Call me “Sir”, Nicholas Reid

Henry Cooper of Auckland Grammar School 
Andrew Mason
David Ling Publishing (in association with Auckland Grammar School Old Boys’ Association), $49.95,
ISBN 1877378038

Personal confession and declaration of interest. I began my 25 years as a secondary-school teacher with a four-year stint at Auckland Grammar School. On the whole AGS didn’t suit me and I don’t think I suited AGS. For me, they were not very happy years. This was two or three years after Henry Cooper retired as headmaster. I never met the man, but I do remember old-timers and experienced hands discussing him in the staffroom, sometimes with admiration and sometimes with wry amusement. I also remember one disrespectful senior English teacher (an Anglican) using the phrase “Presbyterian jackboot”. But I was never sure if he was referring to Cooper or to his successor.

Does my experience of AGS colour the way I read the life of Henry Cooper? Certainly. Does it make me unduly critical of the very professional job Andrew Mason has done in writing this biography? Certainly not.

Second declaration of interest. Like Mason, I have written the biography of somebody who was essentially a corporation man. In some respects he was similar to Cooper, in others totally unlike him. I know, from the inside, how hard it is to breathe life into someone whose chief professional preoccupation was keeping a machine running. Scientists, artists and even politicians initiate things, create, run with imagination. Headmasters and university chancellors essentially administer. They can do this well or badly (and on the whole, Cooper seems to have done it very well), but in the end the needs of the institution dictate the direction of their professional life. Talent is picked to help run the machine, challenges to authority are seen off, funds are raised, buildings are built, trusts and scholarships are set up. Yet in the end we can’t help suspecting that another competent person would have done very much the same job. Only Rita Angus could have painted that particular painting, but of his generation any one of a dozen other teachers would have run AGS very much as Henry Cooper did.

This is not to belittle administrators. If they are diligent, they pour at least as much energy into their work as creative people pour into theirs. What makes them hard to read about is their very straightness. It would be more invigorating to read a life of scandal and disorder, but this is one of the many areas where literature simply is not life. Scoundrels are great fun to read about, but generally disruptive and obnoxious in real life. Good administrators are absolutely necessary in real life, but generally not much fun to read about.

There were two moments in this book when I felt much sympathy and respect for Henry Cooper as a human being. The first was when he arrived at AGS as a timid 12-year-old on a scholarship and found himself briefly disoriented by the school’s traditions and expectations. The second, over half a century later, was when he gave devoted care to his wife as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s, only occasionally losing his patience, as anyone in such trying circumstances would. The brief glimpses we get of his family life show a dedicated and loving husband, father and grandfather. And in between these two vignettes there is the corporation man.

Cooper did his whole secondary schooling at AGS, took his degree and teaching training in Auckland, taught very briefly at another school and then went back to AGS as a teacher. There he stayed for 37 years, eighteen of them as headmaster (and, yes, it is the term “headmaster” that is used throughout this book rather than the more modern usage “principal”). At this point, my own memories conjure up all manner of rude thoughts about how top-heavy AGS staff is – or, rather, was in my day – with Old Boys who had never known any other school and consequently had narrow horizons and were sniffy towards outsiders.

Andrew Mason is fully aware that, in surveying Cooper’s teaching career, he is chronicling the pedagogy of a past age. Many of the things Cooper did as a teacher would now be questioned, or even illegal. Mason quotes Wilson Whineray’s memory of Cooper, on the first day of term, randomly caning a boy as a lesson to the rest of the class. He had “no inhibitions” about caning boys in front of others, and he once “swiped” a whole fifth-form English class for failing to learn a poem. Not that there was anything unusual about this at the time. Over at Sacred Heart College, I was one of a class of third-formers who were all flogged for failing to do our maths homework. Sensitive souls may flinch, but that was simply part of the culture of boys’ schools at the time. Yet even granted this, there is still the suspicion that Cooper was a particularly short-tempered disciplinarian. A page is given to exploring this. Colin Maiden is quoted as saying that Cooper probably experienced “frustration … due to his having so much ability that was not being used as a classroom teacher”. To which I can only say – welcome to the club, Henry.

As a teacher, Cooper operated without what have latterly become the standard administrative constraints. He ran a French department without holding any departmental meetings. Teachers were simply told what to do. Similarly, as a headmaster, he was an autocrat. He corrected members of staff who failed to call him “Sir”.

Given that this biography was commissioned by the AGS Old Boys’ Association, Andrew Mason has been remarkably frank about some potentially controversial things. The commendable achievements are all here, of course – Henry Cooper helping set up the Woolf Fisher Trust, fighting a good fight to stop too much of the school grounds being destroyed by motorway construction, lobbying vigorously for better facilities and, post-AGS, being a diplomatic university pro-chancellor and chancellor. But Mason at least broaches the question of how much AGS’s academic reputation rested on judicious zoning, the “creaming off” of academic talent from elsewhere, and the pouring of resources into upper streams only. He notes the “often opportunistic” way Cooper’s board lobbied for, and got, a boarding hostel which was more a prestige matter than a real requirement for a state school. He is also aware of the power of cronyism noting, among other examples, that there were five AGS Old Boys in the Labour Cabinet that approved Cooper’s knighthood. Dare one even detect the odd touch of irony? Mason sees a “poignant picture” in Cooper’s escaping to a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest when he was loathing local conditions during a cricket tour of India.

I closed this book wanting to applaud some of the things Henry Cooper said about education (he was, regrettably, dead right about state examinations) and wanting to dispute others loudly. I was reminded vividly of the traditions and the very questionable ethos of a school I had largely forgotten for the best part of 30 years. I wanted to argue with them, too. But it was Cooper and the school I wished to take on, not the book. This can only be evidence of Andrew Mason’s skill. His book meets all the requirements of the people who commissioned it, giving a fair, rounded and generally admiring portrait of its subject, but leaving enough grounds for dissent not to be accused of hagiography.


Nicholas Reid’s biography of Archbishop James Michael Liston will be published later this year.


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