I hated school. From 1959 to 1965 I attended Emanuel School in Battersea: a Victorian establishment parked between the railway lines exiting south from Clapham Junction station. The trains (still steam in those days) provided sound effects and visual relief; but everything else was unremittingly dull. The interior of the older buildings was painted institutional cream and green— much like the nineteenth-century hospitals and prisons on which the school was modeled. Scattered postwar embellishments suffered from cheap materials and inadequate insulation. The playing fields, though broad and green, seemed to me cold and unfriendly: no doubt because of the cheerless muscular Christianity that I came to associate with them.
This grim institution, to which I repaired six times a week (Saturday morning rugby was compulsory) for nearly seven years, cost my parents nothing. Emanuel was “direct grant”: an independent, self-governing secondary school subsidized by the local authorities and open to any boy who did well at the national examinations for eleven-year-olds (“11+”) and who was accepted after interview. These establishments, often of venerable vintage (Emanuel had been founded in the reign of Elizabeth I), ranked with the great public schools of England, as well as the best of the state grammar schools whose curriculum they closely followed.
But because most direct grant schools charged no tuition, and because they were usually day schools and thus drew largely upon local talent, their constituency was far down the social ladder from that of Winchester, Westminster, or Eton. Most boys at Emanuel came from the south London lower middle class, with a small number of working-class boys who had done well at the 11+ and a smattering of sons of stockbrokers, bankers, etc. from the outer suburbs who had chosen an inner-city day school over a conventional public school for boarders.
When I arrived in 1959, many of the teachers at Emanuel had been there since the end of World War I: the headmaster, the second master (whose prime responsibility was to oversee the weekly beating of insubordinate small boys by sixth-form prefects), the master of the lower school, and my first English master. The latter, who had arrived in 1920 but whose pedagogical techniques were unmistakably Dickensian, spent most of his time furiously twisting and tweaking the ears of his twelve-year-old pupils. I cannot recall a single thing that he said or that we read in the course of that year; just pain.
The younger teachers were better. Over the years I was reasonably well taught in English literature and mathematics, satisfactorily instructed in history, French, and Latin, and monotonously drilled in nineteenth-century science (if someone had only exposed us to modern biological and physical theories I might have been hungry for the experience). Physical education was neglected, at least by American standards: we took one PE class per week, much of it spent awaiting our turn on the vaulting horse or the wrestling mat. I boxed a little (to please my father, who had boxed a lot and rather successfully); was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.