Probably the most painful experience I can remember from all my time at Xaverian is the one relating to Mr Archdeacon. It probably contributed more to the reason my academic achievements slid off the scale and my earlier promise evaporated. It still fills me with mixed emotions over fifty years later.
I enjoyed being taught by Archie. I was very good at English Language – I was an avid reader of virtually anything I could get my hands on, my father was deputy Head Reader at the Daily Express who constantly corrected my grammar if I made the slightest error. I was only an average student when it came to English Literature – I wasn’t a big fan of Shakespeare and I think our set book was ‘The Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’ by Siegfried Sassoon which didn’t capture my imagination at all. George Orwell would have been a different story.
I think every student passed both subjects in my year, apart from myself who failed English Lit. I can’t verify this but it may well have been the case. Now the incident that set me on the wrong path:
We went on an evening trip to the Library Theatre, Manchester to watch Henry IV Part II which was our set Shakespeare play. Archie arranged to meet us in the foyer before the performance and I remember him saying “and don’t wear any teddy boy gear” in the lesson that afternoon. I thought this was just his joke – wrong! I had recently bought what I thought was a very smart jacket – five guineas from a gentleman’s outfitters on Oxford Road, Manchester. This had a small velvet collar and part lapel which I had associated more with the Beatles than anything else. I decided it would be the right thing to wear for an evening at the theatre.
When I got there Archie whispered in my ear: “I said no teddy boy gear!” I tried to convince him that this wasn’t what I was wearing and thought no more about it. The next week we submitted our homework based on a question asked about the play and my essay was probably a bit below par. When Mr Archdeacon returned my homework to me he began to berate me severely, not mentioning the ‘teddy boy gear’. What he did say was this: “Cummings, as far as I am concerned, you are no longer part of my English Literature class. You can submit homework but I will not mark it.” That is as much as I can remember as my emotions at that point prevented my from taking in anything else he said. Needless to say, I told no one, particularly not my parents nor Brother Cyril. I do remember becoming what these days is called ‘depressed’ and from being a promising student finished the year bottom of my class. I can’t blame Archie completely for this but I do wonder whether the level of shame I felt and lack of confidence that I had at that time were already present and the incident just hatched them. What made it worse for me was that I respected him as a teacher and his opinion meant a great deal. Schooldays weren’t always happy ones.