Memories of a Year in the English-Speaking Union Secondary School Exchange Program
David B. Brawer, Loomis School (1969) – King’s College, Taunton (1970)
In September 1969, through the benevolence of the English-Speaking Union’s Secondary School Exchange Program, I found myself at King’s College, Taunton, Somerset.
King’s, located in the heart of England’s West Country was, at first, something of a disappointment to me. Two years earlier, my brother had preceded me in the SSE program. He attended a school just outside of London. His year was highlighted by weekly trips into London at the height of the Swinging Sixties. I was to be stuck one hundred thirty miles west of London – in the middle of nowhere. In 1969, the motorways, except for short stretches, did not exist. Both geographically and psychologically, King’s was truly on the other side of the country. In the months leading up to my departure, the fact that I had little chance of seeing much of London was a real disappointment.
I was soon to discover that whatever I missed by not experiencing Carnaby Street was more than made up by my exposure to the glorious English countryside.
My first day at King’s was a whirlwind of new sights, people, and experiences. After a night flight from New York, our group was bused to the English-Speaking Union Headquarters for a luncheon in our honor. The British head of the program, the greatly admired and beloved Lillian Moore MBE, hosted the luncheon. Miss Moore soon became, for many of us, something of a mother figure while we were so far from home. After the luncheon, I was put into a cab and sent to Paddington Station for the trip to Taunton.
I have vivid memories of that train ride. It was my introduction to several of my classmates, the beauty of the English countryside and, most especially, the peculiarities of the Queen’s English. One of my compartment companions was Jane Barker - one of the first girls to attend King’s College as part of a bold new experiment in coeducational education. During the trip, I glanced down and casually mentioned that my “pants” had gotten dirty during the trip from New York. After some giggles, Jane was kind enough to point out that my “trousers” - not my “pants” - had gotten dirty. It was the first of many times in the ensuing months when our common language was a source of amusement and bewilderment for me.
Arriving at school I was escorted to my housemaster’s study. At Loomis - my American school - we had dorm heads, not housemasters. This sounded very official and somewhat intimidating to me. Seated in his chair was Mr. Mansel Jaquet. In his tweeds, the tall, dignified man was the epitome of the English public school housemaster. I don’t remember much of the conversation - except for one thing that remains one of my strongest and most beloved memories of my year at King’s. Between all the “quite rights,” “jolly goods,” and “well dones,” I distinctly remember thinking, “My God, they really talk like that!”
Nothing prepared me for my first night in the Meynell House Senior Dormitory. At Loomis, we had single rooms, or perhaps one roommate. In 1969, the Meynell Dorm was a vast Victorian hall with beds lined up on either side. I took one look and thought, “There is no way I can live here for a year.” It was cold, drafty, and did not allow for any privacy. I am amazed that I got used to it and even more amazed that I came to enjoy bath night when it was my turn to soak in the middle of
the large bathroom while all my housemates filed in and out to wash up.
In 1969, King’s was, even by British standards, a pretty conservative school. Corporal punishment had only been discontinued the year before I arrived and just about all my friends had been caned at least once. There were many rules and a strict hierarchy of authority figures of house prefects, school prefects, masters, housemasters and, at the top, our imperious Headmaster, Mr. James Batten. Compared to my relatively progressive American school, at times it seemed like I was living in some kind of Dickensian time warp. While I have the warmest memories of my year at King’s, I also remember the feeling of going 20 years back in time every time I returned from an afternoon in Taunton. I had one particularly unsettling experience with the “power structure” when an article written in the school newspaper that I helped start angered Mr. Batten. For a short time, I thought I might be sent home in disgrace. From this, I gained a lifetime respect for the power of the press and the power of the authorities to stifle it.
I did enjoy taking A Level History. I came into the class knowing little of English history and felt that I got a lot out of it. Despite my ignorance of the Tudors and Stuarts, I did manage to contribute by becoming the resident expert on how to spell and pronounce words like “Massachusetts” and “Connecticut.” I also had Sixth Form Literature with Mr. Batten. We read Hamlet in class. He apparently felt that I could do the least damage to Shakespeare by assigning me the part of the Ghost.
One of my favorite memories was sunrise in the mornings during winter. The English winter is truly miserable. Cold, wet, and dark is how I have always described it to people here. But the winter sunrises over the Somerset hills were glorious. The bright, neon pink remains very vivid for me.
I always enjoyed walking into Taunton. I developed a deep, meaningful relationship with the proprietor of the nearest fish and chips shop. We often joked about how I was going to open one when I got back to America. I still eat fish and chips (when I can find it) with salt and vinegar - much to the disgust and amazement of my family.
Speaking of food, I also have stated for the record that the food at school was truly awful. Whenever I go to a restaurant with my family and shepherd’s pie is on the menu, my kids have to hear how gruesome the shepherd’s pie was at King’s. I also remember being incredulous that the faculty and school prefects at the head table ate different (better) food than the rest of us. I do sometimes miss the bangers and Coleman’s mustard. I don’t miss the kippers.
The gorgeous West Country was revealed to me during numerous trips to the Dorset Coast. King’s had a fleet of sailboats moored at Lyme Regis (its small harbor was made famous by the movie, The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Ben Sykes, one of our most popular teachers, coached the team and would drive us down in his battered Range Rover. I have never figured out how we survived those harrowing trips in the county lanes of the West Country. We NEVER collided with another car or lorry going around a blind curve in the opposite direction.
I never understood cricket.
It was an interesting year to be away from home. 1969-70 was the height of the Vietnam War and there was a General Election in Britain. Edward Heath’s Conservative Party took control from Harold Wilson and the Labour Party. I still remember a bit of graffiti from the London Underground: “Land of hope and faded glory, Give us back those wicked Tories.” It was a rare
and illuminating experience to see my country’s political turmoil from afar and Britain’s up close. I like to think that this has given me a broader perspective than I otherwise would have had. I argued endlessly with my friends at King’s about the superiority of having a written constitution. I never convinced anyone and used to tell them that it was a wonder that they have lasted so long. Come to think of it, they may have been right after all.
I developed a fondness for Harvey’s Bristol Cream that remains to this day.
I could go on and on, and I thank the English-Speaking Union for giving me the excuse to spend an entirely enjoyable Sunday afternoon putting this down on paper. I also thank the English-Speaking Union for allowing me the extraordinary opportunity of being part of the SSE program. As you can probably tell, I have extremely warm feelings for that beautiful little corner of the world and the wonderful people I met there. I think of King’s and the Somerset countryside often and refuse to believe that it has been over fifty years since I was there. I did a lot of growing up during my year at King’s and learned that there was a much bigger, more diverse and complicated world than I could otherwise ever have imagined.
I’m glad I wasn’t stuck in London.