Last night I dreamt I went to Holland Park School again.
I was back among the bombaklats and pussyholes of Shepherd's Bush and Ladbroke Grove. Knife fights in the playground. Punch ups in the classroom. Teachers scared stiff of their pupils. Red seal hashish drifting in from the halls and up the stairwells of the East, West and North blocks; and the distant echo of Marxist rants from Dr. Rushworth, our beloved Headmaster, at morning assembly. Yes, I was one of 2000 happily disturbed pupils at Holland Park School from 1982-1988. And my education, if you can call it that, was a thoroughly subversive one.
Sports block and entrance to Holland Park
But I woke up from that reoccurring dream to discover a nightmare story in the Daily Mail about Holland Park becoming the "School of Jihadis." Shock, horror! Surely some mistake? No: there it was in black and white. Six former pupils had been linked to Islamic State (IS) combatants overseas. Three of them were killed fighting with IS in Syria. One girl was convicted of smuggling funds for terrorists, another tricked into smuggling cash in her knickers. The sixth is now thought to be in Syria fighting with IS.
Holland Park School in the 1970s
Dear oh dear, my alma mater, the School of Jihad? I laughed. But not for long. The right wing British tabloid has always had it in for my old school. In the 1970s they called it the "Commie-prehensive." And Holland Park is famous for its colorful alumni. One "bredin," whom I used to smoke weed with at break time in Thorpe Lodge's sixth form gardens, was part of a gang that tried to rob £40 million ($70 million) of gold bullion from the Swissport cargo warehouse at Heathrow Airport in May 2004. On remand, as a high security inmate at HMP Belmarsh, he had the dubious honor of sharing a wing with hate cleric Abu-Hamza, and the Muslim lads busted by MI5 for plotting to blow up the Ministry of Sound nightclub.
Looks like everyone is bunking off Design and Technology
But can a radical school make you a radical person, left, right or wrong? That was the whole point of Holland Park, dubbed "the Eton of the Comprehensives" in the 1980s, the decade when politicians stopped sending their adolescent offspring there because it was definitely not like Eton. If you were educated at Eton, you might well end up Prime Minister like David Cameron. If you were mis-educated at Holland Park, the choice, then as now, was the dole queue, the jailhouse or the graveyard. Does a school-to-terrorism pipeline beat the usual school-to-prison Holland Park path?
"I can't actually say it's a surprise," says author, journalist and former pupil, John-Paul Flintoff, "because all these 'jihadis' had to come from somewhere, and why not Holland Park School?"
Flintoff wrote about his experiences in the 1998 memoir "Comp". It was his account of the school at its very worst in the 1980s.
"In my book, I tried to convey what it felt like to be terrified most of the time - terrified of classmates who practiced menace and violence with little restraint."
Flintoff (back row, second from right)
It provoked a strong reaction. Flintoff was the subject of death threats from classmates and old acquaintances.
What makes Holland Park School so notorious? Time for a history lesson. Holland Park opened its doors in September 1958. It began its life with optimism and an egalitarian ethos. Streaming and uniforms were abolished, classes were mixed ability, relations with teachers were informal and corporal punishment was absent. It was the flagship, agnostic, left-wing "comp," and every bit as good as a fee paying equivalent, right smack-bang in the middle of posh Kensington in West London.
Sports block. Demolished and sold to part finance construction of new building
The class system was assumed to be broken. We were all equals. Labour politicians and bohemian celebrities sent their kids there, so did bus drivers and cleaning ladies. Holland Park was (and is) multicultural. 60% of pupils come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and speak English as a second language. But between the 1970s and 1990s, its academic standards slipped, posh parents sent their kids to private schools again, its reputation faded and it became "the school of failure."
Best not go to school on an LSD trip: the new Holland Park Academy
After record truancy rates in the 1990s and damning reports by Ofsted (the government body who inspect schools), Colin Hall, a £130,000 a year "super head" was appointed in 2001. He shook up the curriculum and took the school back-to-basics. Old teachers left or were given the boot in "the purge of 2004." Classes were streamed, uniforms returned. Oftsed liked what they saw and praised the school in a glowing 2011 report.
The old building was razed to the ground to make way for an £80 million architectural carbuncle that resembles a supermax prison. And, by stealthy yet official intent, the flagship comprehensive was turned into a new style academy in 2013.
RIP Holland Park School
But what is Holland Park like right now? Will MI5 put a plant in the faculty, or the sixth form, to snoop for home grown terrorists and future enemy combatants? They needn't bother.
I hate this building!
"They have CCTV everywhere in the new building so it's hard to cause trouble," says Cufum Badwill, who left in May 2014. "The whole place is full of cameras. It's not like a school. It's very restricted. It's like a prison."
A panopticon school is a nasty reflection of our increasingly dystopian society. However, like wily cons in a real prison, the pupils know the blind spots.
"The only place where there is no CCTV is the stairwells. And Thorpe Lodge (the sixth form building) but that got vandalised back in April."
The new Holland Park has a zero tolerance approach to violence. Exclusion is used as a tool of control.
"They chuck out all the trouble makers early. It's been that way for a year and a bit."
And no wonder Holland Park is on the Daily Mail's radar. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose house in Notting Hill is in the catchment area, says that he is thinking of sending his daughter there. Would fellow pupils "tax" her lunch money?
Tax Collection at Holland Park Academy
"Definitely. I don't think that's a good idea. David Cameron doesn't know what its like. He only see's the money being put into the school and a small percentage of successful people coming out."
Thorpe Lodge (2014)
The recent "School of Jihadis" controversy has threatened to usurp Holland Park's turnaround status. But my school has always had a rep. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a call girl ring was allegedly run out of Thorpe Lodge's sixth form building.
At the back of the green knoll where the punks used to hang out by the D&T block
But hey, there were other things that were run out of Thorpe Lodge. Where else, as a curious teenager, could you get drugs? Yep, they were part and parcel of daily life at Holland Park School. Pupils tripping on LSD, smoking Red Leb behind "the nut bush" and snorting speed to get through mock exams and finals.
Lest I forget, pupils smoking drugs with teachers; there was plenty of that. One of my inglorious classmates supplied weed and hash to members of the teaching staff. But he had a hidden agenda - blackmail - and had collected evidence of transactions, demanding high grades and glowing references for Uni. Alas, before the diabolical plan could come to fruition, the folks found his stash and took him out of the school.
Teen snog romances that go nowhere, and unrequited love, are the bane of many a schoolboy's existence. And predatory schoolteachers are not just the stuff of seedy tabloid headlines and American TV movies. A bearded English master, the practical spit of Barry Gibb from the Bee Gees, competed with us randy schoolboys for the legal hotties in the sixth form (including the daughter of a peer of the realm). What did I learn from this sordid series of love triangles? Holden Caufield can't beat an adult with a car, a shag pad and a credit card.
Main entrance of the old Holland Park School
Fights are a common feature of school life. With 1400 - 2000 pupils, Holland Park was a large, hostile, campus riven with class and racial conflict. Pupils got jooked (stabbed) and wet (slashed). Punch ups with teachers were frequent. In the 1970s and 1980s, the school was so violent the National Union of Teachers (NUT) had to entice rookie teachers with £241 per term danger money bonuses to work there. And with good reason. One girl in my form beat up three teachers in one day.
Aerial shot of Thorpe Lodge
Ultimately, we were the victims. And it broke the white liberal's heart to see failed and jobless ex-pupils haunting the gates at lunchtime or the end of the school day. Some of them used to shakedown the boys; others used to troll for girls. One of them was an opportunist rapist. He was eventually prosecuted for the rape of a pupil, a girl from the year below me, and served a short custodial sentence. What is creepy is that years later he came back to haunt the school campus. For pubescent schoolgirls, his lost education? For reasons, both inexplicable and unfathomable, there is something about Holland Park's sacred site that binds its alumni, and compels them to return to the scene of the crime.
Holland Park School Trip to Russia (1985). I am on the far left (asleep).
Politics. Fights. Rapes. Drugs. We had it all at my seat of learning. And riotous misconduct manifested itself on two infamous Holland Park school trips. The first was to Amsterdam. Every tramp and rassclat signed up for that bombaklat and we painted the red light district red. Mr. Elliot, who taught pottery out of the Art Department, was one of our charges. His advice to the kids? "Don't walk on the grass when you can smoke it." The trip soon turned into an X rated version of the Willy Russell play Our Day Out and Mr. Gow, the Deputy Headmaster, flew out to restore order and bring us home. Back at school, Mr. Elliot, the pothead teacher who taught pottery, had won much respect from the criminal elements of the student body.
The second fiasco was the school trip to Russia (when it was still the communist Soviet Union). Russia was a mysterious totalitarian state, and none of us knew anything about it. But geopolitical ignorance did not stop Holland Park pupils drunkenly running amok in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I got into a lot of trouble out there and the teachers composed a seven page dossier (which I still have) about my conduct behind the Iron Curtain. The teachers wanted to suspend me but, when I produced pictures of them drinking alcohol, I got out of it. Dr. Rushworth, the Headmaster, was furious that I had his staff over a barrel, and shouted at me like a madman.
No wonder I was getting one over on the teachers: Holland Park was a sophisticated, subversive, big city school with a lot of crazy ideas and influences flying around the place. Chippy and Machiavellian, that's what the teachers had programmed us to be and they only had themselves to blame. And poor old Dr. Rushworth: shortly after, he retired from teaching after being beaten up by pupils (and had both his ankles broken).
But what about schooling, the three Rs? Today, 90% of pupils at Holland Park get 5 GCSEs. But back in the 1980s, militant, wildcat, industrial action by the Trotskyites of the NUT blighted the education of many (me included). In turn, our teachers encouraged us to be political, and, when the library stopped ordering West Indian World, the bullies led the pupils into open revolt and took over our "rassclat racialist" school. Why did the library stop ordering West Indian World? Because no one was reading it.
Was Holland Park a microcosm of life in modern Britain? Yes. And with many a laudable aim. It was unashamedly multicultural. We were the first school in the UK to have anti-racist and anti-sexist policies. It gave us practical lessons in street politics, too. We knew what to do when the police stopped and searched us, and what to so with a partner from either sex because our teachers taught us and taught us well. We were progressive. We were politically correct before political correctness even existed, and we knew it. But, what is the great lesson to be had from all of this? Then, as now, Holland Park School is trapped between the dreams of parents, teachers and the increasingly grim mix of social, racial and secular realities.
What about my education at the Eton of Jihadis? I didn't leave Holland Park with any qualifications and had to get them elsewhere. But what did I learn, exactly? 28 grammes makes up an ounce of cannabis; LSD stands for Lysergic Acid Diethylamide; and, despite our cultural details, we are all the same, and should learn to understand one another without recourse to fear. Or hate. It's a lesson that you never forget.
I got a parental bollocking for choosing CSE subjects like Drama
Ed. Note: this blog is a rambling version of an article recently published in VICE
More tales of Holland Park mayhem can be found here.
I can see my old classroom (top right)