I have genuine confusion regarding my thoughts on Brother Cyril Birtles who died in April 2014 aged 88. I will try and recollect my feelings from fifty odd years ago as accurately as I can. On the one hand, I remember a man with a good sense of humour who was capable of acts of kindness. On the other, he had a side to his nature which I found morose and unfair but that may be due to the bias which occurs due to an almost flashlight memory of being caned on several occasions.
My fondest memory is being tossed a brand new leather cricket ball after he selected me to open the bowling for the Prep School team. He showed faith in me that I tried to repay. His comments on my school reports were really positive which was nice. He organised school trips on holy days of obligation – one would be to Trentham Gardens and the other to St Anne’s where the coach would drop us off at Fairhaven Lake which continued at Xaverian College itself.
My worse memory of Brother Cyril happened just a couple of weeks after I started at the Prep School. At the time he was taking us for Religious Instruction, as subject I was more than familiar with from my days at St Clare’s. He asked the class a question and I put my hand up together with many other boys. My recollection is that I shouted out ‘but it still gives us grace’ – to this day I have no idea what the question was. But Brother Cyril looked at me with a look that I very occasionally saw again over the next few years. He ordered me out of the classroom and I had to follow him to his study – I had no idea what I had done wrong. He then accused me of ‘being impertinent’. I genuinely didn’t know what he was talking about and started crying. After a while he told me to return to the classroom and he followed me back in. Later at break time other boys shouted ‘Cummings got the cane!’. I hotly denied this and was asked why I had been crying. I seem to remember telling them I had put it on to avoid being thrashed.
Although I find it hard to describe the look that came over Brother Cyril’s face, I came to recognise it over the years – I saw it again when my best friend decided to play cricket for a local team rather than the school team and when I was caned for throwing a training shoe at another boy and accidentally hit a statue of the Virgin Mary, but that’s another story.