M M Gabriel v Tony Harrison

This is not a picture of Mother Mary Gabriel or Reverend Mother as she was known, because I could not easily find one of her today. It is however a painting of her predecessor, the founder of the Convent, sister Mary Tredway. The habit is similar but there the resemblance ends, as M M Gabriel was in fact a very beautiful woman, with piercing blue eyes, and an underlying charm which brooked no opposition. Ever.

Yet there was one occasion when things went slightly wrong.  I was in the sixth form, enjoying the anticipation of Reverend Mother’s Feast Day, as this particular year things were going to be a bit different.  It was held on the Feast of the Annunciation, (today, which is what made me think of it) as it was the angel Gabriel who informed the Virgin Mary of her good news, and the school always celebrated with own clothes, sweets, and a film in the afternoon.  Obviously, it was difficult to choose a film that would be suitable for the whole school (ages five to eighteen) so most years all the older girls were bored out of their minds. As were the teachers and the nuns.

So this particular year – possibly 1970, Rev Mother had brainwave.  She had received a leaflet or some such, from an up-and-coming poet who said he would visit the school and do a poetry reading.

What a wonderful idea, we all thought.  Well, I did anyway.  I like poetry and this sounded just up my street.

I was delegated to welcome him and see to his worldly needs – give him tea – the school did not run to coffee or anything else! Which I duly did.

He then had the temerity to ask me for some old looking books, or tomes as he rather pretentiously called them. They were easy enough to find and I gave him a couple.

I brought him to the hall where the nuns had taken the front row, Reverend Mother in the middle surrounded by the other nuns. All quiet, eyes modestly down, hoods covering their foreheads, with the rest of the senior school more or less quietly occupying the rest of the room.

He introduced himself, theatrically placed one foot on the chair, held the old tomes aloft with one hand, shook his mane of hair as all romantic poets do, and then proceeded to read – or recite – this I cannot quite remember from his new book of poetry.

The world, it has to be remembered had just come out of the swinging sixties and was at the beginning of the even more liberal seventies.  The world outside that is.  Inside St Augustine’s we were still in the 1920s.  And not the roaring kind.

He spoke, he whispered, he thundered.  No one knew what he was talking about but for a while everyone maintained their pose of ardent interest.

And then came the rude words.  Oh dear.  This was a girls’ convent school.  We knew these words.  Maybe even some of us used them.  But never ever ever in front of the nuns.  I was sitting at the side of the stage and could see exactly the reactions of the nuns. First, they looked down, some began to take out their rosaries, then the hoods almost covered their faces. Finally, as if rehearsed or even drilled, they rose with one accord and filed out, looking neither to the right nor the left, led by the indomitable Reverend Mother.

Tony Harrison, for it was he, didn’t even notice.  He was so delighted with his performance, that he carried on regardless, until he came to a final breathless full stop.  The school clapped – by the time the nuns had left the room I think most of the girls and lay teachers had relaxed a bit, and I thanked the man.  I was polite but cool.

The school was humming after this show! I was really embarrassed by the whole experience, and later asked him if he had intended to be so outrageous. He looked mightily offended and left.  He didn’t give the books back either.

I think we reverted to the afternoon film in following years. Nothing was ever mentioned again.

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