Radical Memories

Peter Gresham recalls Prices. I have moderated Peter’s candid recollections bearing in mind the difficulties which friendsreunited experienced concerning former staff:

I discovered the SOP website only recently, but was fascinated by David Wybrow’s reminiscences. I have a vague memory of him as a tall, rather awkward lad – and, as he says, a bit hairy (though not as hairy as `Spud’ Tanner) who marched in the CCF with at least two left feet.

 But he has tempted me to add my own personal memoir.  David says that Price’s was his `first real school’. It was my only secondary school, but I am less certain about the `real’ bit. I turned up, proud to have made it, for competition was hot in those days, on a rainy autumn day in 1957, one of a cluster of half a dozen from the same primary school.  One of us, a boy called David Gibson, was just a bit `vertically challenged’.  As we stood in the shingle quadrangle between School House and the old wooden pavilion, a laconic, sophisticated third former passed by with some of his friends and remarked `My God! Look at Lofty.‘   Poor Gibson was never known as anything but `Lofty’ from then on.

 We soon settled into the lower school – the lowest form of Pricean life.  I was in 2a which made me feel I’d had a start in life.  Bert Shaw, the deputy head, explained to us that there had once been a first form but that it had been abolished when the school had joined the state system and took pupils only after the eleven plus.  My form master was called Foster but was better known to boys as `Flossie’. He also taught French.  At the end of my first term, during which I had done little work, he wrote on my report `Resting upon one’s laurels is not the best way of retaining them’.  I have tried to remember this from time to time over the past forty years.

 I had done little schoolwork because there was so much else to learn, so many arcane rituals, unwritten codes of behaviour, so much oral history to gather.  In those days, we were in the presence of giants, the great men of the upper school, like Ivor Noot and Colin Tudge and, of course, Marcus Miller who was even then alleged to be quite the cleverest man who had ever lived.  And we were bullied by the fifth formers, who made us wait at the tuck shop window for saffron buns at 2d a time and acted as a sort of brutal praetorian guard for the men of the upper sixth.

 I saw an ad a while ago, seeking to recruit those who had forgotten their own schooldays into the teaching trade. `No-one forgets a good teacher’ it said. It occurred to me that it was just as easy to remember the foolish, idle, incompetent ones.  Those at Price’s were a mixed bag in those days.  Bert Shaw was avuncular, kindly, stern but fair and seemed to have an endless supply of anecdotes.  Ralph Thacker was quite the best teacher – and one of the best human beings – I have ever known, erudite, cynical, sharp-witted, grumpy, he remained a good friend for many years after I left school.  Short, almost bald, with a round, impish face and a strange ability to look windswept on the quietest of days, he would patrol the school with his gown wrapped around him like a black cloak looking like a local imitation of Ghandi, addressing `b,b,boys’ fiercely, with an excited stutter. 

 All the masters wore gowns in those days: one Latin master, a Mr Jervis, better known as `Jerk’  used to keep the right sleeve of his gown tied in a knot and would creep up on boys spying through the holes in the wooden partitions in the main building, striking them suddenly with the said knot.  He also kept a very old, smelly plimsoll as a means of punishment, which he seemed to enjoy.  He left the school one summer, without warning, [edited out] and was succeeded by Bruce `Twitch’ Vail.

 David Wybrow’s Latin master (and my own in the first year or two) was P R Chapman, affectionately known to one and all as `Louis’, a good-natured raconteur who spoke with an Australian accent, always referred to us as `gentlemen of intelligence’ and answered every question by starting with a long, drawled `Well….’ For a term, there was a competition running in the lower school, to see which class could count the most `wells’ in one lesson.   When the record was broken – provoked by the posing of just one more question before the bell went – form 3a burst into spontaneous applause, causing poor Louis mystification and frustration as none of us had the courage to explain the cause.

 Garton, the chemistry master, was known to my class as `Gunter’ but I have no reason why.  By the time I was in the fifth form this had changed to `snotrag’ being quite close to a backslang version of his name, alternated with `gunge’.  He had an almost total inability to recall any proper noun, or even many vulgar nouns, but referred to almost any object as a `thing’.  We counted. He could get more `things’ into a lesson than Louis could manage `wells’ but we did not applaud.  He was rumoured to have been a good footballer in his youth and to have had a trial for Arsenal.  One year, he turned up with a shiny new car, a beige Wolsely 1500, having, apparently, won £1,000 on a premium bond. He was miserable and humourless and unfriendly almost all the time, though, surprisingly, had an exceptionally attractive and vivacious wife (`Delightful creature’ said Ralph Thacker `not a brain in her head’).  On the last day of one autumn term, as we were due to break up for Christmas, those of us unfortunate enough to have him as our form master gathered with heavy hearts for the very last lesson of the year.  He addressed us with the funniest speech I had heard at the time, reducing us to uncontrollable giggles, all the time maintaining his straight, stern, face and morose expression.

 Shame on young Wybrow for failing to remember the `lesser celandine’ – those country walks were one of the best parts of the life of the school. The other things that got us off the premises were the cross country run, the pond in the field opposite the school, in Park Lane, (which froze over in winter and was placed `out of bounds’, thus encouraging us to risk the ice) and the field days organised by the CCF..

 The CCF was led by `Colonel’ Tom Hilton. [deletions] My own, rather subversive, military career was hampered by my inattention and insubordination: I would never make the `cadre squad’ and pass Cert A Part 2 and get to be an NCO.  But one of my very best friends, Steve Dowse, became the Company Sergeant Major and I was miraculously and improperly installed as an unofficial, acting, lance corporal in the school armoury, so while most of my fellows were out square bashing, I could play with guns, smoke and drink coffee in the warmth of the armoury and generally enjoy myself - and disrupt one memorable field day with stolen thunderflashes.  

 The story of the chap with the false hand rang some bells with me.  I cannot remember his name but I recall another incident in which he and some other boys had cooked up a potent home brew in the chemistry lab (not, I suspect, without the knowledge of Tom Hilton who combined his staunch establishment conservatism with a streak of mischievous anarchy) and went to the bottom of the school field, among the trees, (where we all used to adjourn to smoke) to enjoy it.  Afterwards, at lunch, he became a little soporific and quite reasonably, rested his head on the table.  Because of some unrelated incident, silence had been demanded and the short-sighted master in charge (I think it was `Duck’ Mollard’) thought he was talking and ordered him to stand up.  The boys on either side held him in position while they finished their meals with one hand.

 Many of my memories of life at Price’s are of disruption and misbehaviour.  Having no other school for comparison, I am not sure what kind of education it gave us.  But some boys did well. Of my own intake only one, so far as I know, went to jail. Others went to good universities or to Sandhurst or Dartmouth, or to work in banks, or as surveyors, solicitors, teachers, accountants and civil servants and became utterly respectable. 

 Much of what I learned was not on the curriculum.  With Alf Webb and Colin Philips and Peter Kiddle and Francis `Errol’ Gregory and Mick Duffy and some others, I helped to start a debating society and learned to speak in public.  We were much encouraged by some of the staff, like Eric Iredale, (Dog)  G. Thompson, Eric Smith, John Chaffey, Ralph Thacker and some of the other unforgettably good teachers.  Eric Poyner thought the idea was good but was less pleased with the radical content of some of the debates. He once complained to me that I was undermining his authority and challenging his most cherished beliefs: he was not pleased when I retorted that this was exactly my intention. Our history teacher, Howard Jones – also known as `Abdul’- tended to disagree with most of my radical views but nevertheless encouraged my political explorations with great good humour because he enjoyed an argument.  Even punishments from HJ were fun – always an essay of specified length (`Give me three sides boy’ – meaning write enough to cover three sides of foolscap paper) but usually on a ridiculous and amusing subject. Once, after I had made a rude remark about his name, he affected to mispronounce my own: “Grease’em, your ancestors probably worked in a candle factory. Give me two sides on ‘Tallow’, by Thursday”.   

 I certainly learned quite a bit about disruptive behaviour.  By the time I got to the sixth form there was a small war going on between the Arts and Science Lower sixth forms, of which the causus belli was the rightful ownership, or at least possession, of an elderly, bent and battered tuba. Only violent conflict, it seemed, could resolve the matter – although, on one occasion, in a moment of conciliation and reasonableness, we cultured classicists did offer it up for the head of Brian Turner, who had irritated us by being much too intelligent for a scientist. The original provenance of this instrument is unknown to me but the battles caused some damage to the prefabricated hut in which the sixth form was accommodated at the time.  Once, we were all banished during breaktimes to the coldness outside, just like the lower school, because of depradations to one of the internal walls.  This struck me at the time as a grave injustice. We in lower VI Arts were heavily outnumbered by the scientists – about four to one. We could defend our temporary possession only by retreating to our library and blocking the door like Horatio at the bridge where ` a thousand could well be stopped by three’.  I rather saw myself as Herminius Lartius, armed with a chair leg.  It was definitely not our fault that the frustrated scientists, with commendable logic, decided to try and gain entry through the adjoining wall.

 Nevertheless, some of the techniques learned held me in good stead during the street demonstrations of the later sixties when I was involved in radical politics.

 I was not quite as rebellious as some others – IG Williams, Hugh Curtis, Chris Leslie come to mind, along with and a chap called Harris who started his own  scandalous and humorous rival to the school magazine called the `4A Times’, to which I contributed some scurrilous (and probably libellous) drivel. 

 I got into a certain amount of trouble on the school sports day.  Along with some friends, I contrived to enhance the dullness of one of the races by running in army boots and football socks, carrying a CND sign on a six foot pole and wearing a top hat (which I subsequently discovered had been stolen from George Ashton some years before and secreted in the sixth form block).  As I finished the race, Martin Lea drove his ancient, bright yellow (and barely roadworthy) convertible Morris Eight onto the field to carry me away. The local paper photographed my triumphant finish.  Eric Poyner shouted angrily at the reporters that there would be hell to pay if they dared publish the picture.  So the editor withheld it from the paper, but put a large copy in the front window of the newspaper office in West Street for two weeks.  Martin Lea went to Lampeter to read theology and became, I believe, an exemplary parish priest.  Steve Dowse, who had procured the hat, went to Sandhurst and was commissioned in the Ox & Bucks.

 Mr Poyner was also disturbed, I was told, at reports (unproven) that I had been running a book on the races that day. He might have been more concerned still had it been reported to him that some of his staff had placed bets with me – but they were even more loyal to the law of `Omerta’ than the sixth formers.  And so, after all these years, am I.

 Some of my rebellions were quite orderly and principled and would probably be considered praiseworthy today.  Early in 1963, I and some friends (Dave Black, Mike Dillon and some others) formed a local branch of the Young Socialists and sought to hold our inaugural meeting at a room in the school, after hours and at the proper rate.  Eric Poyner – who had told me that he was `a Conservative because I believe in what Britain stands for’ - insisted that this would not be tolerated. But I had checked the law, which was clear that any `maintained school’ could be used by any political party or candidate as of right and as chairman of the YS I was an official of the Labour Party, which was, of course, represented on the local and county Councils.  Faced with the option of a formal complaint to the education authority, he backed down and we got our inaugural meeting.  He issued a press statement to say that although several members were pupils at the school, the YS was not an official society of the school.

 A short time later, we had resuscitated the previously moribund Fareham end of the Gosport & Fareham Constituency Labour Party and several members of the staff had signed up : worse still, I suppose, from Eric Poyner’s point of view, some of his brightest and best pupils supported me: Colin Philips, (who later took a first in philosophy at Trinity, Cambridge) quite the cleverest person at the school, was my vice-chairman. He and some school staff members (Eric Smith was a leading light) supported a sort of  palace revolution and I became, at only seventeen, chairman of the local Labour Party. 

 Looking back, I can understand what a trouble I must have been to Mr Poyner, who was keen to modernise the school but not quite to the extent I had in mind, and took the first opportunity to persuade me to go – a sort of `resign or be sacked’ proposal.  By this time, I had already tired of school and reckoned that to fight it would be a waste of energy.  Highbury Technical College offered economics at `A’ level, which the school did not, and I could work and earn money outside of the disciplines of the school.

 I left with some very happy memories of so many good people.  Two things, I carried through life. One can be attributed, in part, to my adversary.  As one of his reforms, Poyner decided that sixth formers should not concentrate entirely on their `A’Level studies, but introduced a compulsory hour a week of Musical Appreciation.  It was provided by a chap called Boote, a rotund and rather diffident character who encouraged us to explore.  Though mainly an exponent of baroque, classical and romantic music, he encouraged an interest in Jazz and shared my own enthusiasm for the works of Desmond, Hampton and MJQ.  He was sometimes dismissive of rock music, which was then coming into its own, complaining that it was too `simple’ compared with great works of the classics.  I felt then, and still do, that he was missing the point. The simplicity of an Eddie Cochrane track belied the genius and the whole history of Blues that lay behind it – the musical equivalent of a Mondrian painting or Picasso line-drawing, its simplicity was the essence of art, not a detraction from it.  But I think he gave me, and many others, the intellectual and critical toolkit which enables us to get a great fund of pleasure from all kinds of music.  I was reminded of him, last summer, at our local opera festival, listening to an aria by Puccini which he had once played to us all those years ago.  Un Bel di.

 The second was an abiding love of literature, much encouraged by Ralph Thacker and my other English teachers, Messrs Openshaw and Sterk, which sustains me to this day.  One of the best features of Price’s in my time was an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry, a love of learning for its own sake – which, perhaps, made up in some way for the total lack of vocational guidance.

 A third would be an abiding dislike of Rugby – but that is another story.

 Peter Gresham

November 2002


The Society of Old Priceans for staff and pupils of the former Prices Grammar School, Park Lane, Fareham, Hampshire founded 1721 demolished 1989.

Society of Old Priceans

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