Why I Am

I try not to make this blog a version of therapy. It’s supposed to be about me only in respect of my opinions of various things that interest me, or my experiences of fellwalking or other expeditions. My ‘issues’ stay in the background for the most part.

Sometimes, things break through, like my post this week about attending my oldest mate’s father’s funeral, and going on to a new counselling session in which my own experience of losing my father, almost half a century ago, was one of the major issues we discussed. The blowback from that carried over into Friday and a day’s work, for which I was not best fitted.

Sometimes I wonder why losing Dad, even at such a significant point in my life, still has the power to crush me. I feel weak for letting it affect me so, but then I look back to the things that shaped me in the years before that happened, and it’s all too clear how I had already become an isolated child. There was a whole long line of things that, coming within a relatively short period, combined with an effect that could not have been bettered by any calculation.

It begins with my birthday being in mid-November, 1955. I started at the local school, which was literally at the end of the street, in the nursery year when I turned 4. This meant starting school in January 1960, when everybody else had started in September. This is, as far as I can recollect, one of the few things not to have any negative effect on me: I met my oldest mate in the nursery and we have been friends for almost 59 years.

My birthday didn’t become relevant until my final year at Elysian Street Mixed Infants and Juniors, in Junior 4, the year in which we would all sit the Eleven-Plus Exam. I was a bright, academic boy, obvious material for a Grammar School, and my Headmaster wanted me to get that chance. However, to enter this Eleven-Plus, you had to be eleven on or before August 31 1966. Three of us were excluded from the mock exam because of our birth dates. The other two would almost certainly be ok: one girl born September 1, one boy no more than 4 to 5 days over. I was ten weeks outside the line.

My Headmaster, Mr Phillipson, went in to bat for me. I can only thank his insistence that I get my chance. The immediate consequence of his failure would have been repeating Junior 4. It would have been disastrous.I’d have fallen back into a year of class-mates I didn’t know, who I thought of as children in comparison to myself, and I would have been repeating an entire year of work I had not only done but in many instances had gone past already.

But that was not all. Harold Wilson’s first Government had been elected in 1964, and re-elected in 1966. The Comprehensive System was coming in, where selection for schools was based more on geography than ability: in 1967 there would be no Eleven Plus for me to sit, nor Grammar School to attend.

And there was even more to it than that. My parents had lived in Brigham Street since they were married, in 1950. By the mid-Sixties, they wanted to move up. A bigger house (there were two children), a garden, a nicer area. All they were waiting for was the school I would go to, to give them an area to focus upon.

There was another, much more important factor. East Manchester in general, and Openshaw in particular, was being redeveloped. Hundreds and thousands of terraced streets were being torn down. My mother’s parents and her sister’s family had already been moved out, to Hulme and Hattersley respectively. Brigham Street was coming down in 1970. House-owners – of whom there were only three in our street, my Dad one of them – would be re-housed, but only if they had owned their property for three years. That set an inflexible deadline. If the house didn’t sell before 31 December 1966, that was it. It would be blighted. There would be no buyers.

So there was a lot resting on my sitting, and passing, the Eleven Plus. No pressure, then.

How much of of this I was aware of, I can’t recall. I do know Mam and Dad wanted to move, but when I don’t know. I passed the Eleven Plus, one of only two boys to be offered a choice of four Grammar Schools. The two North Manchester Schools were rejected out of hand, the nearest was in Gorton, which wasn’t much of a step up from Openshaw, if any, and my parents chose Burnage Grammar, away in leafy South Manchester suburbia.

My exact age meant I had to have an interview with the Headmaster to check just how mature I was, but I got in and started in September 1966. Mam and Dad had identified a house about a mile away from the school, and were negotiating with a buyer, who I’m pretty sure knew how strong a position they were in given our circumstances.

But I was still living in Openshaw when the First Year started.We wouldn’t actually move to Burnage until a fortnight before Xmas, a week before end of term. To get to School for 9.00am, I had to walk ten minutes to the main road, catch a bus to Fairfield Road and change to the 169/170 route to Burnage, an hour’s travelling, and an hour back.

Given the distance, I got a Free Bus pass from the Education Committee, but the distance I had to travel meant no hanging around getting to know my new class-mates, let alone the rest of the First Year. With only one other exception that I was aware of, they were all local to the School, coming from a limited number of Primary Schools, all of them arriving at Burnage knowing anything from a handful to a dozen of new boys already. Understandably, I was the only boy from Elysian Street.

I was taken out of a close-knit class of local boys and girls, who had been together as an unchanging group for seven years, and thrust into a group of strangers who knew each other but not me, and who were all boys. With my travelling and homework, I wasn’t seeing even my best mates, our little game of six, two Steves, two Alans, a Dave and me. Not even at weekends: on Saturdays we always when to Granny’s in Droylsden and Sundays in mid-Sixties East Manchester were not days where you could go and play out, with or without your mates.

So by the time I’d moved to Burnage, it was too late to make those initial connections and friendships. I was already finding myself slipping into a kind of isolation, the worst kind, when you’re on your own in the middle of a crowd. I don’t even remember getting myself accepted into any of the groups of lunchtime football in the yard until the Second Year.

And I’d arrived in Burnage in the winter, of cold days and early dark. At home, my first home, there was a park at the end of the street too, with a playground, where every kid played, and my house was a terraced house in a dead-end street, with a croft and a lock-up garage wilderland outside. My new home was on a four car-widths wide long, straight suburban road with cars flashing back and forth. Nowhere to play out, not until spring. The nearest Park was nearly twenty minutes walk away and didn’t have a visible playground, and the only other kid who played in our garden was my sister, six and a half years younger than me.

And this is before I relate the Maths Class Incident.

This was in October 1966. Mr Adams was teaching us averages. He was going to do this by calculating the average age of the class in years and months. In alphabetical order, when called upon, we would give our age in this format. Straightaway, I knew this was going to be a disaster. My surname placed me about three-quarters of the way down the list. Age after age was chalked onto the board: 11 years 4 months, 11 Years 9 months, 11 years 1 month, etc, etc. Until me: 10 years 11 months.

You could all but hear the neckbones crack as every single head in the room swivelled to look at me, a ten year old in a class of eleven years old. Mr Adams did not help by asking me to confirm I’d got that right, I hadn’t totally misunderstood and I was really 11 years 10 months. No, I was ten years old alright.

It was the penultimate lesson of the day: by four o’clock, the whole First Year knew I was the only ten year old in a year of eleven year olds. I was publicly identified as the youngest boy in the school.

Remember my saying there was no Eleven Plus in 1967? The Comprehensive system came in that summer. Burnage Grammar School reverted to being Burnage High School. It also put into operation a long-negotiated plan, to merge with the nearby Ladybarn Secondary Modern School, fifteen minutes walk away, the other side of Kingsway. The amalgamated High School would have the Lower School (Years 1 – 3) at the Ladybarn Road site, and its Upper school (Tears 4 – 6) at the Burnage Lane site.

Those who, like me, had entered in the Grammar School years would continue to get a Grammar School education and stay in the Upper School throughout. So, when I returned for my Second Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Third Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Fourth Year…

I was in my Fifth Year, and my Dad three weeks dead, before there was a boy in the school younger than me. Four years of being conscious of my status.

I had gone from being surrounded by both friends and classmates who I saw all the time, both in and out of school, to knowing almost no-one, and even fewer of them put of School (and if it hadn’t been for Subbuteo…). I knew no girls except my sister and her friends, which was no use when it came to working out how you talked to them as a preliminary to other things you might want to start to do. I didn’t even know anyone with sisters…

Any my Dad died. He’d been ill for over a year and a half, unable to take any part in helping me begin to face how you changed from a boy into a man. I had already learned a certain resilience which has stood me in good stead, has had to stand me in good stead all my life. I had already learned enough cynicism and self-protection to teach myself self-deprecation, leading people into laughing with me at least as often as at me, tempting them with things they could have permission to laugh at, and keeping them from those areas where laughter would have killed, and still, for all my efforts, sometimes did. But my Dad died, and it was a very very longtime before I had anyone who was on my side the way I know he would have been. I learned to live with myself alone, to manage alone.

So many different things. Each of them innocuous in themselves, reasonable, natural, unexceptionable. Each of them nothing for which anyone could be blamed. But it was like being inside the magician’s chest when the swords are being thrust into it. Instead of having a secret compartment I could slip into until the swords are pulled out, emerging whole and intact, I had to contort myself into a tiny, awkward space to avoid being sliced over and over, and when the swords dissolve, the wind has changed and I’m stuck like that forever.

I’m sorry for once again intruding on you with things too personal. I’ve wavered over whether to publish this, or rely only on the effect of writing it, but I’ve come down on the side of being honest. There’ll be other things alone in due course, the stuff you can rely on, but today this is what wanted writing. Thank you for your infinite patience.

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