My teenage years, the 1950s, were spent at the all-boys Wellingborough Grammar School, in Northamptonshire, England. More than half a century later, in the spring of 2016, I was asked to contribute some reminiscences for presentation to the 50th anniversary reunion of the nearby County High School for Girls. Here is what I sent.
You girls! I look at your school photos now, and they conjure a different age: you were sweet, wonderful, mysterious beings, in those pastel-coloured summer dresses and those little white socks. In the spring, London Road and the Broadway bus stops after school looked like clusters of butterflies …
Your school was out of bounds to us, of course, except to the few earnest and unproblematic boys who played instruments well enough be helpful in school musical presentations. So there would always be one or two of us at the school field fence, at break or lunchtime, trying to find an accomplice willing to deliver a note to the current sweetheart. The only time we were allowed through the gates, in fact, was as members of the audience for those summer-time productions: one year, it was The Gondoliers, and my special girl of the moment was in it. She and her best friend—we always double-dated—sang the songs from the show in our evening strolls through Castle Fields.
Poetry is inextricably woven into my memories of you lovely girls. I’ve always been grateful to my teachers at the Grammar School for showing how effective poetry is at … well, everything, really: not just encapsulating ideas it isn’t easy to express in any other way, but getting in touch with all that teenage stuff involving nature and love and spirituality and seduction.
I’d stuff my Pocket Classics copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics in my school jacket and declaim from it at appropriate moments as we took our evening strolls down The Walks and along the riverbank and across the fields. It was soon dog-eared and marked, with pages coming loose and verses underscored, and I could recite whole chunks by heart, particularly the bits that sent girls misty-eyed and yielding. Not that the yielding amounted to anything much. Those were mostly chaste years, though we didn’t think so then.
Part of it was that I genuinely liked the company of girls … Janet and Ena and Christine and Rita and Eileen—about whom, I once doodled in an English class, smeileen Eileen’s meileen deileen. There was a freedom about the way you could talk with girls that you didn’t get in the rough world of the school corridors. You didn’t feel a fool quoting poetry or lyrics from popular songs; those were things girls liked. And if you actually wrote poetry that was just for them, however clumsy and mawkish it was, or—even better—made it up on the spot, well, my goodness. It made for many a pleasant evening in the grasses and on the benches beside the Nene.
And if it wasn’t poetry it was song lyrics. I was so smitten by the singing of Handel’s Silent Worship (Did you not hear my lady go down the garden singing? etc.) at the church concert that I laboriously lettered the lyrics in China ink on parchment to present to Molly Ruckley as an offering of adoration. Silent worship! I hadn’t yet encountered Adrian Mole but when I did I knew him immediately. We were brothers under the skin.
Song lyrics were useful ways to communicate messages it was too embarrassing to speak openly. I took one special sweetheart to see Carousel. We both fell heavily for its mix of magic and whimsy and emotional blackmail. The next day I went to the sheet-music store and copied out the lyrics to If I Loved You and tucked them in the back of my copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.
How I’d love you. If I loved you. Always keeping my options open. Anyway, how on earth did you know?
Walking My Baby Back Home, Loving You, Teddy Bear … Teddy bears were part of my shtick; girls seemed to like boys with a soft side. (Maybe I had stolen the idea from that character in Brideshead.) One of the girls I used to see in the evenings at Broad Green gave me a miniature teddy-bear as a gift. I have that little doll still. One of his legs has come off, but he still has a hat that Eileen made for him, a tattered little beret, badly frayed now, the yellow fabric rotting away. We’ve come through a lot of life together.
As I said a few years ago at the memorial service for my school pal Rodney Eyles, we spent our teenage years waiting for the Sixties to happen, though we didn’t know that was what we were waiting for. None of us did. England in the Fifties was a very innocent time, it seems in retrospect. Our generation grumbles about having had to spend our teenage years in the middle and late Fifties, “when nothing happened,” but that was perhaps one of its virtues. It was an idyllic, never-to-be-recaptured era—one of those eras that exist just before momentous social change: though this time the change was not a war but something perhaps even more cataclysmic, the Sixties.
The memories mingle now: the sssh of bicycle tires on tarmac on evening rides to Earls Barton or Higham Ferrers or Irthlingborough to meet the sweetheart of the moment, the grass of the freshly mown school fields leaving little green stains on the elbows and knees of our cricket whites as we lay on our stomachs watching the games … lean, tennis-playing Marie, in her long skirt and her pageboy blonde hair, who for a few weeks one spring let me accompany her home from youth nights in the church basement, and once let me hold her hand, and was sweet on me in a thoughtful kind of way—slim, blonde Marie, cycling away into the blue of history, the blue of once-was, the blue of once-might-have-been …
All these memories—these and many more—evoke this sense of innocence, of waiting. The whole country was on the cusp of change, and Philip Larkin’s melancholy vision of the obliteration of his England—the shadows, the meadows, the lanes,/The guildhalls, the carved choirs—was not far off the mark.
One member of our little gang of teenage poseurs was David Frost, who transferred into the grammar school in 1956 or so, when his pastor father was posted from Kent to a ministry in Raunds. We were both members of a tiny seminar class working on scholarship-level English prior to university entrance. He often skipped out of these classes and would borrow my notes to help him catch up. I always say he went to Cambridge on the strength of my English essays, and I was amused in later years to find that Peter Cook called him “the bubonic plagiarist.”
He, Roger Allen and I concocted a phoney letter-writing campaign to The Evening Telegraph on the subject of the shocking nudity of the statue in Swanspool. At a New Year’s Eve party at my house one year, it was Frost who came up with the idea of a commando raid on the park to put a bra and knickers on the statue to demonstrate public revulsion at the “scandalous state of affairs” we were supposedly campaigning about. Such brave little anarchists!
He could also do great solemnity when the need arose. When it was his turn to read the extract from the Bible at morning assembly (every prefect had to do it) he would stride to the podium with a great sense of purpose, leaning forward slightly, his eyes distant and thoughtful, his left hand pressing the Bible to his chest—a posture he might have picked up from Billy Graham (for whom he had enormous respect: in the two years before university Frost became a lay preacher after seeing the evangelist perform). I have carried my own documents to podiums around the world in a similar way ever since.
It was Frost, of course, who helped steer the country out of the Fifties into the “swinging” Sixties, helped create the sense of anarchy and optimism that gave the country a new swagger. The TV show he hosted in 1962 and 1963, That Was the Week That Was, established a tone that dominated the nation’s entertainment for the rest of the decade. My job, as it turned out, was to stand on the sidelines, chronicling it.
It’s not possible to go back to those years, of course. It’s a different time, a different place. But the memories belong to all of us. Thank you, all you lovely girls, for letting me share them with you. It was a privilege to spend those times with you.