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The story of a St. Brendan's pupil - Part 1
© 2012 ANTHONY HILL
Academic life at my junior school [St.Mary's, Harley Street, Bath] revolved around working towards the 11+ examination, which, the girls had to pass for a chance to attend La Retraite and the boys had to pass for a place at St. Brendan's College, the Bristol Grammar School for Catholic Boys of the diocese.
My headmistress, the austere Miss K.L. Davis, heaped much praise on St.Brendan's and I was sold on the idea that this was a goal I had to achieve. The problem was that I was prone to mind-wandering during lessons and my brain would only soak up half of the potential intake.
I took my 11+ exam and believed I had done well, however, it wasn't to be. I hadn't passed but was being given a second chance with an 'interview'. This involved having to go in front of a panel, where I would be asked questions about my future.
This was probably the most nerve wracking experience of my short life to date. Rather cleverly, I told them I wanted to be a scientist. Well, I had been given a microscope for my tenth birthday and I had also managed to make gunpowder, which I used to blow up Dinky toys, so the credentials were, sort of, there. I also told them that I wanted to go to St.Brendan's. I knew that the College was keen on the sciences, so that was surely a good thing to say. The cunning strategy was successful and I was awarded an 11+ pass.
It was all very well passing the 11+, however, the next obstacle to a place at the best Grammar school in the area, was the St Brendan's entrance examination.
The day of the examination arrived. It was a Saturday. My dad borrowed a friend's van to drive me from my home in Fairfield
Park, Bath, to Brislington, Bristol. I was ushered into the Assembly Hall, along with a mass of other boys. It was huge and daunting. St.Brendan's College really was something special. After ten minutes or so, a hush descended. A master, with flowing black gown, was marching, with a purpose, through the hall, towards the imposing stage. I had never seen a proper schoolmaster in real life. Such an image had been restricted to such television programmes as Billy Bunter and comic strips in The Eagle.
The master introduced himself as Mr.Patten. He succinctly uttered words of instruction for the forthcoming examination. I nervously went through the motions of completing the paper and then returned to my Dad, who had to endure an account of the experience.
About two weeks later, the envelope from St.Brendan's dropped through the letter box. I excitedly opened it but was very disappointed to read that I had not passed. The whole family were upset for me.
The following week I was gradually getting used to the idea that I had failed, then, another letter arrived. A boy had pulled out and I was next on the list to take his place. I had done it, I was a St. Brendan's boy.
My parents were naturally delighted, but, I suspect, not really prepared for the high cost of kitting out their little treasure for life at Grammar School. My father was the only breadwinner of the family and struggled to make ends meet.
The first day at St. Brendan's was exciting and bewildering. There was so much to see. How would I ever found my way around the maze of corridors?
I was in the bottom of the three streams, 1C. My form teacher was a Christian Brother and luck would have it, he was one of the few with an outwardly friendly aura. He was Brother Weston. His enthusiasm rubbed off on the entire class and we began with a willing attitude to learn and make the most of the superb facilities.
My first day ended without any major event, that was, until I was walking back down the drive and I was walking on the left hand side and was startled by a car horn. My natural instinct made me turn to the offending driver to whom I expressed words of discontent. The driver summoned me to his window. He didn't look like a teacher. He was a short chap with a mouth like a fog horn. I had unwittingly crossed the hardest teacher in the school – Spud. "See me in the Staff Room at 10.20 tomorrow morning", he yelled. A few of the older boys, filled me in with what I could expect. My first day and I was in the deepest trouble. It gave me a troubled night and the next morning I was a bundle of nerves.
10.20am and I promptly knocked on the staff room. Standing five feet nothing, I stared up to a master who towered over me. "I am here to see Mr. Murphy". The door closed whilst he went to find Spud. The door flew open and there he was, my nightmare. To my surprise, he couldn't remember why he had summoned me. I explained that I had walked on the wrong side of the drive. He told me not to do it again, closed the door and left me standing there in a state of utter relief.
The incident had put me on the map. My peers were impressed. I had confronted Spud and got away with it.
Whilst I can't be wholly sure, I believe that the Spud business may have instilled a streak of rebelliousness into this new boy.
Rules were no longer just there for the good of the school, they were also there to be broken. So what, if I walked on the grass, I would get the strap and enhance my reputation.
A child psychologist may have assessed that my naughtiness was helping me compensate for being hugely disadvantaged by being the smallest boy in the first year. You really could knock me over with a feather pillow. I was definitely not on Elwyn's list of potential rugby stars.
1C was on the third floor of the building and the view of the road was enticing. Whilst the teachers were doing their best to fill my brain with useful knowledge, a little entrepreneur was developing his skills with much mind wandering. And it wasn't just thoughts at work, I had a decent little business going in competition with the School's tuck shop. My most popular line being Peppermint Creams, the manufacture of which was often the only homework I would do. And I hadn't even completed my first term!
Brother Weston's skills managed to keep a few of my channels open for learning and even Latin with Porky Patten was managing to find an area of grey matter willing to accept, what was, in essence, a load of (almost) useless information. The legendary sports master Elwyn Price took us for history.
In the second term, the School Parents & Friends Association put on a variety entertainment show with professional entertainers. My parents came along. A pop group called The Renegades performed in the show. The Beatles were huge at the time and nit-wit me and a few friends decided that it would be appropriate to scream at the group. My poor parents must have been hoping that a giant hole would open in the Assembly Hall and suck their chairs through to kingdom come.
St.Brendan's was rugby mad. Little tiddler me, hated it. I didn't have a chance against the likes of Michael Cunningham or John Melling. In fact, any sport and I was the last to be picked. My compulsory involvement in rugby was restricted to full back along with my friend Robert Rossiter, another pupil with no meat or muscle. I was probably the most useless full back the school had ever known and in fact was such a diabolical burden on whichever team had the misfortune to find my name on the player list, that I truly believe I helped end the compulsory requirement for rugby. Although it wasn't until the third year that the option was introduced to do cross-country instead.
It would be fair to say that my first year misdemeanours weren't overly horrendous and I wasn't summoned to the headmaster's office once. How that was about to change!
Year two and I moved up to 2C. Mr.Colston was my new form master. He was brilliant. A different character to Brother Weston. There was no messing. Well, at least, not openly.
The new headmaster, Brother Brennan was soon acquainted with Hill from 2C. My first visit to the Headmaster's study was as a result of not wearing a cap on the bus and refusing to adhere to a prefect's instruction. Brother Brennan was much respected and wasn't sparing with his use of the strap. I was in double trouble here. Not even the friendly face of secretary Miss Prescott could ease my nerves as she led me to Buddy's door. A few whacks of the strap and that was it. Miss Prescott looked suitably sorry but sadly there was no lesson to be learned from this misdemeanour. In fact, a few more points were added to the rebel's reputation.
By the end of the first term in 2C I was absorbing English, Maths and French better than other subjects. My interest in Chemistry was still there but erring more towards methods of blowing up the sinks in the Chemistry lab.
One day during an elocution lesson, Hedley auditioned some boys for the part of 'Tiny Tim' in the play 'A Christmas Carol'. He didn't say anything more than this. I stood on the stage and delivered a few lines. "Small enough, but your voice is not strong enough" he told me. The next boy took the stage and that was that. However, after the lesson I went up to him and asked for another chance. I knew I could do better and I did.
A few days later Hedley selected me for the role but then told me that it was with The Bristol Old Vic Company at The Little Theatre in Colston Street, Bristol (part of the Colston Hall). I was thrilled, particularly as it meant more than a month away from school.
The local newspaper ran a story and my photograph. I had become an actor. The experience was unbelievable. I was treated fabulously by the cast and crew. Staff meals were in the shared canteen with The Colston Hall. One day I had tea with Helen Shapiro and others I met were Freddie Garrity (Freddie and the Dreamers), The Searchers and from the world of television, Rupert Davies (Maigret). I filled an autograph book and still have it to this day.
Second term in 2C and there were plenty of days away from school because of the exceptional snowfall. We had snow drifts measuring ten feet.
After this freak weather subsided it was back to school work as usual. Dan was filling our heads with French verbs and his favourite 'false friends', Porky was still cracking away with Latin vocab and Chalky was telling us all about square roots and selling us on the new fangled geometry gadget known as a 'flexicurve'.
Mr Colston was really good to me when he learned that my grandfather had died. Our family were devastated and I had to face school at this traumatic time. He asked the class to pray for my Grandfather and his sympathy really helped me.
Part of 'Ticker' Colston's duty as form teacher was to take us for Religious Instruction. This included having to learn extracts from the Catechism off by heart. This fell under the heading of 'homework' and therefore was never top of my priorities. Ticker was under instruction to give the strap to those pupils who didn't learn the Catechism. I was often the recipient of this corporal punishment, however, Ticker was always sympathetic to my tiny stature and went through the motions with the softest deliverance of the dreaded weapon.
At this point of the report I have to confess to running out of time because of the demands of my businesses. I hope to find time to expand this account soon, in Part 2. Meanwhile there follows just a few more paragraphs accounting for 3rd, 4th and 5th years.
Third year form master was Mr. Rye. Not overly strict. A good teacher. Chalky [Mr.White] took us for maths and Mr Ryan (a new teacher) took us for French. Mr Luckman was still taking us for music. Basically a break period that somehow seemed to be a bit of a mistake. So to help ensure that the skive could continue forever, I sat there pretending to understand it and get immense pleasure from the 'Ride of the Valkyries' et al. I became quite an expert at blanking it all out.
Fourth year form master was the superb 'Steve' [Payne]. English was Mr Allen and anyone who was taught by him will have gained plenty from his enthusiastic and refreshing style of teaching. Dan [Kelly] was back on duty for French.
Fifth year was 'Sid' [Dick James]. Now if anyone happens to know anything about him. If he is alive and kicking, I have to treat him to a fabulous meal, or at least apologise. A great teacher who did not deserve such a little horror like me bestowed upon him. And poor old 'Sid' had to suffer me for a further year when I did a repeat fifth year.
The fifth year included chemistry with Bung [Mr.Rose]. I was repeatedly late and chemistry was the first period on one of the days of the week. Bung was a soft touch for me to get away with being late and I took full advantage, dreaming up absurd excuses. I think the best was "the bus ran out of petrol, sir and all the passengers had to get off and help push it to the nearest petrol station and when we finally got it there, it got wedged under the canopy of the petrol station, and we had to wait for another bus to arrive, sir". "Sit down boy" was his only response, whilst my classmates had a good old chuckle.
And what this horrible little boy's reaction when he walked down the school drive for the last time? Bitter sadness. It had been a wonderful time. Except I hadn't realised it until it was all too late. Were the Christian Brothers ever cruel to me? Not really, I deserved every lash of the strap but it wasn't that often (probably no more than once every three weeks). Some of the teachers were as hard as nails but of course that was mainly a ruse to keep the wayward boys in check. Had I been a goody two shoes, brain-box from the 'A' stream, my perception of many teachers would have been wholly different.
I hope that the effort and energy I have put into this Sancti Brendani website, will make amends for my naughtiness at St. Brendan's. It was the fantastic education at St Brendan's that helped me become so successful in business.