Previous chapter: Wee Ting
After walking up to a barn on the moor-side each morning for a year, I now walked down Crimsworth Dene to The Lodge on Midgehole Road, where our beck joined the River Hebden and where a taxi would take three young scholars in to Hebden Bridge Grammar School.
The Lodge at Midgehole, looking up Crimsworth Dene to Weet Ing
From now on, I had to wear a blazer with a badge and yellow piping round the edge – and a cap, which I hated. It looked ridiculous perched on my head of curly hair. After a week, I “forgot” to take the cap, and was duly reprimanded at the school gate. Soon, though, I committed a much greater offence. My mother told me of this in later years, though personally I had forgotten the incident. She received a letter from the Headmaster asking her to visit his office at the earliest opportunity: Glyn had misbehaved, seriously. She did, and learnt that he had not only entered the staff corridor – a precinct ‘strictly out of bounds to pupils, unless instructed by a teacher to go there’ – but had the temerity to knock on the Headmaster’s door. On being told to enter, he had walked in, sat down and enquired, ‘It says “Headmaster” on your door. So, what does a headmaster do, exactly?’
Two years later, the traditional Grammar School closed down and all children in the district, whether “academically strong” or not, were to attend Calder High School, the second Comprehensive school to be opened in Yorkshire. My parents strongly approved of this egalitarian development in the British education system, but for the next seven years, my journey each morning became even longer. From Weet Ing, I still had to climb up to Pecket Well, then wait on a windy corner for a half-hourly bus. This wound its way down through the woods to Hebden Bridge, where I’d dash to another bus stop for the two-mile ride to Mytholmroyd. Finally, I’d trot a couple of hundred yards up the lane to Calder High.
Formal studies were not my strong point. I was never top of the class in any subject; there were usually a dozen others better than me, mostly girls – apart from one lad, Raymond Brock, a loner, who was outstanding at maths and went on to become a central figure in the world of bridge, writing seminal books on the game. I was particularly weak in maths (‘Much below the required standard; inclined to be scatterbrained,’ said my end of term report, when I was fifteen. I was also weak in the sciences. When, choosing which subject to drop for ‘O’ level exams, I told my teacher that I’d be leaving Physics behind at the end of term. ‘Roberts,’ he sighed, ‘I’m afraid Physics left you behind – several years ago’.
When I was thirteen, a back tooth began to ache. My mother took me to the dentist, who decided to extract. It was taken for granted that I would have a general anaesthetic and my terror grew at the prospect. To me, gas meant Hitler’s gas chambers, recently much in the news. True, I didn’t think the dentist’s anaesthetic would kill me, but having to inhale something that would knock me unconscious however hard I resisted, that, I really dreaded. I protested, but was told not to make such a fuss about being put to sleep.
I can still smell the rubbery mask pressed onto my face and can hear the hissing gas that filled it. I tried to hold my breath, but the dentist noticed and ordered me to breathe in deeply. I resisted the choking, dizzying sensation and struggled as long as possible to stay awake. I was drowning, dying, while my mother sat there and watched.
Worse was to follow. When I came to, dentist and mother – all smiles now – were gushing compliments. ‘There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? What a brave boy. You did so well!’ I hated their smarmy praise. Instead of pride, it stirred in me a deep fury. I knew that I had been violated, without knowing the word itself. And even the violation I could handle, but the compliments I would never accept. Without daring to contradict them, I swore to myself, ‘Oh yes, it was indeed “so bad”. I will never forgive you for it.’
Sixty years on, I understand of course that my mother meant well, but the anger is still there. I have never truly forgiven her and I shudder at that praise even to this day.
At school, I particularly enjoyed English and art and regularly had pieces in The Hebden, our school magazine. One issue had a lino cut showing the barn at Weet Ing with an old farmer pushing open the door.
The barn at Helliwell Wood Farm, Weet Ing
Another number included a short story and part of a heart-rending poem I’d written about tramps. Just why tramps should fascinate me, ever since my drawing at Long Dene School – or perhaps even earlier, when I set off from Weet Ing one morning “to seek my fortune”- is unclear.
Beneath the glow of lighted lamp
Through circles of light on the street
When workmen have gone home
A lonely, tired, ragged tramp
Comes limping by on aching feet
The world is his to roam
With battered hat and flapping coat
He trudges many a mile
His face is wrinkled, worn and old
He bends and picks a smoked cheroot
And smiles a bitter smile.
Sixty years later, as a stone carver on the Isle of Wight, I paid one last artistic tribute to tramps and others of no fixed abode – Gentlemen of the Road – well aware that homelessness in the U.K. was and is a national scandal.
Geography and French were also favourite subjects. However, our French teacher, Miss Musselwhite, was a stern and corpulent lady who drummed verbs into us, lesson after lesson– especially the subjunctive and the past historic. We learnt the poems of Lamartine and Baudelaire, and studied line by line the novels Le Grand Maulnes and Silberman and Molière’s Malade Imaginaire. She was all right, was Miss Musselwhite, but whenever she leant over your desk and commented on your written work, a blob of spit would land on the exercise book. The first time this happened, I wiped it off, but an inner voice suggested that this was not wise. Thereafter, the blob remained on the page, eyeing me hypnotically as she explained some detail of French grammar, until she moved off abruptly, snapping, “Roberts, you are not paying attention!”
One afternoon, when we had reached the fifth form, aged sixteen or seventeen, we trooped into the gym for an introduction to Ball Room Dancing: the waltz, the Valetta, the foxtrot and the Gay Gordons. The girls lined up down one wall of the gym and we boys were told to find a partner. Everyone hesitated. The music started, but no one moved. Annoyed, Miss Musselwhite announced that on this first occasion, each girl in turn would dance with the Sports Master and each boy would learn the steps by dancing with her. One by one, we boys were called forward. Each shuffled around the gym with Miss Musselwhite for three or four minutes and then, released, fled the floor looking dazed and horrified. Suddenly it was my turn. She clasped my left hand in her right and thrust it out at shoulder height, telling me to put my right hand on her back. I did so, and was aghast to find my fingers pressing through her dress into the slippery, ribbed stays of a corset, like the bark on a mighty oak. Irresistibly, she lugged me onwards, counting, “Un – deux – trois; un – deux – trois…”. I stumbled after her, but had come over all faint. My feet were leaden, my knees knocked and I was soaked in sweat. Finally, she thrust me from her bosom. ‘Roberts’, she hissed, ‘You are not paying attention!”
I did pay attention to some things – art, for example – and after the obligatory drawing and painting classes in the first years, I moved on to clay modelling. One early effort was a rather dour man’s head, from which I made a plaster cast, later coating it with bronze powder. Later, I managed to get a few tools and some blocks of alabaster – quite a soft stone to cut – and made a few carvings. One, a poor little Mill Lad in wooden clogs, sprawled on stone cobbles, starved and thrown out by his cruel Master. Another had an old lady in a shawl, spooning watery gruel into her trembling mouth.
Ah, bitter social commentary – but just artistic enough to stand for some months on a table at the school entrance. Later, the old lady almost met a sad end. Running down Weet Ing lane to show her to my father, I let her slip from my hand and she bounced along, cart-wheeling, the stony road bruising her translucent surface. Cutting out the damage changed her somewhat, but she sits on my desk as I write these words.
Now is perhaps a good point to say more about my father as he has not figured prominently so far. This is partly because my mother was such a strong character, whose side I tended to take during their years of conflict and with whom I always stayed when they lived apart. During one such period around 1956 my father rented a damp cottage off Midgehole Road, close to the River Hebden and I began to visit him once a week. He tried to help me with my mathematics – in vain, as I could never grasp algebra or logarithms. Of an evening, with Dad by my side, I thought I understood, but by next morning I had lost it again. Unsurprisingly, I never passed the fairly basic maths ‘O-level’ exams at sixteen.
On the other hand, he had an infectious passion for English and other languages, he was an inspiring teacher and I looked forward to our one-to-one tutorials. We went through his short stories and plays – some already written and performed, others still in draft. He read through my own written efforts and suggested many improvements; to avoid word repetition and long-winded sentences, to use plenty of dialogue, to employ lively verbs rather than inert nouns, to prune away the adjectives… These sessions brought us closer than I could ever have imagined and we finally became friends. In truth, he had always been kind to me, even at the times of greatest tension. It had been I who had rejected and resented him.
Writing usually in pencil, and then copying and editing his first efforts on a heavy typewriter, he turned out a score of short stories for the BBC. These, such as “We Build a Water Wheel”, drew on our early days at Weet Ing, which he renamed ‘Crusoe Farm’. He also wrote pieces based on incidents from his own youth, for publication in the (Manchester) Guardian and later in the Bedside Guardian. Some of this material appears in his later books about life in Edwardian Salford: “The Classic Slum” and “A Ragged Schooling”. He also wrote several plays with Northern themes for radio and stage performance. One sad little drama – The Devil Was a Gentleman – concerns three elderly women tricked out of their weekly Poor Law allowances by a smooth-tongued Council official. This went out on the BBC, was performed by several amateur groups in the North and even – in Swedish – by a group in Norrköping during his year abroad.
In my final years at Calder High, I read several of Bob’s stories on Children’s Hour, broadcast on weekday evenings by the BBC Northern Service. One, entitled A Million Feet to School, described my climb each morning from our farm up to the main road. A million feet? We used a little poetic licence there, but in practice, I did climb some 420,000 feet (350 feet altitude difference X 150 days a school year X eight years), the equivalent of climbing from base camp to the summit of Mount Everest thirty seven times.
At school, I rather fancied acting, and took to it thanks to the confidence gained at Long Dene School. Play readings were surprisingly effective. We sat in a circle, each with a script, taking a different character. We simply read out our lines, yet dramatic moments could still raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Of course, nothing matched being on stage in costume and grease paint, with the audience out there hanging on every line. The play I best remember was Berkeley Square in which I played a young man in modern times transported back to the 18th century, only to fall in love with a pretty ancestral cousin – a love which was doomed, naturally. During this romance, however, the young man had a fine portrait painted of himself. Pat Harwood (now Williams; we’re still in touch today) played my cousin. My clearest memory of Berkeley Square is of the final act on the last night, when the stagehands forgot to replace my portrait on the wall. It had been there, large as life, in Act One, but was removed for Act Two, when I did my time travel. As we stood on stage in the last act, the script required a discussion of the portrait – but the wall was bare. I tried to ad lib my way out of it. ‘We usually keep a very fine portrait up there – of, er, – a distant relative – but it’s now – er – in another room,’). By their murmuring and sniggering, the audience showed they knew very well that we had bombed.
Around this time I also took part in the outdoor traditional Pace Egg play, put on each Easter by local school lads at various places round town. An odd mixture of characters, including St. George, the Black Prince of Paradine and Hector play out the tale along with other outrageous characters such as Old Toss Pot and a quack Doctor. Violent sword fights abound and, as ever, good triumphs over evil.
Glyn as Old Toss Pot, second from right.
In the sixth form, I did at last get down to academic work, taking English, French and Geography at ‘A’ and scholarship levels, and in September 1955, with a County scholarship and a regular Local Authority grant (it was all free in those days!) headed south to do a B.A. (Hons.) at the London School of Economics.
Overall, I enjoyed Calder High School and though never its most gifted pupil academically – far from it – I must still have made my mark. Mr John Muschamp taught at Calder High during those early years, finally becoming Headmaster and retiring in 1970. For his last Speech Day, instead of asking a local magistrate or MP to give the keynote address, he decided to invite a former student. And of the five thousand or so who had studied there since 1950, I was quite pleased that he picked me.