TONY JOHNSON 1936-2023 - A Memory from Bob Askew and Friends at Prices

Here in pdf format and downloadable are 50 selected poems from Tony Johnson supplied by Bob Askew with permission from Tony's children.

A great man has passed on. Tony got me interested in reading, thinking and writing in the Third Form at Prices in 1965. He was such a breath of fresh air, after the stuffy learning by rote etc. of his predecessors who taught us English. He was affectionally known as ‘Rubberneck Johnson’, or ‘Rubber’, probably because his neck bounced up and down, as a winger in Rugby. But I think most boys just called him respectfully ‘Mr Johnson’, or ‘Johnson’. He was certainly well-liked and respected.

Tony’s son Dave gave me some background details: ‘Tony was born in Camberwell, London. His Dad suffered severely from depression, and split from the family when Tony and his sister were fairly young. He passed his 11+ exam, and went as a border to Newbury Grammar. He was farmed out to various relatives in the holidays, while his Mum qualified as a psychiatric nurse, and then supported family. He did National service with the Royal Signals.

He met his wife, Ann, at Southampton University, where he got his Diploma of Education. Soon after they both graduated, they headed out to a teaching job in Barbados for several years’. [Pat Gatland remembered Tony talking about getting battened down for a hurricane when he was in the West Indies].

‘Just before I was born, they returned to the UK, and he taught in a Croydon school for a short while before getting the job at Prices School’.

Tony lived in Gosport, but did not want his children to go to Bridgemary, so they moved to Titchfield Lane, Wickham. He used to ride his bike to Prices, via Titchfield Lane. The A32 would have been quicker, but he said there was too much traffic on that road. He moved into Wickham village in his latter years, because of Ann’s needs. She got a degenerative issue, with some discs in her spine, which compressed the nerves to her arms leaving her unable to use them. But she could still read a kindle. She passed away, a little before him.

I have a memory of Tony in Rugby from my brother: Ken Askew ‘I didn’t like playing football, and at my previous school I had played hockey and rugby. So it was with some relief that rugby was introduced in our 3rd year, with Tony taking the main games lesson. A school team was formed, which Tony trained, and eventually we played a few matches against other schools. Being one of the fastest and fairly agile runners, I played on the wing for the Under 14 team, and I continued in that position for the school team until I left Price’s. In our year Tony’s nickname was ‘Rubbers’. I understood at the time that was due to his dodgy knee which sometimes gave up in training sessions! I enjoyed the training sessions because Tony was very good at encouraging us, and I learnt a lot from him. Our relationship may have improved because I was good as scoring tries! It certainly wasn’t due to my abilities in learning English, of which he sometimes despaired’.

Tony did great work with Rugby, Cricket, Drama, and the pupil-run magazine The Black Lion. This is my personal memoir of Tony, and I was unfortunately not involved in these activities. But Tony has written about them in ‘The Johnson Archives’ on the Society of Old Pricians Website.

The school was a stuffy mimic of a Public School, when we started. In Tony’s words: ‘The main building had those high windows of an earlier era, calculated to forbid children to look out, in case they were distracted’. It was very conservative in attitude, and Conservative politically. Religion was a strong presence in Assemblies every day, and there was a service in St Peter and St Paul every term or so. The teachers taught in black University gowns, and they all seemed old, and bound by tradition. It was expected that we would accept this uncritically. I think we did this for a couple of years, because we were the youngest and most vulnerable in the school.

Then two young teachers came in September 1964, our third year: Mike Parfitt for Biology, and Max Perrin for Chemistry. Tony came soon after, in February 1965, and we felt, at last, that there were teachers we could relate to.

Tony was such a breath of fresh air, after the stuffy learning by rote etc. of his predecessors. He immediately promoted an attitude of enthusiasm, freedom, and openness in English. He encouraged us to write freely and creatively, and we became confident to do this. No worry about knowing what the parts of speech were, just write! And Tony’s marking was a comment on the whole piece, and not mere nitpicking criticism of details of spelling etc. Our homework was almost always an essay, which encouraged our creativity. He would give us a choice of interesting topics, and he frequently included ‘Own choice’. This resulted in myself writing long pieces, in great detail, about sea-battles and similar conflicts, so it was good that he did not give this every time!

Most importantly, Tony promoted thought, maintaining that everyone had a right to make up their own mind, and to give their opinion. He encouraged criticism, including criticism of the establishment. He was strong on ordinary people’s rights, and he certainly did not go on about religion and obedience etc, like the established teachers. He was probably agnostic, but he did not push this. He just avoided religion, unless it had a strong significance in a text.

Tony was particularly strong on the role of women, and on women’s rights. This was a great contribution to our life in a single sex school, which could have become very sexist. He told us that he had been bought up by a lone mother, and this showed him the strength of women. I particularly remember him quoting ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, where it was the women who held the families together, after the men were broken by the loss of their farms and unemployment. He was also willing to talk about sex. We needed this, as adolescents, but our parents and other teachers avoided it, and this added to our awkwardness. Barry Pollock remembered Tony having ‘an informal discussion with us,’ about how sex was described in some pulp books, whereas he described it as ‘sweaty, smelly and messy’! But he also warned about the consequences of casual sex. He gave an example of how an undergraduate that he knew, had her academic career at Uni ruined when she had an unwanted pregnancy.

Barry Pollock remembered ‘During my “we should be using all our resources to save the starving world” phase, I told him that I thought it was excessive that he was running a car, and that some families had two! Even though he used to take some of us to see plays in his. He listened, smiled, sympathised, didn’t entirely disagree….but maybe he was humouring my conviction! Whenever he took us to see a play, he would spend time people watching, studying their mannerisms, behaviours and taking it all in. An example of his always inquisitive open mind’.

Although he encouraged us to make up our own minds, Tony could be critical of inferior writing. Barry also remembered asking him ‘whether he liked Betjemen’s whimsical poems. He dismissed them as “too facile”, and ended the conversation! I thought it a bit harsh at the time, about the poet laureate! Particularly as I had appreciated a bit of light relief during intense study….. until he said that!’.

Tony was very anti-National Service, and this tied in with our natural teenage criticism of elders and the establishment. He said it was a total waste of a couple of years. A load of ‘bull’. He may have been anti-Forces in general, and more of a pacifist. He was certainly not involved in the CCF at all. [When I said I conscientiously objected to the CCF, he said he wished he had done so when he was at school. When he got to the 6th form, he ‘lost’ his uniform. ‘The head said ‘How can you lose a whole uniform?’ But he was allowed not to do it after this. Tony loved music, and would have liked to have had time when he could have learned music. Perhaps he felt that the wasted years in National Service would have been better used in doing this. He used to play the hand trumpet at the back of rugby buses. His two sons, and grandchildren play musical instruments.

I guess Tony was taking a great risk in talking so freely with us, with the likes of headmaster, Eric Poyner, liable to take offence, and get rid of him. But he opened our minds to think, discuss and criticise such a wide range of things. And to write about them.

He enthusiastically promoted wider reading, frequently mentioning a pertinent extract from a wide range of modern literature. I had very limited reading experience, and I was a slow reader, so I tended to confine myself to coping with the books on the syllabus. But Tony’s promotion led to most of us reading books off the curriculum, such as Brave New World, Animal Farm, Scoop and The Outsider. He strongly advocated that we make up our own minds about what we had read. He sensibly steered us away from ‘Crib’ books, and literary criticisms such as ‘Aspects of the Novel’. He said it was better to read such books after we had encountered more books personally.

With Tony’s encouragement, I was reading much more widely by the end of the 5th Form. Then at the start of our A-Levels he took a radical step. There was a pressure of time because we had many difficult books to get through, but he did not start with the set books. We were to ignore the syllabus for the first half term! He told us to read every book that we could find by a single author on his list, and we were to write a big summary essay at the end. It was a really good list, and I was lucky enough to get John Steinbeck. This un-pressured free reading of so many books gave a great start to our A-Levels. We had a strong foundation derived from our own knowledge and free criticism of our author, and our appreciation of the set books had much greater depth, as a result of this. There were about 8-10 of us in his A-Level class. We read sections for homework, and then discussed them around the table. He encouraged free discussion, and led us with questions, probably providing supporting background information where needed.

I had always been rather inarticulate, finding that I needed time to get my words together, but I flowered in Tony’s 6th Form class, finding that I often had relevant ideas and responses. All of us gained an independence and confidence from Tony’s teaching. We were probably saying much the same as everyone who read the material, but it gave greater strength to our learning, by knowing that our responses were a consequence of our own thought and effort.

I went on to graduate in English at University as a result of Tony’s teaching, for which I am forever grateful. I enjoyed every minute. Fellow classmates at Prices 1962-69, who specialised in other subjects, gave many positive comments:

Roy Smith: ‘He did recommend books that were outside of (the course). Introduced me to a wider range of reading. One of the best teachers at Prices.’

Alan Hartridge: He always seemed to be a good bloke who had a decent rapport with his students. Never one to talk down to them

Barry Pollock: ‘Prices Legend’. An inspirational English tutor, who encouraged us to engage in extra curricular activity. He suggested a range of authors and playwrights. The other English teacher in our year said to me ‘Tony Johnson, a very modern man’. Indeed he was…an inspiration to us all.

Ken Askew: it was a bit of a culture shock when I joined the second year of Price’s in 1965, coming from a co-ed school with no uniform and little effective discipline. My first year at the school was not exactly a happy one, but during the third year we had Tony Johnson for English lessons, and also as form teacher for the 4th and 5th years, and I felt I fitted in. Academically I moved closer to the top of the form, rather than the other end. Some of that was entirely down to Tony Johnson. For that I will always be grateful.

Ray Atkins: He was indeed an inspirational tutor, one of the best at Prices. Thanks to him, I managed to achieve reasonable grades Eng Lang and Eng Lit…quite a feat for someone with limited academic ability, like myself. He even managed to make Shakespeare interesting and enjoyable by pointing out the ‘smutty’ bits.

Nick Dore: I can’t go to the funeral, but if you get the opportunity I’m sure you will tell the family what a good inspirational teacher he was. A breath of fresh air in 1964.

Chris Goodwin: I also managed to get reasonable O-Level grades in English Lang and Lit thanks to him.

Chris Matthews: ‘Introduced me to a range of books that weren’t on the curriculum. One of my favourite teachers’. I got very good grades at English Lit, and Lag. Tony introduced me to 1984, Brave New World, As I walked out one Midsummer Morning, and many others. Life would have been different without him.

Tony Johnson was a great man. He opened the minds of thousands, of students, just as he did with us. I met him again last June after 50 years, and he seemed just the same. A very sad loss.

Bob Askew April 2023.