So, after the summer school holidays of 1952, I donned my new uniform of black
shoes, grey socks, grey short pants, white shirt, striped school tie and black
jacket (emblazoned with the school crest on its pocket ) and set off for my
first day at the Farnborough Grammar School ( FGS ).
That school could not have been further from where we lived in Osborne Road. I had to walk about ½ a mile to catch the school bus in Alexander Road which dropped us within the school grounds on the other side of town almost at Frimley. A green double-decker bus that took about half an hour to make the journey. There were many times I was to miss that bus. Although I had made a promising start to early mornings on my paper round days, getting up in the morning went downhill from then on. Like all kids my age I suppose it was always a rush to get out of the house. As a result I would time it to the second to leave and more often than not I missed the school bus. There was only one. It came all the way from Aldershot carrying boys from that town to the ‘boys only’ FGS. The girls had to be bussed to their High School in Aldershot. So where I stood or ran to catch my bus there was always a group of Farnborough girls awaiting their bus on the other side of the road. That trip was even further for them.
If I missed the school bus I could take the regular service from the same stop which dropped me at the top of Prospect Avenue from where I would have to run to make morning assembly. There was a bus (a single-decker) that left from the top of Osborne Road (a bare 40 yards away) but it took a long winding route around North Farnborough and would inevitably cause me to be late. I could have walked but that was a last resort. I did do it a few times going home after school. Usually after a detention period of which I had many. One of the consequences of being late in the morning was that I would have to stay back in the afternoon for ¾ of an hour.
In later years I would cycle to school but even that from Osborne Road was quite an effort and only done on fine days with a light pack. Our homework books were carried in a leather satchel…the original to the backpack of today…and it could get very heavy. At least we were not obliged to carry ALL our books around at ALL times as do the unfortunate kids today. We had desks. And the duty of desks was not only to provide one with a flat surface on which to write but it also served as a storage device. They were not secured as are today’s ’lockers‘ but who would seriously steal your books from a desk. Besides text books were provided for by the school and therefore of little value.
My first class was labelled Form 2A. There was no Form 1 and I never did find out why. There was a 2B and a 2R. 2R was reserved for the boys who could not make the A or B stream. Needless to say although I showed enough talent to be placed in an A stream by the time I hit the 4th Form I had moved considerably down the scale.
School started at 9 a.m. First bell went at 8.50 a.m. and second bell went at 8.55 a.m. It was an electric bell accessed and pressed from outside the staff room which unenviable duty was given to a prepubescent student who had shown some degree of progress during the previous week, ie. sucked up to his house captain, maybe. By 9 a.m. we were supposedly to be all assembled in the main hall/gymnasium/dance venue/exam room/parents day hall for prayers and announcements. The whole school lined up in form order. A mass of black blazers and grey trousers… and did I mention the cap? We all wore a peaked cap which everybody hated at the time. It interfered with our hair styles which were an attention grabber even at that early age. That sleeked back, Brylcream look was spoiled by a cloth cap and it was frequently left in the satchel until the last minute before entering the school grounds in spite of the fact that we could be reported by a vigilant member of the public. Strange how these days the wearing of a ‘baseball’ cap to school would be frowned upon! The form masters in their gowns would stand at the end of the lines as we sang a hymn, lowered our head in prayer and listened to a bible reading from one of the boys. I only read a bible passage once in my whole school career which only goes to show that there was a bottomless pit of boys to choose from.
Morning assembly was repeated five days a week for seven of my school years. I dread to think how many times I sang the school song although it was the only part that I ever enjoyed apart from any announcement from the Head giving us time off. Of course I did not necessarily attend five days a week. As remarked earlier I was often late for school and would either creep into the back of the assembly or make my way to my class room hoping that no-one would realise I had not been in assembly all the time when they arrived to see me sitting or about to sit at my desk.
For many, many years I could remember the words to the school song. Now I am not so sure. I get mixed up with another English song or hymn of that era. Anyway here goes. No doubt I will add to it as I remember bits. I apologise in advance for my memory and my terrible Latin.
Give me this land of Wessex
A land of fir and pine
Of ling and broom and rolling down
Oh, give me this land for mine
or was it:
O filiae adeste
Alumni, all sing heartily.
Another detail I can no longer remember are the names of the houses. A throwback to the private (or public school system in England) the house system of competing groups of boys was instilled at Farnborough Grammar. From the first day at school boys were assigned to one of four houses which would compete against each other during the year… mostly in sports… and that house was never changed. I belonged to Wickham House but like the lyrics to the songs above I cannot remember the names of the other three although they had been inscribed in my memory for years.
Our headmaster who presided over each morning’s proceedings was named Mr. Bourne. His initials were J.A. He was cleverly nicknamed the Jab or the prod. No doubt we older lads came to call him the prick… because he was. He had no idea in our humble opinions how to handle pubescent boys. He rarely ventured out of his office during the day and when he did he was never out of his masters robe… a black, full length gown, if you will, that all the masters in this school wore unless they had an opportunity to dispose of it. It presumably distinguished them from the janitor, parents and visitors but in truth was a throwback to their college days and was no doubt ‘traditional’. JAB led the assembly each morning into prayers and gave the ‘news of the day’ but was totally humourless and never seemed to have a kind word for anyone. A student would only came face to face with him if he was unfortunate enough to receive the ultimate disciplinary measure… the cane. Jab was the only master authorised to use the cane and, yes, it was still the deterrent of the day in the 1950s. At least it had been moved from the bum to the hands and a few strokes of that length of wood across the palms was quite painful but at least in the opinion of most it was over quickly and was preferable to some to a week’s detention. But it had to be a fairly serious offence. It happened to me once but I cannot remember why. Maybe I had been late for school five days in a row (something of a record for the school I believe). I should have received an award not the cane!
The main punishment for infringements of the school rules was mostly lunch or after school detention in which we were obliged to sit in a classroom for 45 minutes and do very little. In the junior years we were given lines to write but as we grew older and more self-assured that became difficult to enforce so we older lads would just stare into space or read a book. The punishment was designed to deprive you of the recreational time after lunch or delay you from going home after school. Neither was too much of an imposition unless one was unfortunate enough to get a ‘weeks detention’ whereby a full week of getting home late could get a trifle tedious and sanction questions from an irate parent. It only happened to me once although I cannot imagine why. I was not a disruptive child. In fact I was quite shy from 12 years old on and a bit of a nerd or whatever the term was in 1953.
I was not very good at manual tasks so lessons such as woodwork and metal work I dreaded and usually ended up near the bottom of the class. I was marginally better in the labs where at least there was some degree of literacy skill needed. I excelled (at least initially) at the three Rs and the foreign languages which were introduced to me for the first time. French and Latin were compulsory up to “O” level, the national exams which were taken at age 15 and at which most of the curriculum was aimed. In later years I took on German and Russian neither of which I regret. Latin at the time was hated by all. I have learned in later life how useful Latin is and sometimes wish I had paid more attention to the finer detail of that wonderfully structured language. I know it has been said before but it is so true that much of our education in any subject relied on the skills of the teacher and his/her attitude towards the pupil. Those subjects which I enjoyed and soaked up were taught me by masters who entertained me whilst lecturing. I was bored in the Latin classes, amused in the French, overawed in the geography sessions and slept through English lit. Surprisingly, mathematics did keep me awake thanks to a very enthusiastic and motivated master. I could put names to these masters but it would serve no purpose.
I became very adept at chess and would spend the winter months when the inclement weather kept us indoors during the recesses playing against my peers and higher. It was also one of those rare occasions in my life when I joined a club… the school chess club. I was also a frequent visitor to the library. The school library had an excellent collection of non-fiction and fiction. My favourite occupation in there was spent perusing the bound volumes of Punch and in particular its cartoons from the Victorian era which for some reason I found either hilarious or just so cleverly drawn.
The class years started with Form 2 and continued year by year through 3rd Form, 4th, lower 5th, upper 5th,lower 6th and upper 6th . Lower 5th was the year of the “O” level, the exams which determined whether you went on to higher education or dropped out to pursue a non-academic career.
It was possible to take exams at “O” level in up to eight subjects if you were really studious… which I was not. By the time I reached the lower 5th I seemed to have lost the urge to compete or even learn and so took only the pre-requisite 5 subjects… English, Maths, English Literature, Geography ( at which for some reason I was quite good ) and French ( only because it was the least demanding of the other options ). As can be seen the more practical subjects like physics, chemistry, biology and woodwork are missing. I could list all the capital cities in the world but not the first ten elements of the periodic table or the complicated organs of the body. I had several disastrous attempts at creating things in wood and never did get the hang of the chemical world.
For an introspective youth, however, I was quite good at sport. I could handle most ball games from the ubiquitous soccer through cricket, table tennis and lawn tennis. I was not so good at athletics especially the running variety. In fact I think I hold the record for being last in more foot events that anyone else. I was quite happy to just finish the course in many of those footraces that we were compelled to enter on school sports day.
With a small group of friends I would play football at every opportunity even if that meant missing out on lunch and whilst not a top performer I could handle both the bowling and batting in the game of cricket quite adequately during the summer season. I did excel at, of all things, the shot putt. I could heave that lump of iron further than anyone of my age. I even took part in an inter school games event. I suppose it did involve a round object!
As I progressed through school football took up more and more of my time. I played for what was called the school intermediate teams and eventually the 2nd XI and First XI. Not necessarily on a permanent basis. I was a lazy footballer so my performances on the field did not always impress the selectors. However, I was always there with my hand up, as it were, and I was one of a small clique of football freaks who also played for the local team called Farnborough Town.
Farnborough Town, which I must have joined at an early age, although I think 16 years was a requirement for the Surrey Intermediate League in which it played was successful for many years in the winter competition and the various cups in which it competed each year. I was lucky to be a part of that success along with a closely knit group of talented players. This same group also formed a team to play 6 a side football in the summer season. We won a couple of local tournaments and only just failed to reach the final of the county competition which were held at Portsmouth one year. The six a side game was really my forte. The field of play was half the size of the regular 11 a side game which suited my lazy style and was very similar to the school yard version of the game in which ball skills and quick reactions won the contest. It also helped that the six or seven of us, over years of playing together, knew each other’s every move.
Having by now reached the grand old age of 16 a whole new world opened up for me both at school and at home. I entered the ‘A’ level stream at school which gave us seniors a lot more freedom. Having attained passes at ‘O’ level in four subjects ( English Language, Geography, French and Pure Maths) I elected to take three subjects for my ‘A’ levels in the upper school: Pure Maths, French and Geography. I must have made an impression on someone (or my parents did) because the minimum requirement for the senior school was usually five passes at ‘O’ level and if I wanted to go on to university I had to have those passes and at least two ‘A’s. I figured English Literature should be fairly stress free and surely only required reading a few books, a subject at which I was quite proficient having progressed from Biggles and Horror comics to some of the crime novels in the school library.
I was chucked out of the French course about halfway into the first year. I was accused of not taking the subject seriously enough and disrupting the class. The latter, in hindsight, seems a bit farfetched. I was definitely not a class disrupter. Quite the opposite in fact. There was some truth to the fact that I was always late for class (or lectures as they were now called) and my homework was also rarely in on time. And I do seem to recall that the French teacher (Charlie Upton) spent a lot of class time having us read out of classic French literature instead perhaps of concentrating on the everyday vernacular.
The only time we came close to using French in a modern day scenario was when a female French student arrived at the school to tutor us in that language for a few weeks. Our French class was not very big… some eight or nine hormonally challenged boys… and we were all captivated by this 19 year old French lass who used to tease us 17 year olds no end. She was the sexiest thing we had ever encountered. We would sit in a semi-circle around her whilst she spoke and we replied or repeated the phrase in French… naturellement. Concentrating on the syntax, grammar and accent of that language was made more difficult because she wore the shortest of skirts (a precursor to the 1960s minis) and had the most gorgeous brown eyes. We were all smitten and she knew it. On one occasion she picked on me to speak the words, “Je vous aime”, several times and then changed it to, “Je t’aime”, which, as we all know, is the more intimate version of, “I love you.” It was probably the first time I had spoken those words to a girl. And she seemed to take great joy in tormenting us with similar phrases. At least it was a lot more entertaining than the fables of La Fontaine.
Anyway, by giving up French and never attending the English Lit classes with the juniors (I just read the books and hoped I could answer the questions) I had a lot of free time. Supposedly it was study time but because the upper school were not policed so closely I would disappear off the premises for long periods. The Rex cinema was only a short walk away.
Geography was my favourite subject because it appealed to my curiosity about how the world worked and it had two excellent teachers who loved their subject. It also involved field trips. We would go tramping over the local paddocks drawing maps of the area and go digging into the strata of rocks under the South Downs. Often it would involve a bus or train trip during which we lads would bravely catch a moment to have a smoke and in one instance even persuaded the accompanying master to join us for a drink in the local pub. We were after all of drinking age now. I might add here that the local school pub at Christmas time was often crowded with Sixth formers during the lunch break when it was considered a cool thing to do. Sadly, once again, it was boys only which gave us little opportunity to socialise with the opposite sex. The reader might recall that the nearest equivalent girls high school was ten miles away in Aldershot and we Grammar school boys did not mix with the local Secondary kids… no way!
If I haven’t mentioned it before we were obliged to wear a school uniform. Prominent was the black blazer with the school emblem on the top pocket. It covered a white, collared shirt around which was tied (or more often untied) the blue and black striped school tie. Down below were a pair of grey trousers and on top was a peaked cap with the school emblem embossed. Needless to say that cap and the tie were discarded once out of the school grounds. The tie had to be worn all through summer too…as was the blazer. That blazer was quite useful. It had deep pockets on the outside in which to keep all the trash that young men accumulate and inside pockets in which to collect a multitude of pens and pencils. Believe it or not we were still using fountain pens in those days and were encouraged to use black ink so that the black jacket might disguise all the leaks.
Farnborough Grammar School had an army cadet force in which the senior boys had to take part. Every Friday we had to attend school dressed in a khaki uniform. This most uncomfortable outfit included a regulation outer blouse with pockets everywhere, tight itchy trousers, a belt which had to be polished and blanco’d frequently and a beret with a brass badge which also had to be kept sparkling.
I was not a good cadet. I had developed into an unpretentious, reticent lad but I would not be told what to do, where to go and when. As a result I tended to ignore army commands and adult demands. I would often just not turn up in uniform or just not turn up at all on the Friday afternoon when all the drilling was done. I was sloppy anyway. No way would I have won any competitions for marching. I just hated being ordered around by boys my own age who had crept up the chain of command which allowed them to yell at the squads of less capable lads or lazy ones like me.
I quite enjoyed the target practice. We were issued with ·303, WW I rifles which occasionally we would fire on one of the local army ranges. Looking back… how dangerous could that have been? I also wonder how many cartridges ended up in those deep pockets. I did learn how to strip a ·303 and put it back together again but what was this obsession with cleaning! If we cleaned and oiled those rifles once we must have done it a hundred times. We also stripped Sten guns and Bren guns but never had the good fortune to fire them! The armoury was in a locked room behind the music room. The rifles were handed out willy nilly on those Friday afternoons. I can’t remember that anyone did a tally of what went out and more importantly what came back.
We also took part in some war games on the local army training grounds. We would roll about in the dust following orders to advance or retreat with no idea of what was going on. And we were not allowed to fire our rifles at anyone sadly.
I successfully passed the A levels and that Eng. Lit. O level exam. I must have left school in the summer of 1959 at the grand old age of 18. Most guys my age had been working for two years already and socially I was a bit of an outcast. Surprisingly I did a lot of school work in that last year but I did not feel I belonged to that group of upper sixth formers with whom I studied. They were intent on passing their numerous A levels to gain entry to Universities whilst I was intent on just getting through my 2 A’s and 1 O.
It was time to find a career job. I did have the option of going to college. My school grades could have scraped me through into a course of cartography or map making (the only subject I really warmed to at school) at Southampton which would have pleased my father he having obtained his BSC from there. I didn’t. The idea of returning to a school again for another three years did not appeal especially way down on the south coast which seemed so far away at the time. It did not occur to me that my father had travelled from Yorkshire to attend same in his youth and survived. Anyway, I did the next best conservative thing and applied for a job in the local Civil Service. I filled in all the proper paperwork, produced my hard earned educational certificates and attended an interview. And I was accepted. However, at about the same time I also answered an ad in the paper for a clerical position in an insurance company in London. After a successful interview with the Legal and General Assurance Society I was seduced by the idea of travelling to and working in the ‘big smoke’.
And so my adult life began…
Brian Cowling : October 2014