For Marcel Proust, it was dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea; for Education alum Bob Webb, it was listening to our recent Christmas Carol concert that brought hidden memories flooding back.
It all began with a question: “You’re coming here to do English Mains, so what have you read recently?”
“Quite a lot of Dylan Thomas.”
“Can you tell me how ‘Fern Hill’ ends?”
“Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
“What do you think he meant by that?”
I forget my garbled response - and the rest of the interview - but I do remember being sent on my way with the somewhat dubious advice to “go into public parks in London and watch children at play.”
The acceptance letter arrived; some weeks later, travelling home to South Wales for the weekend, my diverted train suddenly came to a shuddering halt between Bath and Bristol. I glanced out of the window, and was transfixed – there, immediately opposite, across the Avon, was the entrance to Newton Park. Was this a sign, an omen? Had I made the right decision to change careers? It was a magical moment. I’m not sure I believe in coincidence or fate but for someone seeking a new start, this was spellbinding.
For two years my world had been an airless, claustrophobic office near Chancery Lane, WC2. As a Clerical Officer I was almost the lowest rank in the Civil Service. The work was monotonous and soul-destroying. Since the arrest of the spy George Blake an institutional paranoia reigned, keeping me tied to a wooden in-tray and bakelite telephone. The most hoped-for sound was the clank of the 3pm tea trolley in the corridor.
Fast forward to September 1966: my college-appointed accommodation was a modest, terraced house on a steep hillside in Oldfield Park. The elderly, childless owners, a Geordie and a Kentish Maid (as she called herself), cheerfully adjusted their daily routine to my wayward comings and goings and a tendency to write essays at unsocial hours. Twice a week they sandwiched me on the settee to watch the new black and white TV sensation about a back street in Salford. They treated me like an adopted son and I was happy to reciprocate except on one occasion when, to my utter disgrace, I stole a pound from an open purse to buy a pair of must-have desert boots. A late atonement was to take them a large bunch of flowers when they eventually retired to Weston-super-Mare.
The first month of the first term we were immersed in the quaintly-named Village Survey, now long gone I imagine. For me it was bliss. Instead of wrestling with dusty files in a government ministry I found myself bowling along country lanes to a two-class primary school. In the morning, after a few teaching assistant tasks, cum observation, it was time for my partner and I to saunter down to the nearby pub for some flirtatious chat over a ploughman’s lunch. Working with “real” children was a completely new experience. Without brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, I still regarded kids as a strange breed you got rid of as quickly as possible on Halloween Night.
"I glanced out of the window, and was transfixed – there, immediately opposite, across the Avon, was the entrance to Newton Park. Was this a sign, an omen? Had I made the right decision to change careers?"
It was decided we’d take a class to Farleigh Hungerford Castle on an Integrated Studies – the buzz word of the day – project. Seeing groups of youngsters excited at a ruined 14th Century landmark with its legends of murder and scandal, it began to dawn on me that, maybe, I had taken the right path after all. There was history to research, copying wall paintings, making up a site plan, writing stories and poetry about medieval life. The only downside was a teacher’s rebuke that we’d “tarted up the kids’ work too much” i.e. we’d made “improvements” to the finished result. She was right of course. In those early days the complexities of child development were still a mystery to me.
There existed an unwritten law in college that no students walked the full length of the drive without being picked up by a passing car. Although extremely convenient, this inevitably meant that you were at the mercy of a diverse mix of travelling companions – in one instance with embarrassing results. A Biology lecturer eyed up the five inch difference in height between me and my First Year girlfriend and chortled, “If you two are an item how do you manage? Do you have to stand on a bucket?” Our fledgling romance was doomed to failure after that.
Now came the serious bit: English tutorials were held in the Keep, a remnant of the old fortified manor. Instead of hurrying through congested streets in High Holborn, here I was strolling past a Grade 1- listed Georgian mansion in beautiful parkland. I can still smell the floor polish as we climbed the creaking stairs. A bearded, pipe-smoking academic gently eased us through the morass that is literary criticism, giving us time to think, to analyse, and to discuss. On St David’s Day I proclaimed my Welsh roots by delivering a summary of the poetry and prose of Dylan Thomas (who else?) and then, flushed with achievement, took a rowing boat out on the bottom lake. “Can life get any better than this?” I thought.
Education seminars were equally memorable. Mr L, a jovial bibliophile who looked like he had just stepped out of a Dickens’ novel, turned dreary educational theory into merry discourse. He glided around the room, effortlessly quoting from the 1946 Education Act, the Newsom Report and Piaget. When feeling overwhelmed we used to count the number of times he used the phrase “the haves and the have nots”. Ending a lively debate, he would throw open an adjoining door. Books would cascade onto the floor, to be dispensed to anyone with a thirst for knowledge. We all admired his erudition but I’m not sure he ever sensed the waves of affection.
"Seeing groups of youngsters excited at a ruined 14th Century landmark with its legends of murder and scandal, it began to dawn on me that, maybe, I had taken the right path after all."
With no car, little money and living off-campus, “socialising” in 1966 meant Sunday morning darts in a pub, scandalising the locals in town by walking into the Pump Rooms sporting a black Carnaby Street style plastic mac or a long walk over to the girls’ hostel in Weston where we sat around in a sparsely-furnished lounge and made Prufrockian small talk. The girls were under strict orders not to wear fluffy slippers lest they inflamed our ardour.
Trudging back on a cold winter’s night the favourite stop was the welcoming lights of the Upper Bristol Road fish shop. One evening, with an unfinished supper, I threw the greasy remains into a waste basket in my bedroom and awoke in the middle of the night to a persistent scratching noise. The bedside lamp revealed two tiny field mice engaged in a frantic tug of war with the chip-stained local newspaper.
Soon came the challenge of teaching practice: again, a small junior school in Wiltshire. I approached this with apprehension, recently unnerved by a General Lecture where the speaker described trying to explain to an unpredictable class, in simple terms, how a kettle boiled due to the Law of Thermodynamics. At question time an enthusiastic pupil shot up his hand and volunteered, “Sir, my granny’s got a green parrot!” To add to my anxiety, each morning students would clamber onto the coach clutching home-made materials and impressive visual aids. Being an Arts and Crafts dunce, I excelled if the topic was how a trawler caught fish or who was King Arthur, but when it came to drawing a donkey or constructing a Nativity scene I was useless.
Nor did it help to have to transition abruptly from checking Maths calculations to refereeing football on the village green. Making rude remarks about the school’s organisation also came back to haunt me after the Head unexpectedly leafed through my Practice Diary. Returning to college I consoled myself with the thought that, from now on, it was secondary teaching or nothing.
One of the main – if not the most important – attractions of coming to Newton Park had been its liberal notion of continuous assessment. “Does not do justice to himself in exams” was a frequent comment on my grammar school reports. The lead up to sitting any kind of test paper seemed to scramble my neurons, sending me into a state of high anxiety – it was to dog me throughout my life. The desire to do well can be a great motivator; it can also cause a crippling lack of concentration.
"I thought I was destined to perpetual anonymity in London. Newton Park was to change all that. By Open Day, touring the grounds with my parents, I was in an altered state: I had discovered some latent intellect and a growing self-confidence."
By the time I left the Sixth Form I had dropped ‘A’ Level Geography and failed History but, mercifully, emerged with a Grade A in English, my one true love. After such a disastrous start and with no access to university I thought I was destined to perpetual anonymity in London. Newton Park was to change all that. By Open Day, touring the grounds with my parents, I was in an altered state: I had discovered some latent intellect and a growing self-confidence. My personal tutor, a kind, sensitive lady, known to lay bouquets on Keats’ grave in Rome, appeared opportunely coming up the slope from the lake cradling, Ophelia-like, a posy of freshly-picked wild flowers. After introductions she declared to my delighted mother that I was “A splendid chap!”
And so ended Year One. Many adventures followed until in 1970, with an armful of distinction grades and the new B.Ed. qualification, I sallied forth to teach English and Humanities in The Blue School, Wells. I’d been offered a second chance and I grasped it gratefully. Much later, while I was nervously robing up to accept a Masters degree from the University of Wales, my schoolteacher father, who had originally opposed my entry into the profession, turned to me and said, “Well, son, you’ve finally redeemed yourself!”
He may have been right, but my mind instantly flipped back to a long-distant interview and that first question; when faced with divergent paths you have to choose. And that, as I found out, can make all the difference.
Images: Bob as a student in the 1960s, and on holiday in Monument Valley, USA
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