Memoirs Chapter 3
There were two main roads linking our northern suburb to the city centre (we just called it ‘town’). They were almost parallel, roughly equal in length and both were well-served by buses. And yet each is associated in my mind with a different purpose, a different part of the week, a different season, even different weather. The Stoney Stanton Road, the route used for visits to town on sunny Saturdays, was about 15 minutes walk from home and reached via ‘The Black Pad’, a cinder path that ran between the backs of houses and a railway embankment. The bus stop was beside the main gate of the Morris car-engine factory. A child’s fare into town was tuppence, leaving most of a fortnight’s pocket money left over to be spent on whatever it was that justified the trip: a new Dinky toy, perhaps, to add to my collection, an Airfix kit, or the cricket bat that I saved so long for. (I can still recall the shopkeeper’s amusement when I handed over the ten-shilling note folded accurately into quarters to fit my shirt pocket.) The top deck of the bus was preferred, naturally, for good views of various sights en- route, such as the enormous Red House Motor Services coach-park, the monumental Victorian pub that gave that company its name, and on the other side of the Road the D. Di Mascio ice-cream factory. (In our neighbourhood an ice cream cornet or wafer, always bought from a van, was known as a ‘Dee-Die’.) After 25 minutes, the bus would arrive at Broadgate in the centre of town. This was the Coventry of the architectural history books, the Coventry that was flattened by German bombs and rebuilt after the war, becoming a national symbol of peace and renewal.
Had I ever heard of Donald Gibson, master-planner of post-war Coventry? I don’t think so. Nor had I heard of Arthur Ling, his successor. But I had certainly heard of his successor, Terence Gregory, because his name appeared on the big model of the city centre, displayed in the glass-walled ground-floor of the new building that housed the City Architect’s Department. I loved that model and the building that housed it. I like to think that even as a child I could see a meaningful contrast between this open, welcoming piece of modern architecture and the stuffy old Edwardian Council House opposite. In the early 1960s most Coventrians knew something about modern architecture because it was rising all around them whenever they went into town.
We start our tour in Broadgate where we got off the bus. Immediately urban design on a large scale is evident. Before the war, Broadgate was a busy shopping street but in 1960 it was a rectangular traffic island in the middle of which stood an equestrian statue of Lady Godiva. She was travelling south but had arrived at a long axis uniting The Precinct in the west with the spire of St Michael’s, the ruined old cathedral, to the east. This axis was the backbone of the city, joining old and new, past and future. Viewed from The Precinct, Lady Godiva’s side-saddle nakedness was perfectly displayed against the blackened spire that loomed behind her like a gigantic Gothic tombstone. (The statue now faces west, along the axis, a fatal weakening of the composition. But it could be worse. For a while it was placed under the fabric entrance canopy of the Cathedral Lanes shopping centre built in 1990. The canopy was removed after I wrote a scathing article about it in the Independent — or so I like to think.)
Pedestrian shopping precincts were to become common in towns and suburbs of the ’60s and 70s and are now despised, but this was the very first: a wide, sloping street, with shops on two levels and not a vehicle in sight. Half way down there was a footbridge under which was a pool flanked by big sculpted panels. The arrangement never really worked. No-one could be bothered to climb the steps to the upper level and the pool only intermittently contained water, but as a child I was proud of its novelty and modernity, and I wanted it to work. At that time, the master plan was less than half-realised. The new circular market building, shaped to suit the cars parked on its roof rather than the market traders and their customers below, was finished and much admired, but the extensions of the Precinct into the Lower Precinct, Smithford Way and Market Way were still under construction. Another circular building appeared in 1961: a glass-walled café placed on-axis in the Lower Precinct. It made clever use of the change of level to elevate itself like a viewing platform, or perhaps a platform on which to be viewed. I remember bravely going in to buy a cup of coffee when I was perhaps 13. It was the first time I had ever ordered a coffee from a waitress in a café. Later in my teenage years I followed with interest the Precinct’s growth into Shelton Square and the fully-covered City Arcade, and was duly impressed by the new tower blocks that marked its junctions and terminations. (One of them has already been demolished.) Before long I was myself working in an architect’s office with a view from my drawing board of Bull Yard, the Precinct’s final and furthest southern extension.
Little more than a fragment of the medieval city centre survived, around the ruined old Cathedral and the intact Trinity Church. These provided two of the famous three spires, still the symbol of the city. The third, Christchurch spire stood some distance away, as if shunned by its bigger brothers. I associate memories of this old part of town with my father, who introduced me to the Central Library, near the cathedral, as a superior alternative to our local branch. Dad also took me to the nearby Art Gallery which was temporarily housed in some converted, semi-basement public toilets next to the Council House. When the new Herbert Art Gallery was opened in 1960, there were too few art treasures to fill it so the ground floor became a showroom for vintage cars. We particularly admired the 4.5 litre Bentley, though it was made in Cricklewood, not Coventry. In the galleries upstairs, I remember only two paintings: a South Wales landscape by, surprisingly, L S Lowry, and a big, realistic panorama of a wet and windy Coventry by Jane Sutton. (I see now that she was born in 1939 and was still a student when she painted it. She died of pneumonia in 1961.) The old semi-basement gallery reverted to its original purpose. Other historic buildings in the City centre were of little interest to me as a child but I remember, some years later, attending a lecture in St Mary’s Hall after which the elderly speaker recited a sonnet that he had written himself, a quaint gesture that perfectly suited the setting.
And then, of course, there was the new cathedral, completed in 1962 when I was 14. This building is so famous, so important to the history of the city and the history of modern British architecture, that it deserves a full report. But there is a problem. This is a memoir, not a history, and my memories of the cathedral’s construction have been corrupted by what I now know. I like to think that I took regular detours on my way home from school to check on the cathedral’s progress. I like to think that I understood the unusual north-south orientation of the nave and the concept of ‘liturgical east’. I like to think that I witnessed, live, the lifting of the flèche and ‘flying cross’ onto the roof by helicopter. But these ‘memories’ are unreliable. I was certainly impressed by the big bronze sculpture facing Priory Road and I even knew the sculptor’s name — Jacob Epstein — though I was hazy about what exactly it depicted (St Michael’s victory over the devil) and, in truth, I still am (how can an angel be a saint?). I was also unsure about the famous Graham Sutherland tapestry over the high altar. Like most naive visitors I assumed that the figure of Christ was standing up (tour guides always have to explain that he is actually seated) and I was puzzled by the ugly egg-like form of his lower garment. These blunders on Sutherland’s part are never talked about in respectable artistic circles. I realise now that I found the interior of the new cathedral oppressive, perhaps because of the glare from the big glass wall at the liturgically west, actually south, end. The huge canopy designed to control this glare was, and is, unequal to the task. I much preferred the roofless nave of the old cathedral which had in effect become a little park, with lawns and paths and benches, enclosed by accidentally beautiful glassless windows in scarred sandstone walls washed with sunlight. But the credit for this leaving-alone must go to the architect of the new cathedral, Basil Spence. It was his first and best decision.
At the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned two main roads leading into town. We took the Stoney Stanton Road. The other was the Foleshill Road, where I caught the bus to the Grammar School. I associate it, therefore, with weekdays, work and worry. But it had its attractions, such as the little shopping district called ‘The Wolfe’ just two bus-stops from my old primary school. It was a long time before I realised that the Wolfe was a pub, The General Wolfe, named after James Wolfe who beat the French at Quebec in 1759. The Wolfe boasted two other important social institutions: The Regal Cinema, which offered Saturday morning children’s matinées, very occasionally patronised by Ken and me, and the swimming baths in which, at the age of about nine, I earned my first official qualification — the certificate that said I could swim a length non-stop. It was a ‘baths’ not a ‘pool’, perhaps because it also offered individual ‘slipper baths’ for those without facilities at home. Its social purpose therefore lay somewhere between public health and recreation. ‘Leisure centres’ were still in the future.
Another Wolfe attraction was the bicycle shop from which I acquired my first machine, a second-hand, old-fashioned roadster with an orange frame. I decided it needed to be smartened-up and set about painting it in the back yard. I made a terrible mess from which Dad rescued me, stripping it and painting it perfectly in stylish black. The mechanic who worked at the back of the bike shop had the worst stammer I have ever heard. This was of interest to me because at that time I also had a slight stammer. My mother, ever vigilant where health matters were concerned, arranged for me to see a speech therapist at the council offices in town. There was just the one session and I remember it well. The nice lady hardly mentioned the stammer but concentrated instead on getting me to understand what ‘relaxing’ meant. When I’d got the idea she finished the session simply saying: ‘Remember, when you get stuck, relax’. Was I instantly cured? Not quite, but I now had the antidote and stammering ceased to be a problem.
My preference for the Foleshill Road on school days had something to do with a bus route that bypassed Broadgate and stopped at the rail station beyond. From there it was a short walk up the hill to the Victorian, mock-Tudor, gabled and turreted King Henry VIII Grammar School. ‘We are the school at the top of the hill’ was the first line of the awful school song written by the music teacher in my father’s time. The badge and motto (Religione et Republicae) were probably Victorian inventions but the school’s sixteenth century origins were genuine enough and the medieval hospital building that first accommodated it still exists in the city centre. Actually the hill-top mock-Tudor building was only the school’s public face. Most of the classrooms and other teaching facilities were hidden round the back in architecturally undistinguished structures, including a big old wooden ‘Shed’ (its official name) that accommodated the music room.
For my first year I was to be in form 2C. It was ‘2’ because the prep school in a corner of the same site was ‘1’. The ‘C’ was something of a disappointment. (The range was A to D with an extra ‘Alpha’ theoretically equivalent to A.) Although I had been awarded a ‘special place’ I had nevertheless been obliged to sit an entrance exam and I obviously hadn’t done very well. The suspicion arose in my mind, if not in anybody else’s, that my special place might have been due to an error of marking in the ‘11-plus’. But I was in, the uniform had been bought (black blazer and cap, both with badges) and there was no going back.
Our form-master was Mr Vent. We called him Sir to his face and Jeff behind his back. We liked him. He was funny and cheerful and seemed to enjoy his job. He taught French but I remember nothing about his official lessons. What I do remember is his version of Form Prayers every Friday morning. Obviously a non-believer himself, he used this slot to teach rugby tactics with the help of diagrams on the blackboard. Blind eyes had presumably been turned for years. An example of Jeff’s practical kindness was the time I broke my glasses and couldn’t see the blackboard. At first he was scornful of my apparent stupidity but when he realised the cause he simply pushed my sledge-like desk, with me in it, right up to the blackboard, yards in front of my fellow pupils. I stayed there happily in splendid isolation for several days until my new glasses arrived. Other teachers accepted the arrangement when they were told that it was Mr Vent’s idea.
Of my other first year teachers, two stand out in my memory. Mr Scotford, the history teacher, was known as ‘Fossil’ because of the tobacco-tins full of fossils, flint arrow-heads and the like that he would bring out to show us at frequent intervals. Every time he did this, he would say how important it was to protect and preserve such precious objects and how he was soon going take them out of their tins and mount them properly in display cases. We knew he never would. I liked Fossil because he liked me, or at least he liked the way I used drawings copied out of the text book to illustrate my essays. I remember, for example, a particularly elaborate whole-page, biro rendition of an Assyrian vase.
Mr Wrench taught maths and carried a little brown case from which he sometimes took sheets of calculations, all in pencil, to show us how neat they were. But the case also contained ‘Aaron’s Rod’, a hard, round stick (the biblical original turned into a serpent). If the class was noisy or in any way disobedient, he would instruct us all to put our hands on our heads, then stroll up and down the aisles methodically rapping everybody’s knuckles hard with Aaron’s Rod. It really hurt, and of course removing the hands just made things worse. There was unquestionably an element of sadism. And yet we liked ‘Jack’ Wrench. All a grammar school teacher had to do to gain the boys’ affection was to tell a few jokes, not necessarily new ones, and remain cheerful most of the time. And Jack was not the most sadistic master in the school. That title is reserved for ‘Killer’ Coles, a strong, youngish, dark-haired man reputed to have a fearsome temper. He never taught me so I can only repeat the gossip but it was said, for example, that he would take a stack of heavy books and pound them repeatedly on the tops of his victims’ heads. There were rumours of parental complaints and of warnings issued, then suddenly he was gone without ceremony or explanation.
These teachers mostly wore academic gowns, though the practice was not compulsory. The usual excuse was that they kept the chalk dust off suits and jackets but one can only speculate as to the true motive: habit? tradition? status? insecurity? Some gowns were ragged and chalky, others neatly laundered. So there was language of gowns. Nobody wore a mortar board. To have done so would have courted ridicule.
The personally-administered punishments preferred by Jack Wrench and Killer Coles were extra to the official disciplinary regime which dealt mainly in ‘detentions’. These came in two strengths — one hour on a weekday evening or three hours on a Saturday morning — and could be issued by prefects (sixth-form collaborators with badges) as well as teachers. Persistent offenders would be referred for caning by the headmaster. I never qualified for this ultimate sanction so I can’t say for sure how he administered the caning (hand out or bend over?). This is one of many doubts and mysteries associated with that remote figure.
There were five ‘houses’ and I was in Hales House (green-striped tie), named after the school’s founder, John Hales. My father had been in the same house 25 years earlier. Was this deliberate? Did they check records? Possibly. The school had no residential component, so the only reason for the existence of houses was to create a framework for competitive sport. I was no sportsman. House Prayers, every Monday morning, were to me to an arbitrary and meaningless institution. School Assembly on the other hand, which took place every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, was rather impressive. The assembly hall, a monumental but fairly new building, was exactly the right size to accommodate all of the 1000 or so boys of the school standing in straight rows with a wide centre aisle. Everybody knew their place. Once assembled, we stood and waited facing the high stage on which the music master sat at his grand piano and the Deputy Headmaster, ‘Piggy’ Shaw, stood ‘at ease’ astride the centre-line. Members of staff stood behind us, under the gallery that accommodated the choir, so that they could sneak off if necessary. We waited perhaps five minutes but often longer, and occasionally much longer. If one of these long waits happened to occur in a spell of hot weather, boys would begin to drop and Piggy would become intensely vigilant, scanning the rows. If he spotted a tell-tale nod or slump he would point and shout ‘Catch him!’. Eventually the Headmaster himself, Herbert ‘Chin’ Walker, would limp up the aisle, mount the stage, take Piggy’s place and begin proceedings. There were hymns, prayers, announcements, admonishments and sports results, as you would expect. At the end, the headmaster would retrace his steps, Piggy would take up his post again, and we would file out row by row. It was rumoured that ‘Chin’ (his prominent chin was mocked mercilessly but covertly by the whole school) sometimes took classes in Scripture, but his regular stage appearance was all most of us ever saw of him. Was he a good man? Was he friendly or cold, kind or cruel, intelligent or stupid? I have no idea. To me he was only the symbol of order and authority that stood before us three times a week in Assembly.
From this distance it is hard to see any worthwhile purpose for the time-consuming vastness of Assembly. The military overtones are obvious. But on one occasion it gave rise to a surprising communal expression of goodwill and gratitude. J B Young-Evans was a little old man, round and bald, who wore pince-nez spectacles and a jacket that was too big for him. Latin was his subject and when reciting Virgil he pronounced all the ‘v’s as ‘w’s in the old-fashioned way. We called him ‘Pip’ and mocked him, of course, but gently and with affection. Nobody knew how old he was but there came a time when his retirement could no longer be put off. It was duly announced in a routine way by the headmaster in Assembly. Pip stepped forward to accept his small gift and his handshake, but as he turned to walk down the long aisle into a doubtful future, there was an eruption of cap-throwing cheers that rose to a deafening climax when he reached the door and, with enormous dignity, turned and bowed. Pip lived alone in a bedsit on the first floor of a large house near the school. Boys that passed that way would look up at his window and occasionally glimpse him standing at his tottering bookshelves under a single unshaded lightbulb. Then the report came that the light no longer shone. But perhaps he had simply moved.
C B S Shaw had been at the school since my father’s time and his nickname (awarded because of a simple resemblance) had been ‘Piggy’ even then. I liked him. His subjects were art and geography, but art was his real love and the big Art Room, well lit by windows on three sides, was his kingdom. Desks were arranged not in rows as elsewhere but as an inward-looking U shape which gave Piggy a stage from which to command attention, and an art gallery in which to view the drawings and paintings appearing on the desks around him. Comparison was the essence of Piggy’s critical method. At the end of what was usually a double period we would line up along one wall in no particular order, holding our creations up in front of us. Piggy would then move boys up or down the line until a smooth gradation of quality from left to right, excellent to atrocious, had been established. Grades were then rapidly assigned. To me this process had a satisfying clarity and openness, but bear in mind that I was quite good at art.
While at grammar school, I was definitely not a ‘joiner’. There were many clubs and societies available for pupils interested in music or theatre or model-making or nature-study or stamp-collecting or a dozen other pursuits. As it happens, I was interested in all of those that I’ve mentioned, but I didn’t join any of the relevant clubs. Why did I always go home at the end of lessons rather than staying on for an hour or so of convivial creativity? I don’t know. It was something like the opposite of a sense of entitlement. The school choir was one obvious opportunity missed. I had gained some distinction as a singer at my primary school so I would surely have slotted in easily. Announcements of rehearsals for the various voice parts were often read out in School Assembly so there were plenty of reminders, yet it never occurred to me to join, or even to find out how to join. Not joining the drama society was less surprising. I never claimed to be any kind of actor. But I wasn’t even successful as an audience member. I remember a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which had a short run in the Assembly Hall. For once I decided to be adventurous and attend the Saturday evening performance. It was brilliant, and the sight of a boy that I knew playing Bottom and jumping on and off benches while shouting funny lines was thrilling. It came to an end, there was loud applause and people in the audience began to mill around talking to one another. I went to catch the bus home but the street was strangely empty. Then it dawned on me that I had left at the interval. I couldn’t go back and admit a stupid mistake.
In the winter we played rugby once a week for a whole afternoon. There was no alternative. As I may have mentioned, I was short sighted and wore glasses, which of course had to be removed. True involvement in the game was therefore impossible. I was usually assigned the scrum-half position on the basis that retrieving the ball from the scrum and passing it to the fly-half was relatively close work. Between scrums, I just wandered around only vaguely following the action. And this went on for four years. The teachers were evidently unconcerned by the fact that for a sizeable minority of boys ‘playing rugby’ was a complete sham and an appalling waste of time. Official attention was concentrated on the talented players whose future careers might enhance the school’s reputation. And the policy bore fruit. David Duckham, who played 36 games for England, was two years above me, and Peter Rossborough, who captained the Coventry team, scored 109 tries and won seven England caps, was in my class.
Summer was better: tennis for the boys who brought their own racquets, and cricket for the rest of us. I never came to the attention of any selector but I enjoyed playing our little matches, half a dozen of them in progress at the same time in the big field behind the school. I was a passable batsman (about number six) and a useful slow left arm bowler. My mother was ever resentful of the cost and bother of buying and cleaning ‘whites’.
At the end of my year in 2C things were looking good. A fair-haired boy called ‘Greg’ Gregory and I were vying for top-of-the-class. I must have been going through a religious phase (perhaps it was all those morning prayer meetings) because I remember wondering whether it would be OK to pray for victory in this competition. The snag was that in effect I would be praying for my friend and rival Greg’s disappointment, which would obviously be unchristian. So I prayed that we should be ranked top-equal. And it worked. We were duly promoted to 3A and joined the clever kids who were already making reputations for themselves: there was Fane, tall and studious, and his friend Lovell, slightly effeminate; Scaife, unruly but quick-witted; ‘Grif’ Griffiths who looked fierce but turned out to be friendly; and ‘Toz’ Torrence, the only boy who was to remain a friend beyond our school years. Somebody discovered that my second name was Sidney (after my uncle), which was considered hilarious, so from that point on I was ‘Sid’, which was fine by me. It was a serviceable nickname (it wasn’t Four-eyes or Fatty or Spas.) and it marked my acceptance into a new social group.
And then there was Zundel, who was undoubtedly the most intelligent boy in the school. I remember telling my mother about Zundel, how clever he was, and to my surprise she asked ‘does he have a big nose?’ Innocent of racial stereotyping, I said ‘yes he does; how did you know?’ A couple of years later, in the lower fifth form, I was to get to know Steven Zundel well. At this point in our school careers we were required to choose from a range of subject combinations. I had vague ambitions to become a journalist so one of my choices was Special English. Steven was the only other boy to make that choice. Surprisingly, this class of two was given the go-ahead and for the rest of the year we met with the teacher, ‘Bunny’ Burrows, in odd corners of the library, on a bench outside in fine weather, or in an unusually capacious broom-cupboard. We read ‘Beowulf’ and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and since Bunny was an amateur actor we received some coaching in recitation. Needless to say, my scholarly efforts failed to match those of my illustrious classmate, but this didn’t really matter because, after all, I couldn’t come worse than second.
Steven and I got on perfectly well but we were never very close. Perhaps I was a little in awe of him. Eventually, when he had completed his numerous A-grade A-levels, he duly went up to Oxford where, I learnt later, he committed suicide. There had been no sign of mental instability when I knew him. His cheerful assurance had seemed impregnable. Decades later I happened to meet his sister Veronica at a poetry workshop in London. Just because of the name and the Coventry connection, I guessed she must be a relative. We sat together in the pub after the session and I mentioned King Henry VIII school. She began to tell me about Steven, knowing nothing of my close connection with him, and when she paused to take a sip of her drink, my simple statement that ‘I knew him well’ was followed by a long, possibly tearful silence. I still don’t know why he committed suicide.
Viewed as a whole, my school career was not very successful. I was allowed to sit five ‘O levels’ instead of the usual eight so that I could be fast-tracked into the sixth form but my grades were mediocre and I actually failed English. This fail was such a surprise that even my teachers thought it must be a mistake, and they were probably right. I got a very much better grade for the re-take without any extra coaching. A year or so later, my ‘mock’ A level results were not promising. I remember a question in the French exam: “Prosper Mérimée said: ‘Je n’aime que les anecdotes’. Discuss.” Naturally, I fell into the trap and wrote an essay on Mérimée’s dislike of anecdotes. A pity, because I had actually enjoyed reading ‘Carmen’ and couple of other stories. (Perhaps I’m remembering it now because it’s such an apt maxim for a writer of memoirs.) Two years later I passed A-levels in English, French and History but my grades were poor and the smooth transition to university that was expected of students in my stream was halted. I would have to get a job.
But before I describe my faltering progress in the world of work, I must deal with an important shift in the geographical, and possibly social, location of our family.