Our teachers at Westlake Boys High in Auckland in the mid 1960s were a mixed bunch.
Mostly our parents’ age and – like our fathers – mostly veterans from WW2.
Rod McMillan, the headmaster, flew carrier-based Corsairs in the Pacific, Les Tweedy, his deputy (and a man who to this day provides me with inspiration), was an infantry officer in North Africa, Jack Bremner, French teacher, infantry officer in Europe and Ted Malone wryly claiming to have deserved the Iron Cross for the number of Allied aircraft he’d pranged on landing.
Some younger than that, of course, but they all SEEMED older, a goal they undoubtedly strived towards.
But then along came John Rimmer, fresh out of training college and just raring to teach us music.
Talk about gung-ho. School assemblies would never be the same.
The entire school (about 600 pupils) gathers in the Great Hall at 8:45, juniors at the front, seniors at the back.
Utter silence. No movement.
Teachers on the stage, enter the Headmaster. All stand.
Hymns are sung.
Announcements are made – “I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in pupils using CALLIGRAPHICS, encouraged by certain staff members (glares at Dugald Page, art teacher, maybe 25, beatnik-ish appearance, rumour has it that he’s – SHOCK! HORROR! – cohabiting with a female person in an extramarital relationship… ) “THIS WILL STOP!”
A 13 year old sniggers and whispers something to his neighbour.
Les Tweedie’s on his feet in a flash, just beating “Charlie” Brown, his eternal rival in the school hierarchy.
“THAT BOY THERE! STAND UP” he screeches, pinning the child to his chair with a raptor’s glare.
“No, not YOU.. the boy in front! YES YOU! Go to my office”
Exit a quavering student, certain in the knowledge that in 5 minutes he’ll be carrying 6 welts from a cane across his backside.
“Didn’t cry, though”, he’ll say.
And then Johnny Rimmer – who went on to a significant career as university lecturer and classical composer – takes over.
Looks as young as we were, if not younger (I’m 17 and in the Upper 6th Form at the time – 6ft tall, still growing, scrawny compared with some of the other guys. Some staff refer to us as “men”)
“Now boys, today we’ll all sing “Greensleeves”. You’ll find the words on the song sheet”
The juniors are enthusiasm personified and jadedness sets in towards the back of the Hall, culminating in a decidedly minimalistic approach to participation in the last rows.
“Now, I’d like to hear a bit more from the 6th form at the back please” he’d say “I’d like some bass voices to match all the sopranos we have at the front”
He’d get a token few, but not many.
Until one day – overcome by hipness – he announced that we were going to sing pop songs.
Jubilation from the soprano ranks, groans from the bass voices.
“Yes” he continued “there’s a VERY good song I’ve found by Petula Clark. It’s called “Downtown”
Incredulous looks are exchanged.
Can’t he… won’t he..doesn’t he KNOW that everyone calls it “DownTROU”..? Doesn’t he know that we have lascivious versions of EVERY pop song?
No, he doesn’t.
And no, he doesn’t
“Now, I’m sure you all know the words, boys. And a-ONE and a-TWO and…
“When you’re alone
And life is making you lonely,
Cherubic harmonies from the 3rd Form
You can always go DOWNTROU
The wall of sound predominated by deep voices pins him to his piano stool.
He’s beaming – he’s never achieved this level of participation from the men of the 6th Form before.
“Maybe my idea’s right”, he thinks “Maybe this really IS the way to awaken their interest in music. How wonderful…”
When you’ve got worries,
All the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, DOWNTROU
He’s in second heaven.
We pace ourselves quite skillfully to have enough breath to bellow this out 26 (count them…) times until we reach the end of the song.
“Very good, boys” says Johnny “and I was VERY impressed by the 6th Form’s participation on the chorus, but I WOULD ask you to join in a bit more on the verses….”
I’m not sure if he ever found out…
Petula Clark – Downtown