The Prescotian Webzine

Rod Crook (42-51) who holds a Chair In the Sociology Department of the University of Tasmania gave this following address at the Reunion Dinner


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 UK 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 buildngs 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 a second period...... and leading equally inexorably to 'four of the best'. The place is no longer what it was and I realise with total certainly 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 comunity which we will always share, a community not bounded in time or space.

In January 1942 ,1 first met Miss Huckle. It didn't need a social analyst to work out that Nanny had seen it all before. The great conveyor 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 the 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 Huckte on rare occasions when a small boy went beyond reasonable bounds, but normally a withering glance was more than enough .

Morning Assembles during the war and I remember the names being read out of Old Boys missing or killed 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, 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 table legs, matches in the chalk, the occasional 'acidental snowball' and blackboard dusters balanced on the tops 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 eventullty becoming prefects and mediating between the two worlds. We also had the Prefects' Dance in the Hal, 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 Assembles 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 tknes...etc" Standing there hugely bored I would took around at 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 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 summarising 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 his retirement!

I also became a bit-player in the school play. The play, (for me, Macbeth and Saint 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 talentless bit-players; they too were part of the team. For Saint 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 repetively 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 greaf 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 tight 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 on 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 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, many to the level of doctorates. If there is any competence 1 know where it started.

Let me share a story which has a moral. Sitting one afternoon in H.S.C. Scholarship History (Higher School Certificate - the approximate equivalent of the 'A' level examination) 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. The answer says a lot about the vision of the place. Today we live in an increasingly organised and technologised 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 small windowtess store-room but the secret of education remains the same - to touch the person, to share a vision, to show interest and excitement and to realty 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 solving equations with the speed of light; gown flapping, attention rivetled on 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 is 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" 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 to 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, his intense stare emerging from a book known backwards, angled forward, body immobile - ".......the thing I like about C-l-i-v-e/.......... is that he is no longer a-l-i-v-e,/...... there is much to be s-a-i-d/....... 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. though the room grows c-h-i-l-l-y/...... I haven't the heart to poke poor B-i-l-l-y". Finally the never-to-be-forgotten gem, again without expression or hint of a smite, "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?"

The School was a meeting place of cultures 'Liverpool came up the hill'and representatives of deepest Lancashire came I know not how or why. I wondered why others could not master the art of English pronunciation as those fortunate enough to be born and resident in an area bounded by Portico, Rainhill, Prescot and Eccleston and even a couple of miles towards Huyton so clearly could. This early discovery of the variability of human culture, when finally generalised to include the chosen people of Prescot, those from locations known only from hearsay and far beyond our frontiers, like 'Newton-le-Willows', 'the south of England ' and eventually onwards to parts far beyond, stood me in good stead both practically and professionally.

On to America and exposure to a different set of places and different traditions. There was a silly ethnocentric yet pervasive perception in my generation that we were simply better. America was trivialised, its enormous complexity, competence and energy neutralised by focusing on its strangeness and excesses. I learned quickly that the best in America was very good indeed and that what counted was merit and excellence and not merely presentation. But wasn't that what PGS had also taught? In fact it was, but that message was not the sole voice of England. It was tilting its lance against established interests which defended privilege on grounds quite other than proved competence. So it was that America became a revelation and an opportunity and it fitted very well the ethic of my background. PGS was about merit and excellence, but it was also about equality and opportunity. Quite basic was a belief that you treat people as equals because in the most sisnificant sense they are This also prepared me to deal with America where more energy was devoted to opening opportunities up rather than to closing people out.

There was however another theme from my background which did not sit well with America. Opportunity and innovation were good, but was life about maximising individual self-interest? Did the vision of the good society boil down to this? Only in a society where social obligation and accountability went hand in hand with opportunity could a worthwhile community exist. Yet wasn't this after all what had been on the menu at PGS? Interestingly enough, the same issues so apparent in America thirty plus years ago are dearly relevant in the United Kingdom today, and right now the answers being given are not impressive.

I look at the burglar alarms and the decay of the north of England with sorrow as at a disappearing world but not one I really understand any more in any sense more basic than reading about it in the Guardian Weekly. After twenty years spent in North America we made an unusual choice and have lived for the past fifteen years in a place where narrow managerialisrn is only now taking hold, and where bad taste is no more vicious than rural excess on a Saturday night. Yet it is a world of freshness and possibility with a real sense of equality and open-ness. We look daily out toward a sea as apparently changeless as when James Cook, that remarkable Yorkshireman, sailed there such a short time ago, and once in a while it is grey, raining and chilly and I think back to another place and another time.

PGS was also a tradition. There were ways of doing things and rituals to be followed. Basic courtesy is a vital ingredient in social facilitation. Tradition does not merery constrain but provides a shared and taken-for-granted base from which innovation and experimentation become possible. When in the hands of the dull and the mediocre tradition is stiffing and empty. When seen as a resource to be mobilised it provides direction. The public life of all modem societies suffers visibly from the discordant and grating actions and interactions of people who lack a sense of values, of direction, or socially worthy goals.

So it is with schools and universities, we have not solved the problem of equality of access and increasing participation while preserving what was good. Elitism has become a generalised term of abuse as opposed to a celebration of achieved competence with resultant social responsibilities. PGS as I knew it was a fine school; not because its buildings were imposing or facilities world-class, but because there was a vision and a tradition with room tor growth and a definite commitment to the future We had the chance to share in that vision and add to the tradition without losing sight of our roots.

The passing of grammar schools in this country is a source of sadness to me. By all means open up the world of privilege and increase pressure and competition, but the attack on mediocracy must rate as mindless at best, and probably for worse. The vision of the grammar school can be extended to include far more people, but its message must not be muted. The societies which will compete successfully in the new world will be those with good education systems, not those geared to lock-step learning, to narrow training, or to the production of a mindless mediocrity The need to extend educational opportunity and participation is clear, but it does not require throwing the baby out with the bath water. So I hope that the Prescot School in its new form will actively try to maintain the vision of the old PGS. Much changes, Ubut the basic realities of a good education do not really change, even when the rhetorics and the demands of educational bureaucrats and politicians make life difficult.


Contact Us | Legal Stuff