It used to feel strange, I remember, going back to school inSeptember after six weeks’ absence and heading for a different classroom. But what feels a lot stranger, I can tell you, is turning up at school after exactly 67 years’ absence, parking your car and heading for what you hope is still the boys’ entrance. I left Urmston Grammar School in 1950. But in 2017 I popped in again – the Principal, Mrs Riffat Wall, had learned of my continuing interest in the place and agreed to show me round . . .
The boys’ entrance of long ago now says ‘Deliveries’ over the doorway. And it’s tightly shut. I can’t just rush in as I used to do after racing along from the station, satchel swinging round my neck, at the end of my daily trip from Irlam. I press a button on a metal box and an anonymous lady tells me she’ll come and let me in.
The voice turns out to belong to Jo Daley, herself a former pupil. She is now the school’s finance director (married to another ex-pupil) and she’s my guide today. Off we go . . . and within a couple of seconds I feel I’m on familiar ground, right next to the boys’ cloakroom and a few yards from my old classroom. Nearly 70 years have wafted by and I imagine I could nip down this short corridor and have a look at Mr Eve’s woodwork room . . . except that it’s not there anymore. It’s been divided up into various smaller rooms. But I can still smell the glue that used to warm up in messy little pots. (Good old Ted Eve. I still think of him when I occasionally do a woodwork job, and I even remember his words on sharpening a pencil properly.)
This is a bizarre experience, vaguely unreal. The place where I spent five happy years was a simple E-shaped building – boys at one end, girls at the other and, in the middle, the spacious and imposing hall where we met for morning assembly. But time has added a collection of impressive extras – science rooms, music rooms, a language laboratory, a theatre, an imaginative octagonal performance area with a lighthouse feel about it, a stylish conference room, a huge sports hall, relaxing garden areas with trees, shrubs and pathways, a large pond teeming with life . . .
In the hall nothing seems to have changed. Those lovely white light-fittings are the originals. Jo and I go up on to the stage and, not for the first time, I admire the beautiful curve of the ceiling, the balcony and the shafts of sunshine through the tall windows that frame the ‘Manners Makyth Man’ motto in coloured glass. (Two or three of us formed a band and we played on this very stage for a sixth-form leavers’ party in 1950. Jo can’t hear the music, but I can.)
Down from the stage and into the gym. More memories. ‘I was good at climbing those ropes,’ I tell Jo. She’s a captive audience, so I also tell her all about the day that our P.E. teacher, Mr Coupe, brought a footballer in. We boys squatted at the foot of the wallbars and watched a skilful demonstration of ball control from a young fella called Matt Busby. We were also introduced to boxing and, lacking any vicious instincts myself, I was bashed on the jaw a few times by a classmate with no such reservations. Jo smiles. ‘I don’t think they do that here now,’ she says.
It’s the instant shifting between yesterday and today that’s fascinating. One minute I’m on old-familiar ground (‘We used to play shove ha’penny on these wide windowsills when it was too wet to go out into the playground,’ I tell Jo) – and then I go through a door and find myself in high-tec new-millennium territory.
We enter a bright and stylish conference room with gigantic sloping windows. And there, smiling warmly as she comes to greet me, is the Principal, Mrs.Wall, who’s been in charge here for nearly five years and was a long way from even being born when I last trod these corridors. (Note that she’s the Principal, not the Headmistress. In my day, the headmaster was Mr Baker. We called him ‘the Beak’ and were considerably in awe of him. The affable Mrs Wall is quite happy to be addressed as Riffat. I don’t feel awed at all. Perhaps it’s because I’m 83.)
Riffat concludes a meeting with another member of staff and announces that we’ll go for lunch together. Suddenly I’m a schoolboy again – the doors are the selfsame doors, and the narrow ledge that runs the length of the corridor walls is still there. I must have run my fingers along it a thousand times. The dining room is still where it used to be, but the girls’ cloakroom has disappeared, I notice. (The boys’ lunch queue used to pass the girls’ cloakroom, and stealthy glances and signals were exchanged as we shuffled forward.)
Time has done little to the dining room, but smart glass self-service counters have been added and I select an orange drink and a chicken-and-mayo roll. The lady at the cash-desk (nothing like that in my day) registers my items but I’m wearing a ‘visitor’ pass round my neck so I’m waved past. (Memories are buzzing again . . . there used to be mashed potato in abundance, but roast potatoes were strictly one per pupil. It was possible to snatch another if you were quick. One trick was to drop the spare one into someone else’s jacket pocket and then bump clumsily against them and turn it into pulp. I never did that. Honestly.)
Riffat suggests we take our light lunch to the staff room, and I am introduced to eight or nine teachers who are taking a break. They are suitably astonished to hear that I left this place nearly 70 years ago – and I am equally astonished to hear from the physics master that his lab still contains some of the equipment I remember. It’s only on display though. It seems that they no longer stand the class members in a ring, as our teacher Freddy Bell did, and deliver a high-voltage shock to them from a Wimshurst machine. (It’s a health-and-safety issue, of course. No boxing, no electric shocks. Where’s all the fun gone, I ask myself.) ‘I got a school-certificate distinction in physics,’ I tell the physics master. ‘Good,’ he says.
It’s time for the Principal to do her rounds and she says I can come along. A young fellow in a hurry comes towards us. Riffat slows him down and points out that his collar and tie are not so neat as might be. ‘Sorry, Miss,’ he says, making the necessary adjustment. ‘And your shirt needs some attention, don’t you think,’ says Riffat. ‘Sorry, miss,’ he says, tucking away a hefty flap of white. We find a boy standing alone in the corridor, and he explains that his teacher has given him a lunchtime detention because he’s turned up without an important book. One or two others receive the brief personal attention of their Principal – it’s all very dignified, polite . . . and, yes, friendly. ‘I think the little things are important,’ says Riffat. ‘It’s not a matter of fear, it’s a matter of respect.’ (I like these informal exchanges; I don’t remember this sort of relationship in my day. And talk of uniform suddenly reminds me that all the first-year boys used to wear short trousers. The war had only just finished, and I think there was understandably less concern in those austerity days about appearance.
Riffat’s gentle discipline reminds me of something else – I recall being caned, though I honestly cannot remember why. The punishment was administered by the Beak. You stood outside his office to await six painful strokes on your outstretched palm . . . and if there was another culprit ahead of you, you could hear his six whacks as you quaked in the corridor. That doesn’t happen nowadays either. As I said earlier – where’s all the fun gone!)
I peep into classrooms as we pass by and I’m impressed by young heads bent earnestly over studies. One classroom is a bit noisier than others but it falls silent as the pupils spot the Principal with an official-looking visitor (me) at the door. As we depart, one of the lads waves to me with a grin. I don’t think Riffat notices.
I see neatly-uniformed pupils in laboratories, in various specialist rooms, and in the banked-up seats of a theatre watching a film. But most impressive, in a way, are the comfortable and welcoming areas – several of them dotted around the place – where pupils are informally spending time with one another in groups of two or three. The youngsters look up as we pass, often with a smile. I’m greatly taken by this informal, almost homely, feature. I find myself hoping that these young people appreciate all this. (That memory again . . . rainy-day break times when we simply stood in the corridor playing shove ha’penny. What a contrast!)
Riffat has other duties to attend to, and I’m joined again by Jo, who has recently set herself the task of reuniting as many former pupils as possible for when the school celebrates its centenary in six years’ time. More than 400 have already registered on an alumni website to share memories and reconnect.
Jo has also become the school’s archivist, it seems – she shows me dozens of boxes and folders containing past records of one sort or another. Giant hard-backed versions of annual school photos are stacked up against a cupboard. By chance, the 1949 and 1950 ones are visible . . . and there I am, floating in a sea of young faces, staring out into an unknown future. I’ve brought along one or two old photographs and documents myself. (Jo thanks me and adds them to the collection. Wow, I think – when is she ever going to get the time to sort this lot out.)
The bell sounds. It’s hometime. Pupils are suddenly on the move in all directions – some of them no doubt heading for the railway station and the same trip home as I used to make. Chatter and jostle everywhere. A few shouts. But I’m not a schoolboy any more, and I walk soberly and silently to my car.
(During lunch in the staffroom, Riffat turned to me with a smile and said: ‘Gerry, for your homework you can write an essay on A Visit To My Old School!’ I suppose this is it. What do you reckon – 13 out of 20 perhaps?)