THE BIOLOGY LABS (Autobiography 21)

GRESHAM’S SCHOOL  in the 1960s

In the 4th and 5th forms, with  O levels approaching, we were divided into three forms; the Languages stream, the Science stream, and the General stream. I was in the general group, so we did a bit of everything. We were badly taught at physics; not by a bad physicist and certainly not a bad man. In fact he was a thoroughly nice man, but one who could not keep discipline. I must admit to being one of the worst at tormenting the poor man, and I was richly rewarded by failing my physics exam. This must have been hard for my father to bear, for as an optician physics was at the top of the tree for him. My friend Charles Marshall was one of the few who passed; he must have been good. He did not pursue a career in  physics though, becoming an accountant after reading history at Cambridge.  The general stream was the only one in which you could do history O level.

Olly Barnes

Olly Barnes

At chemistry I did ok as I was taught by an excellent teacher; Dick Copas, who retired in 2001 after a long spell as Second Master. There was quite a lot of maths involved, so I was quite pleased to have passed, as maths is not my strong point. I think today’s Health and Safety authorities might have been a bit concerned at our practicals; sucking up hydrochloric acid in pipettes, hanging over Bunsen burners with our ties dangling and wearing no eye protection at all. At least I wore glasses. In physics practicals (with Bernard Sankey) we chased globules of mercury across the desk with our fingers. We survived it all with no disasters, no long-term damage  and apparently no mercury poisoning.  The physics labs were on the ground floor and the chemistry labs on the first floor of the block which contained Big School, the assembly hall. This had been built about 1900 when the school was relaunched, and remained very much as it had been at the turn of the century. The Reith Laboratories had not then been added to the building.

Biology was the science that I excelled at, whether it was dissecting a rag worm or a tomato, or learning about protozoas and amoebas. The Biology Labs were still in the Thatched Buildings when I started, although they soon moved into the brand new classrooms, alongside the new music rooms. This building also housed the school tuckshop. We would gather there at break times to eat Golden Wonder crisps under the empty eye socket of the biology lab’s skeleton which, I was informed, had belonged to an Indian woman. Cans of coke were on sale as well. Cans of fizzy drink, as opposed to bottles, were then a new development, and the ring pull had not yet been invented. You needed a can opened to make two triangular holes in the lid, one each side (as we still do with cans of condensed milk). Another popular snack was the snowball, that confection of marshmallow and  a layer of coconut flakes on chocolate.

Outside was the greenhouse where they kept the plants that the 6th formers needed for their experiments. The lab assistants were led by a man who had been a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore during the war, Harold Cook. Together with many of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, the father of  my contemporaries David and Charles Barratt  had also suffered as a PoW in Changi Jail. Harold Cook had a much younger assistant, the boy David. He wore a grey lab coat (or perhaps I should call it a warehouse coat) and did things like gassing the rabbits that were required for the day’s dissections. I have made this sound like a daily occurrence, but such a dread thing only happened once or twice a year. Only sixth formers did things as complicated as cutting up rabbits. Since he used the gas from an unlit Bunsen burner these were obviously the days before natural gas, as the coal gas was composed of genuinely poisonous carbon monoxide. Holt had its own gasworks down by the Spout Hills.

My biology teacher was Olly Barnes. He was a decent bloke but I never got to know him well. He is no longer with us. One pointless little memory sticks in my mind. I was on my way back to school from an exeat with my father. We passed Olly Barnes and his wife in Holt, and Olly was all togged out in evening dress.  ‘There he goes on his way to the hop’, said my father. I think the reason I remember it is because this was the first time I had heard a dance referred to in this way.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

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