FUTURABLES (1958 – 1963)



I think it was Tony McCann who said he remembers leaving Gunnersbury Grammar thinking he was more or less stupid. He wasn’t alone. I walked diagonally across the playground and into Gunnersbury Avenue at the end of the fifth year with nothing concrete to show for having been at the school. That was that, then. It took years, until my mid-twenties, to realise we might be wrong; gauche, perhaps, naïve, and certainly innocent, but far from stupid. By which time many a career had been successfully launched.


This cannot, however, have been only the fault of the school. It had to do, too, with coming from an uneducated background. My father was a highly intelligent man who left school in Sligo when he was twelve; my mother left school in Kerry when she was ten. There was always an inchoate sense of unfinished and unfinishable business, an awkwardness that saw through nonsense while supposing that somehow it must have got things wrong. When I was ten or so, sitting on a straight-backed chair reading Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in floods of tears (how could human beings be so cruel!), my mother sidled by on business saying, as much to herself as to me, ‘I don’t know why you read this stuff if all it does is make you cry’. And Dad grew more and more embittered, partly because the gap between intelligence and education did not equip him to deal with the sophistication of ideas he didn’t know he owned (my parents educated me beyond their reach), but partly, too, because I was not taking advantage at Gunnersbury of what he had no doubt was a high-class education. There is nothing new, of course, in this kind of disappointment, the ‘newness’ being found instead in the opportunities now being made available to boys like me; those who would not have received the education Gunnersbury offered had it not been for the 1944 Butler Education Act. Peter Rostron tells me that at the time there were only two Roman Catholic grammar schools for boys in Middlesex. That’s how stupid we were.


I wasn’t ready for it, and buried myself in sport. I was in every team and even succeeded at boxing; but the school wasn’t ready either. It did not know how to deal with or provide for boys from my kind of background, who found themselves unexpectedly the beneficiaries of the inflexible IQ measurements the Butler Act based its tripartite education system on. The 11+ opened doors. I wonder sometimes what would have become of me had I gone to the local secondary modern, and there is, of course, no knowing the answer to that; it remains locked in the world of what-might-have-been, the world of what Gilligan mistakenly called ‘futurables’. What was clear was that I was unable overnight to adopt the attitudes and ways of the scholar. And Gunnersbury stared at discomfort and read it as recalcitrance. Yet I had the education. It took place. I remember stuff being difficult. Sometimes I responded with fascination, sometimes with indifference, sometimes with bewilderment (I’m good at this) and sometimes with resistance. It all happened and I experienced it however it was offered and received, and I daresay a great deal of it stuck in the nooks and crannies of my being. Nothing is solely the result of anything else. Everything is the result of everything else. We are unlikely to remember our past in this way because, as Eliot memorably has it, ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’.


Certainly there were good times. I remember Mr Hall bringing history to life, mapping campaigns on the board and asking us what we’d do next, and encouraging the good-natured hilarity that resulted from his pointing out (or a classmate’s pointing out) the utter in(s)anity of our proposed move. We saw real people behind the blackboard’s ciphers. And I remember Harry Harman’s lesson in the third year in the hut on Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and his delight (not a characteristic he displayed often) at the wonder of its images, the beaker of wine ‘with beaded bubbles winking at the brim’, the drinker’s ‘purple-stainèd mouth’. I have been able to quote chunks of this poem ever since without having to make the effort of remembering. These, and others like them, were, if you like, small epiphanies. They were not moments of understanding (explain that to an Ofsted inspector). These two teachers, above all others, I’d say, taught me what Yeats has called ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’. It’s what keeps poets at their task. Too often students are enabled to be ‘interested in’ rather than the altogether more essential ‘fascinated by’. I understand that the most recent Ofsted inspection of Gunnersbury School found it to be ‘outstanding’ in every category. This alone would make me fear for the poor place.


In today’s educational world, Ofsted inspectors and their acolytes in schools claim to be able to measure what has been learned by watching children learning it and asking them what they’ve learned, the astute child answering this banality by reading the lesson objectives from the board (how far ahead of adults children often are!). The ‘learning’ (that dread noun that appears to float free of the person doing it) that may be discerned in this way must by its very nature be trivial. No one could ever have seen by way of observation (or by asking) what the ‘beaded bubbles’ were doing. We remember lessons, even bits if lessons, and we’re mostly at a loss to explain why we remember them, moments when the vertical strikes across the horizontal and sticks, to be worked out later, if at all. It’s the effect good teachers try for, knowing there’s no way of knowing when it happens.


So, we do remember good-time moments like these, but we remember the dramatic all the more readily, and the dramatic is usually bad. Like walking into that upstairs room for yet another dose of the whack, to be told by Wally Cain that I was about to break the school record for the number of times anyone in my year had ever received it. Whether or not ‘nobody should ever, ever hit a child’ (why do we deal in these unnecessary and reductive absolutes?), it surely should have occurred to someone in the place that the deterrent wasn’t working. I was always going to prefer the whack (and it bloody hurt!) to doing my homework. My father hit me, too, and apologized for it when I was thirty or so. But violence does not always lead to violence. I don’t hit people and I have not in real life (outside school and the sporting arena) seen anyone hit anyone else in over thirty years. Do I lead a sheltered life?


Harman nevertheless instilled real fear in some of us. Like Red Ivie’s brother, I used not sometimes come to school because of him, though I think the fear may have been mixed with not wanting the hassle of being arraigned again. I’d wander round here, there or wherever until it was home time. I don’t ever recall being challenged. I must have spent some of that time in Acton Library, which was a kind of second home anyway. The Hardy Boys gave way to John Steinbeck as, one book at a time, I borrowed the entire oeuvre of Franklin W. Dixon and Steinbeck. Years later in whatever library I found myself, I would avoid the ‘C’ section because it would necessitate at some stage an encounter with Joseph Conrad, whose The Rover had been an O-level literature book (before it became a text) in Fr. Doyle’s class, a novel that excited only bile and venom in me. When I finally discovered in Heart of Darkness some of the finest prose to be found anywhere in the English language, I had to overcome the prejudice of not wanting it to be true.


So, I missed school deliberately and I don’t think anybody knew I was truanting. I don’t think anyone contacted home. Perhaps they did, but I certainly do not remember any conversations about it with my parents. My dad more or less stopped talking to me because I was letting him down, but this was a more general matter. My reluctance to go to school was clearly something to do with ‘the blunt and inflexible way it worked’, to borrow Mike Crotty’s formulation, but it also had to do with a general bewilderment surrounding what on earth I was doing there when I did attend.


The Harman Harman wanted us to see was vile, but I stood up to him once. I’d been away, again, and someone had ‘borrowed’ my plimsolls and left them on top of the lockers afterwards instead of putting then back inside. Harman threw them away, as he had repeatedly said he would anything left on top. On the day the binmen came! I’d been ordered to say, in response to his ‘How many times do I have to tell you …’, ‘Someone else left them there not me. And my mum says we haven’t got so much money that she can afford to be buying me plimsolls all the time for you to throw them away, sir’. Standing by my desk, waiting to say this, which I did, trying hopelessly to navigate between Harman’s Scylla and my mother’s Charybdis, I dug my nails into the palms of my hands enough to draw blood. I was scared and in a state of frenzied anticipation. I was told to get out of the room. He later fibbed that the matter had been resolved with my parents (it hadn’t and wasn’t) but from that time on I became one of his favourites. All of a sudden I could do no wrong.  That year I finished top of his Alpha form (legitimately!) and Father Doyle advised me not to go back up to the ‘A’ form I’d earlier been relegated from. I ignored him, but he was right. I rose to anonymity again, or rather to a renewed notoriety that was a substitute for any more positive achievement. Harman wasn’t happy either. How could I hardly be here, do none of the work, and still come 12th  in English, or wherever I came? He was back on top. Though he did later ‘let me off’ with fifty lines when I pushed a prefect into the classroom door and he hurt his back on the doorknob. It was, Harman mumbled, studiedly sotto voce, about time someone had done that to him. Life can surprise.


I remember Jenner’s humanity in suggesting, very humbly, that my combined mark of 10% put a question mark next to the sense of my being entered for the Latin exam. What did I think? I made the decision for him, with a smile, in recognition of a moment of generosity. Clancy, however, I remember with a kind of amused disdain. One lesson stands out because he must have thought it was Christmas. We were silent throughout and we always gave him grief. It must, you will say, have been Alpha. It was Biology (or did we call it ‘Nature’?). Normally he’d just talk on over us because there was nothing else he could do. But this day some wag had opened a ‘book’ on how many times Clancy would say ‘as such’, which was bound to be plenty. So, we were all listening intently and counting. He was a serial ‘as-such’er. That silence and attention must have struck him as eerie, not to say sinister, but I daresay he was grateful for it at the time. In the fifth-year, however, I passed him on my way into the hall to sit a ‘Physics-with-Chemistry’ O-level paper. ‘Exam, McLoughlin, exam?’ he smirked. ‘The only thing you’ll ever pass, boy, is water’. Ho, ho. I must surely have been ruined for life on the spot. I’d love to say I’ve been in therapy ever since, but it wouldn’t be true.


I remember clearly in an upstairs classroom staring at the clock hoping noon would never arrive. It was October 1962, the time of the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s ultimatum. Khrushchev’s apparently rocket-laden ships turned back. I still don’t quite see how Kennedy got away with that. We’ll keep our base and weapons in Turkey but you have to take yours in Cuba away. It meant Cuba was not invaded by the US, of course, and I suppose this was what Khrushchev wanted. I still often wonder how the Americans get away with stuff, though I am sometimes pleased they do. I was scared the world was coming to an end. I was also scared at lunch in the hall when a fourth year I remember as Olley said he hadn’t been to mass on Sunday. I was scared for him. I could see him in the burning fires of hell. And he didn’t seem to care! And those hell-flames remind of the retreat held in the church next door and the missionary belching fire. We were a bunch of godless sinners. Well, of course we were. Otherwise we’d be savage and uncontrollable. Sin was the only thing they had on us. Teaching Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I have always had to insist that the lengthy hellfire and damnation passage in the retreat is not a flight of fancy but social realism, brilliantly caught.


It’s good to be able to earn a living teaching Joyce and Eliot and Yeats and Blake and all the rest (of the syndetic crew!). I’ve only been head-hunted once in my career. Gunnersbury School, long since no longer a grammar, was looking for a new Head of English in the early ’eighties, and I was the man. No, I’m not, I told them all: Gunnersbury, the local authority English Adviser, and my own headteacher. No I’m not. Not unless I can go back there for a couple of terms and wreck the joint! I’d’ve had an ageing Harman in my department, and I resisted even that.


A good education puts students in the way of things, then stands aside. I gave up on Roman Catholicism before I left school and I’ve never gone back. Both my schools as a pupil were Roman Catholic schools. My entire extended family was Roman Catholic. I’d been an altar boy and even served at Westminster Cathedral on one occasion. There was a concerted attempt when I was ten to recruit me for the priesthood. A place was available at the seminary school in Ware. Nearly all of my closest friends went there though none persevered. Where did I get the determination to resist? Who knows? From my father? What seems important is that surrounded by the church I managed to escape from it. Perhaps school helped to teach me how to escape from it? When Father Doyle asserted in my fifth year that there was no point in talking to communists because they’ll never change their minds, I remember thinking there was something wrong with that as an argument, though I didn’t at the time know what that something was. Gunnersbury had an effect on me. Of course it did. It was the secondary school I went to. Everything else is guesswork.