Barbeques & the Operation

by Adrian Gray (RHS 1982-1988)

Barbecues etc

The annual barbecue in the 1980s was one of the very few occasions to which parents were invited. Late in the summer term, Allan Rimmer would man the designated barbie on the terrace behind the old dining room overlooking the staff garden. Entertainment early on in the evening was provided by the annual game of Village Football. This was played on the field below the second parapet. Two goals were set up with piles of jumpers perhaps ten yards from the trees adjoining the road, and likewise to the fence at the opposite side of the field. There were rules of play - after a fashion! Phil Culmer recalls the gist of these as being "Try not to do any lasting damage!". I certainly remember Richard Hayes - known as Bum, after the way he once expressed disapproval on the football field - announcing loudly the splendidly logical "The only rule is that there are no rules!". He was firmly corrected by Kieran Gallagher, suitably kitted out in his black referee's kit from officiating at local, more conventional, association football games. To be honest, though, most of Keiran's rules covered the area that Phil recalls - physical violence, of which there was rather a lot.

The game itself was fairly free-form. There was, unsurprisingly, two teams although how they were chosen escapes me - possibly by the captains picking people in turn. If so, I was likely to be one of the later picks... Once it had kicked off, the idea was to get the ball through your opponent's goal. Unlike association football, however, it could go between the posts in either direction and could be kicked, carried, thrown or wrestled over the line. In practice what this tended to mean it was a large heap of boys wrestling for the ball, crushed under some unfortunate at the bottom. Every now and then the ball would emerge and be hoofed or carried round the pitch for a few seconds including, just occasionally, through the goal posts, before magnetically attracting another pile of bodies. As an excuse for all-in no-holds-barred wrestling, with no particular intention to score goals, Village Football compared with the Eton Wall Game - if only as an excuse to get Red Hill and Eton into the same sentence.

With all scores settled and excess steam and pulsating waves of teenage testosterone blown off, food would be served. Allan would exude joviality as he did the male thing of manning the barbecue and Kent would be treated to the rare sight - at least, where pocket money wasn't concerned - of his teenage tearaways forming something approaching an orderly queue. Given the number of staff members who suddenly came out of the woodwork bearing spouses and offspring, families visiting and a schoolful of boys who had just spent some time tearing round the field, satisfying them all must have come close to feeding the five thousand. No doubt Allan would have had a good try had he had to manage with two loaves and five fish, with his experience of feeding the Red Hillian throng.

I am not sure now whether or not, later in my time at RHS, parent's days began to appear or whether more activities were laid on for parents. However, one incident involving the school air guns sticks in the mind. After the new dining room was built, the old (1950s) one was used as a sports hall, at a high cost in windows broken by various species of balls before protection was installed. Someone had the common sense to realise that, with a sheet of fibreboard propped up against the far wall to stop everything, it made an ideal indoor shooting range. After one parent's day/evening, however, it was found that the electrical sockets on the far wall had all been shot out! Accusations were thrown around, the usual suspects rounded up and quizzed, and it was eventually discovered that the culprit was someone's father! As a result the replacement sockets were protected with neat plywood panels made in the workshop that could be slid open to use them. But I digress.

Activities over and the multitude fed, darkness would be drawing in. Every year the finale was the same. Between the tennis court and the Lecture Room (by now free of lectures and the home of the school model railway) there was a circular pit where once the Big Fir had stood, but now used for bonfires. Months worth of burnable debris would go up in smoke whilst Bob Piggott - and others (but Bob was a fixture) - strummed his guitar as we all sat round the fire and sang along. I remember old folk favourites like "The Grey Lady" - the circumstances probably led themselves to committing acts of folk music - and RHS barbecues, though I didn't know it at the time, were my introduction to Tom Lehrer via charmingly sick ditties such as "I Hold Your Hand in Mine". I blame the dodgier end of my musical tastes on Piggott!

Darkness had fallen before it all ended and we trooped off to our beds (most of us, anyway, though no doubt a few depraved individuals found other things to do). One year, it closed with what was announced as "Red Hill's national anthem" - to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory", we sang:

"We're not maladjusted
We are not insane
We just come from Red Hill
Because we've got no brain!"


The Operation

When I arrived at Red Hill the Operation was one of those things that tended be talked about in tones that suggested, to the uninitiated, that "We know what this is about, and we're not telling. So there!". It was obvious when it was coming up by the air of anticipation, and by the strange way in which BMs and Cits kept emerging from the Maintenance Committee workshop wearing interesting splashes of custard-coloured paint.

On the night itself we would be gathered in the dining room after tea, where the Operation virgins would finally find out what was going on. In short, it was wide game on a very wide scale. The community members were divided up into three or four teams and their task was to head out into the countryside to retrieve "clues". Each clue was worth points, and the team with the most points won. Red Hill being full of intelligent, inventive and twisted minds, of course it was never going to be that simple. For starters the clues were cumbersome, testing body rather than mind. They were things like dining room chairs, covered liberally in custard-coloured paint to make sure that people bought the right piece of junk back. And no-one knew what the clue they were looking for would be until they found it. Where it might be was equally awkward. Clues to the location of the clues (confused yet?) were given out at the start, and the team captains would allocate them to their team members. These could be pretty cryptic, especially to new boys. I recall wandering round SV trying to find the harbour - little knowing that it was the Harbour cafe! Needless to say, by the time we'd worked it out, someone else had got there first.

Looking back, I presume that the bulkier the clue and the further away it was, the more points it was worth. Top clue was the "Loony Bin" - supposedly a dustbin full of concrete - which would be left in Maidstone, and it was said to be an automatic win if your team brought it back. I never saw the Loony Bin (though I did see a suitcase with two breezeblocks inside), and I suspect it may have been a myth. But lugging a dining room chair across Kent without being spotted was a task in itself, never mind anything with added concrete.

Did I say "without being spotted"? Ah yes, another complication. The teams were given a head start and, after a suitable pause, the BMs and Cits would set off in pursuit. A staff member would drive the minibus and one or two cars, suitably laden, would sweep the lanes of Kent. Their task was relatively easy - there would not be that many schoolboys on the roads after dark, especially not carrying large, luridly-painted pieces of junk. The obvious way to avoid them was to avoid the roads - but there were other hunters on bicycles and on foot and, by benefit of being at RHS longer, knew the countryside better. Every time you were caught, your team lost points. So there was competition between the Community and the Bench and the Cits, as well as between the teams. With sixty-odd maladjusted teenage boys roaming the countryside after dark the competitive possibilities would have made Machiavelli blanch! I have no doubt at all that scores were settled and smaller boys scared witless under cover of darkness.

Many of my memories are vague, and many are random and dull. There are many that raise a wry smile, though. I remember, with a companion, rounding a bend in the road near Sutton Valence and seeing headlights. Panic! I hurled myself into the ditch, and waited for the screech of brakes and the pack of BMs bursting out of the minibus. It never came. I poked my head up over the edge of the ditch. Damn! They were still there! An infinity passed, and still those bloody lights were there! I couldn't believe that the BMs were evil enough to wait until we climbed out of the ditch before they caught us. It would have been a long wait... The lights were on the gateposts of Sutton Valence Mill, and are there to this day.

I also remember one night heading south towards Headcorn. I'm fairly certain that I was with Roger Thompson who, as the junior partner and a city boy, was fairly fretful - especially as I was used to listening for cars on country roads, and he wasn't. We must have jumped in every ditch and climbed through every hedgerow in Kent that night. The gleam of headlights led to a scramble for cover time and time again. When we got back, we discovered that no-one had been available to drive the bus, so it hadn't gone out that night... I wonder if Roger's nerves ever recovered? This coincides neatly with Nick Hendley's recollection that as a staff member the Operation was regarded as a bit of a drag, with much time being spent patching up damaged pupils and collecting debris from across Kent.

I seem to have ended up in SV on Operations fairly often - possibly being built like an underfed Smurf meant that no-one expected me to get any further? Once, with Mark Conway, we were at the top of the steps leading down into the village from the edge of Bloody Mountain, when a huge shape loomed out of the darkness. Marked screamed "Shit! It's Gob!" and took off like a scalded cat. I'd never heard Chris Davies - normally known as "Bouche" - referred to as Gob before, and he caught me, transfixed by fear, because I'd heard it as GoD - and came very close to treating Mark's initial ejaculation as an instruction! Dreana Russ did not have to do overtime on my underpants the next morning, but it was a close-run thing!

One term - perhaps more often, I can't really recall - the main gate bushes, and the grass next to them along the wall, was a safe area where, although we were not home, we could not be caught. This was a double-edged sword as it only took a BM or Cit patrolling the drive (and, once it got close to the return time, they tended to congregate in the school grounds anyway) to make getting out of there without being caught very awkward indeed. Two or three of us had reached this safe haven and Dominic Lawson was patrolling the road on his motorbike (devotees of crappy 1980s TV will appreciate why Mark Conway had christened it Streetgoat). Dom decided that it was time to pull a wheelie, and promptly went backwards off the seat with a heavy crunch as he added yet another crease to his already illegible rear number plate! Did he ever perfect the wheelie, I wonder?

I can remember in a mad panic to escape climbing over a large wall with a thick yew hedge at the top of it to try to hide, and being dragged out and given a thunderous ear-bashing by a BM for being so dumb as to try to climb the wall of East Sutton Park... I can also remember being so pathetically terrified that someone, rather than catching me, picked me up and calmed me down - I have a feeling it was Kev Nunn or David Brown.

As an example of how Machiavellian it could all get, the last Operation ever must stand as a good example. Russell Whitton, not long a Cit, organised it and Viv Sandford and Rob Cester (made a Cit the next day - hence how he remembers the date) were the captains. Viv tried to wrestle a clue from Simon Miles to help his points total, but his cause was doomed before it began. Russell had thrown a draft of the list of clues locations and points values into the JD3 bin, and Rob had found it whilst looking for scrap paper. Armed with the locations of the most valuable ones, he and Graeme Barnes set out to track them down. They hid the tree stump at Jubilee Corner and carried on to Headcorn where - despite an altercation with a BM - they managed to retrieve the bike wheel from the scout hut. Rob became the last captain to win an Operation, with 1000 points to Viv's team's 400. What an honour - we'll carve it on your tombstone!

Top memory, though, and for all the wrong reasons, is the day that Gavin Parnaby and I almost won the Operation. Yes, that's right - Gavin and Adrian. I can't remember where we lugged the chair back from - probably the Headcorn road somewhere. Certainly we brought it back up the field from the direction of the Shant. It may well have been the year of no minibus - I don't remember thinking at the time that the chair would have stuck out like a sore thumb unless we were in a really deep ditch, but that didn't stop us trying to hide. All you'd have needed to do was to look in the ditch that the chair was sticking out of, and you'd have found us. But I digress...

Between us we lugged the damn chair all the way up the field to the second parapet and waited there, sat in the shadow trying not to get too intimate with the nettles and brambles. It wasn't easy reading a watch in the deep shadow but we knew that the team would be disqualified if we arrived before the set time. At such moments, the hands seemed to move with the speed of a particularly poorly sloth. When I judged that the time had come, we moved out of our hiding place and belted up the steps as fast as we could go. It must have been quite a sight - athlete's foot was as close as either of us got to athleticism, and we were hindered by the chair. We bounced off a marauding Cit and burst into the sports hall door. To be told that we were disqualified for being one minute too early! Worse, the other teams had already been disqualified. Had we held on for just two more minutes, we would have won the Operation for our team single-handed. Perhaps it was kismet - neither of us seemed candidates then for being good at anything. But, whatever it was, it was just two minutes between us and undying glory.

Each summer term the tables would be turned and we would have a Bench Hunt instead of an Operation. These had died out by the time I was made a Cit so I don't know whether or not they were identical in format, but certainly the community members set off across the countryside to try to track down the BMs and Cits. For some reason I have very few recollections of the Bench Hunts but I do recall a day spent putting Emma Simons' bike back together, and cycling out towards Jubilee Corner on a balmy summer evening. I don't think I caught anyone - except perhaps Peter Goddard, another name to which I can no longer put a face, but I'm sure an evening spent cycling round the lanes of Kent wasn't wasted! Phil Culmer has good reason to recall Bench Hunts, having been completely flattened on one. Phil had found himself a nice cosy hidey-hole behind a bush to wait for BMs and Cits coming in before the bell. He spotted Richard Hayes charging up the field and leapt from his hiding place straight out in front of Bum (don't ask...). Now Bum was a BM, a sixth former, and a pretty hefty chap. Phil was about twelve, and built like a starved sparrow. Bum, unable to stop, ran right through him like a charging rhino, leaving Phil flat on his back and utterly winded. Then, to Phil's astonishment, Bum came back, picked him up, brushed him down and congratulated him on how well he'd caught him!

I was at RHS for six years, and sadly over that time the Operation withered and died. Some of it was probably due to falling numbers, some of it perhaps to apathy on the part of those needed to organise it. Rob Cester is certain that the last one was on November 29th 1987. I was a Cit by then, and I don't recall it at all! Bench Hunts had died first - perhaps an omen? But what is certain is that nothing like that could take place nowadays under modern Child Protection and Health and Safety legislation - at least, not without serious insurance cover. It was a big thing, being able to go out of school after dark and come back in late, especially for the younger ones amongst us, and an opportunity many children would have been denied.

And, just occasionally, when my mind wanders off on a tangent in some dull meeting or interminable queue, I wonder what would have happened if Gavin and I had arrived just two minutes later...

(with thanks to Nick Hendley, Rob Cester and Phil Culmer for their memories).


Adrian Gray, 2008