Nobody could have been more surprised than me when I received a call last year from Richard Hough asking if I’d consider becoming the President of the OT Society. I was at School House from 1969-73 but I haven’t been an active OT since. My time at Tonbridge wasn’t particularly distinguished. I wasn’t much good at sport and never became Head of School, Head of House or even a prae. You won’t find my name on one of those varnished wooden boards in the cricket pavilion. My career has been in television; if you’ve heard of me – and please don’t be in the least embarrassed if you haven’t – it’s probably from the time when I was Controller of BBC One in the mid-2000s, which ended messily.
I was the second of four Finchams – Anthony, me, Paul and Michael - who were at Tonbridge from the late 60s to the late 70s. My brothers took the view that it would be an honour for a Fincham to become OT Society President, so in a sense I’m representing the family. Earlier this year my distinguished predecessor Sir Sherard Cooper-Cowles relinquished the post and I stepped into his shoes. For the first time in ages I found myself thinking, what did Tonbridge mean to me? What influence has it had? And how does it look today, from a perspective of half a century?
When you rummage through the trunk of memories you’re left with from your schooldays, you can take your pick. A few months ago I was invited to a lunch to celebrate the 80th birthday of the teacher who gave me the confidence to apply to read English at Cambridge – Jonathan Smith. The lunch took place in what used to be known as the Headmaster’s House. I can remember as a Novi being summoned for a fireside chat by the headmaster at the time, Michael McCrum, in the very room where we gathered for Jonathan’s lunch. I can remember because I was utterly terrified.
Five years is a long time, especially during those formative adolescent years. The journey from the nervous trepidation you feel as a 13-year-old, to the sense of intellectual discovery you get from being taught at A-level by committed, impassioned teachers, is a long one.
Jonathan Smith was a big influence on me and so was a history teacher called Mr. Parker. He drummed the syllabus into us so effectively that I like to think that I could still write a decent essay about the decline of Spain in the 17th century. Many thanks, Mr. Parker! Debating was one of the few things I excelled at. I can remember to this day a debate moderated by the acclaimed novelist Vikram Seth – yes, he was at School House too – addressing the question, were scientists eventually going to destroy the world with their inventions? That’s a debate that’s still worth having. When I went up to university, I thought I might join the Cambridge Union, where the political careers of future cabinet ministers are forged. I went along for an open day, watched a thoroughly uninspiring debate and formed the view that the standard of debating was actually a lot better at Tonbridge. So I joined the Footlights instead.
Then there are the memories that should probably remain buried. A friend and I once snuck out of our dormitory after lights out, caught the last train up to London, went to an all night concert by the rock group Hawkwind, then took the early train back from Charing Cross and were tucked up in bed just before we were called for breakfast. We would surely have been expelled if we’d been caught.
Today’s boys at Tonbridge are doubtless accumulating similar experiences, good and bad, on- and off-syllabus. A lifetime lies ahead to reflect on them. My recent involvement with the school has been all the more rewarding because of the long years when I was too busy with my career, and bringing up my own family, and had little time to reflect on the influence of Tonbridge. Now that I have, I realise that it runs deep. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.