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Getting in to a Public School
The first time that I had to give serious consideration to my future was in 1944, when I was registered for the entrance examination to Whitgift school in South Croydon, a suburb to the south of London. Whitgift was a "Public" school, meaning that it was actually incredibly private and only for those whose parents were prepared to pay the substantial fees. The examination date was in June of 1944, two weeks after the D-day landings on the beaches of Normandy and as luck would have it, right at the height of the Doodlebug episode. My little church methodist school had been closed from the day after they began to appear, so that I was totally unprepared for the first formal examination of my life. My Mother took me to the school at the appointed time and I was quite overwhelmed by the size and grandeur of the place.
Whitgift school - as it was when I started there
(This photo and the next one are reproduced
by kind permission of F.H.G. Percy, from his
book "Whitgift School - a history")
A war memorial for the more than 250 old-boys and
staff who never returned from the two world wars
The first thing that impinged on my psyche as I entered Big School for the examination was the smell of the preservative polish used on the parquet oak floors and panelling down the corridors. The desks were all separated by about four feet and each one had an inkwell filled to the brim, with pens and pencils laid out for the young victims. We were handed the examination paper and an ageing master with white hair that stuck straight up explained the drill. He seemed a bit deaf I thought and this was later confirmed when the air raid siren sounded and he didn't bat an eyelash. We heard a couple of the dreaded doodlebugs pass by at some distance followed by the awful silence as the fuel ran out and they plummeted to the ground to explode on impact. Both explosions were muffled by the distance and it was obvious that the master had not heard a thing, but shortly thereafter the "All Clear" sounded and he suddenly perked up and became very agitated, ordering us all to get underneath our desks. Someone had the courage to tell him that it was all over and he went back to his book.
No one was surprised when I did not pass that examination (I had only reached the minimum age requirement the day before), and it was a year later that I did pass it, starting at Whitgift as a very new boy indeed in September 1945, just a few weeks after the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the interim the war came to an end, first in Europe in May 1945 and in Japan in August. I remember that church bells rang out on V.E. day for the first time since 1940, and a huge bonfire was lit on the local Common to mark the occasion. No more air raids thank God, was my reaction and of course I expected an immediate return to prewar prosperity, with no more rationing or shortages of anything, like sweets or milk or ice cream. Not only did that not happen, but things actually got worse for a while as the upheaval of demobilisation brought many thousands back into the workforce in the following eighteen months or so.
The Labour Government
The first two years or so at Whitgift were difficult, adjusting to an all male society in which I was at the very bottom of the miserarchy. In those years my school atlas became obsolete as India became independent and separated from Pakistan, and Palestine was displaced by the newly created state of Israel, in the perpetual game of musical countries which still continues to bedevil the Middle East. These were also the years of the first postwar Labour government in Britain, of which my parents were strong supporters, even though they stood to lose economically from their policies.
I inherited the strong liberal political streak and resented the overt anti-Labour prejudice which was shown (and in some cases actively encouraged) by many of the teaching staff. They would ridicule the rough-hewn rhetoric of ministers like Aneurin Bevan, the fiery and uncompromising health minister who came from the Rhondda Valley with bitter memories of how the depression had ravaged the welsh coal mining towns in the thirties and a determination that it must never happen again. They would mimic the working class accents of "Ernie" Bevin the foreign secretary and "Herbie" Morrison the home secretary with withering contempt. I soon learned to keep my radical opinions to myself or face the opprobrium of my class mates and the staff combined.
Mistakes were made by the government of course, but for all their lack of formal education and experience the ministers of the Atlee government brought Britain from the brink of bankruptcy immediately after the war, to being substantially in the black before the Korean war reversed the trend and they were hounded out of office by the combined efforts of the wealthy Tory press and the professional and well-to-do classes. These people were furious at the social change which had been wrought with measures like the inheritance tax which was imposed in an attempt to re- distribute the national wealth, and the new national health service which had been launched over the bitter opposition of the British Medical Association and other vested interests.
A number of unforeseen events conspired to keep the government off balance during those early postwar years, one of which was the unprecedented severity of the winter of 1946/47. Local ponds for example, stayed frozen for weeks on end rather than a few days at a time, and there was a run on coal which could not be met. The only solution was systematic power cuts to try and leave enough for the bare minimum of domestic consumption (virtually all houses were totally reliant on coal and coke for all heating and hot water at that time). The minister responsible was Emmanual Shinwell and his Department was called the Ministry of Fuel and Power. He was of course an obvious and easy target for vilification over the power cuts and there were mocking references to "Manny Shinwell and his Ministry of Foul and Pure".
wood instead of coal - if there was any!
The nationalisation policy of the government, aimed at putting key industries under public control, was another sore point and probably not all of that policy was justified, however ventures like British Rail certainly were and the results were immediately apparent after 1948 with the appearance of brand new rolling stock for the crowded commuter trains of the South East, the first since the great depression. I remember vividly how amazed everyone was the first day that the train I took to school pulled in to the station, replete with brand new coaches. They had centre aisles the full length of the coach rather than separate compartments and smelt of new upholstery and paint. The windows stayed put in any position without the big leather strap with holes which hooked on to a brass boss that the old prewar ones had. I recently saw a film portraying a story set in the 30's which included some train footage, they had it almost right but those windows that stayed put by themselves gave the game away, they had used some "new" (post 1948) rolling stock.
I usually had time to glance at the headline stories of the three evening newspapers on the W.H.Smith news stand at South Croydon station while waiting for my train. At that time they were the "Star", "Evening News" and "Evening Standard". I well remember the vicarious satisfaction which greeted the news that Hermann Goering had been captured. Reichmarschal Goering was the architect of the Luftwaffe and as such he was the one of the arch villains in the eyes of the British public. He was held under close arrest in a heavily guarded prison to await his trial and a furore erupted when he managed to escape the noose by committing suicide. He was allowed a visit by his wife who despite the stringent security arrangements, managed to pass him a cyanide capsule as she kissed him on leaving.
Later there were the reports of the war crimes trials held in Nuremburg and the heartrending testimony of so many of the concentration camp survivors. The revelations of what had gone on in places like Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck, Treblinka and Auscwhitz were chilling beyond belief and the snippets that I read from the front pages of the newspapers at that time will certainly remain with me for the rest of my life. I can hardly believe that now, only forty odd years after all of that detailed testimony from thousands of survivors, with thousands of feet of film taken by the allies when they liberated the camps to back it up, that we have a bunch of bird-brained zealots, most of whom were not even born at the time, who maintain that either it never happened, or that if it did, the whole thing was vastly overstated.
I for one am not prepared to believe that the Nuremburg trials, which lasted for many many months, were an elaborate hoax staged by the four victorious powers (Britain, America, France and Russia) to hoodwink the world and rewrite history. I will also never forget picking up paperback accounts of what happened to secret agents like "Odette" and the "White Rabbit", who had been parachuted into occupied territory, only to be caught and tortured horribly by the Gestapo to try and make them betray other agents, which they did not. Nowadays we tend to use fuzzy phrases like "human rights violations" for what they endured, which are of course considerably less disturbing.
I spent eight years at Whitgift and in that time I met all the stereotypes of all the people that I have dealt with at various times since then. There was the politician, the mad scientist, the scallywag and practical joker, the hermit, the bully, the venal opportunist, the born loser, the manipulator, the financier, the ruthless and grasping lawyer and last but not least the good all round plodder. The science teaching and laboratory facilities there were exceptionally good and when the time came to choose between arts and sciences I had no trouble going for science. One of the physics masters had a keen interest in electronics and I was fascinated by the valves (vacuum tubes) and what they could do and by the incredible mystery of "tuned circuits" the basis of radio communication. I decided then and there that this was the field that I probably wanted to work in somehow or another.
The environment was autocratic, in the junior school there was something called the "homework diary" every boy had to enter the homework assignments from each Master every day. At the end of each week it had to be initialled by a parent and presented to the "Form Master" (the one with overall responsibility for the twenty five or sometimes thirty boys in a particular form). It was a perfect solution for the eternal problem of parents and teachers never knowing what goes on in each others domains.
There was never any question of choice in the curriculum except after the matriculation or "O" level examination, taken at about sixteen years old, when the decision could be made to follow classics (Latin and Greek plus other related subjects); Modern languages, (French, German, Spanish and related literature); Arts (English, history and related subjects), or science; either physics, mathematics and chemistry, or chemistry and biology (aimed at meeting the requirements of medical schools).
Until that point the subjects were English grammar and literature, French, Latin, German, History, Geography, science, and mathematics. Even after the decision point English and French were mandatory. Two years after the "O" level examination, there was the "A" level examination, a minimum of two passes were required to get a place at university, with three being the norm.
The "O" and "A" level examinations replaced the matriculation and higher school certificate exams in 1951, and I was one of the guinea pigs that year, taking the new "O" levels. The teaching staff were a little nervous about the new and untried examinations despite assurances from the ministry of education that the academic levels would correspond directly with the previous ones. In the event it was a smooth transition and I was certainly well satisfied with the grades I got in my seven subjects.
These examinations followed a format which was designed by the ministry of education and were set by various universities (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge and London) with each one arranging for school teachers on contract to mark the papers. Whitgift chose to go with the Cambridge exams and as a result the certificates I wound up with were issued by that university. A prospective employer did not care which university the certificates were issued by, because by definition they all represented the same level of achievement.
I have always maintained that a national school leaving certificate of that kind would be of enormous benefit to Canada. Unfortunately education in Canada is a provincial responsibility, which means that as in so many other areas of provincial jurisdiction (transport for example, with responsibility for driving licences, road signs, speed limits, highway regulations etc.,) the inefficiency and duplication is likely to continue.
I am reasonably sure that the average Canadian would actually be quite happy to see a number of areas such as these brought under federal jurisdiction if it could be shown that there would be a significant saving of tax dollars. The ones who are terrified at the very idea are the provincial politicians and their bureaucracies and they are always very effective at evoking the spectre of a wicked federal government trying to milk the provinces and render them poor and powerless when there is any hint of a plan to do something on a national basis.
By 1948 there had been a big turnover in the teaching staff, many had stayed on beyond their retirement ages to fill the gap during the war, (the one who had supervised the entrance examination was one). Some younger ones had returned and quite a number were new, having served during the war and then gone on to get or finish getting university degrees. They were a different breed from the old guard and many were clearly sympathetic to the labour government and its aims. Inevitably nicknames were bestowed on the newcomers with the uncanny and devastating accuracy that only schoolboys seem to have for summing up an entire persona in a single name. Once so labelled by the generation he started with, the teacher would wear it for life or until he went to another school.
There was a Mr. Josephson, an ordained minister, who was "Holy Jo". The new young physics master who went so far as to wear sports jackets rather than a blazer, was "Spiv" and a well padded junior master with no visible jaw line was simply "Cod". Two older science masters already had their labels. One had never been seen to smile, and he told every class he taught that it was the worst one since time began, and that there was not even the remotest possibility of anyone passing any of the matriculation examinations. In fact he was an excellent teacher and all his classes invariably sailed through every exam they had. Nevertheless his name (predictably) was "Gloom". The other one was a chemistry master with a propensity for mixing up his chemicals in class demonstrations, leading to unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable results. He was "Snag". We knew however that occasionally the laboratory technician had a hand in some of his misfortunes, in order to alleviate the boredom which otherwise prevailed.
A science experiment to demonstrate
the principle of an electromagnet.....
.....goes hilariously wrong
"...then shall come the great awakening, and the rending of the tomb, then shall be the great rejoicing and the end of toil and gloom..."
Whenever it was sung during morning prayers, at least half the senior school could be heard singing:
"...then shall come the great awakening, and the rending of the tomb, then shall be the great rejoicing and the end of Snag and Gloom.."
Snacks and such
The walk to South Croydon station from the school each afternoon took me past a bakers shop from which delicious smells emanated. I remember that a single unadorned roll could be had for a penny-three-farthings (written 1-3/4 d), but if I decided to make a real pig of myself and have cheese in it, then the price skyrocketed to threepence, which most days was beyond my price range. If I managed to hold out until the train reached my home station, then there was a news agent's shop where one could buy a Walls ice cream wafer for threepence, or, on days when the coffers were especially well topped up, a Lyons choc-ice for fourpence. Thus fortified I then hopped on my bike (every little railway station had a bicycle shed in those days where commuters could keep their bikes) and rode the two miles home, summer and winter.
There were of course no fast-food places anywhere in those days, the closest thing was probably the Jo Lyons tea shops, which were in just about every high street everywhere and a national institution. They were excellent, with their own brands of ice cream, tea and lines of confectionary. In London there were the Lyons Corner Houses, the sort of flagships of the line, with what would now be called business class service for the well-heeled and busy clients. Alas the chain was unable to compete with the slicker fast-food outlets and eventually disappeared from the scene. There were other chains like the ABC cafeterias, but they were only in the bigger centres. I remember this particularly because sometime in the late forties I was put in sole charge of taking Brother Noel and his friend Fred to the "Schoolboy's Own" Exhibition at Earl's Court in London. Fred's military family were on a three year posting and hailed originally from Belfast. He was a rather solemn little boy who spoke slowly and deliberately with a most engaging Irish brogue, which we all found quite fascinating. He also enjoyed a rather more lavish lifestyle than we were used to because his Father was a Lt. Colonel in an incredibly posh regiment, the name of which I cannot now remember.
I was given enough money for train and bus fares, the admission to the exhibition, and some extra for snacks and a meal for the three of us. The instructions were detailed in the extreme. We were to go to Victoria Station and if by that time we were overcome by hunger, then the ABC cafeteria, just across the station yard, was the place to get a reasonably cheap meal. Predictably hunger was looming up as a major concern by the time the forty minute train journey to London was over and I shepherded my charges across the station yard and into the eatery. It seemed pretty upscale to me, with waiters and linen tablecloths, but since I had never been to an ABC cafeteria, it did not strike me as odd, merely pleasant, better by far than a Jo Lyons tea shop for example.
After a while a stony-faced waiter arrived with menus no less. There were things on it that we had not even heard of, but on the other hand there were lots of things that Noel's rich friend Fred certainly had heard of, like ham and eggs and chips. It was then that I noticed the prices and I froze with horror. Both Noel and Fred opted for the ham and eggs and some toast to go with it, which I realised was going to come to a staggering seven shillings and sixpence.
I knew then that something had gone terribly wrong, seven and sixpence was enough to buy thirty rolls, with cheese for heavens sake, from my baker's shop (and God knows how many without), or twenty-two and a half Lyons choc-ices. The food budget for the entire outing was ten shillings, which meant that this outlay would leave just half-a-crown (two shillings and sixpence). The waiter turned to me and asked if I would be having ham and eggs as well.
I scanned the menu desperately for something, anything, no matter how inappropriate or inedible, that would come in at under half-a- crown. Eventually I found something; pilchards (herrings in tomato sauce) were two shillings even. "Just pilchards sir?", I faced down the mild disbelief and told him yes, just pilchards please. Did I want anything to drink? Oh no thanks, well, er, that is, just a glass of water please.
The pilchards (plural) turned out to be a gross mis-representation, in fact it was one pilchard filleted to form two mirror images lying side by side in a puddle of tomato sauce, the whole forming a tiny island surrounded by a red sea, in the centre of an enormous elliptical plate. The waiter placed this offering carefully on the table in front of me and ostentatiously removed the standard knife and fork that were laid out and replaced them with a fish knife and fork which were each about double the size.
I attacked the minuscule fish parts using these huge implements with as much dignity as I could muster and managed to spin out the consumption of them to about four mouthsful. Meanwhile Noel and Fred, unaware of the impending financial crisis, thought that it would be nice to top off the ham and eggs with something sweet, like peach melba (one and ninepence) or neapolitan ice cream with those little sugary tubular biscuits (one and sixpence).
I headed this off by asking the waiter for the bill and beating a hasty but dignified retreat back onto the street, poorer, but more confused than wiser, and still damnably hungry, with Noel and Fred in tow, smacking their chops in satisfaction. All was revealed when I spied the ABC cafeteria that I thought we had been in across the other side of the station yard. I looked up at the sign of the place we had just emerged from, it said "The Windsor Grille".
Our family was definitely musical, my Mother was the prime mover because she was the pianist and could make her grand piano positively sing. She regularly accompanied people and choirs, in fact she was so good at it that she was cajoled into taking over her Womens Institute choir after the war as conductor because there was no one else remotely capable of doing the job. She had no experience of conducting, but managed to bring that choir to a level where they were able to participate in a massed choir event at the Leith Hill festival, a famous annual affair in Surrey. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams had written a piece for the occasion (he lived in that general area) and he spent some time giving the choir conductors some explanation of his idea of how it should be presented. My Mother was fascinated at meeting this celebrated English composer and working with him to make the piece come across as he had intended.
One of our neighbours was a central European woman who was a talented amateur soprano and my Mother occasionally accompanied her in some Schubert Liede. She had spent the war in a German Concentration camp and survived, and the ordeal of her experience (which we could only guess at because she was reluctant to talk about it) was etched into every line of her face.
I had inherited my Mother's love of the piano and took lessons for two or three years until my school work load and sports literally left no time for anything else. I did not have the talent that she had, but to this day it is my main form of relaxation and recreation. I was totally sold on films having to do with concert pianists and one of the ones that I saw umpteen times was "A Song to Remember", the story of the life of Chopin, Hollywood style, with Cornel Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon as the seductive Georges Sandes. Another was "Rhapsody" with Elizabeth Taylor, a story of a concert violinist, played by Vittori Gassman, and a concert pianist played by goodness knows who, it was marvellous and I lapped it up. Once I went to a "Prom" (BBC Promenade Concert) at the Albert Hall conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, and managed to get his autograph on a program as he emerged from the stage door.
Then there were the real-life concert pianists of the forties and fifties, Solomon, the Australian Eileen Joyce, Moira Lympany Louis Kentner, Claudio Arrau and so on. The concert violinists were spectacular as well, Yehudi Menhuin (whose Beethoven violin concerto recording of 1953 I still have) was the most renowned at that time, closely followed by giants such as David and Igor Oistrahk, a popular Father and son duo at concerts in the fifties. I saw Claudio Arrau play Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto at the Royal Festival Hall and Oistrahk senior play the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos at the Royal Albert Hall.
There were favourite BBC radio comedy shows during those years, some started during the war like ITMA (Its That Man Again) starring Tommy Handley and a cast of fictitious characters like "Mrs. Mop" the charwoman and the idiotic german spy "Funf", an antidote to the real-life defector whose broadcasts from Berlin into Britain in an upper crust accent urging surrender, caused him to be dubbed contemptuously "Lord Haw Haw" by the ITMA gang.
He highlighted a national achilles heel that must in retrospect have been a security nightmare; the ambivalence that many people of mixed German-English parentage must surely have had about the war. Such people may have attended school in Germany and holidays in England, or vice versa and become fluently bilingual and bicultural. Being familiar with national past times and institutions in both countries, they could pass any screening in either country and were eminently qualified to work in the espionage business for either side.
A show which started after the war (and which every schoolboy listened to) was the zaney "Goon Show", with Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellars. The characters they created became immortal, from the devious but gullible and lovable "Blue Bottle", to the feckless "Eccles" and the blimp character Colonel Bloodnock. At one time or another they fearlessly lampooned just about every leading figure and institution in the land, to the constant delight of millions who tuned in each week to be a part of it.
There was also "Waterlogged Spa", conceived and produced by some ex-service types, with characters like "Flying Officer Kite" and "Commander Highprice". Another one was "Much Binding in the Marsh" with Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne. Murdoch was very quick on his feet and I remember once the BBC put on a birthday bash for him which included having a pneumatic drill in the studio because he had always wanted to operate one, goodness only knows why. The host introduced him to the crew who were to manage the equipment, including a fellow called Ted who ran the compressor. Murdoch, quick as a flash said: "Ah...I see....Edward the Compressor". Yet another favourite was "Take it from here" with another effervescent ex-RAF type, Jimmy Edwards, as the star turn. He had some immortal lines, promising for example in one episode to provide his nephew with "all aid short of actual help".
There were also some favourite schoolboy weekly comic papers of the period from the cartoon-type "Dandy", "Beano" and "Film Fun", to the more sophisticated ones with weekly instalments of never ending stories of derring-do, like "Wizard" and my favourite the "Champion", with the boxing fighter pilot Rockfist Rogan and the saga of the "Leader of the Lost Commandos", (almost certainly based on the exploits of General Wingate and his renegade force in Burma, who operated altogether too independently for the likings of the Imperial General Staff). There were some popular book series too, The exploits of "Biggles", another fighter pilot, created by Capt. W.E.Johns, was a big seller, he must have made a fortune - Harlequin novels for school boys.
School for Scandal
The school had its share of scandals where instant damage control was necessary and one was an armed robbery in which a boy in my class had been involved. The head master assembled the school (in Big School - where else) and to his credit told the whole story as far as he knew it, sternly admonishing everyone not to discuss it outside the school if we valued the reputation for which our parents were paying. The message sank in and there was no link made in the press to the school. At least one of the other participants was involved with the famous Craig-Bentley armed robbery in Croydon, in which a policeman was shot and killed by the sixteen year old Craig, and which took place within a week or two of the other one.
Armed robberies were virtually unknown in England at that time and the fact that an unarmed policeman (they all were) had been killed, sparked national outrage. At the trial Bentley was convicted along with Craig because he was reported to have said to Craig "let him have it Chris". No one had thought that he would be convicted of murder and certainly no one thought that he would be hanged for it, but such was the public concern (and especially the police concern) about the use of guns against unarmed policemen that an example was made and Bentley was indeed hanged for his part in it. Craig was too young (under 18) for capital punishment and was "detained at the Queens pleasure" i.e. held in prison indefinitely. I wrote to the boy from my class a couple of times, by then he was serving four years at the prison with the almost comically Dickensian address of "Wormwood Scrubs".
The under-16 knockout team, 1950
The cadet corps was taken very seriously indeed and every boy was expected to join at the minimum age of 14. Those who did not were treated more or less as conscientious objectors. The school had a resident retired regimental sergeant major and a resident retired military band master. Spit and polish was everything and many hours were spent each week in going over boots with a hot spoon and boot black to bring up the requisite mirror finish, polishing belt buckles, blancoing gaiters and other webbing accessories and pressing uniforms to produce razor sharp creases. The real zealots (of which I was one) wore bracelets of small lead weights around each ankle inside the trouser legs to pull them down over the gaiters and remove any rucks or rumples.
It was spit and polish for the corps of drums
The big annual event was Founders day, when the entire school would process through the town to Croydon parish church, lead by the band with the youthful drum major wielding the silver headed mace and followed immediately by the army navy and airforce contingents of the cadet corps. These were lead by Masters who were still commissioned Officers in the territorials, following demobilisation at the end of the war. One of these I remember was a former Commando who had lost most of the use of his left hand in a shoot out during a daring raid across the channel.
There was no question that the cadet corps was a good introduction to military life and the way things were done. The ostensible purpose was to teach the basic training which any new recruit would have to spend eight weeks learning at a camp. This was spread over a leisurely period of two years for us but did require two examinations conducted by a contingent of officers and NCO's from the Grenadier Guards. Success in these resulted in the award of "Certificate A" which exempted the holder from the aforementioned basic training and greatly increased his chances of getting a commission in one of the services. The training was good and covered such things as map reading, weaponry (303 Lee Enfield rifle and bren gun at that time) unarmed combat, tactics, radio procedure and of course parade square drill which was an absolute fetish. There was even an annual drill competition between the five school houses, again judged by Grenadier Guards officers and NCO's.
One of the objectives of Public Schools like Whitgift was to get their progeny to a university, preferably Oxford or Cambridge. Competition was fierce in the early fifties, if for no other reason that there were relatively few universities in the U.K. at that time, compared to the impressive array that it has now. I had a relative who had been at Merton College Oxford, and since a family connection was known to be important for any one aspiring to be accepted at an Oxbridge college, I went there at the tender age of not quite eighteen, just before Christmas in 1952, to compete for a place for the following academic year.
I had not at that point completed the syllabus for "A" levels, whereas most of the other young hopefuls there were a full year ahead, having finished these the previous summer, and were now doing a third year in the Sixth Form to take "S" (Scholarship) levels. This additional year, with specialised coaching from senior staff in undergraduate-level material, was considered to be virtually a prerequisite for a place at an Oxbridge college at that time, (goodness only knows what it must be now).
I remember being duly awed with the ancient grandeur of the buildings, dating back to the thirteenth century. As I sat in the venerable examination halls, wrestling with impossible questions for about three days in a row, I felt very much as I had done as a small boy in 1944 taking the entrance examination for Whitgift.
One of the examinations was languages. As I remember there were about seven on the paper for translation into English, including of course, Latin, Greek, French, German, and Spanish, which were normally covered in classical and modern language school curricula. What I had not expected was Russian and Italian as well. There were absolutely no guide lines as to what was required, so I plucked up enough courage to walk to the front of the hall like Oliver Twist, and ask the Moderator, or whatever he was, how many of all these should be attempted (usually in a case like that there is some stipulation like "choose only three of the following" or some such).
He blinked owlishly at me through his library-frames, obviously puzzled by the question (by which time I was wishing heartily that I had never asked it), and said: "Do as many as you can dear boy...do as many as you can". I managed the French easily enough, made a stab at the German and the Spanish, and turned to the Latin. Happily I recognised the piece as a passage from Virgil's "Aeniad", chunks of which I had learned by rote for the "O" level pass in Latin, which was needed to be allowed anywhere near an Oxbridge college in those days.
The finale was an interview with the Master of the College and a sprinkling of the Dons. It was a bit of a surprise to come face to face with A.J.P. Taylor, the well known historian who appeared frequently on popular radio and T.V. discussion panels to elucidate history for the masses. He asked me something about hobbies and I said "radio", and he then asked a series of casual but penetrating questions about super-heterodyne circuits and other arcane technicalities, just to see if I really did know anything about the subject. I did, but was taken aback nevertheless by this scholarly historian's detailed knowledge of a subject that could hardly be more remote from his own specialty. At the end of it all, my marks were not good enough to be in the top ten percent or so that was necessary for a place, however I was pleased to see that I had actually done rather well with those damned languages (or as many of them as I could manage).
A National Foible
By 1950 food rationing had all but disappeared, although oddly enough bread, which had never been rationed during the war, suddenly became rationed, albeit at a fairly liberal level. The one thing that had not been removed from the wartime list was sugar and anything that was made with it, which of course included chocolate and sweets. These had been rationed fairly severely and even in 1950 the ration was still two two-ounce bars per person per week, or the equivalent. At that point however the government suddenly decided that there was no longer any good reason to continue with the rationing and it was discontinued. That triggered off a pentup national feeding frenzy which absolutely no one had predicted. As a nation the British have a sweet tooth and after ten years of sugar rationing the sudden reality of unlimited chocolate, whipped cream walnuts and so on just sent everyone berserk, and within about three days there was not a chocolate bar or boiled sweet to be had in the country. As a result rationing of sweets was temporarily reintroduced, but at a more liberal level until the feeding frenzy abated.
Death of a Monarch
During that time we saw on television King George VI waving goodbye to his daughter Princess Elizabeth at Northolt (later Heathrow) airport on a cold and windy January day, as she and Prince Philip left on the first leg of their world tour. The camera zoomed in for a closeup of the King and we were all struck by how gaunt and grey he looked, with a fixed and anxious expression on his face as he watched the aircraft thunder down the runway, lift off and disappear into the distance. Only a few days later the aircraft returned from Nairobi, which was as far as it had got, and we saw a pale and tense Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, in mourning, emerge and slowly descend the steps to receive the promises of allegiance from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee the leader of the opposition, and others who were lined up to greet her.
There was a national outpouring of grief at the death of a King who had stepped reluctantly into the limelight following the abdication of his brother, and whom everyone admired and respected for having lead by example and done everything in his power to keep morale from flagging during the dark days of the London Blitz. One of the problems with which he had had to cope was a speech impediment, a minor disability for an ordinary person, but a major hurdle for a monarch who had to communicate with his people by the only live medium there was at that time - radio. His death permeated all aspects of life, including of course school life. At Whitgift, the entire school was assembled in Big School and the headmaster gave his personal eulogy, which included a mention of the fact that he had been at Cambridge with the King in 1919 and followed the same course of constitutional history there. There was an issue of black arm bands for Officers and NCO's in the cadet corps and a special parade to mark the sad occasion.
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