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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.