One of the most important aspects of grammar school life was sport and sporting achievement. Sporting heroes were venerated, whilst scholars were not. I haven’t given this piece a title, quite deliberately, but if I did it could be Sport and Entertainment, which sounds like a quiz round. We had a lot of sport, but very little entertainment. Our antidote to work was sport. There was no place for the frivolous
I have not named my old school yet, I don’t know why, there is no need for me to be coy about it. The college was founded in the c18, by an East India merchant named Richard Churcher, to train boys in mathematics and navigation, before entering the service of the East India Company. The school is Churcher’s College, still very much there, but independent since the introduction of the comprehensive system. It stands alongside the old Portsmouth Road, built of local sandstone, it boasts clocktower, quadrangle,refectory and all those other ingredients of a traditional boy’s college from a distant past. It could be Greyfriar’s or Hogwarts
Sport was very well catered for. Rugby in the autumn term, cross-country running in the spring term and cricket in the summer, were obligatory, and enjoyed by many. I hated all three. My extreme odium was reserved for cross-country running, always on a Tuesday afternoon for juniors, straight after a lunch of corned beef, lumpy mash potato and some mixed salad leaves, with a boiled suet pudding to follow. Running three miles over rough farmland straight after that, was not good for the digestion. Several boys lost their lunch on the way.
I said this took place in the spring term. This ran from early January to Easter more or less so took in the worst two months of the year. Today, thanks to global warming, we have comparatively mild winters, and rarely have snow in the south. In the 1950s snow was more or less guaranteed straight after Christmas, and would hang around for weeks
We changed in the pavilion, which doubled as a gym. One afternoon sticks in my mind, as our games master opened the doors to start us off. The sky was black, and large flakes of snow fell in blizzard conditions. Surely the run would be cancelled, and we could spend the afternoon in the library. Dream on. Smiling, if not laughing, our games master dressed in duffle coat, scarf and gloves waved us on our way. We had rugger shirts and shorts and Plimsoll shoes to protect us against the elements. Today, I think, people would be horrified to run in those conditions. Most runners in the winter seem to wear leggings, hood and anorak today, something about keeping muscles warm.
Across the playing fields and out into Love Lane, we ran en masse. Gradually the good runners pulled ahead, with the boys not built for speed lagging further and further behind. I was usually somewhere in the middle , I have to say
After a mile or so of road running, we approached that terrible first obstacle, the “muddy bridge” which really did sort out the good from the awful. This was an old railway bridge, one of many, which carried the Petersfield to Midhurst railway. The railway was in use then, but later would be axed by Doctor Beeching. Beneath the bridge never saw the light of day, was very deep mud. It never dried out, not even in good weather. The local farmer drove his cattle through it. The cattle sank above their knees in this ooze, creating holes that filled with water with a crust of ice on top. We forged through this lot, likewise well over our knees, so that it took a very great effort to extricate our feet from this sticky morass of mud and excrement. Plimsolls were lost, sometimes for ever.
After this we were on to open farmland, which we took in our stride, quite literally. It was expected, and we had to do it, so we did. No one was in touch with their feminine side in those days, if we had one to be in touch with. We were told it was good for us, as we arrived back at the pavilion, our characters built, glad to be alive, glad the ordeal was over for yet another week but yet strangely satisfied as we took our hot shower, forged anew by this arduous test. I felt sorry for the tail-enders, as they trickled in, sometimes in the dark, suffering derisive comments from the games master. I don’t remember any concern being shown for boys late back, only irritation. They could have been face down in a ditch for all that anyone knew.
Reading this back, it looks as though I had a miserable time at school, but not so. I enjoyed my studies, and also enjoyed my time in the CCF or Combined Cadet Force, which once must have been an Officers Training Corps. You could join either of the three services. I chose the army. Everything was still WW2 issue, uniform, weapons etc. Give a boy of 14 a .303 rifle and a magazine of blanks, and have him charging round the countryside shooting at the”enemy”, this had to be enjoyable. Health and Safety today would be horrified. This deserves, one day, a chapter of its own, so I will talk about what served as our only light relief in those days.
We read a great deal, it is fair to say. We read the classics without being told to. I read H.Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stephenson, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and H.G.Wells. These authors wrote wonderful adventure stories which appealed to boys, then. Stories of exploration and of empire, which remember we were only just leaving behind us. The humiliation of the Suez Crisis in 1956 taught us that our days as a world power had come to an end, and that America was taking over.
In our wonderful library, we had, amongst many other things, leather-bound copies of Strand Magazine, a Victorian publication which serialised stories that we know well today. Conan Doyle published his adventures of Sherlock Holmes in this magazine in serialised form, and I remember especially reading Hound of the Baskervilles. I can say truthfully that I read it in the original.
We had comics. I bought the Eagle from W.H.Smith on Havant Station. One of the first comics to run stories of space travel, it was a runaway success. Dan Dare was the great hero with his sidekick Digby from Wigan. Together they thwarted the plans of the Mekon and his reptilian band of Treens
Recently I researched and gave a talk on H.G.Wells and his time in Woking, his most prolific time, from 1895-6, where he wrote works that made him famous like War of the Worlds. He also wrote something called The Man from the Year Million, where humans had developed massive brains with massive heads to match, and atrophied bodies and limbs which had shrunk because they were no longer being used. Interestingly, the illustrators of the Dan Dare stories borrowed from Wells when they created the Mekon character, and somewhere I have a picture.
and there is the rascal himself
Dan Dare stories were also broadcast on Radio Luxembourg , which I was not allowed to listen to, in our authoritarian household.
There was very little in the way of titillation. Censorship was strong and minors had to be protected. Nevertheless we sometimes bought a paper called Reveille, which might contain a picture of Diana Dors in a one piece bathing costume! She was Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, a blond bombshell and a very popular model. She died quite young in 1982, married to a gangster as I remember, and living an orgiastic lifestyle. On a more serious note, she was also RADA trained and a very competent straight actress. I can remember seeing her in character parts in TV dramatisations of different works by DIckens, in which she was excellent.
I became very interested in photography in my mid teens, an interest way out of my meagre budget. I did buy each week, the Amateur Photographer magazine, which cost me 1/6d in old money, out of my pocket money of 3/6d, which left me strapped for the rest of the week. My father liked to read it too, but never thought to cough up a bit more money to cover the outlay. Maybe this propagated in me a latent interest in art, who knows
Bits and pieces come back as I write. I started learning German when I was 14. You were only allowed to do this, if you were already proficient in French. We were encouraged to have pen friends in Germany, and I started to write to Brigitte who lived in Wilhelmshaven, a naval port on the Baltic coast, a place better known for U-boat pens than anything else, but enough of that. We were the same age. She wrote in English and I wrote in German. Her stuff was very girly, as one might expect, and I wasn’t mature enough to say anything interesting either, so the arrangement foundered fairly quickly. She was very good-looking though. Who knows what became of her.
I think I will stop