I remember when, at secondary school, I sat in a room the dullness of which mirrored the institution. Crammed with rows of individual desks, it was a room fit for cramming. Chalk and window pole, discipline and dreariness, making learning fun and uplifting wasn’t part of our curriculum.
My childhood had come to an abrupt end with the family move to Leeds in the spring of 59, the result of my father’s promotion to the position of regional branch manager with the film company, MGM. Our new home was a detached house in the ‘favoured’ suburb of Adel, a property once caustically and exaggeratingly described by a council house classmate as a ‘pink mansion’. After the honeymoon period of a post 11 plus term at the local primary school and the summer holiday, it was off to Leeds Modern, a grammar school despite its name. My mother warned I’d have to work hard from then on – as if I hadn’t before! The prospect of hard work didn’t daunt me but no way could I have imagined on my first September day in the red and black striped blazer how unfulfilling my seven years as a ‘Modernian’ were to be.
The classroom overlooked extensive playing fields, which for most of the year were laid out as two football and two rugby pitches. I was a football boy, whose ‘career’ started with the under 14s and concluded with the second eleven. Saturday morning away matches were a highlight as the coach whisked us off to – for me – diverting destinations such as Ossett, Tadcaster, Huddersfield and Bradford. In the afternoon every other week from the terraces of Elland Road I watched Leeds United, who were to become the famous and infamous ‘team of the 60s. Whatever thrills Saturday generated quickly evaporated with the stultifying boredom of the suburban Sunday and the unenviable prospect of another onerous week in the classroom.
Some of the lessons that took place outside our form room I dreaded even more. As a new boy, I soon encountered woodwork teacher, Frank “Chippy” Ireland, a bachelor who drove an impressively large car and who only ever appeared at morning assembly when his favourite hymn was on offer “Eternal Father strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave… Oh hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea!” On more than one occasion, I was taken into the room at the back where “Chippy” put his arm around me and called me “Timothy”. “Cheer up! You’ll soon be dead!” His “liking” for me was to be short-lived as he grew exasperated at my glaring lack of interest or ability in his subject. “Some people have to measure to one thousandth of an inch, you can’t even measure half an inch. “I don’t know how you’ll get on when you grow up and have to do jobs in your own home.” I can still see his face as a replied with what, for him, was the ultimate insult: “I’ll pay to have them done.”
Lighter moments in the seven years were few and far between; a large dog brought into the classroom to pounce on form master, Jack Leroi, an English teacher who had long since lost control; an examination in full swing when a boy rushed from the back row to get more paper from the teacher’s desk at the front. R…I….P! His trouser pocket caught the broken off metal bar on the side of my desk. As he peeled back the damage, what inconvenient hilarity!
As might have been expected, sex education was non-existent. A religious instruction teacher, A.L. Parker, (known by his initials as Alp), was the nearest who approached it glorifying as he did on focusing on biblical references to “adultery” and “prostitute”. I fear I wasn’t the only one that didn’t get the message. In fact I was more concerned by Alp’s insistence that only fountain pens should be used (with biros forbidden) for our writing of the scriptures. Females of my own age I never encountered – not at home, not socially and definitely not at school. Years later, as a 6th former, I enquired of a classmate why he carried an umbrella out with him in the evening rather than protecting himself from the Yorkshire rain by sporting the traditional flat cap. “Your girlfriend can’t shelter under a flat cap”, he advised me.
Some teachers made little pretence of enjoying their time in the classroom any more than the pupils. “Jock” McMenemy, a maths teacher from whom I learnt next to nothing in four years, was nominally in charge of reuniting boys with their lost property at the end of the day. Instead, he made it a point of honour to be first off the premises “Out of my way, laddie!” Eccentric head of history, E, “Pussy” McNeil, made it his business to teach no century other than the Eighteenth. Part of the time he might have spent acquainting us with other centuries he used instead to criticise his colleagues. “Who’ve you got next?” “Mr Owen for German, Sir.” “Bad luck!
From the second to the fifth year I had French with R.O. “Dickie” Durling, a decent, kindly man whose features uncannily resembled the cello he played in the school orchestra. Mr Durling was approaching the end of his career; nevertheless his explanation of tenses still served him well. After sweeping into the classroom enveloped in his gown, he was wont to draw a horizontal line half way down and across the entire width of the blackboard, “from Adam and Eve to the Day of Judgement”, as he described it. With deft use of the chalk and matchstick men he referred to as “Buggins”, “Juggins” and “Muggins”, a series of arrows delivered at lightning speed impressed upon us how, for example, the pluperfect differed from the imperfect.
Mr Durling spoke highly of the attitude to learning of his Lowestoft, Suffolk boys of the 30s and despaired of the truculent manner of some of those of 60s Leeds. On one occasion he went eyeball to eyeball with classmate, Johnny Rosser, a large, belligerent sort who wore ‘John Lennon fashionable’ national health spectacles and who epitomised the new age of protest. The master won the battle of wills but it was a close run thing. The spirit of rebellion was in the air – if not with me – and for the “old school” masters such as “Dickie” Durling the finishing line of retirement couldn’t come soon enough.
I too was eager for the finishing line. Each year at the final assembly with the singing of “Lord dismiss us with thy blessing”, how I envied those older boys departing and how my heart sank at the line “Those returning, make more faithful than before.” In June 1966 – the month before England’s World Cup victory – it was at last my turn to depart. What do I remember of the moment of my departure? Strangely, hardly anything. Seven years had drained me of the ability to celebrate. I left without feeling.