Old School Days – and what a night!

If you went to a grammar school between the late 1950’s and early 70’s, the following speech may ring some bells: I had the privilege of delivering it at an amazing event on September 9th, and reproduce it here in the hope of entertaining members of the Final Forms 1A, 1B and 1C at Clee Girls’ Grammar who were unable to make it – as well as anyone else lucky enough to have fond memories of this sort of good old-fashioned education.

Well hello, Clementinas! Who’d have thought it, eh? 45 years later, almost to the day, and here we all are again – a whole classroom full, a third of the entire first year intake of 1972!

This is a very special occasion because we were a very special year – not just because we’re all so awesome, but because we were the last ever First Forms in the 46-year history of Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School.  So I’d like to start by thanking all of you for coming to this Big Reunion, and particularly those of you who made it happen. That’s primarily Carolyn Allison, Linda Dye and Kay Edwards – no offence to spouses, but to save confusion (not least my own) I’m going to stick to maiden names tonight. Those three did a sterling job in tracking so many of us down, although I know most people were able to add at least one contact to our burgeoning virtual First Form – so thanks to you, too. Thanks are also due to Carolyn and Kay for sorting out the venue and payments, to Carole Buckley for organising the music, and everyone who suggested songs for the playlist. I’d also like to say a particularly big personal thank-you to Carolyn for giving me the opportunity to make this speech. As some of you know, I work as a freelance speaker – basically, a gob-for-hire – and few things give me greater pleasure than the sound of my own voice and a captive audience to listen to it! So please charge your glasses for our first toast: Thanks, Everybody!

If I ever hear someone say, ‘Schooldays are the happiest days of your life,’ it’s always my year at the Girls’ Grammar I think of – it was certainly the best and happiest year I ever spent at school. For a swotty kid devoted to Enid Blyton’s Twins at St Clare’s stories, Clee Grammar was hog heaven and I was absolutely thrilled to go there… even though I was scared shitless too, because it all sounded so strict and formal, and I thought everyone except me would be terribly posh. I vividly remember that great long uniform list arriving, and Mum taking me to Lawson & Stockdale in Grimsby to buy everything… then being petrified that the metal eyelets on my plain black lace-up shoes made them too fancy and I’d get sent home! I don’t know whose bright idea it was to dress 400 adolescent girls entirely in petroleum by-products, but I’ll say one thing for that uniform – it was bloody hard-wearing (I still wore that hooded tracksuit top to go jogging when I was well into my twenties).

I also vividly remember my first day in 1A, surnames A to H: there we all were, 26 eleven and twelve year-olds in our white polo-necks and ankle-length navy gymslips turned up with about eighteen inches of hem – plenty of growing room so they’d last us right through to 5th form – with enormous sturdy blue knickers underneath. Dear Miss Hutton of the tweedy suits was our form mistress, and I remember the shock when she wrote that 6-day timetable on the board for us to copy – I thought, ‘God, does that mean we come to school on Saturdays?’ And I remember the first words I ever whispered across the aisle to Carole Buckley in my best attempt at a posh voice: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me what computation is?’ As you may recall, it turned out to be doing sums on those strange contraptions like bus conductors’ ticket machines, something I’d never encountered before – or, indeed, since – and I can’t say I’m sorry that the advent of the pocket calculator very soon rendered them obsolete!

They were such innocent days in a much simpler time, which seems so quaint and antiquated compared with 21st century schools – no such things as computers and smart-screens, classroom assistants, mobile phones or cyber-bullying. No, ours were the days of blackboard and chalk, Quink and fountain pens and blotting paper, slide rules and leather satchels…  Days of discipline and respect, when we expected to leap to our feet whenever a teacher came into the room, to do several hours of homework a night, and deliver it on time – for which we were rewarded by being treated as responsible secondary pupils and trusted to stay in at break times – a wonderful relief after all those junior years of being evicted to the playground! They were the days when we all read the same things: comics like Bunty and Judy, and of course Jackie magazine, poring over the Cathy & Clare problem page to see if it held any answers for us, and trading the free gifts of plastic jewellery and little pots of make-up. Days when we all watched Top of the Pops and the Partridge Family, Blue Peter and Magpie, listened to Ed Stewart and Kid Jensen, and cut out the pictures of favourites like Donny and David, and stuck them inside our desk lids.

Yes, it was an unforgettable year in so many ways. I never admitted to this at the time, but I was thrilled to discover that our science teacher would be one Mr Hunter, who wore a pale blue tweed jacket the same colour as his eyes – I’d had a secret crush on him ever since I saw him conducting a choir at an inter-schools choral performance when I was at Reynolds Street Juniors. So I later felt terribly guilty when I heard that our high-spirited antics – including POCTWA, the Prevention of Cruelty to Worms Association, founded by Debra Gray and Michelle Dobson – drove the poor man into a nervous breakdown. I remember going to our First Form ‘Cowboys & Indians’ themed fancy-dress Christmas party wearing a big black fuzzy fake moustache and dancing to Crocodile Rock – Kim Akrill was there sporting a real gun-belt, and lovely Mrs McCleary the English teacher in a black Stetson hat complete with a Western drawl and a cheroot stuck in the corner of her mouth. Then there was our school concert, when 1A’s song was ‘Lemon Tree,’ accompanied by Carole Buckley on guitar… I still remember the looks of consternation we exchanged as she struck up the first chords and her guitar was out of tune… and, ladies, I have a confession to make: that was My Bad. I’d been standing idly fiddling with her tuning knobs as we waited for our turn to perform. When the implications sank in, I tried desperately to put them back to their original position, but it didn’t quite work… so if we didn’t win I’m afraid it was All My Fault.

I remember hockey in winter, and tennis in summer; the horror of gym in that ghastly towelling jumpsuit, and making the wrap-around skirt to go over it in Needlework – an experience which seems to have left lasting scars on many of us. I remember cookery, which I adored: making scrambled egg in our first lesson, and later various different types of sponge cake, including a rather rubbery Swiss roll. I remember learning the recorder, with all of us sitting there in music class tootling the Skye Boat Song, Greensleeves and Turkey in the Straw – and that lovely occasion in the winter term when we were taken into Grimsby to sing carols with the Salvation Army under the big Christmas tree in St James’ Square. And of course, who could forget the redoubtable Dorothy Vallins, ‘the Dev,’ in her pink and purple check suit trilling to us in assembly that we were ‘la crème de la crème, girls – la crème de la crème!’ Although oddly enough, despite all these vivid memories, I’ve completely forgotten the tune and every word of our school song – so you may be relieved to hear I won’t be leading you in that tonight.

But I do remember many people who can’t be with us tonight, in some cases because they live too far away – and what an irony that Claire Draycott and Wendy Skerratt, who were good friends at school, both moved to the other side of the world and now live within striking distance of one another in Australia! In other cases, the reason is very sad. I suppose the law of averages makes it inevitable that some members of any given population will die prematurely through accident or illness, and unfortunately this is true of some of our form-mates including Kim Weed, maths whizz-kid Sharon Pearson, who I remember had a rather atypical crush on Eric Morecambe, and lovely Lynn Sutherland, with whom I used to twag off cross-country and go round to her house to drink coffee… and it’s on behalf of all these fellow pupils, living and passed on, that I’d now like to propose another toast: to absent friends.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us were so keen on what came after that year… although when our beloved Girls’ Grammar morphed into the Lower School of Lindsey Comprehensive, we still had some good times and went on to see each other through all the trials of puberty and adolescence. Spots. First dates. The utter self-conscious misery when spots and dates happened at the same time. The perennial question: ‘Have you started yet?’ Doing a certain exercise and chanting, ‘I must, I must, I must increase my bust.’ Trading nail varnish to mend ladders in the tights we were forever snagging on the old wooden benches and desks… not to mention the sort of embarrassing personal crisis that never seems to happen in adult life, like the sudden snapping of your bra strap or knicker elastic. Playing silly schoolgirl japes with fake ink-blots and the disappearing ink Nicky Fraser once squirted on Mr Smith’s shirt in maths – he wasn’t amused – or our 3rd year piece de resistance, hiding our chairs in the suspended ceiling during one lunch break. So perhaps this is a good time to raise a glass to our long-suffering teachers…

The Upper School brought us the serious growing up stuff, the swotting for exams, the decisions on which options to take and what to do next – and I like to think our old teachers would be proud of the women we’ve become, the things we’ve achieved, and the many and varied paths our lives have taken. Alas, I’d developed such a loathing of Lindsey by the time I finally wiped its dust off my shoes that I made no effort to keep in touch with school chums – unless I bumped into you in the pubs around Grimsby and Cleethorpes – and the idea of coming to any sort of school reunion made me shudder. That is, until Carolyn Allison emailed me out of the blue about 18 months ago… and then came the wonderful excitement of last spring when our virtual First Year started to re-form on Facebook. I still remember the buzz, the thrill of making contact again, of logging on obsessively to find out who else had joined, the fun of sharing our memories and photos – the sheer warmth and sense of fellowship that immediately sprang up between us again, and the plain simple delight I felt at rediscovering old friends and finding out what you’d all been up to. It was one of the best things ever to happen to me on social media, and it reminded me of something I’d lost sight of – to paraphrase Lou Reed: with such perfect days, I’m glad I spent them with you… and I’m very glad you’re all back in my life again now.

So three cheers for Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School – and now, 45 years after our first meeting there, I’d like to close with another toast to all Clementina Clees past and present, to our Big Golden Reunion in five years’ time, and many smaller meetings in between – and  to staying in touch!

 

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