Thoughts on catholic education in the sixties
A working class catholic background pre Xaverian
Whilst Xaverian paid an important part in my early life I think it’s also important to consider life before Xaverian.
The family belonged to St Robert’s, Longsight, a large parish which included Catholics from many backgrounds including the English (us), Italians, Poles and of course the Irish who were very much in the majority.
Sermons were frequently preceded by the words ‘As Catholics this is what we believe…’ In other words – don’t think and certainly don’t critique anything. Your duty was to be obedient unquestioning Catholics. A very dangerous attitude and one which I wonder if some of our Muslim friends might be subject to now?
Human actions also seemed to be categorized along very black and white lines into what was right and what was wrong – and most things – especially where sexuality was concerned – were wrong.
The idea that a 14 year old school boy would go to Hell if he died suddenly after committing a certain act is patently absurd now…but not then. Catholic guilt has a lot to answer for.
The Church has changed dramatically in recent years and preaching about hell fire and damnation has long since gone. A loving God is promoted now although the church’s attitude to sexuality (about which we now know so much more) and women can still be somewhat medieval.
My parents were good decent intelligent people and my mum was especially devout and liked to follow all the ‘rules’ to the letter. Before he died my dad told me that my mum – a very kind lady who would do anything to help anybody – lived in fear of going to hell. How wrong. (Sex was never discussed and I would never ever think about going to them with anything personal).
My dad, a very skilled plumber, expected people to ‘get a skill’ at 16 and saw little value in further education after that which reflected his upbringing. This did cause me problems especially when I went into the sixth form as I felt somewhat unsupported at home.
I also remember that we were expected to be humble and certainly not ‘show offs’. Boasting of any exploits, however worthy, was not encouraged. Was this a working class thing related to knowing your place in society? The idea of using all your talents and skills to the full – expressing yourself with confidence – was somehow wrong or this is the impression I had. Getting your reward in the next world by being good obedient Catholics in this world was often quoted. ‘We may be poor but we do see life’ was also often quoted by my mum when some ‘Longsight’ incident occurred!
And with that background I arrived at Xaverian as a reasonably happy child.
Xaverian – my first great adventure
When I arrived at Xaverian in 1960 I thought I had landed on Mars. I had never come across a building like Ward Hall before never mind entered one. It was a complete culture shock after my large but friendly primary school and it took me several months to assimilate.
I had never heard of the school until it appeared on a list of schools I was entitled to apply for after passing my 11 plus and my teacher Mr Grouke (an ex Xaverian) suggested that was the school for me. I’m grateful for that advice as the alternative – St Bedes – I don’t think would have suited me.
I arrived with one ambition – to play for the school football team – which I achieved and as house points were awarded for appearances that assisted me in obtaining my silver house badge (Bernadines) which I still have.
My thoughts on Xaverian teachers
I think most teachers were men of good will – at least those who were not suffering mental difficulties as I’m sure Mr Crotty was. And how cruel school boys can be. I remember someone putting a dead bird in his desk once. He opened his desk at the start of a lesson, saw the bird – did a double take – closed his desk – said nothing and carried on but I think he was quite shocked.
I think Brother Finbarr was essentially a good man but the celibate life was not for him (is it right for anyone?). In our first year Jim Gilligan (before I knew him) became ill and needed some weeks of recovery at home. He speaks highly of Br Finbarr who visited him and his family regularly and who loved the hospitality he received from Jim’s (Irish) mum. He inspired me to master Latin in my first year by going out of his way to help me and in that sense he was truly inspirational. I became aware of his ‘touchy feely’ behaviour which was of course entirely inappropriate but I’m still grateful to him for helping me adapt to life at Xaverian. I hope he found happiness after leaving the Order.
Mr Burrows – Science -was the son of a Mr Burrows who taught me at St Robert’s primary school. I got on with him generally but for some reason I was once given the ruler repeatedly for being impudent in class. Not like me – I must have been having a bad day.
Brother Cyril did not like me – or so I thought. When I was about 16/17 he stopped me on a number of occasions as I had grown sideburns. Unless I had them removed he said he would expel me which I though was grossly unfair and not very Christian! I think I compromised a bit but it left me with a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
I fondly remember Brother Guy who ran the Marylands where lads training to be brothers lived. I once spent a weekend there in my second year to try the lifestyle out – I briefly fancied joining the brothers. However, that summer puberty kicked in and all thoughts of the celibate life vanished. I came across Br Guy’s obituary a few years ago in the American magazine the brothers still publish and I was genuinely moved.
Mr Arkless –Maths – scared me to death at times but I thought he was a great maths teacher although his methods were old fashioned! He started every lesson with a Hail Mary.
Mr Finan – Physics– an odd character whose voice and expressions I try and mimic to this day when I meet up with Jim Gilligan and Clive Jones.
‘Pug’ Diamond – Latin- another odd character who destroyed the linguistic confidence instilled in me by Brother Finbar. Latin was dropped at the first opportunity. I can still remember when someone broke wind with such a ferocity it shocked everyone in the class into stunned silence. ‘Pug’s’ response was to ask which ‘low cur’ had committed the deed and did they need to leave the classroom. I’m chuckling now remembering that incident.
Mr Barry – Chemistry – a good bloke – I completely agree with Michael de Podesta’s description
Mr Marsden – History -– I remember him for smacking someone called McConville across the face for being outrageously. Today that would probably have ended Mr Marsden’s career. He taught us a little rhyme about the battle of Marston Moor which I still remember as being in 1644. I attended his funeral whilst still at Xaverian.
Mr (Tom) Dooley – Geography – A lovely man who was unable to control a class! I believe he appeared on ‘This is your life’ when Val Doonican was the subject.
Mr Archdeacon – English – a good teacher with a good sense of humour although I can remember being rightly humiliated in his class for submitting an essay held together with sticking tape. I had cut a paragraph out with scissors rather than rewrite a whole page. It gave the class a laugh anyway.
Brother Pius – French- a somewhat severe teacher from memory. He died whilst I was there.
There were other teachers and while one or two were a bit odd I think they were all essentially decent men and I remember my time at Xaverian in a favourable light.
I made two great friends at Xaverian – Clive Jones and Jim Gilligan – and we are still good friends.
In addition to Jim and Clive I had very good friendships with both Peter English and John Denton but I’ve had no contact with either since leaving school.
I also remember sitting behind Bill Gladwell who gulped down crisps at morning break to induce flatulence after which he took great delight in breaking wind in my direction and turning round to give me a big grin after each ‘performance’.
My academic career at Xaverian
After Ward Hall I was put into the fast stream and took my seven O Levels at age 15 passing six subjects. I got the seventh (French) by sitting an October exam which you could do then. So a great start but life in the sixth form did not suit me and I did not perform well in my A Levels. However, despite not being a classic Xaverian success I went on to have a successful career in IT – I’m definitely more practical than academic – and most importantly I’ve been happily married for over 30 years and I have 2 fantastic daughters.
Final words on Catholicism
Well, I’m still a catholic. Despite all the faults of the Institution I still find value in being a catholic. And as I’ve got quite a few faults myself we get along OK most of the time. I came across a quote recently which makes a lot of sense to me especially when looking back to the St Robert’s days when there were lots of rules and regulations to follow:
‘Nothing so masks the face of God as religion’ (Martin Buber).
How’s that for a quote to finish with?!