14 July, 2017

Worth Every Penny!

New Hall Lane, Preston - Spring 1958: He had stood for several minutes in the late afternoon sun gazing intently into the shop window. Had any passer-by or keen observer of humanity taken note they would have known that it was not the first time that day that he had stood there. The money, saved from the few shillings earned each week from his seven days a week newspaper delivery rounds at Joe Unsworth’s newspaper shop in New Hall Lane, or coaxed  from his mother,  his dad, his auntie and his uncle was almost burning a hole in his pocket so keen was it to be spent.  And if any passing shopper had stopped to look and had followed the boy’s gaze they would have known at once the objects of his interest. The boy, however, was oblivious of passing shoppers, his eyes, heart and mind were solely concentrated upon the objects of his desire in the shop window.
Mr Seed's hardware shop - just as I remember it.

The side window of H. Seed’s Hardware shop in New Hall Lane, Preston was filled with fishing tackle – every item (and a few more besides) that one might ever associate with the gentle sport (some say “art”) of angling: rods, floats, reels, hooks, ledgers, line, nets; the boy’s eyes took in the cornucopia squashed behind the plate glass but his eyes kept returning to the green, red handled rod labelled “Special Offer”. The label informed the boy that the nine foot telescopic metal rod was made from the rust proof metal of an American Sherman tank aerial and that these telescopic rods were “all the rage” amongst the anglers of far off America. And the price? – a snip at £1/7/6. The boy had seen America on the black and white TV at home and at the cinema - a wondrous land of cowboys, gangsters and rock and roll; the place where the boy's pop heroes lived - Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, the Everley Brothers. "If this fishing rod is good enough for American anglers then it must be good enough for me", he thought!

The boy again did the calculation – rod £1/7/6, reel, 12/6, floats line hooks and lead shot about 9/0, bait tin 1/6, child’s river licence 7/6 and Lancaster Canal licence 5/-..............£4/3/0! He had plenty with the £5/0/0 that was positively straining to burst out of his pocket to be spent in Mr Seed’s small but magical emporium. At last, his decision made, he in stepped through the open door passing the step ladders for sale the stacked tins of paint and the brooms and mops, and twenty minutes later, his pocket almost empty of his savings, the boy left the shop clutching his purchases to make his way back to the little terraced house at 18 Caroline Street where he lived.

July  2017: That visit to Mr Seed’s – the first of many – I still recall with absolute clarity. I still remember him passing the rod to me and me trying to look knowledgeable as I weighed it in my hands. I can recall him advising me which types of float and what strength of line I would find best, what the most useful sizes of hooks were and how I should tie the line. As I stood in the tiny shop crammed with teapots, kitchen knives, packets of seeds, buckets, hammers and screws, my nose taking in the smell of paraffin, firelighters, candles and furniture polish I remember him asking if I intended to fish in the River Ribble?  As the Ribble was only a 20 minute walk up New Hall Lane and then down Brockholes Brow the answer was yes – so he suggested that I might need some ledgers as they were the best thing to use in that fast flowing and current filled river. Needless to say I spent another couple of bob and came out with a range of ledgers! And finally, I watched him completing the paperwork on the two juvenile's licenses that I needed – my full name, address, his signature, and an official stamp - his flowing hand seeming to my young eyes to be the very epitome of officialdom and importance. When all had been completed I stood in the shop holding my new rod and a large brown paper bag into which Mr Seed had put all the other items while he patiently wrote out a list of all my purchases into his receipt book. He took out his ink pad and stamped my receipt with his rubber stamp and wrote the date on it and signed it. Then he carefully tore out the page and handed it  to me, leaving the carbon copy in his book. I felt that I had joined an exclusive club!

It was the start of a love affair which lasted throughout my teenage years. Several of my friends were keen anglers and I was desperate to join them. As the months passed my knowledge, my fishing tackle and my trips to the waterside built up, and with my friends Mick Cunliffe, Bas Laycock and, my best friend, Tony Clarkson (who lived a few doors away from me and went under the nickname Nebber, because of the flat cap he always wore) I journeyed by bus far and wide in the search for that elusive giant of the deep. Despite all my efforts, my reading of the Angling Times and my slowly improving skills, however, the dreamed of submarine monster never took pity on my hook! It was rare that we returned home without having caught anything but in reality what we caught was rarely more than a few tiddlers. Size, however, didn’t matter! Something deep inside stirred my soul as I watched the float drift in the current or squeezed my eyes together to concentrate upon the end of the rod, waiting for the merest tremble to indicate that some bright finned leviathan was feasting upon my maggot, worm or bit of cheese sandwich! It was the same feeling that primeval hunters must have experienced as they tracked ancient beasts with their spears and stones – and throughout each school day or each week my mind was driven by that ancient hunting instinct; I couldn’t wait to be free to indulge my instincts and seek out the giant fish that was just waiting to surrender itself to my skills! Every time I walked down Brockholes Brow or caught the Ribble bus to Brock my optimism knew no bounds – I was bound to catch something that would put me on the front page of next week’s Angling Times. But hours later as I packed my gear away on the river or canal bank, my maggot tin empty and no silver finned monster in my keep net, only a few little perch or roach or minnows to return to the water I was never disappointed. It merely confirmed to me that the next expedition would be the one – the time when my undoubted angling skills would be proved! It was written in the stars, I knew, and only a matter of time before I would be struggling to land some huge fish, my rod bent double while other anglers watched on their eyes open in amazement as the fish and I fought to the death! I was nothing if not an optimist!
On the banks of the Lancaster canal near Lancaster - my rod rest in pride of place!

I spent innumerable hours sitting, rain or shine, on the banks of the Lancaster Canal or the River Ribble. I would catch the Ribble bus to Brock and sit all day in the rain on the bank of the  canal or in the school holidays I would travel further – to Garstang. A family relation was the village doctor in Garstang – Doctor Jackson – and he lived at the surgery there. His house backed onto the River Wyre, his land running down to the banks of the river and he had fishing rights so I would spend summer holiday days and Sunday afternoons there feeling very privileged to fish this well known trout stream. I rarely caught anything of note but have many happy memories of long summer days spent in the shade of the trees watching my float swim in the current waiting for that twitch of a bite and the surge through my body of that primeval hunting instinct!

And now, sixty years on as I look back and think of the few pounds that I spent that evening in Mr Seed’s shop it seems, as each year passes, to be more and more to be worth every penny.  I didn’t just buy a fishing rod and few bits of tackle that night. Nor did I buy a few years of pleasant activity. No, unknowingly that evening I bought something of infinitely more value - I bought a treasure trove of memories, a passage to adult hood and, ultimately, a bond with my father.

I well remember one day at secondary school (Fishwick Secondary Modern) a few months after that fateful afternoon when I had walked into Mr Seed’s shop to begin my angling career. It was a day when my school work and my hobby briefly became one! Each week we boys went off for either a woodwork or metalwork lesson while the girls did cookery or needlework. I had little skill in woodwork or metalwork despite my best efforts and I so envied other boys who seemed to take it all in their stride – especially one of my pals, Les Churchman. Les could, it seemed to me, at the drop of a hat, produce glorious pieces of woodwork or metal work like some mediaeval guild master craftsman. Les’ tenon joints fitted together perfectly, they could hold up the world if needed while mine wobbled and fell hopelessly apart no matter how much wood glue I stuffed in the joint. With a few deft flicks of the wood plane Les could produce a beautifully flat and smooth surface while my efforts simply produced a lump of wood that resembled a range of mountains covered in stubble! Mr Miller, the woodwork teacher would walk past my bench and shake his head in frustration and bewilderment at my efforts. He was not wrong, I was, truly, a lost cause; a budding carpenter I was not. I was a little better in metalwork, but still nowhere near the league of many of my peers - especially Les, who I was convinced could have turned out magnificent and intricate wrought iron gates for Buckingham Palace during just one metalwork lesson had he wished to do so! One day, however, the teacher, a kind, gentle, quietly spoken man named Mr Leach told us that we were going to learn how to bend metal and join pieces of metal using heat. We could choose what we wanted to make but he made a few suggestions – one of which was a fishing rod rest! My heart leapt at this! - I didn’t have a rod rest and I knew in an instant that I would make the finest rod rest that the world had ever seen; it would be the envy of the entire fishing fraternity! Well, I don’t suppose that it ever reached those heights but it was a perfectly respectable result and, boy, was I proud of it! When I took it home I couldn’t resist showing it off to Nebber and all my other fishing friends. My dad gave me some red oxide paint, from a tin that I think had fallen off the back of a lorry (like so many of the things that my dad possessed) to paint it with so that it wouldn’t rust.  And when I next sat on the river bank my rod rest was in pride of place, stuck firmly into the soil of the river bank leaning out over the water with my rod safely resting in its beautifully shaped end – all my own work! I almost felt like hanging a notice on it saying “I made this rod rest”! Had computers and mobile phones been around then I would have filled social media with pictures of my wonderful rod rest - it would have gone viral, the social media trend to end all trends!

My dad made me a tackle box so that I could carry my gear and had somewhere to sit, and in the months and years that followed Nebber and I would often go off with Ron, the local chip shop owner. Ron’s shop was on New Hall Lane near the end of my street and just a couple of blocks away from Mr Seed’s hardware shop. When I looked on Google maps recently I saw that it is now Harvey’s fish & chip shop, so the trade lives on half a century later! Ron was a keen salmon fisherman and after he closed the shop late on Saturday night or during the school holidays we would speed off in his car to arrive in the early hours at the River Lune near Lancaster or Tebay. Ron was an expert and it was rare not to come back with a salmon or a few trout that he had caught. Nebber and I might get lucky and bring a couple of trout home but it was the excitement of staying out all night and coming back in the early light of dawn, and doing this “man thing”, that was the draw! I still smile when I recall how once we all three hid in the moonlit bushes on the Lune riverbank when the inspector came along checking fishing permits – which we didn’t have! Ron had a large salmon hidden beneath his coat as we, poachers all three, crouched unmoving in the moonlight until the inspector passed! Then salmon quickly disappeared into the boot of Ron’s old Ford Consul.

Another fond memory of those years are the fishing trips that I went on with my dad and Uncle Joe. Neither my dad or Uncle Joe were really fishermen in the real sense although my dad, as I explain below did get into it later. These trips with my uncle were to take part in the twice a year fishing competitions organised by the men at Emerson Road Mill where my uncle (he was a tackler), and my mother and auntie (both weavers) worked. These fishing matches were not serious, few of the men were fishermen, in reality they were simply an excuse for all the blokes to go off in a coach for the day and sit by the canal bank after having spent 2 or 3 hours in a nearby pub and then, as darkness fell, going off into Morecambe or Blackpool to drink many more pints before falling off the coach when it arrived back in Preston and  staggering home in the early hours. And then of course, the match having taken place and winners declared it was necessary to have two more evenings of heavy drinking when prizes would be presented. An upstairs room in a local pub would be booked, sandwiches or chicken in a basket (remember that!) would be laid on, my mother and auntie would dress up in their finery and we would all enjoy a night out, cheering on those who had won the respective matches. Of course I had to wait until I was about 17 to take part in all this, but I still remember these ventures with huge affection - I was growing up.
Christmas at Emerson Road Mill in the early 60s. My Uncle Joe who was a tackler stands
in the middle of the men at the back with a beer in his hand. My Auntie Edna wearing a
"crown" sits just to the left of the man pouring his beer. My mother is just peeping out to the
left of my Auntie. The Emerson Road Mill Fishing Matches were highlights of the year -
at least for publicans of Lancaster, Morecambe, Blackpool and the surrounding areas!

In Preston the anglers’ shop in those days was Calderbank’s, tucked away in Moor Lane just outside the town centre. So, wanting a new rod more suited to my burgeoning skills, I decided, when I was about 15, to make the trip to this mythical anglers’ Mecca. One Saturday morning I stood outside gazing at the treasures, my eyes huge at the beautiful kit on display – this was a definite step up from Mr Seed’s general hardware shop! All the labels and price tags beautifully written in a copperplate hand and, to my amazement, all prices were in shillings – no pound signs used! I could see rods that my maths told me might cost £15/0/0 – a fortune to me - but the price would be marked as 300/-. Clearly, this was the Harrod’s of the angling world where only the angling elite ventured; just the place for me, I had no doubts!  Clutching my few pounds I opened the shop door – the name over the door told me that the proprietor was one Cyril Calderbank – and stepped into this Aladdin’s Cave. I stood, my fingers running along the beautifully varnished rods, my eyes admiring the delicately whipped and richly coloured trout and salmon flies – this was truly an angling wonderland! Then a movement behind the counter and a quiet “Can I help you?”.........and to my complete amazement, and no little horror, there stood my Technical Drawing teacher from Fishwick Secondary School, Mr Calderbank.
Me as a 17 year old in 1962 at an Emerson Mill fishing
trip presentation evening with my auntie (left) her next door
neighbour Mrs Keane and my mother (at the side of me!)

Highly embarrassed, I managed a stumbling “Oh, Hello Sir” and tried to explain what I wanted, the words tumbling over themselves as my tongue failed to keep pace with my spinning brain. It had never occurred to me that Mr Calderbank was the Cyril Calderbank.  Although I had long known that his name was Cyril I had never put two and two together and arrived at the requisite four! What a tale I would tell when I got to school on Monday morning! Mr Calderbank, however, soon put me at my ease and kindly showed me the rods that I might be able to afford and explained the benefits of each – and from that day on I became one of his regulars. From that point hardly a Tech Drawing lesson went by without a whispered aside from him as I left the room at the end of a lesson: “Off anywhere interesting this weekend Beale?” or “Have any luck at the weekend? Fortunately, I had a talent for technical drawing and when I left school applied for a job as a trainee draughtsman in a local drawing office: Mr Calderbank was one of my referees. I got the job and in the months that followed whenever I visited his shop, he would ask me about my work and the night school courses that I was attending to gain my ONC. One day when I was about two years into my new career he invited me back to school to talk to the boys who were about to leave to tell them about my work and what it might offer them. As I stood in front of that class of boys in Mr Calderbank’s room telling them of my life as a trainee draughtsman I really felt as if I was moving up in the world. Little did I know then that in a few years time I would change career and spend the rest of my working life like Mr Calderbank standing in front of classes of children as a teacher.

And still today, as then, I like to believe that it was my fishing hobby that somehow gave me that first little chance, and helped me to enlist the support of Mr Calderbank in getting my first job. But there was more, much more: the gentle art gave me something else – something very personal and very much in my thoughts in recent months.
Dinkley, just as I remember it

In my office and behind me as I write this, sits an urn containing my father’s ashes. Since they came into my possession I have pondered long and hard what to do with them. There are a number of options but one that keeps returning is Dinkley, a remote and beautiful area popular with local fisherman on the edge of the Trough of Bowland  between Preston and Blackburn.  The upper reaches of the Ribble flow there and as my teenage interest in fishing grew my dad, slowly became part of it. He bought a cheap rod and a few bits of tackle and on summer evenings when he was not on the road in his lorry we two, often with Nebber, would take the half hour drive to Dinkley. For me this became an increasingly important part of my life. I had had few opportunities to do things with my dad and in all honesty our home was often filled with arguments mostly inspired by my mother who, sadly, I knew, even then, was not the easiest of women. So these evenings with my dad were important and although we rarely caught anything of note it was, I think, hugely enjoyable for both of us. For dad it was an opportunity to have a quiet couple of hours and to have a few cigarettes while my mother was not present – she had been a smoker all her life but had given up and was pressuring (nagging!) dad to do the same, so a couple of hours on the river bank was an opportunity for him to catch up with his “fix”. I, of course, was sworn to secrecy and again, this was important – having a secret with my dad was, I suppose, another of those growing up things, a man thing. These trips were events for which I will be forever grateful. In a small way they made up for the many nights when, as a long distance lorry driver, dad had been away on the road and I had listened to my mother’s continual criticism of him.  In modern terms I suppose we might call it father and son bonding. Today, however, they are treasured memories, and for that reason alone I think my dad’s ashes will be scattered one day at Dinkley. 

When I left home as a twenty one year old to attend teacher training college in Nottingham my love affair with fishing gradually waned. The rods and tackle lay dormant until my own son and I went to try our luck for a few years but slowly life moved on. It was not, however, in vain. Still today, if we walk along a river bank or pass an angler sitting there with today’s hi-tec gear my heart beats a little faster. I cannot stop myself from peering into his keep net to see what he has caught, I cannot pass without again feeling that same primeval twinge of excitement as I see his float drift in the current and he waits, still, concentrating, looking for that little tremble or dip of the float. The old instincts are still there and in recent months the old memories have, with my possession of my father’s ashes, been stirred. I could never have imagined that the few pounds that I spent in Mr Seed’s hardware shop that spring tea time in 1958 would still be very much a part of me, six decades later, and be instrumental in making me what I am today. They were, undoubtedly, worth every penny - and more.......... and, that's not all! You see, whenever I go into the shed at the back of my garage here in Nottingham, amongst the cobwebs, the garden tools, the bits of old electric cabling and the off cuts of wood, amongst the sun loungers, the BBQ stuff, the step ladders and the half used pots of paint there, tucked in the corner, stands my proud piece of metalwork, my rod rest; still with its red oxide paint, albeit faded now, but still unquestionably the best rod rest the world has ever seen!

11 July, 2017

"St Matt's penny rats, three for tuppence ha'penny!"

St Matthew's 21st century style - but I still recognise it. The two upstairs
windows on the left were the much feared Cock Roberts' classroom!
Although I spent most of my working life in school classrooms my memories of my own school days are limited to a few isolated and largely inconsequential and unconnected events that for some reason have remained part of me. My life time of teaching 10 and 11 year olds is still very fresh in my mind, even though I have been retired now for over ten years, but the years that I spent as a pupil are largely lost in the mists of time.  There are, however, some things that I can still recall of my own time as a pupil with absolute clarity; they are as if yesterday and when I think about them I remember not only the event but, strangely, can recognise the feelings that I had, the smells that I smelled, the sounds that I heard, and the hopes and fears that loomed large in my young mind all those years ago. The brain and the mind are indeed  strange and powerful things!

My childhood, before I went to Fishwick Secondary Modern School as an 11+ failure in 1956, was spent at St Matthew’s C of E Infant and Junior School - as it was then called - in New Hall Lane, Preston. I lived in Caroline Street so it was just round the corner from my home. I can remember little of the lessons I received but some things, as I suggested above, still stand out as if yesterday. I can vividly remember a February morning in 1952 when I was almost seven. The whole infant school were suddenly taken from our classrooms and herded into the space that served as a school hall. There, I remember a grim faced head mistress, through her tears, telling the assembled school and weeping staff that she was very sad to tell us that the King – George VI – had died that morning. We all had to bow our head in prayer and then the headmistress told us that as a mark of respect for the dead King we would all be sent home forthwith, school was closed for the day. So I left, wrapped up in my coat, my ears kept warm by the balaclava knitted by my mother, and walked home through the cold February air. There was no letter to explain to my mother that the school was closed it was just expected that we were grown up enough to go home, explain and, if there was no-one in at home to let us in, keep ourselves safe for the rest of the day. I was lucky my mother did not work and I can remember knocking on the front door and explaining to her why I had come home half way through the morning. Looking back it all seemed so natural – today, of course would be so different, health and safety legislation would prevent any school taking such a course of action – but in those days it seemed perfectly  right and proper that the King’s passing should be marked in such a way. My mother, I seem to remember, was unperturbed by my early arrival home and clearly accepted that it was right and proper that the school should take the action it did; looking back now it was an age when parents never questioned, as they do today, the actions and views of schools, teachers or others in "authority" - it was an age when for people like my mother "the school knew best", or "ours not to reason why".  My mother had not heard the news of the King's demise and she immediately switched on our brown plastic Rediffusion wireless which sat in the corner of our front room to hear the details of the King’s death. I can still hear the sorrowful music that was being played and the BBC announcer giving the details of the death, the national mourning and the protocol of the occasion, his grim subdued voice speaking in the BBC English so prevalent at the time and sounding quite alien to me as a working class child of Lancashire.
A few more cars than in 1952, but that's definitely New Hall Lane
and St Matthew's

Another memory of my life at St Matthew’s was the weekly school's radio broadcast “Singing Together” – one of the great children’s radio programmes. Even today, I can still remember  exactly the words of many of the songs that we sang: “The Vicar of Bray”, “Where ‘er you walk”, “Michael Finnigan”, “Lillibullero” , “The Skye Boat Song”, “Barbara Allen......” . Now,  as a grumpy old man, I often think that children today are being actively disadvantaged by not experiencing these traditional songs and poems – for in their words lies so much of our nation’s history; put simply they help to explain who and what we are, they give a context to our lives. On a different tack I can also recall with painful clarity the weekly PT drill in the school playground:. This wasn't physical education in the way it is taught today but physical training akin to the exercises performed by soldiers. All of us standing in straight lines running on the spot, jumping up and down in time with the teacher, touching our toes to the rhythm of the teacher's clapping hands - all done in complete silence, no laughing or giggling, our breath misty in the cold morning air.  It was usually one of the two younger teachers - either Mr Sharples or Mr Morris - who led this daily ritual which more often than not was bolted on  to the end of morning playtime so there was no time wasted going inside and getting changed - we just did it in our outdoor clothes. 
Paul's Pad today - it doesn't seem to have changed much -
except perhaps a bit more grass than in my day!

I should explain at this point that in those far off days the school was split into boys and girls. Although we were all together at the infant school once we reached the age of seven and became juniors the boys went into the boys’ side of the building and the girls into theirs. We had separate playgrounds with a high wall so never the twain should meet! Once a week summer and winter each class of boys would be taken by either Mr Morris or Mr Sharples through the streets to what we knew as Paul’s Pad – in those days it was an open space surrounded by houses. We would walk in a long crocodile up New Hall Lane, onto Delaware Street, over Maitland Street and then to Paul's Pad. Those of us lucky enough to have football kit (not many of us!) would have it on, our boots click clacking on the pavement as we walked and old comics stuffed down our socks as shin guards! The boots in those days had leather studs which were hammered in (each stud had three little nails) and walking along the pavement soon wore them out so my dad was forever putting new studs in my boots which we bought from the shoe shop and cobbler's on New Hall Lane, owned by a pleasant bold haired gentleman named Mr Rawlinson. Every few weeks I would go to his shop for half a dozen new studs which he would count out and put in a white paper bag. My dad would sit in the kitchen and hammer them into my boots while I watched. I still have the iron last that he used all those years ago. One couldn’t call Paul's Pad a park – its surface was, as I remember it, covered with cinders and gravel and each November 5th the local bonfire was built there but every week, whatever the season or weather we would go to play football there.  Classes were large, in my class when I was eleven there were 53 of us, so all 53 of us would be chasing one ball around in a mad cap whirl, running off our energy – I suspect much to the teachers’ satisfaction. I remember week after week coming home with grazed knees where I had fallen on the gravel and cinders as I sought to emulate the great Preston North End footballer Tommy Finney!
I remember these and all the other books in the series as  if
yesterday. The Wide Range books went up to level 6 I think
and there were green, blue, yellow & red levels. By the time you
got to level 6  they were quite difficult books. The Bright Story
Readers were abridged versions of classics. They were my
introduction  to, and whetted my appetite for, the great
classics: Treasure Island,  A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist,
Swiss Family Robinson, Coral Island, Ivanhoe, Robinson
Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels  etc.

In the junior boys’ school there were four teachers and four classes – two classrooms downstairs and two upstairs where the oldest children were. As a seven/eight year old we were in Mrs Bargh’s class – a quiet but strict, matronly, middle aged lady who was held in some high regard amongst us boys because we knew that she was married to George Bargh who had been a Preston North End footballer before the war and in the 1950s was the team’s trainer. More of Mrs Bargh later! The next class was for the eight/nine year olds and was taught by Mr Sharples – a young man, I suspect he was one of those wonderful men who were emergency trained as teachers immediately after being demobbed from the war; the booming birth rate in the aftermath of the war meant that the country was desperately short of teachers. Mr Sharples was a warm, kindly man, full of fun, who always had time for you and who would join in with the football; he had endless patience and every boy, I think, looked up to him. The next class was for the nine/ten year olds and was led by Mr Morris – again, I suspect an emergency trained teacher. Quiet, gentle, tall and thin he looked like a professor and was  very strict in a gentle sort of way, rarely raising his voice. I loved being in his class. His classroom  was at the side of the wash basins and what passed for a staff room and I still remember being so proud when I was chosen to go round the school collecting the teachers' “tea money” and after each playtime washing up their cups in the school wash basins adjacent to his classroom. Mr Morris always seemed to encourage reading and I can well remember spending time wading through the upper end of the "Wide Range Readers" in his class. Some of the stories, such as one about how ancient cave men first made fire or one describing the various tasks and duties that mediaeval knights had to perform in order to claim the right to be recognised as a knight I can still remember and picture today.  I can also remember every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock we would all squash up on our desks so that the “top class” could join us and for an hour we all sat and chanted multiplication tables, imperial measures tables and money tables: “12 pennies = 1 shilling, 20 shillings = £1, 21 shillings =1 guinea, 240 pennies = £1..........” and so it went on. As we all sat erect in our desks Mr Morris “conducted” us rather like an orchestra!

And then the “top class” – the ten and eleven year olds! That was taught by Mr Roberts, the headmaster of the Junior Boys' School. A frightening, growling man, heavy jowled, balding and stout, always in a dark grey suit with waistcoat and with a commanding presence.  We called him “Cock Roberts”: the stories of his strict discipline were the stuff of school legend – all went in fear of his cane, the flying blackboard rubbers and the raps over the knuckles as he walked around the classroom up and down the lines of desks. He sat at a raised desk at the front of the class and I can remember little of my time in his class except maybe that I don’t remember him actually teaching us very much! From my vague memories lessons were brief; he would stand at the front show us how to do a particular sum or complete a particular piece of English and then told us to get on with the task, there was little or no explanation and then it was sink or swim. If you were one of the lucky ones, like me, and caught on then you had a chance but if not you were in trouble and would be punished harshly for your failure. Each morning when we walked in the black board would be already filled with rows of neatly written sums or sentences to be corrected or answered and once the register had been taken we just got on with them in total silence - the punishment for those, like a boy in the class called Victor, who got them wrong or couldn't do them came later. Whatever the rights and obvious wrongs of this there was no doubt that it concentrated the mind - nobody messed around, everyone knew that concentration and hard work were the order of the day but even then as a child I felt sorry for those who struggled; it was manifestly obvious to my young eyes that those like Victor who struggled with all their school work were being punished not for their laziness or lack of attention but for their lack of ability - and that didn't seem right to me. 

Although we were terrified of Mr Roberts there was one part of the week that we all looked forward to - Friday afternoon. Each Friday we were allowed to bring something from home - a game, a book, some comics, a model to make etc. and we were allowed to use these on Friday afternoons. We all sat in total silence reading our books or comics or playing silent games of Dominoes, Snakes and Ladders or Ludo while Mr Roberts, as Head Master, sat at his desk doing all the school administration for the week such totalling the attendance registers, checking the dinner totals, writing letters and so on. No one dared speak or interrupt him - to do so would mean standing, hands behind one's back and totally still for the rest of the afternoon with one's nose pressed against the wall holding a piece of paper with your nose so that it didn't fall to the floor - that of course was after a couple of strokes of his cane! Should you sneeze or change position and the paper fluttered to the floor it was another whack with the cane. Looking back it seems bizarre - all those little boys playing totally silent games, showing no emotion when they won or lost, or  exchanging comics with their friends without saying a word but at the time we thought nothing of it, it was just what we did and we looked forward to this break from the sums and the comprehension and all the other school subjects.

I remember one incident in Mr Roberts' class as if yesterday. I had been off school for several weeks with a nasty kidney infection which led to a severe attack of jaundice and a short stay in hospital and when I at last returned to school the world had moved on. On the first morning back I sat gazing at the blackboard which had rows of sums – all of which involved adding and subtracting fractions. I hadn’t a clue what to do – fractions were a new world for me – I had missed this bit of the math’s curriculum during my absence ! I was far too terrified to ask Mr Roberts so I tried to peep at what my desk partner and best friend Brian Rigby was writing but he put his arm around his work so that I couldn’t copy! I was becoming desperate and then I watched as another friend – who I also knew was better at maths than me – asked Mr Roberts if he could go to the toilet. This was granted and the boy disappeared out of the classroom. I sat fidgeting, wondering if I dare do the same. In the end I plucked up courage and also asked if I could go to the toilet. Usually, no more than one person was allowed to leave the room at a time but Mr Roberts  was aware that I had been ill and so let me go. I ran down the staircase, through the cloakroom and out onto the playground to the toilets which were at the far end. In there I found Stephen Hitchin who I hoped would save me from disaster. As we stood in the lavatories I asked Stephen how these fractions should be done and thankfully he gave me a few brief tips, a life line. Returning to the classroom I managed to write something down that was vaguely meaningful and I suppose didn’t incur Mr Roberts’ wrath too much – at least I got a breathing space to find out how to tackle the addition and subtraction of fractions. When, years afterwards, I found myself being required to teach fractions to my class, I always had a huge sympathy for the many children who just didn’t “get it” – I knew exactly how they felt!

I could go on: the ten minute daily walk from school every dinner time when those of us who had a school dinner walked in a two abreast crocodile up New Hall Lane and then onto Fishwick Parade and eventually to the emergency built, tin roofed dining hall on Samuel Street. There we would tuck into our dinners, queuing Oliver Twist like with our plates, sitting at long tables with the teachers at the head of the table eating with us, telling us how to hold our knives and forks, and saying grace before the meal.

I can remember, too, the friendly taunting between we St Matthew’s boys and our friends who went to the local Catholic School just up Rigby Street – St Joseph’s; our Catholic friends would chant to us as we went to school: “St Matt’s penny rats, three for tuppence  ha’penny”  and we would retaliate with St Joe’s have no clothes they wear a baby's nappy”.  And I remember, too, the daily bottle of milk that we all drank at morning playtime – in winter the milk was often frozen so that the silver cap was bulging off the bottle as the frozen milk had expanded. When you were in Cock Roberts’ class you might, if you were lucky, be the milk monitor for a week delivering the crates of milk around the school. And finally, the ink wells, the job of ink monitor, washing out and then refilling the classroom ink wells each Friday afternoon so they were ready for the following week,  and the associated skill of learning to write with a pen and ink. It is this last distant memory of pens and ink that stands out above all and for which I have long been grateful - and which in recent months has come to the fore.

Let me explain. Last Christmas my wife bought me a wonderful book – one of those that you don’t have to read cover to cover, but that you can dip into and each time you do so you find something to excite, uplift or enjoy. It is called “Letters of Note” and is a compilation of what it calls “correspondence deserving of a wider audience” . Ever since Christmas I have been dipping into this delightful treasure trove, taking it down from one of my office shelves where it resides within easy reach so that I can pass a few moments reading what others have written. Whenever I pick this book up and read or reread one of the entries I am taken back to St Matthew’s and to Mrs Bargh, to a weekly lesson, and as my mind wonders back to those far off days somewhere deep in my subconscious something says a silent “Thank you” to this woman from my past.
Some of Francis Crick's great letter to his son telling of the world changing discovery

The contents of the book that I have so enjoyed are hundreds of letters written by a range of people from the great and good: the Queen, Charles Dickens, Albert Einstein, Rudyard Kipling, President Kennedy and many, many more to complete unknowns like the three Elvis Presley fans who wrote to US President Eisenhower pleading that when Elvis was conscripted into the US army he should not be made to have his hair cut! The letters in the book range from the tragic to the humorous and from the trivial to the momentous but the common thread of all is their clarity, humanity and style. Some are gut wrenching pleas such as that written by an unknown mother in 1860’s New York – the letter was pinned to her month old baby which she could not afford to keep and it asks that the sisters at the Foundling Hospital take care of him: “......[his] name is Walter Cooper and he is not Christen [sic] yet will you be so good as to do it I should not like him to die without it...... I do not have a dollar in the world to give him or I would give it to him........I wish that you would keep him...” . Other letters are potentially great historical documents for example, on March 19th 1953 Francis Crick wrote to his 12 years old son, Michael, to give him advance notice that he and his co-scientist Jim Watson at Cambridge University had discovered DNA. The letter is long, handwritten and filled with diagrams – the excitement of this monumental discovery shines through every word and phrase but at the same time is filled with typical British understatement: “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery...............we have two chains [of DNA] winding around each other – each one is a helix........I can’t draw it very well but it looks like this. The model looks much nicer than this!.....”  The letter is detailed and Crick’s son had all this information several weeks before the discovery was made public and, of course, Crick and Watson subsequently received the Nobel Prize for one of the most important scientific discoveries ever. In April 2013 it became the most expensive letter ever when it was sold at auction for almost £5 million. Despite the importance and the magnitude of this discovery Francis Crick’s letter is both human and touching. It does what any personal  letter should and must do – pass on not only information but also feelings – and, importantly respect the reader; Crick was writing to a child about a hugely complicated subject and he does so with thought and care to ensure that his son is able to make sense of this wonderful bit of science. And, finally, many of the letters are marvellous little peeps into the minds of people; one I liked especially and which made me smile is that sent by Clyde Barrow (the gangster of Bonnie & Clyde fame) to Henry Ford the founder of the Ford Motor Company. Clyde wrote in praise of the Ford V8 car: “Dear Sir, While I still have breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly [sic] legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8. Yours truly Clyde Champion Barrow.”
Me in 1956 at the end of my time at St Matthew's.
I am at the back on the left and my best friend
Nebber (Tony Clarkson) is at the front right. Nebber
went to St Joseph's Catholic School in Rigby Street.
We are outside my house at 18 Caroline Street.
The other two boys are brothers who had just moved
into the area

I could go on – three hundred pages of letters, each one photographed so that you can see the original, plus a printed version of the letter and a little summary of the background to the letter – a real treasure trove; a peep into the minds of other humans. For that, of course, is what we do – or should do – when we sit down to write a letter - set out what is in our mind. Writing a letter is not something to be done casually or with no thought; to do so compromises the whole point of a letter. In today’s world where ubiquitous, ill thought out, badly composed and carelessly composed emails, tweets and social media posts (another name for a mini letter) are increasingly accepted  I find myself  too often confused, unable to really understand the message that people are trying to convey, and at the same time I am alarmed at the insight that these poorly written  pieces give into the minds of those writing.

And so back to St Matthew’s and Mrs Bargh. Each week Mrs Bargh came and took each class for a handwriting and spelling lesson. I assume that she did this while one of the men teachers – Mr Sharples or Mr Morris - were off taking a games lesson with other boys or while Mr Roberts completed some of his duties as Head Master. Well, whatever the reason she did this each week throughout my four years at St Matthew's Junior Boys, and I can well remember a lesson - it must have been in 1954 since I was in Mr Sharples’ class - when Mrs Bargh announced that it was an important day because  those of us who were ready would be given a pen and ink to use. Of course everyone wanted to have this privilege but only a few got it in the first place; I was one of the lucky ones. So for the next weeks and months we slowly got to grips with using one of the old “stick pens” where one had to dip the nib into the ink well. I have to say, my efforts were very poor and I often looked with envy at Brian Rigby or Barry Alston’s neat pages of script and then back at my scrappy efforts where blobs of ink and a spidery scrawl  seemed more the message than any writing that I had attempted. Of course, the older we got the more we used our pens in our everyday lessons and by the time we were in Cock Roberts’ class most of us used pen and ink all the time but it was Mrs Bargh who set us on the road with her weekly lessons.
Just like the desks that we had at St Matthew's. The little holes for the ink wells
often got blocked up with bits of blotting paper of pencil shavings!

We must have spent hours copying patterns, learning how to underline using an inverted ruler so that the wet ink didn’t drag across the page, copying poems out (and learning them by heart) and writing lists of spellings but out of all these there is one that I remember with absolute clarity. As I sit here now writing this blog I can, in my mind’s eye, hear Mrs Bargh at the front of the class giving us firm, never to be broken rules for letter writing and what a letter should comprise of. She showed us how a letter must be set out, where the address went, how it should be signed, when to use “faithfully” or when to use “sincerely”, where the date should go, how the recipient should be addressed and all the other conventions of letter writing. And I can hear her now saying “When you write a letter you are sending a piece of yourself to someone, you are telling them what is in your mind so it must make sense. You are also sending something to them which you want them to read so you must be polite so that they will want to read it. It must be beautifully neat so that they can read it easily and so that they can see that you have taken care because if it’s untidy or poorly spelled or badly composed then it shows that you haven't really taken care and the person reading it will think that  as you don’t care and  then they won’t bother to reply. Never, ever write a letter in green or red ink – it’s impolite, disrespectful and wrong - it shows that you are not thinking seriously about what you write. Letters must always be in dark blue or black ink........” and so she went on.  And I have never forgotten her words. They made abundant sense to me then and they still do today.  When we write anything down it has to make sense, be readable and fulfil its function but when we are writing to someone else, then other things kick in for it is someone else who is going to read it and we owe that person an obligation to write in a way that not only communicates what we want to tell them but also shows a respect for the them; if we can’t be bothered to do that then why should the reader be bothered to take note of our letter or reply to it? It does not mean that letters have to be full of complicated, posh flowing language but it does mean that they need to be thought about and fulfill their function in a clear, organised, polite and correct manner. Mrs Bargh made sense then and she still does today!
Ready to refill the ink wells

In our modern world of emails, tweets and social media postings we so often seem to have lost the art of letter writing but although there is perhaps less need to write letters in the ways of yesteryear I do not believe that there is any less of a requirement to write clearly, correctly and politely: today we read the banal, mad cap and frankly disreputable ramblings of President Trump in his mindless and ill composed Twitter offerings  and I suspect most of us in our heart of hearts know that what he writes gives a pretty good indication of what is going on in his brain: his writings tell the tale of his brain cells and his disrespect for those who read his communications. The defining characteristic of humans over the animal kingdom is our use of language – it not only allows us to communicate with each other but, far more importantly, allows us to do what no animal can do, to think in a way that no other creature can. Unlike animals we have a sense of our place in the world, where we have come from and where we might go; animals do not have this, they are virtually entirely instinctive. We can think back to our history, look forward to our future, argue logically, think in the abstract, discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad, we can calculate, communicate our thoughts onto paper and use written words as a substitute for what we speak, describe things, identify how we feel and understand how others feel –  and we do all of this through language. In short we are what we are because language enables us to think. One needs only to read President Trump’s tweets to know that his thought processes are severely limited by his inability to use language effectively. His paucity of vocabulary – for example his overwhelming use of the word “bad” when he describes something of which he disapproves – bears witness to his inability to use the  most effective, most suitable and precise  word for the context of his disapproval. The ability to think complex thoughts – as we all do all of the time – is both dependent upon and promotes increasingly complex language patterns; complex thought begets complex language and complex language begets increasingly complex thoughts - it is how mankind has developed. Donald Trump and anyone else show their intellectual limits each and every time they write a trivial, badly composed or poorly structured tweet or Facebook post; in short if you cannot write clearly then you cannot by definition think clearly.
Ready for me to blob ink everywhere!

When Mrs Bargh passed on her wisdom, her non-negotiable rules and her skills all those years ago I don’t expect that she ever dreamed that her words would still ring clear in the mind of at least one of her pupils over sixty years after he heard them. I’d like to think that she would be quietly pleased. As I sit here writing this, at the side of me is my copy of “Letters of Note”. It is open at page 111 where a very short letter is reprinted. The letter was written in May 1945 by a Japanese  suicide pilot who knew that on the next day he would die as he flew his aeroplane into an American battleship. Masanobu Kuno sat and wrote a letter to his five year old son and two year old daughter, it was a farewell letter. He wrote: “Dear Masanori and Kiyoko, Even though you can’t see me, I’ll always be watching you. When you grow up, follow the path you like to become a fine Japanese  man and woman. Do not envy the fathers of others. You father will become a god and watch over you two closely. Both of you must study hard and help your mother with work. I can’t be your horse to ride, but you two be good friends........”. And further on in the book is an ancient letter written in 1556 by the widow of a Korean man. The writer was pregnant with her husband’s child and her husband had died suddenly. The letter was found resting on the chest of the mummified body by archaeologists when they opened the tomb in 1998. It said: "To Won’s Father, June 1 1586. You always said  'Dear let’s live together until our hair turns gray and we die on the same day'. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live? How could you go ahead of me?..........I just cannot live without you. I just want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings towards you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where should I put my heart now?.....Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams.....look closely and talk to me. When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? There is no tragedy like this under the sky......I believe that I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself.....”

Wow! – it makes Donald Trump’s awful use of language and dreadful composition not only look pathetic but an insult to human intelligence and to the nation that he purports to lead. We might, as a society, think ourselves very clever with our computers, mobile phones, tablets and all the other ephemera of the 21st century that we glorify and desire but maybe we have lost something in the quality of our communications. I think that Mrs Bargh would have understood that; her weekly writing lessons, as we sat at those awful, uncomfortable two seated iron and wood desks with our stick pens and blotting paper, me blobbing ink everywhere, have stayed with me to this day – not only the mechanics of writing but also the reason for writing with care and respect for the reader, whoever they might be.  Each time I open my “Letters of Note” somewhere deep in my subconscious I think of Mrs Bargh and her rules for writing a letter, and a little voice inside me seems to silently say “thank you”   to that lady and to St Matthew's for what they gave me all those years ago.