A Sociological Autobiography: 3 – Son of a Teacher Man

Quite aside from the challenge of re-accommodating to a tamer and routinized lifestyle, postwar returnees like my father, Ron, found themselves jobless and under-prepared for an uncertain future. The shipping industry in which he had been constructing a promising career had sunk, much of it literally. His choice of schoolteacher was impromptu and circumscribed. I came to think of it as an inspired choice – he was to prove an excellent teacher – but he never quite became reconciled to ‘what might have been’, especially in terms of income. ‘Money may not make you happy’, he used to say, ‘but at least you can buy your own brand of misery’. The demand for teachers required a quick turnover of trainees and after brief spells at Trent Park and Loughborough Colleges he was in the market for a position. His primary qualification was in what was then called PT (it was many years later that the schoolboy substitution of ‘T’ = ‘torture’ for ‘T’ = ‘training’ prompted its recasting as PE, or physical education); a second string to his bow was mathematics. When a job opportunity came up in 1950, the family moved to Worthing and the south coast.

‘Rab’ Bulter’s Education Act of 1944 seemed more progressive than it turned out to be. Premised on the naïve assumption that intelligence was innate, and that if a valid, scientific measure of its scope and potential could be conjured up the wheat could early be separated from the chaff, it spawned the IQ-based ‘11+’ examination. Those who passed attended ‘grammar schools’, the rest ‘secondary moderns’. Ron’s first (and only) school was the boys-only St Andrew’s Church of England School, a local secondary modern. It was to cater in other words for the four out of five local 11-15/16 year-old boys who failed this pivotal test. Over time, the more so as young graduates were appointed at St Andrew’s, he came to feel that his fast-track training and lack of a degree disadvantaged him. But in 1950 he was full of optimistic intent.

The first family home was in Seldon Close, East Worthing, a less gentrified side-street than it is now. It was owned by an aunt of Margaret’s and I was later to overhear murmurings that the rent was not especially generous given the family connection. My earliest memories date back to this terraced dwelling. I recall standing on a chair in the kitchen with my mother (I think she was clutching me) while our smooth-haired fox terrier, Nicky, hunted a mouse. And I dimly sense lapping a tiny back garden pushing a dog-on-wheels called ‘Bow’. In any event we were soon to transfer meagre belongings to a council house, 10 Colebrook Close. In this house my life truly got underway.

Colebrook Close was a cul-de-sac comprising eighteen postwar semi-detached dwellings and a heterogeneous mix of families. Numbers 9 and 10 straddled the bulb at the end of the Close. Adjacent to our house and driveway – only 9 and 10 had their own drives and garages – were a series of allotment plots, serious assets given widespread postwar rationing. The house itself consisted of kitchen, dining room, ‘lounge’ and toilet downstairs, and three bedrooms and bathroom upstairs, ample for what was obdurately to remain a family of three. There were small gardens back and front and a large shed and coal store adjoining the garage.

The gendering of scripts was more straightforward in the early 1950s. It was generally considered shameful for wives and mothers to take paid work outside the home because this would imply that the men could not support their families. Too young to notice or care, I only later discovered that my parents did not feel entirely ‘at home’ in Colebrook Close. I cannot recall now the occupations of the fathers, even our immediate neighbours. But here’s a small sample: Mr Wayne (at 6) owned a shop selling electrical goods, his oldest son going on to become an Oxbridge mathematics don; Mr Keiley (at 9) had been disabled by shrapnel during the war and was unable hold down a job; and Mr White (at 12), father of my closest friend Kieran, played the double-base as and when he could get paid work (interestingly his stern but impressive wife later became Matron of Worthing Hospital). This was certainly no working-class enclave. It was a postwar amalgam of men and women finding their way back into a society picked up and shaken by an all-absorbing conflict.

It was paradise for me. The Close was spilling over with young children and, in an era of less restraint, with what has become an unfamiliar aura of excitement. The sheer numbers of children meant a ready supply of playmates, of recruits for impromptu games of cowboys and indians, re-enactments of WW2, and later, soccer and cricket. But we had other freedoms grown scarcer now. We were free early to wander. The surveillance was tacit, ‘understood’, informal: parents looked out for each others’ kids. This is not to suggest that they no longer do so, but it does speak of a less private and individualistic age. As we left infancy behind we donned our roller skates, gripped the backs of the horse-drawn carts of the rag-and-bone man or coalman and exited Colebrook Close at precarious speeds. We raced our bikes like would-be John Surtees. At the bottom of the Close was a disused nursery: we spent many an hour counting to a hundred, hiding, seeking and chasing among the broken glass and other debris; often we were in pursuit of renegade Germans. Nobody died or was seriously injured, not even the Germans. Now?

This was all normal fare for 1950s lower-middle or working-class kids, and for all I know ‘our betters’. A significant transition was attending Lyndhurst Road Primary School at the age of five. Ironically, in a couple of years time, we could have shinned an eight-foot wall alongside the Keiley’s garage and been at school within minutes (we practiced recovering footballs and tennis balls from the age of seven or eight); but initially we were escorted by our parents in a loop via Colebrook Avenue, Ladydell Road and Lyndhurst Road, a much longer route. Shy and timid, I found novel ventures taxing, and ‘going to school’ was no exception. My coming home for lunch was a concession Margaret agreed without protest (I suspect she took up my cause). But I was not at all unhappy at Primary School. We were allowed to be children. If only that was the case now. The Head, a far-from-dour émigré from Yorkshire, Mr Clarke, was tolerably benign. He was to cane me only once. Aged nine and listening to a story read by Mrs Ward in Form Four, we were instructed not to touch our inkwells. It was irresistible, even for me: ‘go and stand outside the Head’s study’! I twitched but declined to whimper. Ron, I suspected at the time, regarded this almost positively, as a kind of rite de passage (he had his own cane, ‘Wallace’, but he never used it to my knowledge).

Two observations of life at Lyndhurst Road spring to mind. First, Mr Clarke was keen on sport. Having played minor-league cricket in a previous existence, he also had contacts with Sussex CCC. I recall ‘omni-’ and ‘trolley-’ (alias all-rounder Mike and fast-medium bowler Tony) Buss visiting to encourage us. I made the cricket XI and was an unorthodox right-footed left-back in the soccer team. Ron loved sport, and now I did too.

The second memory has a sharper edge. After Mrs Ward’s Form Four class there were two options: Form Five (with Mr Gilbert) or Form Six (with Miss Buckley). Only later did I appreciate the significance of the allocation. Nobody destined for Mr Gilbert went on the pass the 11+. In other words, the lot had been cast a year before we sat the exam. This is no reflection on Mr Gilbert; but it is revealing. My birthday was in early October, so there was a choice: to take the 11+ early or to wait a year? I remember no pressure from Ron and Margaret: the decision was to wait. I was certainly not especially aware of the significance of the 11+, although Ron had done his utmost to tutor me by setting me IQ-type quandries to master in the lead-up. I am not even sure that I knew I was sitting the 11+, notwithstanding the formality of the setting. But I vividly remember Ron coming up to my bedroom one morning, letter in hand, informing me that I had passed. I was gratified, principally (a) because my patents seemed over the moon, and (b) because I was rewarded with a brand-new blue Raleigh bicycle with gears (it had been second-hand fare to this point).

The 11+ was hurtfully as well as decisively divisive. Next door to us, at number 11, were the Goldsmiths. I cannot recall elder son Eddie’s lot in life, but Gillian passed and Jennifer failed. Their paths were announced by their uniforms: Gillian’s was the dark green of the Girls’ High School, Jennifer’s the dark blue of Davisons, the girls’ secondary modern. So determinate, so early, and on such a flawed prospectus. At 11 I was largely detached and immune from the Goldsmith’s family dynamic. Now I feel like weeping. Both Keiley sisters failed; presently – reincarnated as a sociologist – I would predict it. My mate Kieran passed. So in the autumn of 1960 I made my way to Worthing High School for Boys via East Worthing Halt, the school and its outbuildings being located just north of Worthing Central.

 

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