Bill Keeth harks back to his happy memories of Mount Carmel Infants’ & Boys’ Schools, Manchester, in the late-1940s & early- ’50s
* Hearing recently of the sad demise three years ago of Miss Mary Oldham, one of my favourite teachers (RIP, 27.10.2011), prompts me to eulogise her. On reflection, though, it occurs to me that this would perhaps be a more revealing eulogy were I to set my warm remembrances of the lady against a backdrop of the undermanned, overpopulated, sparsely-requisitioned, post-War academy in which she worked. I wrote about the school in Manchester Kiss and Manchester 9, but this time around, I intend to use the names of real people rather than the character names to which I resorted on that previous occasion.
1947 From Shepherd Street, facing the side wall of Harpurhey Baths, you go through the gateway proclaiming ‘BOYS’ and ‘GIRLS’, and turn second right after a few yards into a dark passageway where Mrs Tancred and her helpers are hard at work in a room to your left, a room that exhales from its open door the smell of pure orange juice and milk at room temperature.
Anthony Tomlinson is there before you, confiding in a whisper: ‘There’s no Father Christmas.’
What does he know? Best keep an open mind as long as the presents keep turning up.
Up the single step, you go, and turn right into Sister Mary Josephine’s Reception Class where Sister maintains order with what subsequent study of Jimmy Cagney films will reveal to be a blackjack, though Sister Mary Josephine’s blackjack is made of wood and is applied to the palms of the hands, not the nape of the neck.
‘No, you may not keep your gloves on, young man!’
One day, shortly before Christmas, with Sister out of the room on an errand somewhere, two five-year-old fun-guys. Pete Tunnicliffe and yourself, do an osculatory lap of honour around the Reception Class, kissing every girl in the room. Pete Tunnicliffe comes to no harm. (The boy has obviously had his moments before.) You, on the other hand, catch a cold and are off school for a week.
1949 Along that same unlighted infant school passageway, hacking your way with a make-believe machete through the smell of orange juice and luke warm milk. Up the single step and right up to the top, you go, where you take the second door to the right in order to access your class and Miss Greene, your teacher in Top Infants with (in your left hand) a bunch of flowers your mother has indicated you should deliver thereto.
You think so, boy? Not past Sister Mary Josephine, you don’t!
‘What a good little boy to bring flowers for our statue!’
Through Miss Dugdale’s classroom you go, then turn left into Miss Greene’s room and get to your place, de-flowered. Miss Greene’s statue of the Virgin rebukes you not. Not so Miss Greene, who icily lets rip.
Mary, Help of Christians, protect me before I even know your name!
1950 Paul Carruthers in Standard One, in true Dandy and Beano fashion, places a brass drawing-pin on teacher’s chair, action-end up.
(Were we all so completely stupid?)
Time after time throughout that long summer afternoon Miss Curran’s tweed-skirted nether regions hover promisingly over that cruel instrument – and each time Miss Curran’s posterior hovers thus there is an expectant rush of air into forty pairs of boyish lungs, the owners of which – First Communicants to a man – are recently supposed to have accessed the age of reason.
This wonderful wind-up by Miss Cullen protects Paul Carruthers and the rest of us from the blistering gulag of punishment and shame that lies within the headmaster’s – Mr Morgan-Lewis’s fief.
1953 School trips are non-existent at Shepherd Street University. So, too, are Art lessons, Science classes and PE. And it’s just as well, too. Because fripperies such as these are frowned upon by your Dad, alumnus of the School of Hard Knocks, aka St Patrick’s, Collyhurst. Yes, your Dad knows exactly what serious schooling is all about: it is mathematical tables and English spelling (don’t-cha know?) ingested parrot fashion prior to being disseminated in the same manner.
So shame on Miss Mary Oldham for organizing a boys’ choir to sing at Sunday Mass; for introducing you to classical music in the form of Bizet’s Carmen; for reading the story of Winnie the Pooh to you in class; for having you recite the Angelus, daily at noon; for conveying the wonders of the Eternal City to you, not least the splendour of Bernini’s architecture; for producing a magical playlet called Puss in Boots for your Christmas entertainment in which Tommy Leake plays a gallant Puss, and you the crotchety old man who introduces the performance and now weeps – weeps like a child – in calling to mind so many happy remembrances of Miss Mary Oldham, a teacher who interested and inspired us.
Miss Mary Oldham – how sweet the name! Was she really as magnificent a specimen as she would appear in the images of that Coronation yesteryear which perennially come to mind? Titian-haired, tall and slender, she seems, in addition to which, her youthful features are actually enhanced by her spectacles, which, together with a simple gold cross and chain are the only adornments she affects as she stands in that favoured spot, with her back to the radiator adjacent to her desk. Yes, magnificent, she truly is – certainly now I call to mind (Matt. 21:16) what springs from the mouths of children: a Pre-Raphaelite goddess, no less – a new Elizabethan, too, with a personal penchant for pleated skirts and pastel coloured twin-sets.
Miss Mary Oldham: a lovely lady, benefactor of many! May her dear Soul rest in peace.
(27 August 2014)
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