It is almost impossible to describe the impact of going to Aiglon. I was a pudgy bespectacled 14-year-old youth from Canada, unsophisticated and un-travelled and nothing prepared me for [John Corlette] and the first meditation of the September term in 1965; but I will come to that.
The school was unprepossessing, though as new boy I had a warm welcome from Group Captain and Mrs. Watts [Group Captain Roy Watts flew with the RAF in The Battle Of Britain in WWII], and some disdain from my new roommates, Tom Fehr, Jonathan Cogswell, Mike McCabe and Steve Axon (I think).
I’d flown from Brussels, alone. The school had advised that as a 4th former, normally I’d be expected to make my own way from Geneva to Chesieres-Villars, but as happenstance would have it, a school master, Mr. Phillips, was collecting a 3rd former, Gray Muzzy, off the same flight and was able to collect me as well. Thank heavens for that!
My first few hours were passed in a panic. My parents had offered me Aiglon; as Canadian friends and neighbours were sending two boys I knew quite well. Derek Morton and Nipper Dunn. Of course I knew Bobby (he’d been rusticated [Brit: expelled/suspended] the previous year for some unexplained exploit with Bharat Jhangiani); but when I checked the list of students on the Alpina [an Aiglon dormitory/house] notice board, Nipper and Derek’s names were not there. I was devastated. I had no idea that they were safely tucked up in Belvedere under the charismatic care of TBO’H and Miss Trott (or that there were two other houses, Clairmont and the mysterious ‘Chalet’ somewhere in the village).
Fortunately Bobby was in Alpina. He came in at some point to kick the lock off Cogswell’s bedside cabinet and ‘borrow’ his peanut butter. The only thing that appeared to be standing between Bob and total chaos in the house was the quiet spoken house captain Martin Yates who seemed to have everything under control and a direct line to 'the Boss'.
The concept of cold showers was novel, and the idea of an early morning run followed by ‘beer and cigarettes’ parade’ of physical jerks worse. And why a cold shower? And green soap? And that tiny towel? It was cold. I didn’t fully appreciate the dangers of the obligatory open window at 2,000 metres until November when I found the water in my glass had frozen.
But nothing prepared me for John Corlette. I’d seen his photo in the brochure and read it from cover to cover, but as I filed into Belvedere for ‘meditation’ I had no idea. The hall was tired and needed painting, the metal chairs were battered and creaky and the noise as old chums met and chattered was phenomenal. Then there was hushing and a modicum of order as everyone finally sat down.
J.C. was slightly stooped, and wore a tweed jacket over a sleeveless jumper. He seemed too small for his clothes, but he was tanned and when he mounted the stage and turned to look at us, the silence deepened. The stage was bare but for a lectern, a table and a bizarre speaker for the phonograph. J.C. explained that the heart of Aiglon was the Meditation and then with a soft penetrating voice proceeded to hypnotise 128 noisy, smelly boys and young men.
It was his manner of total command and confidence. He radiated power and his eyes drew you in, deep pools of thought, windows on his spirituality. He began with toes, and then feet shuffled, bottoms squirmed, hands folded, shoulders straight, cough (and everyone coughed) breathe deep and listen with his mellifluous voice and slowly the testosterone was stilled and there was real, deep silence and he spoke, and we listened. I wish I could remember but it was profound and like the pebble in the quiet pool it rippled through your mind.
He played music and then, slowly we awoke. Noise and boys resumed. A burly Mr. McColville shouted incomprehensible nonsense about basketball. A nut-brown little Mr. Berry announced something about expeditions. The head boy warned something about church on Sunday and then we were filing out. I had maths with Mr. Roddy in Alpina, followed by history with the Group Captain and French with Mr. Agier.
I was a little taken aback by Alan Kitz in French. His world of chaos seemed a far cry from J.C.’s spiritual depths. But slowly and effectively I was won over by one man’s view of preparing for life. It was an engaging and heady mix of muscular Christianity tempered by Kurt Hahn and a frontal assault on all my senses and prejudices at the same time. Who could explain the magic of exploring the mountains under the scrutiny of D.? How could you understand the undercurrent of mysticism and mystery that emanated from J.C., Lady Forbes and Dr. Doris Odlum?
Aiglon was a magical collection of misfits and that included the staff. Cowboy Bob taught art. Mr. Harris told war stories and drank in the Chalet. Tiffer Reynolds was sane and charming while TBO’H was quite sensible and terrifying. Black Mark! Mr. Phillip’s geography classes were chaotic.
Compared with my quiet rural school in remote Ste.-Adele, Quebec; Aiglon’s students all seemed to have escaped from somewhere. All those eccentric English boys! Who could explain Edwin Pollard and Harry Summers? Simon Murray-Wells and Robin Bayford entertained Fritz Koch to sherry most evenings in the top floor of Clairmont and I certainly remember Taylor Dinerman running away just before Meditation. He flitted past me completely buck naked and into the village. Alastair Crooke! How was Louis de Veauce able to be so good at chess? Music was exploding from England, but we asked: Was the Sixth Race better than Just a Few (or was it the Esthetics?) and where did Mike Leonard get the sitar? Why were there so many asthmatics? Hugh Astley? Richard Trafford had a cavalry sabre and would practice slashing thrown fruit. Very messy. In the basement at Alpina, a boy called Jago was building a huge black Czech motorbike. There was some consternation when in the summer term, he completed his work, fired it up and left for England. I knew he was going. We all knew. ‘Groupie’ was astonished.
Why did John Moodie come from South Africa and Chris Master from Oz? Did all the heads of state of emerging African nations send their sons to Aiglon? Was Phillip Mackonnen really Haile Selassie’s grandson? Edwin Nasser? Robin Mycock?
Even the Americans were interesting. Did Todd Barbey and Karl Clark really know how to surf? The Yeagers were very odd and what about Rob Donnell? Or Randy Tucker and Pat McDonnell? Why did Louis P want to run a shop? Was Stephen Dizard’s father really the CIA spy chief in Warsaw? Was what's-his-name, the Crown Prince of Rumania, really allowed to wear a gun for P.T. in case he was attacked?
I went to Milan with Mr. Boas, Antony Haggi and Eric Friedl to hear von Karajan direct La Cavalieri Rusticana at La Scala. On another outing, with a group of some 30 schoolboys, I climbed on [seal] skins to the fabled monastery of St. Bernard. The weather turned and we were trapped there for two days and food had to be dropped from a ski plane. I still remember the net baskets of school bread breaking on impact.
What was a Long Expedition ( and why Dijon?), a Bouquetin award and why was the Dependence out of bounds? How could J.C. afford a Bentley? What about Green badges, pocket money and fines for tipping chairs, leaving lights on, and flicking towels. Why did Dr. Méan have to check my testicles? Were the Armaillie de Conche really local musicians?
I learned to ski in deep powder, to taste and breathe the snow. I embraced the mountains in my blood. Dom, Monte Rosa, Allalinhorn to name some embedded in my heart. Broke my leg training for the ADISR ski race. Monsieur Gysin apologised and said I was too heavy to carry and sent Tom Clark for hot chocolate and a blood luge. In the summer term, I swooped down the 27 kilometres of the Col des Mosses on a bike. It was freedom and responsibility.
There was a rhythm to the school. A deep thread that grew in me as I woke each morning to see and enjoy the Dents du Midi. No boy of 14 is spiritual by choice, but the focus of the school and the dream of its founder was burrowing deep in my soul. The heady mixture of mountain and mysticism and rough boyhood captured me and keeps me still. Through the years, I spent more time with J.C. There were ups and downs, mistakes and triumphs. Initial fear turned to puzzlement and then respect. Deep respect. I never knew him, or understood him, but I knew he was sure, his vision bright and his command total. He became more frail, and skiing with him became rare, but there were moments of total, blissful thralldom when in conversation, he’d smile and his eyes twinkled and his charm and intellect flooded your senses and you just marvelled. He was extraordinary.
Church became more and more meaningful and the hymns will stay with me to the end. Steak and all the frites [french fries] you can eat Sunday night. Molasses stirred into yoghurt for breakfast. Very smelly sleeping bags. English comics like The Dandy. It was always cold in the ‘bogs’ [lavatories].
I never understood the bread, baked once a month in Clairmont. The school was eclectic, such a mixture of odd and unexplained. Mr. Linde was a worry. Bretaye was glorious. I still like Sugus. D.B. introduced me to Socialism, the Labour party and the Financial Times. I never bought it, but he opened my mind. How do you quantify the importance of a Bibi or Joyce?
I was amazed, sceptical, and then consumed. The wonder of it all. A disciple and defender by the end. Committed to a man and his ideal and what he built in a small village in the Alps. Look at what he sent forth across the world and marvel.