The Never-Diminishing Bond (part two)

grammar school
Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

…My secondary school tutors enjoyed a far greater degree of autonomy than their modern counterparts are allowed. For the first two years at the school we were taught English by Mr Newby. Far younger than most, he had, I recall, a prodigious set of sideburns. If class had gone well, Mr Newby would often say, ‘Homework tonight class, read the Echo’. The Echo was the local newspaper. As far as I was concerned, I would sooner have read Chekov, but nobody ever checked, so I did neither. He would also, on occasion, conduct his lesson by the swimming pool. We were in it, doing what we pleased, as he sat on the poolside reading aloud from Shakespeare or Hardy, in case, he said, the Headmaster happened to wander past. I loved Mr Newby. He stirred an interest in language and books that I have never lost. He left at the end of the second year and I was then taught by a Mr Wells-Cole who was a dead-eye with the lobbed blackboard rubber and had a personal crusade to persuade me never again to use the phrase ‘all of a sudden’. I am grateful to him for that.

I remember the names of a few teachers: Mr Baker (Chemistry and being far too nice to ever be a teacher), Mr Sexton (Biology and fear), Mr Burleigh – almost certainly misspelled, I’m sorry (Art and being the kind of teacher that let me into the art class when I had been thrown out of others so that I didn’t spend hours aimlessly wandering the corridors, hiding from the headmaster), Mr Wilson (History and telling the ‘A’ level class to hand in essays only when they thought they had something to say, which led to me not handing in a single essay over the full two years). I remember others, but I do not want this to become a list of names and foibles (either theirs or mine) so I’ll stop there. If you have not been mentioned, but you taught me (in which case you surely must have something much better to do with your time) I’m sorry: please be assured, if I could possibly have been somebody else, I would have been.

At the end of my second year I was awarded the prize for ‘Industry and Progress’ (Thick – but tries hard). It was all downhill from there. I remained thick, but I stopped trying hard. I fell from mid-table mediocrity to relegation contender very quickly. I never hid my school reports; I always took them home. My parents dutifully read through twelve different versions of ‘Must try harder’, sighed, and solemnly told me that I must try harder. Then we had tea.

Come the pivotal ‘O’ level year, our all boys school was amalgamated with an all girls school and sixteen-year old hormones exploded with a megaton force matched only by the power of a thousand spots erupting across the forehead. I would like to blame my subsequent examination results on this moment of Education Authority insanity, but in reality, it was more likely a combination of my own laziness and stupidity.

The girls were much more pleasant to be around than the boys, they were softer and they smelled better. I only have to think back to their arrival and I can scent Aquamanda on the breeze. I am eternally grateful to those who put up with me. The arrival of the girls heralded the dawn of the Christian name and the sudden awareness that I wasn’t too keen on that either. I thought that I might become an actor, not because I could act, but because I thought it might give me the opportunity to assume a more exciting moniker.

Despite a set of exam results that could, only charitably, be described as mediocre, I stayed on into the sixth form to sit some ‘A’ levels, to resit some ‘O’ levels, but principally, to postpone my entry into the real world. To my recollection, the ‘O’ levels fared little better the second time around. I took only two ‘A’ levels, one of which I failed miserably whilst in the other I achieved the kind of skin-of-the-teeth pass which spelled ‘failure’ to everyone else. The world of academia did not beckon me to continue my studies. I was not head-hunted by assembled masses of Greystone Dons and so work became my only viable option. I have done as I am told ever since.

In the interests of vanity, I must add here that having watched both my children pass through Uni, I did, forty years too late, apply myself sufficiently to totter through a degree of my own. I got a First and consequently receive regular missives from the august institution from which I graduated enquiring whether it has changed my life yet. I’m not sure that they like the answer, but they keep asking the question anyway.

I took the first proper job I was offered and I have worked without break since, occasionally being fortunate enough to supplement my income by writing, but aware of the fact that if I ever needed to rely on it, I would starve. My successes have been fleeting and governed largely by the fact that I would do it cheaper than anybody else would do it properly.

Old school friends have seen you at your best and worst, but forty years on, they may find it hard to believe that you have changed in any way and that any desire you may once have had to be the centre of attention has now, four decades on, mutated into the uncanny skill of effortlessly blending into the background. Whilst my own memory has seriously diminished over time – so that the rain now quite routinely gets in through the cracks – other’s have not. So, should they read this, they will know instantly where my memory has failed and will, hopefully, be able to put me right and, who knows, if we remain locked away, there might, in time, be yet another blog in it…

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. – John Lennon

The Never-Diminishing Bond (part one)

 

grammar school
Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

 

I have written previously about my early school days, but far less about my years in what we used to call ‘senior’ school. Yesterday I wrote a piece, entitled ‘If…’ that I intended to publish today. It made me chuckle and it set me off thinking about those far-away days. So I wrote what started off as a little introduction, which has now somehow expanded into two fully-fledged posts. I can only apologise. This is what happens when your mind is shut away with just old sit-coms on the TV, crisps and whisky for entertainment. Forgive me, but I cannot help wondering, if school maketh the man, what on earth did it make of me? There are two principles at play here:
1. There is probably nobody out there to correct me. When I first started this thing, a number of my old school friends read it. Now, a year and a half on, I think I have exhausted their patience as few of them seen to tune in any longer. I do not see that as a good thing, but at least they won’t be able to point out how bad my memory actually is.
2. How bad my memory actually is. I know that some of the ‘facts’ I am about to present to you will be wrong. This, most definitely, will not be done purposefully, but, I imagine that if anybody from school does still read this little hotch-potch, they may well feel it necessary to correct me when I err and then I will know that they are there, and that knowledge will make me happy.

So, what I intend to do today is to talk about school in general; not about specific instances – my memory is far too unreliable for that – and, besides, I don’t want to discover that I do have school-friend readers only by dint of receiving a letter from their solicitors informing me that they are about to sue. In truth, I do not have anything detrimental to say about anybody. If there was a prat in the class, it was me.

My senior school was a grammar school, which had only a year or two previously ceased to accommodate borders, and a torch-lit creep around the bunk-bedded rooms was an illicit delight, whenever backs were turned. The mattresses were gone, but the skeletal wrought-iron frames remained, along with the smell of dust and old socks. Sadly, being at the grammar school set me apart from many of my old junior school friends and confrontations on the way home became quite routine. Having to wear a school cap until the end of the second year did not help. Short of waving a sign above my head saying ‘Beat this boy up’ I could not have done more on my walk home to attract attention to myself. Old friends became new enemies. I became a mass of neuroses, not least, because we were told that teachers patrolled the area ensuring that we wore our caps until arriving home. Anyone found breaking the rule faced a Saturday morning detention scrubbing the school cloisters on hands and knees, or cleaning cloak rooms – it was the eternal quandary: a punch around the ear on the way home, or a Saturday morning up to the wrists in soapy water. I alternated, depending on whether or not the bruises had subsided from the week before.

We were not allowed Christian names. We were referred to by our surnames. We referred to each other by our surnames. In my class we had two Masons, both of them Keith, although only one had a middle name. Thus we had a Mason, K. and a Mason, K.W. Whenever we old boys get together, K.W. is still referred to in that fashion. Every boy also had a nickname. The nicknames and the surnames linger, but somehow it is difficult to conjure up the seldom used forenames. Where the nicknames came from, nobody seemed to know, we had a Biff, a Beefy, a Rex, a Bins, a Pooh, a Rev, a Gabby, a Chooky… and once you got the nickname, you were stuck with it. I was Queenie, and I have spent a lifetime trying to shake that off. We were split into Houses: Bluecoats, Greyfriars, Lindum and Minster. I was in Greyfriars, or in second place as it was commonly known. Bluecoats was always first, Minster always last. The more academically gifted were always in Minster, which made them a joy to play at rugby.

The teachers were referred to as tutors, and there was a strict hierarchy to which they had to conform: the Professors, the Masters, the Ordinary Graduates and the rest. Many of our tutors wore their university gowns around the school, it was considered normal, but only the headmaster, J.C. Faull, wore his mortar board. Mr Faull was the figure that struck fear into all year one and two Scrotes. He moved around the school silently. Sometimes you would see just a corvine shadow along the wall and sense the drop in temperature as he passed by. He ascended to the upper floor via a spiral staircase that was reserved for the exclusive use of tutors and prefects. Being caught on that ‘special’ staircase by a prefect led, inevitably, to detention. Being caught there by the headmaster himself, led to ritual flogging and possibly human sacrifice – I think. Instead, we, the pubescent hordes, used either one of two steel-edged stone staircases that sat at opposite corridor ends. In the crush between classes they were lethal for the unwary. I still recall the pain of ‘skiing’ down them on my shins, unable to stop myself without distributing my load of precious Latin text books under the massed stamping feet of a scholastic year on the move. I remember also the pressure of having to pretend that I was not hurt. A life lesson learned: always have your hands free when on a staircase.

To be continued…

I owe a lot to my teachers and mean to pay them back some day – Stephen Leacock

Grammar schools are public schools without the sodomy – Tony Parsons