Robert Newbury recalls his school days with a hop, skip and a jump...
I read Robin Ward's contribution with interest. As luck would have it, I
arrived at Price's in 1969, his last year, so can share some memories of the
following few years.
Unlike Robin, I quite liked the old-fashioned stuffiness of the school, although The Black Lion was always something to look forward to and seemed very daring and subversive at the time. My first form master was the kindly Mr Nash, but my first year at Price's was not an easy one. I was quite intimidated by some of the teachers, particularly Charlie Tuck the gym teacher. He had little time for less athletic pupils like myself. I had PE each Monday and Wednesday, and I missed one Monday session where Charlie taught the hop, skip and jump. I still maintain that a more foolish and pointless athletic exercise has yet to be devised, and can really feel no shame at all at my lack of skill. On Wednesday we were asked to show our prowess to Charlie and the rest of the class. I observed half a dozen others demonstrate the absurd dance before being called on myself. A fairly haphazard sequence of shifting from one foot to the other at speed got me across the gym, and I half-thought I had got away with it. 'Well done, Newbury. What a star.' called Charlie to my surprise. I turned back toward him and the rest of the class to find them gawping open mouthed and stifling guffaws of laughter. Even Charlie found my performance so hopeless that he didn't even bother to remonstrate with me or ask for a repeat.
Rugby was a wretched business. Charlie would show off his skill with his sturdy figure in his red and blue hoops as he weaved his way up the field.
I quickly developed the technique of keeping the right distance from the ball to look involved with the game, but with little chance of actually receiving a pass, with all the consequent physical dangers. Some well placed lumps of mud rubbed into my shirt early in the game helped the illusion. Then one day, completely by chance, the ball was thrown to me in acres of space. I looked around for someone to pass the wretched thing to, but there was no-one. I began a lumbering run, and by the time any opposition were near me, had developed considerable momentum, i.e. mass times velocity as Sammy Cole taught me many years later. My velocity was not exceptional, but my mass was awesome compared to most eleven year olds.
My hapless colleagues bounced off me as I gallumphed under the posts to score my one and only try, and to secure myself from Charlie's gimlet eye for the rest of the term.
It was with dismay that I heard that my form master for the second year would be Charlie Tuck. But then fate took a hand in my affairs. He was also to be my Maths teacher. Now initially this appeared to be another disaster. But Mathematics was by far my best subject. My Auntie Daisy taught me about gambling at 'Chase the Ace' when I was five, and I knew the odds of getting a pat full-house at poker by the time I was eleven. I spent odd hours dallying with roulette systems, and studying odds and so on. At primary school I had become formidable at mental arithmetic, which was used as a way of divvying up any spare bottles of milk at the end of the school day. I remember one day Charlie was grappling with a long multiplication on
the blackboard. '17 times 13' he muttered to himself at the blackboard, scratching his closely cropped head. '221' I chimed up immediately from the back of the class, surprised at my own boldness, but half expecting a bottle of milk. He ignored me and carried on his deliberations. After a few more minutes he looked up slowly. 'Who said that?' he asked with ill-concealed astonishment. And from that moment on he treated me as a human-being. I couldn't hop, skip or jump either singly or in sequence, but I could multiply two figure numbers in my head, so I was all right really.
The most dreaded moments of my five years at the grammar school were the 'Games' periods when it was wet. Each Tuesday I would look out at the garden with dismay if it was raining or had rained in the night. If so, we would be in for the awful 'Cross Country Run'. How I hated this. I was actually ok at football, and all right at hockey at a pinch, but this pointless running was beyond me. Out of the school gates we turned right towards North Hill for the Pook Lane run. If you were lucky, and the teachers couldn't be bothered to supervise, you might get 'three laps of the school' instead, and sneak down an alleyway for a while and skip a couple of circuits. But the Pook Lane run was much worse. Charlie would jump in his car and shepherd us over the crossing points under the safety of his brollie. By Serpentine Road I was completely fagged out. I'm sure I could walk the course now faster than I ran it then. I resorted to ambling around with the other kids at the back smoking fags, and had a job keeping up with them. Yes, you know who you are Ross Kearns. I would return to the school completely exhausted, the other kids already queueing to come out and have lunch. An awful experience from start to finish.
Like most schoolboys, I spent considerable time devising plans to avoid the more unpleasant side of school life. I was well aware of the awful CCF when I joined the school, having a brother who loathed as much as I knew I would.
At the end of a music lesson in the first year with the chummy Mr. Gilbert, I sidled up to him and made inquiries about the orchestra. Violins and clarinets were plentiful he said, but they had no oboe player. I had discovered early on that the only way of avoiding CCF, which started in the third form, was to join the orchestra, and clearly however useless I was to become at the oboe, that could be my salvation. So I persuaded my father to buy me one (secondhand for £25 I remember - I sold the wretched thing for £50 five years later - what joy). Within a year I could just about pick out a tune, which was above average for the school orchestra it seemed. We even did a concert one evening I recall and murdered Bizet's Carmen and a clutch of Slavonic Dances. To this day I think the oboe one of the most evocative instruments of the orchestra, although sadly in my hands all it evoked was a plaintive duck drowning in the village pond.
I had no aptitude for art, and always came bottom of the class. Poor Mr Morley tried to point me in the right direction, and he was kindly in his criticism. I loved drawing and painting, and was bewildered at my total lack of skill. Still, luckily art was the first subject I could drop, although I had to do woodwork for two more barren years, and came bottom at that as well every single time. My wobbly tea-pot stand graced the tea table just once, and my three barred towel rail managed to discharge its contents to the floor every time.
The only subject which I really disliked, but which, due to some arcane principle of education at the time could not give up, was geography. To this day I can see nothing to be gained in knowing the size of the yam crop in some obscure 1950s African country. I discovered early on that trying to fill your head with facts which held no interest was a Herculean task. I believe the teacher's name was Mr. Elliott, but he was bald and avuncular, and so we nicknamed him David Nixon. 'Carboniferous' (as in limestone) became his magic word. How we wrestled to bring some lightness to the gloom. Still, I struggled on manfully. I recall "Pengy" O'Neill talking to 4C when he was our form teacher. 'You may not see the point of studying all these subjects' he said perceptively, 'but each piece of paper with another 'O' level on it might earn you another £100 a year in a few years time.'
Like most teenagers, who have a rather mercenary disposition, I took this on board. At the time it may even have been true, and it was enough for me to decide to pass all of these exams however pointless they seemed, because it occurred to me that I would have to sit in the classrooms for all that time anyway, so might as well get something out of it. I know, what a swot.
Pengy also warned me before my Physics O level that I might fail it, a guaranteed method, as he certainly knew, of ensuring that I didn't.
We did have another Physics teacher for a while - Mr. Phillips I think. He was a nice man, but had unfortunate protuberant teeth, was openly insulted by the pupils, and was quite unable to control a hedonistic bunch of thirteen year olds. Once the kids got wind of this they were merciless.
The poor man was hounded out of the school within a year I think. We felt a bit guilty about this I remember, as we liked him really. The ability to quell unruly teenagers with a single glance, as Pengy did, was a rare gift, and I don't know how you go about learning it.
Another man who had an awful time was the school groundsman. I remember looking out across the field watching this poor man go about his business with a train of boys walking behind him imitating every movement because they had nothing better to do. Each lunchtime he would stomp off to see Eric, fuming about these awful children who tormented him. Couldn't blame him really.
At the end of the sixties, the second world war was not the distant memory it is now. On one bright autumn day in 1969, I recall the school assembly when Eric Poyner handed over to Tom Hilton, who then stood in the pale sunshine and read the famous 'Going down of the sun' speech. It was one of those coming of age moments, and is perhaps the moment that sticks in the mind more than any other from my time at Price's.
There were other rather fearsome teachers; I recall the enigmatic Mr Glynne-Howell, or Genghis as he was more or less affectionately known in those non-pc days, chiding a hapless boy, I think it was Tony Pursey, for some minor misdemeanour. We were in one of the art rooms, and Ghengis turned on one of the hot taps. He strode up and down the room, feeling the water temperature every now and then as he berated my colleague, and advised him that when it was hot enough, he would put the boy's head into the basin.
I was young enough to believe that in this strange, new and frightening world that it might be true. Tom Brown's School Days was being serialised on television at the time.
Jock Daych also had a fierce reputation, although this was undeserved. He was a keen adherent of Murphy's Law 'if somebody can, somebody will', particularly in relation to the inability of pupils to deliver completed exam papers with the hole punched in the top left hand corner as I recall.
Most teachers had nicknames; 'Buzz' Ellis, the history teacher with rather sibilant s's; 'Thunderclap' Newman the maths teacher rather than the one-hit wonder. 'Sparky' Sparkman the French teacher. 'Smudge' Smith. Jock and Charlie also had nicknames for many of my form-mates; 'Ashleigh' Mallett (after the Australian spin bowler), 'Ray' Ruffles (a tennis player?), 'Tom'
Tullett (a sports writer), Steve McGuinness 'Flint' (another pop-star).
I don't remember being called 'you' or 'boy'. But we were all called by our surnames, by both the masters and the other boys, which seems so outdated now. It was also a source of some confusion as to how to address one of my friends, Peter Dear. 'Hello Dear' was too effeminate by half, and 'Hello Peter' far too familiar, so for Peter we resorted to a simple Hi or Hello.
I fell into learning Latin to avoid Chemistry. First year chemistry had been a haphazard affair. Even then I was rather surprised that eleven year old boys were fooling around with asbestos mats, gas taps and sulphuric acid. We were also advised to watch magnesium burn out of the corner of our eyes to 'avoid blindness'. Not the sort of caper that would be approved of these days I think. Small explosions were by no means unheard of. In another show of youthful inexperience, I half believed for a term or so that Brownian motion was named after our chemistry teacher. Anyway, by the time I was doing third year Latin, there were only four of us left under the beady eye of Mr. Glynne-Howell. He turned out to be a kindly urbane man despite my initial misgivings. One day he failed to appear for our early morning lesson. He explained the reason in some detail at our next meeting.
As was his habit, he rose early and dressed himself slowly before coming into school by bus. On the morning in question, he arrived at the school gates to discover that due to poor light and failing eye-sight, he had mistakenly shod himself in an unmatching pair of brogues - one brown, and one black - and had to return home to change. How the four of us gaped as he told us. Still, his ministrations for three years have helped me no end with The Guardian crossword over the years.
Music as an O level was a complete non-sense. We fell to learning long turgid descriptions of musical pieces from books, that we were then required to parrot out in the exam. I don't recall being asked for an actual opinion on any music or composers; just to learn the perceived wisdom and reproduce it. The practical side was more sensible. I did actually have a little musical talent (I had some pop songs published in the 1970s but sadly it never came to anything) but this was of no benefit whatsoever.
The German O level was more a disaster for the school than for me; four of us passed out of 32 - an appalling result for a grammar school. I think even Brooking, universally hailed as the school genius, could only muster a grade three. It transpired that our teacher taught Swiss German, not real German, and taught that rather badly. I think he was on his way shortly after that result.
Maths was a breeze, once I ended up with 'Thunderclap' Newman, an excellent teacher, rather than with 'Beaky' Jones, a thoroughly nice man and excellent bridge and chess player, but whose teaching methods left a bit to be desired. I am afraid part of it was down to me too, because I enjoyed the bridge and the chess too much. In fact, I was one of the few in the school to sport a colours tie, despite my lack of physical prowess. I only revealed if pressed that this was won for chess playing rather than for winning the Victor Ludorum on sport's day.
I remember the 250th anniversary celebrations. It was such an event, that it seems inconceivable that fifteen years later the place would be torn to the ground. I think there was real pride in the school at the time. The 250 years meant a lot to many of the teachers, and even to some of the pupils. I recall an open day when my Uncle John showed up; he was at the school in the 1930s I think. It seemed as if it would last forever then.
One of my best memories is of the house cricket matches in the summer. Some teachers would give us lessons off so that we could go and watch them in the sun. My friends and I would either lie on the bank outside the staff room, or under the trees at the bottom of the field and watch the gentle passing of an English summer's day. Priceless moments. At least some of the trees are still there.
Oh well, I remember a great deal about Price's and still find it hard to believe it has gone forever. The interminable assemblies with their regular batch of boys keeling over in the heat; the lion and the '1721' over the school entrance; the archaic lecture theatre where, if you were lucky and didn't disturb any of the masters, you could sneak in and watch Wimbledon or the Test Match on summer days for as long as your bum could stand it. The quiet library where I used to skive from games in the fifth year, and where I kissed a girl under the mistletoe in the winter of 1975.
Oh well, I come up North Hill every night on the way home to Titchfield, and drive by the site of the school frequently while returning my mother-in-law to Serpentine Road. If only I had known her then, I could have stopped for a cup of tea on the 'cross-country' run. Best days of your life? Well no, not really thank heavens. But some of them were ok...