I wrote a novel about growing up, mainly to get my younger years out of my system. Unsurprisingly, chunks of it were set in thinly disguised and only superficially morphed versions of my former schools, St Joe’s amongst them (experience transformed is the not-very-talented novelist’s mantra). Reading it again, I suppose my fictional rendition was rather kind to the old place.

My dear lost brother Bill (5B 1962-3, RIP 2008) would never hear a word said against it. This despite being a ‘B’ streamer, so unlike us relatively cosseted A-stream lads, subject to the full and solvent force of a St Joseph’s College education, circa 1960 - psychopathic behaviour, venomous sarcasm, religious zealotry and educational incompetence thrown in. But years later he told me he was paying a small fortune to secure for his son the sort of education we got buckshee. Mmm...

I have read all of the personal contributions here from old boys. Some have made me smile, some laugh out loud, one or two pause and rewind in incredulity. I think the one I liked best was from Lawrence Whalley. More than any of us, he seemed to learn at an early age to assimilate the experience, smell the flowers, roll with the punches. Rolling with punches is an invaluable bit of kit for a fifteen-year-old. But taken chronologically, each entry seems to me to plot a point on a graph with an inexorably declining trend. Of what? St. Joseph’s College? The grammar school system? The quality of education in England? As someone who has lived abroad for thirty five years, I should back off here, ever mindful of Billy Connolly’s jibe to an audience of ex-pats in Dubai who had just hissed at an unpatriotic joke ‘Hey, I like the place enough to actually live there.’

It is almost exactly forty years to the day since I walked down that leafy drive for the very last time. I don’t recall even pausing to turn and take a final look at the establishment which had helped shape me for the previous seven years. ‘A’ levels were over, an indolent Summer then University lay ahead. Man was about to land on the moon, for Christ’s sake. And within a month, I would be in love for the first time, to a lovely, sensitive, sensuous creature called Susan. If asked then for my thoughts about the school, my answer would have been brief and Icelandic and rhymed perfectly with ‘bucket.’ Only on the wrong side of four decades, do we allow ourselves the luxury of remembering.

And human memory is a notoriously fallible faculty. Or perhaps we just get differing perspectives on multi-facetted experiences. Kevin Hickey a sadist? Yes, I remember him belting a few backsides with a gym shoe, but you have to put these things in historical context. Corporal punishment in schools was not just taken for granted, it was almost actively encouraged. We were only a generation or so from the old adage ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ I think one of the worst disservices you can do to the past is to view it through the prism of current morality, otherwise Tony Blair ends up apologising for slavery, and what then? The mayor of Rome offers reparations to Gadaffi for sacking Carthage? That’s not to say some of the buggars didn’t over-use strapping to compensate for lousy teaching mind you, and I suspect such behaviour was more acceptable in Catholic circles than elsewhere, but what I principally remember Hickey for, was his urging a bunch of us cross-country runners, sprawled groaning and gasping on the grass ‘Get showered or cover up lads, don’t let the sweat cool on you or you’ll be ill.’ Words which still echo today, every time I pad off a tennis court. And hardly the words of a sadist. The last time I saw Hickey was on Parkinson, placing a very pointed question from the audience to Mohammed Ali about his disgraceful racial views (now Ali is vulnerable, we forget he was once a racist). Quite a ballsy sort of thing for a grammar school history teacher to be doing though, you have to admit.

The only time I was belted (in my opinion) gratuitously, was by an English teacher called Burke ( just once in later life have I come across someone more appropriately named, a certain German gentleman called Herr Kundt). Tasked to change ten sentences from the active to the passive voice, I had concentrated so hard on getting the English right that I missed off eight full stops, and got one stroke for each. The class had laughed in disbelief when he stated his intention. Heaven knows what the real reason was, perhaps his wife had a permanent headache. I wouldn’t have blamed her. Burke fancied himself as a comedian, but from then on, though he might have everyone else in the aisles groaning for mercy, I simply glared at him like a stone lion. I like to think he gulped once or twice - at least he never hit me again. It was also because of Burke, a passionate cricketing buff, that despite liking the game I refused to play for the school, something which had repercussions for me in later years when the time came for appointments to high office.

Corporal punishment certainly belonged to the culture of the place, but to my recollection, it got less as you progressed through the forms, and if you worked reasonably hard was usually avoidable. To some, it simply went with the territory. There was a French teacher, Lavin, whom I principally remember for having a nose of de Gaullesque proportions and trousers that finished an inch below his adam’s apple. When he strapped somebody, the rest of the class were encouraged to bang their desk lids loudly in simulation so he said, of the kettledrums that rolled to accompany Madame Guillotine parting another member of the aristocracy from his head. My most regular tennis partner in Munich these days is Professor of Educational Psychology at Munich University. When I related this to him I could sense, behind his silent expressionless stare, he was just busting to take notes.

But I should counterweight that with another experience. Little Brother Guffie Mc Govern, years before he gave me 99% in the algebra mock ‘O’ level exam (he insisted on knocking off a mark for neatness) calling me to the front for a strapping because he was convinced I had cribbed my homework. He listened to my explanation, allowed me to show him my workings in the margin, calmly weighed the evidence and then apologised for nearly having punished me unjustly, thereby implanting a lesson which I will remember long after I have forgotten every belting I ever took in my life.

So not all psychopaths then. Of course, one was. So much has been written here in condemnation of O’Brien, that I almost feel compelled to weigh in in mitigation. Well perhaps not quite that, his sins were legion and grievous. But I must say, despite ruining my future enjoyment of many bits of light classical music, principally with those mindless ditties he invented supposedly to help you remember the melody, but which tended to pollute your appreciation like vacuous advertising jingles ( "When Mozart wrote dis too-hoon, he musta been real happy") I do recall him herding, goading and prodding a bunch of talentless and uninterested adolescents to a half decent rendering of the hallelujah chorus for Speech Day. And he could be complementary, after a fashion. His growled half time exhortation to our rugby pack once ran "Lafferty and Picewicz could move a scrum on their own further than you ruddy lot using a bulldozer." He was right too. I’d seen Lafferty and Picewicz in action. And he gave me the only bit of decent career advice I ever got at St. Joseph’s when we were selecting ‘A’ level subjects. "Maths, Physics and Chemistry be damned ,Terry Taylor, you should be taking History, English and Economics." I ignored him at my peril, and thereby condemned myself to being competent rather than good. It wouldn’t be until my mid thirties that I could apply something of a course correction via a Boston University MBA.

Abuse is something which has been hinted at by others, but usually in a ‘but nothing happened to me’ sort of context. It is admittedly also a very loose term. In an environment where you permanently deny female company to perfectly healthy males, they don’t have to be homosexual to seek alternatives. My own experience was limited to two specific cases with two different brothers. The first involved unwanted and unpleasant proximity – forehead to forehead, arms around shoulders, groins pressed together, his in the, how can I put this delicately, ‘enlarged’ condition – under the pretext of offering personal advice and individual encouragement. Years later when I told my wife (the only person I have told till now) her shock and indignation far exceeded anything I felt then. Of course, in today’s more socially enlightened times, I would be in therapy and he would be in Wormwood Scrubs, back then you just handled it. It was unpleasant but hardly life-threatening. I simply took pains to prevent any opportunity for recurrence, more or less successfully.

The second incident was cause for far greater resentment on my part. Tackled to the ground shortly before the try line, I felt a hand very deliberately seek a part of my anatomy which normally does not figure prominently in the game of rugby. Even then, my indignant ‘Oi!’ was bellowed half in expectation of rising to some sort of blokish, lads-together ritual, but what I did emerge to see was the brother in question plodding very sheepishly away from the loose maul. My shout had rumbled him and some deep seam of religious guilt must have plagued him. How else could I explain the random acts of vindictiveness – both academic and otherwise - to which he subjected me in subsequent years, culminating in his relegating me from the First XV (I had captained the firsts all the way up the school). "I’d like you to take on a prominent role in the seconds and thirds for me" he had said. Both he and I knew the relative playing strength of my replacement, but I figured what was his to bestow was his to take away. Back then, I answered ‘Certainly sir, whatever you think is appropriate.’ Now I would say "Is this because you squeezed my balls, you dirty old bastard?" Sometimes I’m prouder of what I was than what I have become.

And why don’t I name them? Because to do so now could do no possible good but may just conceivably still do harm. Because they’re probably both long dead. And because this memoire is about reminiscence, not recrimination.

Some years ago, I attended a management seminar on the subject of mentoring young people. The facilitator invited us to think back over our formative years, and was confident that we would identify at least one teacher who had greatly influenced, if not completely changed the course of our lives.

Well, I couldn’t quite go that far. But in the run up to ‘O’ levels, I would say that I was fortunate enough to have been taught by a group of decent, professional blokes who possessed a thorough knowledge of their subject, a knack of getting it over and a real commitment to results.

Brother McGovern for mathematics, I have already mentioned. He took us to ‘O’ level a year early, and if I remember correctly, all passed, more than half with top grade. Jim McKenna for Latin, who recommended my breakfasting habits to the rest of the class, because early one dreary January morning I was the only one to remember that the preposition ‘ut’ must always be followed by the subjunctive tense ( stuff you can always use). Very correct, very meticulous Mr. Critchley for chemistry, who admonished us for revising the night before an exam. "You should be relaxing at the pictures." I thought of him some six or so years later the night before my Control Engineering Final, as I wearily shoved aside my notes at three a.m. to roll into bed with the alarm set for six. Brother Livingstone, arriving just in time to impart a bit of structure and order to the random devastation wrought by O’Brien (an evident subscriber to the ‘just one damn thing after another’ definition of history). Tony Smailes for geography – pilloried elsewhere for arrogance – but who simply struck me as greatly caring what we learnt. Then there were the two English teachers ‘Tash’ Worden and Mr. Gaffney. Years later a very intelligent, articulate woman would tell me she considered her time far too valuable to waste one moment of it reading fiction, and it was largely thanks to those two gentlemen that I felt deeply, genuinely sorry for her. Even the aforementioned Monsieur Lavin - someone must have inspired me to the possibly misplaced but irrepressible optimism with which I approach foreign languages, which sees me gamely tackling my third at the age of fifty nine.

Collectively I have them to thank for an excellent general education and nine ‘O’ Level passes, a respectable number of them at grade one. Science ‘A’ levels were a very different matter.

‘Freddy’ Freeborough, our maths teacher, to my surprise praised elsewhere here, managed in twelve short months to destroy much of what McGovern had achieved. I can only assume that his uninspired teaching and general indifference were borne out of the foreknowledge that he was leaving, added to which his successor in the Upper Sixth was hardly older than we were.

W. X. Ryan for chemistry clearly thought of himself as an enlightened pedagogue. His teaching methods even embraced modernist innovations like the overhead projector – no dusty old chalk for him. Unfortunately it had apparently come without instructions and he would write with a set of felt tipped pens directly on to the illuminated flimsies, blinking hour after hour into the projecting light. It’s a wonder the silly clown didn’t blind himself. His true calling in life as a University Lecturer having evidently been somehow frustrated, he would none the less treat us to expansive discourses on the predictive qualities of electrophile and nucleophile reactions, the molecular structure of DNA, even a pharmaceutical cure for cancer. Anything went as long as it wasn’t on the syllabus. So resignedly I proceeded to teach myself ‘A’ level chemistry.

Then for physics, Joe Snow; what can you say about dear old Joe? Whatever went on under that fluffy white dusting of down had long since ceased to have any relevance to Planet Earth. It may have been fun yodelling along in harmony to his admonishment, in maidenly fluted tones, of another "errant boy" (we were eighteen for God’s sake, people our age were getting bayoneted in Viet Nam) but to discover that his idea of teaching physical science involved the class reading aloud in rotation each text book, line by line, cover to cover, rather as if they were the adventures of Harry Potter, came as something of a shock. Once, just once, do I recall him committing to any form of elucidation. A particular experiment we were reading called for the use of a container with a volume capacity of exactly one cubic centimetre. Joe strolled confidently to the board, sketched the cutest little flask shaped exactly like a bowling skittle, and chalked on it in a precise, girlish hand ‘1cc.’ The subsequent standing ovation we gave him had him beaming like a tickled toddler, damping the air with "no, no please.." gestures of his palms, for all the world as if we had just presented him with the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Following ‘O’ Level results which placed me in the top half of one percent of the population, I achieved ‘A’ levels which were just sufficient to secure me my chosen subject at my chosen University. Others were not so fortunate. I had classmates who failed ‘A’ level in subjects they had passed with grade one at ‘O’ level. I subsequently wondered if, even at a place like St. Joe’s, questions were asked. They damned well ought to have been.

The evening, a few years ago now, that I first came across Friends Reunited on the Internet, I surprised myself by being able to list the full names of everyone in the 5A class of 1966/67. At least I came up with thirty, and there can’t have been many more. Evidently, a very fundamental aspect of the St. Joseph’s College experience was the guys you shared it with, and even allowing for a slightly nostalgic disposition (possibly fostered by living abroad) coupled with the mellowing influence of elapsed years, I can’t help thinking I was lucky there.

True, solid friends like Mark Harrison, Frank Walaitas and debonair Kevin Callan, always a role model with the ladies. Artistically talented, mature beyond his years Patrick Bond, who I believe later became a professional musician, the proverbial round peg I would hope. Very social, musically intense Barry Warner, heavily into the Sixties zeitgeist. The Bibby twins, ever articulate and intellectual; one of them so unnerved a visiting theologian – called in to prop up our wavering orthodoxy – with his penetrating cross examination and incisive putdowns, that he was asked in unmistakably threatening terms for his name, and responded by loudly and defiantly spelling it, no mean display of pluck in an atmosphere about as open minded as a grand court of the inquisition. Quiet, diffident John Ellwood, who turned into a Bantu battle chieftain on the sportsfield, scattering opposing three-quarters like ninepins. Even the looney Fleetwood trio (every class had one) of Ansell, Wright and Gerraghty, prototyping a sort of Pythonesque banter years before Cleese and co. There were others. Pushing sixty, and old enough to know the value of such things, I wish I had more friends like that now.

So if today, I think back on my time at St. Joseph’s with something at least approaching affection, it is because of them, and the value of a solid, rounded general education, imparted by ‘O’ level teachers who no, didn’t change my life, but did leave a lasting impression and a fairly respectable harvest of knowledge.

Even in recent weeks, I could point to a number of occasions when I have had cause to be grateful for the quality and breadth of that knowledge. Translating a fragment of Latin for a couple of German colleagues (and telling them it’s their own fault for painting themselves blue and stubbornly resisting the legions). Explaining to my current graduate assistant why the modal auxiliary ‘could’ does not combine with the preposition ‘of’ (there may be many things they teach youngsters better in schools these days, the English language is most decidedly not one of them). Impressing a Canadian with my take on the impact the Seven Years War had on his country (North Americans are always disproportionately impressed with anyone demonstrating the slightest awareness of their culture and history, because you can sure as hell bet they’ll know damn all about yours). Or explaining to my wife how I came up with a particular piece of data regarding our comparative performance on the jogger, establishing and solving in my head two simultaneous equations. (The wordless, very slow, very feminine shake of the head which this elicited, could have equally been saying "Me Jane, but him most very definitely Tarzan" or "Just what sort of a sad bastard did I marry?").

My point is, in a long career in European Aerospace I have met better engineers, better managers, better communicators, better linguists, better men. But I have never – and Lord I hear my dear brother’s voice chiming in here – never once sat opposite someone and thought, "This guy has had a better basic education than I have."

And when you get down to it, despite any collateral they may have inflicted, that was their brief, and they fulfilled it. They gave us a start. Something to move on from.

Limone sul Garda, Italy
August 2009

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