In the early days of September 1939 little attention was being given to the start of Bolton School’s Autumn term. On 3rd September the lugubrious voice of Neville Chamberlain, on our little Murphy wireless, had intoned those doom-laden words: ‘No such undertaking has been received, and consequently this country is at war with Germany’. For a small boy of ten, living behind his father’s butcher’s shop at 3 Gilnow Road, just opposite the Queen’s Park, this was a hugely exciting, bewildering, disconcerting moment.
I was a ‘scholarship boy’, one of a small posse of sixty-or-so 11-plus passes who, by virtue of some truly dedicated schooling by marvellous teachers – like Polly Fletcher at Devonshire Road Council School (she got 29 out of 31 through to Bolton’s selective secondary schools) – had made it to the ‘cock and bugle’ school up on the hill.
The following Thursday my mother woke me early. The great moment had arrived – my very first day at Bolton School. Every stitch of clothing was new: Aertex vest and Y-fronts, Viyella shirt, tie with black and white horizontal stripes (the junior version), flannel shorts with a crease like a Bowie knife (no long pants, please note, until the Third Form!) and finally long grey Wolseley stockings with the ubiquitous black and white hoops and a pair of pristine new black brogues, Clarks of course. Young Ronnie had undoubtedly achieved that day a peak of schoolboy sartorial elegance never equalled before or since – not by him, anyway!
The anti-climax was therefore truly shattering. When Ronald, and a bewildered group of novice schoolboys, arrived with commendable punctuality at the Dobson Road gate at 8.45am he was devastated to hear – from a young schoolmaster, decked out in full graduate regalia – that the School could not open that day ‘because air-raid shelters would need to be dug first’ – we would hear about it in detail by post.
When the letter came, it contained a few surprises. School would not open for three weeks and during that time each pupil would be required to pursue – at home – a programme of study in every subject, ie in English, History, Geography, French, Science, Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra. Now, for a prep-school by moving onto public school this would have posed few problems. For a council-school product, however, meticulously drilled in the ‘Three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic!) plus a little country dancing and a verse or two of Nymphs and Shepherds, this was an alien world. So, too, it proved for the local primary school teacher, a regular customer at my father’s shop, who was recruited to decipher those unfamiliar terms: algebra, geometry, la langue française …
Somehow, though, we managed to muddle through those chaotic first weeks. The air-raid shelters were built and neatly finished with a corrugated concrete surface, tastefully tinted salmon-pink to match the School’s elegant sandstone walls. We were assigned to our ground-floor forms: Shell A1, Shell A2 and Shell B – the traditional nomenclature for the forms set up to house the School’s newest entrants. And off we went!
Shell A1 was hugely fortunate to have as Form Mistress Emma Saxelby, a distinguished and celebrated academic and French scholar, whose publications Coquerico and En France were established text books throughout the UK. After a roll call and a few brief formalities, this unique and charismatic woman launched into my very first lesson in ‘la langue française’. No books, no notes, no paperwork at all. It was just French vowel sounds. And for three whole weeks of French lessons we did nothing else. It was a brilliant ploy and, as a result, generations of Emma’s students were sent out into the wide world with immaculate French vowel sounds.
The excellence of those first few hours of teaching at Bolton School set the tone for seven years of dedicated instruction, inspired leadership and high expectations, which stretched every boy to his limits. Not, may I say, in the field of academics alone, but in a far wider context. In my own case, for instance, Dr Noel McAdam, a musical guru of exceptional talent and energy, discovered I had a good soprano voice, which qualified me to open the Carol Service in 1940 with the classic first line of Once in Royal David’s City (I was, by the way, also hijacked without ceremony from Gilnow Road Methodist Chapel to Christ Church, Heaton, as one of the leading choir boys; F B Whittle – ‘Bunny’ – was the other one! By 1942 I had been cajoled into various House (Wigan) activities: swimming, running and football, and in 1943 won the School gymnastic cup. Scouting (19th Bolton was the School troop) was a major influence in my School life, as it was for many, and I managed the customary transition from snivelling tenderfoot to proud Patrol Leader (Curlews – I can still do the call!) by 1943. Although blissfully unaware of it at the time, I can now appreciate how the conditioning of a 14-year old boy, charged with single-handedly organising every detail of a weekend camp at the Egerton site, was serious training for leadership later on in life. The fact that our little group of eight teenage boys survived a lightning strike and a flash flood bears witness, I suppose, to that.
Those seven remarkable years, from ’39 to ’46, engendered a whole raft of personal bonding, relationships and lifelong friendships. I performed at many concerts, for instance, with Martin Milner, a brilliant violinist who went on to become teacher of the Hallé Orchestra (we all knew him better as the fifth-form pushpenny champion, played on a fine oak table in the Music Room). As a choir boy, I sat opposite the Monitors at the daily assembly, and had the dubious distinction of being carried out to the Levels, having fainted after belting up Park Road, late and breakfast-less, on my Raleigh roadster, by Bob Haslam (then School Captain, later Lord Robert Haslam). Another silver-voiced choir boy, Stanley Wright, would have preferred his fame to have sprung from his undoubted talent as a will-o-the-wisp outside left for Chorley House, but actually emerged as F R Poskitt’s star member of the ‘War Crop’ (like the History Boys, only better!). Stanley got a major scholarship to Morton, Oxford, and went on to the Foreign Office and the City. We were excellent friends until he died, prematurely, a few years ago.
The ‘War Crop’ was a remarkable group of very bright boys, some of them from humble backgrounds. Just such a person was Leslie Halliwell, a famous name today for Halliwell’s A to Z of Film. He ran the School’s Film Club, got an exhibition to St Catherine's College, Cambridge, and went on to be a respected film critic and writer. Another member of Freddie Poskitt’s ‘hot house’ was Irving Wardle. He could play the piano to concert standard – just as a side-line, as it were. He was sent up to Oxford to get a History award, but they gave him an English scholarship instead, on the basis of a scintillating essay on Oscar Wilde in his general paper. Irving, I am delighted to say, is still with us, and we regularly enjoy a pre-Christmas lunch with him. It was no surprise, given his outstanding talent as an actor – he could easily have turned professional – when he emerged as Theatre Critic for The Times. One of his rivals in the School’s Dramatic Society was Michael Lever, but Michael chose to devote his histrionic talents to the Bar, where he eventually took silk and became, as Judge Michael Lever QC, a notable figure on the Northern Circuit. He, too, had been one of F R Poskitt’s War Crop heroes, and went up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, on a History scholarship. Michael and I had a close friendship (although he regularly stole my girlfriends!) and we were together watching his beloved Bolton Wanderers a few weeks before he died.
Not one of FRP’s academic inner circle, but an outstanding member of the School community, was Geoffrey Bradshaw, School Captain 1945/46. Geoff (Budgie was his affectionate sobriquet, I fear, thanks to a fine Roman nose) made no pretence to be an intellect, but he was the most complete, most accomplished sportsman I have ever known (and that includes Alf Ramsey and Trevor Brooking). He was a lean 9 stone 6 pounds, but his natural talents ensured that by the age of seventeen he was Captain of Football, Captain of Cricket, Victor Ludorum (as sprinter, hurdler and javelin-thrower) and, of course, inevitably, out of School hours he was an ace snooker-player and a low handicap golfer. After graduating from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) he turned down a near-certain route to the top of Smith and Nephew Ltd and joined Marks and Spencer Ltd where he became their ‘Mr Big’ in textile technology. Geoffrey was a close friend and we spent a lot of time together outside the immediate School environment. This included a hilarious and unforgettable Grand Tour of Europe in a rickety old Ford 10 which was long overdue for the knacker’s yard. Our companion on this riotous trip was Colin Markland, a bright and eccentric medic, who had delighted Mr Poskitt by winning an unexpected place at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, and was kicking his heels wanting to go up there. When he finally got to Caius, he distinguished himself by getting a half-blue in ice-hockey and a rather good degree. By the time he retired, early in the 21st century, he had become Professor of Urology at Charleston, Carolina, and had been a pioneer in kidney transplants. Back on the Grand Tour of 1948, Colin cemented his reputation as an eccentric by dancing the polka with the Burgermeister’s daughter at a Trommel-Fest in Ravensburg, attempting to date a Texas heiress on the beach at Cannes, attending her 21st party at Maxim’s in Paris, where we presented our gift – a tiny kitten from the Paris cats’ home – and negotiating the Grossglockner, one of the highest passes in the Alps, effectively without brakes. I had the honour of speaking at Geoffrey’s funeral and of writing Colin’s obituary in The Bugle.
The survivors of the War Crop are, I fear, few in number. Irving Wardle I have already mentioned. F B Whittle, ‘Bunny’ to all, is also very much of this world – not quite as robust as he was in 1945, or thereabouts, as left-back on the School’s Second Eleven (the most successful ever – it didn’t lose for two years!) – but still going strong. The right-back, incidentally, was what the School magazine described as ‘rugged’. Bunny played the Grave Digger in Hamlet and during the traditional high jinks in the final performance, he found Yorick’s skull (you know: ‘Alas, poor Yorick …’) was moving away from him as he reached down to hand it to Hamlet; it was attached to a piece of string and the other end of the string was none other than my very old and much-loved friend, Lindsay McDonald Williamson, a true Scot, but Bolton born and bred and stranded amongst the Sassenachs. Lindsay and I go back to the early classes of Devonshire Road Council School, got our ‘Scholarship’ to Bolton School together, had workmanlike – rather than distinguished – careers, emerged at good universities: Glasgow (him) and Bristol (me). We have kept in touch ever since. Lindsay became a civil engineer and cut his teeth on the Owen Falls Dam in Uganda, where he met his lovely wife, Migs. As youngsters, Lindsay and I hiked together, biked together, camped together, climbed together (the Cuillins of Skye and the Idwal slabs in Snowdonia) and we found time to do the electrics at School plays (you will recall Yorick!). He was Best Man at my wild wedding in 1951 at St Hubert’s in Corfe Mullen in Dorset; I was Godfather to his daughter. We meet whenever we can and always pre-Christmas at the Bay Tree, Burford.
For my good friend, Lindsay, and for me, it would be true to say that Bolton School did not simply influence our lives; the School completely shaped and transformed them. It sounds a trifle smug, I suppose, but I like to think that we have not just indulged ourselves with full, happy and rewarding lives – we have made a contribution, too.