Last Thursday I drove two hours to Auckland to mentor a group of Year 13 pupils at my old school, St Cuthbert’s College for Young Ladies. I was there from 1971 to 1977 and as far as I can remember I haven’t been back since the day I left at the end of 1977. It has changed, a lot. For one thing there are far more buildings, new buildings, and some of them are named after people who taught me. That makes me feel very old.
But the main building is still the same and pupils (other than year 13) are still not allowed to walk up the main steps. My memory of these steps is that they were huge and imposing. As I climbed them, I counted them, there are 10 steps. Surely with all the rebuilding it has shrunk? Surely I wasn’t intimidated by 10 steps? Inside the building is completely different, with a massive atrium and four floors of classrooms and language labs and a top floor library. Compared to my school days it’s like a space age learning tardis.
I spoke about my time at school and how different it was and my path through the media to being a full-time author. They seemed to hang on every word and the career counsellor said they could listen to me all day, but she had to give them late passes to go to their first after lunch class as we were still talking after the strange buzzer (the modern bell) rang. The careers block is on top of the old swimming pool, where I never distinguished myself.
I took the opportunity to go back into Clouston Hall where we had daily assembly. Now they have it twice a week. Do they still sing a hymn and have a reading? No, that’s now done in the chapel, and if you’re not Christian, you’re excused. We didn’t have a chapel, we had the hall. It still looks basically the same, the lectern is still the same, the piano looks familiar but I doubt it is actually the same one and the stage holds so many memories.
To add a bit of colour to the proceedings I went as my alter ego. Maybe it was an attempt to hide who I had been, I needn’t have worried, there was no one there who would’ve recognised me. My alter ego is one Charlotte Olivia Marjorie Browne. Her nickname is C.O.M.B, her initials. She’s a writer of detective fiction in the 1920s and she will be the protagonist in a series of books I intend to write, about a writer who helps the police solve murders. She dresses in 1920s garb. I have three cloche hats and a whole bag full of genuine leather and cotton 1920s gloves, long cultured pearls, high-heeled T bar vintage shoes and some vintage clothes, tops, a skirt and a green velvet dress. Over the years her wardrobe will grow and she will help me start my speeches by explaining how I create a character. Remove the hat and gloves and I am back to being me. I wasn’t sure it she ‘worked’ but when I spoke to the Lyceum Literary Club, they absolutely loved her. And on Thursday a woman stopped me in the corridor of the Robertson building and said, “I just have to tell you, you look stunning.” That doesn’t usually happen!
Before I go, a short word on Syria. The pictures of the dead and injured children are horrifying and I’m sure the Assad regime is banking on the fact that the Western world really does not want another interventionist war. It is a war crime and it deserves to be stopped. But what happens if they retaliate? If they send a chemical weapon attack into Israel, what does the world (or the Americans) do next? Syria has the world’s third largest stockpile of chemical weapons, over 100,000kgs of mustard and sarin gas. If only that could be destroyed without the loss of innocent lives. I don’t envy Obama the next few days, but we elect them to make the hard decisions, while we hold our collective breath and pray.
The housework fairy has visited and everything is shiny, if only it would stay that way. But it’s like the garden, ignore it for a while and it goes back to the way it was. Depressing, but there you go.