Fifties Reminiscences: A Celebration of the Hobbies Exhibitions and Bennett the Indefatigable

They were, as I recall, always in December. I’m pretty certain of that because of the dark, damp, dank, cold and inclement meteorological conditions, as Jop would say, and because of the sounds of earnest Christmas music wafting through the drizzle from Porky Richards’ Temple of Music in the corner of the upper Yard – “The Shepherds’ Farewell Chorus” from “The Childhood of Christ” and “And the Glory of the Lord”. The scene was set … a mysterious misty Yard with eager yellow windows beckoning the enthusiastic faithful to a cornucopia of creativity, amidst the ethereal strains of Berlioz and Handel – quite irresistible. They were also, of course, a tribute to the organising skills, boundless vigour, ingenuity and thick skin of the splendid John Bennett, erstwhile drinking buddy of Dylan Thomas (or so he said).

My recollections of the Hobbies Exhibitions are solidly based in the 1950’s. I do not know when they started, or when they finished. I do not know if JB started them and whether they survived him. But I do know they were a spectacular combination of ingenuity, energy, sheer showing off and some impressive modesty by junior Leonardos clearly destined for greater things. They were a wonderful opportunity of legitimately skiving classes on the grounds that “Mr. Bennett needs me in the Gym, Sir” (whether true or a monumental falsehood). “O God, not again”, said many a master, eyes raised to heaven, asking for deliverance.

The Hobbies’ were also an occasion when Budgie’s Cathedral to the Athletic Body (the Gyms) were temporarily desecrated, causing some damage to his blood pressure, general equilibrium and his sense of territorial jurisdiction. Nails were hammered enthusiastically into his beloved beams; hobnailed boots clattered determinedly on pristine floors and junior Tarzans had a great time swinging unrestrainedly from his ropes – and all this in both Gyms on an annual basis!

And what of the exhibits themselves? I was lost in admiration of squadrons of model aircraft of all sizes, colours and nationalities, (some no doubt made by Dad), hurtling across the Upper Gym with rasping menace. We coughed at the exotic smells of model aircraft kerosene mixed, of course, with odours of dubious provenance emerging from Graham Gregory’s chemistry cauldrons. What would the Health and Safety Czars make of all this, I wonder – but can readily guess. I was very envious of a magnificent collection of electric trains (I only had a small clockwork Hornby – pause for sympathy) on immensely complicated layouts which made Clapham Junction look small beer. And there were the splendours of WSE’s brass clockwork model of the Universe; his weird paper mathematical shapes; Andrewartha’s optical illusions manned by cunning IV formers; toys of great ingenuity and geographical entries besides which the fascinations of contemporary travel agents’ windows would pale into insignificance. Those boys lucky to have access to their dads’ cameras revealed talent which was no doubt taken to great heights subsequently – probably for nefarious purposes!

The Arts exhibitionists, or rather exhibitioners, had their place, too – though certainly not as spectacularly as our scientific brothers: we lacked both machines and smiles. I recall that Dave Tovey and I pursued our thespian ambitions with a dramatised short story by Sheridan – which I think bore some little resemblance to Sheridan’s original intentions – not that Bryn Cox thought so however. Various instrumental prodigies did their thing with promise of professional glories to come – Alan Rees and Philip Croot being excellent examples. My abiding memory however is of Stuart Winks and his ventriloquists’ dummy. To a packed Upper Gym, Stuart (or was it the dummy?) took the mickey quite unrestrainedly out of Harry Mento standing with great embarrassment and increasing silent fury in the audience, doing an excellent imitation of a basilisk with indigestion at the scorn being heaped upon his classical brow. Whether Henry Mento extracted any subsequent dire vengeance – immediately or at later leisure – I do not know (perhaps Stuart could enlighten us!).

There will undoubtedly have been many other recreational specialisations I have omitted. Perhaps you, dear reader, could complete the picture for us.

Like the Olympians, of course, the important thing about the Hobbies for us was to take part – not necessarily to triumph. Prizes were incidental. And this, in itself, is an enduring tribute to John Bennett, who mobilised an entire generation to come out of their shells to share their interests with their masters, friends, families and adoring relations. Dynevor was never just about academic attainment – though it was excellent at this. It was about personality formation and it is to the likes of John Bennett and other equally splendid masters (unfettered by militant union restrictions) that we all owe so much.