Six Classical

July 17, 2020 3 Comments

Things were different when we reached the sixth form.  Before then the teaching principle our school followed was ‘punch as many nails of knowledge into their dense skulls as possible, and some of them may stick there’.  ‘Turpe nescire’ – it’s a disgrace to be a dunce – was the school’s motto, and factual ignorance was a crime.  For us, being in class wasn’t, on the whole, an enjoyable experience.  Some subjects, like maths, physics and geography, had been deliberately drained of all interest, leaving bare facts to be rote-learnt.  There were few distractions.  Ours was a boys’ school – I don’t suppose a girl had been near the grounds since Elizabeth I founded the place in 1591.  There was rumoured to be a corresponding girls’ grammar school somewhere else in Wakefield, but except on the school bus you’d be lucky to meet a girl all day.

But then, in the sixth, the model seemed to change.  Learning was less of a punishment and more of a joint exploration.  Our teachers treated us not as recalcitrant beasts of burden, to have our heads stuffed into nosebags or threatened with a beating, and more like humans with at least some chance of being useful citizens.  Of course, it was easier for us in Six Classical.  There were only three of us in our year: John, who came from the same village as me, Peter – though he was always known as ‘Bert’ – who came from Ossett, and me.  In Classics the staff-student ratio must have been absurdly low, and if the school hadn’t gone private after our time the subject would surely have disappeared.

The three of us got on well with one another – we once went on a walking holiday together in the Scottish Highlands – and with our teachers.  The head of Classics was Mr Lenton.  Callous teenagers that we were, we called him Chrome Dome, or Egghead.  As well as lacking head hair, he was missing one of his fingers, though we never knew how it happened.  He died only three years ago, aged 96.  According to an obituary I found, he was unmarried, a Catholic convert and lived a simple, frugal life (the finger, I read, was lost in a rifle range accident).  We must have sensed some of this austerity in his manner.  He always wore a dark gown and when he stopped talking and fell silent to think, as he often did, a worried look would come over his face.  The look flowed upwards, into long wrinkles across his forehead and on to his crown, which he would then scratch with one of his remaining fingers.  He cared strongly for his subject.  He had a philosophical bent, with a liking for sharing his thoughts on Socrates and Plato.

After the first year Mr Lenton left to go to Ampleforth College, an élite Catholic school much in the news in recent years for the wrong reasons, and in his place came a very different teacher, Mr Coates.  We could tell that Mr Coates was different because he didn’t wear a gown.  And some of his views were contrary to those of Mr Lenton.  In fact, he seemed to take pleasure in overturning some of the assumptions we’d absorbed.  The revered Pericles, he suggested, was a disastrous leader of the Athenians, whereas his successor Cleon, so disliked by the aristocratic historian Thucydides, was the better politician.  (Perhaps the truth is that both were bad news for the average Athenian.)  There was plenty for us to unlearn or question.  Mr Coates was a short, stocky man with a sly sense of humour and a neat turn of phrase.  Once he wrote in the margin of one of my essays, ‘I like the Tacitean innuendo’. At the time I took that to be the highest praise, though in retrospect it seems a double-edged compliment.  He too was a dedicated classicist and keen for us to share his enthusiasm.  Occasionally he would take us to Leeds University to hear talks from university researchers, and in class he would sometimes stage mini-debates: I remember taking the part of Augustus Caesar to argue in favour of abolishing what democracy remained in late Republican Rome for the sake of peace and prosperity.

We were just as fortunate with our other classics teachers.  Mr Stallard, who taught us lower down the school, sat patiently as we took it in turn to read from an English translation of the Iliad and fell into uncontrollable laughter at Homer’s baroque descriptions of how, when warriors lost their lives in battle, their eyes would roll around the dust of the battlefield.  He also taught Russian to the curious in spare periods.  Mr Scallon, a round and amiable man (still callous, we called him ‘Fat Jack’) read the Aeneid with us, with relish and in great detail, and with the help of the old commentators like Thomas Ethelbert Page.  He was an older man, who’d fought in the army in the War.  He once told us that while in action he’d been blown by a shell into a crater, and, when the dust cleared, he found himself lying next to a German soldier.  The two looked at each other, thought better of fighting, and walked away in different directions.  Occasionally we were taught by Mr Parkin, a thin, mild musician who listened to us stumbling through our Latin.

For some reason Six Classical occupied the best room in the school.  It was in the grim Victorian block that bordered the main road, Northgate.  But it was a large, long room, and its big window looked the other way, over the playground and the field beyond it.  Directly under it was the Headmaster’s study.  At lunchtimes we’d play cricket, with rulers for bats and a ping-pong ball or scrunched-up paper for ball, and we’d thunder around the room, shouting and crashing into the furniture.  Not once did Mr Dudley, the Head, put his head round the door to complain, though we must have caused daily misery to him.  (Mr Dudley was such a grey man he was impossible to either like or dislike, and he was often invisible.)  In class we’d gather near the big window with a view to the east, next to the radiator in cold weather, and make our way line-by-line through the stately but humane poetry of Virgil, or giggle at the naughtiness of Catullus and Martial.

We were working towards A Levels, and we were expected to take them seriously.  But we weren’t prisoners of the curriculum in Six Classical.  We roamed widely, over language, literature, philosophy, history and archaeology, and even art and architecture.  One of the great advantages of classics is that it’s an inter-disciplinary subject, and you’re introduced to almost every possible way of looking at the ancient world.  For the first time I began to realise the linked pleasures – of discovering knowledge, questioning assumptions and gaining understanding – that could be got from studying a subject hard.  It’s almost exactly fifty years to the day since I left school to continue doing classics in university, and there to meet some of the best classical scholars of their time, like Moses Finley, Patricia Easterling and Robert Cook.  But looking back I can see now how much I owe to Mr Lenton and the rest in Six Classical – not just for being good teachers but for their concern, tolerance and humanity.

Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Andrew Renton says:

    Andrew, I had no idea we had this experience in common and was delighted to read this. I remember my sixth-form years at QEGS well, in Six Classical (in the fine Spilsbury Room, as I recall) under the auspices of Messrs Coates, Scallon and Parkin. Derek Coates was an inspiring influence for me, making me understand the point and pleasure of Classics in a contemporary context, and helping me on the way to Oxford.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Well, well. Thanks, Andrew, for this. I’d forgotten it was called the Spilsbury Room (he must have been a previous Head). On other details my memory may be playing tricks.

  2. David Jones says:

    It was Holyhead County Secondary for me; the first comprehensive school in the UK. Anglesey for demographic reasons chose to have 4 secondary schools in each of the towns (Holyhead, Llangefni, Amlwch and Beaumaris.

    The head, Trevor Lovett came to Anglesey from South Wales where he’d been the head of what were called multilateral schools. As I understand, this was a system of secondary modern and grammar school welded together under the same roof, which was pretty much how Holyhead worked.

    After a common first year with two exams pupils were ranked 1-240 something. The first 30 went into the A form and so on. One’s position after the first year exams was recorded. So one poor child was indentifiable as the “dimmest” child in the school. Forms G and H would be seem as special needs classes today. Presumably their curriculum reflected their ability level

    This strikes me as a heartless system – something that we’d avoid in later more civilised times. Perhaps it reflects attitudes to children in the 1950s.

    Unless you were musical or good at sport there was little or no extra-curricular activity. No field trips in A level geography, for example.

    When I got to university I realised that by comparison with the grammar/direct grant school educated students that I met, I was under-educated.

    Still, if you got to university it was more of a level playing field. No extra paid for tuition there. Of course there were those from working class backgrounds that didn’t feel that they belonged there.

Leave a Reply