Greetings to the Headmaster, Mr Richard Stanley and his wife, Lucinda, Chairman of The Ridge Board, Mr James Clucas, fellow governors, parents, staff and above all the young men of The Ridge Preparatory School.
It is an absolute honour to be invited to address you on the occasion of your Centenary Founders’ Day. It is highly unusual to have someone as mundane as a retiring Headmaster to address this gathering- usually you invite mountaineers, explorers, men who have sailed across The Atlantic single handed, or in the week when we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, a retired astronaut.
Just over a week ago, we watched the inimitable Mrs Janet Fox van der Poel’s production of “A Westcliff Story”. A cast of over 500 boys with flappers, gold miners, rock ‘n rollers, rand lords and socialites, war narrators, prisoners, Sophiatown characters, the disco 90’s and characters from Grease. Through music and narration, a story was spun out of a city built on gold and a prep school founded in faith, on a rocky Witwatersrand ridge – The Ridge.
Appropriately, Abba’s song “Money, Money, Money, It’s a rich man’s world” opened up the proceedings for a hard edged city, which continues to excite and terrify. We then moved to the vision of those famous Old Andreans, Guy Nicolson and Ronald Currey the founders of The Ridge – war heroes, Oxford educated, Rhodes scholars. Men of principle, intellect and courage.
In that wonderful show I sat there and was transported away by Luther van Dros’s song,
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where The brave dare not go
To reach the unreachable star
To be willing to give
There is a message in those words for all of us, especially for you young men who are about to leave a place where you have been “known and grown” and are about to enter your senior schools. I know that many of you, both boys and parents, wish that you could continue your senior years here at this special school where you are nurtured and challenged to be young men of character and purpose.
What would Nicolson and Currey make of The Ridge today? A hundred years on, its roll is more than 500, having opened its doors in 1919 with under 20 pupils. Today it stands as arguably South Africa’s pre-eminent prep school, whose pupils are sought after and courted by the top secondary schools in the country. Harrington, in his history of The Ridge says that it was a school for children of a “growing and moneyed English upper class, where boys would receive what was deemed as an appropriate education, with the imperial ethos soundly instilled and properly secured”.
Of course much has changed and rightly so. We live in a democratic South Africa and such privilege and an imperial ethos can no longer be tolerated.
Many of our schools have for too long been seen as “Little England’s on the Veld”, bastions of white privilege with an unwillingness to embrace change.
Guy Nicolson, an outstanding prep school headmaster, and whose name was synonymous with The Ridge, was a man completely without pomposity. For those of you who are going on to St Andrew’s College, Andreans are known for their “plat”, straightforwardness, nothing in the Eastern Cape is pompous.
At no time was he in danger of breaking the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not take thy self too damned seriously!”. Writing in his foreword to his history, Professor Andrew Harrington described the school as a school of character. I left The Ridge in 1969, having entered it in 1964, so it is fifty years ago, and many of the great characters and teachers associated with the school were still alive, indeed some of them had been at the school for almost their entire careers. There was Edna Dunn, who had joined the staff as an eighteen year old. She devoted her entire life to the school. She was an extraordinary personality, with her little bobby socks, sensible brown lace-up shoes and muscular calves, which were useful as she joined the boys in five-a-side soccer on the old tennis court.
There was the red-faced, John “Trolleybus” Trelease, a complete eccentric. He took 2nd XI cricket, and as he read out the batting order in pigeon German, he would poke a stump at your chest as he did so. “Einch, Dweinch, Treischt, Fieurscht”, I’m sure it was all made up!
Of course, probably the most remembered member of staff, along with Edna Dunn, was the “Colonel” – TE Rose. Mr Travis Rose, an Old Hiltonian, taught me English and Latin and tried to coach me some cricket. He used to click his false teeth in frustration. It sounded like he was sucking a humbug! We would sit in the Latin class,( you had to pass Latin for your common entrance exam to get into your senior school,) and we would decline the Latin noun for a table ‘mensa’ – mensa, mensa, mensam. For some reason a table was a feminine noun, you could speak to the table ‘Oh table’. We would wait for the critical moment when the Colonel would ask us to take out our homework. You know what it’s like when you haven’t done your homework, you look as cool as you can, and you avoid eye contact with the teacher. You brush your hair back with your fingers and perhaps whistle very quietly under your breath. The tension is unbearable as you wait to be asked. In our class, it was always the same boy. He came from a renowned Ridge family, his mother was the leader of the Ridge Cub pack, the Akela, a name from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’, and he was the youngest of three brothers. In those days, you were known by the Roman numerals, Brink I, Brink II, Brink III so he was Brink III. In some schools, like Pridwin, where they wore extraordinary pink blazers (don’t ever let them tell you that they’ve always been charcoal), it would have been Brink Major and his younger brother Brink Minor, and I suppose the youngest would have been Brink Minimus. No first names were ever used. It was a hard school which smelt of LifeBuoy Carbolic soap, built on a rocky ridge. We wore shorts throughout the winter and ate disgusting lunch. Thursday’s speciality, cooked by Johannes “Joe” Tskikumulela, was a bright yellow curry, which was known universally as ‘Camel’s Vomit’.
Anyway, I digress.
Brink was always asked for his homework and the answer was always the same, “Sir, I think I must have left it on the kitchen table.” One day the Colonel lost his patience and said “Right-e-o, we will go and fetch it.” The Brinks lived at number 25 Pallinghurst Road. Brink III and Colonel Rose, jumped into the Colonel’s tiny Hillman Imp car and drove out of the driveway, while we all waited in the classroom with bated breath. Of course, when they got there, Brink III disappeared… for ages whilst the Colonel clicked his teeth with vigour. Eventually Brink III emerged clutching a scruffy piece of paper, the ink still wet and smudged from his Osmiroid fountain pen. Another escape from the headmaster’s lash.
T Rose, who served as headmaster from 1939 – 1945, (for those boys who are going on to Michaelhouse and Hilton, that was the period of the Second World War,) was fond of saying, “O tempera, O mores” (Oh the times, oh the customs”). The quotation comes from the Latin scholar Cicero, who deplores the viciousness and corruption of the age, and it is now used as an exclamation to criticise present day attitudes and trends. “Shame on the Age and its lost principles.”
Fifty years on, The Ridge is a very different school from what it was in 1969, most of the teachers are reasonably sane, the fields have grass on them, you don’t catch scorpions on the koppie and place them on the coal stove and watch them in a frenzy as they sting themselves to death, the swimming pool is no longer pea green, and you have wonderful classrooms, stuffed full of technology. You produce beautiful art and extraordinary music. This is probably the biggest change in boys’ schools, both at prep level and at senior schools, is the number of boys who sing in the choir and who can play one, if not two, musical instruments. Fifty years ago, if you could ting on the triangle or clap on the castanets, you were regarded as a budding Mozart.
When you get to high school, keep on signing, keep on playing. How cool is it to play the saxophone or blast away on the French horn? Probably my biggest regret as an adult is not being able to play a musical instrument. So many of the excellent things you do here require the much talked about 21st Century skills – such as collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking, but to these we must add character and citizenship. You young men are going into a world of bewildering change. Earlier this week Wits University hosted its annual principals’ function and we were addressed by a top young scientist, a world leader in his field, in a fascinating and chilling address he spoke to us about “hacking humans” – can our brains be hacked? Smartphones – to what extent have we outsourced our cognitive functioning to these devices?
You are going out into a world of increasing polarisation and inequality. A world of Donald, Boris and Vlad. How do we, as schools, provide you with an education when we don’t really know what the world will look like? At The Ridge you have been given an education that goes so much further than the classroom, you are young men of character, you can stand up and speak in front of an audience, you do not fear failure – you are made of the right stuff. You are going to need the characteristics of courage, empathy, resilience and the ability to reinvent yourself over and over again.
#Rhodes Must Fall, #Fees must fall had a dramatic impact on our senior schools – we had to do some deep introspection and look at some of our traditions and cultures. Are our schools really places where everybody feels that they belong? How do black staff and students and parents really feel in our schools? Do they feel as if they have to fit in, to assimilate, or to put it politely, simply go away? It is not enough for us to recognise our privilege – we need to do something about it, we need to brush off the dust – re-look at our traditions – in our schools some of the painful past is all too familiar in the present.
At the same time what do we hold onto?
What do we hold onto, which is right and honourable and true to our ethos? That indomitable spirit and courage not to give up, to put others before ourselves, to be good men, good partners, good fathers. That spirit exemplified in that very Victorian poem Vitai Lampada – by Henry Newbolt
There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote 8
“Play up! Play up! and play the game!
For 100 years The Ridge has played up and played the game. It has produced young men who know the difference between right and wrong, who go forth from these gates made of the right stuff – determined to make a difference in a world of inequality and often selfish, materialistic secularism. It is a great school and it is a great privilege to be part of it. It is not just a small boys’ prep school on a rocky Witwatersrand Ridge – it is a place of the heart, a place of intensely shared experience. Of remembrance, of belonging.
In the words of Paul Channon, previous headmaster, life at The Ridge is a celebration of boyhood. The koppie with its stone forts and scorpions may have gone the way of marbles, kites and top season but the indomitable spirit remains.
To go back to Harrington’s History – he talks about Guy Nicholson and the Prayer of St Francis Drake. It is a challenge to all of us as the The Ridge goes forward into the next 100 years.
Disturb us Lord to dare more boldly;
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope and love.
May The Ridge go forth for another hundred years built on strength, courage, hope and love. May it continue to produce boys who are valued as unique individuals, and who have a commitment to building the common good and creating a better South Africa and world.
Thank you for giving me the honour of addressing you on such an auspicious day.
Acknowledgment: My thanks to Andrew Harington for the historical information used in my speech, sourced from his book titled “The Ridge”.