Richard Oberman and David Wilson's Response

Class of 55 Reunion

 

Your year and your school

By Richard Oberman and David Wilson

 

Gentlemen members of the class of 1955.

 

Wives and partners—of whatever gender you may be.

 

May we say how delighted we are to be here on this auspicious occasion, and hope to be able to join you again in 50 years time for the centenary reunion.

 

We know that Richard Temple already has it in his diary.

 

Join us now for a few minutes as we try to ring back the curtain on memories that began 50 years ago in September. They represented for you then the start of a new life.

 

And as you look back at them—at the customs and assumptions, at the attitudes and approaches—they seem to reflect a vanished world. Time has moved on—and not always for the better.

 

You arrived at a school of 550 boys—no confusion of gender on those days. The whole school was about boys and for boys—and generally it smelt of boys. Among your year there were 2 Robinsons, 2 Roches, 2 Lawrences, 2 Talls, 2 Clarkes, 3 Tomkinses—and not a single Patel.

 

Of those 550 boys in the school, 90 were in the 6th form-divided almost equally between arts and sciences. These boys were destined for university—and to university they duly went.

 

The achievement of the school in your first year needs no celebration. It was outstanding. During that first year no less than 10 Old Boys were studying for degrees at Oxford.

 

A further 12 had been almost as successful and gone on to Cambridge! But joking apart, how many state schools can you think of who could boast 22 of their pupils at Oxford or Cambridge at the same time? 22 from a school of 550. And they say that standards haven’t fallen!

 

All of this was achieved through the work of a staff of—27.

 

27. The average secondary school these days has more secretarial staff than that!

 

Nevertheless, there was a staff of 27 masters, ably led by “the Boss”—Harold Wrenn, and timetabled with rigid precision by Nick (Mr IJN Nicholas, late of Jesus College, Oxford, and a great supporter of Messrs Grey, Jenkins, McEvoy and Dale’s “Latin for Today”---“Discipuli, pictorum spectate.”

 

Among that staff  you would have found R H Temple (wearing his Royal Colchester Grammar School tie) and G B Stanley, replete with hair in luxuriant and bushy abundance.

 

You would also have found other members of staff, alas no longer with us. They would have included Mr J G Dunning—Jake—whose tests, I swear, actually began with question 7. I certainly never got in earlier than that. All I recall is hearing the dreaded tones of

 

“Out to the board, Oberman. Mark in Pendumbu, Marampa, the Mayflower, Mr Macmillan, where the sun is overhead on Tuesday 12th July—too slow, sit down, Green……”

 

Then there was R V S Ward (Humph to some but Beery to most) who could always be relied on to digress from the matter in hand to talk about his very limited rugby experience at top level. A well inserted and very subtle question such as

 

“Please sir, is it very hard to play first class rugby.”

 

Would invariably lead to half an hour, ending up with…

 

“…so when I broke off the back of the scrum again, they started to call me ITMA. “It’s that man again,” they said. Splendid.”

 

There was the irrepressible—and what is often forgotten, highly intelligent—Dr Jackson—Spike—the imitation of whom has become a cottage industry among even those who never went to the Grammar School. His most famous moment came when he stamped in the staff common room one day to announce,

 

“I’ve just been doing Edgar Allen Poe’s “The raven” with 2B. You know the poem—“spake the raven, Nevermore”, “saith the raven, Nevermore”, “quoth the raven, Nevermore.” Well, I said, Jones, what’s the name of the bird in the poem. “Owl,” he said. Bloody owl!.”

 

There were others too—Father Holmes

 

”Now just look at the board and I’ll run through it”

 

Gus Leftwich

 

“I don’t know who is eating peppermints, but I shall lock myself in Room D and stay there until you have all written letters of apology.”

 

Ivor Cheale

 

“Gentlemen, in Spain they don’t have toilet paper. They use cartons. It’s a true as I’m riding this bicycle, isn’t it, Poppet.”

 

And even our own Richard Temple, whose love of the French Language was so strong that when it came to play reading, he minimised the local accents of his 6th form students:

 

“Right. I’ll read the bourgeois gentilhomme, maitre de dance, maitre do musique and first lackey. Newell, you read second lackey. Oh, he doesn’t speak. Never mind…….”

 

And there was the unforgettable BJP Tompkins, who has given to the English language the insulting expression,

 

You’re a complete Tonk.

 

All of these—and many more--were there, and waiting for you as, unsuspecting on that first day in September, you caught your first school special, or mounted your 11 plus bike, wearing that thick felt blazer and cap (Warwicks, Dickson and Parker, or, if you were from Rushden, Halls, whose caps tended to go pink) and perhaps, for the first time—but not necessarily—long trousers. Not an earring or stud, not a trainer, not a pair of jeans in sight and certainly not a shirt outside the trousers. Pressed trousers and shining shoes.

 

How times have changed.

 

In your first year you would have discovered that in appreciation of the Cottage Hospital…….

 

Remember the Cottage Hospital? You went there for a grazed knee and your mum went there for a D and C.

 

………..in appreciation of the Cottage Hospital, the school took a collection and presented two tea trolleys.

 

Of course, you couldn’t do that today, unless you were willing to find the money for a manager to look after them, and to guarantee they were free of MRSA!

 

You would also have found that Miss N Clarke had left the school kitchens and emigrated to Australia. Do you remember those subterranean kitchens, with first and second dinner, hallowed by the Boss’s annual question at Christmas Dinner

 

“Who wants stuffing”

 

to which the reply was always

 

…………! (You do)

 

You faced an interesting year of school sport, in which the staff didn’t mince their words about the various cricket teams. Of the fist XI it was noted:

 

Vigour and concentration are…indispensable to good batsmanship.

 

In the second XI

 

The bowling in general has been erratic and therefore ineffective

 

And even the Under 15 was reminded in public that

 

Correct style is an aid to effective batting, but not an end in itself, and it is vital that, by hitting the ball hard and particularly by taking advantage of loose bowling, runs should be scored at a reasonable rate in order to give the side a chance of winning.

 

Say that sort of thing to the current generation of school sportsmen and, if they are able to understand it—which is in itself doubtful—they will probably need to call in trauma counsellors to massage their bruised egos. Actually, I don’t think that’s true. No-one does sport at school any more.

 

At Wellingborough Grammar School the aim was excellence, whether in sport, in academic achievement, or in outside interests. There was none of the modern “That’ll do.” The message was excellence—and anything less was pointed out and something done about it!

 

It was a successful year for school athletics too. Remember standards? During your first year the school won triangular matches again Oakham and Wellingborough, and Kings and Deacons. In the school sports, Miles won the Senior 440 with a time of 53.7 seconds, which encouraged Charlie Ward to say,

 

“I don’t know Mr. Pine. I think that might be a new school record.”

 

Which indeed it was.

 

You remember that when you joined the school you were assigned to a house.  That house, for the duration of your stay at the school was your overriding loyalty, and was the basis of competition throughout the year. Wellingborough Grammar School was nothing if not competitive. How times have changed.

 

Selection for your house was as mysterious as the selection methods of the Hogwarts Hat in Harry Potter. From hindsight, however, it became clear that the basis of that selection was geographical. Lions came from Raunds and Higham, Stags from Rushden, Gryphons from most of Wellingborough,

 

And Dragons were all those who were left over and weren’t much good at anything.

 

And, of course, the House notes for your first year reflect this. They didn’t mince matters, either. It was noted that

 

The Dragons have not been too successful in the House competitions

 

While even the Gryphons, usually so pleased with themselves, had to concede

 

This has been an undistinguished year for the House. In the Music Competition the Gryphons held their usual position of third, with the none-too-musical basses being out of tune.

 

The Stags reported

 

Gloom, despair and misery descended upon the House on finding ourselves without the Rugby Cup, seemingly a Stags monopoly. However, it seems that at odd times in the past other Houses have held the cup for short periods.

 

Arrogant bastards!

 

But for the Lions—the wonderful Lions—it was

 

A year of three major successes…….The Rugby Cup is now ours….we have won the Music Cup for the third year in succession, and we have regained the Ferguson Trophy for work in school.

 

But even here not all was perfect

 

Our House play, however, (“Something to Talk About”) failed to live up to its title, and the less it is talked about the better, since we were placed fourth.

 

You could, like hundreds of others, have joined one of the many school societies. Of course, it would have meant staying on after school—an unheard of thing today—and if you came from outside Wellingborough, missing the School Special and risking the wrath of Soss Harris, the bus conductor from Hell, who was known to turf WGS pupils off the bus in the middle of nowhere on the pretext that a paying customer might want to get on.

 

You could have joined the photographic Society and concentrated on developing and enlarging. These are, of course, technical terms, and are nothing to do with glamour photography, to which there is no reference.

 

You could have joined the Puppet Club under the supervision of Eddie Phillips, and built your own stage and puppets, before going out to childrens’ parties in strange church halls to present unlikely tales told by tangled marionettes floating two inches above the stage, and, amazingly, holding the audience spellbound.

 

You could have joined the Table Tennis Club for an entry fee of 1/6d and then 6d per annum. Over 30 did, and played in the evening on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

 

You could have joined the Railway Club with Martin Cheale, although his comments suggest that there had been a fair amount of dead wood aboard…

 

“During the Spring Term it became increasingly clear that many who attended regularly at the weekly meetings were as interested in the Tuckshop as they were in doing any useful work. Preparations for our Parents’ Day exhibition required real work, and this was quite sufficient to frighten away most of our more useless hangers-on.”

 

You could have joined the Scientific Society (President—The Headmaster) and heard lectures on…

 

Parturition and the Human Species

Sleep and the Subconscious Mind

Bees

Particle Accelerators

Psycho-analysis

Man must measure

Mathematical calculations

 

And they deny that education is dumbing down today

 

If service was your forte, you could have joined the 6th Wellingborough Scouts or TOC H, in both of which you would have met John Dunning, although not in shorts and a woggle at TOC H meetings.

 

You could also have joined the Junior Choir or the School orchestra. As yet you would have been too young for the Senior Choir, who had the added delights of combining with the High School for madrigals and other pursuits into which we shall not at this time go. It is frightening what a pastel shaded H line dress can do to a young man’s libido.

 

This was the school that you entered in September 1955, and in which almost all of you spent at least the next 4 years. And during that time there were some changes—oh yes, some important changes.

 

The school grew. There were now 127 in the 6th form, not 90, and 600 boys, not 550. and naturally, to accommodate this growth the staff has swollen from  from 27 to 32--an example of they way in which public service becomes so easily bloated and inefficient.

 

Little else had changed. Harold Wrenn still noted

 

Holiday work essential

 

While Nick timetabled, Jake tested, and Eddie Phillips reminded everyone that he was a Baptist. Father Holmes had disappeared, although there were constant reports from Room F of a reedy and disembodied voice echoing

 

Get me out of the fume cupboard—a test tube.

 

In cricket it was at last possible to say

 

The batting has been more consistent, and the technique more studious and adventurous than in the previous year.

 

In athletics, poor weather prevented the completion of standards, much to the relief of many present, and a certain Pine won the junior high jump. There was, alas, no Charlie Ward present to enquire of the winner’s father whether

 

That might be a new school record.

 

The Lions won the Rugby Cup (again), the Dragons won the Athletics Cup, and, to the satisfaction of almost everyone else, the Stags came last in both. The House notes maintained their usual trenchant tone:

 

Dragons

We came second in the Rugby and Drama Cups, but hope to do better next year.

 

Gryphons

We started the year dismally by dropping to fourth place in the Rugby Competition…and we could not withstand the loss of the Ferguson trophy, which we had come to regard rightfully as our own.

 

Stags

Since the Autumn publication, several cups have been contested, but the Stags have, unfortunately, failed to collect even one.

 

And Lions

Our defeat in the Music Competition can be blamed, not on the inferiority of the lions, but on the superiority of two other houses---(whatever smartarse wrote that!)

 

Clubs and societies continued to thrive, but perhaps a little more earnestly. A Christian fellowship had developed alongside the Toc H, Choirs and Orchestra, Railways Club and Scouts.

 

There was also now a Natural History Society, a Stamp Club, and a Chess Club, while the Photographic Society had departed from its previous developing and enlargement to scale the dizzying heights of 16mm cine.

 

The news of Old Boys remains both a joy and a perfect example of how to write a brief paragraph that says nothing but hints at many things, all of which would be actionable in the hands of a good lawyer. If there are any. If you have time, read them.

 

And so, for your 4, 5, 6 or 7 years at Wellingborough Grammar School, things went on much as usual. At least, we thought it was usual at the time. Perhaps it was. Looking back from this distance, we can now see, by modern standards at least, and perhaps even by the standards of the day itself, it was exceptional.

 

In Harold Wrenn’s school there was little friction and disharmony. In our own self-policing society, we knew the rules, and if we broke them, we took the punishment—usually writing out those said rules any number of times.  No parent came to plead our innocence or berate our teachers. No social worker issued a report on our behalf when we were dropped a form or failed a test. No  one wanted us to fail, but no-one wanted us to lose the sense of achievement in succeeding by removing the idea of failure. At Wellingborough Grammar School, success was what we aimed at—but failure was an option.

 

We competed. In athletics, in rugby, in cricket, in swimming; in drama and in music, in public reading and in school work; against other houses, other schools, and against ourselves. Competition was the lifeblood of the school, and it has made many of us here today competitive in our own lives and careers. And the point of competition was to develop excellence. Excellence was the watchword of the school. In everything, only the best—YOUR best—was good enough, and to achieve that best there were masters ready to give of their knowledge, their  enthusiasm and support and time and effort—if you would too.

 

And that, I would like to think, is the memory we are left with above all, about Wellingborough Grammar School 50 years on. It was a place where, in a spirit of friendship and companionship that has lasted throughout the years, and under the watchful eyes of their masters, boys—hundreds of boys—learnt to work, to compete, to value excellence, and to prepare for a world where these three virtues—work, competition, excellence—are always under siege.

 

It is easy to forget that. At the time, we took it for granted. Afterwards, we forgot it or sometimes denigrated it. Only today, 50 years distant from that first year at Wellingborough Grammar School do we get a true perspective of what it gave us, and what we took from it. And so we would like to offer you all here tonight a final toast..

 

Gentlemen

For the lessons we learnt

For the friendships we made

For the teachers who taught us

For the school we loved

For old times

For good times

For those present

And those absent

We drink a health to

Wellingborough Grammar School

And the Class of 55