Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe - RGS 1950s: The Scandal Years

RGS 1950s: The Scandal Years

David (Uncle Fred) Garnett (RGS 1956-60) reminisces (you can read Scandal issues 7-18 here)

Sadly, David Garnett died in 2020. You can read his Guardian obituary here.

Scandal image 1

Looking back now, RGS in the 1950s seems a strange and alien place. It was founded and run on the linked principles of selection and streaming. Entry was gained via 11 and 13 plus examinations. Once selected boys were then streamed into forms – terms such as “Express”, “Shell”, “Removed”, “Classics Sixth” and “Upper Removed” left no ambiguity as to where you were located in the school’s organisational and social ‘class system’. The segregation was reinforced by a strict dress code. Sixth formers wore a different coloured uniform – a privilege that was denied boys of the same age but who found themselves in ‘Five Upper Removed’. Prefects wore gold tassels on their caps and had their own punishment room where they were allowed to beat other children without any adult supervision. All staff wore academic gowns and bundles of well-used canes were on display in the Headmaster’s inner chamber. The Combined Cadet Force paraded weekly as a warning to the Soviets or anyone else contemplating invading the Home Counties. There was a firing range in one corner of the sports field where little boys were trained to fire ancient 303 rifles that they could hardly lift and hold without wobbling and the RAF section had its own glider that was permanently grounded after it landed on (and destroyed) the cricket pitch. Arguably the most memorable feature of the CCF was its Punishment Drill that required boys judged to be lacking in character and self-discipline to march up and down in front of the main building for an hour after school.

Scandal image 2It should come as no surprise that these were not happy days for those of us who were destined to take the ‘Removed’ route through the RGS educational experience. Excluded from much of the school’s time-honoured reward structures and alienated by its archaic traditions, a group of 1955/56 Shell entrants resorted to establishing a counter culture that centred on the publication of an alternative school magazine.

The first three editions of SCANDAL were produced as single copies and passed from hand to hand (much in the way in which subversive literature is distributed in prisoner of war camps and other repressive regimes). The covers of the original editions were emblazoned with a logo in the form of a triangle inside a circle and proclaimed the motto “Scandal Spreads”. The first multiple edition (Scandal 4) dropped the motto and Scandal 6 was the last to display the logo. The original price of the magazine was two old pence (later increased to 3d.). They sold well from the start. By Scandal 9 it was clear that the little gestetnered rag had infiltrated other educational establishments – notably the girls’ high school on Marlow Hill. Correspondence and contributions were being received from schools far and wide (including a fan letter from a Junior High School in Connecticut).

The money from sales was held in a school account and the pennies soon accumulated into several hundred pounds. On one occession the fund was used to pay the fine of a single mother who had been sentenced for shop-lifting by the headmaster in his capacity as a magistrate.

The 1-4-9 Mystery

Scandal image 3Scandal provided a voice for the school’s adolescent critics - and like other resistance groups we developed a sort of code of recognition that could be used to demonstrate allegiance to the sub-culture. Originally, the number “149” was used to signify the more unpleasant aspects of school life. Eventually it became the mutual recognition code adopted by Scandal and its readers. It first appeared in print in Scandal 12 published on 22nd. July 1959 – just after the examination nightmares had taken place. That edition’s editorial pointed to a number of recent unpleasant experiences:
“Firstly, we have been forced to inhabit a sort of inquisitional torture chamber known as the ‘GCE Examination Room’. As a matter of fact, it looked suspiciously like a gymnasium until, in the middle of the French paper, our eyes wandered to the racks that lined the walls – then the hideous truth dawned upon us.”...............



Scandal 12 included a short punchy poem entitled “INTERUPTED NIGHTMARE”.

            “149!   149!
            The moon’s on fire, the sun has burst!
            149!     149!
            Women and boys  first!
            Women and boys first!
            Too late! Tool late!
            ‘Tis nine o’clock!”
            (Slightly adjusted for aesthetic reasons 2016)

The ‘Scandal Christmas Almaniac’ of the same year included ‘The Scandal Anthology of Modern Verse’ with contributions from the girls on Marlow Hill. The Introduction made clear that “only poetry of the very lowest category has been included” and if anyone objects to the selection “we will gladly send along some of  ‘De Boys’ to make the necessary arrangements.” The term ‘De Boys’ in this context referred to the prefects whom we fantasized worked for us rather than “De Boss” (Headmaster). The Anthology included a poem entitled “The Dreaded Visitor”.

At my door I heard a noise,
The handle turned and there he was.
“I’m 2KT – I’m from De Boys –
I’ve got a message from De Boss.

“You want me? I asked in fright,
“Won’t yer give a chap a break?”
“No my friend, that won’t be right -
You can’t both have and eat your cake!”

“What do you mean “ I stuttered then,
“I thought I’d made that clear.”
“What do you mean?” I asked again.
“Well my friend, you’ve a nasty end I fear!”

Then in his hand appeared a gun,
On the butt – three figures in a line.
I realized then that I was done –
149!     149!     149!

(I can’t recall to what “2KT” referred)

A Christmas card (designed by our head cartoonist Mick Coles) was included with every copy of the Almaniac. Each card was numbered on the back – they were all numbered 149.

By Scandal 13, the 1-4-9 code had become endemic and appeared in unexpected locations in and around the school. On the back of the back cover of Scandal 13 Mick Coles sketched a simple drawing of a rustic signpost with a little bird tweeting on top of the pole. The sign simply said “1-4-9”. Versions of this signpost arbitrarily appeared on pages of subsequent editions of the magazine.

Scandal also introduced a number of regular cartoon characters. Notable amongst these were “OM” and “Leon Hairy”. In particular, the OM character took off. The idea of “OM” came from a satirical piece in Scandal 8 that ridiculed the claims of yogic practices. OM took the form of a little fat guy in the shape of a fugure 8. By Scandal 15 he was so famous that we produced a whole page of OMs – including MontgOMery (the War wasn’t that long over), MOM (dressed in apron and carrying a mop – seemed OK at the time!), BoredOM (with a hole drilled through his middle) and COMmunism (carrying a hammer and sickle). The side of an OMnibus crammed full of little OMs displayed an advert for OMO (a detergent popular at the time).

I’m not sure when the final edition of Scandal hit the streets. The editorial of Scandal 18 apologises for not producing a Christmas Almaniac in 1960 – so it clearly survived into the decade of sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll. I have to assume that its publication ceased with the departure of the editorial board. It is clear however that the 1-4-9 code persisted within the school culture (as a sort of mystery number) for some time.

In retirement I have set up a small independent publishing house If enough people are interested, I am willing to produce and publish ‘The Scandal Compendium’ – pulling together the best bits from the full run. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the first publication. Maybe the time has come to re-launch Scandal into the electronic age? I am aware that in outlining aspects of its history I have refrained from explaining the etymology (so to speak) of the mystery number. Why 149? Only a few people ever knew that secret. Some will now be dead, others will be suffering from dementia and the rest will almost certainly have forgotten. It is a strange story that I will reveal to anyone who volunteers to re-launch the much-missed scandalous rag. With the reintroduction of the Eleven Plus, Brexit, Donald Trump, and a morally bankrupt press maybe Scandal’s time has come again? Thinking back to the 1950s, it occurs to this old editor that now, as then, humour (including ridicule) can be used as a weapon of reason in an unreasonable world.

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