Reflections on Lord Browne-Wilkinson by Keith Anderson, Gibbs’ 1943-1948.
Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson (1930–2018)
Nico Browne-Wilkinson enjoyed a distinguished career as a lawyer and eventually as senior law lord. We first met in May 1943, when Nico entered Sanderson’s, then in a country house at Ashford Carbonell, when I started at Gibbs’ at Moor Park in Richard’s Castle. During our evacuation to Shropshire houses were generally separated from each other by a greater distance than was later the case. I remember a first meeting with Nico in Basil Handford’s English lessons, for which various houses were brought together. Nico read the part of Rosalind to my Orlando in our reading of As You Like It.
In later years we became close friends, together with Tony Swales, who succeeded me as Head of Gibbs’ in 1948. In 1947–48 Nico was Captain of the School – the year culminated in a celebration of Lancing’s centenary, with a concert of Britten’s St Nicolas, commissioned by Esther Neville-Smith, and music by Geoffrey Bush and by the then Music Director, Jasper Rooper. Nico was in the History Sixth Form – and was to be reminded all too often of a history essay in which he declared that Luther had ‘prostituted his religion to the crowned heads of Europe’. In chapel it was the Sunday custom for the prefects to read the first lesson, from the Old Testament, followed by the Head Master’s reading of the second lesson. With Nico we devised a competition to see who could rival the length of time the Head Master, an unconscious competitor, would leave between reaching the lectern and starting his reading. The Bible in use misled some of the less literate prefects by its use of the older form of the letter ‘s’ – the worst possible obscenity avoided by the chaplain’s added modernisation of at least one word. Nico, unprepared, was once caught out by a phrase ‘any wise of sin’, which he proclaimed as ‘any wife of fin’.
Nico and Tony were distinguished squash players – Nico at Oxford and Tony at Trinity Hall in Cambridge, where he read medicine. Tony once beat me in a game – even though he was playing, for the occasion, with the left hand. Before I left school after the Spring Term of 1948, we had a farewell lunch at a Brighton restaurant that we knew as Jimmie’s. We were all to be followed by national service. I remember that we suggested to Nico that he might avoid his fate by running away to sea. In fact he was to serve in the Navy on the lower deck – I found myself a corporal in the RAF and Tony was commissioned in the Army, a reversal of our roles at school.
By the time we left Lancing the three of us had places at Oxford and Cambridge. I left a term early principally because I had decided to become a Catholic – and had been reported to the authorities for attending Mass in Shoreham. The Head Master made it clear that Roman Catholics were not welcome at Lancing – presenting me with an impossible choice. In this respect I should, very belatedly, express my gratitude to Nico and his family, whose hospitality I enjoyed in the following months. It was through a chance meeting in Chichester with one of their friends, one of the Huxleys, that I found an official means of escaping further military service and duly taking up studies in Oxford. Nico and I already were in touch with current Oxford gossip through his sisters Virginia and Anthea, who preceded us there. Virginia, a pupil of David Cecil, was appointed to a lectureship at Bristol University the year before we went up.
Inevitably one saw rather less of Nico – I was at Wadham, eventually reading Greats and heading for a monastery, while Nico was at Magdalen, playing squash, a member of Vincent’s and reading Law, in which he distinguished himself, going on to a very successful career. Tony Swales became a successful doctor and died a few years ago at his home in the North of Scotland.
Other losses from our generation include three of the founding members of the Honegger Club, established with Charles Dakin, Neil Richardson, Philip Inman and myself. Among our ambitions was the aim of modernising the Head Master’s taste in music, which seemed to stop at the Paradies Toccata. At Moor Park, when I was thirteen, he had accused me of ‘poisoning the house’ at Moor Park by playing Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil. We formed a wind band, of a kind – Charles and I played French horns, Neil and Philip were clarinettists. I had chances to modernise matters in chapel as an organist, offering 20th century voluntaries from the safety of the organ loft. On the advice of Benjamin Britten, Charles Dakin left school early, studying with Erwin Stein (father of Marion Thorpe – previously Lady Harewood – who remembered Charles, the last time I saw her). Charles died in a car accident some years ago. Philip was, I think, the first to go, and Neil Richardson died relatively recently, after a career principally in light music.
Requiescant in pace.