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Applying for a scholarship to St John's College, Cambridge


Punished for taking a principled stand
Frederic Raphael Writer
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I was 18 in... in the winter term of 1939, and during that term – early – a man called the Provost of Guilford came to preach a Sunday sermon. And, as I had told Canon Leeson at Winchester, I didn't mind going to chapel, I went to avoid not going, a least up until that point. And this clergyman, at some point during his sermon, said something about Jesus being a carpenter when he was a little boy, and he was a very good carpenter apparently – I didn't know where he got that – and at the end of the week, the clergyman said, he would take his carpentry to the village shop, and the village shop owner being a Jew, would give him as little for it as he possibly could. And there was the usual kind of 'nuurgh', around the chapel. And I sat there in the sixth form pews and did nothing. But afterwards, when I got back to my House, I wrote a letter to the Provost of Guildford in which I said that I thought that he had said exactly the same sorts of things that the Nazis had said, and that he ought to be ashamed of himself.

And a few days later, I was summoned to see the headmaster, the same George Turner who had asked my father what he wanted me... wanted to be done in an Anglican school.  And he showed me the letter which the Provost had received and which he had forwarded to George Turner. And George Turner said, 'The Provost is good enough to tell me that he wouldn't have said what he said if he'd known there were any Jews in the chapel'. Which is tolerably comic now, but which I didn't find particularly funny at the time. 'But', he said, 'you have upset a visitor to the school and you must write to apologise'. I was 18, people had, you know, won the VC [Victoria Cross] by my age, and there I was, holding back tears in front of a silly little headmaster figure.  And he... I said, 'Well, I don't think that I can do that. In fact I won't. Sir'. And he said, 'I think you were hoping to take the Holford Scholarship to Christchurch, weren't you? The closed scholarship of Charterhouse to Christchurch?' So I said, 'Yes, I do want to take it, sir'. So he said, 'Well, I don't think you realise that it's for me to determine who can be a candidate for that scholarship. So I suggest that you write to the Provost of Guildford, and then I will consider your appearing on the list'. So I said, 'I won't'. Believe me, I'm not a very courageous person, but fuck him, as I didn't think at the time. He said, 'Well, in that case you'll have to find your own way to Oxford, won't you?' And I said, 'I will'.

But I didn't. What happened was, that I didn't write to the Provost of Guildford, I didn't get a chance to sit for that scholarship, but my sixth form master, a man called Gibson, who was said to have a glass stomach, and the glass stomach prev  =ented him from going up to school to teach – he always taught in his house. He lay in bed, and he was a very good teacher, and a very good coach, he wasn't a great scholar, not as good as the previous, famous sixth form master who was called the Uncle Irving. But he was... he was a very good coach, and so was a man called 'Sniffy' Russell, VSHR Russell – 'Sniffy' – who used to say, 'I... I will not be slapped in the face with a wet fish'. And he sometimes was and he sometimes wasn't. He was a very sweet fellow. He wasn't as good a teacher, but he was pretty... he was a good scholar.

Gibson had a number of people who were going to go for scholarships... Oxford scholarships, and he said to me, 'Raphael, I think you should go and try for St John's College, Cambridge'. He always had bits of cotton wool adhering to his face, because he had a very sanguine complexion and he shaved with a razor which he clearly didn't manipulate with great skill, so he was always badged with the bobbles of white, like a sort of trainee Father Christmas. And I said, 'Well, I don't want to go to Cambridge'. So he said, 'No, no, go and take that and then the Oxford scholarship's in the spring, you know, you'll be... you'll be ready for that'.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Jesus, George Turner

Duration: 4 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 13 August 2014