I am going next week to Southwark Cathedral for the memorial service for Dennis Silk, my Headmaster when I was at Radley in the 1980s. He was, according Eric Anderson, then Head of Eton, “the best headmaster of our generation”. You can read one of several obituaries here.
Dennis was famous for his astonishing ability to put names to faces (in a school of nearly 600 boys and 1200 parents). Like so much that looks easy this took great pains — he worked at it. I was at Radley towards the end of his tenure when this superpower was perhaps fraying a little. Shamefully we prefects would test him, on at least one occasion inventing a boy to discuss at one of our regular meetings. “Can we talk about young Mackenzie in C Social? I’m afraid there’s been a recurrence of the old trouble…” Dennis would play a very straight bat.
He was a great sportsman, especially in cricket and fives but was also, inspired by his close friendship with Siegfried Sassoon, literary. He took a special interest in Radley’s annual Declamations competition in which we boys had to learn by heart a verse of some length and recite it in front of the whole school.
I was a reasonable actor and in my final year I was tapped on the shoulder by Dennis. He would very much like me to do a favourite piece of his — Browning’s ‘Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister’. It is a long, highly wrought dramatic monologue of a venerable, embittered monk, consumed by envy and hatred for a beatific novice. Its first word is ‘Grrr..’. This, for a callow seventeen year old, was a stretch. The judge looked slightly shell-shocked by my performance. I didn’t win. I hope Dennis enjoyed it.
One more memory of him: my brother, destined for high office in the school, was in his lower sixth year, caught running an illegal speakeasy: a large number of empty tins of beer were discovered in his room. He was sanctioned: he spent a week at school in the holidays, gardening and picking stones off the new golf course (yes, a golf course — it was the 80s but even then this seemed a little de trop).
The other day my parents came across a letter they received from Dennis at the time: in it he congratulated them for supporting the school and its measures. Good parenting, he said, was sometimes about simply trusting the school.
This old letter from Dennis struck me. We parents these days feel we know best for our children and we tend to micro manage their school experience accordingly. But while we only ever deal with this particular eleven year old once, experienced teachers like the SLT (Senior Leadership Team) here at Knighton have seen hundreds, thousands even and are instinctively using all that experience to make good decisions for our children. Just one of the many thoughts that will be swirling around Southwark Cathedral on Tuesday.
— Written by Mr Iain Weatherby, Govenor —