Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Mythic Beings From Another World

I have owned this photograph since 1962; it is roughly 14cm x 85cm in size.  Quite a few will have been printed, but I doubt many will have survived the last 50 years intact.  It shows the entire staff and pupil complement of Peartree Spring junior school, Stevenage, at the end of the academic year I joined the school, 1961/62.  Not to mention the caretaker, Mr. Jarvis, and his alsatian dog.

I remember that summer well.  There were refurbishments happening in several classrooms, so we had lessons and sat our end-of-year exams in a marquee on the playing field, with grass beneath our feet, hot sunlight filtered through white canvas, and the gentle clucking of bantam hens outside.  Those were the first exams we had ever sat  -- I still recall the light-blue type and shiny paper of the duplicated question sheets -- and just as some children feel the bounce of a ball or the heft of a bat and realise their destiny, I knew this was something I could do well.  Though to go from that humble tent to the Examination Schools at Oxford University was, in the end, an ambition pretty much on a par with getting a trial for Arsenal.

I recently scanned the photograph for another ex-Peartree pupil, and found that a lot more detail could be extracted than was visible to the unaided eye.  The picture must have been made onto a huge negative with a proper rotating panoramic camera, and printed -- probably contact-printed -- using a rig that could include the school's name and the date. Compared to the class photographs my children brought home from school each year -- mere colour snaps, with half the kids squinting or with eyes shut -- it is a masterpiece of assured, special-occasion photography.  The image is proudly signed by the specialist firm Ray Studios, all the way from Braintree in Essex.

It is remarkable, the way the photographer has engaged an entire school's attention and created a "moment".  Notoriously, such cameras scan across a large linear group like this at a sufficiently slow speed that, if you are minded to, you can run round the back and appear at both ends of the final image.  That may, of course, explain why Mr. Jarvis is standing with his dog at the extreme right.  Somehow, every child has been persuaded to offer a characteristic expression to the lens at just the right moment.

It's the faces, of course, that engage your attention.  1962 is a long time ago, now.  These are faces from another world, a very interesting experimental world, but one which I have described often enough before (for example, here, and here).  Boys were leaner, their ears seemed much larger and more prominent; girls were dressed with far less attention to fashion, their hair was cut into practical, rather middle-aged styles.  These are, almost without exception, the children of the aspiring working classes, moved en masse from those parts of London devastated by the War, seeking a new life and a fair deal away from the slums.  I remember a lot of Irish surnames, too: the children of the labourers who came to build a new town on a green-field site, and who decided to stay.

Ah, the names.  They stay with you for life, those names.  A few boys in this photo were in the same class as me all the way through school but, even though I have no idea of the destinies of most of this motley crew, so many other names leap back into my mind when I look at the faces, even after 50 years. These are all mythic beings from my personal creation story.

Of course, it's nothing more than a pretty good cross-section of average humanity; what you get, once you have eliminated wealth, social class, and selection by ability.  There are statistical "outliers", of course.  At least five children of exceptional intelligence, plus another twenty of university-level academic ability. A similar number of gifted athletes and players of various sports.  There are some tough kids in there, too, who went on to build themselves a local reputation as hard men (and at least two hard-hitting women, to my certain knowledge); those of us of a gentler inclination had to learn early on how to keep on their good side.  There is also a fair smattering of what are now referred to as "special needs" children (check some of those prematurely old,  leprechaun-like faces in the extract above).  The children's home situated on my street is well-represented, too. I count four black and Asian kids.  But the majority, the 80%, are just nice, ordinary people, born into an optimistic time.

Then the smug bastards all went and voted for Thatcher in the 1979 elections, bought up their council houses at knock-down prices, left or failed to support their trades unions, and generally set about trashing the place and its public services, so lovingly built by the previous generation, and bought at such a high price.

Don't you just love nice, ordinary people, eh?  Personally, I have always preferred the company of those "outliers" of whatever stripe, hard-hitting women and all.


Martin said...

I have a class photograph taken in 1961, Mike. Most of the names still come quite easily, especially the girls!

I also remember those test papers. For me, they set the alarm bells ringing. Scholarly pursuits were not for me...not until 1991 and the OU, anyway.

Mike C. said...


Do your boys have ludicrous ears, too? I can't decide whether it's the short back'n'sides haircuts, or evolution at work...


Martin said...

We were right up there with the best of them, on ludicrous ears front, Mike. The barbers were mean in those days. Actually, my grandfather trimmed my hair until I was about 12. Bizarrely, I still have his scissors and clippers!

Mike C. said...

I was telling my son just recently about how the barber had a special plank to put across the arms of his chair for small boys to sit on.

You could tell when you were growing up because (a) the plank didn't come out, (b) he would ask if you wanted "anything on it" and (c) ask you -- straight-faced but catching the eye of the other customers -- whether you "needed anything for the weekend". By the time I realised what (c) meant, and it might have been worthy of consideration, barbers had stopped asking the ritual question.