Thursday, 19 May 2011

White cliffs and dark clouds

One of the consequences of my father being in the army was that as a child I went to a number of different schools. For in contrast to my sister's experiences seven years earlier, times had changed and it had become a more usual practice for families to accompany servicemen on tours of duty abroad, rather than their offspring being packed off to boarding schools for the duration. I was quite lucky in that as I grew older, moves necessitating changes of school coincided with natural break-stages in my education - first from Infants to Junior, and then from Junior to Secondary school.

So when we returned from Hong Kong in September 1959, it was time for me to start my secondary education. We sailed back in the 'Oxfordshire', a former troopship still at the time used to ferry service families around the world in the days before the advent of widespread cheap air travel. According to my sister, who would've been almost 18 by then and thus probably with a better memory of it, children of school age attended classes during the voyage, although I have no recollection whatever of it and have no idea what, if anything, I might have learned. Be that as it may, we docked at Southampton on 20th September, and went to stay in some temporary Army accommodation at Dover while the details of my father's next posting were finalized.

Part of the old Dover Citadel, a fortress dating from Napoleonic times, had been converted into Married Families' Quarters, and we had our meals in the Officers' Mess - which I was surprised to discover is in fact still standing nowadays, though much of the rest of the area is in ruins. Somewhat to my dismay, I was told I had to attend Dover Grammar School for boys, even though it was unlikely to be for more than a few weeks. At the age of ten - I was still a couple of weeks short of my eleventh birthday - it was my first taste of grammar school, and I hated it. Undoubtedly part of the trouble was that unlike all the other schools I'd ever been to, I knew this one was only temporary and so I just didn't see the point of making the effort to settle in and make friends only to be uprooted again straightaway. I wasn't even in the same boat as all the other kids like I had been at Minden Row, which was a Service Childrens' School. With its grey stone walls and columned archways surrounding the archaically named "Quad", it seemed very forbidding, and in my fertile imagination a bit like a medieval monastery although I don't imagine it's nearly as old. The Headmaster, whose name I've long since forgotten, struck me as very stern and authoritarian, especially as in one of those trivial things that obstinately sticks in the mind for years and years after the event, I got into trouble in the first few days for not wearing a school cap: my mother simply hadn't been able to buy me one in the correct size.

As things turned out, I couldn't have been there much more than three or four weeks when I caught one of those common but highly infectious childhood illnesses that everyone got back in the days before MMR jabs became all the rage. My mother kept me off school, and in the meantime the details of my father's next posting came through. I tried to persuade her that it really wasn't worth my going back there just for a final week or so, and she rather uncharacteristically took the line of least resistance and agreed. Thus by November we were off on our way up to the Midlands.

Despite my initial inauspicious introduction to a grammar school education, I settled in very quickly and easily at Leamington College for Boys with my customary resilience and adaptability: I did very well and was very happy there - no doubt much to my mother's relief. In fact she confided in me many years later that she'd always known Dover had been the one school I'd never settled in at.

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