My Runnymede College prize giving speech

It is a particular pleasure for me to be here today as my wife Sonia was head of English at Runnymede many years ago (more than I care to think about) before we married, my two sons, Tomás and Benjamin, were pupils of the School in the 1990s, and I work closely with Charles Powell at the Elcano Royal Institute think tank whose honorary president is King Felipe. Perhaps more importantly the Powell family – Frank, the Headmaster, Charles and their mother Julia – asked me to write the history of the School as next year it will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Given my relationship with the School, my great admiration of its founder, the much missed Arthur, and the fact that I have been given a year to write the book – the longest deadline I have ever had for a project of this nature in my writing life – I could hardly turn down the offer.

So rather than give you one of those pat speeches ready for any occasion that ambassadors or British Council officials tend to give at such events – telling you how very lucky you are to be studying here, which, of course, you are and urging you to seize the day (carpe diem) – I thought I would share with you a few of my findings about the origins of Runnymede. We all like to know where we come from. There were three Runnymedes before the one where we all are today. I will briefly give a flavour of the first two.

Spain in the 1960s was a very different country to that of today, following the terrible 1936-39 Civil War. But there were still shortages. One of them was the lack of a British education secondary school, including for Arthur and Julia’s three children. Indeed some people claimed this was the real reason for starting Runnymede College. The first Runnymede was established in a red house in Calle José Rodríguez Pinilla 13 in 1967. Whilst the dining room and bedrooms were classrooms, there was a sumptuous wooden-panelled drawing room which did service as a music-room, place of assembly and library, but was a shocking waste of space. There was also a swimming pool, but as it had no filter it served mainly as a source of supply of insects and the like for the science teachers, who had to try to use the garage as a make-do laboratory.

The School, with 40 pupils in its first year, took its name from the island of Runnymede in the river Thames where, in 1215, King John signed the Magna Carta, one of the most celebrated documents in English history. One of its most famous clauses states includes the line: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled.” This was heady stuff for the Franco dictatorship.

The choice of name very much reflected Arthur’s belief in the secular liberal English tradition, and with it he was probably cocking a snoop at the Franco regime. Diehard Francoists would have had no idea of the Magna Carta, and if they did would have felt it could never apply to Spain. The School’s name, its motto (Delight, Ornament, Ability, emblazoned on the School badge), taken from “Of studies”, a well known essay by the sixteenth century philosopher Francis Bacon, and Arthur’s decision to divide students into three competing houses – after the physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, the philosopher and physician John Locke and Arthur’s favourite John Maynard Keynes – were a declaration of principles. The School also distinguished itself in those days when most if not all schools in Spain were single sex (heavily influenced by the powerful Roman Catholic Church) by being co-educational.

There was also a School song, the Runnymede medley. The first lines go like this:
“We’re pupils from Runnymede College,
You can tell by our jackets and ties,
We bought them at Galerias Preciados,
You can tell they are not quite the right size.
But we’re still proud to be scholars,
Of a school with so famous a name.
But our teachers complain of our writing.
Yet King John put a cross for his name.”

Galerias Preciados has disappeared – it was bought by El Cortes Inglés – and I don’t know whether the song still exists.

One of the first pupils at the School was John Cabrera who recalls an incident between Arthur and a newly acquired photocopier which in those days was a fairly primitive and hazardous machine. It included a box with a compartment that was filled with a rather unpleasant liquid. One afternoon, John arrived at Runnymede and as he climbed the stairs he heard Arthur call out, “John – is that you?”. “Yes, Mr. Powell.” He continued up the stairs and saw Arthur on the landing who said, “Don’t look!”. But it was too late. “Mr Powell had no trousers on. I did not know what to do”. Arthur had had an accident with the photocopier and asked John to find Mrs. Pearce, the deputy headmaster’s wife, to see if she had a spare pair of her husband’s trousers. The Pearces lived at the School. “I shot down the stairs to find Mrs. Pearce in the kitchen. She was also laughing but trying to be sensible. She handed me a pair of trousers and I took them to Mr. Powell. Now, Mr. Pearce was somewhat shorter than Mr. Powell so I started getting some funny mental images. Nevertheless, I did as I was told and ran back up the stairs with the trousers. Mr. Powell put them on and they came down to just below his knees. It was one of the funniest things I have seen”.

The number of pupils rose to 70 in 1968 and by the summer of 1969 the house was too small and impracticable. After frantic searching, Arthur found rented premises at Calle Arga 13 in the quiet residential area of El Viso at the top end of Calle Serrano, and Runnymede 2 opened in the September. Arga 9 became available in 1970 and in 1973 Calle Leizarán 19, a couple of streets away, was used for two years for the sixth form and for music and art. The sixth form common room was in the garage. As Arga 11 was occupied until 1975, moving between numbers 13 and 9 meant going out into the street and entering the other house by its own door.

Discipline was relaxed. Pupils were free to go to a nearby bread shop in their free periods or lunch break to buy doughnuts, if they had not already availed themselves of churros (a fried dough pastry) sold by a man who would regularly park his bike outside the school from where he would ply his trade.

The lack of facilities at Runnymede did not prevent the School from quickly gaining a reputation among the English-speaking community in Madrid for extra curricular activities, particularly music and drama. This included a production of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone”, a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology which was first performed in Paris in 1944 during the Nazi occupation.

In September 1973, Frank Murphy, a key figure in Runnymede’s history and deputy headmaster since 1977, arrived from Zomba Catholic Secondary School in Malawi, known widely as Box 2, as Hastings Banda, the country’s dictator, had P.O. Box 1. As he could not come to Madrid to be interviewed for the job by Arthur (he was the only applicant), Mr. Murphy’s Spanish wife, visiting her family in the city, stood in for her husband. Arthur’s two main concerns seemed to be whether as an Irishman Mr.Murphy was a heavy drinker and whether he sympathised with the IRA.

Job interviews with Arthur were fairly eccentric. When he later interviewed Wendy Dilworth for the job of Latin teacher his main interested was whether she had the physical strength to carry audio visual equipment up and down stairs. “We find that young ladies from the north of England are good at the heavy lifting,” Arthur told Wendy.

Mr. Murphy made it his mission to tighten up in some areas of discipline, such as smoking. Once he hid behind a door and watched two pupils whom he suspected of smoking go into the toilet. ‘I waited a few minutes and then knocked on the door. It’s Murphy. Open up. The place was full of smoke and on the window ledge was a cigarette still alight.’ He reported the incident to Arthur who asked him whether he actually saw the pupils smoking. Murphy said he had not, but it was obvious they had been from what he had found. Nevertheless, Arthur persisted, revealing early on one of his endearing and uncommon traits for a headmaster – he often took the side of pupils, but without putting down a teacher.

In the summer of 1975, Arga 11 became empty and Arthur quickly signed the lease on it, enabling Leizarán 19 to be vacated and the three houses in Arga to be joined together by two corridors.

Building regulations were disregarded. Arthur got around them and avoided any problems by leaving some money in an envelope for a policeman to collect each month when he visited the area to make sure “everything was in order”. Antonio Vázquez, a pupil at the time, remembers one of the policeman’s visits. “He went into his office and then Mr. Powell walked him out to the front gate and as he came back he turned to me and said in Spanish: ‘No sabes que cabrón es este’. I had a slightly puzzled look and he said he had to bribe him on a regular basis so he did not file a complaint.”

Runnymede can be said to have played an indirect role in the transition to democracy as after leaving Leizarán 19 earned a name in the history books as the safe house in 1976 of Santiago Carrillo, the secretary general of the then outlawed Spanish Communist Party, who secretly returned from exile wearing a wig.

The environment at Runnymede was like that of a large family, with Julia playing an indefinable role as everybody’s aunt, and the dress code for teachers was relaxed until one day Arthur decided that it had gone too far and teachers looked too scruffy. The three science teachers including Frank Murphy were bearded and wore their hair very long. Not so today. Arthur issued an edict that, henceforth, all male teachers should wear a tie. And wear one they did: ties with food stains on them, ties with holograms of naked women, huge lurid kipper ties … it was a massive tie fest, with huge fun had by all. Arthur, to his massive credit, backtracked and revoked the edict. He was quick to acknowledge mistakes, one of the many qualities that endeared him to the staff.

Arthur did not regard examination results as the be-all and end-all of education as this turned schools into what he called “mere crammers”. He set great store by the liberal and humanisty ethos of Runnymede which he defined as including “such things as helping boys and girls to grow up to judge members of the other sex as whole people and not purely in terms of the ‘other sex’ and helping them to know, understand and respect people of different races, cultures and religions.” He was nothing if not ambitious.

A decade after it started Runnymede had close to 266 pupils from 33 countries, a veritable Tower of Babel, with 10% of them Spanish. Today, the School has blossomed with 850 pupils, 60% of them with Spanish nationality, but without losing its ethos. Long may that last.