From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

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4 thoughts on “From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

  1. Interesting post! My Grammar School in the 1970s was kind of similar, with links back to older types of schooling so I could almost imagine myself in an Enid Blyton story. But it gave me a damn good education, and for someone from a working class background to be able to pass the 11 plus and get such schooling was a bonus.

    • Agreed. I really loved the experience that I had and am still in touch with some of that group of (naughty) friends who went on that school trip to France. I’m glad that you also had a good experience. I have a lot of happy memories from my schooldays and hope you do as well….

  2. Pingback: Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One) | Just One More Page…

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