The Prescotian Webzine

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TELLING TALES OUT OF SCHOOL – Neil Foster remembers Prescot Grammar School in the 1950s.

“WE SEEK A FUTURE STATE”

FUTURAM CIVITATEM INQUIRIMUS said the school motto, picked out in gold on the gates. “WE SEEK A FUTURE STATE”. However, I am now going to contradict it by seeking a past state – my days there between 1951 and 1956.October 1951. I called for Malcolm Brownbill in Eaton Street, Prescot. My mother had asked if I wanted her to come with me to the gates and I had shaken my head in horror: I would never have been able to live down the shame!

As I walked through the impressive, wrought-iron gates I did not imagine that I was soon to meet characters who were just as entertaining and memorable as any in Dickens, with nicknames like “MEB”, “FAB”, “Spud”, “Pinhead”, “Nanny”, “Judder” and “The Mekon”!

The grounds at the front of the school were dotted with grass-covered mounds partly concealing underground air-raid shelters left over from the Second World War; no doubt the school governors thought that they would still come in useful for the atomic war that seemed more and more likely as the 1950’s progressed.

The headmaster’s house, an attractive white building with its own lawn, stood among a grove of trees on the corner of St Helens Road, opposite the old gates to Knowsley Park. Red-and-cream trolleybuses whined past on their way to St Helens.

It was a new, strange, and rather frightening world, far removed from the carefree days of primary school. The childish “playtime” was now the stern “recess”. The simple stream of “Arithmetic” or “Sums” now divided into its mysterious tributaries of Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry etc. There was a school uniform, a Latin motto, a satchel, school colours, and a history stretching back to AD 1544.

New boys were “newts”; fair game to be “ragged” on the first day. Any boy who was undersized, timid, physically weak, or unathletic, was a “weed”/(Not an appropriate term, as any gardener will tell you: weeds are very strong!)

Instead of the favourite primary school outdoor game of “jacks” there was, as well as the usual schoolboy pastimes of conkers and bullying, a strange game played on the thin strip of soil just behind the wall overlooking St Helens Road. This involved throwing a pen-knife into a circle drawn on the ground and bisecting parts of the circle where the blade stuck. (Does anyone remember the rules of this game?)

On the first day in a new form there was a roll-call and this could be embarrassing for those with unusual middle names, e.g. my friend at the time, William Ramsey Maltman (sniggers at the “Ramsey”). Our form-master read out “Roger Dixon” and said approvingly, “Good old English name!” A little further on he read out a Scottish name that started “Alistair Myron” and then seemed to go on a tour of the Highlands. When he reached the end of this goods-train of a name, a voice from the back said ironically, “Good old English name!”

ECCENTRIC TEACHERS

One thing that really dates that era is not only that ball-point pens were frowned upon and sometimes forbidden but also how unreliable and unpredictable they were, with hideous, smudgy, bright blue ink, prone to sudden haemorrhages on the paper, or producing script like varicose veins.

Are teachers now as eccentric or individual as some were then? Even their ways of maintaining order were unique: the History master, Mr Herbert Chant, used to hurl chalk at unruly boys; the French master, Mr Scott, used to berate wrong-doers by punctuating his sentence with whacks from the board-rubber. (If you wore braces, he would twang them like a banjo!)

Mr F.A.Bailey, one of the History masters, well-known now for his erudite works on local history, used to have a curious system of teaching. Each pupil in turn would read aloud from a history book and an appointed “referee” would shout “Next!” whenever the reader tripped over a word or made a mistake, whereupon the next boy would commence reading. One day, a friend of mine read out “The Moers Boved” instead of “The Boers Moved” and the referee yelled, “Nest!”(I mean “Next!!”

One of the Latin masters had a habit of dropping his small suitcase, packed with books, onto his table, which stood on a narrow, L-shaped dais. We boys wondered what would happen if we were to move the legs of his table almost off the dais. The master arrived and paused, suspicious of the unaccustomed silence and attentiveness of the class, all staring with fixed, intent _expressions towards him. He knew that something was up but had no idea what. While he was thinking about it, he dropped his case onto the table.

How many times have you seen a cowboy film with the horses somersaulting spectacularly? This table did the same, turning over and over with astonishing realism until it came to rest against the door, raising clouds of chalk dust. No stunt-man could have arranged it better.

As the echoes died away, the master allowed himself a wry smile and then quietly detailed some of the boys to replace the table; unfortunately, it was a trick we could do once only.

EXPELLED!

Another Latin master, Mr Burrows, was involved in one of the most sensational incidents at the school during my stay. He was trying to discipline one of his class and told him to come out to the front. The boy refused and when Mr Burrows moved towards him, he suddenly punched him in the face, blacking both his eyes. He was expelled practically on the spot, of course. The news spread around the school like wildfire and within ten minutes, it seemed everyone knew. (I wonder what he is doing now? Probably on the short list to replace the Bishop of Durham!) Mr Burrows turned up the next day, looking like a Giant Panda, with two puffy black eyes, saying defiantly, “You didn’t think I’d be here today, boys, did you?

About 20 years later, of course, a far worse disaster befell the school when a pupil with a grudge against one of the masters made several attempts to burn the place down and eventually succeeded, causing a quarter of a million pounds worth of damage. I doubt whether the 50’s tearaway would have gone so far!

English was my favourite subject so it is natural that I should have strong memories of the two English masters I encountered: Mr Heywood (Hayward? Never sure.) and Mr Charles Middlehurst.

GRUBBY-MINDED SCHOOLBOYS

There could not have been two more contrasting personalities. Mr Haywood looked like a gaunt, brown bird in his gown. He had spent some time in Egypt and several boys soon learned that he could always be side-tracked from lessons by an innocent-sounding query about his days there. Anyone entering his class some days would have found the board covered with Arabic as the boys skilfully played him like anglers until the lesson was half-gone and he realized that he had better get back to English.

Even then, there were pitfalls, like reading poetry to a roomful of grubby-minded schoolboys, expert in double entendres. One day he was declaiming some Elizabeth Barrett Browning and began, “What was he doing, the great god Pan, down in the reeds by the river?” He stopped, disconcerted by a chorus of sniggers from those who had found their own answer to that question and it was not that in the mind of Mrs Browning!

Another time, he was reading from Tennyson’s “Maud” and giving examples from it of “the pathetic fallacy”, i.e. the attribution of human emotions to Nature and inanimate objects. He came to the line, “… when I heard your rivulet fall” when once again the same sniggerers stopped him. He smiled patiently at one of the worst offenders, Gilling, and said indulgently, “I am afraid Gilling is obsessed with cloacal matters.” (When we discovered what the word meant, we realized how right he was!) we were reading “The Merchant of Venice” and came to the scene where Portia and her maid dress up in men’s clothes; so well that Portia exclaims, “.. they shall think we are accomplished with what we lack.” He asked if we understood this line. The class wavered uncertainly so he asked us to be quiet and whispered, “What she means is that they will think we’ve got balls!”

The class sat stunned as they heard a master using one of the forbidden words. Then they created such an uproar that it was about five minutes before they settled down. I suppose it was only poetic justice that not long after Mr Heywood was off ill for a considerable time and it came out that he had received the full force of a cricket-ball where it hurt most!

He was a cricket-lover and he once read us an essay he had written about his favourite sport. It was good, as one would expect, but did not get the reception he expected. He began by saying, “Cricket is our national game”, and this was immediately challenged by a boy called Byron, who protested, “But sir, Football is our national game, not Cricket.”
Mr Haywood (vehemently), “NO, IT ISN’T!”

He read his essay but seemed to be unaware of the ambiguity of his last sentence, “Yes, it’s a great game. Long may it reign over our summer fields.”

He frowned in annoyance at the dead silence and puzzled _expressions on the boys’ faces as he finished, but the reason was simple: we all thought he had said, “Long may it rain over our summer fields!”

Mr Haywood always stressed the inestimable value of reading for the development of a good vocabulary and command of English.(Right! And even more vital today in this, the age of the video illiterate) and one day he was hammering this point home when the same luckless Byron said defensively, “But, sir, I don’t want to ruin my eyes with too much reading.”

Mr Haywood’s eyes bulged like those of a crocodile that has suddenly realized it should not have taken that last mouthful of wildebeeste. For a second he gazed in mute horror at this Philistine who dared to bear a noble literary name. Then the dam broke. “Oh, Byron, you fool, you fool!” he stormed. “For every book you’ve read, I’ve probably read a thousand – AND THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH MY EYES!”

The (unliterary) Byron shrank back, red-faced, into his seat, like a genie struggling to get back into its bottle, and said no more.

BURN THE DICTI0NARY!

Mr Haywood’s colleague, the sardonic and cynically amusing Mr Charles Middlehurst, had the driest humour of any master I have ever known. Sparing in his praise but devasting in his criticism, he made no attempt whatsoever to ingratiate himself with the boys but because of this peculiar sense of humour, was widely popular.

The afore-mentioned Gilling sat near the front of the class and was one of his favourite targets, receiving a tirade of caustic comments, greatly relished by all of us and by Gilling, who enjoyed his fame!).

A favourite joke was when Mr Middlehurst came to allocate the parts when we were reading Shakespeare. Mr Middlehurst (reading a stage direction), “Enter Caesar in his nightshirt.” “Caesar – Hillier, Nightshirt – Gilling!”

At the time we were doing “Julius Caesar”, there had been a violent incident at the Capitol in Washington. Several armed Puerto Rican nationalists had tried to force their way in. Mr Middlehurst came to the line in the play which says, “Caesar enters the Capitol” and added drily, “.. where, no doubt, several Puerto Ricans are waiting with large revolvers.”

He enjoyed baiting the Scousers in the class by grotesquely parodying their accents. “The homewairk tonight will be ..” and all the Huytonians joined in delightedly, parodying him parodying them!

Some of his rejoinders were biting. A wrong answer would often be crushed with the scathing, “Rubbish, Balderdash, Piffle, Tripe and Rot!”

Once he was defining the meaning of a word when someone protested, “But, sir, it says in the dictionary..” Mr Middlehurst (ferociously), “Burn the dictionary!”

On a serious note: he was a first-class teacher of English and I shall never forget his masterly exposition of T.S.Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”. The Headmaster, Mr R.Spencer Briggs, I found most formidable and I have never forgotten his explosive roar of anger when I translated aloud the conjunction “for” by the French preposition “pour”, instead of the correct “car”. I never made that mistake again! He once made one of the cleverest boys in the class, Chris Hillier, stand on his chair for the duration of the lesson, as a punishment for talking.

Talking about the teaching of French; the aim then seemed to be accuracy, not fluency. For the first few weeks we had to write out all our exercises using the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, still the only reliable way of representing the sounds of a foreign language on the printed page.(This system is far superior to the “imitated pronunciation” used in so many phrase books.)

We did, by the way, have a French boy in the class, Jean Dupuy, the son of a cook working for Lord Derby. It came as a shock to me that he did not come top of the class at French!

He once caused much mirth by asking innocently what “manslaughter” was, pronouncing the last two syllables like “laughter” but really, it was he who should have laughed at the ramshackle phonetics of the English language, which make no sense at all.

Our Music teacher was “Joe” Fielding Kirk, much younger than most of the other masters and I certainly owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the pleasures of classical music. He played us some of the most exciting music ever written (“loud, bellowing music”, as he described it) like “The Ride of the Valkyries” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and it was in his class that I first heard the music of my favourite classical composer, Khatchaturian.

BAD LANGUAGE IN THE BIBLE!

One day, the History master, Herbert Chant, was taking us for Religious Knowledge. We were reading from the Bible and came to this passage, “… them that pisseth against the wall.” The whole class gasped in disbelief. Bad language in the Bible! Mr Chant (hastily), “It’s all right: it’s only the Bible’s way of saying ‘the male issue’.” The boys did not seem convinced. They were probably thinking what I was thinking, “Why was it wrong to write words like that on a wall but all right for the Bible to print them?”

THE FIFTH BEATLE

Taking us for Art was Mr Walters, a gentle, soft-spoken Welshman, with the looks and build of Freddy Mills, the boxer. One of his most talented pupils(then painting in a conventional, not his later, abstract, style) was destined to become known as “The Fifth Beatle” and was John Lennon’s best friend until his untimely death from a brain haemorrhage in 1962.

This was Stuart Sutcliffe, a small, slightly-built, very pale-faced boy, with a rather monotonous voice. While his artistic talent was obvious and outstanding(some of his painting were regularly hung on the walls of the Art class) he had never shown any interest in, or aptitude for, Music. I was most surprised, therefore, when I met him in a Liverpool beat club in 1960 and he told me that he was in a beat group and that they had just come back from Hamburg.

When he told me the name of the group, I nearly fell to the floor, laughing, but he took himself so seriously that I did not want to hurt his feelings. The group had the ridiculous name of “The Beetles”(He did not explain it was a pun so I naturally assumed that it was spelled in that way.) Does anyone know what happened to them?

Another musical prodigy(?) in my class was Michael Cox, who later appeared on the pop TV show “Boy Meets Girls” and had a minor hit in 1959 with a cover record, “Angela Jones”. He now lives in New Zealand, I understand.(A wise move, Mike. Get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible!).

ONE FOR NEATNESS!

I have never forgotten Mr Pinnington(“Pinhead”), one of our Maths masters, and he certainly would not forget me, because, as far as I know, I was(and perhaps, still am) the only pupil ever to have gained just one mark out of sixty in a “mock” GCE Maths paper!

He called me out and lowering his voice to a whisper, said something like this, “Foster, you might find this hard to believe – in fact I can hardly believe it myself – but even after going through your Maths paper with a fine tooth-comb, I cannot award you a single mark! However, I must admit it is neatly set out so, to save you the disgrace of receiving nought out of sixty, I shall give you one for neatness.” And he did!

This sounds like one of those school anecdotes that are “too bad to be true”, doesn’t it? Slightly exaggerated, you think? No! Ask anyone who knew me, for, although I could claim for most of my school career to be A1 at English, I was never better than Z3 at Maths – an Einstein in reverse, in fact!

Another reason for my remembering “Pinhead”(sorry! Mr Pinnington) was a remark he made in class one day. He said that in his opinion the only school subjects that demanded real brains were Mathematics and the Sciences; all the rest, he maintained, were just memorization (dates, facts, rules etc.)

I see his point but don’t agree! Just memorizing grammatical rules or lists of words will never make one a good, let alone a great, writer; learning lists of words in a foreign language will not make one a linguist; History is understanding why things happened, not just when and how they happened, and there is infinitely more to Geography than maps and industries and capital cities.

MY JUDO CAREER

Finally, I must mention a ludicrous incident that occurred on the playing fields. I was always useless at any sport so often just hung about watching the cricket, etc. One summer day I was being harassed by the previously-mentioned Roger Dixon, who was pretending to box with me and was making a real nuisance of himself.

I pushed him away and by chance, tripped him up. He fell heavily and when he got up he looked at me in astonishment and said with a new respect, “Gee, Fozzer, I didn’t know you were a Judo expert!”

I didn’t deny it, reasoning that a reputation as a Judo-expert could be useful. So, what happened? He had to go and spread the good news, didn’t he? Half an hour later, I was lying on my stomach, watching the cricket, when a huge shadow fell between me and the sun. Startled, I looked up, to see the biggest and toughest boy in the whole school, built like King Kong’s dad, come to test my prowess at Judo. He merely said, “Dixon tells me you’re a Judo expert, Fozzer! Well, Mr Judo-expert, get out of this!” Whereupon he sat down heavily upon me and drove my face about six inches into the turf.

I decided instantly that I would abandon my Judo career and take up running instead!

END-OF-TERM REPORT

Prescot Grammar School disappeared as such in the educational reforms of the 70’s, initiated by Shirley Williams, then in charge of the nation’s education. It became a Comprehensive School. Let us conduct a post-mortem.

Was the Grammar School system elitist; a breeding ground for snobs, as its critics tirelessly asserted?

I don’t think so. How could I, for example, a boy from a working-class family, living in a “two-up, two-down” terraced house in old Mines Avenue, Prescot, with no bathroom and an outside loo, possibly have anything to be snobbish about?

WINNING THE SCHOLARSHIP

The critics forget that in those days “winning the scholarship” was a cause for celebration in any working-class home.(it certainly was in mine.) My parents considered a good education of very great importance – for life, not just for a career.

It was the selection system that was unfair. The 11-plus examination, the result of which decided whether one would go to a grammar school or secondary modern, unfairly discriminated against those pupils who were intelligent but lacked “book-learning” and communication skills. Worst of all (now fortunately discredited) was the absurd “intelligence test”, incorporated into the 11-plus.

I shall always be proud that I attended Prescot Grammar School and feel that the values that it tried to instill into its pupils are with me still: in no way do I consider them outmoded – on the contrary they need to be urgently re-instated!

The teachers I knew then had very high standards; not just in the subjects they taught but in the equally important areas of dress, attitude and behaviour. Even the “bad boys”, the rebels, the educational no-hopers of the time, knew this. They were well aware that insubordination would only be tolerated up to a certain well-defined point. After that, the full force of authority would descend on the miscreant!

BADLY-DRESSED, WORSE-EDUCATED

What would such teachers have thought of some of today’s badly-dressed, worse-educated “teachers”, struggling to control their ungovernable classes? Not much, you can be sure! Sublime futility: the uneducated trying to teach the ineducable!

Nor would they have had much sympathy with the excesses of some of today’s trendy educationalists, with their half-baked theories, their glib talk of “equality” and their abject terror of encouraging any form of competition(as if life itself is not all competition!) It is certain that they would have reacted with horrified incredulity to the numerous reports over recent years revealing the huge numbers of young people who have serious difficulties with reading, writing and spelling. This, after nearly 140 years of compulsory education and the expenditure of billions of pounds (an amount second only to that spent on defence!)

FUTURAM CIVITATEM INQUIRIMUS – “We seek a future state.” Yet I am quite sure that the state of some parts of the British education system today was not what my teachers were seeking 50 years ago!

THE END


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