Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Another One Gone

I was sad to read the obituary this week, in the Guardian's "Other Lives" section, of Gerald Anstock, the headmaster of my primary school. I have mentioned Mr. Anstock and his remarkable school in this blog several times (for example, in what is -- by a mile -- my most visited post, due to a link to it from a popular website dealing with corporal punishment).

On second thoughts, "sad" is a rather conventional emotion, and rings hollow. Yes, it's always sad when someone we knew and who had a profound influence on our lives dies. But Gerry Anstock was 94, and no doubt had been having his share of the infirmities of old age. "A good innings", as they say, as another old cricketer leaves the crease. No, I think what I truly felt was, first, surprise (I had assumed he had returned to the eternal pavilion some years ago) and, second, relief.

Why relief, of all things? Because, if I am utterly honest, it is a relief that there is now one less person in the world who might reproach me for not making something more of my life. In fact, there are now probably none such. All gone, the ones who once said to me, "You could do well and go far, lad, if you give it your best shot!", and meant it. Sorry, guys, this is as far as I got. It might look a long way from where I started, but from here all I can see is how much further there was to go, and how far I might have gone.

This is a total projection, of course. It is not they who feel the disappointment, but me. In truth, I would be surprised if many of them had remembered me at all; sadly, even my mother didn't know who I was towards the very end of her life. Teachers do have remarkable memories, it's true. As kids, we take it for granted that all 30 members of our class are known to our teacher by name and probably reputation from Day One. And they usually are. This is quite a good trick -- do they teach mnemonic methods in teacher training? However, after a career of, say, 35 years, a degree of amnesia is probably inevitable and even necessary. 1962-65 was a long time ago, especially for someone over 80.

This is only part of a picture of the whole school:
A free scan of the whole thing to anyone who
can reasonably claim to be in it

Of course, everyone else's memories tend to be, from our own point-of-view, and where they concern us, brutally and insultingly partial and incomplete. I remember when an old acquaintance from our college days bumped into the Prof at a conference a few years ago. This woman had, I am certain, known both of us equally well back in 1974. The inevitable catching up and filling in took place, and the Prof shared the information that she and I were still together. "Mike who?", said this other prof, "No, don't remember him, I'm afraid." Sigh. Ah, well, I did my best to be unforgettable, but... We presume so much on the total recall of others, but this is as unfair as my presumption that you, dear readers, have all read all 500+ posts in this blog.

But we remember what we remember, and sometimes we do remember the same things. I think anyone who went to Peartree Junior School in Stevenage in Gerry Anstock's time will certainly never forget two things: the animals, and the music. I have mentioned the animals before (how many state primary schools have peafowl wandering freely about the premises, or bantam chickens scratching in the playground, I wonder?) so this time I'll mention the music.

Music -- recorded classical, orchestral music -- played a big part in the life of the school. Every morning, we were played in and out of morning assembly to a piece of music played on the school gramophone. The school was divided into houses, and you knew when it was a special "house day", because that morning's music would be the house theme: Beethoven's 5th Symphony for Churchill, Grieg's In The Hall of the Mountain King for Hillary, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor for Schweitzer, and the RAF March Past for Bader. On ordinary days, a selection of classical "lollipops" suitable for children would be rotated: things like Rossini's Thieving Magpie overture, or Holst's Planets Suite. It was -- and was obviously intended to be -- an education in itself for children from our sort of background. Ditto the animals, of course. Backed up with the very real threat of the cane for those who didn't see things Gerry Anstock's way.

For some, there was also the sport. Anstock's Peartree took competitive team sports very seriously indeed. We played to win, sometimes to a degree that could, perhaps, turn a little ugly. The school was, I am told, somewhat feared on the football fields and netball courts of other schools. I was quite good at cricket in those days, and opened the batting and fielded in that suicidal position known as Silly Mid On. Who knows, perhaps somewhere the carefully-compiled score-books for those long-ago seasons still exist.

At one match, fielding on a sunny afternoon in 1965, the batsman clipped a ball into a short low arc that was destined to pass by my left side. Acting entirely from instinct, I dived full length and caught the ball cleanly in my left hand, just before it reached the ground. The field and the spectators erupted; Gerry Anstock's parade-ground bellow of praise carried the length of the field. For the first and last time in my life, I knew what it was to be a true sporting hero; it was a sort of ecstasy. Later that year, our team played a parents' XI, which included my father, with G.H. Anstock keeping wicket. "Watch out for that boy of yours, Doug," said Gerry, "He'll catch you if anyone can!" I will probably remember the pride and pleasure of that summer for the rest of my life.

So, yes, maybe "sad" is the right word after all. If only because they don't make them like that any more. The heads of my own children's schools were bland, harrassed, managerial types, obsessed with grades and tables, and hidden from the children behind secretaries and mountains of paperwork. Gerry would probably have seen off any OFSTED inspectors with a few choice words and a stick. The inevitable disciplinary investigation, the health and safety audit (did you say chickens?), and the suspension on full pay pending an enquiry into unorthodox teaching methods would, sooner or later, have followed. It worked for me, though, peacocks, ferrets, and all. Thanks for that, Mr. Anstock, sir.


Gavin McL said...


I've meant to comment on a few of your recent posts but other things intervened. I was visiting my university friend Pete Anstock, when his wife spotted Gerald Anstock Obituary. Pete's family comes from that part of S. Yorkshire and a few text messages were sent out to establish if they were indeed related.
He sounds like quite a character - serving in real war probably gives you a different perspective on risk.
I once returned to the pub just outside my secondary school a couple of years after I left and my Physics teacher had forgotten me. Came as rather a shock. Teachers are big characters in your life but you are probably a slightly blurry walk on part in theirs

Mike C. said...


How interesting -- it is a very unusual and local name, I suspect. GA was indeed quite a character -- what I haven't mentioned (not sure why not) is that his own son was in my class, which put an unusually close focus on the rest of us and our progress...

In fact, Fergus and I were classmates all the way through school, including two A level groups, though I would not have described us as "friends". His father kept him on a short leash, and he wasn't allowed to go under-age drinking, dope-smoking, girl-chasing, etc., with us New Town oiks. Not surprising, really.

Your story about the physics teacher is very resonant -- I think that's the truth that we all fear, and partly explains why "never go back" is a good guideline in life... Learning to accept the asymmetry of most relationships (e.g. "my favourite teacher" vs. "just some kid") is one of life's toughest lessons.


Brendini said...

I attended Lodge Farm Infants and Juniors in the sixties, where we had at least three working bee hives. I cannot imagine anything of the sort existing there now. I don't recall any harm befalling anyone, even during a swarm.
I went on to Collenswood where the Rural Studies department kept cattle and chickens (Rhode Island reds crossed with Light Sussex'). I don't suppose any Stevenage school keeps livestock now.

Mike C. said...

Intriguing information, Brendini...

I'm beginning to suspect there was an under-the-counter (under-the-desk?) meat and grocery trade going on, organised by Stevenage headteachers. It probably paid for an extra teacher or two...


Brendini said...

Hmmm. It all smacks of the 'special stuff' from the butcher in The League of Gentlemen

Mike C. said...

I've never actually watched LOG, but I've just looked it up, and see they're never specific about what goes in the "special stuff" -- clever.

Boats coming into port here get searched as much for smuggled "bush meat" as any other contraband, these days. I've never yet seen monkey sausages in the shops, but no doubt you need to know which butchers do the "special stuff".


Dave Leeke said...

Given the current decline of the High Street thanks to Amazon et al, I'm sure that there are various internet sites where you can get any type of "special stuff" without the port authorities being involved!

Mmm . . . monkey sausages . . .

Mike C. said...

As the old joke goes (Marx Bros?):

Vendor: Get your hot dogs here!
[Purchaser looks dubiously at hot dog]
Purchaser: Hot dog's what?


Lyonessite said...
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