Formative Influences

I was brought up in the 1940s and 50s in a tough area called Bootle (it’s attached to Liverpool) by parents who wanted me to be a cut above the local kids with their heavy regional accent. They insisted I used the BBC vowel sounds we heard on the radio, and I was never allowed outside to play (I didn’t want to – I’d been assured the local ‘bucks’ were far too rough and ‘common’). My father was dictatorial and very strict: he hit hard, and terrified me. My mother was soft and kind, and no match for him.

When I was four, they sent me to a preparatory school in a more middle class area a few miles away: so that I would know how to read before the age of 5, and be able to impress my state school teachers with my cleverness from day 1. Then, when I was five, they sent me to a primary school a two minute walk from our house, where all those rough and common local protestant kids went: into the lions’ den…

Robin for Buzz-AH! 2So what do you think happened to that terrified and ultra-timid child, who sounded ‘lah-di-dah’ and came from a family who had labelled itself “upper working class” (my father’s term). This was 1947 in a post-war, very poor, bomb-damaged, inner-city area a stone’s throw from what was then the biggest dry-dock in the world (hence the bombs).

Sixty seven years later I still remember the name of the worst of the many bullies. I can see his face; and somewhere deep inside me, the need to smash it goes on burning. I could never stand up to him, and he was merciless. Teachers in those days weren’t as involved as they are now with issues like that, and I think my father thought the experience would ‘toughen me up’. “Your father has the heart of a lion,” my mother was always telling me. He’d gone to that school himself from 1914 – 1921 (all the schooling he ever had). He told me that in his day, most of the children went to school in bare feet…

I think that must have been when I first developed my facility for languages and dialects. I became adept at sounding like the other kids while at school and the aspirational, “upper-working class”, high-achieving son my parents wanted at home. It was impressed upon me that I would “pass the scholarship” at the age of 11 and go to the local grammar school, thereby leaving the local ‘rabble’ far behind. Most of them were destined to be funnelled into the hell-hole that was the local secondary modern school.

Robin for Buzz-AH! 3And so it came to pass. Bootle being Bootle, there was no shortage of bullies at the Grammar School either. By then, of course, I had read Tom Brown’s School Days and understood that there were bullies in every stratum of society: ‘survival of the fittest’ in one of its earlier manifestations. My father also hit on the happy notion of taking me to a boxing club, where I learned how to duck and weave and jab and deliver a solid punch. I soon grasped the fact that a flailing smack on the side of the head wasn’t a high price to pay if at the same time you were landing a straight one right on the end of your opponent’s nose. Noses tend to bleed profusely when you punch them right, and the bullying stopped fairly soon after that.

school prize label 1958-9 compressedSo that is how, more or less simultaneously, I acquired a facility for languages and a detestation of bullying in all its forms. At the grammar school I regularly won the annual prizes for spoken English and French and Spanish, and ended up being head prefect with more control over the other pupils than several of the teachers. I went on to London University (Queen Mary College) to study English, and specialised in Old and Middle English Language and Literature. I got a good degree and then completed the first three years of a PhD thesis entitled “Chaucer’s Poetic Uses of his Native Vocabulary”. My ambition was to teach to degree level and be an academic like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I had survived my childhood, and had used education to ‘escape’ into another class – the first in my family (to my knowledge) ever to do so…

But I needed a fourth year to finish the PhD and the grant had run out. A school in South London needed a part-time teacher to teach their new comprehensive ‘A’ level English class (and several other classes), and the money was good. It was 1967, and in those days if you had my qualifications they let you just walk into a teaching job…

I remember it as if it were yesterday. I walked up the hill towards that school, my head full of Chaucer, and came upon it while all the kids were in the playground – it was morning break. I looked at them and the tears began pouring from a well so deep inside me I had forgotten it was there. It was a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. I was sobbing uncontrollably – almost howling with grief – and had to walk round a very big block before I could get a grip and go back; by which time the children were inside and I made it dry-eyed to my interview with the headteacher.

Robin for Buzz-AH! 4The PhD was never finished. I immersed myself totally in teaching 11-18 year olds, and it turned out I was really good at it. They taught me most of what I needed to know, and promotion was rapid. I got my first headship, twelve years later, in the most stressful social services area of the country – Stoke Newington, Hackney.

And for the next fourteen years, I made sure that school was safe for any child with any accent from any background to come and learn, and never be afraid.