Address at David Parnwell's Memorial Service
St Edward's School on 11th January 2013
We are all here today to celebrate the life of a truly extraordinary schoolmaster and polymath. Parni's death came with a deep sense of loss to all of us who loved him dearly, but I am sure he would have wanted all his many friends here today to remember him as he was, smiling and full of energy and fun, and to celebrate his very fulfilling life. May I start by thanking all those of you who have sent your reminiscences to Robin Houghton.
David Parnwell was born on 14 November 1929 in a modest yet substantial home at Bexley in Kent then a village in the countryside. The house was named "Wanaka" after a lake in New Zealand and of course was the name of Parni's last home in Henley. He was the only child of Eric and Florence Parnwell, though his mother who was a promising contralto much preferred her singing name of Monica. His father Eric (always known as ECP) worked for Oxford University Press and in his early days in the 1920s was sent to several Commonwealth countries to open up OUP branches taking his wife with him as his secretary; in the evenings Monica would sing and Eric would accompany her on the piano to entertain customers or fellow passengers on board ship, so music was in Parnis's DNA. In 1936 aged six Parni accompanied his parents on their third overseas tour for OUP and in his own words: "it is little wonder that I should have become a geography teacher and expedition leader in later life believing strongly in travel and the importance of a global world since I formed these values sitting on an elephant in Ceylon, riding a rickshaw in Singapore, cruising down the Nile in a felucca with a pretty nun, or playing with my dinky toys with American kids on deck crossing the Pacific Ocean". Eric later became Deputy Publisher to the University, did much to launch OUP into the profitable world of overseas English language teaching, and was co-author of a number of dictionaries. Unusually for a member of staff he was a royalty earning author and these royalties helped considerably to pay for Parni's education and subsequent higher standard of living than that enjoyed by most Dragon schoolmasters. Parni was devoted to his parents (Pietas Parentum) and to quote him again: "our family had to work hard yet possessed the qualities of honest interest in other peoples of varying class and ethnic backgrounds, laced by a sense of humour and simple but clear Christian standards".
Parni started at St Edward's in the Easter Term of 1944 when the War was still in full swing and the Chronicle was full of details of those OSE and Staff who were serving with the Forces, had died in action, were missing or wounded or incarcerated as PoWs, and those who had been given bravery awards. He was a boarder in Sing's House named after Warden Sing (1886-1947) who saved the wonderful playing fields from the builders a century ago and who was primarily responsible for the development of rowing at Teddies. Parni was a House Prefect under that wonderful Housemaster Stan Tackley who many of us will remember fondly in the days when Sing's and Apsley were together in the main building behind this Chapel. He was a member of the History Upper VI; was Hon Sec of the Musical Society; sang as a bass in the Choir under the aegis of that great musical genius Edward Manning whose last concert at the Centenary in 1963 will never be forgotten by those present; and he was an Under Officer in the JTC (the war time version of the CCF). He played House rugby for Sing's and in later years often used to wear his Sing's House colours badge on a jumper which only a few us would recognise. It was on the river though that he was happiest. After rowing in the Colts VIII in 1946 he rowed No 6 in the 1st VIII in 1948 his last year. The highlight of his Teddies rowing career was at the Reading Amateur Regatta when after winning three races within three hours the VIII dead-heated with Imperial College in the final and without disembarking had to race half the course again and lost by 2 feet. He always said how much he loved his time as a boy at Teddies.
After Teddies he served his two years National Service as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery (1948-50) first in Cheshire and then in Hong Kong. On his return he sought advice from a close family friend Fred French, an OUP author and the President of the Island of Alderney, and was advised to go to Trinity College Oxford to read geography with a view to teaching. During his three years at Trinity (1951-4) he was the College Captain of Boats for 2 years and had a trial cap for the Varsity VIII in 1953. He made many life-long friends at Trinity including Jonathan Harrison at whose wedding he was best man. In later years he served as Joint Hon Sec of the Trinity Society for 12 years (1994-2006) and in 2008 a Trinity boat was named after him.
It was during his time at Trinity that Parni was first introduced to the Dragon School. It was then a most idiosyncratic prep school with a faithful and very hardworking staff many of whom like Parni gave their whole working lives to the school and whose selfless devotion and dedication to the all round education of their pupils was life changing. Those values of humanity and caring in an atmosphere of hard work and always trying one's best, with good humour, yet with informality and nick-names and with no pretentiousness, breeds a fierce loyalty amongst Old Dragons. Parni became a "stooge" (a sort of trainee teacher) at the Dragon in 1951, one of the earliest stooges after Guv and Hugh Woodcock. As all of us who have been stooges know, there is no job spec and apart from taking the pupil absentees list every day, helping on the playing fields and perhaps taking a form for any member of staff who was away, the only real duty was to act as the Headmaster's batman every evening and pour the drinks. In Joc Lynam's time this involved filling every glass to the top with gin and then trying to top it up with tonic but the tonic was rather frowned upon; this custom was eagerly continued by Inky when he became Headmaster in 1965 and was reconfirmed when Guv became Co-Head in 1972. In hindsight it is a miracle that the Dragon staff of those days particularly the many bachelors survived to such great ages.
Parni joined the Staff proper in 1954 and Joc Lynam was his mentor as he was to so many of the young staff. If the truth be known most of the Dragon staff were eccentric if not barking mad. Spod the scholarship French teacher would shout French irregular verbs while throwing board rubbers at pupils but usually missed; Coppers the geography teacher would move around the school with a blackboard attached to his head; Rabbits would always go straight through a plate glass door and then sometimes remember to open it afterwards. Some had been very brave in the war, some were exceptional sportsmen, most were exceptional teachers and hence the many scholarships at Winchester, Eton and other public schools. But all of the staff were devoted and intent on making school fun for the pupils. In accordance with Skipper Lynam's vision, they really were elder brothers out of school and yet masters with the power of at once claiming and getting the closest attention of their pupils in school. They were determined to develop the talents of each and every child and in most cases they succeeded. Over subsequent years most, but not all I'm glad to say, of the staff seem to have become rather more normal, which is probably due to the many able female staff and to the fact that girls now make up nearly 40% of the pupils.
During his 35 years on the Dragon staff (1954-89) Parni taught Latin for 25 years and science for 10 years; one of the new Science labs is named after him and if you look on YouTube you will find a 1975 Open University programme showing Parni teaching a science class and the great Canon Ron Lloyd who is with us today teaching a divinity class. Parni later taught English as well which he much enjoyed. But it was as Head of Geography for 25 years that he made his name displaying his usual enthusiasm for new challenges by introducing innovative technology aids to his geography practicals and fieldtrips with use of the sturdy epidiascope followed later by the ubiquitous VCR. When he arrived geography was taught once a week in double forms but this changed when he persuaded the Headmaster of the importance of his subject. For many years he set the Common Entrance geography paper taken by all prep schools. In later years Parni wrote, updated and co-authored a number of geography books and he also wrote a book about schools rowing "Fifty Years to Row--A History of the National Schools' Regatta".
I guess many of us here were taught by Parni and a very good and motivational teacher he was too always finding something good to say in our reports to counter our failings. But perhaps many who had the privilege of being in School House , the largest and most senior house, will remember him best as its Housemaster where he served for 15 years starting at the early age of 31 (1960-75) and having a small pokey room opposite Leviathan dorm which no Housemaster today would tolerate. He had a marvellous rapport with the boys as he encouraged and fed the interests and passions of eager and inquisitive pupils. He was also very fair in his punishments; one Head of School remembers organising an inter-dorm pillow fight involving 24 boys after lights out and being the only one who was punished because quite rightly his duty was to keep order. Another boy hatched a duckling by keeping it warm at night in his bed and in the airing cupboard during the day; when one morning as Parni was ladling out the porridge and bemax he saw this duckling waddling along the School House breakfast table he quietly suggested to Ma Kay that it might be better off with some food in the kitchens. After stepping down as Housemaster in 1975 Parni was appointed as the Assistant to the Headmasters, effectively Deputy Head, until his retirement aged nearly 60 in 1989. He also acted as a most effective Director for one Dragon Appeal.
Parni was as busy and enthusiastic out of the classroom as he was in it. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society where he met many interesting explorers including Lord John Hunt who encouraged him in his 30 years as an expedition leader with children and teachers. In the early days during the holidays while Guv would lead the Davos Winter ski trips, Parni would often lead the Easter and Summer school trips to Paris pioneered by Yato and Jacko, and later as from 1972 the marvellous Mediterranean educational cruises for all IAPS schools; he served as a trustee and then as President of the Independent Schools' Adventure Cruises for many years and fostered its values of companionship, tolerance and understanding of others, friendship and above all fun. Tim Street remembers that Parni was on a schools cruise onboard P&O's SS Uganda in April 1982 when the ship was requisitioned for the Falklands War and the pupils were very dismayed to hear the Captain announce that the cruise would have to end immediately at Naples where the world's media led by Kate Adie met them. Parni started the Dragon Explorers Club, an early form of orienteering, which involved a group of 5 or 6 boys normally on Sunday afternoons travelling into the Oxfordshire countryside in his dormobile car (with its famous registration number SOG 516) and being given a map and a compass to find their way to a spot about 6 miles hence where they would then be picked up by Parni ready for tea; I remember this was enormous fun and we learnt a lot from the experiences, and no one was ever lost. After Nicky Knatchbull a very young OD was murdered in August 1979 with his grandfather Lord Louis Mountbatten on his boat in Ireland a Dragon fund was set up to help sponsor ODs to go on exploration trips over the globe; Parni was founder secretary of this Fund for some years and he met regularly with Countess Mountbatten and family members; the Fund is still going strong.
Another of his great loves was the Oxford and Bermondsey Club, a youth club offering a range of sporting and social activities for young people in Bermondsey in South London as well as residential and weekend camps. He was introduced to it by Francis Wylie and Joc and soon helped organise camps for Dragons and Bermondsey boys together during the holidays in Halls Green near Sevenoaks. I remember as a boy staying overnight with one set of Bermondsey parents, visiting the fish market at Billingsgate at 5am the next morning where the father worked as a porter and then going down to Halls Green in a party of boys with the son for a week's fun which included midnight expeditions and a rag revue. The Bermondsey boys used to toothpaste the Dragons by sqeezing toothpaste onto their faces when they were asleep; very character building. We learnt a lot from each other and sometimes the Bermondsey boys would come to camp on the Dragon playing fields; they would invariably beat us in the soccer match. Parni served in later years as President of the Club and many ODs including John Marsh, Martin Hall and Gavin Oram did wonderful work at the Club in London with the famous Mr M who ran it.
Parni believed that as many Dragons as possible should be engaged in some form of extra-curricular activity which they really enjoyed (Arduus ad Solem). Hence he valued the enormous increase in optional activities available. So in addition to the activities to which I have already referred he started a film club showing films on Saturday evenings and supported the cine club run by Jim Britton which gave enormous pleasure to so many pupils; no one will forget the hilarity of the first showing of "Master Beware" in 1958 starring Joc Lynam as the Headmistress, Clarkie as the aspiring schoolmaster, Guv as the buxom bullying matron, Lady Putty at prizegiving, Parni as the proud parent, and Inky as Bert Beebrain teaching his class of pupils the Latin stanza: "Caesar adsum jam forte; Brutus aderat; Caesar sic in omnibus: Brutus in is at". The staff seemed to be very keen on cross-dressing whether in films, in the river regattas at the end of the summer term, in the sing-songs on the last night of term or in the staff productions of "Trial by Jury", all of course with a view to entertaining the pupils; they were fantastic.
Parni started a weather forecasting club which produced daily bulletins after reading the barometers, wind meters and rain gauges on the Lodge lawn; he sang in the choir and in later years would host concerts at his home at Remenham Barn usually for a school charity.
Parni did his fair share of games taking and on one celebrated occasion in 1959 when every Dragon school team was unbeaten he found himself with the 3rd XV against the Teddies Under 14 3rd XV losing by 3 points with only a few minutes remaining. He called for time-out which was a concept unknown to the ref and told the Dragons that he would be sacked if they lost; they promptly scored and drew the match.
But Parni's greatest love outside the classroom was of course rowing and the river. Being of the view that every pupil is a potential oarsman he started at the Dragon with canoeing and then in 1965 introduced sculling for those who had passed their River Cherwell clothes test (swimming fully clothed) safety being of the utmost importance. In the centenary year of 1977 a new boathouse was opened and sculling and rowing really took off. With help from rowing friends at Eton, Radley and Teddies, Parni got the Dragon membership of the Amateur Rowing Association and with it entry to a number of regattas. Later the racing squad began to train out of the Teddies Boathouse at Wolvercote with access to Quads, Doubles and single sculls, one of which is named after Parni. Today the Dragon hosts its own internal regatta for pupils on the Cherwell with 190 scullers and some 80 races during the day with events for all and the annual Parnwell Cup is awarded to the best sculler of the year. Over the years Parni also coached many crews at Teddies, Trinity, Leander, Shiplake and the Oratory as well as supporting the National Schools Regatta. He was a keen and loyal member of Leander for 58 years from 1954 as well as being a member of Henley Royal Regatta; his pink tie and socks and pink hippo cap were often to be seen, as was his Trinity oar on the wall and his various owls, scarab beetles, travel memorabilia and nicknacks with his books and many rowing memories. He attended at least two Olympic Games with his GB scarf and Union Jack flag and was thrilled to watch Frances Houghton win her rowing medal in Beijing; this last Summer he was able to get to Leander in his wheelchair to watch some of the London Olympics; no wonder the Leander flag flew at half mast in his memory on his funeral day of 2 November.
After he bought the Barn at Remenham in the mid 1980s near the start of the Henley course he would invite his many friends to stay or visit for the day during Henley Regatta with a marquee in the garden and his own loudspeaker linked up to the umpire so that he knew the race results and what was going on. Oarsmen and women from numerous crews would come and pay homage; some crews such as the Nottingham University Ladies VIII would stay with him; others would come for tea between races; many crews had at least one member whom he had coached at some time or other. It was extraordinary how many competitors he knew and clearly all of them loved him because he took a keen interest in their rowing and personal development. At all times of the year his open house hospitality was legendary with tea and Sue Womersley's home-baked cakes; sleeping in the gallery was permitted for favourites such as his goddaughters whom he loved dearly; music was always playing; postcards from all over the world covered the kitchen walls; youngsters were encouraged to drive his ride-on lawn mower in the summer so long as they were wearing the obligatory sunhat. His love of the river permeated his life and he once wrote that we must "try to allow life to follow its course like the faithful River Thames. Yes, it may break its banks in times of flood but that is a natural safety measure—it never dries up completely".
Parni loved Teddies very much indeed and served as Hon Sec of the Martyrs (the old boys' and girls' sports clubs) for 12 years (1974-86) and then as President until 1994. He was promoted to serve as President of the St Edward's School Society in 1994-5 and was always a very keen supporter. He had some lovely birthday parties in the School Dining Hall. He was also very generous and gave a substantial sum towards the building of the new Cricket Pavilion; he was not well enough to attend its opening by Mike Sandberg who because of his poor sight sadly could not see what he was opening, but Parni was able to attend a deferred 80th birthday party there later on. Parni also supported many other educational, rowing and charitable causes.
After he retired in 1989 Parni went through a very difficult period of trying to adjust and suffered from mild depression greatly missing his pupils and the camaraderie of the Common Room. He recovered with the support of his many friends and then found a way forward with his numerous interests and his Christian faith. He sang in his beloved Remenham Church where he was a churchwarden. He once wrote that he felt nearest to God when listening to Mahler's 8th Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall, or when standing in the lane above Halls Green on a summer's evening hearing the shouts of the pupils in the woods below, or when cycling up to Leander at 8am in July to coach the lads with geese, herons and cygnets on the glistening river. It is apt that we are remembering him here in this Chapel where he worshipped and sang in the choir for 5 years. He died peacefully on 18 October at the Royal Berkshire Hospital just before his 83rd birthday with his friends Suzie Chavasse and Bishop Bone reading Psalms by his side.
We are very fortunate in our lives if we come to know more than a very few men or women who touch as many lives as Parni did. Parni was much loved by us all. He was a rare and remarkable man. He loved people. He motivated children. He was generous. He was a true friend. But above all he was fun. Of course we all miss him, but his passing was a happy release and we will all remember him at his best.
I am going to conclude rather unusually by doing what I think Parni would have approved of. There are three close friends of Parni who deserve all our praise and who have been quite outstanding in their support for him particularly during the past few years when he wasn't well, when he needed support in his small house in Adam Court, and in making sure that he felt as much as possible at home in his various nursing homes. They are of course Susie Chavasse who is a saint, Robin Houghton and Mark Bale. God Bless the three of you. Please thank them by applauding.
Sir David Lewis (OD and OSE)