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by Major J W B Blackett
formerly Coldstream Guard

We all need mentors in our lives and readers will be able to recall people - our Colour Sergeant at Sandhurst or a generous Company Commander - who have helped us up life’s greasy pole and whose values, witticisms and mannerisms have somehow been blended into our own characters. For many of us who followed the well-trodden path from Eton to Brigade Squad, one mentor stands out: a remarkable beak (master) named Michael Kidson.
He was certainly a very important influence on me and there are a number of us who owe him a huge debt of gratitude for helping to turn teenage boys who were feral and indolent, but also often shy and vulnerable, into young men who could command a platoon without serious mishap (my Guardsmen might have disagreed) within two years of leaving school.  He became to his pupils a sort of favourite uncle. Imagine, then, the huge surge of pride followed by the ‘oh **** what have I agreed to do’ feeling when shortly after Kidson’s death I was asked by his executors to write his biography, The Enigma of Kidson, The Portrait of an Eton Schoolmaster, which is launched on 12th June.

The weight of 100,000 words to be written pressed on my forehead like an ill-fitting bearskin. Friends said, ‘who on earth is going to buy a book about an obscure schoolmaster?’ Kidson had no family and was vague and obfuscating about his past with his friends. Rummaging through the contents of his desk was like opening a jigsaw box to find half the pieces missing; until I remembered the Army Personnel Centre in Glasgow and the executors, as ‘next of kin,’ were able to procure his P file from the 1950s, a triumph of bureaucracy, 263 sheets of A4 in a splendid folder entitled: THE WAR OFFICE - THIS FILE WILL IN NO CIRCUMSTANCES BE SEEN BY THE PERSON TO WHOM IT RELATES.

It soon became apparent that hundreds of others felt the same way about Kidson as I did and my inbox was clogged with humorous anecdotes provided by the boys, who are now middle-aged and often some of the ‘great and good’, recounting stories of teenage mishaps in the manner of Drive-time Confessions on Radio 2.  Kidson was the saviour of many wayward boys including one of the more unconventional Guardsmen of the twentieth century: Guardsman Mortimer C, COLDM GDS, better known as Lupin. Kidson had some wonderful letters about Charlie from that great Coldstreamer, Roger Mortimer, the custodian of the camp radio in OFLAG VI B, and they are included in the book.

It has been fun writing a biography about someone who merited one, not because he was famous but because he had the kind of character that artists want to paint. A kindly Mr Chips he was not. Rude, often overbearing, pedantic, politically incorrect but always funny on the outside, closer acquaintance revealed a cultured, liberal man with limitless reserves of kindness and tolerance. A brilliant history teacher, he had that critical military quality - grip - and a way of bringing history to life that pupils remember vividly 40 years later. Ed Smyth-Osbourne remembers being inspired by Kidson telling him about Robert Nairac. Unfortunately I didn’t realise that Simon Mann was another Kidson protégé until after the book had gone to print, but no doubt his exploits in Equatorial Guinea were in part influenced by Kidson’s tales of Palmerstonian gunboat diplomacy.

Writing Kidson made me realise that the 70s and 80s are now part of history and the book is partly a baby-boomer’s celebration of all that was good, bad and outrageous about our schooldays. OFSTED inspectors today would not be impressed by Kidson’s habit of throwing a half croquet ball at any boy who fell asleep, nor of his setting essay titles like ‘How greasy was Disraeli’s pole?’ The Care Commission would baulk at the way he sometimes conducted tutorials from behind the bathroom door while he lay in the bath with a large beaker of whisky, or poured his pupils large gin and tonics. And the Head Master who gave a 15 year old (me) 8 strokes of the cane when I was caught in the bookmaker’s would be sent down for a long stretch if he did that today.

His influence is everywhere. Cameron mi, Welby, Pinsent, N Henderson, and J Boden were just some of those who contributed stories. Kidson taught at Eton for 30 years and perhaps a dozen boys he had taught were commissioned into the Household Division each year. Young officers no doubt subliminally used Kidson’s techniques when they had to be teachers themselves or when dealing with hopeless teenage recruits at the Guards Depot. Adjutants remembered the value of a well turned insult that he had taught them 10 years before and no red ink correction at JDSC was ever as thorough as one of Kidson’s. In his commonplace book was AC Benson’s aphorism: ‘education is what is left when you have forgotten everything you were taught’. There are many of us who were Kidson’s pupils who know exactly what he meant.

Kidson’s own military career was unorthodox but you will have to read the book...

The Enigma of Kidson will be published by Quiller on 12th June 2017, price £25. www.quillerpublishing.com

The book will be serialised by the Daily Mail during June 2017.

© Crown Copyright