Mr Newton took us for Physical Education. I suppose he was in his mid forties although I have often been surprised that teachers were inevitably much younger than the age we would imagine. My mental image of him always includes a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and a dark blue track suit. I remember his favourite form of punishment was making pupils hang from the wall bars and hitting them on the backside with the end of the gym ropes which were bound with leather. We had one classmate who was from London and of course his accent drew much abuse – his name was Matthews. Actually, he was extremely annoying and the only boy I remember every having a fight with (twice). Mr Newton was doling out the Rusholme Rope Trick to Matthews which gave him so much pain that he started crying. He turned round, shouted that the teacher had no right to be hitting him and left the gym. Not long after, I am fairly sure he was expelled. Didn’t fit in, you understand.
Mr Newton was also responsible for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme at the college. I remember that I managed to achieve the bronze award. I always thought I wouldn’t receive the medal as I hadn’t filled in all entries in my log book and had only camped in my back garden (and then only for a couple of hours) but Mr Newton must have stepped into the breach and filled in the missing entries himself. I remember the medal came to an unfortunate end when I dropped into a beaker of acid in a chemistry lesson – it partially dissolved proving to me at least, that it had a copper content.
One sunny afternoon during lunch break there was a ripple of activity round the toilets on the top floor in Ward Hall. The rumour went round that there was some female nakedness visible from the toilet window which overlooked the large Victorian building next door. This was some kind of club, definitely the seedier side of Victoria Park, Rusholme in the sixties. I expressed my disbelief as I was and still am a confirmed sceptic. However, when I looked past the scrum which had now gathered around the window, I could clearly make out a young woman’s head visible over the top of an open suitcase. The next minute she closed the case and her totally naked top half could clearly be made out by all of us. A tremendous cheer went up. Whether she heard us or not I have no idea. To the best of my recollection we were summoned back to class and certainly had a lot to occupy our fertile imaginations on that long, hot summer day.
When I try to analyse what was going on next door to Ward Hall I suspect the club was either hosting a photo shoot or even was a cover for a brothel – there were rumours that a functioning bordello was situated next to the church on Thurloe Street so it wasn’t completely out of the question.
Mr Crotty took me for Geography at Ward Hall, my first year at Xaverian. His teaching technique was, shall we be kind and say, somewhat old fashioned. As far as I can recall it consisted entirely of dictation. He would write some headlines on the blackboard and then proceed to dictate to the class so the whole lesson was spent writing his notes. One or two of my classmates became a bit restless and the usual technique of distraction was employed to dispel the boredom. It was widely believed that he was shell-shocked from his experiences in World War II but it could equally have been as a result of manning the teaching trenches for too long – who knows?
He always wore a trilby hat and would occasionally umpire cricket matches. I remember once when the assembled team saw him in the distance while we were preparing to take on one of the local grammar schools. Instead of walking round the perimeter of the field to find the entrance, he decided it made more sense to attempt to climb over a six foot fence, complete with his trilby firmly on his head and dressed in his best Gannex coat looking for all the world like the bumbling comedian, Harry Worth. We could hardly concentrate on the game for quite a long time afterwards.
On another occasion, several of the remedial members of the class decided to liven the lesson somewhat, putting a dead mouse in the teacher’s desk at the front of the class would be a spiffing idea. A good ten minutes were spent attempting to get Mr Crotty to open the desk. When he did and saw the deceased rodent, he appeared to jump vertically a good foot in the air. Having said that, he took the jape well and gained a lot of respect from the future delinquents that made up my class. God bless Mr Crotty!
My very last day at Xavs arrived – sometime in May 1965. It had already become obvious to me (and to anyone who would listen) that I was going to flop in my GCE’s. I had taken a J.I.C. aptitude exam to discover whether I had the makings to be a printer of some sort. Printing was in the family – my grandfather was a stereotyper, my father a compositor, my uncle Wilfred a linotype operator on the Manchester Evening News – the slug was cast.
I am in the classroom I had spent the last year with an acquaintance – Paul McAndrew. For some reason we got a bit giddy and started throwing gym pumps at each other, like you do at sixteen and can see that your schooldays are over for ever. I took a shot at Paul, he ducked and I unfortunately hit a statue of the Virgin Mary which stood in the corner of the room at the exact second Mr Connolly walked it. “Ah Cummings!” he shouted “At last! I’ve got you!”. We were both accompanied by Mr Connolly to Brother Cyril’s office. He knocked on the door and Bro Cyril called out: “Enter.”. Mr Connolly had a raised voice at this point “Brother Cyril, these boys have just hit the Virgin Mary!”. In retrospect, I think I detected a hint of exasperation in Brother Cyril’s voice when he called us into his office. It may have been for us but could easily have aimed at Mr Connolly. We both received ‘six of the best’. I distinctly remembered that I was amazed at how much effort Brother Cyril put into the down strokes – quite stunning. Thinking back, we had actually finished school and technically this could have been regarded as assault. It’s no good looking at the past with today’s judicial standards and besides, it has given me one of those memories I daresay will flash past my eyes when my time has come. It still raises chuckle, even though it didn’t half hurt!
Because I was having doubts about many of the beliefs of the catholic church, I thought seriously about questions I was having genuine difficulties with and was not shy in coming forward with these to my R.I. teachers. My one remaining Xaverian report shows that this was well known. My teacher in 1962 was Brother Sylvester, a bespectacled highly strung Xaverian Brother. His comment of ‘Fairly good, always ready to ask questions’ is accurate although only he and I were aware of the under current of cynicism.
At one point I made the mistake of asking Mr Connolly whether the Book of Revelations which appears at the end of the New Testament was supposed to be believed or whether it was just a dream of St John which anyone of us could experience, possibly accompanying a bout of flu.
“Well Cummings”, he said with a gleam in his eye behind his horn-rimmed spectacles, “as you are so interested, I would like you to investigate the question and present it to the whole class in two week’s time!” I actually did this – I got hold of large hard bound exercise book and spent many hours finding out as much as I could about Revelations. As I was reading about the exploits of Aleister Crowley at the time, I may even have made reference to his assumed title of The Great Beast which figures large in the epistle but I cannot be sure. I certainly made frequent referrals to the ‘Whore of Babylon’ which was obviously expected by the rest of the class. I sometimes think if I had put as much effort into my homework as I did into my deliberations concerning the Book of Revelations I may have achieved more than two ‘O’ levels but that is pointless speculation now.
I do remember standing in front of the class and starting my lecture. It overran the lesson and for some reason no one was interested in hearing the rest by the time of the next lesson so I think we should call that a draw.
Xaverian College Prize Night used to take place in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. I do remember the last one I attended because I took my combat jacket and my brother’s Manchester University scarf with me. Once the event was over, I carefully brushed my hair forward, put on my jacket and scarf which were in a duffle bag, and headed over to the Twisted Wheel, Brazennose Street for a night of good music and Fanta orange. No wonder I only got two ‘O’ levels. My brother Bernard can be seen in the second row on the right hand side, fourth from the left and bespectacled. I am fairly sure he once received a prize, an honour which I failed to achieve.
Xaverian College Prize Night, Free Trade Hall, Manchester – circa 1955
As can be seen from this report in 1962, I was performing quite well being fifth in class out of thirty five. I was nearly fourteen and my academic progress seemed inevitable. Shortly afterwards, however, I discovered girls, blues music and ‘beat clubs’ in Manchester. Adolescence proved to be less than smooth for me and I soon entered an academic tail spin from which I was never to recover. On a positive note, I still like the blues.
Mr Connolly was a big man, tall, somewhat stout and wore glasses. I think he may have taken English but for a time he was our Religious Instruction teacher. For what ever reason, he and I did not get on. At that time I was questioning the whole religion thing, not because I didn’t believe in a creator but because I found so many holes in the set of beliefs we were obliged to swallow without question. As an example, we were asked to submit written questions about concerns we might have about anything to do with sex. We may have been told the basic mechanics in one lesson or other but we might have other issues of a theological nature.
I submitted the question which I genuinely did not know the answer to (in fact, I still don’t, over fifty years later):
‘If a woman is married and turns out to be barren (unable to conceive in modern terminology) would sexual intercourse be wrong?’
Now bear in mind, we had been told that sex was designed purely for procreation and in a time before IVF treatment there was no way for a woman who could not conceive to have children other than by adoption. Anyway, all the questions we had written anonymously were put into a dish and given to Mr Connolly at the front of the class. I can’t remember the other questions that were pulled out of the dish but when it came to my question Mr Connolly read it out and said “Well we all know the answer to that stupid question!”. Mr Connolly sir – I STILL DON’T!!!
He may have suspected who was the source of the ‘stupid’ question because I had become someone who asked several questions which, truth to tell, may have been designed a little bit to get under his skin. I once asked him that if God was all merciful and would forgive anyone who expressed genuine remorse, why confession to a priest was necessary. Mr Connolly told me that not only did we need to be forgiven by God, we also needed to be forgiven by the church. I could never really get me head round that one. I really wanted to know the answer because at the age of fourteen I considered I was committing sins I would NEVER confess to anyone, let alone a priest!
I remember at the Prep School Brother Cyril set us a maths homework and told us that he was going to allow us to mark our own efforts. In retrospect we should have seen the trap that was being set – I am sure he did it to every new intake. After we had marked the sums with the occasional student giving themselves the benefit of the doubt when the answer was ALMOST right, the trap was sprung. Bro Cyril asked for the exercise books to be handed back. At the next lesson at least half a dozen of us were sent to his office where we were subjected to four strokes of a very slim and effective cane which I came to know reasonably well over the next few years.
Did it teach me a lesson I never forgot? Well I am re-enacting it now in my mind so the answer is obviously yes. Did it modify my behaviour a la Pavlov? Unfortunately it didn’t hence my further visits to his study.
If my memory serves me correctly, Bro Cyril had had a lung removed due to T.B. but in common with most of the brothers at the time, smoked quite heavily – I think they were Senior Service. When the results of the 11 plus had arrived, he was intending to give the results to the class. In an act of kindness, he asked the only pupil who hadn’t managed to get either a grammar school or technical school pass, to go out and get him a packet of twenty while he gave us the results.
So, I remember both good and bad events from those times but I wouldn’t change a great deal – maybe I would have worked a bit harder towards the end rather than spending quite so much time in the Twisted Wheel. It took me to the age of 47 before I got my degree but I knew I had unfinished business… thanks Xavs.
I have genuine confusion regarding my thoughts on Brother Cyril Birtles who died in April 2014 aged 88. I will try and recollect my feelings from fifty odd years ago as accurately as I can. On the one hand, I remember a man with a good sense of humour who was capable of acts of kindness. On the other, he had a side to his nature which I found morose and unfair but that may be due to the bias which occurs due to an almost flashlight memory of being caned on several occasions.
My fondest memory is being tossed a brand new leather cricket ball after he selected me to open the bowling for the Prep School team. He showed faith in me that I tried to repay. His comments on my school reports were really positive which was nice. He organised school trips on holy days of obligation – one would be to Trentham Gardens and the other to St Anne’s where the coach would drop us off at Fairhaven Lake which continued at Xaverian College itself.
My worse memory of Brother Cyril happened just a couple of weeks after I started at the Prep School. At the time he was taking us for Religious Instruction, as subject I was more than familiar with from my days at St Clare’s. He asked the class a question and I put my hand up together with many other boys. My recollection is that I shouted out ‘but it still gives us grace’ – to this day I have no idea what the question was. But Brother Cyril looked at me with a look that I very occasionally saw again over the next few years. He ordered me out of the classroom and I had to follow him to his study – I had no idea what I had done wrong. He then accused me of ‘being impertinent’. I genuinely didn’t know what he was talking about and started crying. After a while he told me to return to the classroom and he followed me back in. Later at break time other boys shouted ‘Cummings got the cane!’. I hotly denied this and was asked why I had been crying. I seem to remember telling them I had put it on to avoid being thrashed.
Although I find it hard to describe the look that came over Brother Cyril’s face, I came to recognise it over the years – I saw it again when my best friend decided to play cricket for a local team rather than the school team and when I was caned for throwing a training shoe at another boy and accidentally hit a statue of the Virgin Mary, but that’s another story.