Mr Charles Sellars was our music teacher. For some reason he didn’t like me. This sometimes happens and I don’t remember the phenomenon mentioned in any of my further education teaching manuals when I eventually became one myself. I really tried to get myself liked but it was no use and I dropped music as soon as was possible. A shame really because I desperately wanted to be able to play bassoon like one of my friends Mike Smith – it would never have been practical as I lived too far away from Xavs anyway.
He raised his voice a lot I seem to remember but his love of music can’t be denied. Once he played ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ for us on the music room gramophone. He introduced it by saying that this piece tended to ‘send’ people. I am not quite sure what he meant but I did love it. Once he appeared with his family at a garden party and we were amazed at how many children were in tow, each one smaller than the other. They looked for all the world like the intervals in a scale.
Mr Sellars used to organise the school concerts which became more and more grandiose. Gilbert and Sullivan (Iolanthe) gave way to Mozart and The Magic Flute was enacted on our somewhat cramped gym stage. The school orchestra manfully struggled through the score and it was judged to be a masterpiece. I have a vision of a diminutive boy with soprano voice (I think his surname was Thornley) dressed in a feathered costume and the whispered comments among the boys when he had to kiss the male lead. The rumours abounded. I can also remember a rather large class mate, John Doyle, banging his heart out on the kettle drums, totally caught up in the excitement. Heady stuff.
Probably the most painful experience I can remember from all my time at Xaverian is the one relating to Mr Archdeacon. It probably contributed more to the reason my academic achievements slid off the scale and my earlier promise evaporated. It still fills me with mixed emotions over fifty years later.
I enjoyed being taught by Archie. I was very good at English Language – I was an avid reader of virtually anything I could get my hands on, my father was deputy Head Reader at the Daily Express who constantly corrected my grammar if I made the slightest error. I was only an average student when it came to English Literature – I wasn’t a big fan of Shakespeare and I think our set book was ‘The Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’ by Siegfried Sassoon which didn’t capture my imagination at all. George Orwell would have been a different story.
I think every student passed both subjects in my year, apart from myself who failed English Lit. I can’t verify this but it may well have been the case. Now the incident that set me on the wrong path:
We went on an evening trip to the Library Theatre, Manchester to watch Henry IV Part II which was our set Shakespeare play. Archie arranged to meet us in the foyer before the performance and I remember him saying “and don’t wear any teddy boy gear” in the lesson that afternoon. I thought this was just his joke – wrong! I had recently bought what I thought was a very smart jacket – five guineas from a gentleman’s outfitters on Oxford Road, Manchester. This had a small velvet collar and part lapel which I had associated more with the Beatles than anything else. I decided it would be the right thing to wear for an evening at the theatre.
When I got there Archie whispered in my ear: “I said no teddy boy gear!” I tried to convince him that this wasn’t what I was wearing and thought no more about it. The next week we submitted our homework based on a question asked about the play and my essay was probably a bit below par. When Mr Archdeacon returned my homework to me he began to berate me severely, not mentioning the ‘teddy boy gear’. What he did say was this: “Cummings, as far as I am concerned, you are no longer part of my English Literature class. You can submit homework but I will not mark it.” That is as much as I can remember as my emotions at that point prevented my from taking in anything else he said. Needless to say, I told no one, particularly not my parents nor Brother Cyril. I do remember becoming what these days is called ‘depressed’ and from being a promising student finished the year bottom of my class. I can’t blame Archie completely for this but I do wonder whether the level of shame I felt and lack of confidence that I had at that time were already present and the incident just hatched them. What made it worse for me was that I respected him as a teacher and his opinion meant a great deal. Schooldays weren’t always happy ones.
Pete Burrows took me for physics and maths in Lower Five Three. He was a great guy, an all round sportsman and occasionally took us for football. As a result of his recommendation I played for a cricket team called The Crusaders based round the Longsight area for a short period until we had a disagreement about not turning up when it was pouring down.
He was married to a lovely lady and they lived not far away on the other side of Victoria Park. However, I think even he would agree, maths was not his strong point and physics not a lot better. When we had been at Xaverian for a year we were selected for the level of class that would last for the rest of our time until A levels. The top class had consistently good teachers where ours were patchy to say the least. I know that Pete Burrows was not entirely happy with his experience of teaching at the college and left while I was there to teach at Pope Pius X school, I think. When my parents realised that I was going to fail my maths O level, they decided a maths tutor was needed. I duly used to go every Sunday morning to a flat just off Middleton Road, Rhodes, where a youngish graduate would run me through all the things I should have learnt during the week in between cleaning up from the parties the night before. Unfortunately the damage was done and I failed. It was 1983 at the age of 35 that I managed to get a B grade which became extremely important for my future academic career.
One day our class were encouraged to bring in caged pets (don’t ask me why). One boy, Gregory Esplin, brought in his pet mouse. Another boy brought in his pet rat. Now I am not clear why this happened, but it was decided that it would be a good idea to introduce the two into the same cage during Mr Burrows’ lesson. There was an inevitable result. Someone shouted out from the back of the classroom “What’s it doing?” to which the class wag replied “Its S***ing it!” . It’s funny the things you remember. Not so funny for Esplin who was heartbroken.
Although we went to Trentham Gardens on several occasions, there is only one that I remember really well. That’s because I was 15 at the time complete with raging hormones and a pair of Chelsea boots which got me off on the wrong foot with my dad before I’d got out of the garden gate to catch the bus to Manchester. In retrospect, he was probably right – they weren’t suitable footwear for a school trip and after a few hours my feet didn’t half ache. Having said that, they were probably responsible for meeting a girl from a school in Stafford who had also made the trip. Our eyes locked across the Waltzer floor and I was instantly nailed. She liked my shoes! wow! They must have also helped her to ignore my acne which was fairly widespread at the time. Her name was Anne Ross and her friend liked my friend Mike Smith and so we joined up for a trip to the Trentham Gardens outdoor swimming pool where Mike’s spectacular simulated fall off the high diving boards (I’d seen it before so knew it was a crowd pleaser) meant that Anne’s friend was totally impressed with his apparent bravery.
I got Anne’s address and threw her an orange from our coach as we left the car park. Not quite the golden apple but all I had left from the lunch my mother had kindly packed for me. Christine Keeler was all the rage at the time and Anne had long wavy hair and a daringly short shift dress which was the closest thing I had seen to the figure which was splashed all over the Daily Express at the time. A couple of weeks later Mike and myself made the trip to Stafford by train and spent a wonderful day in the company of these two bright young things, never to be repeated. I learned a great deal.
I never visited Trentham again, leaving Xavs the following year. I did once visit an art exhibition held in the vicinity where all the pictures were being sold at considerable sums. It turned out the the artist was quite famous – Rolf Harris in fact. I often wonder whether the value of the paintings has deteriorated of late. I have learnt recently that the outdoor swimming pool is no longer there and I believe the gardens are much improved after falling into neglect in the seventies. I prefer to have the memory unsullied so I doubt that I shall ever visit again.
It was decided that a ten day trip to Paris would be a wonderful opportunity to help with our grasp of the French language. The fact that it meant that the luckier of the Xaverian Brothers would have a free holiday was obviously immaterial. It was decided that we would all spend the first night close to the south coast and it just so happened that the Xaverian Brothers had a boarding school, Mayfield nearby to Hastings being in Sussex. This meant that we could all share the dorm facilities and be refreshed the next day for our journey to Hastings and from there over the channel. I have very little recollection of that stay at Mayfield apart from remembering a very scummy dirty green outdoor swimming pool and a spartan bed.
I do remember that one of the boys was probably the world’s worse traveller. On every journey during the next ten days he would inevitably have to stop to be sick. Boys are never very sympathetic at the best of times and our patience wore thin very quickly. ‘Not again!’ was our usual grumble.
Once we arrived in Paris we were billeted in a girl’s boarding school which we shared with a couple of other schools who were on a similar trip. There was even a girl’s school. As a single sex catholic grammar school we had had very little contact with the opposite sex and there was the inevitable gossip and rumours concerning laviscious behaviour with some of the older prefects who accompanied the eleven and twelve year olds to keep us in order. Whether the rumours were true or not I had no idea but our imaginations were excessively fertile in those days. There was a teenage dance club in the basement – ‘Le Twist Club’ as it was labelled (the French language idea paying dividends) and I remember the ‘YaYa Twist’ record being played constantly.
The trip consisted of visits to all the main tourist attractions in Paris – too many as far as we were concerned although looking back I realise a developed a fondness for them which has remained. We went up the Eiffel Tower, visited Versailles and Fontainbleu as well as the Louvre, Notre Dame and even the suspiciously waxy looking bodies of two nuns who were preserved by a miracle due to their wonderfully pure lives – amazing.
We were accompanied by the brothers Plunkett and Finbar. Our class was taught French by Brother Finbar, later to disappear from Xavs under mysterious circumstances as outlined elsewhere. On each of the trips we were accompanied by two charming French Vietnam girls who acted as our guides. One always had a light rain mac draped over her arm. On one occasion it slipped off and I was horrified to see that her hand was missing. It had obviously been cut off judging from the way the end of her wrist terminated. I often wondered later in life what ordeals these girls had been through before making it to France at a turbulent time in both French and Vietnam history. On my first shy exchange with the other girl she asked me who Brother Finbar was. When I told her he was our French teacher she laughed. “He’s not very good! That must be the worse accent I have ever heard!”
We were told that our religious education was not going to suffer during this trip and that any boy who wanted to get up at 7.00 am to attend mass merely had to tie a towel to the end rail of his dormitory bed to be woken by one of the brothers so that he could attend. Ha! This proved a perfect excuse for some of the more humorous among us to tie the towels to the beds of unwilling participants for a bit of fun. Needless to say, they in turn got their revenge and 7.30 mass proved popular but unpopular at one and the same time.
Rumours that circulated included one that Bro Plunkett had become roaring drunk in a nearby tabac and on return to the UK he also disappeared quite soon after. Other rumours of course included shenanigans of a lustful nature between the boys and the girls but nothing of any tangible nature arose except the prefects were banned from ‘Le Twist Club’ after a couple of days.
My major concern in those days was always to do with toilet facilities. Having experience horrendous chemical toilets that were never emptied when on camping trips with my parents (the levels of effluent being so high as to virtually touching the unhappy victim’s posterior) that I had become completely traumatised by the whole rigmarole of toilets which impinged on my enjoyment of any time spent away from home. I can’t remember too much unhappiness regarding this but there again, I may have just erased it from my memory in a kind of post toilet stress disorder…