Crossing the Line - part 9
Bolton School took quite a bit of getting used to.
Compared with the church school in Blackrod, it was a different world.
I had never had to wear a school uniform and never carried a bag to school. Now there I was on my first day in my grey trousers, black shoes, white shirt and school tie, with a blue blazer, gabardine raincoat and school cap, carrying a briefcase, gym kit and games bag.
We each had our own desk to keep our books in. We sat in neat rows and each boy was assigned his own non-negotiable place in the class room. No sitting with your friends here.
A school ‘Sergeant’ kept order in the corridors and bellowed with a drill sergeant’s voice if someone dared to run in school or disobeyed the strict one-way system on the stairs. He was also the person who looked after you if you were ill or injured at games, revealing a caring compassionate side which was equally shocking the first time anyone encountered it!
Lunch was taken in a huge hall seating 450 pupils, seated at regimented tables of 11 with a teacher or monitor (prefect) at the head, keeping discipline. Food came out to each table in serving dishes with 11 plates and was served by those at the head of the table to everyone else. It was almost always meat or pies and 2 veg, with the occasional adventurous curry. Pudding was almost always hot; spotted dick or treacle tart with custard, or on bad days semolina or rice pudding. There was never a choice and you had to eat everything before your empty place was passed back up the table to be cleared away. More challenging was that the whole sitting had to be finished in 20 minutes, from arrival in the hall, through grace, two courses, clearing away, to the hall being empty again. This was to allow time to reset everything for the second sitting of the older half of the school who repeated the same routine. This left a lasting legacy in my life – the complete inability to eat slowly, even now, decades later.
Teachers often wore black teaching gowns. Registration was in the style of Rowan Atkinson’s immortal sketch. Discipline was strict and I remember coming home at the end of my first day and telling my parents with astonishment how quiet it had been. I wasn’t used to silence in class. I had also never had homework before, and remember sitting down at home with my first English homework thinking ‘what do I do now?’
For me, at nine years old, the whole effect was almost on a par with Harry Potter arriving in Hogwarts for the first time.
The ethos of the school was also determinedly secular. We had assemblies with prayers, but it was done with a definite sense of “let’s get this over with”. RE was relegated to the statutory minimum in the timetable and seen as an outdated irrelevance by all but one or two teachers. The school was dedicated to achievement, competition and success. Our termly school reports gave every pupil an exact statement of where they were in the pecking order by revealing not just a grade but also your mark as a percentage and your position in class. This ranking system applied to every academic subject except RE where writing anything down or marking our participation was seen as superfluous.
I went straight in at 28th out of 28 in all the main subjects and stayed there for several years. After being top of the class at the village school in Blackrod this was a bit of a shock and left me more than a little bewildered. In the village school, I didn’t have to try to be at the top of the class. Now I couldn’t get off the bottom, no matter how hard I tried!
To progress to the senior school at 11, we all had to pass another competitive exam with over 600 applicants for 128 places each year. Boys at the Prep School were expected to sail through without any difficulty but a few months before the exam, my parents were called in to the see the headmaster. It was not because I had been naughty but because the school didn’t expect me to pass.
Looking back, I think this was the wake-up call I needed. It snapped me out of the state of shock I had been living in. If I didn’t up my game now, I would be out. Over the next few months, mum coached me in English and dad in Maths, and on the day of my 11th birthday, I sat the 2½ hour exam, determined to give it my best shot. I then waited to be called in for an interview, often used to sift the borderline applicants and when no invitation came, I was convinced I had failed.
So it was a huge surprise when some weeks later the letter arrived, offering me a place at the senior school. I didn’t know how but I had made it.
My reasons for wanting to stay there were not about academic aspiration. They were more to do with identity. At Bolton School I wasn’t the vicar’s kid, just another pupil. The expectations on me were the same as on every other boy at the school, not tailor made with unspoken moral requirements or religious overtones. No-none put me on a pedestal or eagerly awaited my fall from it. I had begun to learn who I was, rather than inhabiting a persona which had been created for me, and I didn’t want to go back.
Although I started there a year later than my classmates, I had begun to make friends who simply knew me as “Hazlehurst” (first names were almost never used) and I began to discover who I was and who I wanted to be. I also toughened up. Although I was never good at sport, the school’s rigorous expectations around football, rugby and cricket meant that I couldn’t retreat to the side-lines, away from the action. I remember going back to visit the village school in Blackrod after a couple of terms and joining in a game of playground football with such vigour that they called me ‘Battling Ben’ by the end.
I had discovered a new me, or rather, I was discovering who ‘me’ was. I didn’t want anything to drag me back into a school environment where others thought they knew who I was. If I had failed the entrance exam, I would have received a good education at my local secondary school. My best friend Chris went there and went on to read Law at university. My desire to stay at Bolton School was deeper than that.
I needed to be free to find myself.