In the last instalment of his ‘Nostalgia diaries’, Roger shares his final reflections on his childhood as well as on what writing this series has meant to him…
One of the proudest moments of my young life was when I passed the 11+ exam. This I did at the second attempt, so I had spent a year in Form 1 at my local secondary modern – Bryn Offa – and so I started late at one of the most prestigious grammar schools in North Wales: Grove Park. The school argued that there was no way anyone could go straight into Form 2 so I had to do Form 1 again. This actually became significant some years later.
Bryn Offa had been a brand new purpose built modern school which opened the year I went to it. So it was a bit of a shock to go to the old traditional buildings of Grove Park. Even the teachers wore traditional black gowns and the headmaster was never seen without his mortar board cap. The curriculum was traditional as well. So I started to learn Latin, as well as French and Welsh. The classes were organised by ability, based on the results of the 11+ exam. We had 5 forms 1a, 1 Alpha, 1B, 1Beta and 1c. Because I had failed at my first 11+ I was placed in 1c. My form master was a music teacher called Mr Jack Rees, or “Black Jack”. This had nothing to do with his complexion but was a comment on his temperament. He was evil. He put me in the school choir, because – as he put it – “Davies you are always out of tune, but we need more volume”.
Academically I enjoyed 1c because in this set I was able to do quite well in the end of term exams and was in the top three for most subjects. So, my first year passed quite quickly. I suppose my strangest memory of that year was one day we were all queueing up outside the building where our form room was, and the talk was that some guy was going to be executed that morning at 9.00am. The school bell went at 9.00am and a strange hush descended. (That would have been James Hanratty).
Things were very different back in the ’60s. Even in Wrexham, agriculture was a big economic factor and in June every year there was a tradition that school children would be given time off to help with the harvest. Around the village of Holt, on the fertile flood plain of the river Dee, were many farms which specialised in growing strawberries. These farms would run buses and trucks from the local bus station to bring children and women to the fields to pick the crop along with the itinerant gangs of workers who lived on the farms for the duration of the short picking season (Strawberry Dodgers). For young lads the money was good, for adults not so much. The work was incredibly back breaking. You were given a little basket and down the row you went till it was filled, then you started the next one. A carful count was kept of the number and you were paid by the amount picked. On the first day we were told we could eat as many strawberries as we liked. It is amazing how fast you can become sick of eating strawberries.
Because I did well in 1c I was promoted up to 2 beta at the end of the year. It was in this form that things started to go pear shaped. Did I mention that Grove Park was a very traditional school? This included corporal punishment. There were varying levels of punishment from the ad hoc to the formal. Each teacher carried their own favoured low-level weapon of choice. From a three foot, brass edged ruler (Science) to a size 12 plimsoll (PE, wielded by an ex Welsh international rugby player Danny Harris). Any misdemeanour and you would be hauled to the front of the class and assaulted. There were also the experts with the board rubber, this was a hand sized lump of wood with felt on one side which was used to clean the chalk off the blackboard. Any loss of attention and the teacher would hurl this missile across the classroom. It was aimed at your head and some of the teachers were very accurate.
For the more serious offences, like not handing in your homework, you would be invited to meet the teacher “at the top of the stairs”. The staffroom was on the first floor of the main building and you would be bent over the banister and thrashed with a traditional teacher’s cane. It could be used with enough force to draw blood. One of our maths teachers liked to think he was scientifically efficient and knew the exact time between strokes to inflict the maximum pain.
It was while I was in Form 2 that I discovered my love of rugby. My new form tutor Mr Lewis (History) put me into the form team to play against Form 2a, which had Chris Worthington in it. Chris was great guy but he was also a bit of an anomaly, 12 years old and 6’ 4” tall, with the build to go with it. He was huge. Luckily, he wasn’t fast. He picked up the ball and came charging at me. I closed my eyes and went in low. Next week I was selected for the school’s under 13s. We played against all the North Wales and Cheshire public schools and the odd grammar school. I really, really enjoyed school rugby, even though we lost most of the matches. I played under 13, then under 14 and under 15 intermittently and just the once for the school first fifteen, which was mainly sixth formers.
As I headed in to Form 3 life became very difficult. Homework was now a big thing for the school teachers and my home life was not conducive to doing homework. My father had become very abusive. Homework was the furthest thing from my thoughts as we tried to survive another tense (sometimes violent) evening at home. Then, after the move to the cramped conditions of Nelson Street as I described in my last blog, it became impossible.
For some teachers, like my form tutor, it became a joke. “OK boys, pass your homework to the front and Davies why haven’t you done it?” To others teachers it was an instant invitation to “visit the top of the stairs”. I could only take so much. So I stopped going to school. I became an expert on truancy. My first tactic was to intercept the post at home to remove the letter to my mother asking for a reason why I wasn’t in school. Then I would forge a reply. Later I became more sophisticated, I would attend registration only to then skip out over the school wall. I then only had to attend my form tutor’s lessons, which were History. Maybe that’s why I became a History teacher myself, much later in life. It never occurred to me to go and tell someone the real reasons why I couldn’t do my homework.
I was now in Form 5 and GCE mocks were scheduled for the coming January with the main event coming up that summer. Having missed the bulk of Form 4, I knew, and my teachers knew, that I was heading for a zero return from my exams. So, in early December 1965, I was invited to the Headmaster’s study where he informed me that, because I had done form 1 twice and was already 16 years old, I could legally leave school at the end of that term. I could get out of the hell that it had become both at school and at home and he could avoid my exam results bringing the school’s average down. On 7th January 1966 I joined the Royal Navy and left childhood and home behind forever…
Here are some reflections on the last couple of months of reminiscing about my early life with my ‘Nostalgia diaries’.
Wow!! Whilst writing these blogs I have remembered things I thought I had long forgotten. Good memories (sun filled holidays at Black Rock and long summers in the Cheshire hills) and bad. In some respects this has been a bit of journey back through time and even when I have not been writing I have been thinking about my childhood and how differently things are done now.
My father has played a bigger part in this story than I had originally thought, even though I have left out most of it. This morning I talked with my wife about this last blog and had a new thought. Father went off to war as a young man. He went to Normandy just after D day in the second wave. Sometime later he was invalided home and was permanently deaf in one ear. He never ever spoke about what happened to him in France. It is only now, looking back that I wonder if some of his alcohol problems and domestic violence were connected to what happened then. PTSD?
I am so pleased that The Joy club has enabled me to sit down and write. This is something that a year ago I would never have imagined possible. I hope you are enjoying reading them as much as I am enjoying writing them. I will now have to sit back and think of another topic to “have a go at”.
If you have any experiences you would like to share with The Joy Club community, get in touch via email@example.com for a chance to have them published on our site!