Item 012 - John Corsellis

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GB 2014 WS-02-ORA-012


John Corsellis


  • 2013-10-17 (Creation)

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[00:25] Move from Homeboarders to College. Two uncles went to Westminster: Philip Manley Bendall and Geoffrey Skeat Manley Bendall. Knew ‘D J Knight’ – teacher or housemaster? (Housemaster of Homeboarders 1929-1936) [01:35] Started in Homeboarders. Allowed to take Challenge a third time once in the school. [02:08] Didn’t believe self to be academically gifted, but was well-behaved and conscientious. Got bottom place in College. [02:42] Big change. Started to board. Had been commuting from Brighton. [03:20] Used to boarding – had boarded at Prep School. ‘Laid-back’ culture in late 1930s Westminster. [03:48] Dormitory one large room. 18th century building. High ceiling. Divided up with wooden panelling into 40 cubicles. [04:55] ‘Degree of promiscuity’, boys sneaking into each other’s cubicles. Too ‘law-abiding’ and frightened to get involved. [05:40] Don’t remember being cold. [06:03] Monitors try to maintain order. Didn’t always succeed. Did lots of reading with a torch at night. John Mason Whiskard in next cubicle. Richard Geoffrey Whiskard, older brother. Was a monitor, Corsellis was his fag. Involved almost nothing. Gave Corsellis inscribed copy of ‘Oxford Book of English Verse’ on leaving the school. Was a role model: ‘modest, decent, fair’. Father was a senior civil servant. [08:50] Tasks as a fag. Whiskard was part of the editorial team of the Elizabethan, Corsellis kept a record of their contemporaries. Doesn’t remember preparing food or drinks. [10:45] Latin Play, still in College Dormitory each year. Never even considered for a part. ‘Soft spot for Terence and Plautus’. Matter of considerable excitement. One year attended by the King and Queen. [13:20] Disruptive effect on normal school life, but ‘most enjoyably’. No one annoyed by it. Prologue and Epilogue great fun. [14:50] Felt involved even though didn’t appear. Roped in to help support. [17:05] School felt like a place full of radical ideas and debate. [17:45] Head Master Costley White, ended up Dean of Gloucester. Pompous. ‘Losing his grip’. Governors decided a strong hand was needed afterwards. John Traill Christie followed. Corsellis ‘hero-worshipped him’ as a boy. Exercised authority. [22:00] Doing gym instead of joining the OTC. Discovered fencing. So few fencers, it was easy to be a high achiever. [23:00] Stand out teachers: Peebles (maths). Hillary (history), good role model. Godfrey-Barber (Classics), organiser of the Scouts, Pacifist, eased out of the school. DC Simpson (Master of the King’s Scholars, Classics Master), approachable and kind. Claridge (Modern Languages, school librarian), ‘feud’ with John Bow. [17:45] Christie as a ‘striking preacher’, good projection. Would have been unfavourable for anyone anti-authoritarian. [28:45] Pacifist leanings even when joining the school. Encouraged by the virtues of Christianity in Christie’s preaching (non-intentional) – Christ seemed to be a pacifist. [29:48] Four pacifists in College. William Barnes, became head boy, ‘striking character’, joined Friends Ambulance Unit. Donald Swann. [31:15] Could argue Friends Ambulance Unit to be a ‘logical extension of Westminster’. Contemporary Norman John Peppin Brown, ended up Catholic philosopher in Canada. Corsellis recruited Swann, possibly Brown, for the FAU. [32:32] John Christie, first Lay head master since Camden, yet remembered for his preaching. Charismatic teacher. ‘Put the fear of God in one’. High standards, intolerant of poor performance. [35:12] Felt like Christie was trying to change Westminster – wanted to introduce more discipline. Some boys resented him for it. Culture of staff common room was already strong. [38:10] Could attend debates in the Houses of Parliaments. [38:48] Not the only good fencer- Pears Brothers (Michael Andrew Pears and David Francis Pears) were excellent fencers. [41:30] Kim Philby (Harold Adrian Russell Philby). Had been aware of his father, reviewed a book of his in the Elizabethan. [42:08] Also produced ‘pillars of the establishment’, like Sir William Deakin (Frederick Wilham Dampier Deakin). [42:24] Westminster in the 1930s was particularly outward-looking. Speakers came in to school. Not there when Gandhi came. Poets. Active literary society. Felt in the centre of things and not cut off. [44:40] Paul de Labilliere, Dean of Westminster. Lovely man. Corsellis went back to Little Dean’s Yard to visit someone after leaving and was invited in for tea at the Deanery. Gallery of Westminster Abbey. [46:15] Abbey a big part of school life. Taken for granted as the school chapel. [47:18] Sang in Bach chorale. Couldn’t sing in tune, but volume was too great for anyone to notice. ‘Marvellous feeling’ performing in the Abbey. [48:05] Was at school when coronation happened, but as Town Boy. Watched procession. Probably saw more of it than the boys in the Abbey, juniors were right at the back and didn’t see anything. [49:15] Ceremonies in the Abbey. Very much part of life. Privileged. School gym. [51:05] Meals in College Hall. Food wasn’t particularly good, even before the war started. [52:00] Women at the school. Matron, allowed the boys to listen to Bach symphonies on the radio in College. [53:10] Suffered from appendicitis. Taken to private hospital looking over Vincent Square. Head Master’s wife (Lucie Christie) came to visit, shared books - 17th century literature. [54:12] Being at school when the war broke out. Evacuated to Lancing just before Munich Agreement was signed. Happy memories of Lancing College, especially scenery. Bitterly cold and fairly spartan. [55:55] Allowed back to Westminster for a brief period. Evacuated to Exeter. Mother decided he would leave the school early, get more practical training experience. Not expected to succeed in competition for scholarships for Oxford or Cambridge and wouldn’t have been able to afford to go without one. Left school and articled to a lawyer at Oxford. [57:50] Shorthand typing course at age 18. Could touch-type and write shorthand. [58:30] Atmosphere among pupils being evacuated. Positive. Challenge. ‘Closed ranks and got on with it’. Learned basic first aid. Fire watching. Most of the boys contemplating post-school life – wanted to do a year at university before being called up. Closer to the teachers. Greater feeling of team spirit. Conscious that it was a big job for the teaching staff to cope. Would Westminster survive at all? [01:01:15] Survival of school in debt to JT Christie. [01:01:58] Partly integrated into Lancing college when evacuated – shared activities. Own identity still preserved. [01:29:56] Staff make conscious effort to preserve Westminster identity. [01:03:25] War felt inevitable, boys were aware. Boys with family members in Europe. [01:05:45] Doesn’t remember talking about the war on a personal level with others boy. Kept a low profile. Aware there were a number of pacifists. Unaware William Barnes was a pacifist at the time, but knew Donald Swann was. [01:07:40] Pick up from where left off with first interview. Orpington, working as a hospital orderly. Classical education in Latin and Greek and adequate knowledge of French and German proved useful. After Orpington, spent time as nurse in state hospital. Spoke German to patients, including a fanatical Nazi who was refusing blood transfusions out of worry his ‘Aryan blood would be sullied’. Little chance of surviving. [01:10:45] Sent to headquarters as personal assistant to Whitworth (Old Etonian), who was planning the to assist refugees that would be created as Allied armies made their way through Europe. Dealt with policy correspondence. [01:11:55] FAU ran a training centre in Hampstead in an old house. 12 week training courses. Corsellis didn’t attend, but dealt with teaching material so learnt from that. [01:12:35] Sent abroad. Two months in Egypt, one month in refugee camp for 25,000 Yugoslavian refugees from Dalmatian coast. Teams of 8-10 relief workers. One interpreter liaison officer. Needed to learn Serbo-Croat, found book for Italians wanting to learn Serbo-Croat. Latin and French education made Italian easy, so taught self Italian and simultaneously learned Serbo-Croat. Quickly acting as interpreter. [01:12:14] Went on to Italy, developed fluent Italian. Up to Austria. Camp for 20,000 Yugoslav refugees. Sent on own to translate. Neighbouring camp in next field, 12,000 Yugoslav refugees from Slovenia, part of anti-communist resistance movement, had been involved in Civil War. Political advisor to army decided they were a problem, told would be sent down to Italy. Intention was to send them back to Yugoslavia under agreement with Yugoslavian authorities. Brutally massacred by the communists. Sent back by deceit and threat of force. Wrote book about it, finally achieved a kind of apology from the British government. [01:23:58] Book published in Slovenia. Outselling Harry Potter. Inspired/encouraged a Slovenian writer to write fictionalised book on the subject, with Corsellis-based character as hero. [01:27:45] Other claim to fame – published poetry of his brother from Second World War. [01:30:40] After the war, worked for 13 (ran for 10) for Education Interchange Council, wanting to open up exchanges with ‘ex-enemy countries’ and then with Communist countries (biggest danger of being opponents in a third world war at the time). Told not to become a modern languages specialist at school, but had since learned many in line of work. Good classical education was good preparation.

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