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The Great Newspaper Scandal - 1950

John Bird Remembers

LOOKING at the photo of the 1951 School production of "The Rivals 1951" I came across the figure of Beverley Tarlo. There he is, sitting in the front row, face carefully posed in half profile, a picture of idealism and ego. He was a contemporary of mine, and a something of a character in a school, which at that time, seemed to be full of characters.

Beverley Tarlo Bev was about fourteen when he joined LCGS. His paternal name was Halstead but his mother had re-married Maurice Tarlo, a lawyer who, I understand, worked at that time for the notorious ETU, a very left-wing union. Unsurprisingly, in view of this background, Bev was an orthodox Communist and a card carrying member of the Young Communist League. He had drive and confidence and he relished, even sought after, controversy. His special obsessions, apart from politics, were Graptolites and Trilobites - primitive fossils. He would talk about them endlessly, apparently with great knowledge and authority. To those of us only marginally interested in our studies, and rather more preoccupied with the 'talent' from the Girls Grammar School, such an intellectual interest, so intensely pursued, struck us as a bit odd, even though it gained for him a certain grudging respect.

Bev was really in his element when he had a cause to pursue. One event that I specially remember concerned a young black man who was due to be executed for rape in the USA who may well have been framed by the local white community - as was and is their way in the Deep South. The Daily Worker newspaper, the mouthpiece for the Communist Party in this country at that time, took on his cause, and Bev went round the school looking for signatures in support. To a man, except I think, for Dick Field, and a few others, we did what he asked. What is more, some members of staff signed in support, and these included Donald Auld - the Head of French, who should have known better.

Bev, never one to do things by half measures, duly sent the signatures as a petition to the Daily Worker, on a sheet of paper headed with the name of the school and, totally innocent of the likely consequences, we waited for a response.

This takes me to the other personalities in this tale: NRJ Bradshaw, the Headmaster, and Major Tufton-Beamish MP.

NRJB, aka 'the Old Man', was the classic Grammar School Head of those days; an establishment figure, member of Rotary and one who valued his contacts in the county set. He was in charge of a school that was geared, above everything else, to nurture the few to get into Oxbridge. The rest of us, although not exactly ignored, could take second place in the scheme of things. This is not to say that NRJB was an unsympathetic character. Anyone who heard his moving peroration in Southover Parish Church on Remembrance Day, could perceive a sensibility cut to the quick by the loss of so many Old Boys in the Second World War. Indeed NRJB, to my mind, comes out of this story as something of a hero. He was a product of his time who despite his somewhat reactionary views, retained a sound integrity.

If Bradshaw was a classic Grammar School Head then Tufton-Beamish was a classic right-wing rural Tory MP. He was profoundly anti-communist and had expressed his point of view forcefully on a visit to the Sixth-Form Society at the school, ironically enough, at about the same time as Bev's petition was winging its way to the offices of the Daily Worker. Later, I think, he was to write a book critical of Stalinism. No-one could be in any doubt of T-B's political views.

Inevitably, Bev's, or rather our, petition hit the Daily Worker under a headline such as " Grammar School Stands Firm Against Impending Execution" spread lavishly across its front page. News spread to the other Nationals, and reporters from the Mirror and Express took to way-laying youngsters as they walked to and from school to find out if we were all members of a hard-line communist cell committed to the destruction of western democracy and if we ate babies for lunch. The scandal grew and grew. Questions were being asked about LCGS.

NRJB was furious. He uncompromisingly carpetted the Sixth Form, whilst letting it be known off the record that he had told those staff who had signed the petition that their jobs were very much on the line. Tufton-Beamish, in his turn, was known to have written to NRJB, threatening, among other things, never to visit the school again unless the ringleaders were punished The sensitive amongst us were duly dismayed and horrified. Not so Beverley who, despite several difficult interviews with the Old Man saw the whole thing as a victory of the left against the forces of reaction, and seemed unperturbed, even stimulated by the row.

Of course this provincial storm in a teacup soon came off the front pages and was forgotten, but there is an interesting epilogue to the story which may throw some light on NRJB's character, and his true feelings about the affair. A little while after the event he called the prefects into his study and was about to address us when the phone rang and he was called away. He was gone for a very long time; long enough for the inquisitive amongst us to spot a letter laid out ostentatiously on the desk written from the Head to Tufton-Beamish which in effect said that " . . . of course . . . sympathised . . . stand against the communist menace . . . young men . . . naive in the ways of the world . . . idealists . . . best of humanitarian motives . . . advice . . . assurances of future conduct . . . salutary lesson learned . . . punishment enough . . . etc, etc". All of which, of course, was quite true - a perfect gem of emollient circumlocution.

Looking back, one suspects a deliberate leak by NRJB of the contents of this letter to Tufton-Beamish for it would enable him to reveal its contents to the 6th Form without embarrassing the MP by making it public. What an exemplary lesson this must have been for any embryonic civil servants or politicians among us if it were really so.

A nice story - if it is true! But here a problem arises for I am writng about an event that happened 50 years ago. I am reminded of AP Hartley's comment that " The past is another country. They do things differently there". Memory fades and tends to be subverted by what one would like to have happened. For the life of me I can't remember what occurred when Bradshaw got back from his urgent errand. Did he read the letter to us - in which case there was no leak and my interpretation of the events is quite wrong - or was there some other business that had caused him to call us together? Maybe someone else who was there can remember?

I never met Bev after I left school, although I came across his parents in the 1970's living near Tunbridge Wells, that boiling cauldron of left-wing subversion, where Maurice Tarlo, Bev's stepfather, was lecturing in law at the local College of Further Education. By then he too had moved a little to the right - he had joined the local Fabians!

What snippets of information that I did obtain suggest that Bev, who had reverted to his natural father's surname, continued to be a thorn in the flesh of the establishments where he worked. He was at one time a Reader at Reading University, and an expert on Dinosaurs, just as he was so learned about Trilobites and Graptolites at school, and was a pillar of the Royal Geological Society. He never attained the Professorship which perhaps he deserved - no doubt because of his bloody-mindedness and a total inability to suck up to the establishment. I once met a student of Bev's in Penzance, who spoke warmly of this prematurely white-haired maverick who stubbed out his fags in dishes made from the vertebrae of Dinosaurs

I gather also that, true to character, Bev was involved in some other major dramatic episodes. In one such event, in front of a learned gathering, he and his wife, who had dressed up as Dinosaurs, gave a graphic demonstration of how he thought these reptiles mated. In another, he re-created, in modern terms, the famous 19th century confrontation about Evolution, by taking Thomas Huxley's part in a debate with the then Bishop of Oxford.

From the odd newspaper report, here and there, I also noticed signs that not only had Bev moved to the right, as many of us are prone to do as we get older, but right off the page! He contributed articles to the Salisbury Review, and was also involved in a notorious battle with the Natural History Museum about their use of Cladistics, a modern method devised to classify living things, which he claimed, in the Times and elsewhere to be a Marxist conspiracy! For the life of me, as a biologist, I didn't understand what he was getting at, although I know that he would have had a ready, and very convincing answer to that question.

Unfortunately, however, Bev is beyond all the debate and controversy that followed him throughout his life. Many years ago he was travelling from Bath, his car packed with materials for the annual British Association Conference when he hit a lorry that was doing a U-turn on a dual carriageway and was killed. So much achieved, but so much more to do!