IHS SURVEY 2022 (pdf)
Miraculously, I had passed the 11+, at least it seemed to my father a miracle. I don't think he ever really knew me: he certainly spent little time with me. I never remember him reading me bedside stories, one of the most important things one does with one's kids. He was kind enough - and never mistreated me - but our relationship was never warm and close. He had had little encouragement from his own somewhat Victorian father, and had left school at 14 (very common in those days). None of his family had ever gone to grammar school, and I suppose he just assumed that I wouldn't either. I remember quite clearly telling him I had passed in the car as he drove me home from one of my last days at Brunswick Park.
We had just moved from Camberwell to West Norwood, which was in truth a considerable step up in terms of environment and housing, and it wasn't very easy to get home from Camberwell. Dad was just driving up the High Street in West Norwood (I have no idea why I waited so long on this 15 minutes car journey to tell him, NOR why parents in those days weren't informed by letter themselves; perhaps they were, but it hadn't arrived - in any case, the teachers had told us in school.) When I simply said: "By the way, I passed the 11+", he was so surprised that he turned round to look at me, the car did a mini swerve and he said: "WHAT?" And so I had to say it again.
Of course they hadn't heard of Woolverstone before Miss Gumbleton suggested it; I doubt whether many parents had. I suppose that County Hall was promoting the relatively new school and had sent out information to all primary schools. After all, kids like me were one of the target group for WHS: bright kids from very ordinary families living in grubby London backstreets.
Well, my parents weren't getting on too well and Miss Gumbleton did a good job of selling the school, and the upshot was that one day my Mum took me up to County Hall for an interview with Mr Smitherman. I had never been in such a posh building; those long corridors and all that wood paneling. I don't remember much about the interview, but I am sure I tried to reply honestly and clearly. I remember feeling surprisingly unstressed; he was quiet and kind as I recall. Anyway, I answered as best I could a number of questions, but the details are long gone. One thing I DO remember very strongly, and this because I FELT strongly about it at the time. As soon as I stepped out into the corridor after the interview, I realized I had forgotten to tell him something extremely important and impressive, and I was SURE that I was going to fail because of this hideous omission. When he had asked me what my hobbies were, I said "I Spy" books, making Kiel-Kraft model planes , reading "Biggles" and "Billy Bunter" books (I felt sure that reading must be a plus point!) and playing with Bayco (could never afford meccano for some reason), but I FORGOT to tell him that I could play CHESS! This being a pursuit for really brainy people I felt mortified that I had not included it in my armoury of impressive things.
Well, it didn't matter about the chess in the end, because some time later we got a letter of acceptance, and so the WHS adventure was launched. The funny thing was that during my whole WHS career I never played chess once; it didn't figure much in extra-curricular pursuits at that time; maybe that changed later. So, I went to WHS instead of Wilson's Grammar School between Peckham and Camberwell. That was no doubt a good school in its way, but as we know, WHS was rather different.
Describing my WHS schooldays in detail would need a book. To be brief: My first two years at WHS were the best of my life. I loved lessons - not sure if that makes me weird. I was good at languages, but actually preferred science; physics with Fred Mudd in years 1 and 2 was huge fun - and biology with Pop Corner was great, too. I had Stretch for French for 6 straight years, and that was my best subject. Woodwork and music were very enjoyable, too. SPORT was of course fantastic, as were artistic productions AND the huge number of clubs and activities. I would like to do justice to all that in a book someday ...
Four words ........... I have never talked to my mother about the decision to send me to WHS. I am pretty sure she was severely conflicted between on the one hand taking what seemed like an amazing opportunity and on the other being without me for most of the year, and Father's emotional distance with me was the exact opposite of my mother's - of that I am quite certain.
Four words .... and some ten years later, it was FIVE words uttered by Patrick Hutton that changed everything. I left WHS at the end of the 1st Year Sixth form and went to Emanuel School in Wandsworth. This change was so galactic that I didn't do well enough in my "A" Levels at the end of the following year to get into university. I had always assumed I WOULD go to university; at WHS it had always seemed likely and logical; it was what the school expected and encouraged - but I had failed. I think my father assumed I had reached the peak of my potential and suggested I should get a job. I didn't know what to do. And then - I forget how it happened - I got in touch with Patrick Hutton, who had left WHS by then and was living in Barnes. He invited me to dinner one evening, and of course we chatted about WHS and my future. And he said: "You should go to university."
I had huge respect for Patrick Hutton, having had him for English in the VIth form. He was an absolutely delightful man: genuine, erudite, empathetic, considerate - and with a sense of humour. What he said had a huge impact on me, so much so that I knew I would do all I could to get back on course. I told my father - who disagreed, but to be fair didn't make too much of a fuss - and I started correspondence courses in German and English. The memories of that year are hazy, but I do remember working at home a lot and also as a general dogsbody in Bentalls of Kingston. I used to turn up in the mornings and they would send me wherever they needed someone: the laundry, the warehouse, to the cleaning and maintenance departments. It was a strange and somewhat stressful year, and at the end of it I went to Belsize Park to sit the exams at an open centre.
Well, I got "B"s in both English and German, and then into the UKC on a waiting list ..... And I had Patrick to thank. I am pretty sure I would never have done this without his encouragement: I seem to remember that I had convinced myself that I was a failure, that this was my fate and that I should look for some kind of job. I lost touch with Patrick after that and never thanked him properly.
I eventually got my degree and became a language teacher, consciously and sub-consciously no doubt trying to live up to my memories of Stretch. I taught French for ten years and then moved into TEFL, working in England, Germany, France, Africa and Japan .........
I have been thinking recently about people I have met over a long teaching career. There we have been many nice (Derek T HATED us using that word!) colleagues I have worked closely and got on well with, but the number of those I feel really had something special; real qualities of the Human Spirit, of kindness, generosity, concern for others - is pretty limited. And the funny thing is that my personal list of such people is dominated by WHS teachers. It could be rose-tinted glasses of course - and one is always particularly affected by one's experiences when young - but their example inspired me. I won't give a list, but those who knew them will know who they were. It seems to me that at WHS there was an extraordinary coming together of really great teachers and people - for whatever reason. AND of course the stunning setting, the sport, dram, music and all the rest we know. And in this we were lucky - and for it eternally grateful.
My WHS experience left a massive and indelible mark on me, and a part of my heart remains there today.