YOUTH and EARLY ADULTHOOD
Frank was my father; he didn’t like the name and (to be frank) neither do I. We do not choose our names, and we have to stick with what we are given. I cannot find another Frank or even a Francis among his ancestors. (I, by contrast, can find several Josephs in the family tree going way back to the early years of the 19th century.) Frank was born on September 21st 1911, the second and youngest child of his parents William and Emily. His father spent his life making packing cases for the electric equipment manufacturer Laurence (and) Scott. They were a working class family, but (especially Emily my grandmother) they were ambitious for their children. The family portrait above shows Frank as an infant on his mother’s knee.
When he was nearly three the Great War broke out, and this affected his earliest years, not always for the worse. Because the school he would have attended (Lakenham Council School) was requisitioned for treating the war wounded he was sent instead to Carrow School. This had been set up by the Colman family as part of their paternalistic care for their employees. My grandfather was not a member of the staff at Carrow Works but non”etheless his son was able to benefit from a rather higher standard of education than would have been available in the Council School. He remembered his earliest teacher ‘Olo’ with respect and gratitude; his name was Mr Olorenshaw.
When the war ended he did indeed go to Lakenham School, before winning a scholarship to the recently opened Grammar School, the CNS (City of Norwich School). He remained disappointed throughout his life that Latin was not on the curriculum at the CNS; this made it very difficult to apply to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, which required the language in those days, although one of his friends managed to teach himself Latin and went on to Cambridge and a distinguished academic career in America. His parents must have made great sacrifices to support their children beyond the normal school leaving age. Frank did very well for himself when he left Grammar School. Aged 16 he got a job as an apprentice optician. Now the training for such a health professional demands a university degree, but then it was all done on the job. His ability as an optician would certainly be regarded as university level today. His employer was Cecil Amey, a man not many years older than my father. It is a name which survives in the Norwich optical business community. My father was well treated by Cecil Amey, who let him ride around Norfolk on his BSA motorbike in his spare time.
Frank had to go to London to be examined by the Spectacle Makers Company, one of the historic Livery Companies of the City. He was awarded a fellowship of the company (FSMC), though this did not qualify him for membership; that was reserved for the most influential businessmen. It did however entitle him to be elected Freeman of the City of London, an something he was rather proud of although he never took the honour up. By the time he was twenty one he had qualified in the profession. He worked for a time in Stamford in Lincolnshire and back in Norwich he was employed by the firm of D. R. Grey. D. R. Grey (in spite of his style as ‘Dr Grey’) was not himself a qualified optician, and had to employ those like my father who were to carry out the sight tests. The firm specialised in going out into the countryside seeking business; my father hated going unannounced from door to door like this. He called it ‘going on the knocker’ and regarded it as very unprofessional, but it did give him reason to drive around in a Morris car.
The pastime which Dad loved the most of all was flying; remember that this was less than thirty years after the invention of powered flight; it was not the everyday experience that it has since become. He did not fly as the pilot; he would take the controls in flight but not in take-off or landing. His companion was his friend Henry Stringer, who owned a two-seater de Haviland Gipsy Moth. They would take off from Mousehold Heath (the City’s first airport) and fly to places like the Isle of Wight and the River Humber.
We have nearly forty more years of his life to record, and already it had been an eventful one. He had married in 1935 and by 1938 he was living in a bungalow in Poringland with two young daughters. My parents had been forced to leave the Old Hall in Alpington where they had first set up as a married couple; in spite of the elegant environment it was infested with fleas, which proved immune to all attempts to eradicate them. With £300 from his father in law he had established himself as a self-employed optician in 1938. In his shop in Orford Place he was a successful professional with a growing business, and all this before he was thirty years old.
The next part of the Frank Mason story will cover the wartime years and the difficulties of that time.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
SLEEPING UNDER CANVAS
I remember the small white canvas tent I crept into in those long-lost summers when I was a lad. It was a real tent for two, but I never actually slept in it. However it was fun to do the things that were ancillary to spending the night there, like arranging the ground-sheet and slackening the guy ropes when it rained. These are things that would puzzle most people today. Wasn’t the ‘ground-sheet’ part of the tent? And guy ropes; – why did they need slackening if it rained? I won’t bore you with the answers, but believe me, if you didn’t take these things into consideration you would have spent a wet night under a heap of collapsed canvas.
I didn’t begin real camping until I was a teenager. For most youngsters this would probably have entailed being a Girl Guide or a Boy Scout, but I was never a Scout. Instead my camping was done as an Army Cadet. Things had hardly moved on since Victorian times in terms of the technology employed. Heavy wooden poles held the tent up, and for the larger tents the pegs were still wooden wedges that had to be hammered in with a mallet. The tents I slept in were bigger than the one I had put up on my lawn at home, but you still had to watch those guy ropes and make sure the ground-sheet wasn’t outside the tent (and so letting in the rain). The canvas of an army tent was very tough, and so they were very heavy. Consequently, on one expedition, the four of us cadets decided to do without a tent at all, and sleep under the stars. It was midsummer, and the worst problem was the heavy morning dew. We did take a ground-sheet with us, and therefore slept under it instead of on top!
Some of my camping took place in Norfolk, but mostly it happened elsewhere. When I was sixteen we went on a three-day exercise from Sennybridge, a large army base that still exists in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. This time we did load our packs with tents. We also had to take a map and a compass, and we were given a map reference to rendezvous with our CO three days later. All our food we had to carry on our backs; this consisted of tinned Compo Rations army style. On the other hand, all our water was provided by the mountain streams. This was fine until we discovered a drowned sheep a few metres upstream of our watering hole; this was after we had filled our water bottles and taken plenty of swigs!
Much of my camping was done under the auspices of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, but the effect was just the same. Once I had left school my camping days were almost over, but after I had joined the Territorial Army this part of my life was revived for a short period. The experience of spending the night outdoors was not an enjoyable one in the TA; I only had a waterproof poncho for protection, and sleeping was out of the question due to fire-crackers being let off all through the night; added to that, the threat of a tear gas attack was not conducive to a good night’s rest.
I returned to the joys of camping when I was over fifty, because by then our children were in their late teens and ready for the outdoor life. We had gone to Sheffield (where they both were to attend university) to spy out the land. We spent a couple of nights at a campsite in Monsal Head. This is a beauty spot in the Peak District, and this is near Sheffield. By then the technology of camping had changed beyond recognition. None of it resembled what it had been in my youth; cotton canvas had gone, and no longer were tents cumbersome but light and compact affairs. Strong but insubstantial tent poles could be erected in seconds and separate rubberised ground sheets no longer existed. Their function was integrated into the tent itself. Sleeping bags, which once had been filled with kapok (a natural fibre that was warm enough but heavy to carry) are now made of man-made material that is both lightweight and easy to stow. I was really far too old to go camping on this occasion, but apart from the fact that my air-bed slowly went down overnight (some things hadn’t changed), it was an agreeable few days. The fact that we had our car with us meant there were no heavy backpacks to be humped across the country; our camping trip wasn’t one of the arduous kind. When we finally loaded up the car for our return home that really was my last night outdoors. I cannot say that I am sorry that this chapter in my life is now well and truly over.
My son and his girlfriend recently spent a few nights camping. We still had the equipment we had used in Derbyshire, and lent this to them. The weather was fine, and they had a good time round the fire-pit as the sun went down. Although she is Dutch, his girlfriend has lived all over the world from Hong Kong to Venezuela, but she found the attraction of North Norfolk very special.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST
NANNY – my paternal grandmother – gave me £15 for Christmas 1962; I was thirteen. She and Uncle Laurie were living in a retirement flat in Recorder Road in Norwich. Uncle Laurie was her second husband, her first husband, my grandfather, had died before I was born. Quite why she decided to be so generous I don’t know; fifteen pounds was a king’s ransom in 1962 – at least £250 in today’s prices. I believe she preferred to give me my inheritance while she was still alive; certainly there was nothing for me in her will when she died three years later, but that was fine. I rather doubt if she had intended me to spulge it all at once; no doubt she would have preferred me to squirrel it away in a bank account.
However this gift enabled me to buy an 8mm movie camera. ‘Super Eight’ had not then come available, and in retrospect I believe the old ‘Standard Eight’ (as 8mm was thereafter called) equipment was being sold off at a discount to make way for the new models. Although Super Eight was promoted as far superior, the main difference was that the four minutes of film did not require turning over half way through. The 16mm film had to be split when it was sent off for processing (which had already been paid for as part of the purchase price). You had to send off your Kodachrome film to the lab and then wait for the postman to call. At least the pictures were in colour by 1962; the previous generation would have had no film at all (it was wartime), and before that it was all black and white. Movie cameras were powered by clockwork, so no batteries were required.
Gregory’s camera shop in Lower Goat Lane had a Paillard Bolex camera going cheap, and this Swiss make was very good. I had hankered after it as soon as I saw it in the window, and thanks to Nanny I was able to afford it. I must have written her an effusive thank you letter, but I am sure I did not reveal my purchase to her. Inflation was soon to gather pace, and soon the £15 would only have bought the family a good meal at a restaurant, so in retrospect it was a wise decision.
Although still cameras were quite plentiful among my school acquaintances, none had a movie camera. They were not common in the 1960s; many of my peers came from much wealthier families than I did. Their fathers were directors of national organisations like Norwich Union, and could easily have afforded a movie camera for their offspring had they wished to indulge them. I’m glad that I had the imagination to make my purchase; I took full advantage of my new toy, and my first film was used photographing the severe winter of 1963. There is a view of us youngsters building an igloo on the snowy wastes of what should have been the junior school football pitch.
I was also able to capture some of the last of the steam engines on East Anglian railways. Diesels had already taken over in Norfolk and steam had vanished from the Norwich shed, but the steam depot at March was still operational. On January 1st 1964 my cousin David Anderson (aged 32) organised a trip to the Cambridgeshire station, where we were conducted on a tour round the extensive sheds by a member of British Railways’ staff . The party consisted of David, my father and me, plus a young train spotter who had been jotting down numbers at March station and who tagged along. David’s children were unfortunately too young to join us.
No longer being cared for, the steam engines were all extremely dirty, but at least those in steam still possessed their nameplates; many of those that stood cold and abandoned had already had their identification plates removed. Even then a brass number was being avidly sought out by collectors. A Jubilee class (Barham) steamed past us, and is recorded on film. The Britannia class Oliver Cromwell stood cold and out of commission but under cover. She would undoubted have gone to the scrap yard like Barham, which succumbed to the blow torch in 1965; however Britannia herself, which had been destined for preservation, was subsequently vandalised. Oliver Cromwell was therefore substituted for preservation instead. As things turned out both locomotives were eventually preserved, Oliver Cromwell as part of the national collection.
I also took pictures of my canoe, Red Squirrel, taking to the river Blyth at Southwold and the sea at Snettisham. Two people could sit in the cockpit, and both my cousins Jill and Tony Sansom went out in her with their father Uncle Arthur. We explored the river Waveney at Bungay. It’s all captured on film. Picnics and picking primroses also feature among my early movies, as does the visit of my sister from Canada with her young family. My cine camera was a marvellous purchase, and fifty years later I am so glad to have this moving record of times long past.
Compared to modern videos the 8mm camera was basic. The definition was not great and you could only shoot very brief scenes; the film was expensive. Now you can record hours and hours on-line or on DVD for virtually nothing, and sound is included. Once exposed the film had to be sent away for processing, so there was no possibility of checking what you had photographed – no instant rewind in those distant days. It was a matter of guess-work. Should it be f 16 or f 22? It depended on how bright the weather was. These arcane terms all passed out of use and out of memory many decades ago. Now you can whip out your smartphone and get a much better sequence than you could ever have done with a 8mm camera; but now that anyone can take a movie, what’s the point? When I was recording my teenage years my ciné camera was a real novelty.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
The signs of ageing are always taken to be the obvious ones like wrinkles, cataracts or greying hair. I know that for men the social attitudes to these things are different; a craggy brow and sinking jowls can produce a kind of grandeur in the male face that is much harder to replicate in women. In the not too distant future these physical signs of age may eventually be much reduced (or even eliminated) but this will not mean the end of ageing. In a less superficial sense ageing will always be with us.
“You’re as a young as you feel” is the common cry among those who feel that age is creeping up on them, and the unspoken (and rather pathetic) implied continuation of this phrase is “And I feel really young”.
The last thing I would want is to feel young again, even if this were possible. I remember only too well the lack of self confidence, tongue-tied indecision and general misery of being young. Youth has its positive side, but this is seldom apparent to the young themselves. Trying to find one’s place in the world is a fraught business at the best of times, and the problems of youth are many; young people adopt all sorts of absurd ideas; the adolescent whose legs are growing out of kilter with the rest of his body has an ungainly stride; and the embarrassing effects of a breaking voice on the pubescent male are a penance. Who would want to revisit these things? In contrast age brings a certain gravitas to even the most unlikely candidates.
Even if the passing years do not bring great wealth they bring a certain stability to one’s finances. The young always begin with nothing; wealth, influence, or the sense of acceptance at the lack of theses things – they all have to be acquired over the years. To most of us offspring come with the passage of time, and the trials of having a young family fade as one’s own children shake off the insecurities of youth and progress into adulthood.
The undoubted bodily vigour of youth is not something I would wish to retain or return to. This slowing down in physical activity is another sign of ageing that is likely to remain long after most other such indicators have been banished to the past. The middle-aged may retain a youthful appearance in the future, but I very much doubt they will ever run as fast. The sight of an 80 year old running the Marathon may become more common, but such a competitor will always come way down the field at the finishing line. The twenties are the most physically productive age, and I can see no likelihood of this ever changing.
A certain forgetfulness is a general feature of the ageing process, but that does mean we are all irredeemably stupid. Our brain mass may decrease as its age increases, but the number of wrinkles in the brain tissue grows exponentially. As the wrinkles signify knowledge, this produces the wisdom of age. We may forget more things as we age, but we have an awful lot more to forget. The young brain is a huge blank canvas; it has masses of potential but little content. Potential is a wonderful thing, but it would be sad if that was all an old brain had to offer. We have far less space to store new memories, but that is fair enough as we have little time left to acquire them.
Some people lose all their memories, and this seems sad; but if you don’t know that you have forgotten everything there is a certain seemliness about this. Senility has dropped out of the lexicon of ageing, to be replaced by dementia. This is a pity, because senility has a direct correlation with the concept of ageing, coming from the Latin word senex, an old man. Dementia merely means a loss of reason, which can occur at any age. Senility was used where now we would say an old person has Alzheimer’s. Not one in a hundred has any idea what are the precise symptoms of this disease, and the use of the term only obfuscates the condition. The non-specific term senile dementia was far preferable; we all recognise that it affects the old, but this malady is not an inevitable consequence of ageing.
Like it or not, ageing is something we are all going through. Fighting it is a pointless exercise. Rather than hanker after lost youth you should celebrate the signs of ageing; stop regarding yourself as a time-expired old has-been and return to the idea of the wise elder. You still have a lot to offer.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES
PRIVATE MASON No. 49919
Alfred John Mason was born on January 3rd 1898. He was one of the ten children of Charles Mason who survived beyond infancy. He was the second child (of five) his mother Alice had with Charles; she was his second wife. Alfred grew up at 25 Russell Terrace in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. Like his brothers and sisters he was educated at the village school. On leaving at the age of fourteen he worked in the mustard mill at Colman’s Carrow Works where his father and eldest brother were also employed.
When the First World War broke out two years later he was too young to enlist, but as soon as he was old enough he enrolled in the army. He was kept in England as in 1915 (aged just seventeen) he was still too young to fight, and so he was trained in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After basic training he was transferred to the Service Corps in 1916 and deployed to France. He finally made it to a front line fighting unit, the 6th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment. This Battalion had been formed in 1914 and after serving in Gallipoli and Egypt they returned to France in July 1916, where Alfred joined them in 1917. After fighting for months in France he had returned to Trowse on leave in September 1918. During his stay he took the opportunity of visiting old friends and colleagues at the mustard mill. His smart military appearance and his concern for the goings on back home made a definite impression on the workers he met.
In Northern France, at the end of October 1918 his Battalion were in training at
Valenciennes, but with just two hours notice they were ordered to the front line. On the 1st of November their fellow combatants in the 9th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters were ordered into battle, with Alfred and his unit held in reserve. On the 4th the Foresters made a successful attack on the hill at Sebourg with the Lincolnshires in support. On the sixth the Lincolnshires experienced some resistance from the enemy, but on the seventh the Germans were forced back; they were in retreat and disarray, and the war was rapidly coming to an end. However Alfred Mason had already been hit by shrapnel, and on the 3rd of November 1918 he had died of his wounds. By a cruel irony he was the only member of his Regiment to be injured by that shell blast. A week later the Armistice was signed on the 11th November to general rejoicing back home in Norwich, and many people thronged the market place. Alfred’s sister Edith met her future husband on that happy occasion. At the family home in Trowse this delight turned to despair three days later when the news of Alfred’s death arrived. His oldest brother was 38 and his youngest sister was only 11 at the time of his death. It was a very cruel circumstance that he so nearly survived the war.
He was buried at the St Vaast cemetery near Cambrai. There are 45 graves of British soldiers in this military extension to the communal cemetery; for much of the war this village was in German hands. Compiègne were the Armistice was signed is about half way between Valenciennes, where Alfred died, and Paris. Cambrai, where his body lies, is between Valenciennes and Compiègne. In 2014 on the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War a display was mounted in Trowse church, with details of the twenty one villagers who gave their lives in the conflict. A photograph of Alfred Mason was among them, and two of his nieces attended the exhibition.
THE BLOG FOR the STORY OF THE MASON FAMILY
SUPERMARKETS have taken over the retail sale of food in this country, and in those remote county areas, where small food outlets still remain, they are all branches or franchises of national or international chains. They are all set out like mini-supermarkets; i.e. shops where you select your goods from the shelves and take them in a trolley to the till. Yet this great change in shopping has happened in my lifetime.
When I first used to accompany my mother shopping we would go into a small grocer’s shop about three quarters of mile from my home. There we could see (but not touch) the groceries on the shelves, because they were on the other side of the counter. ‘Can I have a tin of beans please,’ Mummie would ask, perhaps pointing to a tin of Heinz baked beans (the only tinned beans available were baked beans, and Heinz had the baked bean market sown up). The shopkeeper – Mr Spalding or his wife in this case – would take down a tin and add them to the purchased goods behind the counter. My mother would not take them and put them in her shopping basket until she had counted out the change and paid for them.
This was in the village shop. In the city there were a number of larger shops, like the Co-op and the Maypole. There was even a Sainsbury’s, but they were all still just grocers’ shops. At Sainsbury’s the procedure was slightly different; you would still stand at the counter where the shop attendant would cut your bacon or cheese, but then he or she (normally the latter) handed you a chit; this you took to a separate desk where a cashier took your money and gave a receipt. You then took it back to the shop assistant who handed you your goods. It was a very hygienic system whereby the handling of money was kept well away from the handling of food. This made the purchase a rather long-winded affair; you can see why supermarkets caught on.
The first supermarket to arrive in Norwich was Downsway in St Stephens which opened in about 1968. This was closely followed by Keymarkets at the other end of the same street. Also in St Stevens, between these two, Sainsbury’s opened a supermarket; their previous grocer’s shop with the cashier had been in Gentleman’s Walk. Tesco opened up in Guildhall Hill and there were others whose names have vanished long ago; Fine Fare was one; David Greig and the International were others. These were all town centre shops; there were no out-of-town supermarkts for at least a decade. The first one in Norwich was Asda on the corner of Drayton Road and the Ring Road, where it remains today. Before then the site was a corn field! I remember it well.
These shops were all in Norwich; further out in the sticks the process of introducing supermarkets was much slower. There is still a little local resistance to the modern way of shopping; Sheringham for instance long resisted the introduction of Tesco, although it has now succumbed. You can still find a few independent butchers and bakers in the larger villages. Reepham is too small to support even a Tesco Express; its main retailer is a franchised branch of Spar. It retains an independent greengrocer in the town square, which doubly unusual; not only are independent food outlets rare, so too are greengrocers. There is a fine line between a community being too small for a national chain of shops to open a local branch, and being so small that it cannot support a shop at all.
The most recent development has been the arrival of the European discounters like Aldi and Lidl. The first of these no frills outlets I became aware of was the Danish firm Netto, which opened a shop in Dereham over twenty years ago, but the brand was never a great success. Netto is now no more in this country, having been bought out by rivals. From this rather shaky beginning the discount stores have dented the profits of all the big four (i.e. Tesco, Morrison, Sainsbury and Asda). They have spread to the larger market towns, and I went shopping in a branch of Lidl in Cromer only the other week.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
Neville Jones was a Junior School teacher at Gresham’s throughout his career. I remember his dwelling in the living quarters attached to Old Kenwyn, a block of classrooms by my time. I was taught by him during my time at Crossways, one of the two junior school houses. I cannot remember anything about his lessons. I can picture him very clearly; you will have look at the photo to the left. He was married with a young family – a few years younger than me – when I arrived at the school in 1959.
Mushy Hughes wasn’t a Junior School teacher, at first anyway; however, the term after I moved on to the senior school he took over as housemaster at Crossways. Thereafter he was naturally very involved with the junior school, but he still taught Classics to the seniors. He taught Greek to my friend James Oxley-Brennan. James was a very good Greek scholar, but by the mid sixties he was the only pupil who still studied the subject; when he left after taking his ‘O’ levels it was dropped from the curriculum. It was no longer taught at the school and, as far as I am aware, it has never been revived. James has become a leading light among learned circles in Norfolk, but his subject has nothing to do with speaking Greek; rather he is the editor of the local Industrial Archaeology journal. Even when he was at school his passion was steam engines.
I cannot remember being taught by Mr Hughes; I can only remember being taught Latin by ‘Gosso’ Mosley. That was because his lessons were an opportunity for him to produce puns, an activity in which I too participated. I was good fun, but not perhaps conducive to learning fourth declension nouns. At the time I was in the top set for Latin, but at the end of the year I was demoted to a lower set, when I may very well have been taught by Mushy. Unlike Mr Jones, Mr Hughes was unmarried, and remained so throughout my time at school. He died within the past few years, and I am sure that he remained a bachelor to the end. I need hardly explain that Mushy was his nickname; his real name was (I think) Michael. I am sorry if you feel that I am getting rather forgetful as the years pass.
My lasting memory of Mushy was his taking a group of us teenagers on holiday to Eastern Europe in 1965. He was not entirely single-handed in this enterprise, having as his deputy another young master, a teacher of mathematics called Graham Smithers. Nonetheless it was a formidable undertaking, going behind the Iron Curtain with more than a dozen schoolboys.
I discovered that I had lost my travel card (with which those of us without passports were issued) when the train pulled up at the Czechoslovakian border crossing. With his tall frame and rather snooty look – his nose was permanently in the air – he was nevertheless imperturbable. In due course I found my card – I had left it as a bookmark in the history book I was reading – but when I told him he was equally calm. Incidentally this haughty appearance was misleading; it did not represent his character, which had no hint of arrogance about it.
Somehow he seemed to have enjoyed the sightseeing on the holiday, and with a Czech acquaintance he even organised a visit to the opera for us. He cannot have been pleased when several of us absented ourselves from the second half of the performance, but only a slight frown crossed his brow when we informed him of out intention to leave. The good boys remained to listen to act two of Verdi, while we naughty youngsters were planning a trip to the Prague nightclubs, where I discovered the delights of a gin fizz. In Communist Europe we could get away with almost anything; they needed our hard currency. Back in the West, in Austria, we were put firmly in our place. There was no alcohol for sixteen year olds there.
You will not associate a vibrant nightlife with the dark austerity of the Soviet Bloc, and you would be right, as far as the local population was concerned at least. But for overseas visitors there were establishments reminiscent of what I imagine 1930s London was like. There was no music on the night I remember, but on Saturdays there might have been a small Jazz band playing in the background. Shady ladies would entertain their clientele at the bar. It was a bad thing that I did, but I am glad I went there instead of listening to Aida; that delight is still available to me, should I want it, but the Communist era and its drinking dens are lost in the distant past.
All this is only obliquely relevant to Mushy Hughes. I continued to study Latin, even after leaving school at university, but our paths did not cross after that Easter. As our party pulled into Waterloo we left Mushy and Graham Smithers and rushed off to our various homes with scarcely a goodbye.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
‘WOT’ Thomas was the housemaster who took over Farfield from Bernard Sankey about halfway through my time there. W. O. T. were his initials; William Thomas, though always called Bill (though not of course to his face). He had jolly manner but he was also a firm disciplinarian – you didn’t bait WOT. Bill Thomas was always addresses as ‘Sir’, but so were all the masters. He walked with a slight limp, the result of a war injury, something he never mentioned.
In spite of his disability he was a keen sportsman, especially fond of cricket; although I can never remember him actually playing the game, but maybe this is just a gap in my memory. He kept a set of Wisden Annuals in his study, and I remember the yellow covers to this day. He was of medium height; during my time at school he had a young family, having married the headmaster’s secretary about the time I arrived in the Junior School. He drove around in a Rover 90, a car that was made from 1953 until 1959.
He took us for English in the third form and he laid the foundations of a love of the subject that almost saw me reading English instead of History at University. I read an enormous number of works from Chaucer to Scott, Dickens to George Orwell, Shakespeare to Evelyn Waugh, nearly all of it outside the official school curriculum. How I had the time to do so much reading just for pleasure astonished me now; with all the other work I had to do – like evening prep, taking part in sport in the afternoons, playing in the school orchestra and painting all those pictures – I wonder where I found the time.
John Rayner was also an English teacher. WOT had taken me in Big School in the third form, but when I began my ‘O’ level course in the fourth form I moved into Mr Rayner’s room in the Thatched Buildings. This room had been the biology room until Michaelmas term 1963, when new biology labs were opened in a building newly constructed near Farfield. There was still a hint of formalin about the form room as I sat learning the Pardoner’s Tale. We had done the basics of English grammar with Egg Taylor while still in the junior school, and from now on it was all about literature. The only grammar we still learnt was French, and particularly Latin grammar. These subjects imparted some useful knowledge that was applicable to English, like the pluperfect tense, but it mostly concerned noun and verb endings that change in many languages, but which stay the same in most English grammar. John Rayner was an inspirational teacher, but as I was a natural English student I am not in a position to say quite how he affected my ‘O’ level results. It was a year with a particularly harsh marker in charge, and only eight candidates from our year got a pass. I am gratified to say that one of them was me!
I had yet another English teacher, Mr Coleridge. He was a keen golfer and spent much of his retirement playing the game on Fakenham Golf Course. I believe he was a very distant relation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poets I was taught by Coleridge included Wordsworth, Keats and Browning, but I also ploughed my own furrow with names who were then still living; T. S. Eliot, Auden, Betjeman and other younger poets. Poetry became my passion, and I taught myself all the styles and the difference between a Shakespearean and a Miltonian sonnet; I learnt where to put the caesura in a line of verse. You may be able tell from all this that I was not a great enthusiast for free verse.
We studied Shakespeare in drama lessons, and playwrights such as Terence Rattigan when doing House Plays, but as an individual I read all Bernard Shaw’s plays – and dare I say, I preferred them to Shakespeare? (I don’t any more.) John Rayner directed the school plays that I participated in. The first was Timon of Athens, not one of the Bard’s better known plays, with good reason. In it I had one of the smaller parts, that of the clown. Naturally my contributions were meant to be funny, but I had the greatest difficulty in even raising a smile in the audience. I don’t think it was all my fault. We did Coriolanus a year later; it is a much better play and I had a much bigger part in it, one which required lots of learning long speeches. What with house plays I was always acting (something I have not done since). I was also heavily involved as chairman of the Debating Society. Debating is another activity that fell by the wayside in adulthood; who knows where it might have taken me had I continued? It was organised by one of the history masters, Steve Benson. I was seldom taught by him, and only current affairs, never history. He has a tremendous bass voice, which he still uses to good effect.
‘JOCK’ Melville was a chemistry teacher. He was a bearded Scot, but not a large person – rather slight in stature. There were dark rumours that the beard hid a wartime scar, but this was merely speculation by his impressionable young pupils. He was a good teacher but not an exceptional one, unlike Dick Copas, who arrived as a young and enthusiastic teacher as I was beginning my ‘O’ level chemistry course. Whether it was merely Dick’s youth that made him so keen on his subject I do not know, but I doubt it; I am by no means a natural chemist, but his inspired teaching got me through chemistry ‘O’ level. Dick was just one of a number of young masters who arrived at the school at about the time I moved into the senior school and they were nearly all inspiration teachers.
There were three divisions in the fourth form; Science, Languages, and General. I was General Studies for me; my aptitude for languages was questionable and I was definitely not a scientist, except for biology. Biology did not require any mathematical ability (at ‘O’ level at least) and so was a subject that I enjoyed and was really good at. My teacher was Olly Barnes, and I lapped up all he told us. The circulation of the blood or photosynthesis were grist to my mental mill. Once a week we had a period doing dissection, but this only involved cutting up a tomato or some other inanimate vegetable. Once we ventured into the animal kingdom and had to dissect a ragworm – already dead of course, and preserved in formaldehyde.
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I am not referring to the tube but to the cultural movement that began in the late 1960s. It was (to begin with at least) restricted to the capital of England, Swinging London. However it had none of the jolly inclusiveness of that fashionable time. The Underground was the esoteric underbelly of the Swinging Sixties, dark, intellectual and middle class (although they would never have admitted that). In the early days I was as involved in all this as anyone could be who was living outside London. I read Oz and the International Times and listened to Radio One. The only DJ who was remotely interested in the Underground was John Peel, and his programme, which came on late at night, was my daily fare. I lapped it all up.
I was an enthusiast of the late David Bowie when he was part of the Underground; this preceded his first album which came out in 1967. It was before most of his fans were even born, and several years before he became a main stream pop star. With a school friend of similar tastes I also followed the avant-garde poets of the day, although that French term was not used either of or by them. William Blake was the historical figure all these poets looked up to, but browsing their names fifty years later there is no one among them who approaches him in stature. The Underground even permeated my painting, as you can see above. Drugs were an essential part of the Underground, and I joined in by smoking banana skins which (I was reliably informed) were a sure way to psychedelia. It was certainly a revolting experience. I know what I am talking about when I refer to the Underground.
I became disillusioned with the Underground well before 1970. The first rift came with John Peel himself. On 20th August 1968 Russian tanks rolled into Prague. It was a city I felt deeply about, having been there myself three years earlier. I listened intently to John Peel, desperately waiting for him to mention the outrage. Nothing other than his vapid sayings on incompetent guitar bands passed his lips. I gave up listening to John Peel in disgust. Compared to the awful things that were happening in Europe the self-regarding activities of a bunch of mediocre artists and musicians seemed irrelevant.
I was very young and I soon grew out of my infatuation with the Underground. What puzzles me is that so much of today’s culture still looks back to many of the trends that began in the febrile atmosphere of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse. Pop Music acquired an elevated status that it never merited and performers like David Bowie even have arrangements of their banal songs played on Classic FM. The popular music of the 1930s had no such pretentions, but (in my opinion) is much more listenable than Ziggy Stardust. What we now call Post Modern Art can be traced back to the 1960s and the Underground. In much the same way that many elderly men and women have never abandoned their youthful politics, their cultural aspirations have been preserved in aspic.
Not everything that came out of the Underground can be classified as bad, though I cannot point to any great masterpieces either. The real advances in art and entertainment have occurred elsewhere; compare the fuzzy black and white images of television in 1967 with today’s digital flat screens. The technologists have been advancing by great leaps while the art establishment seem stuck in the past. But maybe I am just being an old fogey and there really is art among the winners of the Turner Prize that is comparable with that of J. M. W. Turner. Or perhaps not.
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I will start with the letter A, and so I will begin with Dr Andrews. When I arrived in 1959 he had already given up the position of school chaplain – apparently due to a crisis of conscience (as I learnt much later). He was housemaster of Woodlands throughout my school career, and he was succeeded in that post by Steve Benson, who arrived during my time in the 6th form. I was taken to task by Dr Andrews for disposing of a black goldfish I had bought at the Holt pet shop in the Woodlands house pond. Apparently it was spotted by Andrews and caused quite a stir; how did it suddenly appear in the pond? How he found out it was me I still do not know; somebody must have snitched on me.
He taught history, so I came into contact with him quite a lot, being a budding historian myself. His manner was precise and rather formal, and he did not make the subject come alive as David Gregory did for me. Neither Benson not Gregory had yet arrived at the school in 1963, so I will say no more about these masters in this article.
Because it was my poorest subject, my father arranged for me to have extra maths lessons with Dan Frampton. I used to go round to his house in Woodlands Close, where he had a surprisingly elegant study at the back of his large garage. There he would attempt to teach me Pythagoras’s Theorem, long division and such like. He must have been successful, because I passed my ‘O’ level in the subject. Dan developed cancer while I was still at school, although I did not learn the detail of this until after I had left. Although he returned to work following treatment, he died before very many years were up. Before he became ill he was the C.O of the CCF, following Colonel Williams. During my short career in the CCF (I joined in 1963 and left in 1966) I had three C.O.s. Two I have mentioned already, and the third was ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, who had been in a pilot in the air force during the war. (He was not of course the real ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, who was a night fighter ace during WWII.) The other two leaders of the CCF were army men.
Bernard Sankey was my housemaster when I went into Farfield in 1963. In that year he was also my physics master. I might have passed my physics ‘O’ level had he remained my teacher, but instead we had a man who could not keep discipline among us 15-year-old boys. Almost the entire form failed, so it wasn’t just me who played him up so cruelly. I can remember sitting in the physics lab doing experiments with Bernard Sankey. One involved collapsing a tin in which boiling water had been sealed, and then allowing it to cool. To demonstrate that all objects would fall at the same rate he went up to the top of one of the towers that adorn the Big School building, and dropped a stone and a feather from the top. Of course they didn’t fall at the same rate, as he knew the wouldn’t, and he explained why. Another involved the use of mercury, and this got spilt of the desk in front of me. We chased the little globules of liquid metal across the woodwork with our fingers. This relaxed attitude to such a poisonous element would horrify today’s teachers, but in 1964 the phrase ‘Health and Safety’ had not then entered our physics vocabulary. Nor had it in chemistry; although we wore white lab coats to protect out clothes from spitting acid, we wore no goggles to protect our eyes. This worried my father, who was a little more advanced in his ideas, and he was glad I wore glasses which protected them to some extent.
Mrs Sankey, his wife, was already becoming ill by 1964 – also with cancer – and Bernard had retired from Farfield by 1966. He went to live in a restored cottage in the nearby village of Hunworth. He invited those of his former Farfield boys who were leaving the Upper Sixth to a meal in his cottage at Christmas 1966. This was a memorable occasion. After leaving Farfield I did not see Bernard again for over 15 years, when in 1984 I and Molly (my wife to be) attended the unveiling of the Gurney Clock in Chapelfiel Gardens in Norwich. This was a replica of John Harrison’s chronometer, and this was just up Bernard’s street. He was an old man by then, but he was as delighted as a young boy by the clock. He seemed to remember me.
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