Introduction to Finchden

By David Dunhill | Reprinted in the New Era July/August 1973 p. 164.

Finchden Manor.

On the strength (to me, the weakness) of a radio programme which I recorded at Finchden and an obituary notice which I wrote for ‘The Times’, I have been asked to contribute an introduction to the series of articles which make up this special issue of ‘New Era’ about the life and work of George Lyward. I am the least qualified of all the contributors: I met him only a few times and our early meetings were in circumstances which could hardly have been less propitious. I went to Finchden, in 1971, because, since reading Michael Burn’s book, perhaps fifteen years earlier, I had wanted to do some sort of documentary about the place. The first words George Lyward said to me, when I telephoned to ask if I could come and discuss the idea, were “Not on your Nelly!” I gathered that some TV people had recently invaded the establishment and had not endeared themselves by an impetuous approach and a series of clumsy questions. I did not allow myself to be discouraged: we, in the media have thick skins. The trouble is that the thickness is a poor qualification for describing anything as sensitive and elusive as the life of Finchden Manor. Eventually, G.A.L. said grudgingly that I might come over and discuss the project provided that there was no implication whatever that it should therefore be allowed to go ahead.

I did not realise fully that a Man from a Medium (any medium) was about as suspicious a person as could possibly be encountered at Finchden – and a radio man perhaps the worst of all, since he was after getting people to commit themselves to words. Happily unknowing, but happy to have an appointment, I got in my small car and drove across country on a cold February afternoon from Surrey to Tenterden. I did have the sense to conceal my recording machine, microphone and other tools of my insidious trade under an overcoat on the back seat.

On the way, I began imagining what I should find on my arrival. I felt sure there would be a strong feeling of the nineteen-thirties. I saw Lyward as a bearded figure, wearing sandals and a dark shirt, sitting on a tubular chair in a clearing of books, chain-smoking Woodbines and listening to Alban Berg, as boys outside threw cricket balls at his study windows!

How very different was the reality! I arrived in the late afternoon and rang the bell. The door was courteously opened and I said I had to come to see Mr Lyward. “Oh, you want the Chief” said the boy who had admitted me. I was shown into the long, low, heavily beamed room which was “Chief’s downstairs – and more or less public – domain. He had another room upstairs where he was inviolate and where only the staff could find him, and then mostly on the telephone. You could always go to the lower room, provided you knocked on the door; and to knock was something no Finchden boy ever neglected to do.

In contrast to his frigid approach when I telephoned him, ‘Chief’ clasped me by the hand and waved me, with a big sweep of his arm, to the nearest chair. It was teatime. There were some boys there already and, hurriedly, another cluster was invited to come and meet me. Away went most of my shyness and certainly all my images. The tea was the loveliest Lapsang Souchong. It was served in china cups and there were well-cut savoury and jam sandwiches. They disappeared at great speed and more were produced. The boys did it all. Order and courtesy and good manners: these were the last things I had expected to find.

I have described them on a superficial level; but I soon found they went much deeper. True, the boys’ part of Finchden is anything but gracious and has been known to horrify the kind of visitor who likes to see boys polishing fire buckets. The outward refinements were a perquisite of being with The Chief. You went into another world when you entered the private part of the house. But the inner courtesies were much more widely found. I went, later, to one of the Finchden dances and was amazed to watch a long established ritual at the end, reverting to a forgotten, perhaps a Victorian age. The boys, standing together, sang “Good-night, Ladies” to the girls (who had come from Tenterden and around and some from much farther away); and they bowed, low and formally, as they sang. This, by teenagers in the 1970’s, one unselfconsciously and without so much as a hint of a Monty Python mockery, seemed to me an amazing manifestation of the kind of thing Lyward could cause other people to do. He had this chivalrous, formal side (some would call it ‘square’) and it existed alongside all the freedom and unfolding of this therapeutic work. It was (and I hope it still is) a pillar which upheld the structure of the community and it also – very craftily – endeared the place to its potential opponents.

When tea was cleared away, there was a general sitting around and much talk. I suppose a psychiatrist might have called this a ‘Group Therapy Session’, but it seemed not in the least like that. I remember my astonishment as The Chief put his arm from time to time round the shoulders of whichever of the boys was sitting next to him and sometimes he held the hand of another, quite tightly. How many schoolmasters would dare do this and how many modern schoolboys – or parents – would not draw false and fashionable inferences? Only a great and courageous character, I feel, could today give this kind of personal security to the boys in his charge. The Chief, I am sure, had the bigness which every adolescent boy longs – but usually fails – to find in his own father.

I am tripping up – as I was constantly told off for doing during my visit – in my use of words. Finchden is not a School and you must not call it that. It is just Finchden. Once, I referred to a member of the staff as a ‘Master’. I was rebuked with looks of horror. I even asked a boy, who admitted he had a good brain, whether he was developing it. He was shocked and puzzled. “Am I developing it? Does one develop one’s own brain?”

That first evening there was a sort of concert in the Chief’s room. Possibly it was put on for my benefit but, as far as I could see, it just happened. People began to arrive with guitars, and one boy had a violin. The ‘group’ did quite a few numbers of their own making and they included a really beautiful song, in the pop idiom, with a tune I have hummed ever since. It could have gone straight to the Top Twenty. Later, I got the group to come to a BBC studio (where they were rather inhibited) and record it for my programme. How I wish I had dared to produce my UHER machine to record it there and then, along with the other tunes, and the talk, on that memorable evening. But I think this might have alienated George Lyward for ever; and then I should have had nothing and – much more serious – should perhaps never have come to know him. As things were, I was invited to return, in a few days time, when he would allow me to make a tentative start of my ‘radio portrait’. The situation was not that Finchden had had a look at me and decided I was all right. It was that, even in the tiny space of time I was there, I had come to be all right – or more all right. I am quite sure also that Lyward saw to it that the boys, and not he, were my scrutineers and that their approval was the criterion.

So I duly returned. I still had to wait a day or so before the Chief would talk to a microphone. He clearly had a horror of this and all the time I felt I was a surgeon, hovering to perform an operation – and, in my case, without an anaesthetic.

Several contributors, and particularly Barbara Smith – refer to the inadequacy of words: and I shall not enlarge upon this theme. Certainly a tape-recorder was, to George Lyward, a kind of refrigerator which froze words into icicles, where they remained, rigid, suspended and meaningless. “It’s no good,” he said to me after my first attempts to get him to talk to the jutting microphone.
“I just can’t say anything. It doesn’t mean anything ….” But he did say this:

“I have lived for 41 years with thieves. They’ve either broken the law of the land or they’re so maladjusted, as it’s called, along with their cleverness – often as the result of using it defensively – that they have stolen in all sorts of ways – same very subtle. When they are very sick, the demands they make on one’s time and energy – the intrusions upon one’s private life – make them the biggest thieves of all. It all sounds as though I’m up against these modern young. I’m not up against them. I think this is where they’ve reached in their reaction against Society or against adults or against an educational system which has tried to shape them without very much regard for what was, as it were, trying from within to give them their own individual shape.”

That was typical, I felt, of the way in which Lyward combined warmth and love with a total lack of sentimentality and nonsense. I thought that, to thank him for his hospitality (in its widest sense) I should give him a present before I left Finchden and I wondered what it should be. I remembered he had told me he was very fond of wholemeal bread and I went to Tenterden to buy flour and yeast; and then I borrowed his private kitchen to make him some. The two loaves were a great success; and he asked me whether I would teach one of the boys how to bake more of them so that the supply could continue. I chose someone and gave him a lesson: and I told Lyward proudly who my pupil was. “Oh” he said, with mock indignity. “You would, of course, go and choose a bed-wetter!”

Of the many sides of Lyward which emerge from the articles in this issue, I think two emerge strongly and often. One is his non-linear, unmeasuring use of TIME, to which we are so unaccustomed in Western Society. It was perhaps his most powerful therapeutic tool. To a broadcaster it was certainly the most difficult – and the most fascinating – thing to accept. The other point is the Chief’s own vulnerability. He had never forgotten what it was like to be young. Most people do. Most people who have suffered greatly and come through their suffering have also forgotten or denied, the quality of the experience. Lyward, never. He dearly loved the pop-song, of which I wrote earlier, and here is a part of its lyric:

“So don’t worry if you feel your heart is weak
And the words of love are difficult to speak
For the world is full of trials to overcome
And the song will come together even louder when we’ve won.
And we’ll all get together again.
And sit in a circle in the wind and the rain.
With our friends all beside us to hold back the pain.
And we’ll sing to the sun and the sun will come again”

About the author

David Dunhill was educated conventionally at a prep school and at Wellington College. He joined a paper in Wiltshire as a reporter and, after serving in the Middle East and latterly on a Forces Radio Unit, went to the BBC. He was a well-known radio announcer and worked for the Corporation for nearly five decades.