By Blake Morrison (1962-69)
I arrived at Ermysted’s from a village school, in Thornton-in-Craven, where there’d been only 18 pupils, just three of them in my year. Among the mass of pupils crowding the quad on the first morning, I felt both excited and intimidated. As we waited to be allocated to our forms, I noticed one boy in tears, without a uniform. When my name was called, he came up to me, bewildered, saying he too was a Morrison. We were divided by our initials, PB and RA: I was the last pupil in 1b, he the first in 1c.
The ethos of the school was togetherness but you couldn’t help being conscious of divisions: between the day boys and the boarders; between the boys who came from Skipton or up the Dales and those, like me, from Earby and Barlick; between the athletes, arty types and science-boffins; between the A stream and the rest. I tried to straddle those divisions: to represent the school at sport; to pass exams; to find ways to rebel (by wearing one’s sweater back to front, for example with the v-neck at the back) that wouldn’t get me in serious trouble. My straddling had mixed success. I was so-so at sport (3rd XV at rugby, tennis captain, 7th in the school cross country one year), hopeless at woodwork, and never mastered German well enough to get a good A-level. As to rebellion, I had a few detentions – one of them for playing football in the quad and inadvertently kicking the ball into the face of the physics teacher, Harry Evans – and I once got the cane (six whacks on the hand) from Jack Eastwood. In my last two or three years, I published a few poems in the school magazine. But I wasn’t someone who stood out from the crowd and didn’t want to be.
My strongest subjects were French and English, and I owe that to my teachers, especially Paddy Rodgers, an Irishman who introduced me to modern literature – to James Joyce, Wilfred Owen, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. If anyone deserves credit for guiding me towards a career as a writer, it’s Paddy. I’m ashamed now when I look back and remember how we used to flick ink on the back of his jacket as he walked between the desks reciting Shakespeare. We were even crueller to the hump-backed Geography teacher, Cassie Edwards, whose classes sometimes ended in a near-riot, with him foaming at the mouth. By the sixth form, classes were smaller and we became more civilised. It was then that Paddy took me under his wing, suggesting I try for Oxford. But that would have meant staying on another term, and taking Latin O-level (which I’d had to drop in the fifth form, because of a timetable clash), and I was impatient to get to university. The offer I had from Nottingham was two Es, which took all the pressure off my A-level exams.
Memories of Ermysted’s often come back when I’m least expecting it. I remember carrying a rugby ball down to Sandylands and playing soccer with it if we got there early; being elbowed out of second place on the last bend of the 800 metres and three of us falling over in a heap together on the finish line (I was placed fourth); singing alto in the choir until my voice broke; playing a bit part in a revue show devised by Richard MacSween; drinking milk with icy lumps in it on winter mornings; having board dusters hurled at our heads if we misbehaved (it wouldn’t happen today); going to the funeral of the popular Nick Proctor, a friend in my year killed in a car crash at Broughton eighteen months after leaving school; standing at the lectern reading a bible extract at morning assembly; and reaching the point after six years where teachers no longer seemed ogres or aliens but people with our interests at heart.
At the time I didn’t realise how much I was learning, not just about the subjects we studied but about hard work, play, competition and friendship. But I see now that Ermysted’s has left a lasting mark on me. And I’m grateful for having had the kind of education that very few young people today have access to, unless their parents pay for it.
About Blake Morrison
After graduating, doing a PhD and working for the Times Literary Supplement, Blake Morrison was literary editor for the Observer and later the Independent on Sunday. He is now Professor of Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, London. His books include The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, Pendle Witches, And When Did Last See Your Your Father?, The Last Weekend and Things My Mother Never Told Me.