----------------------------- --- Oct 1934 - June 2007

----------------------------------------- -Red Hill School, 1946 - 1952

-------------------------------------"Vonny" ( as we knew him), the Yogi.

Some 20 or so years ago I caught a national radio news item on a nature-loving hermit called Van Beest refusing to leave his New Forest hut, besieged by the Hampshire police. What happened I never discovered - and his name will never again be national news. From what I knew of him half a century past, he would have troubled neither government benefit funds nor the NHS - but he undertook his statutory conscription without complaint. He may have even been accepted for an extra year; and, equally resilient, both survived.

More enigmatic than anything of which we were accused, his last Pennington neighbours percipiently noted his gentleness; love of nature and a basic life, and being at peace. Knowing him for only five years of his youth, I last saw him in 1953 having shared the excellent education they perceived. However, they'd be surprised that was at a special school near Maidstone at which lessons were optional - a perquisite outside the Art Room he exploited for years - so his education was largely self-afflicted. His tranquility was legendary, even in the traumatic turmoils of maladjusted boys - in a school scorned by both Daily Mirror and Kent Messenger as "that do-as-you-please" outfit which the fictional girls of St Trinian's would have envied. Survivors knowing him then will remember his impressive resilience, moral and physical; talent with water colours signed "Vonny", and love of nature so profound that his anchoritic years were so predictable that our psychologist headmaster (Otto Shaw) could have put it on any career testimonials. Even then he was also a stubborn resident within his secluded world, so I wonder what the RAF made of him during his National Service from 1952 - including most of it at Odiham, in the county in which he died.

As a new boy in December 1947 I first met him on my bell duty waking the school. With Reg Slade, and Reg's goat, he shared a decrepit gypsy caravan rotting by a stagnant pond in the area called The Gangplace, remote from the main building. It was a truly perishing winter, and I broke the door and hinges away from its icing lintel. Door off, Reg soon found a new billet, but not Vonny - to whom doors, windows (and even beds) were mere appurtances of undeserved luxury. He stayed until spring, when MOF (Matron) moved him to the green tin hut on the Terrace - an eponym until he left five years later. For all I know, it was demolished as "Vonny's Hut", 20 years after.

Our basic discipline was fining, but few had solid cash, so anti-social behaviour lost money we didn't have, and we worked it back (preceding both Cashless Society and Community Work Orders) supervised by Benchmembers (BMs) who also provided tribunals for the school court. I'd been "put down" a walloping £1 for scrumping, that against a weekly pocket income of 10d (4p) meant a long hard slog - for which I'd to earn 1/- (5p) before each meal. Vonny was my BM, with ideas of the value of money from the youth of Stafford Cripps. I was to clear detritus from the Terrace ditch, 200 yards long and two feet deep - to unhamper the fauna scurrying in its depths. He gave me a bucket, to be emptied at a dump at the far end of the ha-ha after an half-an-hour filling (without gloves), and return for the next scrabble amongst nettles, adders and other scaled, biting and stinging Wealden nature - and a suspect sewage outflow. Still a town lad, the final whammy was him signing my debt chits for ¼d (one farthing) a bucket. With the 1948 dinarian penny at today's 0.2p, or £0.002, ¼d is 0.05p, or £0.0005. A lot of buckets to a pound (960), and at half-an-hour a bucket for two hours a day I foresaw a three months sentence. Being numerate, I appealed to the school court, and won. My pay was substantially increased, retrospectively; and after publicly admitting misunderstanding "modern" money, Vonny was never given another debtor - while I found more lucrative ways of returning to society.

Aged around 14, crippled by verrucas, he demonstrated practical asceticity by walking barefoot round the gravelled back and front drives until a trail of blood showed across the kitchen yard joining the two. MOF was equally imperturbable, and after watching the therapy for an hour or so, fetched him in and told him to wash his feet - an event not without biblical analogy.

His love of animals was boundless, possibly recriprocated. He inherited Reg's choleric goat, with a butting skull of reinforced concrete and a delight in surprising victims. Billy's favourite crippling target was the outer side of unguarded thighs. Hit there, you'd limp for a day or so, carrying the bruise for a fortnight. Billy was meta-omnivorous, and would have consumed the parish had he not needed to sleep off his appetite. His most famous instant snack was a boy's 10/- postal order (a term's pocket money), but when his bowels absorbed a volume of the 1929 Encyclopaedia Britannica, steps were necessary. Ordered to restrain him, Vonny secured with a rope nearly 200 yards long - having us off our bikes if Billy, with his unbreakable neck, grazed on the tennis court side of the Front Drive.

After the school court fined the goat threepence for not returning a library book, Billy was thought too maladjusted even for us, and Vonny was told to offer him to any farm needing livening up. The nearest taker was the other side of Chart Sutton, three miles away. Vonny walked Billy there, but the next day the goat was munching our Terrace, having found his way back - or followed Vonny. Vonny was told to ensure Billy stayed put, else he'd be put down. In one of his very rare foul earth-shifting moods, Vonny tore the door off his hut and slept in the woods for three days.

His equanimity was next challenged after the unfortunate death of Keith Wright's aged cat - put down by in a D-I-Y manner by Keith, disturbed by its appalling abscess. Feeling he could have cured it, an infuriated Vonny dug up the decayed carcass and put it in what he thought was Keith's bed. That rattled owner thought the jape was David Fisher's, but put it in Brian Pridmore's bed in error. The bed mix was from those boys sleeping in two-bunk chalets - and the three suffering Vonny's Revenge conjured up their own. They dismantled Vonny's bed and tied it to the top of the cedar tree overhanging his hut. Vonny, once stone-cold with fury over Keith's cat, was unmoved. In bare feet he climbed the tree, but descending alone with a bed was in another league. It fell, bouncing through the branches until hitting his own tin roof and onto the Terrace - exploding into as many pieces as such racks of springs consist. At that point came universal sympathy for Vonny, and David set up a Task Force to raid the store of spare beds in the old stables. Caught by MOF, the raiders were put down 5/- each, and Vonny apologised to them for failing to retrieve a bed he was happy to go without.

His remote and unreturned passion for Princess Margaret Rose made him vulnerable to our taunts of "Miss Maggy Nose", to which he'd respond with a playful punch raising a bruise for a week. All very harmless. I guess his entire life was spent in Somerset, Kent and Hampshire - a true Englishman with a Dutch name. As the healthiest character I've ever known, outdoors for the most of his life and an abstaining non-smoker, what's he doing dying? There may be no kith and kin to miss him, but a hundred or so Red Hill boys and staff will remember him with affection.

Ralph Gee
July, 2007