A Sociological Autobiography: 4 – Worthing High School for Boys

Worthing High School for boys was an awakening. I was randomly assigned to ‘Jutes’, one of four ‘houses’, the others being Angles, Saxons and Vikings. Grammar schools aped the independent sector. My first-form teacher, Mr (‘Horace’) Anderson, called me ‘Scambler’ while others were greeted by their first names. He took the trouble to tell me this was because I was ‘mature’. No such thing: I was merely a shy only child used to adult company. How often has shyness been mistaken for maturity? But it was a new life of teachers in gowns, order, learning and homework; and sport. In retrospect it was a strong education, intellectual, demanding and focused. The teachers were a decent bunch, with a few characters standing out. Short-fused Welshman Mr Samuels, who tried (but failed) to remain our form teacher for three consecutive years, might have benefitted from a spell on a psychiatric ward; there was a hint sadism too with Mr Foinette; social historian Mr Ludlow triggered a lasting interest in the past lives of ‘ordinary people’; Mr West, who took us through ‘Macbeth’, Spencer’s ‘Fairy Queen’ and much of Milton, and appointed me editor of the school magazine, the ‘Old Azurian’, to boot, enthused me about literature; Mr Franklin, ex-Head of Christ’s Hospital and celebrated full-back for Oxford versus Cambridge back in the mists of time, dropped by to teach ancient history (appositely we thought); and I could go on. Schoolteachers matter. Presiding over this bunch was Mr (‘Taffy’) Evans, one of the few genuinely charismatic people I have encountered. Unencumbered by self-doubt yet firm and fair, he epitomized the postwar grammar school ethos. Sadly he later migrated to the private Steyning Grammar. Last I heard he was lecturing on cruise liners.

Memories: Leaves scoring ‘-1’ for an essay, writing only his name and misspelling it; Brown yelling ‘knickers’ to Mr Samuels and being chased down the corridor; Brown (again) hiding neophyte trainee Mr Fuller’s brief case, explaining that ‘the pixies have taken it’ and being frozen in his tracks by the stentorian reprimand of Mr Gilpin; Mr Benson and Mr Sarsen driving towards each other on the seafront road, refusing to give way and crashing; according to the grapevine, Mr Sarsen later being punished for sexually assaulting boys in the changing rooms by transfer to an all-girls school; Mr Foinette on lunch duty reducing a boy to tears on his first day by turning him so conspicuously out of the canteen for talking; the togetherness of Saturday rugby; conscientious and caring teachers committed to their subjects and with an eye for our futures; and Mr Evans’ kindness, that most precious of attributes, in his manner of relaying my re-take results.

Here’s another telling interlude. As I related, my friend Kieran had made it to the grammar school. Sexually precocious, he went on to experiment with Alison from further down Colebrook Close. While he continued at Worthing High School for Boys she was suspended from Worthing High School for Girls!  It is a moot point how far we have moved on. Political correctness apart, to what extent are today’s ‘Alisons’ better off in 2013? A lot and a little is my estimate.

After a year or two catching the train to Worthing Central I graduated to cycling to school; but then the school decamped to Durrington. Pristine premises replaced the clutch of barracks and outbuildings.

The principal sports on the menu here as at the Manor Road site were cricket and athletics in the summer and rugby in the winter. After a cursory inspection of my height and build on the rugby pitch I had been inserted into the scrum, only escaping from this violent, enigmatic and haunted place when given the ball in space and showing an unexpected turn of speed. From this point on I was on the left wing. I made the under-15 Sussex XV and was in the school first XV from the age of 16. I cannot claim to have been a skillful player, but I was well built and fast (as a sprinter in the top two or three in the county for my age-group). Peter Benson, a regular for Rosslyn Park, then an elite club, and captain of the South of England XV, arrived to train us. If I was not a ‘natural’, others were: Ian Wright, captain of the first XV, went on to play fly half for England in 1971/2. Track and field was more my forte, and I was maneuvered out of the school cricket XI to concentrate on athletics as a result. Charging too late in what was then the 220 yards in the county championships, I missed competing in the national championships by inches, placed third but clocking the same time as the first and second placed (I would have been eliminated in the first round had I made it, but it still hurts).

As this suggests, sport was and remains important to me. I am inclined to recall it better than my messed-up A-levels. One of the most depressing episodes in my young life was returning to do re-takes (Economics was okay, but Social History and English Literature were not). I even refused to play for the first XV, privileging revision. My disappointing results were mostly but not exclusively my fault. We all failed history for example; Mr Ludlow was almost suicidal and the school appealed, but to no effect. When I later did a spell as an A-level examiner I remembered this. Grading in an Epsom café, I was asked by a passer-by what I was doing. I explained, adding that I was agonizing over scripts because the difference of a single grade might mean university or not (only 7% made it to university in those distant days). But there were unforeseen and unintended consequences to my faltering performance. I had traveled to Nottingham University to apply to study economic history, purchasing and beginning to smoke a pipe in the process; now I was free to apply to study – what?

When push came to shove I was somehow able to deliver appropriate A-level grades. There were lessons however. First and most important, poignant and imprinted on my memory is my parents’ announcement in 1967 that they were willing to fund my staying on at school for re-rakes: the costs to them had never even occurred to me. Second, I had another, belated chance to get to university, then some kind of passport to security. And third, I had unwittingly won space to rethink my options. Who knows their futures in adolescence? I had dropped all science at 14 by virtue of my O-level choices and I had little notion of a career at 18 (I only took O-level Latin because I was pressurized into a premature, safe choice of ‘solicitor’, which then required Latin: remember Peter Cook: ‘I wanted to be a judge but I didn’t have the Latin’). Economic history transmuted into psychology and philosophy, I have no idea now how or why.

So just how was this grammar school habitat? Green-blazered and capped till the sixth form, it was a formal, ordered and hierarchic existence. Grammar schools imitated elite public schools. If I began to emerge from my cage of shyness I did so slowly; but at least I bent the bars. I ended up Jute house captain and captain of track and field. I also ended up a pipe-smoking fresher at Surrey University in that year of revolutionary fervor, 1968. I had friends too who had failed the 11+, not all of whom learned the scripts that had been written for them.

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