Harry’s Ramblings I Failed the Eleven Plus
by Harry Pope
I was the school dunce. Education was lost on my immature brain, and in 1959 I was allocated a place at the Lord Howard of Effingham Secondary Modern school. Woodwork baffled me, anything to do with moving my hands in a creative way seemed to have a blockage between instinct and reality. I well recall sitting at the back of the class as an 11-year-old when Mr. Bowling demonstrated how to use a tenon saw to make a groove so two pieces of wood joined together. I am sure there is a technical term for this process, please don’t bother telling me because it will be completely wasted. The master obviously saw young Henry as a lost cause, because more willing minds and hands at the front easily picked up this elementary process. I did not.
My father was an educationalist, being a lecturer at a technical college, so after 18 months of dunderhead son falling further behind his contemporaries, not easy bearing in mind the low educational standards of that establishment at that time, he decided that my young brain needed stimulation. 33 guineas a term was to be spent at a new alma mater called Clark’s College. This had been founded before WW2 by a man called Ernest G.V. Clark, and by 1960 had 33 seats of learning bearing his name above the lintel.
His gowned profile adorned much of the school’s literature, if that was missing his name was prominent, you were never in doubt where you were, and Surbiton’s large house was to be my daily destination for the next 4 ½ years. What a waste of money, I learned how to smoke a cigarette without getting caught, what a French letter was for but not how to use it, and how to mainly avoid detention. The teaching staff were rejects from main-stream education, always gowned, but difficult to respect. Mr. Roberts had a sports car, his classes were popular, Mr. Stock was French, a disciplinarian, but not quite so easy to understand, and one master who shall be nameless always volunteered to escort pupils to the swimming pool so he could slap their wet male costumes on exit. This ended when one of the larger older boys pushed him into the pool fully clothed.
Fred Butcher was a lovely man, but had an unfortunate body odour condition. He was oblivious to all subtlety, including leaving a bar of Lifebuoy soap on his desk throughout one English lesson. We lived out in the Surrey countryside, so I had a long bus journey every day. This was okay during the good weather, but as I was a hooligan barely under control I was particularly miffed when on one late afternoon home on the top deck of the 65 bus on the country side of Chessington Zoo I lit a firework and threw it out of the side window. Unknown to me there were some road workers having a cup of tea before going home, it landed amongst them. The conductress was immediately aware, rung the emergency bell to stop, and I was ejected for the three mile walk in the gathering darkness to Leatherhead bus garage. I can’t recall the reason I gave my mother for my late arrival home, but am sure it was a good lie. As always.
I knew that I came from one of the poorer Clark’s College families, because my father was never called to the headmaster’s office on a Friday afternoon to discuss my educational progress. Or lack of same. The fathers who were invited were schmoozed for a while (not a Clark’s College word), then when the sherry bottle had been breached were asked if they would care to aid their offspring’s education by granting a small loan to the head on a personal basis.
As mentioned, I was a smoker. Standing at the adjacent bus stop, I would look around bored, waiting for the red 65. If there was time, I would take out my trusty small screwdriver. This had a yellow plastic handle with a small aperture to whittle down plug wires, and a small conventional head that would fit snugly into the screw at the bottom of the timetable that was holding the protective glass in place. Out would come a match, screw discarded, glass gently lowered onto resting match. Many was the time that I would arrive at the bus stop to see broken glass on the pavement, if only I could have been there to see the embarrassment as the person removed the match and down went the glass. I think that by now you will realise I was not a pleasant child.
One of my school reports said ‘Henry is a good scholar in this subject, so there was no need for him to cheat during the examination’. I liked history, didn’t really need to cheat, but the book fell out of my lap onto the floor in front of the invigilator. That was a difficult one to show my dad.
I left in July 1964, still sexually immature but a very willing student of life. I sat six ‘O’ levels, passed two, which were to prove useless, and by the time I was 20, I had had the same number of jobs, was married, and had a child. A feckless adolescent completely unprepared for responsibility, but the next 50-odd years have been a hell of a lot of fun.