Monday, 29 July 2013

Summer School

I've just returned from the John Hewitt Summer School. A writers' week of readings, talks, workshops and performances; all taking place in the Market Place Theatre of the dual-cathedral town of Armagh. A short stride across the leafy Mall (not a large shopping centre, but an Eighteenth Century racecourse) and you were soon immersed.

I particularly enjoyed the readings of Carlo Gebler, Penelope Shuttle, Gavin Corbett, James Byrne, Deirdre Madden, Conor O'Callaghan and Anne Enright. The Voice Squad in concert were great too - celebrating the melancholic in popular song. But my highlight was The Play of The Book by Ian Sansom and The Wireless Mystery Theatre. This was a very witty and inventive insight into the life of a writer and the trials of the creative process. It managed to be funny as well as profound - no mean achievement.

Writing is of course a solitary pursuit. Writers create things and interact with characters inside their head. So for me the past week has been a veritable overdose of stimulation. Each day filled with writers and talk about writing from nine in the morning till after closing time. Plenty of recollections and banter with old friends as well as the delight of making some new ones. It's all been great and now I'm coming down, like an addict from crack cocaine.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Old School

I recently revisited my old secondary school in Gloucester. This trip was not driven by nostalgia, for I have already written here that most of my teachers managed to instil in me a sense of inadequacy and failure which was reinforced by a culture of sadistic violence. Indeed, there was just one teacher who stood out as quite different, who managed to instil in me an enthusiasm for words and literature. His name was John Passey, and I wrote a tribute to him on 10 July 2012.

This return trip was driven by curiosity, for Central Technical School for Boys was about to be demolished. I felt the need to have one last look around the old place before it became rubble. It would then be transformed into playing fields for the new Gloucester Academy.

The old school hosted an open day for former pupils - in truth, a farewell. There were 55 years of memorabilia: old photos of pupils and staff, school magazines and files of newspaper cuttings. There was even a former teacher: Pierre, the spiky French teacher (nicknamed The Twitch), who was only 15 years older than us (although, at the time, he seemed ancient). On the day, Pierre was sought out and upbraided by Steve Pitman for a particularly humiliating exam mark given to him some 45 years ago - as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold!

Around 400 people attended this open day - a surprisingly large number. As I walked around I noticed how small everything seemed. The interior of the school was altered but I could still reel off the name and nickname of each teacher as I walked past their classroom. Few rooms were open. One of these was Nero's - the forbidding Welsh Maths teacher, who would prowl around while you slaved silently over your equations. Nero was well named, for he would often erupt into random violence. His speciality was repeatedly banging a kids head against the wall whilst getting the victim to recite the correct answer. I once saw him hit a kid so hard with the long pole that opened the top windows that he broke it in half across his back. To this day I have a fear of anything mathematical.

Astoundingly, some parts of the school were completely unchanged. The woodwork and metalwork rooms still had the same battered old benches with vices attached. And the gym still had the same wallbars, ropes and changing rooms. I remember Benny Hill standing at the exit from the showers with a cricket bat, whacking each kid across the buttocks with it as punishment for using too much warm water.

There were many such reminiscences and plenty of humour too. One of the exhibits was photos of graffiti found inside the small cupboard of the Geography room, where Basil Harris would exile kids in the dark after he had spreadeagled them over a desk and beaten them with his dap. The dap had a name, written across the forefoot (which for the life of me I cant recall). The kid that was to be punished was forced to go to the cupboard to collect the dap and bring it to Basil for his beating. The graffiti in the cupboard was a series of scratched names and dates effected by the kids in exile, one of which had the rider - 'the boy that Basil couldnt tame'.

I took lots of photos. I was glad I went back to see the place before it was demolished. In retrospect I still gained a great deal whilst I was at Central, despite the violence and humiliation that was normal there. I was young and a good learner, I made many friends, some of which I am still close to. But I dont believe they were the best days of my life. For, after I left the school at 18, it took me another decade to discover that in fact I wasnt stupid (the overriding message of the education I had received). At a turning point in my life, I took the plunge and returned to study as a mature student. I really enjoyed the challenge but was very surprised to gain a distinction in the Masters degree at Manchester University. Following that I was awarded a bursary to study for a Ph. D. and this led me into a successful career in academia.

My class photo, aged 15. Can anyone pick me out?