Anthony Coombs recalls…

From Anthony Coombs

I attended Xaverian Prep 1962-1965, and Xaverian College 1965-71. Before that I’d been at the Hollies Prep in Fallowfield. The Nuns booted little boys out of The Hollies at the age of 8 in case they made advances on the little girls. They could safely have waited another 8 years – or longer in my case. 

Happy memories of Xaverian Prep, on Wilbraham Road in Fallowfield, are of Mr Timlin reading to us from the lives of famous artists. It has stuck with me since then that Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483 where his father was court artist, and died young but famous in Rome in 1520. This was good background when I eventually got to Urbino on a walking holiday in my 40s. He didn’t mention that Raphael might have died so young from having sex too often, but this was not the sort of information you’d share with little boys, even if it were true. He read to us what a sad life Rembrandt had – the death of his wife Saskia and of his son Titus, and his serious debt problems, in spite of being famous.  I remember someone asking the elderly Brother Benedict, whose party piece was to make you stand on a chair then pull the chair away from under you, whether it hurt when you died. He answered “Did it hurt when you were born?” which was a very good but misleading answer, because it certainly hurt your mother.  I remember NOT getting “the stick” from the headmaster Mr Quayle, but waiting outside his office to be punished, after I had pushed someone’s face into his pudding at dinner time.  The boy was staring down into his pudding from a couple of inches away and it only needed a gentle push on the back of his head to get his nose in it. I remember cold hours standing still on the football field wondering how you got involved in the game. I remember coming last in class in my first year, which I had to repeat, and first in class in my third year, and for this being given a book called “Just like Jennings.”  I am looking at this book now. The illustration on the cover shows two schoolboys standing on a station platform chatting to and shaking hands with a kindly steam engine driver and his fireman leaning out of their cab. Happy days.

My dad had gone to school at Xaverian before and during the war and was a contemporary of the headmaster Brother Cyril, so it felt to me like the right place to be.  I don’t have any bad memories of the teachers at Xaverian in Victoria Park, except of being bashed around the head by Mr Arkless in more than one maths lesson.  I had understood that numbers started at 1 and went upwards, and thought that was the end of it.  He hammered in the idea of negative numbers and cross factorization, but put me off maths for ever, which in turn closed off sciences for the future.  It’s only Brian Cox that has got me interested in science now.  I came home once after being knocked around in a maths lesson, and told my dad how upsetting it was.  My dad was in “The Catenians”, a Catholic social and benevolent organization, a bit like the Freemasons, but not so secretive.  So was Mr Arkless, and they happened to be meeting up soon afterwards.  My dad must have told Mr Arkless over a drink that what he thought was my “asinine grin” was really a grimace of terror, and he never hit me again.  

The philosophy in the new Sixth Form block was to treat you as a grown-up, and to hope you behaved like a grown-up which, on the whole, we did. I had really good, dedicated teachers in Mr Connolly (Eng Lit), Mr Graham and Mr Baron (Economics), Mr Lackey (British Government) and Mr Brooker (Art), and as a result got really good “A” levels.  Mr Brooker very kindly taught me in his spare time because the Art classes clashed with my other subjects.  He could also play flamenco guitar, which is impressive looking back on it even now.  Mr Connolly introduced us to a lot of literature beyond the set books. He also provided informally the only sex education lessons we ever had, although this embarrassed everyone.  Mr Lackey organized hikes in Derbyshire and involved some students in care of the elderly.  He was a really good person as well as a good teacher.

Important things happened by chance. Mr Lackey said to me one day: “I suppose you’ll be doing PPE at University?”  I’d never heard of it, and found out it meant Philosophy, Politics and Economics.  Brother Cyril later said to me “I suppose you’ll be applying for Oxford or Cambridge…(long pause)…Which one?” (holding out 2 application forms to me). No idea, but I took the Oxford application form from him, and went on to study PPE there.  Xaverian Sixth Form was my academic high point. I got a second class degree in PPE, and had to start again, studying Law in order to qualify as a solicitor and earn a living. That’s another story.

Some people have commented on Catholicism at Xaverian. I liked the rituals, and remember running to Benediction every Friday afternoon when at the Prep, and singing “Tantum ergo Sacramentum.”  We didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded good.  Although losing my religion at University, religion wasn’t oppressive at Xaverian.  In the Sixth Form, a dynamic, charismatic American Bother John J Donovan introduced us to Catholic philosophers Teilhard de Chardin and Saint Augustine, and taught us about  the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up to the Nazis and died for it. Catholicism at Xaverian felt safe, wholesome and northern, compared with the posh Catholics and the sinister Opus Dei crew later on at Oxford, who tried to recruit me without saying who they really were.

Some people have said Xaverian didn’t provide a first class education.  I think it did, or at least it was there for the taking.  Bear in mind that they had limited resources, and that the education was free.  Alternatives like St Bede’s or Manchester Grammar were not free. The pupil intake came from working class or lower middle class Catholic families.  No-one there was rich. The school got a lot of working-class boys to university. To the best of my knowledge, there was none of the sexual abuse that blighted other Catholic schools and institutions of that era.

4 thoughts on “Anthony Coombs recalls…”

  1. St Bedes certainly was free to boys who passed the 11 plus exam. Apart from a number of my contemporaries who attended my brother in law attended, free, from 1970.

      • Certainly was posher. After we played cricket against Bedes we ended up in their dining room complete with old masters on the wall and waitresses dressed in black with white aprons. Several priests and definitely felt like something out of a Waugh novel…

  2. Thanks for your recollections Anthony, especially the comments about Mr Brooker, he was also my art teacher at Xaverian. I went on to become an art teacher as well!


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