Reminiscences of Clifton - 1951 to 1960
Here are some mild reminiscences, I'll leave out the sensitive ones.
The Pre (preparatory school) - 1951 to 1956
In my first week in the Pre I started learning French, taught by Mr Jones I think. The first thing we learnt was j'ai, First Person; tu a, Second Person; il a, Third Person, etc. I wondered who these people were but never had the nerve to ask. Nobody else asked. We just sat there quietly and learnt by rote.
The next year I was in Form 1 Remove under Mr Moorhouse. What did "Remove" mean? He terrified me because he was rough and ready with punishment. I was often bottom of the class or nearly so. He did however get us interested in italic nibs and calligraphy and I changed my writing radically and permanently thanks to him. I had to adapt it to some extent later to cope with fast dictation but essentially I still use a type of italic writing today.
Many of the masters who taught the youngest boys had a favourite method of corporal punishment. "Twirlies" were the worst although ruler-edge whacks on the hand were almost as bad - Thank you Mr F and Mr M, I haven't forgotten! Twirlies were administered by getting a tight hold of a small group of hairs at the back of the neck and twirling them round, usually while lifting the boy onto his toes in agony. A thrown blackboard duster felt very hard. Why were the youngest boys subject to this but not the older ones? As a quiet boy it just made me nervous all the time, which must have affected my performance.
I remember once, maybe more than once, having to see the upper school headmaster because of bad work. Desmond Lee was an extremely stern, unsmiling sort of man. Despite being super-intelligent and gaining a double first at Oxford he hadn't got the intelligence to realise that some of us hadn't got much intelligence, if you see what I mean. He assumed that we were just slackers. No encouragement and confidence-building support from him!
I only have a middling IQ and an atrocious memory but I always spent more than the allotted time on my prep and spent my breaks revising rather than playing football. I was never in the lowest classes of any year, usually in about the middle one, but I seemed to be placed just above my capabilities and one year in the Pre I was often bottom or nearly bottom each month (someone always has to be bottom!). It wasn't quite as bad as that later in my school career and in my last year in the upper school I couldn't do anything wrong in maths. The result of all this has been a certain doggedness and ability to wrestle with a problem until I can sort it out which is useful now correcting website coding errors on computer discussion boards. I actually feel like a master correcting prep!
My concentration wasn't helped by having bad chilblains; I remember trying to concentrate while rubbing my swollen itchy fingers.
I've been reading Colin Millar's book "A Life of School". When he was teaching at Tockington School at the age of eighteen I was eight at the Pre. Most things he says about Tockington would apply equally to the Pre. He says the Headmaster used a cane and he used a gym shoe but he doesn't say when and how corporal punishment was forbidden at either Tockington or the Pre.
He mentions that when he was at the Pre as a boy, boys swam in the nude and it was the same for me ten years later. He says that at sports day boys were issued with small triangular pieces of cloth with ties at the sides which often came undone - the same ones that I remember and, just as he describes, I once saw a boy two thirds of the way along his last length in winning position have his trunks slip down. He swam on regardless and won.
He also mentions the Pre boys playing rugby. I only remember playing rugby in my very last winter and it was little more than touch rugby, so maybe there was an unexpected change here. Rugger is deemed a dangerous game for children now and I would have expected the sport to be banned for the Pre.
One day there was a total solar exclipse and a master brought in several pieces of glass which had candle smoke on them. We used these to gaze at the corona even though the smoke didn't cover the glass properly or densely enough. I'm surprised we didn't go blind. Nowadays the master would be sacked and the school sued for millions of pounds for negligence.
We once had an inspection by the area's big white chief of the cubs on the rabbit patch. Miss West hadn't briefed us properly how to salute and shake hands at the same time. Some tried to salute with their right hand then quickly shake his left hand with their right, some just used their right hand forgetting to salute, some saluted with their fingers touching their forehead (wrong). I'm almost certain I was one of the few to get it right and salute with my right hand and shake with my left at the same time. What a rubbishy bit of land the rabbit patch was. Mr Moorhouse started up a sea scouts unit there later in a tiny shed. The scouts had a reasonably civilised nissen hut at the edge of the playground.
When I was about ten years old we were given a history dates list, only two sheets of foolscap as far as I can remember. I could never remember them - 1346 Battle of Crecy, 1415 Battle of Agincourt and so on. I can remember a few now but then I used to stand by the fence in break trying to learn them while other boys were playing cricket and hitting tennis balls over the air raid shelter.
Every week we had singing in the hall with Dr Fox. There were some long curtains down the windows on both sides and boys used to move secretly between the rows of seats behind the curtains. Dr Fox could see the curtains moving and really lost his temper, sometimes throwing things. He was notorious for his bad temper. He had only one arm but you could see the stump of his other one flapping inside his jacket sleeve when he was angry and he used to clutch it with his good hand.
Some masters didn't know their subject well enough to teach it. I well remember Mr C not being able to do some algebra and having to leave it until he had had a colleague teach him (but he was primarily an art teacher). He was the one who must have told the tough gym pro (not kind Gordon Hazel but the one before him with the enormous tattooed biceps) to give me a rough time in a boxing session because I had interfered with a playground game he was organising earlier that same day. I was immediately picked out to "come and hit me" but it just resulted in a long nose-bleed for me. I coped with the battering in a remarkably stoical way, I didn't cry and I didn't give up, I must have just accepted it as part of normal boxing training. I carried on until I was told to go down to the toilets and stop the bleeding. None of us liked him.
I was playing cricket on the Lower Close when we saw a jet fighter obviously in trouble flying over. I think I remember it turning around in circles as it flew. It crashed just short of Beggars Bush in the Ashton Court estate.
On another occasion a fighter pilot decided to swoop under the suspension bridge. It had been done many years earlier by a propeller plane but the speed of the jet was too great and he crashed in Leigh Woods. We found bits of it there.
Sometimes we were told to watch the upper school play cricket and lay on the grass next to the Lower Close. Once a boy found a huge beetle with scaly wing cases; I haven't even seen one in the country recently and I doubt if they are ever seen in towns now.
We went to watch the Australians play Gloucestershire at the County Cricket Ground once. It was a lovely day but so crowded we had trouble to find a little space on the grass just beyond the boundary. I can't remember who was playing; Richie Benaud probably. Last time I went there, there were just a few old men watching.
On one occasion when we were playing rugger on the Lower Close Mr Torrance was worried that his whistle sounded too much like the whistle of the referee of the upper school match on the main Close. Strangely, he asked who the referee was and I said it was my father! He was refereeing a match against the OCs.
The Upper School - 1956 to 1960
The Town Room was always crowded, especially the house sixths' room (which I don't ever remember using much when I became a sixth). There was a large picture on the end wall of God creating Adam, showing a nude grossly over-muscular Adam with a limp hand. Why did the school allow us to gaze at a fresh-faced rather-too-beautiful youth with no beard nor body hair? It was hardly a suitable picture for teenage boys to look at; if we were allowed to look at Adam in the nude, why not a female nude? Brigitte Bardot even! Or is my logic faulty?
East Town was created during my time in South Town which took some of the strain off North and South Towns. They were always treated like aliens as far as I was concerned, like new-boys and for not having a proper Town Room like our's.
I remember being envious of the house sixths standing inside the fender making toast with butter and marmalade. The fire was always really hot but we juniors weren't allowed near it. Later I remember the pleasure of making my own toast.
Alec McDonald was my Housemaster. He had a small old Austin 7 (I had one later) and some boys wheeled it back into the lobby of the Town Room where it just fitted between the double doors. I didn't see this myself.
We use to have "Night-Ops" on Saturday nights which usually meant chasing each other all over Bristol. A place to be avoided was Frogmore Street where there was an ice rink and Teddy Boys used to hang around waving their bicycle chain coshes menacingly.
The upper school generally
Once a week we had sausages and mash for lunch. Boys had to serve the plates and a Pakistani always used to ask me when I was serving whether they were beef sausages. I used to ask the lady behind the counter and she always said Yes, probably knowing full well that they weren't. I told the boy they were beef and he ate them. He probably also knew they were most likely to be pork but he wouldn't have got much of a meal if he had refused them and he had saved his conscience.
There were no changing facilities at Beggars' Bush so we went out in old buses. One was a very old Thorneycroft. None had any heating so when returning after playing in rain, sleet or snow we were really freezing and miserable. I'm sure the masters were uncomfortable too but they didn't show it. I don't remember them taking pullovers or a change of clothing with them so they put up with it like we did.
The first year in the Upper School we were put in the Terriers before moving into the cadet corps in later years. I think the Terriers had just been established when I joined. I really loved the Terriers, rushing about on the Downs playing war games.
I hated the formality and discipline of the cadet corps. We were issued with a particular numbered rifle and supposed to use the same one each week. There was one boy (his surname began with U) who seemed to take any rifle. This meant that often when you looked for your's it had gone. You didn't have time to rush to the parade ground and hope you could find the person who had taken it so you also had to take someone else's and so did everyone else. It caused chaos, sometimes everyone was swapping rifles just as the parade was about to start, sometimes not having the time. Such little problems caused me great stress at the time.
The parade was of course run by a strict RSM who picked on any minor misdemeanour. After I left school I met him when I was walking down the track to the Old San for some reason and he started talking to me. I wouldn't have had the nerve to talk to him but he was in civvies and I was quite taken aback by how smiling and pleasant he was. I admit I was terrified of him on the parade ground.
When I became an NCO I had to give ten minute lectures. I found that I raced through the whole thing in about five minutes, no one had any questions but there were still another five minutes to go so I ended up repeating the whole lecture. I realised I would never be a teacher.
We had a weekend camp in the mendips once. We were all taken out after dark in an army lorry and dumped in groups of three beside the road and told to get back to camp. We had no torches, maps or compasses and we didn't know the area. Since groups had been off-loaded at about half mile intervals we yelled at each other and generally concluded that we had been going in an anti-clockwise loop and so we needed to head off left. My group walked through water nearly waist deep at one point and we decided it must have been a pond but it was too dark to see properly. We all made it back to camp surprisingly easily.
The next day we were set to work digging drainage channels for the farmer. I found myself at the front with another boy and we got a rhythm going. I dug the end and he dug the side and soon we were motoring and dug a really neat trench but it was only one spade width wide and deep. Others behind made a real mess of it when enlarging it.
One summer holiday we went on a cadet force camp to Topsham barracks. In those days you were supposed to salute every officer you passed which was a real pain. We slept in wooden barrack rooms. Ours had two doors at the end, one of which was permanently sealed and the other we locked at night which we weren't supposed to do. We were making a bit of noise one night and a barracks rsm came shouting towards the hut, wanted to come storming in but found both doors impossible to open. He shouted furiously and the nearest boy had to open a door. We got a right ticking off.
The highlight of the days was getting in army lorries which were driven by our masters who had virtually no experience of driving heavy trucks with crash gears. We giggled at their embarrassment in front of the army people.
One day we went to a rifle range which has been my only experience of shooting .303 rounds over long distances. The school rifle range was only for .22 rounds over about twenty yards. Another day we had a platoon attack exercise. For some reason I was chosen to be in the enemy group. This was a bonus because we didn't have to do a long march and run uphill for the final attack; we just hid in long grass on a hilltop with far more blank ammunition than the attackers had and were subject to several platoon attacks. It was a lovely sunny day to be lying in the grass. After two attacks the long grass I was hiding in had been completely burnt away.
We were issued with one knife, fork and spoon and supposed to wash them as we left the canteen. The first time we used the wash trough we dropped our utensils in it, only to find that the water was nearly boiling. I got scalded trying to fish them out and some boys abandoned the attempt.
I seem to remember spending most of the evenings in the TV lounge. It was quite a novelty then. At that time my parents had either not yet got a TV or only just got one.
In my last term I decided I had had enough of the corps but the only way out seemed to be to join the Technical Section, so I just said I wanted to do so and no one seemed to object. It meant missing the main parade and having a very casual thirty second parade behind the pavilion before messing about with a very old car, a Humber I think.
I was lucky to get my O-levels but never attempted any A-levels, being a bit of a thickie.
Hilary Crawfurd was my form master in my O-level year and sat us all in alphabetical order. This meant I was right at the front whereas the likes of Chris S could giggle away at the back. If I remember correctly Hilary spent nearly all the time standing up (and kept the windows open in winter). This meant that when he lent over his desk he was right over me and could see what I was writing. It had advantages because he could prompt me.
On one occasion I hesitated to think of the Latin word for a table and he asked me to think of the first word I learnt. (Do you remember your Shortbread Eating Primer? Mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa).
He coaxed us all through our exams even though we all had only average intelligence. He made us learn Macbeth by heart despite my memory being atrocious. I am indebted to him, I needed O-levels and would have struggled without his perseverance. On reading the blue books I notice that I was in the third highest fifth form class out of eight and it was probably a bit too high for me.
I heard a rumour that a few years after I left the College he fell down some stairs at the Old San where he lived and wasn't in his right mind after that. I hope that wasn't true.
My upper fifth and sixth form years were under Josh Cave in the military group. Everyone doubtful of getting A-levels or needing a non-standard education was put in the Mil. The poor old man had a stick and wore not one but two raincoats that he never took off even in the classroom. They were so grubby he must have slept in them. Whereas Hilary stood up all the time, Josh sat down all the time and I don't remember him ever using the blackboard.
Nevertheless he managed to hold our attention, breaking off into a story of some kind whenever he thought our minds were drifting during Greek lessons. Greek - why Greek? I never got much further than the alphabet. It had no significance for our futures. Perhaps we were taught Greek just to keep him in a job. A great character but his qualities were lost on us.
My career in the building industry had already been determined by my father without any consultation with me or the School. It was decided I should do some mechanical drawing. I did this all on my own in a corner of the woodwork shop. Mr Bailey, an ex-racing driver with a lovely Jaguar XK150, had no idea of drawing and just left me with a text book. After asking a few questions that he couldn't answer I tried to understand the textbook, unsuccessfully, but didn't complain. I never heard of anyone complaining that the teaching was inadequate.
Another year, either before or after, I can't remember, there were about four of us working somewhere near the New San. The first time I took O-level I got around 11% and the second time only 2%. Luckily axometrics of gearboxes were not required in the building industry; plans and elevations with straight lines were all that was required and my career as a quantity surveyor didn't even need that.
I should have done economics. This was another fringe subject and also in a fringe location - the Old San. It would have been much more appropriate for me and probably nearly everyone else but Clifton was still locked into a traditional mode at the time. I mean classics, mainstream languages and mainstream maths and science.
Maths and physics were appropriate for me but I was hopeless at them. Calculus and little e theorems completely baffled me. After a year with Willy Lane in upper fifth maths they realised I would never get A-level the next year so I was held back to do the upper fifth year again. But why if I was under-performing did they leave me with the same master? H L-C and I were the two sixthformers and we sat at the back feeling slightly out-of-place behind those a year younger than us with whom we hadn't worked before.
Nevertheless, I couldn't get anything wrong the second year. I didn't understand maths any better, it was just that it was the same textbook and I remembered how to do the questions and many of the answers, regularly getting 100%. I got the Mil prize in my last year, but took no A-levels.
Gordon Hazel, the boxing pro who took PT lessons after the nasty brute left, was cheerful and likeable. I really enjoyed the PT lessons and if I recall correctly, the Mil continued with PT in the upper fifth and sixth forms whereas other groups in those years did not.
All through the Pre and Upper School I found that the same boys were slightly better than me at athletic sports. Consequently every year at sports day the same boys would beat me. I might have been best in my house at some sport but in the school sports I often got to the final only to come fifth or sixth. If one or two boys were just too old to be in a certain age group, say colts, then for one year I might be fourth or fifth then the next year I would have to face the same better boys again.
The range of sports that we played was very limited. The majority like me were put on the standard sports of cricket in the summer and rugby in the winter whether we liked it or not. I played hockey only a few times in my last year in the Easter term when it was offered as an option.
I wasn't much good at cricket and would have much preferred tennis but there weren't many courts and I never fully understood why some boys got the tennis but it was never offered to the rest of us. I think it may have been because their parents requested it. Rowing on the river Avon at Keynsham was another option never offered to most of us but I wouldn't have liked the long travel, wet cold conditions and getting back late.
There were squash courts but no formal training; you just had to find another boy willing to teach you and play it in your spare time which was virtually non-existent for day-boys who had to travel home and do homework. There were also fives courts and a racquets court but these seemed to be reserved for special boys and I never knew why.
I continued to play cricket and rugger after leaving school but gradually realised I much preferred racquet sports like badminton, squash and tennis and wish I had been introduced to them at school.
Me and John Jeffrey in 1957
There was cross-country running for boys who showed promise in the long distance sports events which didn't include me but I joined in some runs voluntarily in my last year (including the Winscombe run) which were not inter-school matches. Each house also had it's own long distance run for colts - South Town's was across the Downs, down past the piggery, down onto the Avon towpath then up the Gully and back across the Downs. I enjoyed that run, especially in my last year as a colt when I was old enough to do reasonably well.
The Short Penpole run from Ashton Court across the suspension bridge to the school was obligatory for under 16 year-olds. In 1957 I found myself running down past the High School just behind John Jeffrey (also of South Town) so I raced him to the finish and we had a dead-heat 236th equal. One year as hundreds of us were massed at the foot of the hill there was a false start. Some boys started running and ignored calls for them to stop so everyone else started running. It must have ruined the time-keeping. I also entered the Long Penpole run from Long Ashton up a long hill and across to Beggars' Bush in my last year.
I think boys ought to have been given trials in each sport several times to see what their aptitude and preferences were but most of us had to put up with the standard sports.
We were always told not to go through the railway tunnel under the suspension bridge when out in Leigh Woods on a run. One boy who was the same age as me did this and was killed. I knew him in the Pre but we had lost touch with each other in the Upper School.
I went down to the Tatler cinema once near Old Market which was a seedy cinema showing sexy films and strictly out of bounds. Although the films were titillating I didn't see as much as I wanted to see so I didn't bother to go again. It was risky because we had been told that the Marshal was called if the cinema staff noticed that pupils were in there.
Why is it that I can remember irrelevant and insignificant details but not what I was taught?
So what happened to me and my schoolmates?
DMHW was killed by a train while running through the tunnel under the suspension bridge in 1960; AJF was killed in an accident in 1960, MJWS bumped his knee on a table during the school holidays, got cancer and died quickly in 1960 (an unlikely story but he certainly died during the holidays); PRR became an intelligence officer and was killed (in Aden in the 1960s I think); JPB went into the armed services and was killed in 1967; MECY of NT with whom I played cricket after leaving school died during the late 1960s or early 1970s and FI went home to Pakistan. So the 1960s weren't very kind to my schoolmates.
The others mainly went to Oxbridge while I went straight into an office and studied Building part time at the local Technical College with boys with DA hairstyles dressed in long jackets, drainpipe trousers and winkle-picker shoes who played brag in the lunch break; just the sort of people I spent my time avoiding on night-ops! (After ten years they were in respectable management jobs in building and sub-contracting firms). The registration forms only had two boxes for "School" - Grammar and Secondary Modern (or was it Comprehensive; I can't remember) so I never knew which box to tick. The Tech was handy for watching the county cricket - we just jumped over the wall - and the canteen food was so much better than the school lunches; chips with everything and lots of choice.
After about ten years I noticed some Oxbridge OCs were returning from apprenticeships in London to take up junior partnerships in local law and accountancy firms while I was just leaving to work in London, Memphis Tennessee, Jakarta and the Falkland Islands, so our paths never crossed.