I drove from Bristol to a PCGS reunion at the old school building, one rainy day back in July 2007. The whole place was, apparently, about to be demolished to make way for a more modern, more P.C., sixth form college.
It was a strange feeling. Like seeing scenes from your past life. It was all still there as if nothing had happened in the last, er, fifty three years. There were the very classrooms where I’d regularly sat as a boy, from September 1954 to April 1960. There was the same, brown T&G wooden wainscoting part way up the walls, the same cupboards one each side of the blackboard, the same view through the windows that I’d idly gazed at during those interminable maths lessons. The same smell and probably the very same desks, too, still defaced and personalised with ballpoint or knife.
Yes, the whole place seemed so very much smaller, too, just as you might expect when going back to a boyhood haunt. The old school hall now had desks with computers all around the walls. The hall was where, every morning, the entire school used to assemble. Boys were ranked with the first year near the stage at the front and the the sixth formers at the back, while the masters lined both sides of the room, wearing the shredded remains of their university gowns to show they’d once been educated too.
I started in form 1B on 8 September 1954, along with about twenty other boys, under the care of form master and maths teacher A.A. Gorringe. It was a very different time. A young Queen Elizabeth had been crowned a year earlier and some food rationing had not long ended. It was the year when the artist Donald McGill, of ‘saucy seaside postcard’ fame was found guilty of breaching the Obscene Publications Act, the Americans launched the first nuclear-powered submarine, and Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile. In retrospect, only the release that year of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ seems a harbinger of the real and lasting cultural changes to come.
When I was at the school, all the masters had served in the Second World War, or at least endured National Service. One games master whose name escapes me had a line of scars up the back of his lower leg, believed to be the result of machine gunning. A maths master, also nameless, had a scar below his chin that was thought to be the result of a war wound. He once told us he’d been a navigator in Lancaster bombers.
There was a master with a name rather like Stakak. Perhaps it actually was Stakak. He was ribbed mercilessly. I believe this became a sort of cruel sport, in the manner of bear-baiting and consequently his classes became incredibly popular. So popular that at one time boys would sneak into his lessons in preference to their own, to join in the fun. It was believed that he was a concentration camp survivor, or something of the sort. What had these guys done to deserve being at the mercy of of the cream of Britain’spost-war youth?
On that very first day, I was a freshly-scrubbed new boy, sitting there in my pristine uniform with the rampant-lion badge my mother had proudly sewn onto the breast pocket. I knew no-one and wondered what things would be like, and I was in awe of all the much older and taller young men I’d warily noticed as I came into the school.
My first shock that morning came when Gorringe handed out the pocket timetables for us to fill in. They showed a six day week and my heart sank. Would we have to come to school on Saturdays, too? The intricacies and wonders of the six-day timetable were soon explained and my fears allayed.
Getting to and from school
No one had a car in those distant days. Well, Dr Birchall had a snazzy, fawn-coloured Ford Consul and an English master had a newish Wolsley or something of the sort. It was rumoured that he’d won this in some competition. Almost all pupils and masters alike would arrive at school by pushbike, by bus or on foot. For my first term at Purley, I used to cycle on my own in all weathers, from my house in Caterham.
My family moved during the next January and we now lived in a house on Coulsdon Road. The garden backed onto to the school grounds just behind the bike sheds, near the old gym. I could now walk round to school, via the Tudor Rose car park, or just climb over the fence at the end of my garden if I was late.
The school assembly in the big hall each morning began with a record of classical music being played as everyone trooped in. There’d be a hymn, the words read from the personal copies of the ‘Songs of Praise’ books we’d all been issued with. Then a prayer or two, and a bible reading, which would be introduced by Birchall. I remember him once telling us the theme of the reading was “Control of the tongue.” I naïvely and guiltily guessed this was a warning about too much talking inclass.
After the religious aspect of assembly was over, Birchall would read out announcements, such as details of the sale of Sports Concert tickets. There’d often be chastisement, too. Once he announced some boys had ben reported ripping out cats’ eyes. This was less gruesome than we first thought as it related to rubber catseyes in the middle of Marlpit Lane. More often the announcements would concern reports by members of the public about jostling and general and specific bad behaviour of boys at local bus stops. And so to class.
Rugby at Twickenham
There was so much more freedom for young people in those days. When I was in the second year, it was announced in assembly that there were free tickets available for an International Rugby match at Twickenham. I remember this as being England versus Argentina but from checking online I can’t find any record of such a game. It was certainly England versus some other country. I’m no Rugby fan and never have been but this sounded like an adventure and the prospect of a good day out.
My form-mate Chris Pow and I collected the tickets from the staff room and on match day we set off, just us two thirteen year old boys. We got the train to Twickenham and found our way to the ground. My uncorrected myopia made the whole game something of a blur. We both left for home before the anticipated melée of home-bound spectators at the end of the game. Rugby aside, it was all an adventure.
Cross country running
From the second year, boys could choose to do cross-country running instead of Rugby for our games periods and that’s what I did. I’d never enjoyed Rugby and never fully understood what was supposed to be going on. But regardless of the final score I felt a sense of achievement if my knees, boots and kit were suitably caked in Tollers Lane mud by the time the sessions ended. The running was torture but not as bad as Rugby. It was certainly warming to run on a cold winter afternoon.
In the fifth or sixth form, I voluntarily entered an annual two-lap race that involved running down a road in the direction of Brighton Road, round the back somewhere and a return, uphill, to the school grounds. We then had to jump into a ditch of muddy water where we crawled through a sort of tunnel made from corrugated iron from an Anderson shelter. I completed the requisite two laps with a feeling of achievement but thought “Never again”.
Oh, the unexpected could happen in any class. A master made an announcement at the start of one mid-morning German lesson. “In your last period with me, one of you boys farted. I don’t know what you do in other classes but you’re not to play these little tricks in my class.” Cue furtive sniggering from a dozen adolescent boys.
Missing in the scrum
When the bell rang to signal the end of a period, the corridors would quickly fill with boys, rushing to their next classes, in opposite directions and giving no quarter. I once lost a bag containing a complete gym kit in such a scrummage and it never came to light, even after many hopeless visits to the lost property officer.
At the Tate Gallery
I studied for my Art ‘O’ Level with the laid back Mr Payne, who taught me so much about the work of modern painters. One one occasion he bravely chartered a coach and took his class to the Tate Gallery. We had a good look around. I found many of the pictures inspirational and have been back several times in the years and decades since. Being young lads, we did mess about a bit in the gallery, school uniforms and the risk of identification notwithstanding. We lifted a corner of a life-size Modigliani statue, for instance, and poked a rude note under one of its feet. We narrowly escaped being thrown out. And on the way home in the coach, the back seating area inevitably filled with tobacco smoke.
Apart from the pressure of the looming ‘A’ Levels, I enjoyed being in the sixth form. There were a number of ‘free periods’, intended for personal study. Mike Hill and I, with one or two others, used some of this time fruitfully by concocting an occasional periodical titled ‘Meanwhile Folks’. We filled this with what we considered to be hilariously funny articles and jokes. There were no such things as copiers or cheap duplicating of any kind, so there would be just the one copy of each edition, to be read and passed on to other form mates. I still have text of a few of my own efforts. I wonder if any copies of the whole publication still exist.
A new era
By the time I left PCGS, in 1960, the world outside was changing. ‘Youth culture’ was beginning to develop and what deference there ever had been was disappearing fast, everywhere. The deference we were expected to show the school staff was never really there but hadn’t quite developed to the current level where teachers expect to be like friends and equals with their pupils. The world of coffee bars, traditional jazz and Rock ’n’ Roll had arrived. The days of Grammar schools were numbered and, sad to say, their countdown to extinction had begun.
The years of subsequent life tended to slip by and many of them somehow bypassed the memory. Yet it’s strange how those few short years at the school made such a mark on me and I learned so much. I suppose that was the general idea all along.
Fas et patria!
David Reynolds. Bristol 2020.