrific performances from leading athlete Ed Mallett (7.21), and I’m thrilled for James Humpish who smashes his PB by over twenty seconds to run 9.01 (the next week he would break the elusive 9-minute barrier), and delighted too that Sonny Koh breaks 10 minutes for the first time and gets his name on the school Standards Rankings.

The evening passes without incident with Rigg’s Hall well-marshalled by former Housemaster DK, and after the nightly rounds and typically entertaining chat from the Upper Sixth, I settle down to a pile of marking - what better way to end off the day!

I wake up and promise myself I won’t write vast realms for my Tuesday entry in the ‘Week in the Life Article’.

Only one lesson in the morning, but it’s those pesky 5th formers, who this morning announce that they have a new theory about me - they are calling it Weird Friday.  Seemingly my behavior becomes distinctly eccentric (or “bonkers” as one of them puts it) during Friday period 7.  I cast my mind to what happens during Friday lunchtimes, but can’t think of any furtive narcotic abuse that I am involved in that may explain my behavior.  Still, I resolve to contact my shrink and ask him about it…

In the afternoon I transfer to the Ashton Theatre for AS Level Theatre Studies, and am thrilled to see that the set is up for one of the group’s performance of Mark Ravenhill’s ‘Pool. No Water’.  We go over some key scenes together and then I look at the other group’s opening sequence of Steven Berkoff’s ‘West’.  The quality of both pieces is first-rate, and I am extremely impressed with the work they have put in over the weekend.  At the end of the period, I dash down to the Main School Building for U6th English, running my way down Central to make it on time.  This is partly out of necessity, and partly to humour the awaiting class who watch from the McEachran room as I stride comically down the long straight and up the stairs.  They are far more forgiving than my 5th form, and congratulate me on my swift 100yard ‘Ashton Dash’.  Then it’s heads down to some coursework preparation - a 3,000 word exploration of 19th Century Literature, with particular focus on our studied texts: Lord Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’; James Hogg’s ‘Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’; and Thomas De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’.  All good, cheery stuff.

In the evening I pop back over to the theatre to see how preparations are coming on for the Rigg’s House play - ‘Robin Hood’- written and directed by resident Assistant Housemaster CEC.  Freddie Thomson and Conrad Morson are busy painting the set, thankful for some peace and quiet whilst Mrs B sorts everyone out with their costumes.    I too am glad that my secretary Mrs B has found someone else to boss around this week, and keep a low profile in case she spots me.  Lurking in the back of the auditorium, I watch the first act and must say I’m quite impressed.  It is, shall we say, a little close to the bone in places, but with a few tweaks here and there I think we should get away with it.

Rigg’s is hauntingly quiet with almost everyone in the house involved in the play in some way or another, and they are so tired when they return from the theatre at 10pm that matron, myself and tutor AEM have no problems getting them all to bed on time.

Some time later, it’s time for bed for the Housemaster too, and I hit the sack satisfied that my Tuesday entry for the Week in the Life article is much shorter than Monday’s.  At this rate, Sunday’s entry will be very short indeed…

7am and Isla and I head down the corridors to wake the boys up.  This is probably her favourite thing in the world to do (other than staring gormlessly at yet another episode of Peppa Pig).  As she opens the various doors, the unsuspecting Riggites find themselves with a wide-eyed, curley-haired toddler right in their face demanding, “Wake up, lazy boy!”, or occasionally a berating, “Messy boy!”  She does, however, delight U6th former Jack Bailey by singing Happy Birthday to him (though it was nearly a week ago when he turned 18…)

Ed MallettThe morning’s main event is my Annual Review with Head of Faculty KL.  I nervously join Kristina in The Quod, anxious to find out whether or not I have been sacked.  Fortunately, it appears nobody has told her about Weird Fridays, and clearly she has an open mind about my wonky nose and freakishly skinny ankles.  We have a good long chat over a nice cup of tea, and I leave feeling valued and well-supported, glad that at least my colleagues take no notice of my weird running style.

Before lunch, I rush down to the Stott Pavilion to meet Stephen Alexander from Kukri who is producing a short film on The Hunt, having already put one together for the Boat Club.  After a quick recce of the course for today’s Hunt Club Championships, it’s time for some interviews: as Master i/c I am asked a whole host of questions about the history of the club and recent successes, a process that at first I find a little awkward, but I soon relax when I realize that my skinny ankles won’t be in shot.  I decide not to be like Simon Cowell and demand they shoot ‘my good side’, and resign myself to the fact that my wonky nose will no doubt be glaringly obvious on screen, thus warding off prospective parents and scaring small children.

The race itself is easily won by Severn Hill speedster Ed Mallett, who lifts the historic Birley Cup in the absence of his elder brother and Huntsman George who is nursing a slight injury.  I am delighted that my Rigg’s rising star Oscar Dickins (winner of this year’s New Boys’ Race) comes home as first Junior and wins the Mark Mortimer Cup, with Imola Atkins of Mary Sidney Hall retaining her title as Girls’ Club Champion and retaining the Willie Jones Cup. 

The evening sees TCW in charge of Rigg’s, so I take the opportunity to head over to the theatre to watch some of the dress rehearsal, where a small select audience seem to be having a whale of a time.  It all bodes well for the first performance, with what looks set to be a sell-out audience on Thursday night.  CEC’s stamina over these past few weeks has been incredible - having directed house plays myself in years gone by, I know just how much work has gone into them, so I make a point of publically acknowledging all the work he has put in after their run-through is over, and then leave them to devour on the mountains of pizza that are just reward for their efforts.  Just what they need before bed-time…

Later I go to bed myself after two packs of crisps and a perusal of The Times at some ungodly hour in the morning.  Not convinced this is particularly healthy either!

I wake up and manage to snatch a conversation with my wife.  It is good to remind myself from time to time that I am actually married, and as she heads out of the door to the GP surgery where she escapes from this mad existence, I pause to think just how lucky I am to have such a supportive wife as Jenna who uncomplainingly keeps me sane, feeds me, and offers sound rational advice each and every day.   

Thursdays tend to be my quietest day as far as lessons and sport are concerned, so they’re normally a good chance to work through some admin.  I have one prospective tour to do, though it’s a family I have met twice before, so it’s a much less formal meeting and we have a productive discussion about the various pastoral, academic and sporting emphases at Shrewsbury.  We don’t bother with another tour around the house which I am thankful for as I end up feeling a little bit like an Estate Agent, and find myself pointing out irrelevancies such as the tall ceilings and the ‘dual aspect’ of certain rooms (I’m not even sure what that really means, but it sounds convincing).

Over lunch we have a Faculty Meeting (I haven’t actually dined in KH once this week, and realise late on Wednesday that I forgot to even have lunch at all!).  I arrive five minutes late following my prospective parents’ meeting, and burst through the door anxious to salvage at least one or two sandwiches that haven’t already been devoured by Sheppe, Hann and Law.  We rattle through the meeting with a typical mixture of officious urgency and riotous hilarity.  Kristina is on fine form marshalling (no pun intended JWDM) this band of unruly miscreants.

Robin Hood

After a quick scoot down to the Stott Pavilion in the afternoon to distribute some pairs of spikes donated by Mo Hill from ‘Up and Running’ in town, I rush back up to Rigg’s to load my car with wine for the pre-show reception at the Top of the Shop.  RW - whose duty night is normally a Thursday anyway - has already got things under control, with matron having set up all the glasses and tables earlier in the day.  The boys had said that it may be best if parents are “quite tipsy” by the time they enter the theatre, so I encourage them (the parents) to drink plenty ahead of a show that I fear may still be a little too close to the bone in places.  Nevertheless, once the play gets under way, my fears of causing everyone huge offence are lifted after the opening sequence, where most of the audience become fully immersed in participating in what is essentially a pantomime, and within minutes we are all in stitches at Merlin Dickins’s portrayal of Guy of Gisbourne and James Aitkens’s scene-stealing cross-dressing as ‘Nanny’.  Whilst a whopper of a show in terms of length, the audience remained packed for the second act, with everyone keen to find out just whether James Aston’s Rudolf would be re-united with Josh Mason’s Santa, and whether CEC could possibly fit in any more thinly-veiled cinematic allusions.

The boys were buzzing after the show, and rightly so - everyone was in agreement that it had been a success, and I must say I went to bed feeling really quite relieved!

It’s Weird Friday, but alas for my 5th Form, they won’t get to test out their theory because it’s also a Coach Weekend and lessons end at 1pm.  If there is any truth in their theory, I’d better be careful for we are hosting Rigg’s parents in the Private Side for a lunch, and I will need to maintain some semblance of sanity to those parents who have entrusted me with caring for their children. 

Whilst the rest of the school duck away at 1pm, the Faithful stay for the final matinée performance of Robin Hood, including a large number of staff.  Whilst a smaller audience, the cast still manage to put in an energetic and entertaining performance, with the girls from Emma Darwin impressing again with their brilliantly-choreographed dances, and the boys from Rigg’s doing their stuff brilliantly too.  I was delighted to see so many of my boys involved in the play in one way or another, and the whole process was terrific in bringing everyone together and developing house unity.

Having said farewell to the last of my charges after the play, I managed to find some time to finish off my U6th reports and complete my budget deadline.  The Bursar will be pleased - I’m under budget for next year!

With the boys all gone and the house and windows all shut up and locked, we enjoyed a quiet evening with my younger brother who had come up for the weekend to stay with us.  My father and elder brother - who had travelled down from Scotland for one night to babysit Isla whilst the house play was on, left around 11pm, at which point the rest of us decided to head to bed and take the chance to have an early night.

Begin to regret those packs of crisps earlier in the week as I wake and remind myself that I have stupidly agreed to race this afternoon in the UK Inter-Counties.  I’m not sure the Shropshire Team Manager quite believed me when I said that my fitness had gone rapidly downhill since becoming a Housemaster, and that my current lifestyle of late nights, unhealthy eating, and sporadic exercise wasn’t exactly conducive to competing at the biggest cross-country event in the country.  At the peak of my fitness last year whilst in the midst of London Marathon training I only managed 200th, so I wasn’t exactly full of optimism about my prospects this year.  Nevertheless, despite it being a weekend off, in a strange way I was quite looking forward to the event, and it is always good to compete for the county, albeit one who tends to fare pretty badly on the national scene! 

My primary concern about the race was that my weird running style would be on show once again, this time exposed on national TV.  It was with horror that I found out early on Saturday morning whilst looking at the TV schedule that the event had been ‘promoted’ from Sky Sports 4 to Sky Sports 1.  The level of humiliation looked set to increase.  Every year, aside from tracking the lead athletes, one of the cruel producers always asks a cameraman to linger rather too long on the final couple of athletes in the field, usually accompanied with one of the commentator’s saying something along the lines of, “Well, he’s having a bad day”.  There was a very real threat that this might be me they would later be describing.

The MiddletonsNevertheless, upon arrival, I made sure I wasn’t at the back of the Shropshire ‘pen’ so I could get out of trouble fast and avoid any spiking.  300 or so of the top runners in the UK (6 from each county, including the Scottish and Welsh regions) lined up - plus me - and following all the other age-group races, we were set to tackle the 12km course as the final ‘showcase’ event of the day.  Mo Farah, I noted earlier, was at the World Indoor Championships, so that was one less athlete to worry about.  I doubt he got mocked for his skinny ankles, I thought as we waited for the gun, but before I could give it much thought, we were off and charging like lunatics up a steep and unrelenting first hill.  By the top of the hill I was rather pleased with myself, mainly because I had skillfully maneuvered myself into an empty channel on the far left of the field directly in line with the camera (confirmed later when we watched the replay of the event, a clip that will no doubt be preserved for at least 60 years to come).  This, I suspect, was my last moment of glory, and after the long first lap, I realized that this was going to be a long afternoon.  Whilst not amongst the last runners, I could certainly see them, if not quite hear them breathing down my neck.  Settling into a rhythm over the first and second lap, it was with some consternation that I heard over the tannoy the race commentator excitedly describe the sprint finish of the lead athletes.  I still had about 2km to go!  Eventually I trudged over the line exhausted, but incredibly, was only a minute behind my time from last year, finishing in 42.22.  According to Isla, I won the race, but this did not appear to be confirmed by the official results that placed me 231st, but given my current levels of fitness, I was happy to accept it!

On return, having put Isla to bed we sat down and watched Scotland lose yet another rugby match, but to be honest, by this point in the week, I didn’t really even care, and was happy just to sit, chat to my wife and brother, and get to bed.


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