Chapter 5 (1934-1938)

Secondary Education and the Threat of War

The move to grammar school marked a significant change in my life. Though I still saw Wilf and Martin fairly often and enjoyed their company for many years, our ways were bound to separate as I entered an academic education with a whole new range of friends while they continued at the basic level which would end at the age of 14, unless they could get into a technical college.

Selhurst Grammar School for Boys

Selhurst was once a small Surrey village next to Thornton Heath but now formed a continuous part of the Croydon conurbation. Selhurst Grammar School was run entirely by Croydon Council, unlike the two Whitgifts which were partly funded by endowments from Archbishop Whitgift dating back to Elizabethan times. In most ways, Selhurst and Whitgift Middle were on a par. All the masters (there were no women teachers) wore gowns and we attended on Saturday mornings, since Wednesday afternoons were earmarked for sport. For boys who had been avid readers of that timeless magazine, The Magnet, and the exploits of Harry Wharton and Bob Cherry respectively, Selhurst had the trappings of a proper public school. People were called "cads" and "rotters", and one exclaimed "Cave!" - the Latin for "beware" - on the approach of a teacher. We all wore school uniform, of course, blue worsted in winter and grey flannels with black blazer adorned with the school badge in summer. Sixth-formers wore special ties; and the whole school looked down on us awkward first-formers with justified contempt.

School fees were £5 a term and there was a keen entrance exam for private scholars; but scholarship boys were also expected to cough up if their parents had the means. In fact mine were compelled to do so for some time, until they persuaded the authorities that they simply couldn't afford it. There were three classes for each age group - Forms A1, A2 and B. The conventional wisdom was that the A1s were the brightest but also the least adventuresome; the A2s were bright but holy terrors; and the Bs were a bit on the dim side. I was put in A2.

The Timetable
A striking novelty was the timetable, with a different teacher for each subject, instead of the single Class Teacher of primary school. Algebra, Geometry, English, French, Latin, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, History, Art, PT, Handicrafts and Religious Knowledge for around five hundred pupils added up to a lot of teachers. Our aim was to gain a Schools Certificate, the equivalent of today's GCSE "O" Level, (Note: currently [
2015] GCSE) with matriculation exemption if one obtained high enough marks. Unlike today's system, there was I think a minimum of five subjects, all of which had to be passed at one sitting; failure in one meant failure in all. Although we did not realise it at the time, the pressure was intense but in those days I had the priceless ability to memorise data, formulae, Latin vocabulary etc. by visualising the page on which it was written. Thus, irregular verbs were scanned quickly before the lesson and in effect "read out" from memory as required. Of course, this kind of memory is only short-term, though I did have an aptitude for language anyway. This meant that I was never lower than third in the class for the whole of my school career. An interesting reflection on the academic education is that those who were consistently nearer the bottom of the class (for example Bob Mendoza and Peter Aris, who remain my friends today) invariably worked their way up to highly paid and responsible positions in Industry and Commerce, while those at the top tended to go into teaching or the public service where the rewards (and risks) were considerably less.

School Friends
I rode to school daily on my bicycle, rain or shine, but many pupils just walked. The wide catchment area meant having friends who lived several miles away, and I soon covered the whole of Croydon and surrounding districts visiting their homes. We often cycled into the beautiful Surrey and Kent countryside, eventually working up to quite long distances. In all the pre-war years, however, I never travelled outside the Home Counties except for one holiday with my parents in Devon, three intriguing days with them in Boulogne and a school visit to Fry's chocolate factory at Bristol. Consequently the Midlands, North, Scotland and Wales were totally foreign territory until the Second World War changed all that.

My classmates were all widely different characters. Bob Mendoza had just returned from Canada with his parents, who had unsuccessfully braved the challenge of emigration shortly after he was born. He had (and still has) a pronounced North American accent which the teachers believed, with some justification, that he emphasised for effect. We were often diverted by his loud stage whisper which the teacher would pretend not to have heard. Peter Aris, whom I later came to know very well, was not a close friend at school, largely because he lacked a bicycle. Bob and I on the other hand covered hundreds of miles over the years, with a close companion called David Lemon who disappeared on the outbreak of war and whom I did not see again.

I enjoyed my studies, as did most of us; but tormenting one's neighbours was a necessary part of life and a relief from the harsh pressure of work. Although we had individual desks, it was possible to lean across when the teacher's back was turned and inflict some mischief on an unsuspecting fellow-student. A strong hand suddenly squeezing the inside of one's thigh was agonising and led to an involuntary howl. It was quite unacceptable for the victim to blame anyone; he just had to own up to making an objectionable noise and submit to the teacher's wrath. The point of a pair of compasses wedged in a shoe was handy for jabbing the bottom of the fellow in front, though there would be violent retaliation at break time.

Over a period of about two years, the masters and boys constructed a full-seized pipe organ on the balcony above the assembly hall, a really amazing achievement which greatly enhanced our morning prayer service and was used for after-school concerts.

Corporal punishment was fairly rare, the masters being generally of such strength of character that they could dominate us, and it was administered only by the Head or his Deputy; but it was nevertheless an effective ultimate deterrent. The Deputy, one Dr Treble and called "Tank" for heaven knows what reason, was reputed to enjoy drawing a chalk line across a boy's posterior and whacking away till he had rubbed it out. Fortunately, I only faced the Head on such occasions, though he too had a strong right arm. He kept a sheaf of canes in a long vessel filled with brine. I can only assume that the ancient expression "having a rod in pickle" for someone arose from this curious practice.

Two teachers whom we did lead a merry dance, however, were the Geography master, Mr Hollingrake, whose class was affectionately known as "Tubbyland", and the Latin master, Mr Scott, known as "Crank". Many of them had seen war service and one had lost an arm but like most other ex-servicemen they very rarely mentioned it. Crank was a dear, kindly man who shocked us deeply one day by revealing aspects of bayonet fighting on the Western Front. The Maths master, one Mr Katz and inevitably known as "Pussy", was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany but he too refrained from disturbing our young minds with unpleasant details of concentration camps. He was a brilliant man with a number of abstruse books to his name. Once, it pleased us to ask the History master what a particular sentence in one of them meant - "Dialectic is the reciprocal conditioning of interpenetrating opposites". It pleased us even more when he could not answer; not that we knew either, though I later worked it out.

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It was surprising what teachers would put up with and what they wouldn't. Bad language of any kind, misbehaving during assembly, "letting the side down" or lying, were heinous offences and incurred such intense moral disapproval that more drastic punishment was rarely necessary. Anyone found with "disgusting" pictures of a kind which daily grace the pages of today's newspapers faced expulsion. Sparring about in the playground was normal but anything resembling a real fight or indeed any truly aggressive attitude towards another boy called for the direst penalty. "High Cockalorum" was a popular playground game and involved first one boy then more and more making a "back" against a tree while others leapfrogged along the line as far as they could; in the end one hurled oneself into the air along a line of up to a dozen backs, landing with great force on some unfortunate and the whole edifice collapsing in a heap.

In general, however, we were treated as responsible beings and on the whole that is what we became. The school uniform was sacrosanct. In those days hardly anyone went to work without a hat: workmen wore cloth caps; City businessmen, minor officials and foremen would sport a bowler; and the middle classes had trilbys. As soon as we dared, therefore, we obtained trilby hats and wore them when away from the school premises, looking and feeling self-conscious. I recall someone turning up at the sports field in one on a Wednesday afternoon. Next day the Headmaster thundered at us that the wearing of "outlandish headgear" would not be tolerated.

Selhurst Grammar School was closed during the sweeping post-World War II reconstruction of educational facilities, but its Old Boys Association, The ‘Old Croydonians’, still continues at the time of writing.
(Footnote by the author: The Old Croydonians continues into the 21st Century)

The Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851

The Crystal Palace, built in Kensington Gardens for the 1851 Exhibition and later moved piece by piece to a hill in Penge, dominated the skyline for miles and, with its two great towers, was clearly visible from the bathroom of 7, Berne Road until one night it caught fire and burned to the ground.

Illustrated London News front page showing the Crystal Palace in flames

How an edifice made almost entirely of steel and glass could be so completely consumed was mystifying and there was talk of a convenient end for what had become a white elephant. The towers remained for some years but now the name exists only as a railway station, sports stadium and football team. A small, rickety, open-topped tram ran from West Croydon to Crystal Palace, a relic of the days when no public transport had a roof on the upper deck. For wet weather there was a leather apron fixed to the back of the seat in front which was pulled around one's knees for protection. I remember Derek calling one Saturday morning to collect me for a ride on the last of these machines before they were replaced by electric trolleybuses, themselves now museum pieces in London.

Politics and the Threat of War
Looking back now at old newspaper cuttings of the time, it was obvious that Germany was going to be a problem, but the prevailing mood was to ignore it. The Spanish Civil War filled much space and we even had a refugee boy attached to our class; but there was little discussion of the pros and cons in our circle and we were just too young to be touched by the feelings of outrage which prompted so many young men to join the International Brigade. Indeed, the popular view was that "the Reds" had caused the whole affair by their wanton disruption of the fabric of Spanish society and their general incompetence - a view which held some truth. The intervention of Germany in the war and in particular the horrific indiscriminate bombing of the little town of Guernica did however arouse strong revulsion. The death of King George V, the accession and subsequent abdication of Edward VIII and the enthronement of George VI pushed everything else off the headlines for months and divided friends and families in support for or condemnation of Edward. His honesty and determination to face up to the Church and Establishment struck a chord with many British people but I doubt whether, in the event, they would have been too happy in those more conventional times to see someone who was a commoner, a foreigner and a divorcee become Queen. She was also unlikely to have children which, while decently kept from public discussion, could have complicated the succession.

When Italy under Mussolini invaded Libya, Ethiopia and Sudan we at last began to wonder why Britain said so much but did so little, and the vacillating incompetence of the League of Nations under British and French dominance left us feeling rather disgusted. Even so, there was no keen and urgent discussion of the matter at school and we continued what was left of our happy childhood, undisturbed by the sinister fears of nuclear war which oppressed our own children in the days of the Cold War.

Other Interests, including Spiritualism
I used to visit Derek's house often as I moved into my 'teens. Mr and Mrs Robinson were always very kind to me and I felt almost part of their own family. Derek, their only child, was an accomplished pianist and I enjoyed listening to him. He also had a stock of fine records with the aid of which he imparted to me the glimmerings of appreciation of classical music. Under his imaginative guidance we wrote "radio" plays which we performed from a bedroom through a microphone connected to their wireless set, to the patient and supposedly appreciative ears of his mother, father and grandmother. They were always science fiction of course, since that was our major interest, and quite mediocre; but we enjoyed doing them. Mrs Robinson had become involved in Spiritualism and through her I too developed a mild interest. She eventually became obsessed with it and tragically estranged from family and friends, but at the time it was appealing and I still feel tolerant towards its ideas and beliefs. I saw odd table-lifting phenomena and the strange and unexplained appearance during a sceance of objects called "apports", sometimes loose flowers which were still fresh and scented. One of them, a small ivory figure of a monk which dropped into Derek's living room, I carried round my neck during the war as a lucky charm, which it proved to be. After the war I kept it among my personal valuables but it disappeared as strangely as it had come.

Derek and I also conceived the idea of writing our own language. I had dabbled in Esperanto and was good at Latin and French. We set about this daunting task and over a period of many months wrote vocabularies of several thousand words with supporting grammatical rules. We corresponded in the language for some time and in fact both still have all our books in our possession. But with the advent of the war, messages in a strange tongue were sure to be regarded with suspicion!

Balsa wood model aircraft

Other interests included making flying scale model aeroplanes. The frames were meticulously cut out of strips of balsa wood and glued together, then rice paper was carefully stretched over the frame and painted with aero dope. A school friend and I became quite skilled at making models with a wing span of up to 60cm, powered by special elastic, which we would fly on Coulsdon Downs. Swimming was also a popular pastime but I fear that organised sport still bored me and I cannot say that my services on the rugby or cricket field were ever in great demand.

The Radio
Throughout the 1930s there was a steady and dramatic increase in technology and particularly in the emergence of mass markets and mass-production, fuelled by wider literacy and intense advertising. The motor car was one clear example, becoming by the end of the decade a legitimate and achievable aim of working-class people. Less obvious but socially very significant was the spread of radio, still then called the "wireless". This was made possible by the invention of the thermionic valve which enabled weak radio transmissions to be amplified so much that they could be funnelled into a horn or "loud-speaker" which the whole family could listen to instead of just the one individual who had commandeered the headphones. The considerable extra low-voltage power needed to operate the valves was provided by a lead-and-acid battery in a glass jar, called an "accumulator", which could be recharged when its strength ran out. Those who had the rapidly spreading mains electricity in their homes could effect this themselves using a battery charger; otherwise, one took the accumulator to a dealer for re-charging. Within a few years radio sets were constructed which took all their power supply from the mains and the modern instrument was born. By 1938 we had a set on which I explored short-wave transmissions from as far away as the USA, though it was a tricky business finding, and keeping, them.

My mother was a first rate pianist and had been popular at parties in her younger days. She still played regularly at home for her own amusement but I, for some reason, never took to the business of learning it. One day, however, my cousin Denis acquired a small ukelele, which so fascinated me that he presented it to me. I resolved to take lessons in it and as luck would have it noticed a house in the very next road bearing a hand-written legend saying "Guitar Lessons”. 

Ralph & guitar 1939

I called there and made the acquaintance of one Bert Sargent, a most intriguing character. Having missed out on education and coming from a poor East End home, he nevertheless possessed enormous natural intelligence and a wide-ranging curiosity. He had turned his hand to many things including a musical career on the Halls as a banjoist and guitarist, and had now settled down to life as a sign-writer and part-time music teacher. 

He tactfully observed that the ukelele with its four strings was more of a toy than a musical instrument and produced an enormous Gibson guitar with six steel strings from which he struck the most entrancing sounds. I fell for it, purchased a cheap guitar, and entered a world which has given me an interest and pleasure for most of my life.

Father - a Proper Job at Last
My father was out more and more often and my mother developed a passion for whist drives, which were very popular at the time and attracted large numbers with their high prizes. After the war, they were ousted by Bingo drives.

Unnoticed by many people, the Government had started to prepare for war and this injected life and money into the economy so that unemployment dropped. Life for the working man was still precarious, however; supervisors were expected to be imperious and unsympathetic, and a man could be sacked at the drop of a hat as the God-given right of his employer. Unions still worked against great odds and large numbers of people were totally unorganised.

Nevertheless, things had begun to get better. Our landlords, the Phillips, had another bright idea: they would purchase a small garage with two petrol pumps, a salesroom and a workshop, which my father would manage. The business chosen was at Merton, near to Wimbledon. He threw himself into this venture with great enthusiasm but limited success. His mechanical skill and knowledge were exceptional, but his business acumen was not up to the game of buying and selling cars, which was a minefield for anyone of a sympathetic or trusting nature. The war would have changed all this since many such workshops went over to war production with Government support and their owners made lots of money. But sadly this was not to be.

Munich - “Peace in Our Time”
Suddenly, in 1938, the Munich crisis was upon us. Germany had insisted on moving troops into the Sudetenland, which was then part of Czechoslovakia, ostensibly to "protect" the German-speaking population there, and the Czechs were prepared to fight, calling upon Britain and France to honour our treaty obligations to them. The streets of our cities were blacked out, traffic lights were covered except for a small cross of light in the middle, and car headlamps fitted with a plate which directed a thin shaft of light onto the immediate foreground. Plans were rushed ahead to evacuate school children to the country and the nation stood ready for mobilisation. As I learned later when my job involved emergency planning, mobilisation is relatively easy to start but very difficult to draw back from. The historian A J P Taylor suggested that the First World War, which on the face of things ought to have been avoidable, became inevitable because Germany and France mobilised their armies and set them in motion but had prepared no plans for halting the process while diplomacy took its course; confrontation followed with tragic results. 

Peace in our time

But Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his dramatic dash to meet Hitler at Munich and did a deal which gave the latter the territory he wanted, leaving the Czechs helpless and humiliated. The following Spring, Hitler occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia anyway, leaving History to agonise over whether Chamberlain had been right or wrong; and whether postponement of war gave Britain just enough time to prepare, or whether he really had any other choice.

But for us it was back to peace and another precious year of a well-ordered world which was about to disappear for ever. We were conscious that we were getting a good education and that we were a privileged minority; and with it went a confidence which we carried throughout our lives. But possibly more important was the mark left upon us by the character and example of our teachers, who themselves reflected the spirit and mores of the Britain of those days. They showed us how to behave towards others. They represented civilised mankind at its best and made us into passable human beings, until it became necessary for the nation to teach us to kill.

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