If only every child had a teacher like him! The maverick Eton master who called pupils thickheads and lobbed croquet balls at slackers as he taught everyone from David Cameron to the Archbishop of Canterbury
The writing of school reports is no longer the art form it was. In these politically correct times, we could hardly be further from the days when Michael Kidson - David Cameron's favourite schoolmaster, and mine - taught history at Eton.
He arrived in 1965 when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones contested the top of the charts and by the time he left, three decades later, it was Take That and Wet Wet Wet.
But while the world around him changed, what never varied was the brutal honesty of Kidson's reports.
'It is like addressing a sheeted tombstone by moonlight, Gore Browne is about as lively as an inanimate centenarian,' Kidson wrote of one unfortunate.
Another pupil was described as a 'truculent navvy', while the parents of a boy named Guy Butterwick received a letter announcing that 'your son has passed his A-levels. An extraordinary achievement for a great thickhead like Guy.'
Such comments today would probably see Kidson called before a disciplinary hearing. That's if he hadn't already been fired for his entirely unorthodox method of dealing with any boy caught napping in his class.
Half a croquet ball would be hurled in the general direction of anyone with drooping eyelids. One day in 1976 — the year before I started at Eton — one class hid the ball to prevent further attacks.
In its place Kidson reached for the nearest object, an electronic calculator belonging to a wealthy boy in the front row. It exploded into a thousand pieces as it hit the rear wall. All protestations by its owner were met with characteristic indifference. The pupils later returned the croquet ball to prevent further losses.
Thanks to such excesses, Kidson stood out as a larger-than-life character even in a school noted for eccentrics.
But let me take you back to a June day in 2015 on the farm I run with my wife on the Galloway coast, after retiring from the Coldstream Guards. This would have surprised my former history teacher, who once described me — with uncharacteristic politeness — as 'a fairly indolent fellow'.
I was never offended. We boys respected Kidson for speaking his mind, knowing it was all part of his unstinting drive to get the best out of us.
This was repaid by our affection for him, the depth of which was hinted at on that summer's day as I glanced at the newspaper. There it was, an announcement that the 'friend and mentor to many, much loved and respected' had died aged 86.
Sadness tinged with guilt passed over me. I'd been thinking that I should try to see him. I was not the only one. 'I tried to get him to stay at Chequers,' David Cameron told me. 'But I left it too late, he had got too old, and that is a big regret.'
Half a croquet ball would be hurled in the general direction of anyone with drooping eyelids
In the days following Kidson's death, obituaries appeared in the columns normally reserved for Cabinet ministers and generals.
Since, in addition to running our farm, I am also a freelance writer, his executors — two of his former pupils — asked if I would pull together the many memories of Michael into a book as a lasting tribute from his boys.
And Michael, if you are reading this in some great library in the sky, I hope you are not too horrified that this 'indolent fellow', such an unlikely Boswell, has been entrusted with this delicate task.
Please God, don't let me split an infinitive.
Kidson, unsurprisingly, was the scourge of any boy who used incorrect grammar. David Cameron told me: 'He once made me write out 100 times: 'I will always use a comma after the adverbial however.' '
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, recalls being 'yelled at for not spelling 'particularly' properly'. Another boy was forbidden from saying 'hopefully'.
'It makes you sound like a football manager,' Kidson told him.
Michael Kidson came from a somewhat different background to most of our 'beaks', as we called the masters. Born in 1929, he had lived with his parents in affluent Belgravia until his father began an affair with the nanny.
The fling did not last, but his parents divorced. The following year his father sailed for South Africa. He returned in 1931, but appears to have gone off the rails and ended up in prison.
Whether his mother had a nervous breakdown is not known — but she walked out on her young son and was never heard of again. Michael went to live with his paternal grandparents in Shropshire. After his grandmother died, his grandfather, a retired vicar, felt unable to look after him, and aged 12, he was sent to the Royal Orphanage Wolverhampton, where he was educated.
He excelled on the sports field and academically. After National Service, he went on to Cambridge. He became a schoolmaster and joined the staff at Eton when he was 36. And from his bleak childhood grew a man who did not care to see unhappy children.
It's significant that he never suffered the indignity of a nickname. Among the beaks at Eton, I remember a Nutty, a Potty, a Sweaty, a Village Idiot.
We referred to him as Kidson and he in turn called each of us by whatever deliberately confused version of our name pleased him.
'Meade' become 'Weed', 'Cook' learned to respond to 'Baker' and Green got used to being called Brown — all of which must have baffled the two German exchange students who sat in the front row of his class at a time when David Cameron was also a pupil.
'They were called Bommel and Hoffman but they became Rommel and Hoffmeister,' recalls Cameron. 'He would treat them with a Fawlty-like courtesy, saying: 'I am very fond of your country and I have visited it many times . . . after the war, of course.' '
He was not persuaded by modern teaching-aids. There was a blackboard, a map of Europe before the Versailles Treaty [the 1919 settlement after World War I], and his intermittently obedient spaniel, Dougal, stretched out in a corner. Lessons began the moment he burst into the room. 'He used to teach in a fluent monologue,' says Olympic rowing champion Matthew Pinsent. 'No notes, no stumbling and your only chance was to write copious notes as he went.'
HE THOUGHT DAVE KNEW LESS ABOUT HISTORY THAN HIS DOG
Old age did nothing to soften Kidson's stance on giving praise to pupils.
When asked what David Cameron (right) was like at school, he delighted in describing him as 'a totally unremarkable boy', adding that the 'A' he had achieved in History A-Level was 'among the most inexplicable events in modern history'.
For all that, he was intensely proud of having taught a future Prime Minister, as became clear in 2009 when some 60 Old Etonians commandeered White's in London and held an 80th birthday party for him.
He greeted his well-wishers with familiar spiky disdain, but old boy Nicky Dunne recalls that when he rose to speak following the toasts, which included a letter of tribute from Cameron, his voice quickly fell away.
'Overcome by the emotion of the occasion he quickly sat back down, his cheeks, for the first time I had ever witnessed, wet with tears,' recalls Dunne.
'His adoring pupils, similarly affected, rose as one, banging the table and roaring our appreciation for long minutes. It was the last time I saw him.'
At Eton, those leaving at the end of the sixth form traditionally give each of their teachers a 'leaver's photograph'. On his one to Kidson, David Cameron wrote: 'I know you think that I know less history than your dog, but all the same I greatly enjoyed being taught by you.
'As you once said, I fear the Oxbridge dons may well be more perceptive than the A-level markers, but the strangest things can always happen.
'Thank you once again for everything, love David.'
David Cameron remembers being captivated, calling him 'an inspirational teacher who made you feel as if you were in the room with the people he taught about'. Where other beaks might have stopped short of discussing the sex lives of historical figures, Kidson revelled in them, including the story of two-time prime minister Viscount Palmerston dying after 'rogering a housemaid on his billiard table'.
'There were no visual aids, just the powers of words and imagery,' recalls William Sitwell, star of TV's MasterChef. 'The fact that 30 years later I can still hear him describing the smell of the morning dew before some battle says it all.'
Once or twice a month he came out with his most famous catchphrase. After describing some epic feat of heroism such as the Charge of the Light Brigade, he would fix his classroom of wretched inadequates with a withering glare and utter the immortal words: 'They were GIANTS in those days.'
He realised that young people need heroes to engage them, something which I fear has been proscribed today.
The moment when Kidson gave back our essays was eagerly anticipated. This was often when he doled out his best insults. A boy of Welsh extraction was told: 'I make every allowance for your nationality, but really this is not good enough.'
He told someone else: 'You are so slack and so idle, I cannot even look at you.' Kidson addressed this to a wall.
Typical margin entries included 'rubbish', 'gibberish', 'sheer waffle' and 'this paragraph reads like a demented parrot'. Meanwhile, the bottom was reserved for such damning entries as this:
I am able, verbally, to ask you what you mean by the things you write. An examiner cannot do this; he will probably think one of several things:
(a) that you are in the middle of an unfortunate brainstorm.
(b) that you are 'having him on'.
(c) that you are an Oriental gentleman with very little English, who has changed his name to Jones.
(d) that you are inebriated.
I shall charitably assume that (b) is the explanation.
Kidson was a much sought-after choice when pupils reached the top two years and could nominate a tutor to broaden their education.
Weekly meetings were held in each beak's own flat, and Kidson invariably welcomed us with a stiff gin and tonic, pouring himself a whisky. Pupils who failed to have an opinion were liable to be told: 'You're so boring, why can't you just say something, anything!'
As for his private life, there was endless speculation about his close friendship with a spinster who ruled the library. She was far from the only female visitor to his flat.
I remember once going round to discuss something and pretending not to notice a strange woman hiding in the dining room.
Although Kidson had a very well-oriented moral compass, it was not always aligned with the school rules. One boy remembers attending Windsor evening races, something for which he would have been beaten, and running into him. 'I believe I teach your twin brother history,' remarked Kidson — then put his binoculars up and watched the race. Nothing more was said.
HOW HE PUT PARENTS IN THEIR PLACE
The term 'helicopter parents' did not exist for much of Kidson's career. He would have loathed the modern culture of parent involvement in the minutiae of exam grades and UCAS applications.
This began to change in the late Eighties, perhaps reflecting wider shifts as society became more plutocratic. But two mothers who wrote to coerce him into helping their sons to Oxbridge were left in no doubt about their son's prospects:
Dear Mrs *******
I personally can't see the advantage of Johnny's staying on for Oxbridge.
He isn't, I fear, strong enough. Neither can I agree with you that there is virtue in courting failure: we have disappointments enough in life without compounding them gratuitously.'
Yours sincerely, Michael Kidson.
Dear Mrs *******
I am always in favour of hitching wagons to stars; but tilting at windmills is another matter. It may sound brutal, but I don't believe Damien is an Oxford runner by any stretch of the imagination.
Incidentally, Damien has shown scarcely any initiative. All I recall is a perfunctory reference some months ago. Lectures are given in April about university entrance. Serious candidates can hardly expect to be spoon-fed day in and day out.
Yours sincerely, Michael Kidson.
Boys who looked to Kidson as a mentor included the future mercenary Simon Mann, the actor Dominic West and mail order tycoon Johnnie Boden. Another boy with reason to be particularly grateful to Kidson was Nat Rothschild, scion of the famous banking family.
In one English class, the boys were told to open their John Milton. Noticing that Nat's book looked different, the beak seized it and was mortified — then elated — to discover it was a first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, worth thousands and borrowed by Nat from his father's library.
Bullied during his early years at Eton, Nat's life turned around only when Kidson began teaching him. When Nat was 'asked to leave' Eton in his last term, Kidson gave him the key to his flat, allowing him to study for his A-levels from there and later helping him to apply successfully for Oxford. 'I would never have gone to university without him,' he said.
Kidson had no family, so in old age many of his boys visited him at his cottage in Gloucestershire. A visit would end in a friendly parting word: 'Nice to see you. Do TRY to pull your socks up.'
'Yes, sir, I will.' When Kidson's health meant he could no longer climb the stairs, Nat bought him a bungalow, agreeing he could repay him once his house had sold.
No doubt Michael was tickled at the thought of the Rothschilds, who had financed the Napoleonic Wars, now giving him a bridging loan; although he continued to be as rude as ever to Nat, calling him an 'unreliable boy'.
Sadly, his mind started dying before the rest of him, a cruelty for someone who derived so much pleasure from using it, and when he died in June 2015 it was in a Gloucestershire care home.
In the months afterwards many of us admitted, to our shame, that we had not seen him for years yet thought about him every day.
We all need mentors in life and for many of us that was Michael. It is almost impossible to fix a comma into a sentence, or frame an insult, or pronounce a word without him hovering at the back of our minds; pernickety little things that mask the bigger truth, that he was a rock to us all.
Maybe in future, instead of saying 'Mr Chips', a fictional character, as shorthand for an inspirational schoolmaster, people will refer to a 'Mr Kidson' instead. I hope so.
The original article was published in the Daily Mail on the 2nd of June 2017 and can be read in full here