CONTRIBUTION BY PHILLIP DOWLING 1964/1972
As the youngest, smallest, and only boy on the 1964 school photo not wearing a blazer, my St Joe's story had a quite inauspicious beginning. The cosy primary school ambience of St. Kent's had been replaced by high, ornate ceilings and wide stairwells that appeared to lead nowhere, dark passages and grinning gargoyles (which turned out to be Mr. Hassett), musty corridors and even mustier teachers. Biggest culture shock of all, the 'Christian' Brothers. Grim, dark, cruel and mysterious, they would glide across the polished floors like glowering, be-gowned Daleks, with a comparable aura of menace and rule by fear. Except they didn't need a ray gun. With the Brothers, fear ruled by ferrule, better known as 'the strap'. A foot long, inch thick piece of flexible leather, this was given out almost at will, for transgressions real or imaginary. And boy did it hurt. Never more so than when wielded so exuberantly by the two Heads, Head Master 'Spike' Mulligan and Head Sadist 'OB' O'Brien. Spike even had his own customised version, reinforced with real whale bone. Now you have to query the motivation of a man who, upon browsing the Strap Catalogue, chooses one with an extra whale bone in it, please, for the maximum infliction of pain. Depressingly, it worked. 'One' from him was as bad as 'six' from anyone else, as I can testify. As for O'Brien, his beatings were so vicious and random you could just tell that was his job, and he enjoyed it.
Prep 1 was given almost exclusively by an affable chap called Brierley. He was a mild mannered pipe smoker who even let us chose a day off homework, but on one occasion his brain went seriously AWOL whence, upon finding himself in possession of a real starting pistol, thought it a whiz idea to fire it off, without warning, in an enclosed space full of 8 year olds. KER-BLAAMM!!! Stunned, traumatised, and indeed deafened for almost ten seconds, some boys started to sob. Still, Brierley found it hilarious.
Religious Instruction was always taken by the Brothers. In fact there was little in the way of instruction, and the only things followed religiously were beatings for those who couldn't parrot in turn the relevant numbered Q & A in the Catechism while literally pinned against the wall. One answer was easily remembered; “Is the Pope infallible? Yes the Pope is infallible.” Astute boys would gauge where this question would fall in the line, and fights would break out where they jostled for the correct position. And woe betide the dozy lad who, having gained the coveted spot, forgot himself and said “inflammable”.
Jim ‘Maggie’ McGrahan. Is there anything worse than a bitchy bloke? Ritually, heavy-handedly, he would try and humiliate his charges for their haircuts, high or low voices, size, weight, spots, being on medication or simply for living the wrong side of the River Wyre. He thought he was God's gift. I'm just not sure to what. Whoever said about sarcasm being the lowest form of wit must have known McGrahan.
However, despite Maggie's sledgehammer humour we all sailed through the 11 plus, so he must have been doing something right. Either that or threat of failure meant you were off to Cardinal Allan's. Not the school as such, just the fact it was in Fleetwood. Mind you, had I known what lay in store I may have given our rough, fishy neighbour the benefit of the doubt.
Personal Enemy Number One was the History/P.E. bod, Kevin Hickey. He was a thick-set, muscular, pink-faced and ginger-headed boxing coach and he and I took an instant dislike to each other. He started on me with a heavy, ominous one-on-one wigging simply for not writing in paragraphs. But if he thought that would galvanise me into action – well, it had the opposite effect. I didn't see why I should attempt to learn from this brute and he made no attempt to engage with me, and so on twenty-six occasions – yes, I counted them – I would receive 'four' or 'six', depending on his mood, for non-existent homework. That's around 130 'strappings' off a single teacher in a single school year (1966-7) and this didn't include P.E. where he would have me hanging off the climbing bars or bent over the gym 'horse' for more beatings with a plimsoll. I wasn't alone; he always picked on the weak or less adept, deliberately mispronouncing their names or pretending to have let them off before suddenly rounding upon them with an unanswerable question. On the rugby pitch, his favourite ploy was to whack boys right between the shoulder blades for not putting their heads far enough down in the scrum. Then, when the scrum collapsed, he'd whack them again.
Hickey may have been a bully, but it was Biology teacher Johns who had the look and demeanour of a true psychopath. Take time out to locate him on the 1966 school photo. Insane, 1000-yard stare, cold cruel mouth. One wonders what happened in his childhood. One day he plonked a vial of brown liquid on his desk. “This,” he announced in dark tones, “..is bromine. If I were to leave the top off, you (sic) would all be dead.” Then he slowly unscrewed the cap, and just scowled at our agitated expressions as wisps of acrid brown smoke curled out of the bottle. I was just waiting for him to keel over before legging it, but alas he replaced the cap before that happened. Johns was another hardline, strap'n'sarcasm merchant, and though a lay teacher, would always flounce about in full gowned attire like a wannabe Christian Brother.
Prep School had largely insulated us from the Brothers, but not any more. For Maths we had Bro. Liddane, known as 'Noddy' since he always seemed about to nod off. When he strapped you, he would do a little jump, just to get a bit more purchase. I wouldn't mind, but the guy was 81, and it still stung! He would start the lesson with: “Now, look at the board while I go through it”, which usually raised a giggle, then he'd draw a few squiggles and intone, drearily: “Dis goes into dat, and dat goes into dis, and dis here goes over here....zzzzzz. But should he catch us napping, a well-aimed blackboard eraser would bounce off your head, followed by his war cry: “Get out, get out, you lazy lout!” Why the powers-that-be entrusted such an important subject to a crazed fossil is anyone's guess. I don't recall being taught by Bro. Devitt, he was just a school-dinner supervisor and general nuisance whose party piece was to pull our hair upward at the temples until we were on tip toes and wincing in agony. Then there was 'Joe Crow' Cronin with his catchphrase: “O.K.” Except for reasons best known to himself he would draw it out, forever: “Ohhhh Kaaayyy, what's going on?” He became so fed up of us over-enunciating sonorously up and down the corridors, he changed it to 'Very Well'.
Though these two both taught Religious Instruction, Spike's sudden departure in '68 appeared to downgrade R.I., and the Brothers' presence, for a more secular approach, which meant more 'lay' teachers.. But in truth, they weren't that much better. One such was Albert Priestley, who gave us elocution. How quaint, you may think. But his weapon of choice was the plimsoll, and his little saying (before you got it) was: “I have the solution! The rubber solution!” Laugh, we nearly did. Worse, we had to recite 'verse' from that celebrated wordsmith, Albert Priestley, the man who would make William McGonagall sound like William Shakespeare.
Here's one: Anemone.
Forshaw saw Shaw IV
On the foreshore.
Said Forshaw to Shaw IV
I saw a horse afore shore.
Said Shaw IV to Forshaw
'twas I saw, for sure.
When we weren't parroting Albert's doggerel we were writing punishment lines, 100 or 200 at a time. French teacher and poseur Graham Mills thought it so clever to clobber sweet eaters with: ‘The consumption of comestibles is expressly forbidden in the learning environment.’ He was also prone to bouts of pure rage, and could even shrink a Fleetwood boy into submission. But he taught well, knew his stuff, and the one year I spent in his Spanish class still gets me through a fortnight in Tenerife. However, ten years on, and returning for the last time to play a chess match, I was shocked and saddened to see Mills, in charge of the St Joe's team, looking forlorn, unkempt and dishevelled. I understand the drink did for him not long after.
I was a troubled child. Let's just say I'd never be invited to a ‘Friends Of The School’ reunion. Five times I must have tried, and failed, to get thrown out and put 'into care'. Attempting to set fire to the cloakroom in '67, ditto the changing rooms in '68, indulging my penchant for scurrilous verse on all the toilet walls then signing it (Doh!), were all to no avail. A nasty encounter with a bus driver, showing up the entire school, came closest to achieving this ignoble aim, but the School must have sensed my intentions, which was why they didn't do it. Low point of this miserable period was on February 3rd 1967 when I gave up and turned left at the school gates, heading off for Stanley Park. The plan might have worked brilliantly, had I not ended up locked in the Clock Tower. So I had to beg the park ranger to let me out and admit, yes, I was playing truant. And yes, another good walloping was on its way.
Such were the strictures of the school set-up in the 60s that were we ever given the opportunity to release our tensions on some poor, soft or weak soul put in charge, we did so with unholy relish. You had to feel for wimpy 'Egghead' Atherton, crying out “I am not here to be played with!” in pure frustration, or the poor guy with a stutter charged with making us each learn a musical instrument. To my knowledge, not one of us did. When Hickey left, his lamentable replacement for History didn't have a chance, or indeed a clue. This was 'Mad' Marsden, soon to be known simply as 'Idiot' because, well, that's what he was. “To much DIN in here!!” he'd bellow, volume never below 11, “So this where all the DIN and IDIOTS are coming from!!” and my favourite: “I will BENCIL (sic) YOU, BOY!!!” No, we didn't know what that meant, either, and just laughed at him constantly. Fuelled by booze, purple-nosed 'Idiot' only lasted a year, which was at least a relief to all our eardrums. But our cruellest treatment was saved for the next French master, 'Wez.'
Kenneth “Wez” Waring was a walking, fusty, Old Spice-wearing anachronism in full robe and gown, and hopelessly out of his depth. It may seem tame now, but at the time, stink bombs in his desk, paper planes aimed at his head, lighted matches kicked across the floor and a general ignorance of the fact he was in the room, were all seen as quite audacious, and poor Wez got the lot. I once wrote 'We Hate Wez' in big letters on the blackboard, and as expected he just studiously ignored it. In actual fact we didn't hate him, we were just glad of a bit of respite. So one day he simply sighed, and asked who wanted to learn French and who didn't? Ten boys put their hands up. The other 21 of us could literally do what we liked – brilliant! I got 25% and came 11th. The boy next to me studied all year and came 10th, with 28%.
I never had one decent History teacher. I do recall the lovely Miss Hooley, but sadly she lasted about 10 minutes. This lumbered us with Mr. Charles, who fancied himself as a stand-up comic but was about as funny as Gordon Brown, only without the charisma. By contrast 'Mucka' McKenna (Latin) and 'Carrots' Carrington (French) were funny, the latter even used to swear at us, though.
Sometimes a teacher can be so laid-back it's life-endangering, and this brings back a painful memory from English tutor 'Sutch' Turner's class. Like Billy Bunter, I had bought some 'gob stoppers' from the 'tuck shop', but in a gross departure from that cosy fiction, accidentally swallowed one whole and proceeded to choke to death. I was gasping, eyes bulging, trying to cough and flailing about, while the other boys laughed and 'Sutch' just droned on, eyes glued to the blackboard, totally oblivious to the fact that one of his class was about to expire. No one thought to pat me on the back, either. After what seemed like hours of purple, retching agony as to whether to try enticing the thing up or pushing it down, it went down by itself. I could breathe again. 'Sutch' never even blinked. Mind you, I never ate in class after that.
Talk of food brings us, depressingly, to school dinners. Wednesday's menu still resonates: Stew'n'Mash'n'Jelly'n'Cream. Except the 'stew' was tasteless watery scouse, the mash was lumpy and made with Stork. (Jamie Oliver's verdict? It would have contained many 'f's, and I don't mean 'fluffy'.) The jelly came in industrial-sized chunks and the cream – wasn't. You would have gained more nutrition from eating the plate. Thursday's 'Shepherds pie' was just left-over 'stew' with added gristle, more Stork mash (yuk!), and damp overcooked cabbage standing in for veg. A bit of real shepherd might have improved it. The suet pudding had a most apt sobriquet: 'Concrete', while custard came in bright yellow, or brown if accompanied by a square of dry cake. Dinner lady Old Ma Coackley had a strange way with the boys, too. If you had fashionable long hair, over the ears, she'd put her head on one side and coo fetchingly. If you had a bristle cut or like me, shorn back and sides, she took it personally and slopped your food onto the plate with a scowl. Actually I preferred the latter reaction. Meanwhile the Christian Brothers' tenure was reaching a close, helped along no doubt by the performance of Bro. Beattie. He was known as 'Panhead' on account of his unfeasibly flat bald head. But rumours soon spread about an unnatural fondness for young boys and actions thereto, and he was removed before there was time to change his nickname to 'Spanker'. However in the light of recent revelations about Catholic Colleges, we got off virtually scot-free, this being the only known case of (relatively minor) abuse in all my 8 years there.
The only other Brother around at this time was 'WXR' Ryan, who set the standard for non-entity to the rest of the staff. I do recall Maths lessons, and a wiry little garden gnome called Mr Hassett whose favourite insult was to call you a 'Yahoo'. Maybe the only master of note in my latter years was a Liverpudlian called Mr. Duke, who spoke in a queer, strangulated accent halfway between Scouse and Loyd Grossman, as if he'd given up after half the elocution course. So we didn't do 'Physics', we did 'Fuzzucks'. But he had a ruthlessness about him, worked us into the ground, and even the 'thickies' were getting 50%+ in that year's finals. Pressed also to take Religion, he turned those lessons into a debating society and made us think very hard. We didn't like Mr. Duke at the time, but we sure as hell respected him. Which was more than could be said for our next Physics teacher, Mr. Thornley. Thornley was from 'Burry', so he never stopped reminding us. Eventually we deciphered his East Lancs twang only to realise he had no control and was teaching us stuff we learned in the 1st year! This being O-Level year, we complained to WXR that he wasn't good enough. Naturally nothing came of it, and it wasn't just the thickies who failed Physics that year. And on that suitably downbeat and premature note, my St Joe's story ends.
I say premature, because I had been promised 6th Form if I got 5 O-Levels. I got 6 and a lesson in life about trust, and I was forced to leave. A long and unspectacular civil service career still endures to this day. However, outweighing this on the plus side, I met my wife there and have been happily married since 1981. So were St. Joe's School-days the 'best in your life' of popular myth? In a word, bollocks. Pain, cruelty and boredom sum it up for me. But hold on – at least we old boys are able to add up without a calculator, articulate reasonably well, spell properly and write a grammatical sentence! When you see how educational standards, respect, discipline and social cohesion have gone belly-up in recent years, you have to conclude that, notwithstanding the whole of this piece, maybe the School didn't do too bad a job after all. If nothing else, it set standards. So well done St Joseph's College - for it turned me into the rounded and well adjusted individual I am today. (Fnarr fnarr, twitch, snort...)
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