Review By: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Preacher

I think before I begin this review, something of an explanation is in order. Back in the mists of my childhood (okay the mid 1970’s) my late parents decided to send me to a boarding school (I was 9 ½ going on 10 at that point), so much against my will, I found myself despatched to Arnold Lodge School in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. After the initial shock wore off, the next three or so years were genuinely the happiest of my life, I made some wonderful friends. So many names, so many memories …

Last year I managed to trace quite a few of these oldest friends, and to my delight, we have been reunited on Facebook, and we are now planning a physical reunion. One of my great sadness’s in life was the knowledge that our Headmaster Mr Hall had suffered major strokes, and most of us believed/were told he had died. So, I will be upfront and honest, and tell you that Jonathan Hall has been one of my great heroes in life, I respect him as I have very few others, he made a huge and positive impact on my life, and I will forever be grateful to him for this.

When my old friends and I started chatting again in a group online, I lamented Mr Hall’s passing, and to my absolute astonishment and joy, I was told that I was quite wrong, and that the great man was not only alive and well, but was now a published author! It’s rare for me to be speechless … but on this occasion I was genuinely lost for words.

Jonathan Hall, suave, sophisticated, intelligent, perfectly spoken, always immaculately attired, multi-talented, multi-lingual, teacher, jazz drummer and clarinet player. A man we always joked was just like James Bond, who drove a diamond white Rover SD1, who could hurl a chalk or blackboard duster with evil power, seemingly while looking the other way … there were seemingly no ends to his talents. To us he was like a superman, and I can safely say that we all loved and revered him.

So now the introduction is affected – let’s talk about ‘School Ties’. Initially I wondered if this book was to be based loosely around the author’s own life. His titular character ‘Paul Elliott’ did seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to Mr Hall himself. Other characters are most certainly drawn from the Schoolmasters from my old school, reading about them made me smile – as the descriptions nailed them perfectly. 

Talking about the characters, the author makes them totally believable, they are all fully rounded out and not just one dimensional, you genuinely feel as if you know them, and the same could be said about the description of the school itself – yes, I know I do know it, but even if you didn’t, it’s so eloquently and beautifully described, that it’s easy to picture it in your mind’s eye. 

Paul Elliott is a kind and very decent man, despite the cruelty and tragedies of his past, and it is fascinating to see a damaged boy become a fine man as the book progresses. He is written as upstanding yet flawed, wounded by a rather lonely and unfulfilled personal life, but conversely rightfully a proud, successful Headmaster, entrepreneur, and school owner. He is equal parts strong and fragile, genuinely human, and wholly believable. His preparatory boarding school ‘Oxton House’ set in Harrogate is of course fictional, yet every brick of the place feels very real.

There are equal amounts of wry humour and then gripping drama in this novel – both written with the same stylish and compelling prose. As the fast-paced novel reaches its shocking and totally unexpected ending – you are left gripped and breathless, hoping for a happy ever after, but genuinely fearing for the worst. The last chapters are like a modern-day horror story, and are written with real power and a genuine sense of desperation. The actual finale is genuinely unexpected, with a final harsh plot twist, and I was left shaking my head, genuinely bewildered by what I had finished reading.

Whatever your views about, or indeed if you have them – experiences of boarding school, ‘School Ties’ makes for a genuinely enthralling read, it is an emotional rollercoaster of a book, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you. Simply marvellous.

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