Monday, 27 September 2010

Miss Herbert

For those who are wondering about Kathleen Herbert, I have been in contact with her over the years since I left EHGS as a teacher, and have followed her career as a writer. Sadly, she suffered a severe stroke shortly after she had completed her fourth novel, and was unable for several years to cope with the complexities and stresses of getting it published. She has now handed this job to me, and I feel privileged to be involved in getting what is a very fine book to a wider public. To follow progress see my blog

"Salvete Puellae!"

"Salve Magistra", we all solemnly intoned. Then she would solemnly shake hands with each of us- the Roman way of course, grasping forearms to check we did not have a dagger concealed in our toga!

Who remembers Miss Clifford? I can still see her today: grey hair in a bun worn low on the neck, full figure, sensible shoes- my defining picture of a lady! And indeed to us, nearly all from working class homes, she was a lady indeed, with her refined accent, slightly deep but soft voice, and her big house in Highgate. How do I know about her house in Highgate, and the other two Misses Clifford she shared it with? Truly, I had never eaten wafer thin cucumber sandwiches, or melon with ginger (on which I choked embarrassingly) until our A level Latin group was invited for tea.
She is my link to a now distant past, but she was much more than this- a bridge to the future- as they all were, these astonishing ladies- a whole generation of pre WW1 intellectuals, nearly all single, many having lost fianc├ęs in the war.

For most of my generation of girls at EHGS, university was a distant goal, a doorway to an unknowable but glamorous world, and it was while I was in sixth form that I first remember being excited by ideas.

Miss Clifford was delighted when she learnt that I was to go to University College, London, as she was a UCL student before 1914. “A place of great freedom of thought” She was aware of Jeremy Bentham’s ideas and preserved body, just as I was, although in her time, lectures for men and for women were separate, and staggered by half an hour to prevent unseemly contact.

Later, when I taught at the school, I directed a modern version of a bawdy Roman play, The Rope, by Plautus. My main character was a con man, outrageously camp for those days- forty years ago. The young actress was a bit of a rogue, and as unreliable as the character she played, and chose to go on holiday a few days before the production. I had no choice but to take the part myself. I was well into my stride, milking the sexual innuendos for all I was worth,  when I peered out from under my purple wig, and to my horror saw Miss Clifford in the front row! What would she think of me? I would be deemed vulgar, and almost criminally irresponsible in her eyes.  I really wanted to be anywhere else but there.

After the show she came up, laughing and wiping her eyes, and pumped my hand vigorously “Oh my dear, you have captured the true spirit of Plautus”

Why do we try to protect our elders? Why do we underestimate them?

When Miss Clifford died, her sisters contacted me, and asked if I would like to have her academic gown and hood, as we both had a UCL BA. I was teaching at EHGS at the time and so Miss Clifford’s gown appeared once again at speech day. It is still one of my most treasured possessions, worn annually at my last school’s Medieval Days celebrations.

My older daughter wore the gown when she graduated as a teacher from London Metropolitan University and one day, hood and gown will pass to my younger daughter, who took her degree at UCL. Another bridge to the future.

Alice P Clifford. Requiescat in Pace.