FROM PREP. TO GRAMMAR SCHOOL IN 1949

by Robert Priddy

When my parents separated, I had to leave prep. school and go to live with an aunt and uncle. My uncle approached the headmaster of the local Grammar School, the Royal Liberty, who accepted his request, in view of my situation, to test me and he subsequently let me in as a late developer. Sympathetically putting me at my ease, the headmaster, Mr. Newth, gave me an oral exam in which my Latin and claims about off- and on-spin bowling seemed to me to have been the deciding factor. My aunt, being snobbish, said that he probably hoped that my typical prep. school well-spokenness might have a good effect on the tone of the school too.

Crossing the class barrier 'downwards' at the age of twelve, I know how it feels to have one's 'class ego' punctured... by which I mean that bundle of superior and attitudes that the prep. school system was so good at inculcating until it became one's subconscious or second-nature.

My first days in Mr. Morley's second-year Latin class, probably prepared through the headmaster's influence, were pleasant enough. All the regular masters were university graduates, some evidently with similar school backgrounds to my own. Almost all of the boys, however, had previously been to State primary schools of the sort my mother had so looked down on. They were naturally a bit curious about life at a preparatory school. Very soon, however, I felt that I was in some subtle 'class apart' from the rest of my school class.

There seemed to be no way for me to make any sort of friendship or even to be able to partake in any of the usual activities during the breaks. I stood literally for weeks on my own during the lunch hours, wishing desparately that someone would one day manage to invite me to join in one of the informal teams that always played courtyard ball games such as 'kingie' and 'winkle'1. The more present I was, the more my presence was overlooked, so that my unspoken exclusion became progressively the more obvious and painful and also the more difficult for any of the boys to alter. I became the victim of an unspoken ostracism.

In those weeks I went through much painful self-examination and soul-searching. I did everything within my power to become acceptable to the winkle gang. I had to discover the subtle effects and signs of class arrogance that had formed some of my attitudes and also to discover my own failings and conceits. It meant nothing to anyone here that I had won a lot at school athletics except that it made me a prig even to have mentioned the fact.

My relatively advanced acquaintance with Latin was a cause of envy at best. To make matters worse, I foolishly looked up a word surreptitiously in the vocabulary during a class translation and was accused of cheating by the master, which was fair enough. I had not actually been cheating then, but I felt I had to own up to having done so once before. Some boys reviled and teased me really mercilessly everywhere I went for days, vituperation that would not have worried me had I not been at the depths of loneliness already. Not until I gave up any desire to join the group and ignored them for days was I suddenly invited casually to make up a team. The boys who had teased me became my closest associates. They were rather unpopular themselves and were not the best company in various respects, but I had by then firmly resolved I would never reject anyone who wanted to be friends.

My first month or more was altogether spent in the very lowest of spirits, I think I really learned something about human insensitivity, the herd mentality and not least of what importance even a single kind word can sometimes bear.

The most obvious vulnerable point was the 'posh' accent. Though there were also boys who accepted and even liked it, a few imitated it for fun. Even a woodwork master who had (as that dreadful class vernacular had it) 'risen somewhat from the ranks' of local carpenter called me 'Lah-di-dah' and imitated my vowels in a satirical way. One day, however, he made a generous apology to me before the class, saying my classmates had spoken to him to put a word in on my behalf.

After a year I had enough self confidence to dare to drop the occasional 'h' and say 'same' more like 'saime'. But that rigorous and 'low' Romford accent was not allowed by my aunt and uncle. I suppose it was some measure of my outward assimilation, for I had learned 'When in Rome do as the Romans do'. Inwardly, of course, I remained who I was, in many ways a witnessing outsider because my experiences made me always view my social surroundings from different and sometimes opposing perspectives. I already knew the causes and quality of friendship and enmity, admiration and jealousy and many such qualities from my several varied backgrounds, having been at 5 schools previously due largely to my father's changing posts abound Souther England.

To have been suddenly extracted from the unreflecting, unproblematical web of life and thus be faced with the web's structure gave me the perception of an observing witness. No longer did I belong, neither to the one class or the other, neither to the family home nor the surrogate family of aunts and uncles. This brought its own kind of suffering but also its peculiar compensations. To be a participant yet able to see all from without as sole observer is lonely, yet it also gave the strength of insight, opening perspectives beyond the mental fences of whichever herd I mixed with. I gradually learned how to partake and mix as fully as I wished, yet only on my own terms. There was some existential realisation that set me up in an inner independence from then on.

I began to understand my experiences in a wider sense by aid of the novels of H.G. Wells. I felt I had found both a kindred spirit and a teacher in the social insight he gave me, even in his science fiction stories, and in the social satires at which he was so brilliant. I recognised for myself that he had seen both the perplexities of 'inferior class' and the intellectual presumptions of the social climbing middle- and upper-classes. The divide I crossed was from upper to lower middle-class. He described all the strata and their attendant attitudes from a sovereign objectivity, a truly humorous and yet benevolent outsidership.

Only in recent years did I learn the biographical details of Wells' childhood sufferings under the class system, to which mine were rather similar in some ways, if also less oppressive. His early two-volume novel The Passionate Friends was surely partly veiled autobiography. His experiences and views struck chords in me and it surprised me to see how strongly my own outlook was formed on some fronts by his, right into my mature years. One set book for the school-leaving examinations was Mr. Polly, which I read with fervour and amid fits of laughter. His first great success, The Time Machine,put many ideas into my head that virtually inoculated me against many lesser thoughts. After that, I set out to read the fifty-three Wells' titles that I had managed to list from here and there. I must have got well past halfway on that agon before I had absorbed enough. Some of Wells' simpler predictions have come to pass, but not his many very speculative ideas and visions. However, what appealed to me and taught me was the very ingenuity of his thinking, the manner in which he twisted hypotheses to yield unexpected but plausible results, the breadth of scope within which he would place the most insignificant of facts. In that he still remains superior to most writers who came after him in the genres he created. His utopian works ranked high in my ratings, his tales of fantasy and science fiction having been the bait. I admired his wit, simple but bitingly perceptive descriptions of people's foibles and fads, as the highest and funniest sort known to me.

From then on I soon grew into a decided modernist: away with the old order, stupid inefficiency and especially undue privilege. My fate - being torn out of private education to a grammar school - I began to realise was my fortune; in that way I escaped the confines of the mentality of the privileged classes and learned to 'mix' on an equal footing with all sorts of people. Besides, I can now see that it was a very good grammar school too, the Royal Liberty, the values it embodied being egalitarian and upright. As time went on I became friends with a varied cross-section of the two classes I attended at different periods of my 5 years there.

So I learned to know boys who actually smoked, others who went to see speedway2 ('so dreadfully common they must be' was my aunt's comment), who delivered milk and had similar pursuits that were exotic and interesting by boarding-school standards. However, at RLS it was yet the era of tedious methods of learning and writing... sitting for long stretches on hard wooden seats in one-piece desk units, paper-scratching and hole-digging pen-nibs - sometimes crossed and spluttering, inkwells topped up from cans of lampblack with brownish-black ink. Meanwhile, pens were used as arrows, quivering on desk-top targets and ink was the colouring agent used in chewed, soggy paper pellets for ruler-snap projection onto white ceilings.

Science was on the upsurge among us boys, though the humanities were still to the forefront at grammar schools. For us it meant the latest advancements in fighter aircraft, ejection seats, futuristic car streamlining and many other such supposedly progressive marvels of peacetime and the post-War decade. The country's self-image was still very strongly bound up with the Battle of Britain, the Whittle jet engine and the aero industry of the future. When my uncle and aunt went with me to the 1951 Festival of Britain on the London South Bank site, I was entirely absorbed in all the popular scientific contents of the main exhibition construction, the 'Dome of Discovery', and in the statistics of the huge cigar-shaped exhibit suspended on its end on wires, 'the Skylon', plus the space-probing marvels of the Shot Tower where radio signals were sent and reflected back from the moon.

With hindsight it is clear that the decline in classical values was affected by inventions that heralded the consumer age. Not until my thirties did I become extremely doubtful about the willy-nilly 'progress' of scientific technology. But then for us it was the cause only of such weapons against the adult world as bubble gum (just in from America), corrugated plastic key-rings which, when moved from side to side, showed a dog beg or a girl wink at you as she opened her blouse wide. (These were provided for me by a maverick uncle who visited the family for a few weeks after twenty years in Canada. My aunt confiscated the busty girl and also a silk tie with a similar one that Uncle Nug had brought me. Uncle Nug himself became a persona non grata in her house thereafter).

A few boys at school chewed newly-imported bubble-gum or sported discreetly hidden fluorescent green socks and used 'Biro-pens'... a miracle of smooth motion with their inexplicable stock of 'dry' ink! Masters forbade the use of them, doubtless fearing a further slide into illegibility and sloppy Yankeedom. The zaniest of sounds of the electric guitar of Les Paul were heard (could that instrument be something like a Hammond organ? Nobody knew, even at the big music shops). It all went to show that even the days of the classics were numbered and soon one would forget the old ditty: 'Latin is a language, as dead as dead can be. It killed the Roman people and now its killing me'.

I was at last able for the first time to hear the radio for myself, which had always been banned at prep. school. The B.B.C.'s music programme 'Top Ten' had given birth in 1948 to the 'hit lists' and the Top Twenty with warmed-over folk songs like an early Number One Hit 'Lavender Blue, Lavender Green' - an innocent lyric if ever there was one - and amusing songs like 'There's a rich Maharaja of Magador', who had everything except that he couldn't do the rumba or syncopated jive numbers like 'Blacksmith Blues'. The same flippant musical trend continued into the 50s; Puddy Tats and bunches of cokernuts alternating with the deadpan soppiness of supposedly romantic songs with tear-jerkingly yodelled choruses like 'I am the great pretender' and 'I am a f-o-oool, to f-aaall for youuuu'. Not long after joining RLS, the 9-inch TV screen made its debut at home and I could begin to see the world, especially historical events, such as in the long series 'War at Sea'.

Stoppages and shortages becoming less and less after 1950, there was an emergent desire to 'live it up' as in popular songs from America about putting nickles in the nickolodian, if not quite as much as in 'Cigareets, Whuskey and Wil' Wil' Women'. For many of us, and especially myself living under the auspices of my puritan aunt, girls were largely foreign bodies, an UFO-like species whose habitat was strange and who were difficult to approach to within speaking distance. A friend and I used to sit during the lunch hour beneath the tall and shady elms on a bank beside iron railings that gave a view of the road. The added attraction of this spot was the daily appearance of a passing schoolgirl of our age, Mavis, who deigned to say 'hello' back to us. Like caged animals, and because we never got any further than that, we eventually planned to go to a dancing school in Romford, my pretext upon my aunt's inquiry was an extra meeting of the Boy Scout troop. Two visits were enough for me, though, staggering awkwardly through formal waltzes and foxtrots with expressionless but heavily-scented and -lipsticked girls who always seemed to reach only to my chest.

Despite all our fascination with the future, we were mostly well-ordered and disciplined boys, genuinely interested in most of our curriculum. We knew to a 't' who was a teacher dedicated to our development and who was just a repetitive pedagogue and we really did respect those who taught best. All of us liked those masters best who were open with us and were convinced of their calling and who respected us by never making fun of us or speaking down to us. We were not fooled for a moment by doctrines that were empty or which we were convinced teachers did not believe in themselves or were not conscientious. I was at the age of learning to see through more of the foibles of adults and privately to criticise and ridicule some of them.

I found that there was one acceptable way open for me to escape from the confines set upon my behaviour by my aunt's home regime; to join the Boy Scouts, to which I was eventually invited by some school friends. Once or twice a week, and on an occasional weekend, I could get away to the scout meeting. The 12th Romford Troop was led by Mr. Morley, a sound man whom - years after I left school - also became the headmaster. My scouting friendships made helped me adjust socially, as they say, increasing my social self confidence. I stayed in the troop for over three years, earned a few badges, and went on fortnight long summer camps to Devon, Wales and Oxford with campfires and all kinds of outdoor activities.

One incident from my scouting days seems worth recounting, for it bears on a small part of British social history, in its way. My brief childhood brushes with the great were surpassed by a brief encounter with a person who was the basis of a character once known and enjoyed more or less throughout Britain - though decidedly not a great one. Towards the end of my scouting career, late 1952 or perhaps early in 1953, a three-day bicycle marathon with camping on the way was organised which was to end in a large jamboree - a county-wide meeting of many patrols and troops at some place in the Essex countryside... I think it was Billericay. The climax was supposed to be a visit from the main organiser, whose real name I forget. We were told that he was a very active and enterprising scout leader, one who knew lots of well-known people including Michael Bentine, Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan. Prior to his delayed arrival, our scoutmaster, Mr. Morley, made us promise not to remark on this other scoutmaster's way of talking or mannerisms, nor to laugh or show any signs of fun... for he was a rather different sort of person, unusual.

As soon as I heard the great man's voice approaching, I recognised it as that of the grotesque character Bluebottle from a BBC radio comedy show 'The Goons'. It was unbelievable that anyone could pronounce words in such ridiculous fashion and unlikely tones, and moreover with such assured self-importance as did this barrel-chested, hairy-legged wonder in short trousers complere with whistle, scarf, toggle and so on. It was fascinating but oddly repellant ... also confusing, for Peter Sellars used exactly the same tones and weird twists of language on the weekly show. He even boasted of his friendship with Sellars and Co. to us. It was perfectly obvious that he had been the model for the contorted phrases and falsetto leaps of voice of Sellars' character Bluebottle. However, nothing much was said about this, probably because we had been told not to mention it - obedient boys that we actually were - and anyway, there was no way of finding out any more. But he was a steaming fool if ever there was one! I can't remember his name or where he came from, but he was a scoutmaster in some place like Walthamstowe, Ealing, Ilford... I seem to recall.

As years went by, I virtually forgot all about this peculiar chap, until in the 1970s when, having rediscovered the pleasure of the old Goon Shows, I got an l.p. of the Parkinson TV interview with Peter Sellars and Harry Secombe in 1972.3 There, the origin of Bluebottle's voice and some character traits was publicly revealed by Sellars. It was the selfsame red-bearded, wide-chested scoutmaster in full regalia from khaki shorts to wide-brimmed hat that Sellars described, along with the preposterous voice! He had tried to get Sellars to do a show at some scout meeting, but the declining Sellars had instead taken the opportunity to send him on to the other 'goons' instead, chiefly to be studied as potential material. Potent it surely became... Bluebottle must have been the most popular fictional radio character ever.
Something that the U.S. playwright, Arthur Miller wrote in his autobiography 'Timebends' illustrates well what I experienced and thus how basic faith or trust resurfaces in maturing young persons: 'For me, as for millions of young people then and since, the concept of a classless society had a disarming sweetness that called forth the generosity of youth. The true condition of man, it seemed, was the complete opposite of the competitive system I had assumed was normal, with all its mutual hatreds and conniving. Life could be a comradely embrace, people helping one another rather than looking for ways to trip each other up.'

However, I was not over-preoccupied with all this until my twenties, perhaps. Meanwhile there was much to discover and life ahead of me to be lived. I shared several dreams or longings typical of my generation, three of which were the desires to see the world, to fly in aeroplanes and to play music for the sheer enjoyment of it. It is odd to think that I eventually fulfilled each of these aims myself within that decade.

Footnotes:
1. The games kingie and winkle seem to be related. Kingie was a kind of tag, played with a tennis ball. An area of play with boundaries was determined. One person was chosen by some chance method and he became 'it'. He took the ball and tried to hit any of the others anywhere on the body except the hands/fists. Once hit, that person joined the one who was 'it' making a team of two. This went on until all of the team who were 'out' were out, by going over to the same side. The last man was the winner. Defence was with the fist only, for which purpose a hankerchief could be wound round it to avoid sore knuckles. Those who were still 'live' were not allowed to pick up or otherwise touch the ball... all they could do was run. The game soon became unsatisfactory, for it was easy for several who were allowed to handle the ball to hit the remaining players. Winkle employed the same way of defending oneself and the same rules of who could and could not touch the ball. But there were two teams of equal numbers. The game started with a 'winkle'- that is, five uneven stones of descending sizes piled on top of one another. It was built up about a yard in front of a wall. The team who was 'out' (i.e. roaming in the field) sent one member at a time to try to knock down the winkle. The ball was to be thrown from a distance of about 5 or more yards and had to hit the wall first, then fall on the winkle. Each player had three throws. As soon as the winkle was down, the ball became 'live' and could be picked up and thrown by the team who were winkle-defenders. The aim was to hit out all of the opponents (who became 'dead' once touched by the ball anywhere but on the hands) before they could sneak back and rebuild the winkle. If rebuilt before all were dead, a new round was started with the same teams in and defending the winkle, the score now being one to the attackers. If all were hit before the winkle could be rebuilt, the teams changed sides. The game was agreed as being finished within a given time limit (eg. end of lunch break). In practise, the main weakness of the game was that it would stagnate if the defending team kept the ball stingily near to the destroyed winkle... so as to keep the others from rebuilding it. This could have been solved by a system of time limits and setting boundaries beyond which the ball must go within the limit - but would have been complicated and required a (timekeepier and) referee, which no one wanted to be. Perhaps this is partly why we do not see World Cup Winkle on TV yet?


2. The speedway' referred to 'dirt track' (cinder tack) motor cycle racing, which took place at varying times at Harringay, West Ham and Wembley Stadium.

3. The Michael Parkinson interview of 28 October, 1972 in which Peter Sellars tells of his meeting with the scoutmaster whom he copied for the character Bluebottle is hilarious. It was released on vinly lp as 'Michael Parkinson Meets the Goons' by BBC records and tapes.

For an account of an amusing incident in my English class with a Mr. Walter ('Wal'), click here.

Postscript: I eventually moved to Norway and have been mainly resident in or near Oslo since 1960, where I taught philosophy and social science at the University of Oslo until retirement due to disability in 1985.