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NEWS > 1574-2024 Anniversary Features > Owing to Pate's, Fiona Sampson PGSG 1975 - 1980

Owing to Pate's, Fiona Sampson PGSG 1975 - 1980

PGSG alumna Fiona Sampson, looks back to her days at Albert Road and remembers Miss Mackaness, her inspirational Music teacher.
Fiona leading the orchestra at St Matthew's Church for the Carol Service 1979
Fiona leading the orchestra at St Matthew's Church for the Carol Service 1979

When I think about Albert Road, what first comes to mind is the view from upstairs front. I wonder now just how much of my time at Pate's was spent gazing out of those large, metal framed windows, which we were forever standing on chairs to open in summer, or poking the classroom thermometer out of in winter. When we had to man the blackout blinds – enormous treat – we were even allowed to sit on the window ledges themselves. 

As for the view itself: a square of Gloucestershire cloud, with seagulls, ended at the poplars lined along the bottom of the playing field. In summer the burr of the ride-on mower came through the open window panes on a wave of pollen and smells of cut grass. Lunchtimes, daring girls could be observed rendezvous-ing with boys at the bottom gate.  

The upstairs front corridor served the staffroom as well as a number of broadly interchangeable classrooms; for a couple of years, our form room was one of these. French had the corner room at one end of the corridor: language lab headphones, photos of Loire Valley chateaux I had no expectation of ever visiting. Music, with its battered pianos and Instruments of the Orchestra posters, had the other.  

In those days I was sure where I was headed, and treated most lessons as a necessary evil. But I liked Latin, with its glimpses of how poetry is actually made (‘I sing of arms and the man…’). And, although I hated recorders and xylophones and couldn’t sing, I also liked Miss Mackaness, the Head of Music. In the clattering chaos of the school day Helen Mackaness, with her enthusiasm, her sensibility and her clarity, was the sort of anomaly that is also a gift. It was she who kept up the school’s quota of cultural activities with the wind band, with choirs and orchestras – two of each – and through music competitions. She also inspired many of us into music careers. Even though I’d long taken violin lessons outside school, and was headed for the concert platform, I thrived on the affirmation her kindness offered. 

Being teenagers, we thought we were the last word in worldly wisdom, and Miss Mackaness’s enthusiasm seemed innocent to us. Of course, it was just the opposite. She was too wise to teach for popularity; to look cool. She understood that, on the contrary, the teacher’s obligation was to like and believe in us: willy-nilly. I remember with shame how once, in chamber choir, I caught a friend’s eye and we began to giggle. Not about anything, except the weirdness of being thirteen. Miss Mackaness thought we were laughing at her, and she reprimanded us but wasn’t angry. It hurt me then, and hurts me still, that she may have been injured by this – and by the laughter of other, earlier generations – and that I could not reach across the pupil-teacher divide to explain it away. 

I sometimes wonder what choices I would have made if Miss Mackaness had taught another subject: English, for example. For even though I did become a convert violinist, in the end I went back to my first love and began to write. I went to Oxford, read PPE, and won the Newdigate Prize. I did a PhD in philosophy of language. I no longer own a violin: but I have visited the chateaux of the Loire. French, which I had thought I’d never use, became a language of liberation: first one in which I studied the violin, and then the lingua franca of many literary adventures abroad. At the moment, mid-way through writing a literary biography of George Sand, I use it every day. And when I write about Sand’s paternal relations at the Chateau of Chenonceau what I see in my mind’s eye is the aerial photo, of that long pale arcade stepping across its river, which used to hang between the blackboard and the window in the French lab at Albert Road. 


Fiona Sampson Patesienne 1975-80 (Yrs 8-12) 

Professor Fiona Sampson MBE FRSL is an award-winning writer published in 38 languages. 


Please follow the links below to learn about the Helen Mackaness Trust and Helen Mackaness Reserve

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