School Days in the 1950s : Part 3

It is about three years since I wrote Part 2 of School Days, and this edition is long overdue.My school was Churcher’s College in Petersfield, Hants, a school founded in the c18 by one Richard Churcher, an East India Company man. The original intent was to train 10 boys in mathematics and navigation before they entered the company. The original building is in the town, and is still there with the name over the door. The present building on Rams Hill dates from the c19, and is still there, although much changed as you might imagine. They have a sixth form college now for example, which of course takes girls. Just imagine

But to go back to the benighted times of the fifties, and 1958 in particular, by which time I was fifteen, one could choose to enlist in the school CCF, the combined cadet force. The three services were represented, and I chose to go into the army section. Just deviating slightly, I wondered if schools still had CCFs today and it appears they do, something like 500 around the country. Much more sophisticated now though with what is available such as specialised training for different regiments, such as REME for example. The Royal Marines are represented now too alongside the other three services.

Anyway, I went into the army, and we were issued with uniforms. One set of battle dress, WW2 style, and this we kept for special occasions when we were on parade, and one set of denims for everyday use which was most of the time. The shirt made from some coarse material which itched like the proverbial hair shirt, was common to both BD and denims. We had to provide our own boots. My parsimonious parents bought me a secondhand pair, of which I was bitterly ashamed. As some waggish NCO put it, they looked as though they had once belonged to a Malayan bandit. Embarrassment like that marks you for life, or maybe hardens you against all that was to come.

My weekends were spent cleaning my kit. We had webbing belts and gaiters, which had to be blancoed. Ours was a sort of khaki green colour and had to be applied with a small stiff brush. I should have said that the old stuff from the previous week had to be scrubbed off first, so an unenviable task. Complaints from my parents about the mess and smell were not helpful. Considering my father had been a regular for sixteen years, I would have expected more encouragement, but I noticed from his photographs that, in the Artillery, he had a polished brown leather belt which must have been a doddle to clean, compared with what I had to work with. That was not all. Brass buckles and other fittings had to be removed and polished with duraglit. Reassembly invariably meant getting some brass polish on to the webbing or vice versa. Something of a nightmare, and yet I stuck at it for two years, until I left school.

However there was an upside, in fact several. We were issued on the day with Lee Enfield 303 Rifles, real ones which fired real bullets, still standard WW2 issue. Naturally they were collected afterwards. My mother would have freaked if I kept one of those in the wardrobe. Drill sergeants came down from the nearby camp at Longmoor to inspect us and to drill us ad nauseam. By the time they had finished with us we were reasonably proficient in rifle drill, and could march quite smartly. i found drill quite satisfying for some strange reason. We also had that lovely gun,the Bren at our disposal. I never did fire it, although some of my colleagues did. We all had to strip it down and reassemble in seconds as I remember. You hoped it didn’t jam when firing as it then had to have the barrel removed whilst hot. You needed a nearby water supply for cooling and sometimes had to improvise.

The RAF section had their own glider. Watching them trying to get it airborne was always amusing. Attached to the glider were two elasticated tow ropes, and each one was pulled by a large number of air force cadets. The spectacle looked like something out of Biblical Egypt. When the ropes were stretched to their limit, the plane was released. Sadly it never even cleared the next hedge. It must have been a heartbreaking exercise, and when you see gliders today being launched by tow truck or even another plane, you can understand that these poor lads never had a prayer. Still, they kept at it, to their eternal credit.

The highlight of each term was to go on a field day. We went to nearby Longmoor Camp for a day of manoeuvres, which meant charging around the pine forests with our rifles together with a handful of blank cartridges each. Today Health and Safety would be horrified. We were, in fairness, given a demonstration of how much damage a blank cartridge can do, which is more than you think. Nevertheless, it was glorified warfare all day long. The army resisted the temptation of firing live rounds over our heads, but there was one officer, who I always felt was unhinged, who threw firecrackers at us for amusement. Firecrackers, if you don’t know, are the size of a stick of dynamite with a fuse which is lit. If they go off near your feet, they make your ears ring. They certainly got us going, but it was fun nonetheless

I omitted to mention that the Army had their own railway with saddle tank steam engines, which ran into a side line at Petersfield station. We all piled into that to be transported to Longmoor Camp. Petersfield is on the old A3, the London to Portsmouth road, and Longmoor is a few miles north of that. I sometimes pass the camp or what is left of it, in the car. There are still some buildings standing but largely inactive. Longmoor was the start of Army country, stretching up to Aldershot, the well known garrison town, with little or nothing going on any more. The infamous Deepcut Camp nearby was completely razed to the ground and a housing estate built over it

I had quite a feeling for the military at the time, but was persuaded to go into the family business when I was 16, which turned out to be a big mistake. After several more bad decisions, I returned to college to study international sales and marketing, which became my lifetime career. I missed conscription by a few years, or call-up as it was known. I remember being annoyed at the time, as it would have meant compulsory release from the family firm. The fact that it was dangerous, was lost on me. This wasn’t too long after the Korean War. Many years later, when I was older and wiser, I read about the Glorious Gloucesters and the Battle of Imjin River. They were national servicemen or conscripts, and heroically resisted superior Chinese forces until they were overrun. The survivors, I remember were very badly treated. Perhaps missing call-up hadn’t been such a bad thing

I think I will stop here

Schooldays in the 1950s: Part Two

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

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