I came to the Academy in 1894, after four years in the Highlanders’ Academy. My father had been a pupil in an earlier Highlanders’ Academy, and I think this influenced him in sending me there. I was put into Senior II. The school prospectus was impressive. There was a front view photograph of the building and there was a little of its history, as well as details of work and timetables and the teaching staff, and a list of the class prize-winners in the past session. A statement which appeared in successive years of the prospectus, remains with me—the drainage system has been thoroughly overhauled, and the sanitation is perfect.”
Mr. Gemmell was then beginning the second year of his rectorship. To us, at first, he was just a figure, but I saw much of him in later years because he took special care in the instruction of the boys who were going to the University. He was a fine teacher and loved his classical subjects, and his senior boys got a grounding in Greek and Latin which they never forgot. He interested us in English literature and introduced us to the works of Rudyard Kipling, who was then becoming well-known as a poet and story-teller.
In the English department I remember Mr. Anderson, who was its head, Mr. Millar, and Mr. Pollock. Mr. Anderson had a passion for Shakespeare and everything connected with the drama. His class examinations were carried out in a simple manner. Fifty questions were asked, ten in each of five subjects, and these were answered in a word or phrase on long slips of foolscap. At the end of the questions each paper was passed along two places and each boy or girl marked the answers of his next neighbour but one. Everything was finished by the end of the hour. Mr. Millar, as well as instructing us in English, attended to our accents and saw that we did not pronounce man” as “mahn.” Mr. Park was head of the mathematics department, but it is Mr. Tait’s admirable teaching of his subject that I specially remember. We liked Mr. Comrie, who taught us elementary science as well as mathematics. He became president of the Educational Institute of Scotland. In my last year at school, which was an extra one because of illness, Mr. King came to this department. He was a very good teacher, but had some difficulty in keeping order because of his youthful appearance and high-pitched voice.
Mr. Critchley, whom we liked, an Englishman, was head of the Classical side, though Mr. Gemmell took a small special senior class. He became head-master of Waid Academy, Anstruther. There was also Mr. Cameron and, later, Mr. Gillies, Mr. Patrick and Mr. Bisset. Mr. Gillies became Rector of the Royal High School of Edinburgh and Mr. Patrick an inspector in the Scottish Education Department. Mr. Bisset we never really got to know. He had a method of marking Latin proses which sometimes gave alarming results. You started with a nominal 100% and so many marks were deducted for each mistake. One day a boy got minus 55% for his prose and another minus 65%. Mr. McGregor, short and stout, taught writing and book-keeping, and Mr. Milligan drawing. Drawing in all schools in these days was a dull and sterile subject, chiefly the endless copying of geometrical and formal diagrams from cards. M. Lavallaz (or was it de Lavallaz?) taught French in a lively manner. The boys said he played the flute in the theatre orchestra, but I do not know if this was so. Mr. Dryden. and later Herr Dennler, were German Masters, but I did not take this class. Because she was a family friend I particularly remember old Miss Maclean, the sewing-mistress and lady superintendent, who lived with two sisters in Kilmacolm.
The gymnasium was an active place, and the instructor was Sergeant-Major Woods. He was succeeded by Sergeant McReynolds, who had been a swordsman in the army. At the annual gymnastic display in the Town Hall in 1897 I remember his cutting through two lead pipes, which had been placed on end, one after the other, with his sabre. This display in 1897 had the unusual feature that one of the boys, Willie Jamieson, took the part of a clown; and he did it very well. After the cutting of the lead pipes by the instructor, the clown, with some kind of sword, similarly cut through a much bigger bar of what looked like white shining metal; but when the pieces fell apart it was seen that it was only a bar of soap, covered with silver paper. In 1897 Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee—she had reigned for sixty years. It must have been a very wet season, for the clown came on carrying a board with the words: “Greenock’s Record Rain, 60 Years.” Sergeant McReynolds was succeeded by Mr. Hughes, who had been trained in Dundee and was a first-rate gymnast. He went as physical instructor to Glasgow University. The janitor was Mr. Downie, tall and thin and white-bearded. He made his one solemn joke quarterly when the treasurer came for a week to collect the fees. He came round the class-rooms each morning and announced “The Treasurer’s Here,” but on Friday he added “This is the Last Day.”
The school’s playing-field was at Battery Park, where the rugby pitch was shared with Greenock Wanderers. The Academy was hardly a match for the bigger Glasgow schools at rugby, but in cricket they could hold their own. A formidable rival in cricket was the team from Mr. Graham’s private Collegiate School. But what nearly all the Scottish schools needed was coaching, and if some of the senior cricket clubs of the day had taken an interest in school cricket they would have been rewarded by more young members. The school playground was not very suitable for games, and was not much used. Indeed there was a great lack in the town of places where young people could play games of any kind. Skating was popular, but was not organized. When the ice was thick enough we were given a skating holiday. There was a small private pond, the West-end Skating Pond, on high ground near the golf-course and the top of the Lyle Road, and many boys and girls became members of this club for the season. The other place, not so accessible, was the Moss at Kilmacolm which was much bigger and had the advantage of being on higher ground. Skating holidays were not numerous because the climate of the West of Scotland is too disappointingly mild for much ice; and it always seemed to us that the frost gave way on Friday afternoons.
All boys wore the school cap, which was the only piece of academic uniform. It was dark blue and bore a badge which incorporated the Arms of the town. This was replaced by a maroon-coloured cap with a monogram of G.A. on the badge and, I think, the motto ‘Hinc vera virtus.” The monogram no doubt stood for ‘Greenock Academy,” but we preferred to believe that both it and the motto referred to the rector, whose initials were AG.
At the same time a tie for former pupils was introduced. They did not take much to do with school affairs after they left, but they had one very popular annual event, a former pupils’ dance, which was held in the school.
Greenock was well situated for one of the pleasantest of summer holidays, sailing on the Clyde from Princes Pier in the Glasgow and South-Western Railway Steamers. There were about ten of them, and they went to most places on the firth, including Arran every day, Ayr once a week and very occasionally to Stranraer. On one or two days in the Clyde Fortnight a special steamer might follow the races. That was the period of the big yachts, including Britannia and the Valkyries; one of the loveliest sights in the world. When you were under 18 you got this month’s sailing for eleven shillings, and if you were under 14, it cost no more than seven-and-six. These boats had red funnels with a black top. We despised the showy cream-funnelled Caledonian fleet which sailed from Gourock, and the economically built and furnished North British steamers which were based at Craigendoran.
Examinations were as important and as big a nuisance as they are today, but there is at any rate one improvement. Then we used to sit Leaving Certificate examinations each time they came round, whether we had already passed them or not. I understand things are better now, and that when you pass in a subject that’s the end of it, which is sensible.
I write this at the end of a long spell of snowy weather. The impulse of every schoolboy is to throw snowballs at somebody, an enthusiasm less appreciated by those against whom it is directed. I am sure it was in the interests of the latter that after a good snowfall the Rector organized a snow-fight between two sides in the garden. After twenty minutes of this conflict the chances of a quiet passage for walkers down Newton Street were sensibly increased.
What the school greatly lacked was a library. This might have contained books of reference for the various departments and, in addition, sections on history, general literature and fiction. A subject which should be taught in school, and which is not to be found in any prospectus, is the art of reading books. One can’t begin too young.
OVER MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY
To go back in memory over half a century of storm and stress to schooldays in the Greenock Academy is to sense once more the feeling of security which surrounded a Victorian childhood which had as its background a happy but hard-up home and as its playground the lovely hills and lochs of the Clyde.
It is true also that the South African war had produced unexpected reverses despite our loudly sung and firm belief in Tommy Atkins. But in these days wars were waged in far away countries and mainly by professional soldiers and the Academy’s contribution to the South African war went no further than a series of “Tableaux Vivants” of a peculiarly harrowing nature staged to raise funds for widows and orphans.
Despite these shadows I imagine that all my contemporaries left school as I did, with the comfortable feeling that, with so large a proportion of the globe coloured a British red, all was well with the world.
A “finishing” year in Germany did something to shake this happy belief for me, for Germany in 1901 hated us bitterly and, to a home-sick Scot, the Christmas Sermon in the Lutheran Church in Detmold which thundered against “that nation across the sea which harries the little peoples of this earth” was a bitter pill.
But the Edwardian Era and the German menace and all that came of it belong to later years; Victorian Academy days are the days to be specially remembered in this Centenary Year.
But before I come to talk of the School itself and its personalities, I should like to put on record my belief in a co-educational system, where boys and girls attend the same classes and collaborate in school social activities. The fact that in the Academy it was taken for granted that boys and girls could work together was of great importance to me when, in the early twenties, I found myself in charge of the Establishment Branch of a Scottish Department of State and had to help in carrying through the reorganisation of the Civil Service on a mixed basis. At that time and again much later as a member of the first committee which reported on the entry of women into that last strong-hold of conservatism, “The Diplomatic and Consular Service,” I found support in my school training for arguing (against the fearful predictions of service colleagues) for equality of treatment for men and women, both as regards the educational qualifications for entry to the Service and the work allotted to them in the various Departments of State.
As for the Academy itself, it seems to me now that the building of our day had a greater dignity than any other known day-school.
The long open corridor with its unglazed arches may have been draughty, but it gave a cloistered look to the building and the charm and peace of the garden in front of the School were a joy to us Seniors. It was a setting in which one felt that learning was a gift worth having.
Of course, as in every school, there were masters who made learning a pleasure for their pupils and others who seemed to have mistaken their vocation, and at least one who ruled by setting “impositions.”
The classes were not small and yet our teachers managed to convey to each pupil that he or she was an individual with individual characteristics to be considered and fostered.
I have always been grateful for the freedom given to us to develop each his or her own personality; that freedom still seems to be the best gift that any school can bestow on its pupils.
I talk of “masters” because in my time Academy was almost exclusively staffed male teachers though Miss McWilliam in Infant Department and Miss Maclean in Sewing Room were powers in their domains.
One or two of these teachers live more clearly than others in my recollection. There is the faint memory of Mr. Neilson as a scholarly stooping Rector pacing the corridors and a distinct memory of Mr. Gemmell’s top- hatted sartorial correctness.
I remember how Mr. Anderson, our English master, made the plays of Shakespeare come alive despite the “glossary” which accompanied the text, and how he gave us our first glimpses of great poetry despite the somewhat prosaic method of bringing together snatches of our loveliest poems in a book designed to teach us to parse and analyse. How far he was successful in teaching us to speak and write good English I am perhaps not competent to judge as the later years of my working life were spent in the Civil Service whose out-pourings, I know, are regarded by the general public and the popular press as verbose and unintelligible.
I am afraid, however, I shall have to admit that the short-lived School Magazine of the day showed no very high standard of English Composition (George Blake was still in the Junior School!)
I have before me as I write a battered copy of that low-brow publication, ‘The Krugger,” which, being hand-written, had a limited and rapid circulation; it was mostly read under desks in a class where alertness was not required.
Then there was Mr. Lees, the classical master, who was also a scholar of modern languages and could combine those different branches of learning in a way which fascinated me, and Dr. Clark, the master who taught German and whose foster-mother in the town of the Pied Piper gave me a few days’ happy release from boarding school and was horrified at the number of German slang phrases I had picked up at a Select Dames’ School.
Space forbids mention of other masters or of the Lady Superintendent of later years or even of the kindly Janitor who supplied a syrup roll and a cup of “bottle coffee” for the princely sum of one penny.
But one more teacher I must name before I end — Mr. Macgregor, our writing master, affectionately and irreverently called “Beefie.” Most of my correspondents and many of my one-time clerks and typists must have felt that he failed dismally in his duty, for it has to be admitted that my hand-writing shows no sign of the beautiful copperplate in which Mr. Macgregor exhorted his pupils to “cast their bread upon the waters.” But if he failed to teach me to write a legible hand I nevertheless owe him a debt of gratitude.
In my last years at school women began to be employed as typists and, knowing that I should have to work for my living, I decided that this was a new and suitable avenue of employment.
I therefore presented myself at Mr. Macgregor’s Commercial (short-hand) class only to be asked why I had come, to be told plainly that he would not teach me short-hand, and to be ordered to go back to non-commercial subjects. I still remember how small I felt as I rose and left the class. Yet it was because of this kindly action taken in my interest that many years later, when I was of a more mature age, I found myself free to choose a career in the Social Services—a career which has given me a very satisfying, happy, and interesting life.
Much water has run under many bridges since the beginning of the century. War and the threat of war may seem to have dominated the scene but these dark patches don’t tell the whole story. These fifty years have also witnessed a peaceful and complete revolution in the social life of Scotland.
“Social Work” began for me during the depression of 1906-1908 when the Majority and Minority Reports of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law were being hotly debated, when the employed labourer on the railways earned 16/- — 18/- per week, and a vast number of unemployed existed on food-tickets supplied by voluntary charitable agencies. Little by little, as the public conscience was roused, the scene changed. One after another the Statutory Social Services, including the Insurance and the National Medical Services, came into operation, until, in 1942, I had the pleasure of watching the plan for the unification of these services come to life under the masterly literary touch of Sir William Beveridge.
Centenaries are apt to awaken nostalgic memories but though one still hears casual mention of the “good old days,” I doubt if there are many people in 1955 who wish to set the clock back to 1900. Indeed I now suspect that the feeling of security which was the portion of the Victorian middle-class was brought by an unwillingness to look below the surface of things.
I also suspect, however, that my generation may be challenged as having placed too great an emphasis on provision for material needs and as having forgotten that man is a composite unsatisfied being who cannot live by bread alone.
If we have so erred, is it too much to hope that the balance may be redressed by our successors?
REMEMBERING THINGS PAST
Forsitan et haec olim meminisse juvabit
One can still hear the faintly nasal voice of the late Alexander Gemmell, for so many years Rector of Greenock Academy, enunciate the tag in the language he loved better than English itself.
He was himself a great man for exhortation, was Neddy. He used to burst into the classroom at all hours and exhort us never to fall into the sin of smoking cigarettes, each one of which would be a nail in our coffins. (My own potential coffin is thus now composed entirely of nails). He exhorted us to beware of German military aspirations and to look out for the coming of der Tag-—and how right he was! Too many of the bright lads under his care went down into the dust of the first conflict. He was specially concerned to exhort us to a mastery of the Latin and Greek tongues. According to Neddy, you never knew when, travelling abroad, you might meet an old man on the top of a high hill and have the pleasure of conversing with him in one or other of the classical languages.
Neddy was, in fact, one of the “characters.” In his early days at the Academy he took exercise by riding a white horse. (“Here’s Neddy Gemmell on his white-washed charger” the ruder boys of the town cried at his appearance). In later life, married, he got himself involved in litigation over a monkey puzzle in his front garden; but whether he wanted to cut it down or refused to have it cut down I cannot now remember. The affair certainly filled a great deal of newspaper space and vastly cheered all his pupils, past and present.
Should we Academicals not be proud to boast that ours is probably the only important school in Scotland that had a Rector who rode a white horse and went to law in a public way over a monkey puzzle? He would probably have preferred to call it an araucaria
Neddy’s exhortations not infrequently, if the cold truth must be told, occasionally went beyond the strict bounds of his otherwise copious learning. He used to breeze into our Senior Six room on a darkling November afternoon and, seizing the chalk from Tommy Tait, proceed to cover the blackboard with his own conception of the Differential Calculus.
When this was done, and he had departed after exhorting us to vote Unionist when we came of age, Tommy Tait would pick up the duster, wipe out the Rector’s hieroglyphs, and say in his dry Aberdonian way, “Now you can forget all about that.”
And now it strikes me, looking back on the rich life of the Academy as I knew it during the first ten years of this century, that I incline to think more of the teachers than of my fellow-sufferers at their hands. Some of us have done mighty well in life, such as Jack Morrison, Sir John to you—and did he ever return my copy of Ungava by R. M. Ballantyne? There was, and is, my oldest friend of that generation, Jack Denholm, at the very whisper of whose name all the shipowners of Great Britain tremble. Of those who were spared the holocausts of the Somme and Passchendaele some became Indian Civil Servants of the highest rank, some professors, some distinguished doctors. Neddy’s boys did not let him down, even if they did smoke too many cigarettes.
But we came and we went. We were bubbles on the steady stream of school life. I know not how they look nowadays, but the class-rooms were perdurable, even to the pens stuck in the rafters of the big Writing Room. The Janny of those days, whose name was Downie, seemed to have been on the job since the opening in 1855 as, with at least one finger- less hand, he smeared syrup on a barn biscuit, price one ha’penny, But the teachers were, in the view of one small boy, immemorial, as deeply rooted as Longfellow’s murmuring pines and hemlock.
It seems probably true that schoolmastering was a more stable profession in those old days than it is now, when the demand is greater than the supply and a harassed Rector has no sooner got a likely chap placed in charge of Senior III English than the chap is hareing off to Galashiels or Montrose as Second Master of a Junior Secondary. My impression is that our old masters of—Heaven help me!—40 years ago were more apt to stay on the job until they were retired, full of years of honour.
Many of my coevals will remember the case of Mr. J. B. Anderson, admittedly a rather special case. Mr. Anderson was what sentimental writers might call “a dominie of the old school,” but the cold fact is that he was nothing of the sort. He could ram parsing and analysis into you as well as the next man, but then he would quite suddenly take on the mantle of his natural greatness and have us rolling in the aisles with his rendering of a juicy chunk out of Hamlet or Macbeth, so that the poetry came alive: so much better than the notes of arid dons in our textbooks. . . Old J. B. had his frailty, and the Unco Guid prised him out of his job. It has always pleased me to remember that he lived on his scrubby pension for fully 20 years after the Upright turned on him.
There was in much the same class James Millar, with a quite unmentionable nickname, who professed the arts of writing, phonography, book-keeping and what you will. So far as the memory is of the slightest importance, he regarded my handwriting with some approval, but I got the taste of the real man many years later, one summer evening on Greenock’s aery Golf Course. Mr. Millar was in his day a fine golfer before the Lord, and in his old age he liked to come out and watch us young chaps at play.
On this evening, so long ago, I had lost my match on the 17th green to my opposite number in a team from Gourock or some other obscure location, and Mr. Millar was a spectator of the collapse.
“You used to write a nice hand, George,” he said, his full lips curling under the thin moustache, “but you can’t putt worth a dam.” My gentler readers will, of course, know that “a dam” was an almost worthless coin once in circulation in the Far East.
And who but I can now sing affectionate praise of Bob Pollock, the one and only ? He was always Bob Pollock: just that; and the rough idea was that he taught English to the late Junior and early Senior classes. Out of all this he quite unconsciously, quite innocently, created for his pupils a tremendous amount of fun. Bob was not really highly qualified in the academic sense; the mere notion of aspiring to an Honours degree would have had him fainting by the roadside. The charm, and usefulness, of his teaching lay in the fact that he would innocently confess to us, one decent Greenock man to several others, that he was not himself quite sure what the lesson was all about.
It is one of my most pleasant memories of the Academy that Bob Pollock took us in Geography one year, the special subject being for one term Western Australia. It shortly became obvious that Bob, like the rest of us, thought the lay-out of that province to be as boring as it was bewildering; and there came the joyous day when he had, with pointer and wall-map, to indicate to us the respective relative positions of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie.
In this effort he completely failed, while we cheered him on. At length he turned to us with a grin and confessed: “I’m dashed if I know which is which. You can look it up for yourselves when you get home.”
I could go on and on about Bob Pollock, remembering such as the day when he apologised to us for his failure to return to us our marked examination papers, saying, “The fact is, the wee chap chewed them up—and I fancy that the wee chap is now an ageing and highly respected member of society.
What a gallery of characters! Daddy Park, who started the winter session by setting out a sum in Practice on the blackboard and then relapsed into a state of bland hibernation until, the spring coming round again, he stirred to the bugles of the local Volunteers and remembered his duties as a senior officer of that picturesque corps. Who shall sing now of M. Adolphe Vignon, who taught us to chant Frère Jacques as a catch—”Frerry Jacky,” to our less able linguists—and who, like one of the characters in the French contes he loved so well, fed the mice in his cupboard with the crumbs from his frugal lunch?
Of course, it is easy for the professional writer to look back and let the tears doonfa’ and throw off thumbnail sketches of figures now beyond the ken of most of us. I should, however, be creating a very wrong impression if I have failed to suggest to the reader, probably younger than I, perhaps one without any affiliations with Greenock Academy, that I look back on my schooldays with affection and, what is much more, a true sense of gratitude. Miss McWilliam took me into her capable, if muscular, arms in the year of grace, 1897; William Braid Taylor, one of the best men and best teachers I ever knew, sent me out into the world towards the end of 1910, not ill-equipped, if I may say so.
It has always interested and puzzled me that so many men of my own writing profession look back on their schooldays with horror. One gathers that the English Prep School is, on the whole, an institution in which the sensitive child is bullied, starved and humiliated, and from which he passes only to be roasted and then bored in his Public School. This gloomy retrospect has coloured so much English fiction and so many memoirs of the past 40 years that one wonders how the system could ever produce leaders, which was, one gathers, the main idea.
Perhaps only the born leaders could survive it, but it seems to me that we have done not so badly in Scotland under the purely native system. My own simple soul is completely free from any hangover of grievance against Greenock Academy. No memories of cruel beatings keep me awake o’ nights; no female teacher ever chose me as her Young Woodley and provided me with the subject of a future novel. My worst memories are merely of occasional boredom, especially when the subject of the period bordered on the mathematical. As for leadership, I can compile from the records of my own peers a not by any means undistinguished list of pro-Consuls, Indian Civil Servants soldiers, sailors, airmen, master mariners, tea planters, and tough eggs in general.
It often occurs to me quite seriously that any boy or girl may be best educated in a day school of the old grammar tradition, with a sound domestic background as the other essential of the pattern.
It is quite firm in my mind that the men and women of my generation were lucky in their school above Nelson Street. And there was always the Rector who rode a white horse and went to law about a monkey puzzle. I cannot believe that even a Provost of Eton ever conferred such a distinction of individuality upon his foundation.
My schooldays began (somewhat late, for I was an unhealthy child) in 1913, and ended in 1923. Over long stretches the sands of time have settled, level and bare. I think I remember being taken to the Infant Room and after much bright exchange of reassurances between my mother and Miss McWilliam (in which I took no part) being committed to the care of certain aged crones, who must in fact have been very young women, if not mere girls. Curiously, there seem to have been no other children present at all. Of these early days little remains but shadowy and (on the whole) benign personalities associated with the names of McWilliam, MacGillivray, Cairns and Speedie. Miss Aitken I can recall vividly because she was my first love. Then or later my garb was the ubiquitous sailor-suit of Britannia still regnant, or (to be precise) two sailor-suits, the Sunday and newer one complete with white lanyard and whistle; my stockings were black, in winter worn over the knees, and my boots buttoned. About that time, since my homeward way took me up Newton Street, the menace of Finnart School often clouded my days. Long before any of us had heard of Marx or Engels, we ‘Academy pups,” unless travelling in convoy or basely detouring by South Street, encountered almost daily the truceless hostilities of the class struggle. Joy was it in that dawn to be alive? Some of us wondered. But the years passed and the Finnart boys grew smaller and soon I was in the “Qualifying.” Nowadays (it seems) this is the Great Divide, Childhood’s grand climacteric, with fuming fathers and hag-ridden mothers fretting their hearts lest their tiny tots be condemned to courses basely mechanical or even be torn from the bosom of their alma mater and exposed somewhere on the hills behind the town. But Consule Planco the psychologist and the politician were scarcely even a small cloud on the horizon of education. Across the bridge from the primary to the secondary school all went together by a kind of divine prescription, asses and thoroughbreds alike. Indeed, by an ingenious misnaming of classes we were all across the bridge (or seemed to be) before we reached it. Senior One was our qualifying year. And for many years more the great imposture was to continue. All over the world today former pupils of the Academy are being accredited with six years of secondary schooling when in fact they have had but five. At some early stage, probably in the chaos of the kindergarten, we completed one year and called it two.
If in respect of genuine reminiscence the first years of one’s schooling are a featureless desert, the later years are a jungle of fantastic growths. Palpable inventions combine with innocent (and ignorant) misinterpretations of imperfectly observed facts to present an impenetrable barrier to the traveller after truth. The very dimensions of the most obvious things are desperately wrong. The school tower, for example, is definitely further off from Heaven. Can that half-acre of grass, those narrow flower-beds fronting Nelson Street be the rolling savannahs, the paradisal pleasances I knew as a child? And who would have thought that the writing-room was so much smaller than the nave of St. Paul’s? Admittedly the Great War created temporary vacancies on the staff necessitating the admission of types not normally to be found in halls of higher learning, and after the war the new permanent teachers had certain habits to unlearn as they made their educational experiments on our vile bodies. Even so, that other war was still on; the age-old strife of pupils and teachers with all its propaganda and denigration. Surely Mr. Millar, one of the finest teachers the Academy ever had, neither peered through keyholes for evidence of indiscipline nor kept bottles of whisky in the gallery clock? Surely Mr. Mushat did not support the trousers of his morning suit—his invariable attire—with the bright, cowhide belt he employed to belabour the imperfect Latinist ? Cockroaches could never have been so numerous on the premises that the juvenile purchasers of janitorial rolls and syrup stood an odds-on chance of getting a third ingredient. Nor, I suppose, are the feats of magisterial cunning basically any more credible. There must have been some ranges, some angles, that baffled the virtuosity of Mr. Smith who, succeeding Mr. Millar, abandoned the orthodox manipulation of the tawse— difflcilis in perfecto inora! — and made of it a missile weapon like the aborigine’s boomerang. There must have been some mathematical problems too abstruse or too involved for Mr. Tait to solve with a scrap of chalk on the palm of his admittedly impressive hand. And when boys, staggering from Drawing to Latin heavy with purloined leadshot, proceeded to rain their shrapnel at the back of “Massa” Goodliffe’s apparently unsuspecting head, did that ingenious optician always catch the rampant offender reflected in the corners of his spectacles? We were indeed brave boys and clever girls whom enemies so ruthless and resourceful could not defeat or daunt.
But there remain some memories which being less pandemic I find more persuasive. In my adolescent mind—honi soit qui mal y pense!—the extreme brevity of Miss Mackail’s gymnastic tunic made a profound impression. So did the bilingualism of Mr. Culbertson who dressed his ordinary thoughts in the sweet Done of Hawick but never let the Classics go abroad unless in a stiff and shiny Sunday suit from the heart of Wardour Street, I wonder how many of us realised just what Vergil’s husbandman was up to as he ‘eke made drums for his wains.” I remember Senior Six’s Latin in the cosy fug of the Rector’s room being interrupted regularly about ten o’clock by the state arrival of the young Dauphin. I remember learning natural history from ‘Daddy” Park under the sad cypresses of Greenock Cemetery: I can still see a sombre pond, its waters browned (we believed) like Tennant’s beer by the effluvia of adjacent death, the only nursery of sticklebacks in the whole county of Renfrew. I remember how easily Mr. Taylor could be lured away from the hard asphalt of grammar into the fresh woods and pastures of country lore. I remember Mr. Ramsay’s gentle horror at “the coarser pleasures of our boyish days and their glad animal movements,” his resigned despair over so many young Calibans congenitally blind to the subtle “tones” of his miscellaneous crockery. I remember the pneumatic Mr. Gunn and my own persistent failure in several years to complete even one solitary plant-label: always — in limine portus — the blind Fury would sink the abhorred chisel a final fraction too deep, and heigh-ho! behold the diminished sliver ceremoniously broken in twain and money demanded for new wood and (monstrous injustice!) new paper for a new plan. I remember, I remember . . . But how authentic are even these memories that seem so personal? Is it reminiscence or “a mere fiction of what never was”? Of the nine Daughters of Memory only one is the Muse of History. The odds are against us.
TWENTY YEARS AFTER
When I was invited to write an article for the centenary brochure, I realised that it is twenty years since I left Greenock Academy and that school customs and methods of teaching have probably changed a lot in that time. In Victoria, the fashionable emphasis in teaching is on “project” methods (you learn arithmetic by keeping rabbits, and so on) and on “teaching aids,” by which is meant any gadgets, doodahs, gimmicks or ancillary apparatus used to drive the lesson home. I once heard a list of teaching aids which started:
“One whip, two revolvers but the more orthodox application of the term is to radio sets, puppet shows, instructional films, working models of machinery, or special equipment of that type. And there is a lot of equipment available here. The teachers cannot plug in to a television demonstration of some topic, as teachers do in the U.S.A., but radio sets are plentiful and most secondary schools have a film projector. For films, there is an excellent library of films and the teachers can order what they want from it.
No doubt similar equipment is available in Greenock Academy nowadays. The point I want to make is that it was not in use twenty years ago. There were B.B.C. broadcasts for schools but I cannot remember hearing any in school, although the broadcasts were well worth listening to. (I realised this when I had the chance to listen to some of them after I left school). It was probably tradition rather than the cost of a radio set that prevented us from hearing these broadcasts in school. Or perhaps it was simply that they did not fit into our timetable and syllabus.
Looking back on it, the school tradition must have been rather conservative at that time (1930-35). The obvious procedure would be to attribute this to the rector and the teachers but the pupils contributed, too. I remember George Dow, the head English teacher, trying to make our reading of Shakespeare more dramatic by asking boys and girls in the class to take over the roles in the play and read out the appropriate speeches. The girls responded moderately well but the boys did it grudgingly and grunted resentfully through their parts. It must have been the era of strong, silent heroes, for there was a great reluctance to put any expression into our voices. The same thing happened in French. Perhaps it was worse there, partly because there were genuine difficulties, partly because it was well known that Mr. Perry was very sensitive to this form of torture.
So it was not altogether the fault of the teachers. The class had its own idea of how lessons should be conducted and was probably more conservative than the teachers. Another instance of this tendency came if a teacher or a visitor addressed a question to the class in a general way, without designating a particular pupil. The tradition was that nobody replied, even if most of the class knew the answer. I suppose we were too self-conscious to risk attracting attention. This may have been due to the way we were treated at home rather than in school. In the presence of their elders, children were supposed to listen quietly and speak when they were spoken to and we carried that training into school with us. I can see now that some of the teachers tried to change our ideas. But at the time these influences had little effect. The cult of leadership, so carefully nourished in the wealthier English schools, was on a famine diet in Greenock Academy.
I noticed the contrast when I went to Cambridge and encountered these brilliantly talkative Public Schoolboys. Sometimes their conversation was brittle as well as brilliant but, right or wrong, they could talk rings round me. I noticed the same contrast, in a more likeable form, in the U.S.A., where five year-olds take part in the family deliberations with the gravity of grandfathers. It always amused me to meet one of these American kids in the street. As we passed, we greeted each other solemnly: “Hiya, Arch!”, “Hiya, Butch!”. Or if we stopped to talk, it was always a real man-to-man approach.
Recently, I was asked to fill in a questionnaire on behalf of a student who wanted to enter an American university. It was a long questionnaire, with twenty questions or more about the student’s character. I went through it patiently, filling in the obvious answer each time until I came to a question: “Does the applicant show qualities of leadership?” I replied: “No. He is too sensible to chuck his weight around.” This happens to be true but I am sure it is not the answer that was expected. It was an echo of the Greenock Academy tradition of 1930-35 rather than the Australian or American outlook.
Of course, the tradition has probably changed since those days. At that time there were no school prefects or house captains and, in general, little need for pupils to act on their own or undertake responsibility. In addition, parents took the line “Children should be seen and not heard!” rather than “Punish them? Oh, no! You mustn’t bruise their little ego!”
Another tradition that may have been blown to bits by the war was that the brighter pupils were guided into Latin and Greek. For example, there were bursaries which stipulated that the bursar take Latin and Greek and this in itself ensured that two or three of the best pupils in each year took these subjects. Occasionally a bright pupil (or his parents) refused to give way to the pressure of tradition and chose science or modern languages, but the orthodox course was classics.
Not that I regret doing Latin and Greek in school. I remember pleasant conversations with Mr. Niven, in the after-glow of our midday meal, before we buckled down to reading Thucydides. The class prolonged these introductory conversations as long as possible, rather than start on the work we were supposed to have prepared overnight. We did not dare take any liberties of this kind with Mr. Mackenzie, but we liked him for the clarity and precision of his teaching. To me, the climax of our classical studies was reading Homer in the original. It repaid all the grind of Greek proses and irregular verbs that we had gone through in our earlier years. I do not believe I could have got the same impression —or anything like it—from translations, still less from pompous academic imitators like Virgil or Milton.
However, that was twenty years ago and I have forgotten most of it by now. A few traces remain. Apart from incidental advantages of a classical education, such as in doing crossword puzzles, I find that I have a great deal of sympathy for modern French authors, most of whom seem to have been brought up in a similar tradition of classical studies, with competitive examinations as the gateway to higher education or civil service employment.
Our education, too, was closely wedded to the examination system. I can hardly complain since I thrived on this system, but I must admit that a good memory was often more valuable than sympathy for the subject. On the other hand, the training we were given tended to develop some useful characteristics, such as a capacity for hard, patient slogging at a subject and a desire to make sure of the facts as the first step in any problem.
Our training may have been stolid and limited in scope but within its limits it was thorough. Nowadays my job is lecturing in mathematics to university students and in this job I realise how fortunate we were in getting such a sound training in school. I see examples again and again of students who get themselves into difficulties by mistakes in algebra or arithmetic, even when they know how to deal with more advanced problems. (These mistakes in algebra are liable to transform a problem which was carefully arranged to give a reasonable solution into something which is practically insoluble).
Little attention was paid to non-academic subjects in those days. We had one hour of music and one hour of gymnastics a week. For most pupils, woodwork and art dropped out near the beginning of the secondary course. The tendency at that time was to be “collar- proud” and the social prestige attached to a white-collar job was held to compensate for the small salaries that sometimes went with these jobs. So manual skill was not encouraged. Although Greenock was an industrial town, few pupils went into the engineering faculty at the university. Here again, the school was cramped by tradition; the tradition was that the brighter pupils tried to get an Arts degree. Of course, this was a depression period and prospects in industry were discouraging but I doubt if that explains the white-collar outlook completely. I suppose it was a form of snobbishness.
Well, these are one person’s impressions and I do not imagine that my class-mates would agree with everything that I have written. I have concentrated on the academic side since that is the side with which I was mainly concerned. There were other things besides study, although I find it a little difficult to disentangle school activities from outside activities, since the same people appeared in both. The class I was in was unusually keen on football and for two or three years we played at the side of the school after 4 o’clock, scraping together our pennies to get a shilling ball when the hawthorn hedge had punctured the previous one. The pitch we used had a number of natural hazards, such as the boundary wall or an occasional pedestrian, but the experts could turn these to their own advantage. (I must have been hard on shoes in those days, for if I did not wait to play football I went home kicking a stone along the pavement all the way).
Among my other recollections are the morning parade, when the boys and girls strolled up and down in front of the school during the morning break, or the trek along Finnart Street to Fort Matilda on a Wednesday afternoon, when we got away early for rugby practice. And I remember the pleasures of Schoolboys’ Club camps, especially the summer camps at Crianlarich. I hope that, however much things have changed, the present-day pupils still get as much enjoyment out of their schooling as we did.