Schooldays in the 1950s

Occasionally, very occasionally, a painting goes wrong. Sometimes it can be rescued, but now and then it can’t, and has to be abandoned. That is what has happened now, with the painting of the Canal Bridge. I know I shall never be happy with it, so I am going to move on to something else, probably a Venice waterside for the exhibition, which is galloping towards me

That leaves me with no paintings to write about for the moment, so something completely different, which may or may not be of interest. I am going to jot down some of my memories of my grammar school years, which ran from 1954 to 1959. The world was a different place. We were emerging from the Second World War. I don’t remember the war, but I experienced the aftermath. Bomb damage and reconstruction, rationing, real austerity and the effect on my parents who had lived through this terrible time. My father in Burma, the so-called forgotten war, returning home wrecked and my mother building a business from nothing . So this may ramble as it won’t be chronological, but will just be aspects of my school life, as they come back to me.

At the age of eleven, which for me was 1954, one year following the coronation of our present queen, we sat an examination which decided our future for life. This was the socially divisive eleven plus exam, which really did separate the sheep from the goats. Such was the competition for grammar school places, that from a class of 36 boys and girls, only six were able to pass. The rest were condemned to the so called secondary modern system, where they received a second class education fitting them out for a second class life. This system would change but not yet.

But this is about me, and I was a lucky one. I was enrolled for a well-known grammar school in Petersfield, a small town in the South Downs. Founded in the c18 by an East India merchant for the purpose of training boys in mathematics and navigation before enlisting them in the East India Company. You can imagine that a school immersed in tradition and history such as this,  would be a serious place to study in. It was

After leaving a fairly comfortable council- run primary school, entering this college was something of a culture-shock. It was an all boys school for a starter. We had not been used to segregation of the sexes. We did meet girls from the nearby Petersfield High School, on the train going home, so there was some solace in that. Otherwise our life had something of a monastic feel to it, study, compulsory sport and showers. No not cold I’m happy to report. Mens sana in corpore sano it was though

Wearing a uniform felt strange. Blazer with badge, tie and cap were de rigueur. We rebelled against the cap by bending the peak into a serpentine shape. Perched on the back of the head, it made us look cool, we thought. Yes, we had that word then too. Elbows on the blazers wore first. My parents patched them with pieces of leather. Ironically this came in as a fashion statement, a few years ago. I still have a sweater in my wardrobe, which I smile to look at.

Punishment, terrifying at first, was new to us. Corporal punishment, illegal today, could be given by masters but not prefects. Prefects could give detention for any misdemeanor up to one hour, which was served after school, which was miserable in the winter, walking to the railway station alone. What you could do, if you wanted, was trade your detention in for two strokes of the cane, delivered by the headmaster. After the sting and the heat had worn off, and you no longer had to hop around, you thought you had done a good deal.

Only masters could beat boys, but very few did. One exception was our English master, one William Kershaw, whom the boys called Gus. Nobody knew why. He was one of the few masters to wear his university gown during class, and occasionally he would sport the mortar board too. Once agitated in class, he would wind his gown round and round his arm, rather in the manner Roman senators did with their togas, which we know was for protection against violent attack. So much wear did he give it, that the arms shredded and hung off him like rags on Cinderella.

In his pocket he carried the sole of a Plimsoll shoe, which was all we had for PE and running in those days. This slipper saw action in every lesson, with amazing good humour. The class deteriorated into pure theatre. The hapless victim leaned over the desk, whilst the rest of us bayed for blood, not literally, I hasten to add. Gus waited for the thumbs to go up or down. Always down, and he proceeded with the execution. The victim blinked manfully and returned to his seat. The crowd roared. We were a dreadful spectacle, master and boys presenting this awful drama. Gus was amazingly popular. An erudite scholar in Latin and Greek, and Anglo-Saxon too I believe, there was little that he didn’t know about poetry and prose in all those languages as well as English

We were very fond of him. Towards the end of term, and if we had been good, he would read to us from the ghost stories of M.R.James, which he loved, and reading aloud he would lose himself in the story, doing the voices and the actions, whilst all the time winding his tattered gown around his arm like bandages torn from a black sheet. We boys, starved of any sort of entertainment, were spellbound and never wanted this lesson to finish. I still read them occasionally to this day, and wallow in the nostalgia. He also read from the Border Ballads, especially the tale of Little Musgrave, which was exceptionally naughty. One verse he omitted as too disgusting. After the class finished, there was a mad stampede to the library to get a copy to read the forbidden verse. He also lightly tossed into the conversation that of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus was too disgusting to read. Likewise we devoured the library copy. There was psychology at work there, for sure.

I see that I have quickly reached 1000 words, with these few snatches. Maybe I will do some more one day

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