It was 1953 and just before Christmas when my mother and I received the summons to leave Yorkshire and join my father in London. He’d been job-hunting for many months. Now he’d gone into business on his own, and things were up and running.
The first job was to find me a school. I was a post-war ‘bulge baby’ – one of the thousands of babies conceived and born in those heady months after WWII was finally over. Places were hard to come by. School after school was full to bursting point. Finally, reluctantly, my parents played the religious card. My father’s Catholicism was unimportant to him. My mother’s adherence to the Church of England was important to her. But not too far away, they found a Catholic school prepared to take me.
I can’t think what I made of it, that first day. I can’t remember what the school was called, or exactly where it was. But it was a typical large London Victorian board school, built in distinctive Queen Anne style in the wake of the 1870 Education Act. It probably had over 200 pupils, 40 to a class. I’d come from a school with fewer than 40 pupils in total, all ages from five to fifteen. My village school had two classrooms. This had – oh, dozens, it seemed to me. And a hall, and a noisy dining room where we sat at long trestle tables to eat institutional food. And a scary toilet block with a long row of green-painted cubicles. And – this was astonishing – a playground on the roof for the older children. We younger ones played in a gaunt asphalted yard enclosed by a towering brick wall. And after school, my mother sometimes took me to the playground in the park opposite, full of now-banned treats such as the witch’s hat.
In class, we sat at double desks, all facing the front. I did my best, but I ‘talked funny’ (Yorkshire, that is) and my cockney classmates probably understood me as little as I understood them. Once the teacher gave me a hearty thwack on my shin with a ruler. It must have been for getting my work wrong. I was far too terrified to misbehave.
I wasn’t Catholic. Neither was a boy in another class, Tony. So a couple of times a week we were taken out of the class scripture lessons to learn about becoming good Catholics. An elderly nun told us about angels, and rosaries and the life hereafter. She taught us the ‘Hail Mary’. I had no idea what she was talking about. I went home, reported that I wouldn’t be able to go to heaven, and had nightmares.
By the following term, my parents had found me a different school.