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Final Days

At the beginning of my last term at school my blazer spit for the last time. That had been a constant problem since I was thirteen. Growing broader as well as taller, I burst the jackets at the armpits; my father took me to an alterations tailor in Shernhall Street, who let in pieces of navy b1ue material for about three shillings each time. With only another three months to go, it was decided that I should have a suit, which I could wear when I went for interviews and started work.

It came from the Fifty Shilling Tailors at Chingford Mount (they had branches all over the place). The single-breasted suit with a waistcoat was £2 10s 0d, but my father accepted the assistant's proposal to add an extra pair of trousers which brought the price up to £3 7s 0d. It was a dullish blue with a thin stripey pattern; I was measured, went back a week later for a fitting of the half-made suit, and had it to wear a week after that. The Fifty Shilling Tailors was not the cheapest available - a small chain named Berg's would make a suit in a few days for just over £2.

I went to school in my new suit, and inevitably had the rise taken out of me; but others were now wearing suits and sports jackets for similar reasons. It underlined the fact that most of us were leaving soon. In class one day boys who intended to become teachers were called out; four or five of my form went. After being with them for five years since we were 11, it was hard to believe. Fancy So-and-so, with whom you had lain in the long grass poring over Breezy Stories, being a teacher. A man came from the Essex Agricultural College and spoke on farming as a career. Hanging about outside the Prefect's Room, I was astonished to learn that a boy I knew was going to become a clergyman.

I had no idea of any job which attracted me, apart from drawing. Except those who were preparing for universities or definite careers, office work was pressed on us; and I did not want to do it. It was not only the school. For our parents, to see us in respectable jobs - specially in the City - was a fulfilment justifying the sacrifices they had made. They were considered to have a duty to direct us to the futures they wanted for us; quite commonly, men talked of putting their sons into particular occupations (and, later in life, one heard people say they had been put into these jobs by their parents). My mother urged me towards office work. I think my father had mixed feelings because he knew he would have found existence in a office intolerable; but since I had had the education it was what I was supposed to do. We all knew that manual work was inferior.

The greater part of our school work now was revision for the exam in early June. We also had to prepare for the oral examinations in French and Spanish, which took place earlier. The examiner for both languages was a Mr Bithels; we heard that he never failed anybody, but that was not the kind of hearsay you could rely on. In the Spanish class we had to sit in groups of half a dozen and hold conversations in the language, while Dr Lloyd moved round listening-in. We conversed all right, but most of it was in English. I was telling a scabrous joke, and suddenly became aware that Lloyd was standing over us. With a faint smile he said: 'Why, I almost thought that I was in Spain.'

When the oral came, it was held in the school library. We had to go in one by one. Mr Bithels was elderly., small and kindly. He had some heaps of cards, and on each was a comic picture with a French or Spanish caption; he selected one, and we had to read the words aloud and then translate them. The test must have taken less than two minutes. A week later Harry Hyde, our French master, came to the form-room door and called out; "Mr Bithels has graciously consented to pass all of you". His voice conveyed that he thought some of us did not deserve it.

Then the exam itself, the series of papers for the General Schools Certificate. They were all done in the school hall, except art. Our desks were spaced well apart in lines; masters acted as invigilators, and told us carefully at the outset that they could not answer questions once the allotted time began. At the end of each paper, boys clustered together eagerly; voices were heard saying how easy the questions had been. There were only about thirty of us for art, and we sat in the school's art room. The work we had to do was very formal, although the only one of the three subjects that I remember was a pencil drawing of a pile of books set in front of us.

After the week of examinations we were virtually free. I suppose that for the boys who proposed to stay on at school, or needed matric for a promised job, it was an anxious time. But for us who were leaving, there was a sense that bridges were burned; passed or not, our school lives were almost over. The results were made known on the day after school broke up for the summer holidays. In the few weeks until then we were expected to register at nine every morning, but thereafter had the time to ourselves. It was a long, fine summer; games of cricket went on every day, groups went to the swimming pool at Larkswood. During this period we were given our testimonials, a letter from the school for each of us on how we had worked and conducted ourselves as Monoux boys.

School broke up for the holidays. The head read out lists of achievements, and told us that old Mount joy was retiring; he had wanted it kept a secret, but a lot of us had got to know 'in the way that boys do', said the head. One of the few Bible readings he used in his morning assemblies, for its splendid phrases rather than its religious content, was the passage from Ecclesiastes beginning 'Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth'. Now he gave us from the Apocrypha: 'Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.'

I went to school again next day. A lot of the fifth form were there; others had already been and gone. The examination results were pinned up on the notice board outside the lobby, lists stating what our marks had been. I had got my General Schools certificate, with good marks in everything except maths. Some boys - not many - had failed. We drifted about the lobby and the quadrangles, talking to one another, looking through windows into the empty locked-up rooms. Congratulations and relief and mild excitement; murmured condolences here and there. A few weeks later we received our certificates, our names written-in in copperplate script by Hayes the art master.

For hunting jobs, we were in the same position as the school leavers described by James Hilton in his memoir of the Monoux School before 1914: like shopkeepers with a small, half-obsolete stock. We had our exam passes and the testimonials. I could type with two fingers but I had never used a telephone, had no idea of book-keeping or filing; we were not even shown how to write a letter applying for a job. Our languages were linked to literature, not commerce (we were told that South America would be in the fore of world trade - but not that South American Spanish is different from the classical Castilian which we learned).

Nevertheless, we were privileged boys. To have been kept at school until we were 16 or thereabouts was special in itself, when the majority were pushed out into the world at 14. We had a prolonged physical education, and most of us were almost certainly fitter and better developed than we should have been if we had gone to elementary schools (there was an 'experimental class', a year younger than mine, that had extra gymnasium periods daily; I wonder what the results were). Basics of various kinds of learning, which people often struggle to acquire at evening classes, were given to us. The boys and girls from the technical and commercial schools had practical skills which we lacked, but were at a greater disadvantage simply because they had not our education. We were brought into contact with a body of tradition and introduced to literature, music and ideas. The experience rubbed off on even the least grateful of us.