CONTRIBUTION BY ANONYMOUS 1970/1977
You only get one chance at some things. Your secondary school education, so critical in formative years to help establish who you are, is one of them. Chosen by your parents or guardians it is administered by the school they have chosen and you are the recipient.
My seven years are so long ago now that my actual memories of St Joe’s are very limited, most are either lost from or held prisoner in some deep corner of my mind, appropriate maybe for Joe’s Jailhouse. I do recall there were some funny times, some troubling times and of course a lot of staring out of the window times in between. So this memory is my general depiction of the school in the time I was there rather than a vivid recollection or an accurate chronology. If there are any historical inaccuracies, I apologise now. I can’t recall these years without firmly planting them within some kind of popular historical context of what was going on at the time, as the two are inseparable for me, so I have had a go at that as well. Written anonymously, which I hope you don’t mind, it reciprocally provides respectful anonymity to all who shared this time and space, during my seven years at St Joe’s.
For a start my St Joe’s years from 1970 to 1977 just happened to coincide with the final years of the Christian Brothers (‘brothers’) in Blackpool and included their eventual exit. So during my time at the school the influence of the brothers was petering out; their particular and distinct obsolete Catholic brand was out of tune with the time, lingering on in a new decade, their last decade in Blackpool.
By autumn 1970, the start of my St Joe’s years, the world had watched the drama of Apollo 13 returning to Earth. Man had been walking about on the moon’s surface and Concorde had gone supersonic, an Anglo-Francais rocket of an aeroplane. That summer in Guadalajara, Gordon Banks had miraculously repelled Pele’s own rocket, a downward header, precision pointed and a goal in any other match. David Coleman’s cracking, crackling telephone wired commentary delivered to millions, back home.
An array of rock and pop offered egalitarian music for the world, narrowing the social gap, bringing us and the world together. But their principal architects, the Beatles, were falling apart having already altered music forever over the decade just ended. Bowie was just emerging, a butterfly from its chrysalis, and culturally an influence as significant.
Politically, the Conservatives had, to the surprise of pundits at the time, won the summer general election, Ted Heath their bachelor leader became the country’s new piano playing, sailing Prime Minister. Bringing an end to six years of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, best characterised by his vision for a white heat driven scientific revolution to modernise post war Britain.
We could view all this and more in colour on television. This all felt very modern, a Star Trek age to an 11 year old boy, embarking on secondary school in 1970.
Lying immediately ahead though was a more complicated decade, swallowing up my years at St Joe’s. Ten years of political rotation; continuing cold war and nuclear threat; Irish pain and tragedy; economic turmoil; industrial decline; three day week; union power; price inflation; national identity crisis; post empire impotence; decimalisation and entry into the European Economic Community.
Serious stuff you might think but not a bit of it, life was not serious at all, it was as much fun as the swinging sixties, the fun had just extended into our seventies suburbs. We were entertained by the British flamboyance of Monty Python, some quintessential situation comedies unifying us in national laughter, as well as for me the glitter of glam rock, the punch of punk rock and I am not now ashamed to admit it, the decadence of disco.
This was a decade of sensational tribal fashion extremes for men to explore, some best worn with your feminine side uppermost. Wide flared trousers, platform shoes and runway lapels and ties right down to rebel torn clothing and safety-pin jewellery, with a 1950’s revival chucked in, all beneath our wonderful new long hair, so carefully styled. A hard look to pull off in that blue blazer with that 'In Cruce Vita' badge but there was no shortage of effort applied. All in stark contrast to the brothers’ own black and grim 19th century image.
Blackpool, a town where most of our parents will have earned their living, was well placed to benefit from the prosperous period of the decade before; a town in the 1970s perhaps just after its commercial peak and well before its decline. A town unlike others, it did not really make anything; it sold pleasure and leisure to those that did. A town that offered all round smiles with a long tram-line of sunshine set within a big dome of a sky punctured by its famous Tower, but a town with a shadowy hard commercial side preying upon its patron visitors, in truth an unusual place to grow up.
I think I realised fairly early on that St Joe’s was a bit different. It was a grammar school bracing itself but not ready to accept the coming comprehensive coup; it was a school that through its quirky leadership had not adequately adjusted to the social change that had already taken place in the decade that had just ended. It was a school run by this peculiar defunct all male religious clique at the end of their lease in a somewhat whacky seaside town during a difficult social and economic decade.
Looking back the brothers’ 19th century creed was in stark contrast to the modern era we had by then entered. This disparity made it inevitable that their dogma increasingly fell on the deaf ears of their capable and captive child audience, filtered as it was, through the 11 plus examination. We were lapping up the availability of an accessible and progressive secular culture that the school walls and grilles on the windows to St Joe’s could never keep out.
So what do I remember about the place? For a grammar school the teaching could be quite poor with lessons starting late and sometimes interrupted for one reason or another. What was taught often seemed to be lazily regurgitated and not always updated from previous years. Science, when practically applied, seemed to be fraught with mishaps and often felt rushed and unfinished, as a result poorly explained leaving those who had not understood to their own partial understanding, never really corrected. The teaching of the arts were narrowly defined and limited, in my view overshadowed by the importance placed on the sciences. The subjects seemed to be delivered in unconnected silos within quite a narrow curriculum, not much choice.
What else? Well there was awful school food and inadequate toilets, a really unfortunate combination. Sports were encouraged but in reality were very limited catering for the few to the exclusion of others. Discipline could be severe but that did not stop some seriously subversive pupil behaviour, targeted at any display of teacher weakness. There were the unrecorded on the hoof physical beatings and the alleged sexual predation of some brothers; I sometimes wonder about the lack of true humanity within those within those Christian walls. Who had oversight of this?
An education that was delivered through such a narrow Catholic prism further constricted by the brothers’ own subsect, it meant that any diversity (though as a concept not in our open consciousness then) was picked upon and its manifestation bullied. A position I would say that was somewhat at odds with a wider social ethos that was emerging, more inclusive even back then, as the country’s post war march to liberal freedom took hold. The Equal Pay Act and the Race Relations Act, neither particularly useful to St Joe’s, were 1970s legislation following the trend set in the decade before.
Many of the teachers (look at the photographs) were of vintage British eccentricity. Each individually cultivated perhaps before our culture fashioned human homogeneity. They must have operated without any feminine counterbalance in a masculine environment dominated by the brothers; it would have been a weird workplace for them. Were they all properly qualified, well who knows, I suspect some were drawn from other walks of life, some were magnificently maverick yet educationally dangerous. Some were Time Machine teachers from decades past, beamed into the 1970’s.
These factors conjured up a curious cocktail creating a cornucopia of real life Carry On characters to teach us and amuse us; there was no shortage of young talented mimics, impressionists were after all big entertainment at the time. These eccentrics included the brothers who mostly seemed to be social misfits, some of whom should have been let nowhere near young boys.
The one thing that I find really inexcusable, as I see it now, was the frankly inaccurate early categorisation of boys into ‘university’, ‘don’t know’, and ‘don’t care’ types resulting in a tendency to write off too many capable boys, to concentrate on the few. This was simply wrong for an education establishment even in this era. Also inexcusable was the absence as I recall of career advice of any use at all being given, advice on which to form a reliable basis to take those first early adult steps.
It is, of course, not completely fair retrospectively to judge St Joe’s at this time with the benefit of 21st century hindsight and I appreciate that my words have been quite damning. I really would like to be kinder to my old school and so I want to mention school friends who at the time were true mates and who in their response to the school’s archaic stern system and perhaps as an intuitive counter weight against it were brave, humorous, intelligent, inventive, resilient and generally good natured. I should also mention perhaps less than a handful of mild mannered decent teachers who taught without a skewed agenda of their own and who in an open minded way were prepared to enter into a modern academic exchange with the boys they taught. They were a small minority who have retained to this day the respect I gave them then for operating in this way in the circumstances of this time and place.
Anyway at some happy point in around 1975, I think, the brothers' stay ended either as a consequence of their own misdemeanours and underperformance or to pave the way for educational reform and mixed sex comprehensive status, or maybe both.
An opportunity missed, the school should have improved but it didn’t, not during my remaining two years, perhaps I expected too much too soon, as I entered the sixth form. The school was from then on headed by a new but ancient none brother clerical figurehead. I think the real power however then lay in the deputyship which may have been competent to a degree though was probably hampered by a narrow vision derived from its own earlier scholastic attendance at the school in its grammar heyday. As a consequence these arrangements seemed to thwart any real advancement in my remaining time there.
So there was no immediate discernible change more a preservation of the St Joe’s legacy, than the charting of a genuine new course, and the sixth form was a disappointment. In 1977, the Silver Jubilee year, after two years in the sixth form which were better that the preceding five years only by virtue of their voluntary status, but not as good as they should have been, my years at St Joe’s ended. A period remembered most for that gloriously unforgettable mid ‘A’ level summer of sunshine freedom in 1976, a great summer to be seventeen in this seaside town, rather than anything to do with the school.
Men hadn’t been to the moon since 1972 nor have they since; Concorde continued to fly but its success and continuance always seemed to be in the balance, in spite of its technological advancement, it once deafened me low and directly overhead on a scorching Blackpool promenade, once heard never forgotten.
There had been no more heroic English goalkeeping exploits in the World Cup during this period nor indeed any English world cup footballing exploits since 1970, a position to be reinforced by Italy on England later in 1977, and that would endure until 1982. This sporting failure at our national game seemed to reflect this low decade, my school years at St Joe’s.
Rock music had of course evolved fuming down one avenue in my final months at St Joe’s just as I was leaving, into punk, an angry and frustrated response to this decade and on point to my fed up generation. But in hindsight the Sex Pistols and the others were making better headlines than music, reaching a swift dead end within their own cul-de-sac of pop music history, a stepping stone to New Wave and beyond, but bringing a forceful energisation.
Strong national leadership was then required but Labour, now under Jim Callaghan, whilst returned to power were in a weak arrangement propped up by the Liberals whose former leader, in another moment of unbelievable British flamboyance, was later in 1977 to be publicly tried and acquitted for conspiracy and incitement to murder, in a tale you just could not make up.
Wilson’s promised technological revolution never really materialised. The theme was to be picked up as Thatcherism in the next decade as radical change was then applied, harshly perhaps, as drastic but essential economic radiotherapy for a sick economy. The initial negative effects of this were in full flow as I left university (yes I did make it there, even though St Joe’s incorrectly categorised me) before any benefits had been felt.
Our parents had to endure all the country’s economic and social ills as they battled through the 1970’s. I can’t help but imagine that some of them, much younger then than I am now, may have then looked back at a happier period, when we were small children rather than the awkward teenage boys we grew into in this decade, a period of hope during the previous decade.
I think that optimism had largely evaporated by 1977; that modern era from 1970 by then seemed a long way away. I left St Joe’s without a shred of sadness and not having much of a clue what to do next. Now after all this time I may have forgotten most of the detail of these school days but not their essence. Seven years is a short space of time in a life of 61 years, as a proportion of life it decreases daily, yet these seven years remain of constant inescapable consequence for me.
In spite of the education I received I am able to create meaning in prose; I am able to sequence numbers and calculate; I am able to deduce spot trends and predict; I am able to critically analyse and I am able to follow politics, economics, science and arts. I take some satisfaction from this and I know that St Joe’s must have played some part.
So this education of mine is a bit of a conundrum for me. To this day I am unsure if St Joe’s, admittedly facing the changes it did within this decade, provided a good or bad secondary education, for me. Perhaps the truth is it provided neither but as a by then second rate grammar school nearing its end, twisted by the departing brothers, it managed to provide something in between, an average education albeit one that was delivered abnormally. In a perverse way perhaps this abnormality made the average education better than it would otherwise have been and in the end for a richer, if stranger, school experience.
There is within me also however a gnawing feeling that if Larkin’s This Be The Verse (1971), a poem we were able to study at school to the credit of one of those decent mild mannered teachers, holds any truth, and I think it inevitably does, then its subject might easily be extended to the influence of teachers in general, and to some of the teachers and more especially the brothers at this school during my time there.
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