Scrap Book Project – The Dunsmore School Annual Show and a Very Short Career in Acting

Dunsmore School Henry V

Every year at Dunsmore (now Ashlawn) School in Rugby there was a school production which ran for several nights and parents and family used to come along to watch.

As far as I can remember for several years while I was in the lower forms this would be in the form of a variety show and boys and staff would put on a performance for two hours or so of sketches and musical interludes.  These shows were organised directed and choreographed by the school music teacher Mick Self.

Mick Self was an odious man, a Welsh bully who would have been more at home in the forward line of his local rugby football club punching members of the opposition, gouging their eyes or biting their ears off than being a school teacher.  In the 1960s  bullying and punishment were all part of the curriculum at Dunsmore; you expected to get a slippering of your bare backside at gym now and again, a blackboard rubber in the back of the head if you didn’t pay attention in class, detention for no good reason at all except the teacher just didn’t like you or six strokes of the cane for even the most trivial misdemeanour but Self took bullying to an even higher level.

All of this seemed quite normal, after all this was Rugby and we had all read ‘Tom Brown’s School days” and at Dunsmore even the older boys, the Prefects, were allowed to hand out punishments without any sort of vetting for this level of behaviour enforcement responsibility.

I used to dread music lessons.  Self never taught us a single thing.  He had absolutely no teaching skills whatsoever.  If you could already play an instrument like my friends Rod Bull and Tony Gibbard then you would be fine and you were guaranteed a spot in the annual show but there was zero chance of anyone else ever getting an opportunity to learn anything useful.

The man was a psychopath.   I remember one time that he made us sit in the school hall for a double lesson (an hour and a half) absolutely still with our arms folded with a warning that if we moved a muscle then we would be punished.  He was an obnoxious evil man.  Another time in another lesson he told us to write a four page essay about Beethoven and that we couldn’t go home until it was finished.  I mean how can you write a four page essay about Beethoven without any sort of warning?   My response to this unreasonable challenge was to drag up what little knowledge I had about the German composer and then write it down using huge letters and to drag each word out across the page as far as I possibly could.  As it turned out I needn’t have gone to the trouble because he didn’t bother to read them anyway so I could have written about anything I liked just to fill up the pages.

David Howe

Anyway, one year, 1969 I think, Self was preparing as usual for the end of term Christmas show when there was an announcement that this year we would do something different and the English teacher David Howe (above) would be producing a Shakespeare play – Henry V.  Henry V was on the ‘o’ level English Literature syllabus that year so we were all fairly familiar with it.  Self was livid but I imagine there had been some staff room intrigue because even the other teachers didn’t like him, the decision was made and casting began.

I auditioned but was not successful in securing a speaking part but was compensated with not one, but two roles as an extra.  My first part was rather important as I was the servant who carried on the casket of tennis balls that is presented to King Henry by the French Ambassador in Act 1 Scene 2 and then I had to make a hasty costume change to become one of the English army, first at the siege of Harfleur in Act 3 scene 1 and then at the battle of Agincourt in Act 4 scene 1.

The play was performed four times that week and on the final night on Saturday Mick Self turned up in a drunken rage and stomped through the corridors looking for trouble.  I think he would have murdered David Howe if he had found him but luckily for David he didn’t.

A few weeks later Mick Self just seemed to mysteriously evaporate. It turned out that as well as being a bully he was up to all sorts of no good and although nothing was said, no announcements were made everyone knew that he spent some time sewing mailbags at her Majesty’s pleasure at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight.

The failure to get a part in the play was a bit of a personal setback for me and I never auditioned for a part in the school play or any other sort of play ever again but I have to admit that this was no great loss to the theatrical profession.

Henry V

Scrap Book Project – Hillmorton

The family settled in Hillmorton in 1960 when Dad took up a new job at the Rugby Rural District Council (created 1894, abolished 1974) and we moved from Hinckley in Leicestershire, about fifteen miles away.  In those days Hillmorton was only a small village and although there was no discernable boundary from the town it was undeveloped and had only a fraction of the population that it has today.

We moved into a brand new bungalow at number 47, The Kent that was one of the first new developments in the village at that time.  It cost £2,000.  All around there were exciting places to explore and play and there was lots of time to do so because parents were not nearly so paranoid about children wandering off to enjoy themselves in the 1960’s as they are today.  In those days it wasn’t uncommon to go out in the morning and only return home when empty tummies demanded that food was required and there certainly weren’t search parties out looking all over the place.  It’s a shame that these days children are confined to their back gardens or have to be taken back and forth to school by car because there was so much more fun when young lives were not subject to so many restrictions on movement.

The house we lived in was built on an old tip and over the back was a big hole perfect for sifting through and finding old junk and behind that was ‘The Bank’,which was a strip of trees and undergrowth that was good for playing jungle war games.  A narrow path ran from Sandy Lane to Tony Gibbard’s garden at no. 37 where two trees, one large and one small, were converted into tree houses and frequently doubled up as a Lancaster bomber and a Spitfire fighter.  You certainly had to have a vivid imagination to achieve this childhood fantasy transformation.

What is now Featherbed Lane used to be Sandy Lane which was an unpaved track and in the adjacent trees was a long abandoned car that in our imagination we converted into a Churchill Tank.  Beyond Sandy Lane was the ‘Sand Pit’, which was a bit of a forbidden zone on account of the large number of rats that lived there.  Mum didn’t like us going there and with her exaggerated warnings of how they would either dash up your trouser leg and chew your penis off or alternatively take a flying leap and rip your throat out was enough to make you think twice about venturing too far inside.

A few years later they built some houses on the sand pit and a lot of them fell down quite soon after because of inadequate foundations in the soft sand.

Further down the road there were some derelict old terraced houses that had been condemned by the Local Authority that we convinced ourselves were haunted, they were knocked down a few years later and some Council flats built there to replace them.  These days they would be boarded up and made secure but in the early 1960s they were left open so we used to go inside and frighten ourselves half to death exploring the empty rooms looking for their secrets.

On the road down to the Locks and the Oxford Canal there was the site of the old Hillmorton Manor House that lay in ruins surrounded by dense undergrowth of trees and vegetation.  This is where Constable Road is now.   Around the Manor House the bigger boys in the village had constructed a scramble track (a sort of pre-BMX thing) where we had bike races and pretended to be the Brandon Bees motorcyclists.

This wasn’t my favourite game I have to say because I used to prefer to go down to the canal and mess about on the locks.  This is where my best pal David Newman and Gary James lived and his parents allowed us to build a camp in an old outbuilding in the garden.  The canal was an incredibly dangerous place really but of course we didn’t realise that at the time.  During the summer we used to wait at top lock and offer to open and close the locks for passing canal craft in the hope that we would receive a few pennies for our labours.

School was about three hundred metres away and to get there we had to pass what was euphemistically called the ‘corn field’.  There never actually was any corn in it of course it was just a piece of uncultivated land with long grass that was waiting to be developed and it wasn’t long before the Council built a clinic and some houses on it and took away another useful recreation site.

At the back of the school was the Elder Forest, which wasn’t a forest at all just an area of overgrown vegetation with a predominance of Elder Trees.  That’s all been grubbed up and built on too of course now.  Given the shortage of playing space it’s hardly any wonder I suppose that today children have to stop at home and watch the TV or play computer games and are denied the pleasure of real play!

Scrap Book Project – The Eleven Plus Exam

The eleven plus exam and secondary education obligations were  introduced in the Education Act of 3rd August 1944.  It was the only significant piece of legislation relating to post-war social reform that was passed by the coalition government during the war years.

When I went to the Hillmorton County School and moved from primary to junior classes in 1962 everything about the curriculum was about preparing children for the eleven-plus exam because this determined what sort of secondary school they would go on to.  Interestingly I don’t remember anyone really adequately explaining this to me at the time and if they had I might just have made a bit more of an effort!   Pass this and you could go to a grammar school like Lawrence Sheriff, fail it and it was off to a secondary modern school like Dunsmore or Fareham which were designed to be more technical than academic.

The Headmaster was Mr (George Edward) Hicks and he generally led an assembly with a hymn and a prayer and a short address.  He was a decent sort of chap but he just never seemed to take to me and in days when favouritism in schools was acceptable I found him to be quite unsupportive.  I just enjoyed being at school, especially the play times, and wasn’t terribly bothered about the learning bits in between so I think he wrote me off at an early stage as being a bit of a no-hoper and advised my parents to buy me a pair of clogs and prepare me for a long dull working life in a factory, as he was certain that I was destined to be one of life’s academic failures.

I met him years later when he came knocking on the door collecting for the RNLI and I think he was genuinely shocked when I told him that I had been to University and had a nice office job with good prospects at the Council.

For slow learners there was no such thing as special educational needs or additional support mechanisms of course and the class was set out in a strict hierarchy with the fast learning favourites at the front getting all of the attention and the dimwits at the back making table mats out of raffia.  I suppose I would have found myself about two thirds back from the blackboard.  I was a late developer!

I never made much impact at school and casually ambled through four years of education, three times a year at the end of each term taking home a disappointing school report and enduring a lecture from dad on how I had to work harder because one day I would be taking the eleven-plus exam.

The structure of the eleven-plus exam consisted of three papers:

  • Arithmetic — A mental arithmetic test.
  • Writing — An essay question on a general subject.
  • General Problem Solving — A test of general knowledge, assessing the ability to apply logic to simple problems.

This established a tripartite system of education, with an academic, a technical and a functional strand. Prevailing educational thought at the time was that testing was an effective way to discover to which strand a child was most suited. The results of the exam would be used to match a child’s secondary school to their abilities and future career needs but the exam became a fiercely competitive annual scramble with parents pushing hard for their children to pass the exam and join the elitist group going forward to the stuck-up grammar schools where they could learn Latin and join the chess club whilst leaving the failures to move on to technical drawing and smoking behind the bike-sheds.

And so it came around and 1965 was a mixed year for me when it came to passing exams.  As predicted I failed my eleven-plus in Spring and was sent to secondary school in September in the bottom grade at Dunsmore (or Duncemore in my case) but to compensate for that I did get my Leaping Wolf certificate in the Wolf Cubs and passed my Elementary Test for swimming a whole length of the swimming baths and that was quite something let me tell you, the certificate was signed by the examiner, Mrs Dick, who was a fearsome creature, Councillor Pattinson, the Chairman of the Baths Committee and Jim Duffy, the Town Clerk no less!

More about Academic achievements…

Scrap Book Project – British Birds, The Wren

I like the Wren and would like to encourage them to pass by more often and I have put a wren box in a yew tree in the hope that this might encourage him to nest here.  Although I don’t see them very often Wrens are among the most common birds in the UK, and according to the RSPB there are currently around ten million pairs.

They suffer from heavy losses during the winter though because food can become hard to come by for them.  In the most recent coldest winter, 1962/3 there wasn’t a frost-free night from 22nd December until 5th March.    The continuous freezing temperatures meant that snow cover lasted for over two months and the winter of 1962/63 was the coldest over England and Wales since 1740 with mean maximum temperatures for January and February 1963 more than 5 °C below the average.

Seventy-five per cent of British wrens were thought to have died during the harsh winter of 1962-3.  That is why it is important to feed them in cold weather.  They suffer from cold because at a length of less than ten centimetres they are the second smallest birds in the UK, after the Goldcrest.  Because it may be difficult to catch spiders and I am not going to do it for them a handful of grated cheese is the usual recommendation.

The food needs to put on the ground and their scientific name explains why, it is taken from the Greek word “troglodytes”, from “trogle” a hole, and “dyein” to creep, which literally means “cave-dweller” and refers to its habit of disappearing into cavities or crevices whilst searching for spiders or to roost.

Another interesting fact about the Wren is that it has an enormous voice for its size, ten times louder, weight for weight, than a cockerel, so try and imagine, if you can, a cock-a-doodle-doo with that sort of vocal power!

In the Spring the male Wren builds several nests, as many as six or seven and then invites a female to select her favourite. These are called cock nests but are never completely finished or lined until the female chooses the one she wants.  I suppose that is a bit like a man building a house and leaving the decoration and soft furnishings to his wife.

According to European folklore, the Wren is the King of the Birds.  Long ago the birds held a contest to see who could fly the highest; at first it looked as though the Eagle would win easily, but just as the Eagle began to get tired, the Wren, which had cleverly hidden under the Eagle’s tail feathers, crept out and soared far above.

The Wren also features in the legend of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was supposedly betrayed by the noisy bird as he attempted to hide from his enemies. Traditionally, St. Stephen’s Day on 26th December has been commemorated by ‘Hunting the Wren’, when young Wrenboys would hunt hedgerows and catch the bird and then ritually parade it around town,

The diminutive Wren also appeared on the last farthings to be minted in the UK from 1948 until 1956 and it ceased to be legal tender from 1960. I don’t know this for sure but I have always assumed that the image of the Wren appeared on the farthing because of the fact that it was such a small coin.  That seems plausible to me anyway.

Shakespeare refers to the wren no fewer than nine times in his different Plays. Its small size is noticed, and the bird is credited with an amount of courage disproportionate to its stature. When Macduff flees to England his wife bitterly complains that he left her and his children without his protection:

“He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch:
for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.”

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Other Posts about Birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

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Scrap Book Project – The Annual School Outing (Away Day)

In the 1960s one of the highlights of the school year was going away for the day on the annual school outing.

When I was at junior school at the Hillmorton County school this was usually a simple affair with a trip and a picnic to somewhere fairly close by.  Dovedale in Derbyshire was about the furthest the teachers would venture to take us but it was more usual to stay within the county of Warwickshire and trips would inevitably be to Warwick Castle or Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon.

I can certainly remember going to Stratford-upon-Avon for the day and visiting Shakespeare’s House on Henley Street in the town centre, Anne Hathaway’s House in Shottery and Mary Arden’s House in nearby Wilmcote.

One special trip from the Hillmorton School was an outing to London and a visit to the Science Museum in South Kensington in about 1964.  I had been to London several times of course because my grandparents lived in Catford and we used to visit and stay there regularly.

The Science Museum has always been one of my favourites.  I liked Stephenson’s Rocket and the replica coal mine, a sort of early interactive experience where we stepped into a dark world of a Welsh mine.  The exhibit may not be there anymore because since all the country’s pits closed in the 1980s you can go down real ones instead.  But my real favourite, and I agree that this is not especially exciting, was an exhibit that explained ploughing and tilling and was in a glass case with three tractors and three different types of plough and when you turned a handle then the whole thing moved and explained the sequence of farming. I was delighted to see that that particular exhibit was actually still there forty years later when I last visited the museum in 2002.

The junior school annual outing was generally a well behaved affair that can’t have been too stressful for the teachers and we would obediently form organised lines and follow them like sheep from place to place as we went through the day.

This was not the case however with school trips at secondary school when the day was a perfect opportunity for mischief and mayhem.

The day started with a lot of pushing and shoving waiting for the coach to arrive because, a bit like the classroom, it was essential to get the back seat and be as far away from the teachers, who inevitably sat at the front, as possible.  When I say coach what I really mean of course is the most ancient and worn out vehicle in the fleet partly because the school would have paid the lowest price possible but mostly because the coach operating company was not going to provide its best vehicles for a bunch of unruly school kids.

On account of the age of the bus and the worn out state of the engine it would take a couple of hours to get to London including a fifteen minute stop at a service station to let the engine cool down and give us an opportunity to run around the car park and for no reason other than we could, to cross the bridge to the other side of the M1.

After we had arrived in the capital we would go to the Tower of London, or Buckingham Palace or to some other sites as part of the formal part of the day.  Once we met the MP for Rugby, William Price, who took us on a tour of the Houses of Parliament.  In the House of Lords he carefully explained that it was absolutely forbidden for a commoner to sit on the red leather chairs so we then spent a few minutes trying to force other kids into the seats in the hope that someone would have their heads chopped off.

After that it was time for lunch so we would parade off to Hyde Park or somewhere similar and eat our sandwiches.  Most of us used to carry our sandwiches and our raincoats in a duffle bag, which was a sort of draw string canvas bag which no self respecting school kid would be seen dead with these days.  They were about forty centimetres deep with soft sides and a rigid round bottom, they were lined with plastic that used to split and break off and around the top were some brass rings where the cord passed through and was tightened to close it.  Even though our sandwiches were in airtight Tupperware dishes they always tasted of chlorine because these were the same bags that we used to take our swimming trunks and towels to the baths for our weekly lessons and it was impossible to get rid of the smell especially after you had left them in there over the weekend.

After lunch it was free time and this was the opportunity to let our hair down. Out of sight of the teachers the first thing we did was to take off our caps and maroon blazers and roll them up into our duffle bags and then we made for the city centre.  Sensible kids did more sightseeing or a bit of shopping but I always hung around with the boys who wanted to misbehave and do silly things.  On one trip I remember that we wasted a whole afternoon by buying a ticket on the underground circle line to the next stop and then going all the way round, again, just because we could and it felt as though we were doing something wrong.

On another occasion, when I was about fifteen, one of my friends, Paul Connor, who was more sexually advanced than most of us, arranged for us to go to Soho because he had heard that it was possible to see live sex shows. He was confident that the way to do this was to go to a dirty book shop and just hang around and then someone would come and ask us if we wanted to go through to the back room.  We did this and we didn’t have to hang about too long at all (probably no more than a few seconds) before a man came and asked us what we were doing there (we were only fifteen and probably had no more than ten shillings each to spend) and Paul told him we wanted to go into the back room.  He told us to follow him and he took us down a corridor and opened the door at the end and ushered us all through – back onto the street!

At five o’clock or thereabouts we had to return to the rendezvous point for the trip home. Someone was always late or worse, lost, which meant thirty minutes of adrenalin filled panic for the teachers but eventually everyone turned up, sometimes accompanied by a police officer and by the time everyone was accounted for it was back on the bus to eat the last of the chlorine sandwiches on the way home.

school-trips-and-feeling-homesick

Scrap Book Project – Cycling Proficiency Test

In the 1960s before families had two cars most of us went to school on our bikes.  This was a much better arrangement than today when every school morning and evening the roads are clogged up with cars taking lazy kids to school.

Everyone had a bike and every school had a row of bike sheds and with so many on the road the Government was concerned about highway safety and in 1967 along with a load of other boys I took my Cycling Proficiency Test.

Cyclist training began in 1947, although its roots stretched back to the 1930s when cycling organisations were pressing the Government to include cyclist instruction in the school curriculum and finally in 1958 the Government funded the introduction of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) National Cycling Proficiency Scheme and cycling instructors came to the school to prepare us for the test.

Tufty Roadshow

RoSPA by the way was also responsible for the Tufty Club and the Green Cross Code and were completely detached from reality because we had all been out on the open road for years on our bikes and had already perfected some of the finer points of cycling, such as riding backwards or with no hands for example.

Most of the ‘training’ took place in the safety of the school playground where we had to demonstrate our biking skills by cycling between bollards, learning the Highway Code and how to maintain our machines in good mechanical order.  Once we had done all of this to the satisfaction of the instructor there was a final road test under the watchful eye of the examiner.

I don’t think anybody ever failed the Cycling Proficiency Test and at the end there was a certificate and an aluminium badge to attach to the handlebars so that everyone knew just how safe we were. I was awarded my certificate and badge on 19th May 1967.

Scrap Book Project – The Eurovision Song Contest

In the 1950s, as Europe recovered after the Second-World-War, the European Broadcasting Union based in Switzerland set up a committee to examine ways of bringing together the countries of the EBU around a ‘light entertainment programme’.

At a committee meeting held in Monaco in January 1955, director general of Swiss television and committee chairman Marcel Bezençon conceived the idea of an international song contest where countries would participate in one television programme to be transmitted simultaneously to all countries of the union. The competition was based upon the existing Sanremo Music Festival held in Italy, and was also seen as a technological experiment in live television as in those days it was a very ambitious project to join many countries together in a wide-area international network.

The concept, then known as “Eurovision Grand Prix”, was approved by the EBU General Assembly in at a meeting held in Rome on 19th October 1955 and it was decided that the first contest would take place in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland.

It was held on 24th May 1956. Seven countries participated, each submitting two songs, for a total of fourteen. This was the only Contest in which more than one song per country was performed as since 1957 all Contests have allowed one entry per country. The 1956 Contest was won by the host nation with a song called ‘Refrain’ sung by Lys Assia.

The United Kingdom first participated at the Eurovision Song Contest in the following year. The BBC had wanted to take part in the first contest but had submitted their entry to the after the deadline had passed. The UK has entered every year since apart from 1958, and has won the Contest a total of five times. Its first victory came in 1967 with “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.

There have been fifty-five contests, with one winner each year except the tied 1969 contest, which had four.  Twenty-five different countries have won the contest.    The country with the highest number of wins is Ireland, with seven.  Portugal is the country with the longest history in the Contest without a win – it made its forty-fourth appearance at the 2010 Contest.  The only person to have won more than once as performer is Ireland’s Johnny Logan, who performed “What’s Another Year” in 1980 and “Hold Me Now” in 1987.

Norway is the country which holds the unfortunate distinction of having scored the most ‘nul points’ in Eurovision Song Contest history – four times in all, and that is what I call humiliating. They have also been placed last ten times, which is also a record!

For many years the annual Eurovision Song Contest was a big event in out house usually with a party where everyone would pick their favourite and would dress appropriately to support their chosen nation.  In later years no one ever picked the United Kingdom because the only thing that is certain about the competition is that being the unpopular man of Europe we are unlikely to ever win again and every year there is a ritual humiliation with a preditable low scoring result.

Austria