Grammar School Demigod
Updated: Oct 3
They were holding a Memorial Service at Ipswich’s #NewWolseyTheatre for Peter Hewett, Head of English throughout the time I was a pupil at Northgate Grammar School for Boys.
Mr Hewett had a charisma that many found irresistible. The fact that the news of his death could, as it turned out, fill an auditorium the size of the New Wolsey's was ample testimony that here was one who had, in the phrase of André Breton, Dean of Surrealism, 'walked up the hearts of men.' Or boys, at any rate.
The pupils had given him the nickname ‘Stan’ after some Ipswich footballer way back called Hewitt. Our Mr Hewett was a handsome fellow, rather swarthy, and with a touch of the ham actor. His readings in class were consummate performances. (He got money for jam when after retirement he supervised a class or two at Suffolk College. People were glad just to sit there and hear him read favourite passages from David Copperfield or The Midnight Folk. He gave good value.)
He had had poems published in the 1940s, and great things had been expected. But he opted for a career outside poetry and inside the English Department.
When Hewett read his poems at one of the Nacton poetry parties, he seemed to be reading from so low down that I thought the springs had gone in his armchair. Though tastefully written and heartfelt, the poems seemed a bit tame. Not quite in the manner of Eliot but with one or two nods that way, and with a tip of the hat towards Philip Larkin. They were intelligent, well-ordered, reasonable and hard going.
Yes, I’d had Hewett as my English teacher in my first year at Northgate. Oxford graduate that he was, he soon became convinced that I was a yob. I suppose I had a housing estate drawl and a loud voice. I had been heard to say, 'I done m’ best.'
Though Hewett was a good socialist (and as an atheist never attended Assembly) he regarded me as coarse material with which to have to work. Young Cahill or Stevens were more the type that could be groomed up as heroes of the English Department and Dram Soc.
This was some years before I had 'dedicated my first fruits to the Muse', but I'd always done well in English before, got rave reviews in fact, and I felt that Hewett must be giving me low marks for some reason of his own.
What probably damned me in Hewett’s eyes for good and all was my adolescent liking for Dylan Thomas. At the age of sixteen I’d had a half-dozen poems printed in the school magazine, largely through the encouragement of Mr Garrett (another Varsity man in English, but Cambridge this time). Hewett never gave out any praise for these efforts, or any comment at all
The Dylan Thomas flavour of my juvenilia probably offended him. When asked in class what Under Milk Wood was like, he replied, 'Soggy.' The truth was that Dylan Thomas, a contemporary of Hewett's, had won fame and a sodden early grave by writing what Hewett sincerely regarded as tosh.
Bill Stringer had been a student of Hewett’s too, but was insufficiently interested to sort himself out a ticket for the Memorial Tribute. He had some reverence for the bloke though. After all, he'd had the breeding a man of the quill needed. A lot of flair and self-confidence, a whiff of tobacco, after shave, and culture, plus a certain detachment. Attributes I conspicuously lacked.
I persevered to get my ticket for the Wolsey. It involved making a phone call, then dialling another number and saying on what dates I'd started and finished at Northgate, which forms I'd been in, and had I known Peter Hewett in any other capacity than schoolteacher.
That night the place was packed to the gills. Stan Hewett must have been a great man all right.
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