Wednesday, 18 April 2007

3. The Grammar School Years

For any child, moving from Primary School to Secondary School education is a daunting time. In my case, starting at the Boston Grammar School was quite a scary prospect. I had been to 'Cheers Mens Outfitters' in the school holidays with Mum to get kitted out in the strange new uniform I was going to have to wear. There was so much new stuff to buy that Mum had to use the money that I had saved in my TSB account. (While I was at Park School, every Monday morning I would take a TSB bank book and one or two shillings from home, and the Teacher would deposit it into a savings account). There was a lot to pay for, including a proper school blazer with three embroidered crowns on the breast pocket, charcoal trousers, socks, shoes, white and blue shirts, school tie, football boots, shorts, school football shirt, white T-shirts, cricket whites, and swimming kit. Being the stroppy little kid that I was, I remember throwing a sulk on holiday in Yarmouth when I was forced to spend one whole pound of my holiday money on a new satchel for school.
School started in September, and an old schoolfriend from Park school, Christopher Mills, came with me on my first day. (I found out years later that he was also gay. You know what they say about birds of a feather...).
There were around 90 new boys starting that year, and we were put in the new pre-fab mobile classrooms overlooking the school playing fields. In that first year, they still had no idea of our academic prowess or otherwise, so they simply divided us into three groups of around 30 boys, and named the classes after the initials of the school, B, G and S. I was in 1G, and my form teacher was Mr Dick Eyeington. It seemed a fitting name for him because he was whorl-eyed. He was a terror, who loved to shout at the top of his voice if he saw you misbehave. Many is the time I froze as his voice boomed out, "Clay! Face front! Or I'll stand on your neck!" In 1969, teachers were also not averse to throwing board rubbers at you from the front of the class. If his aim was good, you certainly felt it when a rectangular block of wood hit you on the side of the head! If he was close enough, he would hit the back of your head with his hand, and practically knock you senseless. It certainly made you sit up and take notice.

That first year was, I think, the last year that the whole school had to stand in the playground for a school photo. This was the result of 500 boys all told to "face front, and no larking about or you are in a week's detention". Lots of glum faces.

The school was very parochial and strict, and the masters dressed for assembly in gowns and mortar boards. Some of the older ones still used to wear their gowns in class. I think it gave them a feeling of superiority to swoop into class in their own Batman uniforms.
In the first year, I made friends with a lad that I'd barely known at Park School, Mick Holland. I have to admit that as well as sharing his silly sense of humour, I also thought him very attractive. He had black hair and green eyes, and always seemed to be smiling. He was what people would call 'a bad influence', because he was always looking for fun, and used to make me laugh in class. One time he had an argument with the cleaners, and to get his own back, at the end of the next day, he littered the classroom with scraps of paper, and wrote on the blackboard, 'Enjoy cleaning it up!' Unfortunately for me, while he went to fetch his bike from the bike sheds, I was seen by the caretaker being the last to leave the classroom. He saw the mess, and I don't know if I chuckled, but he grabbed me, told ME off and frogmarched me to the Headmaster's office. After a kangaroo court judgement, and because I wouldn't tell who the real culprit was, I was told to come back the next day where I would be given the cane. Mick, when he found out, thought he would do the honourable thing, so he confessed. It just meant that he had 'three of the best' too! We dragged our sore arses around to the school swimming pool and went for a swim to cool off our rears. If anything, it brought us closer as friends. It gave us a bit of a reputation when the whole class was talking about it the next day, how Mick and I had become the first two in our year to get 'the Swish'. We were asked, "What was it like?", and "Did it hurt?", but we shrugged it off and said "Nahhh, not really", which was a complete lie because we had whip marks on our arses for a week!
Mick and I hung around together, and in the summertime during breaks, we would play-fight and wrestle on the playing field, rolling down the grassy hill and falling about laughing when we reached the bottom. Fun times. However, at the end of the first year, there were some rearrangements done. There were a few boys that were seen to be less capable of dealing with the schoolwork, so they were moved to Kitwood Boys Secondary Modern for their second year. On the flipside, there were a few boys that were seen to have been misplaced at Kitwood, so they were moved to the Grammar School.
I lost my mate Mick initially to Kitwood, but then ultimately lost him completely to leukemia, which slowly destroyed his athletic body over the next couple of years, and he died prematurely at just 15 years old.

I somehow managed to make friends with one of the 'new boys' that started in 2G, Dave Rimmer. By now the class names had changed to reflect academic skills or choice of language that we were taking. Those that chose to do Latin were put into 2L, while my class, 2G, took German. There was a third class made up of the brainiest of the year, and they were all put into class 2A, to no doubt reflect their higher standing.
Dave Rimmer was so quiet and nervous when he started at the Grammar School, and with the other ex-Kitwoods, was treated as a race apart by the other boys. I felt sorry for Dave, and as he was sat behind me in class, I started to chat, and we became friends. His Dad was a sergeant at RAF Coningsby, not far from Boston. Dave was completely obsessed with all things to do with flight and flying. His bedroom had rows of books on planes, and there were numerous Airfix models hanging on strings from his ceiling. I suppose it was partly his influence that made me decide to join the RAF cadets.
The Headmaster, Mr Ricketts, retired in my first year there, and was replaced by a tyrant called Mr Johnstone. He was the youngest ever Grammar School Headmaster at that time, being just 33 when he took the position. He was a decorated ex-RAF officer, who often wore his old uniform under his gown on special occasions, or if the Combined Cadet Force were throwing an Open Day, as in the pic below, which shows my three best friends from school, Nick Murrell, Ian Wright (Albert) and Dave Rimmer. On the right is Robert Cocks, who later went on to become a Chemistry Professor, but not before one weekend at RAF Marham, where a bunch of lads stripped him naked and 'padawax-ed' his balls with black boot polish, because he was such a snoot and a know-all.

The picture below shows a chubby me in 1970, looking a bit uncomfortable at having to stand so close to the Headmaster, on the right.

The Combined Cadet Force was run by the school, and closely affiliated to the three forces of Army, Navy and RAF. We occasionally would go away for weekends or even weeks at a time and stay on a real camp. I had joined the CCF in the RAF section, and we used to turn up after school in a scratchy blue serge uniform, and 'square-bash' around the playground. We did also take classes in flight dynamics and suchlike, but none of it ever stuck. I enjoyed the excursions away to different RAF camps up and down the country, and was fortunate to be able to get free flights in Chipmunk trainers, and once as a passenger on a Hercules! One particular weekend, Dave and I went with the cadets to stay at RAF Newton, near Nottingham. On the Saturday, we were all due to get a free ten minute flight in a Chipmunk. We had had our briefing and all sat around in one of the huts on the airfield, waiting for our flights. Everyone in our group went up one after another, until there was only me left. The officer in charge apologised to me but said that the weather was getting too bad to fly, so I wouldn't be able to go up. At that moment, the Camp Commandant came in. Hearing about my non-flight plight, he said it was unfair to leave me out, so he would take me up himself. I was thrilled, not least because my flight lasted 35 minutes! During that time, we did loop-the-loops, flew upside-down, and did nose dives. It was great fun! Over the headset radio, he asked me if I liked football. I had to tell him, "No...not really, Sir". He said, "Good! Neither do I. Let's have some fun!", and he flew us over Nottingham, and buzzed Nottingham Forest football club in the middle of a game! A sea of scared faces looked upwards, probably waiting for the machine-guns to start up! On the way back to base, the Commandant let me hold the dual controls, and explained what each thing did. He asked if it felt okay resting my hands and feet on the joystick and pedals, to which I replied that "Yes, it feels great, Sir". He said, "Well that's good because you've been flying the plane for the last five minutes". I instantly panicked, and the plane wobbled in the sky. He laughed, and took over the controls once more. It was one hell of a good memory for me. What a flight!

Another highlight of my cadet days was when we attended a weekend at RAF Coningsby. I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of only three cadets that had a free flight in a Phantom jet simulator. It only took off, flew across the fens and landed back at base again, but what a thrill for a schoolboy.

The RAF section at school had its own glider! Well, so-called, but it was a weird contraption built from a kit, and made of tubular metal and stretched wings over wooden frames. To make it fly, a pitchfork was hammered into the ground, and a rope tied to that and the back of the plane. Then the whole troupe took an elastic rope attached to the front of the plane, and ran for all they were worth across the playing field. When they reached as far as they could pull, a signal was given, the pitchfork removed, and the glider slid across the grass on thin wooden skis. By a complete fluke, I ended up as the pilot! It was nothing to do with any skills I'd learned, but everything to do with that fact that I was a fat kid, and they needed a 10 stone pilot. The 'sergeant' of the platoon, an older boy called Smithbone, was incensed that he was too heavy to be in the flying seat, and it made me unpopular with him as I was flying the glider when he wanted to. It was a fearsome machine, and sometimes I would be gliding around in the stratosphere, all of 10 feet from the ground, sometimes for as long as 10 seconds! It was all good fun, and we had some laughs.

Back to the school proper. I have to admit that I was not a particularly good student. The work was hard, and all through school, we were tested on our knowledge every three weeks. The three-weekly test scores would be put on the notice board of the classroom, and I always seemed to hover around the 20th - 30th position in most subjects. Maths was a weak subject for me, and I inevitably would be in the last three or four every three weeks. It just would not sink in, no matter how many times it was repeated to me. The Maths teachers may just as well have been talking to me in Swahili, for all the sense it made.

I was better in subjects that interested me. I consistently got good marks in Art, and my English was usually pretty good. I even managed to get a poem of mine published in the school magazine. I also liked History and Biology, but the other sciences, Physics and Chemistry were a mystery to me.
The other part of school life that I never looked forward to was Games. Most of the boys couldn't wait, because it meant that they could get out onto the school playing fields and play their beloved football. If I was ever forced to play, the others would soon groan if I was put on their team. I would more often than not accidentally kick the ball to an opposing player than one of my own. Yes, I can safely say that my football skills were nil. However, it made it easier to get transferred on to the Cross-country team instead. I hated running too, but because the teachers were usually taking charge of the football games, they would send us off on the 'school cross-country route' and leave us to it. I, along with a couple of others, would run-walk to the bottom of Rowley road, duck under the bridge over the river there, and chat and smoke for half an hour or so. Once the runners started coming back, we would let most of them go past, then tag on and run back up the street to the school, trying to look like we'd just run three miles.

There were a few occasions when this plan didn't work. Every year, the school would hold its annual cross-country event, and everyone had to take part. It was divided into three races along the same route depending on age. First and Second years would run together, third and fourth, and so on. The route would be dotted with marshalls made up of teachers and prefects, who logged your number on a clipboard as you struggled by. The whole route was three and a half miles long, and would take us alongside the Maud Foster drain, past the docks, along the Witham river and past Skirbeck church. On reaching the school gates, you then had to also do a whole lap of the playing fields before they clocked your time at the end. I was always one of the last stragglers to stumble home. The teachers couldn't understand it, as I did cross-country every week...

When I felt it was all going a little over my head, I was all too willing to look around for distractions, and one such distraction came in the shape of another school friend, Ian Ainsworth. He and I would giggle our way through so many lessons. We would make faces at each other across the room, draw cartoons or just generally take the mickey out of whichever teacher was mooching about between us. There were so many times when I was reduced to tears of laughter, and it was always the more funny because we had to stifle it, and try to look as though we were working. Inevitably, I got caught out for messing around, and would end up in detention. Some teachers took great pleasure in dishing out half-hourly detentions after school, and my school day more often than not finished at 4.30pm, whilst everyone else had gone home at 3.55. Sometimes we were allowed to do homework, but depending on the teacher taking the detention, we may just have to sit facing front in perfect silence for 30 minutes. They were the longest half hours ever!

Speaking of misbehaving, there was a lad called Mark Smith, a slightly-built blonde lad with tortoiseshell glasses who looked as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but he was the bane of most teachers' lives. He loved fighting, destroying things, and especially seeing things explode. One day in Chemistry, we had all settled in our places before the teacher got there. Mark Smith ran round to each set of acid bottles on the ends of each bench, and dropped sticks of chalk into the sulphuric acid, replacing the glass stoppers as he did. The teacher entered the class, and within seconds there was a mini-explosion as a glass stopper flew into the air and crashed to the ground. It was quickly followed by another 10 or so bottle stoppers, as each bottle of acid reacted with the chalk. The class was in uproar, and the teacher was purple in the face. Mark Smith didn't last long at the school, and was expelled after he'd found a quarry somewhere with a shed full of TNT, and decided to blow the whole lot up!

As schooldays wore on, we found ourselves becoming more bored by it all. When I turned 15, they decided to raise the school-leaving age to 16. At the end of my fourth year, we took mock 'O Levels, and out of 9 subjects taken, I passed 6, (failing Maths, Physics and Chemistry, of course). They had no syllabus for the added year, so it became a year of revision. We were taken back over subjects we had already covered, and some of us were just champing at the bit to leave. My pal 'Albert' and I spent more time and intelligence trying to get out of school than actually studying. Albert was so-called because his name was Ian Wright, but there was a butcher in the town called Albert Wright, so the nickname stuck. We would turn up for Registration, get our names marked as present, then disappear after the first period. Most times we had to run under windows and past full classes to get our freedom. We found the best route was to go through the bike sheds, over the wall into the swimming pool area, (provided it wasn't being used), then a last fence and we were out on the street. We would take off our jackets and ties so as not to be identified, and hang around the shops in town. In the summertime, we sometimes used to shoplift sweets and paperback books and climb the fire escape ladders at the back of the cinema. The cinema's flat roof had a low wall around its edge, and it was a perfect place to sunbathe, read and snaffle our booty without danger of being disturbed. From the roof we could see the school grounds, and hear the bell, so as soon as the final bell went, we strolled back into school, mingling with the other students, collected our bikes and went home.

On one occasion, Albert and I didn't actually leave the school grounds, but skived off all the same. On the perimeter of the playground through the bike sheds stood an old house which somehow belonged to the school. I guess at one time it may have been for use by the Headmaster. Anyway, the only uses it saw when I was at school was as a meeting place for a chess club, and had previously been used by a Model Railway club. It was largely derelict, but there were a couple of old sofas and chairs still in there, and it seemed like a good place to hide out. Albert and I did our usual sign on and scarper, and although the old house was padlocked, there was an old ladder at the side of the place. We put the ladder up to the broken upstairs window and climbed in. We dossed around on the sofas, chatting and laughing until final bell. On the way out, Albert noticed that one of the interior walls had been broken through, and amidst the plaster and wood laths was a cable. He pulled on it, and the rest of the plaster stripped off the wall until we realised that the cable was connected to an electricity meter. We wondered if it was still connected, but assumed that it wasn't. In a wanton act of vandalism, Albert took a chunk of wood and slammed it down on the box. It fell from the wall revealing two bare wires. We stood looking at them, and then Albert dared me to touch them together to see if they were still live. Like an idiot, I did! There was an almighty boom! and I was sent hurtling backwards across the room, crashing into the crumbling plaster on the opposite wall. The explosion alerted boys collecting their bikes, and we soon had a small crowd of onlookers peering through the windows. We opened the window to huge cheers, and quickly hightailed it out of there. Luckily we were never caught for our roles as Explosive Demolition Experts. Shortly afterwards, the house was re-opened by the school as a Tuck Shop, in an effort to stop boys leaving the school grounds during break times to buy sweets and drinks.
If I ever see kids vandalising old property nowadays, I have to try to remember that I was not always blameless on that front myself, much to my shame.

The final year drew to a close, and we had the awful, inevitable 'O Level exams to get through. Because I had wasted much of my final year on having fun instead of studying, much of what I had previously learned was just a distant memory. No amount of last-minute cramming was going to help either. I managed a pass in English Language and R.I. strangely. When congratulated by Reverend Spurrell, our Religious Instruction teacher, I remember annoying him somewhat. I had never really believed in the stuff they'd tried to teach us about Jesus and his gang, and all through school I used to question everything the Rev told us. He seemed to think that by passing an exam, it made me a little more religious or something. He said something like, "So after all this time, some of the teachings of the Lord have sunk in then". I said, "No...I am a more confirmed atheist than ever...I just remember fairy stories well". He blustered something about getting out of his sight, as his face turned purple. Silly man.

During my last couple of years at the school, I had had a Saturday job with a supermarket in town, Keymarkets. As my educational qualifications seemed next to useless for a worthwhile career, and I needed a job, I asked at Keymarkets first. The Manager was a nice man, and offered me a place as a Provisions trainee, but I needed to start straight away. I went to see the Headmaster, and sucking air through his teeth in his usual style, hissed, "Go! I shall be pleased to see the back of you, Clay!" No love lost there then. So off I went, to start working for a living...


Maria said...

Hi there! That's a really cool childhood you have. Wish my wasn't so boring. I am 16 this year and I'll be taking the O levels too! Haha.

Rob Northampton said...

Thanks for commenting, Maria, and I hope you have better results than I did! :-) - Rob

Amma said...

People should read this.

gefroy said...

Rob, I don't think I knew you at BGS, I was born three years after you, and that's a long gap of time when you're school kids ( did we ever mix between years ? ). Loved reading. Your blog on the BGS years, brought back many happy memories, some of the teachers, certain classes etc, and some bad ones, Big Phil Johnstone to be precise, a malicious sadist in the guise of a god bothering fascist if ever there was one. Your mentioning of the glider also brought back the time they got it out of mothballs, put me in the pilot seat and launched me. I panicked and pulled the stick back and went straight up. I pushed the stick forward and hurtled down again just managing to level the thing out before it hit the ground and cracked the A frame ! I was ok, Ye gods Heath and Safety would have a field day these days. But brilliant reading about the old place again.

Some of my favourite music over the years