The Prescotian Webzine

Transcript of speech by Rod Crook to the Old Prescotian Reunion [9th.October, 1992]

Professor Taylor, Guests, Fellow Prescotians, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for your kind welcome, and for the honour involved in inviting me to give the speech in reply on behalf of the guests. Memory is always mediated by who we are now and the journey we have travelled. Having lived outside the U.K. since the 1950's I provide a reminder of just how far flung our community really is. Nevertheless it remains a community in the most important sense.

The buildings have gone. No need to run past the air raid shelters to make it on time in the morning, nor do I need to shove on a cap for the last few yards before entering the gates. R. S. Briggs no longer waits at the end of the slide on a frosty winter morning as my momentum takes me inexorably into his arms, prematurely ending an illicit slide after second period and leading equally inexorably to 'four of the best.' The place is no longer what it was and I realise with total certainty that one can never go home again because 'it' is not there, not anywhere in fact but in the world of memory. When we meet together and share our memories we at once come truly home again to a world we once shared, while reaffirming the community which in a different sense we will always share, a community not bounded in time and space. So tonight I want to talk for a few minutes about that world and to pay my respects to the vision and community that was and still is in that wider sense the Prescot Grammar School.

In January 1942 I first met Miss Huckle. It didn't need a social analyst to work out that Nanny had seen it all before. The great conveyer belt had come again past the door of Form 1 and deposited me, the lowliest and newest recruit, into the world of PGS which was to be a central part of my life for the next ten years. The school taught many things and some of them were even on the curriculum! A handful of long paint brushes made an effective weapon for Miss Huckle on the rare occasions when a small boy went beyond reasonable bounds, but normally a withering glance was more than enough.

Morning assemblies in the war, and I remember the names being read out of old boys killed or missing in action. Our small society was inextricably linked into other social worlds and other realities. School, country, loyalty, honour and decency were all there being ritually affirmed for even the smallest boy to understand something, however vaguely, about the privileges and responsibilities of membership.

The world of boys and the world of adults including teachers, intersected but did not correspond.  We had our appointed orbits.  We the young, had to put up with a lot:  blackboard dusters on the backside, chalk thrown with skill, lines and detentions, standing outside and sometimes inside the headmaster's study, occasional hair pulling, straps on the hand from benighted souls who had reached the end of their tether and imagination, and occasionally the unkindest cut of all, sarcasm.  We returned the favour with paper airplanes, silver paper projectiles shaped like inverted miniature wine glasses and armed with ink, rubber bands firing folded paper at high velocity, marbles under the table legs, matches in the chalk, the occasional 'accidental' snowball, and blackboard dusters balanced on top of classroom doors in the forlorn hope that 'one day'.

Out of this natural opposition came increasing tolerance and gradual admission to the symbols of adulthood.  Some of us even stayed on in the sixth form eventually becoming prefects and mediating between the two worlds.  We also had the Prefects Dance in the Hall, the annual ritual with real life bring your own girls allowed in for one night only, a 'never to
be repeated offer'; refreshments in the Art Room and a walk round the corridors thrown in.  There were the daily morning assemblies also in the Hall, but unlike the motivational rituals of Japanese industry where the Company song pledges loyalty and productivity, we sang "And did those feet in ancient times etc."  Standing there hugely bored I would look around at
the platoons of young christian soldiers and beyond them at the names on the walls.  Finally the Hall was where one read the Lesson - terrified with the words jumbled together and leaping around the page.

Geoffrey Dixon taught me to write at least well enough to be understood and that required a good deal of dedication on his part; also the art of writing a precis, gone alas from the contemporary curriculum at least in the schools I know. Because they did not have the pleasure of writing countless precis at school I find that every year I have to set Final Year Honours students the task of identifying and summarizing difficult issues in 300 words or less, and if they claim it's impossible the number of words available drops. So Geoffrey Dixon continues to influence the young long after retirement!

I became a bit player in the school play. The play,(for me MacBeth and St. Joan) was a metaphor of the school community. It was a social performance in which we all served, the good, the adequate and the simply appalling. There was room for the talent-less bit players- they too were part of the team. For St. Joan I spent longer making a table look as if it could have been an antique than learning and speaking all my fourteen words which opened the play. Six of these referred unambiguously if repetitively to an absence of eggs, the remainder expressing profound irritation and a request for further explanation. Well at least it was over quickly and the actors could get to work!

So also it was with sport. Three great events stick in my mind, first Founder's Day Football (due after midnight tonight by my reckoning), second, Sports Day and leading up to it 'standards' for athletic events, and third the annual cross country grind. Everyone was involved. All competed if only against themselves and their efforts could make a difference for the House. Why do I recall these events? Because they were part of a vision in which excellence was celebrated, but also important was taking part and doing the job. You could not expect more than a person's best and you valued the person and his best and never made light of it. We learned to play for a team, to play hard and play to win. Yet we also learned how to lose and to get up no matter how disappointed and congratulate the winner. Virtues of a disappearing world, no doubt, but fundamental in preparing people to make and to live in a good society. I hardly need to remind you that 'Alphas' learned this lesson early and frequently!

Yes I also remember being frozen to the bone most Wednesday afternoons in winter, nails digging into the soles of the feet from old type soccer boots, and trying to kick a leather ball which weighed a ton in the rain and mud- no wonder I emigrated. That decision was made without difficulty on a Wednesday afternoon all those years ago!

I recall with great affection and gratitude the dignity given to us by our teachers. There was the occasional bully but by and large they didn't last long. To see possibility and promise in another person is a gift. To work at bringing it to fruition is to give a gift. That was a major part of the PGS community, highly intelligent and dedicated teachers who cared about their work and who by skill and effort showed us what we could become and started us on a long road. I have had the privilege of being involved in the education of thousands of undergraduates, and many to the level of doctorates. If there is any competence I know where it started.

Let me share a story which has a moral. Sitting one afternoon in H.S.C. Scholarship History in the book room- that small store room next to the coats and toilets. What, I asked, is the purpose in the end of studying History- the answer was instructive- "to learn to value the liberal tradition". I may not have fully understood but the answer stuck and took some sort of root. That answer says a lot about the vision of the place. Today we live in an increasingly organized and technologized world. Enormous attention is paid to rhetoric and appearance, but behind the appearance the reality is disappointing. No one would think of holding a class in a windowless small storeroom but the secret of education remains the same- to touch the person, to share a vision, to show interest and excitement, and to really care about the development and potential of the person one teaches. Without that commitment education becomes a costly exercise in frustration, futility and rhetoric.

I can see in the mind's eye Mr Wood (Eddie) standing at the blackboard adding numbers and equations with the speed of light; gown flapping, attention riveted to the sheer elegance of the problem and the optimal solution. Numbers and series move left, right, up and down and the man is in ecstasy! It's as if Bolton Wanderers had scored. As he works he sees a possible move, considers it and says "what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts," and we all grin, and it's the first and only thought I've managed to follow. That's what education is really about -sharing a vision and seeking to touch the other and say "follow these moves and you too will make a discovery, will be 'turned on' and you too can begin to fly," and to help make that happen is to be a participant in a miracle.

Mr Bailey (Fab) was an inspiration. An excellent historian and a fine teacher who very occasionally felt it necessary to give "five lines- (long pause) -the next boy who talks." 'Questions round the class' and in particular Local History were his forte. To listen to F.A. Bailey talk at length about the history of Prescot and environs was to transcend the great divide of age and position. It mattered to him you see, and so it mattered to me. At the end of every term he would read light verse aloud to the class, and to be there was to be spellbound. Seated at the table, intense stare emerging from a book known backwards- angled forward, body immobile- "the thing I like about Cl-i-v-e / is that he is no longer a-l-i-v-e-/ there is much to be said/ for being d-e-a-d." and again "Billy in one of his bright new s-a-s-h-e-s / fell into the fire and was burnt to a-s-h-e-s/ and now although the room grows c-h-i-ll-y/ I haven't the heart to poke poor B-i-ll-y." Finally the never-to-be-forgotten gem, again without expression or the hint of a smile. "No no for my virginity/ if I lose that cried Rose, I'll die / behind the bush last night said Dick/ Rose were you not extremely sick?"

Click HERE for Part Two

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