Many Orthodox Jews entertain a genuinely held belief that all non-Jews – or “goyim”, as they usually refer to them – are anti-Semites, drunks, or both. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, how so many impressionable young Hasmo boys came to view their Gentile pedagogues as perpetually inebriated Oswald Mosleys. None of this nonsense, however, should cloud our judgment of Hasmonean’s former Economics and British Constitution teacher, Mr. Woodthorpe Harrison.
Mr. Harrison – or “Woody”, as he was affectionately known – most definitely did like a drink, but we never saw him drunk. And, while he may have made the odd comment about Jews, they were never nearly as offensive as those made by some of his Jewish colleagues. Commenters to melchett mike have already made reference to Albert Meyer, who would commence his first form classes with “You are all Jewish pigs!” Then there was “Noddy” Lever, who would rattle the coins in his pocket to demonstrate “Jewish music”. “What do you call a Jewish piano?” he would ask. “A cash register.”
With colleagues like Osher Baddiel, who would warn Hasmo boys to “Never trust a goy”, Mr. Harrison could have been forgiven for harbouring anti-Semitic views. He was too far too intelligent and educated a man, however, to let isolated bigotry cloud his judgement.
Woody did occasionally express his disappointment in us – “If I were to tell my friends in the City that you are the future Rothschilds, the Stock Exchange would collapse” – and, when especially disgusted, he would wonder out loud how boys encouraged by their religion to wash their hands before every meal could behave in such a fashion. These, however, were not intended as insults, but quite the opposite – Woody expected more of Jews than of his fellow Gentiles.
Mr. Harrison’s experiences at Oxford University and during the Second World War were the ones that shaped him. From the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, British politics was dominated by Prime Ministers Harold Wilson (Labour) and Edward Heath (Conservative). And Mr. Harrison saw them as his peers, having studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) with them at Oxford, in the 1930s. Following his graduation, Mr. Harrison served in North Africa during the Second World War. He wore his officer tag proudly, and respected ex-Hasmo boys who subsequently enlisted in the IDF.
Mr. Harrison was married before the end of the War, and he related how he had been notified – whilst playing cards with fellow officers – of the birth of his first child. His new paternal responsibilities, he said, altered his perspective on life.
He was stationed in Greece by then, and involved in rebuilding its economy to prevent it falling to Communism. He related how a beautiful Greek woman had used her charms to try and obtain paper – which was in short supply at the time – from the money-printing press he was in charge of. And he was about to comply, until he recalled the words of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
By 1953, Mr. Harrison was living back in London with his family. Never much of a monarchist, until that point, he confessed to having had “a tear in [his] eye” after hiring a room over a pub to watch the Queen’s coronation procession.
Woody joined Hasmonean’s teaching staff around 1960. And, every Monday to Friday morning, he would drive his Mini Minor through the gates of the school without a care in the world, blissfully unaware of the antics of the day ahead. On one such, a potato was shoved up his car exhaust. Just another day at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys.
Sporting his trademark Harris Tweed jacket and brightly-coloured bow tie, Woody would stride proudly towards his class, the day’s Times under his arm (and memories of North Africa perhaps to the fore). His ruddy head was a daily reminder of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, a bald central ridge between two leaping waves of Ben Gurion-style white hair.
Eagerly awaiting Woody’s arrival, we would prance and skip around outside the classroom, in an effeminate display probably inspired by Monty Python‘s Upper Class Twit of the Year sketch. And, as he emerged from the shadows of Hasmonean’s poorly lit corridors, we would also feign mild anxiety attacks. “Oh dear! Quick! Teacher is coming! Quick! Quick! Oh dear!”
All of this would really piss Woody off (which was, of course, why we did it). “Oh, do stop that prancing around!” he would bellow. Another likely legacy of Woody’s army service was his firm view that men should act like men, and display leadership qualities (“Now, when you go into your bank, demand to see their balance sheet. And, if they refuse, demand to see the manager.”)
Woody was clearly more interested in being a raconteur than a teacher. It was obvious that he invested little or no time, thought, or preparation in or for any lesson, and he would certainly never allow a syllabus to get in the way of a good story. In fact, for Woody, a curriculum was an unnecessary encroachment into 45 minutes of fond reminiscence – especially on college and the War – and enjoyable “shooting the breeze”. On asking Woody, for revision purposes, to list the subjects that he had taught that year, David Miller received a slap for his impertinence.
Unshackled by a syllabus, every Woody lesson, Economics or British Constitution, without exception, would go back to banks’ balance sheets, the Gold Standard, the inflationary Greek Drachma, the Queen’s coronation, or his cat (“Finnegan” or “Flannigan”).
“Have I ever told you about the Gold Standard?” was how Woody would commence a typical lesson. This was, apparently, the main economic issue during his time at Oxford. By the seventies, of course, it was a dead one . . . though no one had thought to inform him.
Alternatively, he would start “If you had a bag full of Greek Drachma notes, the bag would be stolen and the money left behind . . .”
Mr. Harrison was a clever man, who effortlessly completed The Times crossword every day. It was only a shame – or stroke of luck (depending on your perspective) – that his passion for Economics didn’t stretch past the Bretton Woods Gold Standard or post-War Greek fiscal policy.
Woody’s tangential meanderings were, anyway, always interrupted. It was “Miller time”:
“Please, sir, Marks is being a cad.”
“Oh, do shut up, boy!”
“No, I have the last word. Now don’t say anything.”
“I just said ‘Don’t say anything.'”
“I didn’t, sir.”
“You just did. Again. Now shut up, or you will get it.”
“Oh gosh, sir!”
And, when Woody tried to regale us with tales of his intimacy with another Greek ‘goddess’, we went into Pythonesque mode:
“Can we open the window, sir?”
“Yes, sir, it is very stuffy in here.”
Mr. Harrison was a decent man. And, unlike so many of his Hasmonean colleagues, he was rarely vindictive or cruel. He was, however, prone to eruptions, having been pushed too far by chutzpadik boys hell-bent on seeing him “lose it”. Any prank, however complex, always seemed worth the planning. Soon after opining that, if we purchased The Times every day, we would be halfway towards passing our exam, Woody entered the classroom to find all of us hidden behind our broadsheets:
“Put those damned newspapers down!”
We brayed. (Woody particularly disdained our poor impersonations of a donkey.)
“Oh, do stop braying!”
Reinvigorated, we brayed again.
“Stop braying! And put those damned newspapers down!”
Lowering them revealed all of us to be wearing Halloween masks. Woody went berserk, hitting Miller.
As with most Hasmo Legends, we were enjoying Woody’s lessons for all the wrong reasons, and the daily challenge of wreaking new havoc jeopardised our examination prospects. As a result, Woody’s two-year Economics A-Level course was abandoned at its halfway point, as new teacher Mrs. Stern was forced to cram the syllabus into just one year.
But Mr. Harrison’s lasting impression on so many ex-Hasmo boys (as seen by comments to melchett mike) had nothing to do with his teaching, but everything to do with his being colourful and different. And, in an institution where a teacher’s individuality usually seemed to hinge on his chosen means of corporal punishment, Woody’s wonderful eccentricity was a breath of fresh air.
According to melchett mike, Woody was still at Hasmo in 1979 (at least). Seeing as his former Oxford peers, Wilson and Heath, were born in 1916, it is reasonable to assume that, if he were alive today, Woodthorpe Harrison would be in his early to mid nineties.
If he is still with us, let us hope that he is enjoying his ripe old age. If not, there are surely angels in Heaven, in maroon blazers, braying sweetly specially for him.
Original draft: Nick Kopaloff & Daniel Marks.
Revised & edited: melchett mike.
[If any ex-Hasmo boys are in possession of a photograph of “Woody” Harrison – or any other good Hasmo photos for that matter – my offer of a soya roll, or one half of a chocolate rice crispies, in exchange remains ‘on the table’.]
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part VIII: A Pearcing Insight (Part I)