A boarding house visit - 30 years on

16:00, Oct 26 2012

You know you are getting old when you get invited back to your old boarding school to give the speech at the formal leavers' dinner. At Nelson College, they now call it the "Old Man's Supper" and there was no getting round it: I was the "Old Man" when I donned suit and tie and walked into the dining hall I bade farewell to 30 years earlier.

Nelson itself and College in particular were as picturesque as ever but much had changed since I and my pimply faced mates had done our time as boarders in the late seventies and early eighties.

Being the oldest state boarding school in the country meant that, in my day, the place was still struggling to cast off more than 120 years of English public school tradition. Prefects had just lost the right to give younger boys the cane; we still wore straw boaters to church every Sunday; and sang rousing songs about rugger and Anglo Saxon warriors in the assembly hall each morning.

Nelson College was distinctly monocultural. If you happened to be Maori that was most likely going to be your nickname unless the earth-shatteringly politically incorrect moniker "boy" became your tag.

Foreign students were very much an oddity, education wasn't a commodity back then and we had a couple of guys from the Solomon Islands and a hapless Malaysian student with extremely limited English. He was teamed up with a charming rogue who spent a month tutoring him to perfectly pronounce the most profane expletives in the most inappropriate circumstances. His stock standard reply to "good morning" was "F... you too".

Eventually the staff cottoned on and he was given a more appropriate instructor.


Our house masters and tutors were exclusively men, generally pretty macho, sporty or outdoors types, their wives either heart-of-gold surrogate mothers who would invite you in for tea and bikkies when you were feeling homesick or untouchable goddesses who became the object of testosterone-fuelled fantasies.

The masters were called Sir while we were addressed by our surnames; my first headmaster used to garden in a suit and tie; and bullying, while not overt or extreme, wasn't unheard of. Army cadet training was compulsory and the idea of playing soccer on the main sports field was considered sacrilege.

The most-used facility in any of the three boarding houses was the telephone, apart from snail mail the only way to make contact with the outside world.

But that was then and this is another century and, if being the designated "Old Man" for the evening wasn't enough, the change in culture I observed certainly made me feel brontosaurus-like.

Corporal punishment of any form is long gone, the school now boasts a separate Maori Education unit and the number of Maori on the roll is on the rise. Church for the boarders has been scrapped (because of the insistence of parents) and straw boaters are a quaint relic of the past.

Singing in assembly is a rarity, a large proportion of the boarding students are from Thailand, Japan and Korea. In my old house, the old phone booth didn't even have a phone in it, occasionally the first XI soccer team get to play on the front field (they keep the rugby posts up though), most students and teachers are on first-name basis and the last time there was a serious incident of bullying the police were called in.

The food at the dinner was a lot better than I remembered, the mood more civilised. House tutors (now called supervisors) and their wives sat at the tables with the boys, the head of the boarding department is a woman, who had to get up early next morning to begin a trip to Korea to recruit students. While Auld Lang Syne and the school song were dutifully sung at appropriate times, something of the spirit I remembered seemed lacking.

Remembering how interminably boring such functions were in my day, I kept my speech short and was moderately well received by the young men who shook my hand afterwards.

I got a lift back into town with my old house master who is on the verge of retirement and the closest thing Nelson College has to Mr Chips.

"Things have changed a lot," I observed. ' "You're right there, Sean," he replied, "but not all of it for the better".

Maybe that is just part of getting older.

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