In his letter the Headmaster of my old school reminded me of my promise made a couple of years earlier to donate certain memorabilia to its proposed museum project. The new Humanities Forum, in which mine and other items bearing on the history of the School were to be incorporated, would be opened shortly. The Headmaster confirmed that I would be a welcome guest at the evening opening ceremony, and said he would be obliged if I could send my contributions to the School in short order.
These items included: information for parents of new boys, including School rules (September 1956); an official photograph of the entire School (Easter 1960); and a complete set of my School reports (1956 to 1961).
Though these were precious possessions I had no hesitation in parting with them. I far preferred them to be displayed in a place where they could be seen and appreciated by many people for as long as the School exists, than to lie in a file that would, in all probability, be thrown away after I am gone. So after taking some photocopies I posted my material to the Headmaster.
The history of Westcliff High School for Boys is reasonably well known to those who passed through it. A major event, well documented in the exhibition, was the evacuation of the School to Belper during the Second World War. But aside from such landmarks the School’s history is essentially marked by its headmasters, each of whom seems to have held office for around twenty years. In my time the head was Henry Cloke, a man of immense gravitas whose wisdom and other qualities I appreciated then and now. (He died in 1994.)
I had every intention of attending the opening ceremony for the Humanities Forum, which was of course to be held in the School itself. More than 45 years had passed since I had left it, and I had long been curious to see what it was like now. To that end I had joined the Old Westcliffians Association in the 1990s, but had not attended any of its functions because either they were not being held at the School or the date was inconvenient. This time I was determined to be present.
If you are going to make a nostalgic visit to a place you knew best during daytime, then time your visit for the hours of daylight. I definitely lost something by visiting the School after dark; I could not see it properly in its surroundings, or fully appreciate the views from within (such as they were). But I did not lose everything by any means.
The visit was for me a magical occasion, during large parts of which I was simply communing with myself and comparing what I now saw with what I could remember. Much was the same or similar, much was different. The assembly hall seemed little changed, as did the one classroom that was open (and which had those high windows that let in the light without affording us boys the distraction of a beautiful view over the playing fields). The classroom might well have been one I had occupied. The antiquated-looking central heating radiators could have been, perhaps were, the same as those which in my day had blasted out their unregulated heat (thermostats weren’t so universal then as they are now), though these cast iron relics seemed shorter than I remembered. The quadrangles were identical, but not the open spaces formerly enclosed by them, into which the School had effectively extended itself. The main entrance hall was probably much the same, though I didn’t recall it. The staff room was in the same corner as I remembered it, though possibly in a different room. The exploration I undertook in order to make these comparisons absorbed me utterly during much of the visit.
My contributions, along with many others, were displayed most professionally. My school photo, about a metre long, appeared with a few others belonging to different eras. Only about half of my reports were displayed, unfortunately excluding the one for the Lent Term 1957 when I came top of the form. (There were no School reports other than mine, by the way.) The caption kindly noted that I had had a successful School career, and with whatever objectivity I possess, and allowing for some poor results in subjects I had little interest in, I think that was a fair assessment. In particular I had been “promoted”, in 1959, from Form 3B to Form 4A, and thence in 1960 – skipping the Fifth Form entirely – to Lower Sixth Arts. Would that I had made more of my promising results, had resisted the temptation to join the world of work so early, and had gone on to University. But I was not content - I cannot now remember exactly why - so my parents agreed to take me out of the School in 1961.
The display also described the masters’ comments in my reports as “concise”, which they were: just a line or two such as “Very good progress” (English), “Remains weak” (Physics); or occasionally something a bit longer: “He must revise his Geometry thoroughly if he is to pass. He has the ability and must make a tremendous effort in the next few weeks.”
The Headmaster, Mr A.J. Baker, told me that these days reports had to be much longer and must state what the pupil has to do in order to improve. But to what end? It was always obvious to me that in order to do better I must pay more attention, study harder, take more pains over my written work; on the not sufficiently frequent occasions when I did so, my results improved, and when my laziness prevailed they did not.
My copy of the School rules was displayed with comments to the effect that they were clearly intended to be complied with. That was true enough, but in practice the regime was somewhat liberal and I am certain that many of the rules were habitually broken with no attempt at enforcement. Boys did not invariably obey the injunction not to “shout, talk in loud tones or indulge in any horse-play in the streets or in any public conveyance.” They did cycle to School, as I did, without a permit signed by the form master. They undoubtedly did talk in the passage between the two quadrangles and on the way to Morning Assembly. There were 24 rules in all, my personal favourite being Rule 1: “Any breach of law or by-laws or of common sense and good manners is a breach of School Rules.”
Also exhibited was the programme and menu for a dinner held to mark the retirement of my old headmaster, Henry Cloke, in 1970. I was present at that dinner (which was not held at the School), and recall approaching Henry after the meal and introducing myself. The great man, who had known the names of all his six or seven hundred pupils at any given time, had evidently forgotten mine as he responded: “Ah, yes, Lewis: mathematician at Leicester.”
As I perused the photographs on display I noted that some of the masters who had taught me had been staff members from the very establishment of the School on its present site in 1926. I had known, and vividly remembered, these legendary men. I was not merely a guest, not just an Old Boy; I was a living link between the School’s origins and its present.
Listening to the excellent speech made during the opening ceremony by the Head Boy, I felt great pride, and a sense of connection to this young man and his fellow pupils who, like me, were the product of this place. Essex is not known for its centres of excellence, and yet here was an outstanding one, fit to stand comparison with any grammar or public school in the land, both in my time and today.
Several days having passed since my visit to the School, I suddenly remembered my conversation with Henry Cloke on the day of my departure in the summer of 1961. His parting words were: “Goodbye, Lewis. Come back and see us – but not too soon.”