Red divider

Deputy headmaster, fellow Old Dragons, members of staff… This is the second glamorous, virtually all-female lunch I’ve been to in a matter of weeks. The first was at Lancaster House, given by the Prime Minister’s wife Sarah Brown for Mme Carla Bruni Sarkozy and about two hundred hopefully distinguished women. There were a few men there: but they were armed with press cameras, aimed entirely at Carla Sarkozy. Enjoyable as it all was – and it was, quite apart from being able to dine out on ‘I met Carla Sarkozy’ thereafter – this was the one I have been really looking forward to ever since it was mooted.
I’ve been poring over the lists, which I am happy to say include two of my close friends at the Dragon School, Felicity (Wilding) Firth and Lalage (Mais) Shakespeare, a younger friend Sally (Bentlif) Sampson and, just to show the range, someone in her early twenties whose grandmother is a close friend of mine, Julia Johnson. I’ve also raised the demon envy in my brother Thomas Pakenham’s breast: he tried to take away the list, as he put it, to ‘drool over it’. He is only a year younger than me but seized this opportunity to get uppish: ‘Antonia, you were only allowed to come to the Dragon because you were my sister.’ Then he fell to drooling again, reminding me that I once wrote on his exercise book: ‘Thomas Pakenham loves Marion Hunter.’
I came to the Dragon pushing seventy years ago, but I am delighted to see that there are about seven of us here who actually left in the thirties. We are survivors!
I was at the Dragon School for four years – till 1944, twice as long as I was at any other school incidentally - and the first thing I want to say is that I was intensely happy there, I mean HERE. Also since I was here for such a long time compared to my other two schools, or indeed university, the Dragon School must certainly have marked me for life, for better, as I certainly believe. But before considering how that might have been (because there isn’t an alternative me who went to a girls’ school from eight to twelve) I’d like to talk a little bit about what the school was like during the War, and people before and after will perhaps reflect on the difference and tell me.
First of all these were the War Years: I arrived in September 1940, that blissful September weather when the Battle of Britain was being fought, but it was being fought elsewhere. It was only in this sense that Oxford was different: we were never actually deliberately bombed although we had air raid warnings, air raid shelters (in our cellar) as planes headed for Coventry. For some mysterious reason we knew we were not going to be bombed. How did mere children know this? I was a tremendous snooper on adult life and can only suppose I must have overheard my parents talking with fellow dons and wives (my father taught at the University, at Christ Church). On the other hand we did know that Hitler was going to make Oxford his headquarters if he managed to invade, specifically in Christ Church, where he would no doubt live in our father’s rooms.
If the parachutists got through, that is. But Thomas and I were ready for that. On encountering the first parachutist, we were going to use our extremely limited German to say: ‘Ich liebe dich’ and then assault the temporarily relaxed man with ‘Du Hund.’
So no bombs then, but one terrifying incident when one of our planes fell down in flames, missing the Dragon School playing fields by a very short distance – where many boys were to be found of course, for it was afternoon. I actually watched it happening, before the fiery plane finally disappeared from view. In a state of shock, I then went indoors to or house at 8 Chadlington Road, and had tea without telling anyone what had happened. It wasn’t until the next day when my mother told me the frightful news (the pilot died later) that I revealed I had watched it happen.
That house at 8 Chadlington Road where I lived for eight years, was perfect in every way except it was next door to the then Headmaster, Hum, with his thick thatch of white hair. So if I dared to go into our garden during homework time, Hum would gesticulate angrily to me to go inside and get down to it.
 In every other way than sheer conflict overhead, the war was with us. My father had been invalided out in 1940 but most of our contemporaries’ parents were in the forces, and some I seem to remember stuck in the Far East. There must also have been deaths of fathers and brothers. We also followed the war closely, in our case in the Daily Herald, and took great pride in the Old Dragon war heroes! Including the famous Victoria Cross-holders of World War I.
But there were two further effects of the War on our family lives. One was the presence of evacuees at the beginning of the war, mostly from the East End (I wonder what happened to our evacuee Jimmy Perkins who came from a warm East End home, as he told us, with lots of food, in order to avoid danger, and ran into the danger of cold, wet North Oxford, where my mother’s idea of the war effort was to positively enjoy rationing). And then there was the return of the evacuees who had been sent away to the United States or Canada at the end of the war. My version of these returnees is that they were enormous: grown to great heights on wonderful American food, very sporting, had wonderful white teeth – and were way behind us in work. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Share / Bookmark this article