Extracted with permission from Michael's latest book - Will You Walk A Little Faster
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The examinations which you took in your eleventh year decided which school you would qualify for, and if you did well you would go to Grammar School. I must have been fortunate because I ended up starting at Sheffield City Grammar in the September of 1943, although it meant a bus ride into the City and back.
The school was in the centre of the City on Orchard Street and you did not have a year or a grade but there were 'Forms'. The first year was the First Form and so on. From the outset you were placed in a 'House' and the School's were named after different tribes. Mine was Maori as I remember. We were co-educational.
There I reverted to my lazy ways and just did enough to get by in most subjects except French where I seemed to pick it up very quickly particularly spoken French. This all caught up with me when instead of going into the fifth year from year three which they claimed was within my capabilities, I dropped into year four and that was a shock to the ego!
Without the student realising it a school does a great deal to shape an individuals character and the way he or she deals with life. The sports teams if you were good enough and Houses, to which everyone belonged produced the elements of team spirit and working towards a common purpose in competition with other teams. I really enjoyed team sports and played in goal at football, but did not qualify for the first school cricket team so I played for the second team and kept wicket. The Sports Master became annoyed with the distance that I stood behind the stumps for the fast bowler and when I declined to reduce the distance he gave the gloves to another boy who did not last one over before the ball came 'right through' the batsman and hit him flush on the nose. I took the gloves back without further criticism.
I appeared in some of the school plays although not in a starring capacity, and in some cases developing the part in unexpected fashion. On one occasion I was dressed in a cloak and had to carry a large sword attached to a belt around the waist. The part called for me to walk to the front of the stage where there was a drop to the hall floor and fall to my knees saying "Let us pray" and then my two companions were to follow one at a time saying "Do not rise ... Hear me." For all the practices the footlights were attached to the front of the stage, and although you had difficulty seeing beyond them they formed a useful reference point for me to kneel down. On the first night of the play someone had moved them several feet in front of the seats and my strangled "let us pray" as I went over the front was echoed by the words of the other two who fell on top of me. We clambered back up and carried on but it seemed to turn a serious effort into unintended farce.
There were other social activities of one kind or another which I generally managed to evade, however, there was something called an 'Eisteddfod" which everyone had to take part in and I searched for something innocuous ending up eventually in something called "The Impromptu Speech Competition." This proved to be a situation where you were called out on to the stage and the master would say "Your subject I .............." And you had to start talking straight away and keep it up for either three or five minutes I forget which. Surprisingly I sailed through the heats and found myself in the final with three others. The finals along with other events were to be held in front of the whole school, Masters and Mistresses sitting in the front seats of course.
When our competition started, the two girls both dried up and were eliminated and that left another boy and yours truly. He went first and his subject was "What I want to be." He was quite small, and when he opened his jacket and pushed his colourful braces out with both thumbs, saying "my ambition is to be a man ....."
I could only watch and realise that he had his audience in the palm of his hand. When my subject was read 'Famous dictators you have known,' I felt my chances to win had sunk without trace, but started by saying that I would be expected to talk about Hitler and Mussolini, and felt that it would be more interesting to talk about dictators that we met in the ordinary course of life. I started at one end of the row and described the teachers most obvious habits and idiosyncrasies, and had not even reached half way when I was stopped for time.
To my surprise I won, and someone told me later that despite strong opposition from some of my 'victims' the English teacher had decided that I had scored highest for originality and difficulty of subject.
There were other more serious moments, and when someone came to the classroom, interrupted the teacher, and a student was asked to go to the Head Master's Office it was generally because the dreaded telegram had been received at home and a father or uncle had been killed in action. There were several like that after the parachute drop at Arnhem, because Midland Regiments were involved.
Before moving on to grammar School, there was not the appreciation of world events and the progress of the war, and its effects were limited to air raid drills when we trooped out to brick shelters and sat on wooden forms for a while. The significance of the sinking of the Hood followed by that of the Bismarck, and the battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein did not mean a great deal to Elementary students.
At Grammar School, the Battle of the Atlantic was reflected in the content of school meals and the progress of the Allied armies in Europe was followed with keen patriotism. It was hard for anyone to understand the inhuman treatment of the Jewish inmates of Dachau and Auschwitz when they were liberated and the shocking photographs appeared in the newspapers.
The school arranged field trips for the older students, and the ones which stay in my mind are the visit to a steel mill where we saw the huge ingots walled up in furnaces, the gantries which carry them and the spectacular explosions and sparks when they pass through the first set of rollers and green branches are thrown on to break off the outer coat of impurities or 'slag.' Overall there was a lasting memory of the heat especially near the crucibles and I remember being impressed by two remarks made by the guide for our group; the prodigious amounts of beer that the workers could drink during their mid day break without any noticeable effect and that the perfect murder might be possible if the body was thrown into the molten metal because never the slightest trace of it would ever be found.
It was perhaps to be expected
that during the war, references would be made to England's successes throughout
a history of battles and the tactics which had been employed, especially
the discipline of outnumbered Armies and Navies who waited to fire until
the moment of maximum effect. This was brought home to me when the
boys were taken to see Henry Vth and the girls the Red Shoes. The
way that Henry, with a seriously outnumbered army, having only the choice
of when and where to fight, chose a hill and disposed his archers so that
they would face the charge of the French Knights, and then with them both
standing and kneeling for practical purposes, how they waited until it
seemed suicidally late to fire and got in two or three murderous volleys
before melting into the trees. The music background was particularly
effective, building up to a loud pounding roar as the French closed on
the English lines and a split second of silence as the Master Bowman dropped
his arm and then the hissing of the first volley of arrows.
Although school uniforms were an added expense, they did tend to make each boy and girl the same in everyday terms. The green jacket had the school badge which was a red phoenix rising from the flames.
Wartime was the era of school meals and although these were probably nutritious they were certainly not attractive. There was a particularly watery custard I remember. Being partial to my mother's teacakes when they were hot from the oven and I was cautioned probably indigestible, some of the boys that I joined in the street for some soccer with a tennis ball would use their dinner money to buy hot bread buns, almost certainly indigestible from a bakery where the lady would split them and add what passed for butter. One lad that joined in seemed to be very gifted in the way that he handled and controlled the small ball. His name was Albert Quixall and he went on to make a name for himself in professional football in later years.
Mother's bread making was something to be watched closely and with anticipation. The yeast had that singular smell and was purchased in blocks and crumbled into the warm milk and then there was the ritual of kneading, leaving to rise, punch down and leave to rise in the tins until they went into the oven. Woe betide anyone who opened a door or caused any kind of a draft when the bread was rising or the oven door was open.
Wartime rationing meant that items like butter were very scarce. When bread was a day or two old, then 'doorsteps' were cut from the loaf and toasted close to the fire using a brass toasting fork. Beef or pork dripping was then substituted for butter giving rise to the humorous greeting "How's your Mother off for dripping."
A small commentary here on English houses. They were built to last rather than for personal comfort. Insulation consisted of an air space between bricks in the wall and wooden windows and doors which soon lost their fit and became draft producers. The open fire which sent most of its heat up the chimney and any supplemental heat in the shape of a domestic boiler or paraffin heaters could not complete with Yorkshire winters. Baths were something to be dreaded.
Our physical education classes were held in the Sheffield Y.M.C.A. And this was easy walking distance from the school. In the closing days of one school year the Sports Master decided that there would be something different to our usual exercise routine and arranged an impromptu boxing ring. He called for volunteers and a boy called Ratcliffe stepped forward because his father boxed and he was reputed to be able to do the same. When nobody else came forward he told me to put on the gloves I suppose because I was one of the biggest and perhaps looked gormless. The first couple of rounds saw him dancing around me and peppering my head with his straight left which I could not seem to avoid and my two seconds made no secret of their disdain. I then started to anticipate his punches and ducked underneath them landing some of my own. The end of the 'fight' came when I had ducked and was about to land one, when he brought his fist down on top of my head and started dancing around shaking his fist and yelling. He came back to the school that afternoon with a plaster cast up to his elbow having broken his thumb and you can guess the remarks afterwards about the kind of head which produced this result.
Homework was supposed to occupy the evening hours, but the Youth Club in the Church at the top of the road became a meeting spot for most of the local boys, and in the summer Blacktin's tennis courts near the elementary school was a popular spot for those who liked tennis, which I certainly did and it was an opportunity to meet girls, something that comes with adolescence along with spots and gawkiness.