I spent a very pleasant lunchtime on Tuesday with John Tobias, who tried manfully to teach me history when I was at Gunnersbury Grammar School for boys in the 1950s. Gunnersbury, a Catholic school, was run like a cross between a boot-camp and a Jesuit seminary. Corporal punishment, The Whack, was handed out as easily and frequently as capital punishment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was administered with equal enthusiasm, on the buttocks, with a thick rubber strap, The Tolley.
At Gunnersbury, boys had two options: either they shone academically, or they excelled at sport. (A very few did both. They were the superstars.) Otherwise, and I was an ‘otherwise’, they were largely condemned to the scrapheap. Admittedly I was extremely lazy, but Gunnersbury was supposed to be a very good school - I should have presented a challenge; instead the school utterly failed with me.
I always remembered John Tobias though, ‘Toby’, as a nice gentle man, unlike the majority of the other masters, for whom classroom duty seemed to be a chore to be got over with the absolute minimum of effort. He did not send boys for The Whack, instead he tried to engage their enthusiasm with his own passion for his subject.
Some of the teachers were hardly better than sadists. I remember ‘Father’ Chapman with no pleasure at all. He used to teach us Latin, and on one occasion lifted me up by my right ear for some minor infraction. Chapman eventually became headmaster.
I have seen it written somewhere that Gunnersbury regarded itself as a minor public school. Certainly it advertised itself as fee-paying during the war, and although I won a scholarship there, I know that the parents of at least one of the boys in my class were paying fees for him.
I attended a reunion of old boys for the first time recently, and although it was enjoyable I felt a slight feeling of fraud about being there. We remembered the jolly japes and the nicknames of the masters: Patch (he had a port-wine stain), Slasher (he looked like a teddy-boy), Jock (Scottish), Lighning O’Shea (he had a stutter), Dicky (Father Doyle) and Chippy (Father Chapman). But it was not a happy time for me. I was hopeless academically and I detested sport; on one occasion on the rugby field the games master, Wally ‘Slasher’ Cain, decided that I was too clean – naturally I avoided scrums or any other nasty and dangerous contact with the other boys. Slasher detailed two boys to drag me, face down, through the mud until I was sufficiently dirty. And people wonder why I detest rugby.
I did have one single moment of glory though. We had a poetry competition when I was in the second year, 1957 or 1958 it must have been. I recited The Lion and Albert from memory, attempting to imitate Stanley Holloway’s accent. There was only time for me to relate the first few verses, but while the judges were deliberating who had won, I was invited on to the stage to recite the entire piece.
Mr & Mrs Ramsbottom’s son Albert has been eaten by a lion at Blackpool Zoo, and the magistrate has decided that nothing can be done. He addressed the Ramsbottoms:
…He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms,
Would have further sons to their name.
At this mother got proper blazin’
“And thank you sir kindly!” Said she.
“What spend all our lives raising children to feed bloody lions, Not Me!”
I sat down to thunderous applause from the masters as well as the boys. Actually, in the original Stanley Holloway version, I think the word used was "ruddy". But rising to the occasion I extemporized, and got away with it.
So yes, my only memorable achievement at Gunnersbury Catholic Grammar School, was to say “bloody”, in front of the entire school, to universal approbation.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs