A broader perspective
Writer and director Dick Clement is best known for his work, with Ian La Frenais, on the hit TV series Porridge, The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, and on the BAFTA-winning film The Commitments. In 1955, he spent a year at Westminster School in Connecticut, USA, as part of the English-Speaking Union’s Secondary School Exchange programme, during which he fell in love with the country he now calls home.
His video, above, tells us what he learnt there and how the year benefitted him, while his account, below, recounts some of his colourful experiences, still fresh in his mind over 60 years on.
‘In my last year at Bishops Stortford College I became friends with H. Calvin Cook Jr., an English-Speaking Union exchange student from Steubenville, Ohio. I watched Cal as he struggled to acclimatise to cold baths and overcooked cabbage and began to imagine what the experience would be like in reverse. I duly attended the interview and much to the incredulity of my headmaster and delight of my parents, I was accepted.
Eighteen of us set sail on the Queen Mary in September 1955. Although we were assigned to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship we quickly discovered how to sneak into cabin and first class and pretend that we belonged there. To prepare myself culturally I read The Grapes of Wrath and The Sun Also Rises.
The Statue of Liberty loomed out of the fog on the morning of our arrival, followed by a host of golden taxicabs on the streets of Manhattan. On my very first day in America I saw the Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field accompanied by the witch from The Wizard of Oz, Margaret Hamilton. Her son had been an exchange student that year and in return she offered her generous hospitality for the few days before term began at Westminster School in Connecticut.
It hit me fairly quickly that my classmates assumed I was posh. I was not posh. I was from Southend. Then again, Cal came from Steubenville, mostly famous as the birthplace of Dean Martin. I visited him in the spring vacation and found a town with more bars than churches and one where not a single sign had retained all of its letters. Southend seemed like Nice by comparison.
I became accustomed to questions like: “You’re English, do you happen to know Stephen Pryce-Ambleforth? He lives in Derbyshire, or is it Dorset.” Then I had to field weightier topics: “Do you still have rationing over there?”; “Why did you people kick Churchill out after he won the war for you?” It was illuminating to see one’s own country from afar and realise how small it seemed from an American perspective. I also realised that as an ambassador I was a novice. I made mistakes, for example emulating the bawdy cut and thrust of the House of Commons by lampooning and ridiculing my opponents in the debating society, only to be met by appalled silence.
Another major difference distinguished me from my fellow students. They had money. I had been given $100 to last me for the entire year. I would look at the Coke machine in the hall – imagine that at Bishops Stortford – and wonder whether I could afford to blow a nickel or not; maybe tomorrow. There was no provision for school holidays. It was assumed, correctly, that students would receive invitations. I celebrated Christmas at a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, and received a stocking with a silver dollar – one per cent of my annual stipend – in the toe. I spent time with my friend Tony Barnes in an 18th-century house on the Main Line outside Philadelphia. We went to debutante dances and drank free champagne, on one occasion far too much. I visited another classmate in Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland, and flew in the family’s private plane to Martha’s Vineyard.
I fell briefly in love with a girl in Philadelphia, visited 20 of the 48 states, mostly by Greyhound Bus, and returned home on the Queen Elizabeth after 11 months in America, ready to face National Service. I served as a commissioned officer in the air force, something I’m sure my time in America helped with as it lifted me ‘out of the pack’ and enabled me to stand out.
A few years later I worked in the BBC’s African Service, broadcasting to Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The West Africans had a phrase for anyone who had been educated abroad: a “been-to”. I was a been-to. I had “been to” America and seen it for myself. It gave me a different perspective on Britain, and on Europe, and in that way it undoubtedly changed my life.’
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Encouraging the exchange of ideas is a key part of our work at the English-Speaking Union and to this end we offer a variety of academic and cultural scholarships and tours enabling students, teachers, librarians, musicians, scientists and others to live and study abroad.