- 7. The Beak And His Staff
I suppose calling the Headmaster “The Beak” came from the Billy Bunter and Greyfriars School stories. A lot of aspects of Wolverhampton Grammar School smacked of Frank Richards’ tales of the Fat Owl.
Mr. Warren Derry was a standard-received-English speaking snob. He made it clear that he did not like local accents nor boys who had invaded his School via the 11-Plus exam. There were still paying-pupils there: sons of doctors, lawyers and the general Middle-Class.
One day, when our form-master was absent, Mr. Derry stood in for him. He decided to have us read aloud, one lad at a time, passages from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” or something very similar. Each boy would stand up, read a couple of paragraphs and stop when the Head told him to.
I had to read about the mob around the guillotine scaffold. A line I read aloud went “The scum of the earth was there”.
Warren Derry interrupted me at that point.
“Stevenson,” he sneered, “who are ‘the scum of the earth’?”
I answered as best I could and in complete innocence. “Er . . . the lower classes, sir.”
“So you are the scum of the earth, are you?”
The class laughed at me. I did not understand what he meant. It took me only till I got home and asked my Mom and Dad about the incident that I found out.
I am still grateful for The Beak’s totally spiteful question and comment. That event has coloured my political thinking ever since. I realised then, as I do now, that one should not judge anyone’s value from what they do for a living or where they live or what their financial situation is.
There were other Masters who left an impression on me – though not as strong nor as lasting, I think.
Doctor Walachovski (if he was spelled that way) was a Pole who came to England during the War. He taught French, and tried to tell the occasional rather poor joke. We called him Walla, of course, and I suspect he was Jewish. We had a few Jews on the teaching staff, and they seemed to be decent men – well, as decent as the Grammar School system allowed.
Timothy Morgan Jones taught – well, I never discovered his main subject, for he seemed to take us for lessons when the proper Master was doing something else. Timothy was a South Walian. He kept his accent, too. He had been a prisoner-of-war, and the Germans had knocked him about during his imprisonment. It was said that they once put a tin-bucket over his head and banged it with sticks. He had a broken nose and often appeared to be nervous.
Burp Owen was known as that because, when teaching, his nervousness made him “er” a lot – but it came out sounding, in his Gloucestershire accent, as “burp”.
Mousie Holmes taught Latin and was often involved in sports periods when there was cricket to be played. He had played, I think, for his county –Shropshire– once upon a time. Mousie retained his rural Salopian accent, and told us that his homeland was called “The Daft County”. But he warned us that he was not daft, and would use a plimsoll to wallop us if we misbehaved.
Corporal punishment was a weapon much favoured at the School. “When it hurts, it’s doing you good”, I suppose. But I saw a lot of really nasty attacks by Masters on boys.
However, I seem to remember that the rest of the Masters spoke in the same posh manner as the Head.
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