Norman F Wilson

From Tony Seaton in 2014

I'm an Old Colfeian, I remember Norman Wilson's music teaching well. 

Colfe's School, Lewisham, South London can trace its history back to the charity of one Richard Walker in 1494 - this duly disbanded under Henry VIII.  The school re-established under one John Glynn in 1568, and receiving a Royal Charter from Elizabeth I in 1574.  Rev Abraham Colfe [MA, Oxon], the only vicar of Lewisham ever to have served a prison sentence* [leastwise, certainly so until I left in 1981] became a Governor of the school in 1613.  The school was refounded a final time in 1652, bearing his name.  It re-joined the independent sector in 1977 following the anti-Grammar School apartheid of the 1970s, when the Sixth-Form became co-ed.  The whole school went co-ed in 1997.

*Following the arrest and execution of the Earl of Essex on a charge of treason, Colfe made a speech in sympathy with him in the Common Room at Christ Church, Oxford.  The speech was reported to the Lord Treasurer and as a result Colfe was arrested and held in Newgate Prison. It is not recorded when Colfe was released, but it seems likely that it was in 1603 at the latest, when following the accession of James I all prisoners involved in the Essex uprising were released.

Looking back on my education and subsequent career in the classroom, he was probably one of the worst teachers I encountered.  One boy out of 92 in my year took O Level music - I was not that boy - for all that, many years later, I completed a graduate-level Diploma in Music, and am now [as I approach 49] trying to complete an MA in Music, Technology and Education.

I see past issues of COMPOTUS suggest he started at DGS in 1958. The descriptions on your 'Staff' page had me smiling.

A little web research seems to indicate that he was connected with Morley College, London between 1946 and up to [at least] 1951.  Whether this was as student or lecturer is not clear.  [My guess, from the career history in one of the attachments, is that he worked there part-time, perhaps teaching evening classes, whilst both an undergraduate.]  An article in their Autumn 1950 magazine has a wonderful title: "The cult of the mediocre". 

He was no better at Colfe's in the 70's.  [It seems Colfe's was foolish enough to appoint him after he left Downer.]  Seems the man didn't change his ways.  I imagine that, to him, was rather like his requests for an essay on "the inside of a ping-pong ball" was to us.  [When a boy dared ask what he was supposed to write, the inside of the ball being empty, Wilson's reply was that this was so similar to the boy's head, there should be no difficulty encountered, and the boy should just get on and write.  I remember the lad was quite upset when Wilson later took almost an hour's creative writing, in which the lad had expressed significant imagination, and simply tore it up in front of him.

I recall at least one choir rehearsal when he did the 'piano lid onto his thumbs' routine - clearly not one to learn from experience.  My mother well recalls an orchestral performance of the Hava Nagila during which, apart from Wilson's trousers slowly gliding downwards as the tempo increased [to the point that he was almost mooning at the audience before such acts were fashionable], the orchestra had reached the maximum speed at which they could play just before the final round of the piece, such that, when he attempted to increase the tempo further, the result was that he actually finished conducting almost a full two bars before the orchestra finished playing.

I don't know how Norman's first name became common parlance at Colfe's though - he was known as Old Norman or just plain Norman among the boys when I arrived in '74.  If any boy even dared use the "N" initial, let alone "Norman" in his earshot, he had a tendency to wind the lad's side-burns/other turf of hair around his finger until their feet left the ground.  It was fun the last time he tried it on me - at a time when I had somewhat exceeded his height!

In the late 1970s, it didn't go unnoticed among my year at Colfe's that NF Wilson also bore some semblance to a rather dischordant far-right political group at the time.

Which reminds me - he also taught Divinity [RE] to the first-years - which was so inspiring and such fun - lesson after lesson writing down his point of view on the subject, as it was dictated to us.  Starting with something about the creation story in Genesis being sufficient to satisfy the demands of simple minds... and he had some expertise in having a little dig at the odd Jewish lad in the class - without quite giving them enough ammunition for a complaint.  [Actually, Dictator is something of an appropriate label.  A mini-Karajan - both on the rostrum and politically.]

It is interesting [though not entirely surprising] that Wilson was such a failure: this was the same man who, after I suffered near-fatal head injuries in a car accident in 1978, signed the Christmas card from the boys in my year [and most of the staff] with the inscription "I hope they put your brain right".

I note Compotus, summer '62, Page 8 makes reference to "the patience of Mr Wilson" - one wonders whether the truth was actually more "the patience of [pupils and the English/drama staff with] Mr Wilson"



Over the last year (2016) or so, I have found myself back in contact with a former teacher (at Colfe's) whose career there started before their appointment of Wilson, and continued long after his departure.  In fact, dear old Stan (the Latin Man) served for more than 50 years, both teaching Latin, and, in his younger years, running the U15 cricket squad to great effect.

Anyhow, in recent times, Stan has started to document his memoirs of Colfe's, much to the delight of many an Old Colfeian, as you can probably imagine.  Now, Colfe's moved to its present campus in 1963.  Among the many superb facilities new at the time is the Mander pipe organ in the Great Hall (I believe this superb instrument had cost a six-figure sum, even back in 1963).

Stan Wolfson's description of Wilson learning how to play it is eyewateringly funny:

A vast amount of money had been lavished on the organ which graced the new school hall and many people were critical of the expenditure.  An organ is all well and good, and looks impressive at first sight.  The problem is that you need someone to play it.  Norman Wilson had been appointed Head of Music, following the departure of Ken Barker, and the largest organ he had ever seen was probably in some porn magazine which he had confiscated from one of the 6th formers.  He had never seen anything like the one in the hall and had never played one before.  It's one thing to play a piano, but quite another to play an organ.  So poor Norman resorted to a subterfuge; he would learn to play it when nobody was around.  He was in the hall well before 8.00 a.m.  There was no one around except "Bill" Bailey, and he was in the toilet anyway. "Bill" always arrived early in order to use the free toilet-paper.  I would arrive about the same time, though not for the same reason.

[I think you start to get Stan's infectious sense of humour already... ]

Conscious that I wasn't alone, I peered into the hall and listened to the awful cacophony emanating from this splendid instrument.  If you've ever heard a pig being strangled, this was it.  But give Norman his due.  He never gave up.  The pig had to be strangled at all costs.  After several days, perhaps a week, Norman grew in confidence until he became absolutely certain that he could perform in public. 

Then came the opportunity. It was Assembly time.  The staff were sitting on the benches along the side of the hall.  In the middle of the facing platform sat Herbert [Headmaster], flanked by his two deputies, reminiscent of the three judges in the Classical underworld about to listen to Orpheus at his best.  Heads were bowed.  Prayers were said.  Now it was crunch-time for Norman; the hymn was to be played.  The beads of sweat could be seen running down Norman's face.  The hands and feet moved harmoniously towards the keys and pedals.

The first few notes were encouraging - not great, but encouraging.  Then came a couple of howlers.  This was organ-grinding in the literal sense.  Some boys were dumbstruck; others sniggered; the teachers stifled their hysterics; Herbert raised an eyebrow; Dacombe and Davies [Deputies] watched poor Norman in horror.  Davies was a true Welshman and loved his music.  He bit his lip and looked as if he was going to take it out on someone, if not on Norman, then on one of the boys.  Somehow Norman got to the end of the hymn.  I think it was one of Joseph Parry's tunes.  So one could understand why Davies was so upset about the disembowelment of a fellow Welshman.

When assembly was over, Herbert had a quiet word in Norman's ear.  I don't know what was said.  But I do know that Norman was in the hall at 7.15 a.m. the following morning.  The noise issuing from the hall sounded no different from the noise emanating from the toilet at the top of the stairs where "Bill" Bailey seemed to have spent the night.

"We are getting something really worthwhile in our new Mander organ" writes Norman in the school magazine (Colfeian, July 1964. p.12).  Great instrument! Shame about the "player" who couldn't cope with the demands of his keyboard!  Norman's performance left him red-faced.

Perhaps he now realised that "Mander organ" is an anagram of "red organ man".  No, I'm not referring to porn in this context, although the word "performer" raises more questions than answers.  Norman seldom attained any degree of proficiency during the early Beardwood years.  Whether he became proficient subsequently requires the judgement of a competent musician.

One thing I do know is that he stayed clear of Herbert, a case of the "Norman Evasion".

- Tony Seaton, 2017