The beginnings of change.
We all like a bit of shiny and new. It can say so much: “Look we’re going places.” “Aren’t we clever?” “Now we mean business.” “This is something very special.” I knew I was going to a new school; not just new to me but a brand new school that had been built especially for us. This was Wallasey Grammar school. The old building was in Withens Lane. To me in was very much like an old public school. Its E-shaped design harked back to the last century. I don’t know when it was built but it had all the visual authority of something stern, cold and very forbidding. I knew it was not really like that because my elder brother was already there. He had several stories about the teachers who had difficulty controlling the class.
The new building was in Leasowe. Leasowe did not mean much to me at the time. It was somewhere you passed through on the way to Moreton. And that was only once a year to go to the junior chess congress at Eastway School. Equally epic was the fundamental changes that were about to happen in the education system. It was the last year of the 11-plus before it was abandoned for a three tier school system. Or so I thought. Of course I was only eleven years old and to me if it happened in Wallasey, it happened in the whole country. A good fifteen years later, a primary deputy head once advised me to teach in an area with no 11-plus. I nodded sagely. By some strange twist of fate, I ended up teaching in Kent for seventeen years. In Kent it is big. I still smile and if I meet Rick again, I’ll tell him. He will smile too!
Well, I went to the new school in the September of 1967. I was expecting to see a shinier version of the other newish schools. They were mostly window panels over a concrete support slab. Pre-fab in all but name. But I saw bricks; mostly bricks. They offered a neat rich red hue combining sleekly with the dark wooden cladding sitting proudly above them. Everything was square. There was a courtyard, a multi-level playground and the new gym was a symphony of shining floor and wall bars.
I felt rather pleased returning on the number three in my over-sized school blazer. The bus driver even asked me about it as I waited to get off. Then just as I stepped off, two boys a bit older saw me and clocked the uniform. That was it; a hard time for me until they became bored. There was no point in fighting back. I just patiently pick up my stuff strewn recklessly all over the pavement and walked home. Most people I knew were quite happy for me to be going to the Grammar but some saw the uniform and kicked off.
The following year, my younger brother had to spend two years at Gorsedale before going to Mosslands. I was very pleased not to be going to Gorsedale because of the obligatory tales of having one’s head flushed down a dirty toilet bowl. My new school was quickly broken in. I don’t think a great deal was spent on the furniture. Table tops came loose, cupboard doors jammed and the pale grey lino flooring became riddled with black streaks from the soles of shoes. Some students had gone to exceptional lengths to spell out “special” words. I thought it was hilarious. The pale matt toilet walls were ripe for graffiti. But most memorable was the mud. It was everywhere. Leasowe mud must have been exported to every other part of the town. I assumed it was the price of building on reclaimed marshland. The original playing fields, where the leisure centre now stands was littered with huge deep puddles. They stank. If you played rugby and managed to stay relatively clean, your were unceremoniously hurled into one of these odious pools of fetid mess. We all had to play rugby.
The year before we turned comprehensive there was a mad flurry of extra building work while established teachers (some still taught in gowns),
left in droves.
There was definitely an air of fundamental change. In 1969/70, Football became part of games. But we couldn’t play. The original grammar boys were still stuck with rugby. I know it’s a popular game but the last thing I ever wanted to do was stick my head between two other boys sweaty muddy bottoms and push. That’s the second row for you. The second row of the scrum that is, as opposed to the pecking order in some twisted public school ritual.
At least being in the B team gave me an opportunity to have a brief look at some other schools. For both rugby and athletics, I went as far as Manchester, Southport and certain parts of Birkenhead. It was mildly interesting. Schools were schools!
I left school at sixteen to work in a bank. It didn’t last. Then came my first spell at The Gandy. By that time, both my parents were working there. Dad had gone there in 1971. He was on the pre-form and it was hard graft. He did not completely avoid strikes but they were less frequent and the factory was around the corner. After the bank disaster, it was a good way of using my time over the summer. In a couple of months I was going to be eighteen and I think the foreman had an idea that I would join my dad on the pre-form. Personally, I just wanted to earn a bit before going to the Tech College to get my A levels.
It was not a good start to life on the factory floor. The previous week I had been away with Wallasey Youth Orchestra, spending my days playing and socialising somewhere in a nice big house in the Wirral countryside. I can still remember going in at 7.30 on the Monday morning. I stepped into the factory leaving the fresh morning air behind. The grey clouds formed instantly. There were no windows; just greyness. There was a small tin office by the clocking on station. I saw the rows of cards. Here were people’s lives, summarised in numbers. Their whole livelihood and existence reduced to printed clock times.
I saw ranks of drills; big grey monsters on stands with women, equally grey in their overalls, feeding them giant half moon brake linings. Further along, I saw giant ovens. Their doors would open to reveal the dragons mouth, stacked with steel cages baking the brake materials.
After a week, I had seen most of the factory. It was all grey. The mood was grey. And the time. It was four and a half hours in there until lunch time. That was longer than any lesson at school. All that time without looking out of a window. My hat goes off to the soldiers of The Gandy; day in day out, they would turn up and do their long hours of incessant brutal work. They built their lives around it. They bought their cars and paid their mortgages with it. They kept the businesses of Seacombe and beyond with it. It was work. A lot of people I spoke to revealed their sense of inevitability. “Oh, I always knew I’d come and work here,” they would say. And there were my parents. They had built their lives around The Gandy.
It left me torn. I had the opportunity to follow in their ways. Seacombe was where I grew up and I was happy there. But I wanted more than the factory routine. I didn’t want to be a Gandy hero. Some individuals openly criticised me for having ideas above my station. “I’ve seen you going round with that big guitar thing,” they would say. (It was a cello) “What do you want to play one of those things for? They’re all puffs.”
(That’s not me by the way!)
They could have been right. At that age I was not able to fully explain the pure pleasure of playing in an orchestra; working tirelessly away to master the first movement of Borodin’s Second Symphony. In the September, I left to go to Withens Lane.
End of part four……………