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Tuck Shop Chit Chat (Pls read)


Forum: Nostalgia


headmaster a.w. (

Created on: 08/12/14 02:26 AM Views: 3609 Replies: 3
Headmaster A.W. ("Wrinkles") McIver
Posted Monday, December 8, 2014 02:26 AM

Headmaster George Armstrong died suddenly of a heart attack in early 1959, and the school remained for several months under the care of the vice principal and the head of the boarding establishment. Finally an announcement appeared in the Daily News during the school holidays  -- a new headmaster had been selected! The story was accompanied by a photograph of the new headmaster.  I was quite inpressed, for it showed a pleasant, youthful looking person, and offered hope for dynamic new leadership.  But alas! the photo had been taken many years previously. In fact, McIver continued to use it shamelessly as his official photo for many years after. Here it is:

I was in fourth form at the time, and on the first day of school I took a seat in the front row of that section of the hall so that I could have a fine view of the new headmaster as he entered from the side door nearest his office.  And what a shock I got! Instead of the youthful figure in the photograph, in lumbered what seemed like some prehistoric creature with prominent proboscis and elephantine wrinkles, clad like a pachyderm in the thick hide of an antique double-breasted suit. Here is a photo of what he really looked like, presiding over school assembly:

We soon learned that this was a very ordinary man -- extraordinarily ordinary, in fact. He was doggedly, resolutely, determinedly conventional, with little imagination or ability to inspire. He saw his job as keeping the school the way it had always been, and thus he ushered in a long period of stagnation that dragged interminably from 1959-1971. The reign was something like the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union, where the institution just creaked along on its diminishing momentum from long ago.

DHS, along with Maritzburg College, was one of the two crown jewels of the Natal Education Department. In those days teaching was a "calling" that attracted some very impressive and competent professionals, many of whom would have wanted the job and probably done well at it. So how did somebody as unremarkable and unsuitable as Wrinkles get the job?  The answer is that in those days the Natal Education Department promoted on the basis of seniority -- partly the number of years served, partly the current level of the applicant. Teachers who had spent their entire working lives as the school, such as Theobald, were not senior enough for a prime job like headmaster of DHS. But teachers who were already vice principals or principals were in the running.  McIver more than met that qualification.

He joined the staff of DHS in 1930 and stayed there for 14 years. Here he is in a 1933 staff photo, along with a youthful-looking Izak van Heerden.  

After that, he became headmaster of Stanger school in 1940, then headmaster of Malvern in 1948. Two years after that, he became a school inspector -- a rather dull and unpopular position that few teachers wanted.  But as a school inspector he trumped all the other deputy headmasters and headmasters in seniority, and he got the job. In fact, it was technically a step down for him.

Wrinkles, we soon discovered, had his repetitive routines. One of them was to open every official occasion with a formulaic "It is my very pleasant privilege to...."  Here he is on speech day in 1960:  

"It is my very pleasant privilege this morning to extend to you all a very warm welcome to our Annual Speech Day."

And again in 1961:

"It is my very pleasant privilege this morning to extend a very warm welcome to you all at our Annual Speech Day."

And again in 1962:  

"It is my very pleasant privilege to extend to you all a very warm welcome to our Annual Speech Day."

The opening line never failed -- one could recite it along with him.

Another of his routines, which none of us can ever forget, was to express emphatic amazement, usually at matters that wouldn't amaze anybody else. Day after day he would announce in hall that he was AMAZED to learn that three boys had been seen out of uniform last Saturday, or he was AMAZED to that some boy had forgotten to bring his cadet kit to school, or he was AMAZED to find that some boy wanted time off school to visit the dentist. He was so regularly amazed that for a while he had the competing nickname of "Mealies", based on a pun of "maize", but "Wrinkles" won out in the end.

Yet another habit was his dogged refusal to believe that any boy at the school would ever steal anything. Hence he made announcements, week after week, along the lines of:

-- Brown of 4LG reports that his hymn book is missing from his satchel. This must have been taken for safe keeping. Would whoever took it for safe keeping please return it.

-- Smith of 3GB reports that a wallet is missing from his desk. This must have been taken for safe keeping. Would whoever took it for safe keeping please return it.

-- Jones of 5BA reports that his bicycle is missing from the bicycle shed. This must have been taken for safe keeping. Would whoever took it for safe keeping please return it.

We marvelled at this excercise in denial.  Did he really believe it? Was he that far removed from reality? Or was he determined to maintain the illusion of the school's complete integrity, despite the obvious facts, even at the cost of making himself look ridiculous?

The denial -- hypocrisy, actually - went a great deal further.  Boys who were found to have consumed alcohol were expelled instantly -- no excuses, no exceptions. But for years he tolerated the chronic alcholic Charlie Crew and his drunken sidekick Dog Perkins as senior Blackmore's masters, responsible for the moral development and physical security of the boarders. These men were such notorious drunks that he surely must have known about it. Likewise he would not tolerate anything among the boys that he considered lewd, and he administered sound floggings to boys who were discovered to have read "Lady Chatterly's Lover", which he considered "abominable".  But he went into complete denial about serial sex abuse of pupils by staff member Jiggs Gray -- refusing to believe it, or pretending to refuse to believe it, even when parents went to him to complain. Was he really that blind, or was he just determined to avoid a whiff of scandal at DHS, no matter what the costs?

McIver accepted unquestioningly the school tradition that heaped honours on sporting heroes while ignoring almost every other kind of achievement. He insisted on "loyalty to the school", but this was measured exclusively by whether a pupil attended the first XV rugby matches on Saturday mornings. Anyone who missed more than three of these events in his school career would receive an ignominious "Has been disloyal to the school" on the reference letter that McIver would write for employers and others when a boy left the school. Other kinds of loyalty counted for little.

Wrinkles seemed to have little understanding of the world we were moving into. In one revealing passage in a Speech Day address, he declares:

"The Careers Guidance Department carried on with its very useful work. This year Mr van Heerden was joined in this very necessary work by Mr Jackson. The boys have been given talks on various occupations. There is no excuse for any boy at this school to make any miscalculation as far as his future career is concerned. A boy's interests are analyzed and matched up with his ability for a chosen profession. He will therefore have confidence choosing the profession for which he is best suited."

Even then, the idea that a pencil and paper test and a short interview with a bored, burned-out teacher would send us teenagers on a perfect career for a lifetime seemed absurd.

I can think of only three innovations that Wrinkles made in the school, but characteristically two of them involved reintroducing dead traditions. The first was the wearing of British public-school type straw bashers. These proved to be a major nuisance, difficult to accommodate if you were cycling to school and prone to fly off in gusts of wind at any time. To make matters worse, it became a flogging offence to wear the basher at a jaunty angle: it had to be worn "parallel to the ground". The second innovation was the revival of a 19th century school song that had been abandoned decades before, probably because its ghastly doggerel was so embarassing:


Fortunately it was not long before the song was forgotten again. The third innovation was to deny pupils the choice of a black or brown shoe. McIver's announcement of the change is revealing: 

"I wish to introduce black shoes as the uniform shoe. This I will do by a gradual process, starting with the Third Form in 1960 and adding a Form each year, so that by 1963 black will be worn by the whole School...Black is black, while brown can vary in colour from red to yellow and there may be lack of uniformity."

This focus on the superficial made for ineffectual leadership. One of my contemporaries taught briefly at DHS in the mid sixties and recalls a lax, lazy, cynical staff who took few of their duties seriously and were mostly concerned with getting out of the school as early as possible each day.  We saw some signs of this as early as 1961. The morning ritual in the hall required that the teachers arrive first and take their places in the rows of chairs arranged there, to await the arrival of the headmaster. On most days only about fifteen would show up, out of a total staff of about forty. But gradually their numbers grew fewer and fewer, until one day Wrinkles arrived to find only three teachers there. He looked ashen with embarrassment. Later in the day he called a staff meeting, leaving our teacherless classrooms to be patrolled by prefects. The following morning there was an impressive contingent of teachers, probably twenty-five or so -- certainly more than we had ever seen except on Speech Day. But the next day there were fewer, and the next day fewer still, and within a couple of weeks the number had dwindled back to the usual fifteen. It was a public demonstration that Wrinkles could not command his staff.

Wrinkles had many virtues.  He was dedicated to the school, and he did try to enlarge our cultural experience by giving whole classes time off to attend visiting operas or important art shows. He was basically a fair and decent man, cheerful, kindly, hard working, and conscientious. I am sure he made a superb school inspector. Yet he was ill suited to the job of headmaster of DHS, too focussed on the past rather than the future, on superficial appearances rather than underlying problems. I had several dealings with him and I liked him as a person, and I know many other pupils did too. But I am sure that nobody thinks he was a great headmaster. He was a good and competent man who had been promoted far above the level of his abilities. 

Finally, here is the superb portrait of McIver by our highly talented art master Alan Turton. It truely captures the appearance and character of the man.

RE: Headmaster A.W. ("Wrinkles") McIver
Posted Monday, December 8, 2014 07:34 AM

Thanks for this very interesting post Ian

RE: Headmaster A.W. ("Wrinkles") McIver
Posted Monday, February 16, 2015 04:58 PM

An interesting observation of the Wrinks character. I must say I found him very fair in my dealings with him, but that did not prevent me getting by rear end whipped a few times!! I agree with the lack of authority he had over Crowe and Perkins and their excessive drinking, and Jiggs Gray allegedly  got away  with crimes that are too frequent today!!

Wrinks told my parents after after I failed to get a matric exemption in 1965 to study science at 'Varsity that I should really do a trade....like a trade was something lowly!! So I went back in 1966, got my good enough pass, went to 'Varsity and became an environmental scientist!! Wish I could have told him that!

RE: Headmaster A.W. ("Wrinkles") McIver
Posted Sunday, November 29, 2015 08:31 AM

Thanks for this  pen-picture of Wrinkles, Ian - this is exactly how I remember him - fair but unimaginative.To your comment on "  taken for safekeeping", his alternative was " taken in error". I saw this as a tactic he used to allow any thief stricken by an attack of conscience to return the loot without losing face .I have used them myself when appealing for the return of 'lost' goods.

He summed up many misbehaviors by declaring " It's a reflection of the home, you know,"

When they added the diving pit to the swimming pool they painted it & left it to dry before refilling.Late afternoon someone kicked a rugby ball into the empty pool & retrieved the ball.He neglected to remove his boots, however, & left a beautiful trail of studmarks across the pristine surface.

Wrinkles attributed this to "some filthy swine with a diseased mind".

It's these one-liners that have stuck in my mind. Thanks, Wrinkles.