I have lost touch with all but three of the friends I had at school, before the place changed from Rough Northern Boys’ Grammar School to co-ed sixth form college. Even now when we meet, we might, given sufficient lubrication, give you our rendition of the Old School Song. Here is the chorus:
We’re sons of the school,
We’ll hold fast the rule,
With hearty zest
We’ll do our best
For the school, school, school.
The writer of this toe-curling shite had slipped off the perch years before I was required to learn it in at the age of eleven in 1970. It has stood a certain test of time, though, still relentlessly mocked wherever two or three are gathered together and sufficiently pissed to divert (?) the company with both verses. (Be patient.) Nobody ever took it seriously, except the parents. The piece was performed by the whole school as the final musical offering at that annual masochistic, buttock-numbing, sphincter-clenching event known as Speech Day, where an assortment of pompous old gits and gasbags in mayoral chains, gowns and badges of this and that office were invited to bore boys, masters and parents catatonic in’t Town ‘All:
‘Nah then, you know, ladies and gentlemen, when I luke at these young lads, all full of spunk and testosterone, I’d like to whack my todger right up…’
No, I’m making this up, of course. I have absolutely no recollection of what any of those old farts said, and nor has anyone else.
Parents attendance was motivated by a kind of stoical pride. Their lads had got in at t’college, and so had chances the parents mostly had not had, and indeed never expected to have. They put up with the tedium of Speech Day as Victorians are alleged to have put up with nasty medicine. Before I started at the school there was a meeting for the parents of new boys. My mother reported to me the gist of the deputy head’s speech.
‘When they leave, he told us, they will be men!’
She approved. I didn’t, because I was only eleven and being a kid is hard enough work without bothering about eventually being a man or a woman. I could not at the time have told her that the bloke was onto a fairly safe bet, given that we all had the right chromosomes, or that in the D.H.’s terms I would not be one of the school’s success stories.
The school was a boys' grammar school that liked to pretend it was a Public School. Teachers were called 'masters' and until the place went all co-ed and matey in about 1975, they wore MA gowns over their battered tweedy suits and trailed chalk dust and the stink of tobacco in their wake. Perhaps headmasters of the past had modelled the place on schools they had seen in 'Beano' and 'Hotspur'.
Any Old Boy over 50 remembers Henry. Henry Strachan taught Latin, or at least occupied classrooms under that pretext. He was an immense man with a jowly face full of broken capillaries, and startling blue eyes. He was known for his sudden, spectacular displays of temper. These days he would be the subject of some committee's investigations, but then, ranting and throwing of chalk and board rubbers was just what Henry did.
‘Last year, Mam, 'e broke a lad’s legs ‘cos he cunt decline lupus!’
‘Oo, well you’ll ‘ave to behave yerself in his class, then, wote yer?’
Ofsted would have a thing or two to say about Henry’s approach to teaching, an approach characterised by a want of rapport, a lack of individuation, scant checking of understanding, risk of grievous bodily harm and so on. In practice it went as follows:
Henry, tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and dusty old gown, hauls his panting bulk to the front of the room and sits down heavily. He is clearly crapulous. (Hindsight, that.) He opens the frayed text book of Latin prose translations and announces the page. It will be a translation into or out of Latin. He then falls asleep, sitting upright. Thirty-odd twelve year old boys silently translate. Henry snorts himself awake in time to have the boys read back their translations sentence by sentence, choosing a name at random from the register, a name he will never learn to connect with a face. The bell goes for the end of the lesson. As always he says ‘Right. That’ll do.’ Boys start to pack up their books. It suddenly occurs to the duty neurone in Henry’s scotch-soaked brain that he has not set any homework.
He goes fuckin ballistic, man, honest!
‘Yurr homeworrrk! Wait! You don’t go withoot yurr homeworrrk!’
He goes crimson. He throws chalk, he chucks books, he hurls the board rubber. He roars out the page number and picks on a kid to repeat it back to him. Ah, the sad alcoholic old bastard, ground down by routine and disappointment and caring for a disabled wife, takes it all out on twelve year-old boys in a way unimaginable in today's Britain, where the kids would probably just laugh in his incandescent face and provoke him the more, even unto cardiac arrest. The long awaited announcement of his retirement at a pre-Christmas assembly circa 1973 was greeted with quiet relief, just the slight hiss of an opened pop bottle rather than a gush of champagne, but it was clearly audible, and Henry was there to hear it. Hard as it is to imagine Henry young, pending evidence to the contrary we must assume he once was. He would not have envisaged a lifetime of alternating sleep and choler in a boys' grammar school. What a career. What deeds to be remembered for.
Here’s the rest of the song. If blogger had the facility, I’d give you the tune and a bouncing ball so you could sing along, maybe even a whiff of scotch to get you started, but that is in the future. For now, all I can give you is the Reverend Horsfall’s deathless poesy.
We’re boys of the sturdy Northland
Midst mills and mines we live
And to our well-loved homeland
The best we can we’ll give
Some strive for wealth and pleasure
And some for high renown
But lives of honest service
Shall win the richest crown.
And when we are men of Britain
Wherever we may live
Still to our well-loved homeland
The best we can we’ll give
And if we win distinction
Or if we’re fortune’s fool
We’ll all with warm affection
Remember still our school