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It was obvious to me that I was not among the elite few who would earn the oportunity to remain at school for a further two years leading to ‘A’ levels. It’s worth remembering that, in the UK in the 1960s, only about 4% of school leavers went to university. Whilst rather more would take ‘A’ levels, many would go into roles that would, today, be described as internships: articled clerks in solicitor’s offices or accountancy firms, where they would study part-time whilst working full-time in order to qualify in those professions.
As for me, I would need to start looking for a job. Writing was what I most wanted to do. Could I get a job as a cub reporter with the local newspaper? Older and wiser heads said that would be a high risk choice – only the best achieved success in journalism. Better to get a trade. “You can always try writing later, then, if it doesn’t work out, you will have something to fall back on.”
There were 3 or 4 Engineering employers in Hereford at that time. One of the largest was owned by AEI (Associated Electrical Industries), a conglomerate that manufactured all things electrical. In Hereford it’s subsidiary company traded as Mazda Lamp and Lighting, manufacturing street lighting fittings. I attended for an interview during the Easter holidays but was turned down.
Next was Saunder’s Valve Company. I applied by letter from school and was invited to attend for an interview a couple of weeks before the end of term. The Head agreed that I could have the time off – the exams were over – and that I may as well not return for the last few days of term.
At the interview I learned that the company was not manufacturing electronic valves as I had supposed and as, they said, most people did. The valves made by Saunders were sophisticated versions of the kind of tap – or faucet – found in your kitchen or bathroom.
Saunder’s USP was the diaphragm. The inventor had worked as a Mining Engineer in the South African gold mines where he had become increasingly frustrated by the tendency of the valves to leak in use to control the slurries produced when refining ores. Grit would get into the system preventing the valve from fully closing and damaging the operating mechanism. He came up with the idea of placing a thick piece of soft rubber between the components. This rubber diaphragm would isolate the mechanism from the slurry whilst ensuring grit was enveloped by the rubber, so that the valve still remained sealed.
At Hereford the company produced a different type of valve – one with a ball that rotated through 90 degrees to turn the flow of fluid on or off. It still used the principle of the rubber diaphragm to ensure the operating spindle and bearing were separated from the fluid. All were destined for use in aircraft. The company boasted at the time that every valve on every British manufactured aircraft was made by Saunders, from the fuel system to the humble tap on the tea urn in the galley.
And, at the time, there were several aircraft manufacturers operating in the UK: De Haviland, Blackburn, Avro, Vickers, English Electric, Hawker, Gloster, Handley Page, Folland, Saunders-Roe, Short, Fairey, Bristol and others. In time they would all merge to form BAE Systems.
As an apprentice I would spend time in each of the manufacturing areas but, as someone with a proven academic bent, I could look forward to working in development or design at the end of the five year contract.
I was asked “When can you start?” “Straight away,” was my reply. “Why not make the most of the summer holidays, it’s your last chance!” It was agreed that I would start on the eighth of August. I spent the next 3 weeks working on the largest farm in the village. It was there that I met two young men, brothers, one a year older than me, the other younger. They introduced me to the “8 O’clock Club”, a small group of people interested in drama, and the Church bell ringers. Membership of both enabled me to integrate back into community life in the village.
Back at school it was time to embark on the two year curriculum leading to GCE ‘O’ levels. In a small school the number of subjects that can be covered by the equally small staff is limited. Two years previously we’d been weeded into two streams for several subjects. In particular, the ‘A’ stream took Latin whilst the ‘B’ stream took woodwork. I was in the ‘A’ stream for French so, despite my objections, I was forced into the Latin class. In retrospect I suppose I should see it as flattery, suggesting that my teachers believed me capable of an academic career and that woodwork would be a waste of my talents. That was the culture back then – it still is in some quarters.
In maths I was on the border line between ‘A’ and ‘B’. Those in the ‘A’ stream at the end of the ‘O’ level programme would take two exams – Elementary Maths and Additional Maths. The latter included the bits that I found more interesting, trigonometry, differentiation, staistics and probability. I was disappointed to find myself in the ‘B’ stream.
Now we also had to choose between Art and History and between Geography and Chemistry. The other science, Physics, was not optional. I chose Chemistry believing that my future would probably involve science; and Art because it would not require me to spend hours learning dates and other historical facts. To my surprise I discovered a talent for drawing and for rendering light and shade in paintings. In the exams in summer 1958, I was awarded a higher grade than in any other subject, except French.
The previous February we had taken ‘mock’ ‘O’ levels, designed to demonstrate which areas we were weak in and on which we needed to concentrate our revision. I gained an appalling result in Latin. The teacher (not the one who had, years before, insisted I stick with it) said I probably ought to have given up on Latin much earlier. Not taking Latin from that point onwards left me with a number of free periods. I asked the Maths teacher if I could join his ‘A’ stream. He agreed and offered additional tuition to help me catch up. Although I did not pass the exam, that tuition was of considerable help when it came to continuing my studies part time as an apprentice Engineer.
Choosing not to study history was not easy. It, together with English, had been a subject in which I had gained high marks for essays. But writing an essay when you are able to check facts by referring to a text book is one thing. Doing so in an exam room, with only your memory to rely on, is very different. As it turned out, writing an essay for the English exam was not easy, either.
We were given a long list of subjects, none of which sparked inspiration. Writer’s block or exam nerves? Probably a combination, with the latter inducing the former. I wrote two completely inadequate essays in the time allowed, one of which I destroyed. Fortunately, there was also a grammar paper so the exam grade did not depend entirely upon the essay. I gained enough marks to get a pass, though not as high a grade as either I or the teacher expected based on past performance.
Our new home needed a great deal of work doing to bring it up to date. My mother’s partner embarked on this with enthusiasm, despite his many other casual jobs working for local farmers. Jobs which I’m sure provided the means with which to purchase materials as well as specialist labour for tasks beyond his own ability. During school holidays in 1957 and ’58, and at weekends and summer evenings after I left school, I was enlisted as general labourer to assist with this work, as well as gardening.
There was a steeply sloping front lawn with flower beds at the front of the house. A narrow passage separated the rear of the house from a retaining wall around 4 feet high beyond which was a sloping meadow. Our vegetable garden was across the narrow lane which was the only access to the house. Mum’s new partner also kept bees the care of which was another duty which I shared.
One of his specialist abilities was the laying, or pleaching, of hedges. This typically created a large amount of surplus material some of which was usefull as firewood and which he was allowed to take as part of his fee. Much of this material, however, was of no value and had to be burned on site. I frequently provided the unskilled labour in dealing with this as well as the subsequent sawing and chopping of firewood.
By the summer of 1955 I had a second sister. That summer was unusually warm, or that is how I remember it. The baby spent her days lying in a pram in the shade of the laburnam tree whilst I worked in the garden.
By now I had begun to worry that, were my mother to marry her suitor, I might have to leave the boarding school because I would no longer be eligible under the foundation’s rules, now having in practical effect, two parents. At the Easter holidays in 1956, with still no sign of a divorce or a new home in the village, I came to believe, with no real evidence, that my mother was pregnant again. This made me inexplicably angry. It was a purely emotional reaction that I did not understand then, nor do I now. My intuition proved correct, however; by the summer holidays her condition was obvious. And, now at last, a house move was in prospect.
The end house of a block of three on a hill just outside the village, originally the property of the trustees of the Baptist Church, had come on the market. My mother’s future husband’s employers had agreed to loan him the purchase price and an offer had been made. The aim was to move during the summer holidays so that I would be around to assist with the heavy lifting. As things turned out, I had to take the first week of term off because the legal documents were not sorted out until well into September.
I was due to return to school the day after the move. Many years before we had been given a collie-cross puppy. Fed entirley on scraps and the occasional dish of dog biscuits softened with tea, Bruce had become a loved family pet who was, by now, becoming quite elderly. My mother’s suitor, in addition to his full time employment as a council road maintenance man, carried out a number of specialist tasks on a casual basis for local farmers. These included rabit catching for which he used a wire-haired terrier as a working dog. There would not be space for two dogs in our new home.
Since the working dog would have to stay, the family pet would have to be sacrificed. My mother gave me a half crown and told me to go to the home of our landlord’s son who farmed the next property on our side of the lane. He cut hair for his male neighbours. “Get your hair cut. And take Bruce with you and ask him to put him down.”
I remember struggling to hold back the tears as my hair was cut. Job done, I sobbed out my mother’s instruction. “No, no, I can’t do that,” came the welcome response. Of course, I pleaded with him but he, no doubt well aware of my distress, was adamant.
Bruce was saved for a few days – until my mother’s suitor made the necessary arrangements days after I was back at school. Years later that incident was the inspiration for my book “Summer Day” in which a boy runs away with his sick dog, determined to prevent his father shooting it.
What do boys at boarding school do when they are not in lessons? In our case it was a mixture of sport and the same kinds of things that pupils at day schools will do when they get home.
Every evening there was “prep” – the equivalent of homework – in which we would undertake assigned tasks in one or two subjects from the academic curriculum. Unlike homework, this took place at a set time every weekday and was supervised. From 6:30pm until 7:30pm we would be confined to our classrooms, overseen by a senior pupil – a prefect or monitor (in effect a junior prefect).
These boys were permitted to administer corporal punishment to any boy whose behaviour threatened the discipline of the class. This usually took the form of strokes administered to the hand using a 12 inch wooden ruler. The least painful version of this punishment was inflicted on the palm of the hand with the flat of the ruler. This merely stung a little. A more severe form would be the edge of the ruler which contained the possibility of bruising to the base of the fingers or thumb. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to withdraw his hand at the last second as the ruler descended. Most of the older boys were wise to that trick and would lift the ruler up to catch the back of the victim’s hand as he stuck it out again.
And then there were “twitzers”. This required the victim to hold his hand out with finger tips together and pointing skywards. The edge of the ruler would then be brought down with some force momentarily numbing the finger tips of the victim.
For boys in first and second year, homework was followed by bedtime. We were allowed to read in bed until “lights out” at 9pm. Older boys had a later bedtime which allowed for other occupations and hobbies, including listening to music as previously described, games such as Monopoly or Mah Jong, indoor sports like squash, and model making.
I have already mentioned that we attended Church services twice on Sundays. In between, our time was mostly our own to indulge in such hobbies. My preferred activity was reading. We had access to the more upmarket of the Sunday newspapers and there were plenty of books available to borrow from the school library. On alternate Sundays the barber would come to the school and set jup in one of the classrooms. On those Sundays, queueing for a haircut occupied what seemed like far too long a part of the day. Sunday was also the day when, twice each term, we were allowed visits. This provided an opportunity to leave the school grounds and explore the nearby towns of Cobham, Esher and Kingston-upon-Thames.
Two afternoons each week were set aside for soccer or Rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer. The school fielded teams in inter-school competitions with other private schools in the county and Saturday afternoons would often require the rest of the school population to support the first fifteen from the touch line or the first eleven from the edge of the cricket field.
Some time after a new head teacher was appointed, hockey was introduced. The new Head had been a member of the England hockey team in the 1948 Olympic games and was passionate about the game.
Whenever the sports pitches were deemed unsuitable for playing, cross country runs would take place. I found that distance running was an activity I enjoyed more than any of the other sports. Every summer there was an athletics competition for which little if any proper preparation took place. Sprints, middle distance running, long and high jumps, throwing of javelin, discus and shot putt all featured on the annual sports day.
Another pastime was boy scouts for younger boys and the army cadet force for older ones. In scouts we learned different knots, fieldcraft and first aid and occasionally camped out under canvas in the school grounds. In the ACF we drilled, learned how to dismantle, clean and reassemble rifles and machine guns; had days out at the army’s firing ranges and, in the summer of 1957, a one week camp at an army base near Portsmouth during which we took part in mock battles as well as all the usual drilling and tests of marksmanship. For me one of the most memorable features of this week was a day trip across the Solent to Rhyde on the Isle of Wight and the opportunity to swim in the sea at Stokes Bay.
For a while in the early fifties a small shop in the village traded as a draper, run by a couple from London. They were Salvationists, the man playing euphonium in the Hereford Salvation Army Band. No doubt attracted by their common origins in the capital, they became friends of my mother and at some point, perhaps when they were packing up to leave, she acquired an upright piano from them. She enrolled in a correspondence course and began to learn to play.
The staff at Reed’s included a music teacher whose principle role was as organist and choirmaster. The school operated with a strong Anglican ethos: we attended chapel on alternate weekdays and twice on Sundays. In addition to leading the singing of hymns and psalms, the choir regularly learned anthems which they performed as part of the Evensong Sunday evening worship.
Dr Forster (doctor of music), possessed a beak like nose and wore pebble glasses. We boys christened him “Peck”. In addition to his work with the choir, he provided weekly lessons – lectures really – in “musical appreciation” whereby we were enabled to learn the evolution of classical music from baroque to modern. And he offered piano lessons. These were, of course, extra-curricula and necessitated the payment of a fee. No other instruments were taught in the school at that time.
Mum decided to pay for me to have piano lessons. I learned scales and by the summer of 1955 I was grappling with the slow movement from a Greig sonata. The problem was that I was lazy and did not practice. Sometimes I would go with another boy to the practice rooms and we would fool about. Once we stuck copper wires into an electrical socket. It was a miracle that we did not electrocute ourselves. We did fuse all the power in that block.
When the time arrived for my weekly lesson, week after week I would stumble at the same place, a chord sequence I was never able to get right. Eventually Peck became so frustrated that he pulled me by the hair and beat me about the shoulders with his arms before running from the room. I was not the only boy to suffer such treatment. These days it would, if reported, lead to suspension or even the sacking of the teacher, followed by claims for compensation from the parents.
The truth is that Forster was basically a gentle man, passionate about music and frustrated by the inability of others to take the same degree of interest. A couple of years later he taught a group of us to play mah jong. We would play the game in his flat in the music block of an evening. At the end of the school year during which I tried to learn the piano (ie. Summer 1955) I was, to my surprise, awarded the music prize at the annual speech day. No doubt this was Peck’s way of saying “sorry”.
Mum enjoyed listening to the playing of a popular pianist called Russ Conway and watched the progress of his records up the “hit parade”. In the summer of 1956 we noticed a record entitled “Experiments With Mice” by Johnny Dankworth. Never having heard it on the wireless, we had no idea what it was or what it could possibly be.
Back in school in September one of the boys who was an enthusiastic follower of jazz had a copy and played it. The theme of “Three Blind Mice” was rendered in the styles of different jazz bands; Glen Miller, Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others. A number of boys were into jazz by then and had long-playing records featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims and others which I, too, came to enjoy.
One or two members of staff were quite keen on jazz, too, and they encouraged the formation of a jazz club which met weekly to listen to jazz records and discuss the different styles and the evolution of the art – not unlike Peck’s attempts to teach us about classical music, but much more entertaining to our young minds.
In the summer of 1958 the jazz club organised an outing to a concert given by “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in London, a troupe of touring jazz musicians that included Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. Ella took several curtain calls. So many in fact that, crossing London to Waterloo, we were too late for the last train to our part of Surrey. The next train was the so called “Milk Train” leaving at 5am. An alternative was a train that left around 1am but only went as far as Kingston-Upon-Thames. It was agreed that we would take that one and walk the rest of the way, about 10 miles!
Somewhere outside Esher a young man in a Hillman Minx Californian with the top down stopped and offered lifts. About 8 of us crammed into the car, some sitting on the trunk with feet over the shoulders of the boys in the back seat, for the ride to Fairmile where the driver generously turned round and went back to collect the ramaining boys.
At the beginning of 1954 I had chicken pox. In addition there was heavy snow in the hills of the Welsh border. So I did not return to school until about three weeks after term started. I got off the Green Line coach at Fairmile, crossed the road and commenced the walk through the woods to the school. It was a frosty, foggy morning and nothing about my surroundings seemed familiar. I should quickly reach a small lake called Black Pond. Summer swimming parties and winter skating took place on this lake. I knew it well, as well as the route from it to school. Where was it?
I must have taken the wrong path from the road. I returned to the bus stop, sought an alternative route into the woods. Once again it seemed wrong and when I again failed to find Black Pond I began to panic. Had I got off at the correct stop? I mentally retraced my actions. It took a long trime to admit to myself that perhaps I should not have crossed the road. It could do no harm to cross back and try a path in the opposite direction. It was with considerable relief that I came to Black Pond as the fog finally cleared and the sun began to shine.
The previous summer, 1953, a boy a couple of years older than me got into difficulty whilst swimming in Black Pond and drowned. The school management decided that an on-site swimming pool would be an asset. At about this time the trustees were concerned about dwindling finances and made the decision to close the sister school for girls in order to reduce costs and raise capital. For a while boys were assigned to voluntary duties; in the kitchens and undertaking some of the cleaning of classrooms. We already made our own beds and swept and dry mopped the dromitory floors, daily.
Another voluntary task, scheduled to take place at times otherwise set aside for sports, was the digging of the hole prior to lining with concrete to create the swimming pool. The school buildings and grounds had previously belonged to another school and already possessed an indoor swimming pool. This was, I assume, too expensive to operate and had been boarded over to create a woodwork room with an art studio above.
In the summer of 1954 I came down with pneumonia. It began as shivering on a hot summer day. I spent a few days in the school sick bay followed by 3 or 4 weeks in hospital in Kingston-upon-Thames. This lasted beyond the end of term. I remember arriving home to the cottage in an ambulance. I have no particular recollection of the journey from Kingston to Hereford – I assume someone must have put me on a train and arranged for it to be met by the ambulance.
Of my stay in hospital my most vivid memory is of being thumped on the back daily in order to loosen the mucus from my lungs. That and the mound of fruit left by visitors – staff from the school, my mother’s cousin and, I suppose, people visiting other patients who took pity on this sick child a long way from home. When I was due for discharge I remember two women, nurses or nursing assitants, sorting through, removing the uneaten rotting fruit. I well recall their disgust at the waste.
For Reed’s, the new injection of funds arising from the closure of the girls’ school enabled the construction of a new, two storey, teaching block. Once that opened the old classroms became year group common rooms where we stored our books, did our “prep” (homework), read, argued and, occasionally, fought. For lessons we carried our books to the teaching block.
At home in the Christmas/New Year break in the winter of 1954/5 my mother announced that she was pregnant. The father was a local man who was seeking a divorce from his wife. He was 12 years older than she and they were looking for a house in the village where they could set up home. By the time I came home for the Easter holidays he was making weekly visits on Sunday afternoons and evenings, cycling from the village to the cottage. He was still living with his wife who was, we were told, making life difficult for him, refusing to grant him a divorce despite his blatant adultery. This was before divorce laws were liberalised in the UK.
The majority of the other boys in my age group at the school already knew each other. They had either been educated at Reed’s since the age of 7 or 8 or had attended an associated school, founded by the same benefactor, designated the Royal Wandstead School. The rest of us were outsiders, boys with strange accents and, in my case, small for my age. From being the clever child in a small school, I was now just one among a group of boys who were at least as talented. By the summer of 1952 all of the older boys and girls from the village school had decamped to the new school in the big house so I was among the oldest still in the primary school. Now I was one of the youngest in a large school a long way from home.
Those of the boys who had begun their lives at Reed’s before reaching 10 or 11 years of age had been accomodated and taught in rooms in a separate building called The Close. Now all of us ten- and eleven-year-olds were accomodated there but had to walk through the grounds to the school’s main building, which we called “The Shack”, for meals and lessons. I remember the agony of walking with chillblains on toes and fingers. One or two of my fellow pupils even had chillblains on their ears.
We were allowed visits from family members twice each term. My mother arranged for her cousin, Basil, to visit. Other friends and relatives sent the occasional postal order for half a crown (2/6, equivalent to £0.125) to supplement my pocket money which could be used in the school tuck shop to purchase sweets – although, with sugar still subjected to rationing, our pennies had to be accompanied by ‘points’ from our ration books, most of which were, of course, used in the purchase of food for our three meals and one snack per day.
The return journey to Hereford at the end of term was a reversal of the September trip, escorted by my mother’s friend. Arriving at Paddington after the Christmas holidays there was no sign of my mother’s friend. The train’s guard, in whose protection I had been placed on boarding, took me to the station master’s office. I don’t recall hearing it, but there must have been a tannoy announcement. After what seemed like a long wait my mother’s friend arrived to collect me. By this time I was extremely upset and my recollection is that I hardly stopped crying at all until I was on the south bound train the following afternoon. I have no idea what correspondence was exchanged between my mother and her friend in the following days.
When it came to the Easter holidays a new arrangement had been made: Mum’s cousin Basil would meet and accompany me and I would sleep in his sister’s apartment close by in Hammersmith. Instead of the train between London and Surrey I would travel that segment by coach. This arrangement continued for the next couple of years, until I was deemed old enough to travel alone on a journey that did not involve crossing the capital, changing trains at Reading and Guildford and completing the journey in a single day.
At the end of my first year I was rated in the bottom 3 of 33 pupils in the class. I was lucky, because, being born in November, I could start again so I remained in the first class (which was called ‘Remove’) for a second year. Now I was the boy who knew the ropes among a group of new comers. Although, once again, some already knew each other, having previously attended the Royal Wanstead School.
I very quickly formed a friendship with one of those newcomers from RWS. He was a month older than me. I gained the impression that, like me, he was somewhat introverted, not great at mixing with the other boys, even those he had known for several years. It was a friendship which would last throughout the next five years of school, and continue into adulthood.