The other day my good lady and I visited an old friend at a seafront flat (U.S. = apartment) in Hunstanton which is a resort on the Norfolk coast and one of the few places on the East Coast of the UK that faces West! *
The place we were visiting was on the third floor (U.S. = fourth floor) and there is no lift (elevator) so it was a brisk hike up a lengthy flight of stairs to get there. At the top of the stairs there was the usual heavy door giving access to the two flats on that level but I remarked that, unlike the flats, this appeared to be new.
Our friend confirmed that a fault had been found with the old one and this new one had been urgently fitted for the safety of the residents.
“Aha!” I exclaimed almost immediately, “a new Firedoor. I shall name it Dostoyevsky”!
Our friend gave me the look that I am so familiar with – the one that says without words, “What the hell are you talking about?” but she then she thought for a moment, the knowledge acquired a while back during her university education asserted itself and she slowly nodded.
“Ah yes. Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I get it now!”
What she did not do, what with this being a pun and all, was laugh! I have pointed out here on several occasions that the best you can expect for a pun is a groan or a sadly tolerant smile often accompanied by the words “Oh dear!”
I have to say, as I have often done on these pages, that I cannot help it! The ability and the NEED to play linguistic havoc with my mother tongue were instilled in me during my early teens thanks to the radio programme “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”! The presence in my school year group of an amazing number of like-minded boys keen to perpetrate similar “verbal slapstick with the tongue that Shakespeare spake” ** didn’t help.
In the last ten years, and particularly the last two, I have resumed contact with quite a few of that group and, in terms of senses of humour anyway, they have haven’t changed a bit (to the probable annoyance of quite a few wives, partners etc.)!
“Like-minded” is the term that I really want to investigate here though.
This particular group of boys, by which I mean the ones that were, at one time or another, in the same class as me, had at least one thing in common before we were thrown together in September 1964 aged 11.
I had better interrupt myself here and explain for the benefit of younger readers just how the UK education system worked in those days.
During the final year at Primary School (Year 6 in today’s way of counting) all children took something called “The 11 Plus test”. This was a series of written examinations testing “General English”, “Comprehension”, “Arithmetic”, and “General Intelligence/Knowledge”. Those that passed it (and I’ll be coming to what “passed” actually meant later) were assigned to Grammar School of which there was only one in Ipswich. The rest went to one of the half dozen or so local Secondary Modern Schools and were there “streamed” into classes based, presumably, on how closely or otherwise they had “failed” the examination. There were annual end of year exams in all subjects and some promotions and relegations based on overall performance up to the end of the 3rd year (Year 9) at which point the “A” stream continued on to do GCE “O” Levels and new classes were spun off for those doing subjects in the slightly different CSE qualification.
So, back to where I was a couple of paragraphs ago, and the newly-formed Class 1A at Copleston Secondary Modern School for Boys – which is where I found myself along with around 30 or so others from that part of town deemed to have “just failed” to get into Northgate Grammar School.
Before you ask, yes they did use the terms “pass” and “fail” about such things – something that would have parents up in arms these days!
While there were the above mentioned Football League style promotions and relegations and a few changes due to house moves in and out of the area it is broadly correct to say that everyone who made it to the GCE classes (4A and 5A) had been in that “A” stream from the start. That includes your author (although I’m mighty glad the Football analogy didn’t stretch to the concept of “Play Offs”)!
This group of young people then all had that failure of the 11 Plus exams in common and it is time to consider what that actually meant given that at no time were the entrants told either their own score or, more importantly, what the “Pass Mark” actually was!
All available evidence seems to suggest that there was a very good reason for this state of affairs – even within a single Education Authority such as Ipswich the pass mark was FLEXIBLE!
I’m sure there was a low level fail mark to identify those for whom Grammar school would have been utterly inappropriate but at the other end of the scale other factors came into effect. Remember that there was only one Grammar School available as opposed to 6 or 7 Secondary Moderns within the Borough of Ipswich and it becomes obvious that if you ever got a year with a lot of extremely bright children (coughs modestly!) they weren’t all going to get into the supposedly higher branch of education as might have been the case in another year.
Well I don’t know about the other Secondary Moderns scattered around the town but under our Headmaster, Ken Armstrong, Copleston Boys had acquired a reputation of running Northgate Grammar pretty closely in GCE results (which not all Sec. Mods. were allowed to take) – a sort of sub-Grammar School if you like!
I strongly suspect that because of this quite a few of us living in and attending Primary Schools in the Copleston catchment area were told we had failed in order to take the pressure off Northgate so that pupils on the other side of town with the same scores were able to go there rather than a more average Sec. Mod.
Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Copleston and my father always told me that being consistently in the top tier there was preferable to being down in the middle ranks of a Grammar School and I tended to agree with him – the idea that I might have had what it took to fight my way into the top rank there too did not ever occur either to him or to me.
The down side was that no-one really pushed us “failures” very hard and some of us (I include myself here) drifted along sharing jokes, brilliant puns and doing just enough work to keep the teachers happy whilst being blissfully unaware of our potential.
And I have to say that I didn’t even become aware that I HAD any potential to do any better than the career with a professional speciality that I was then in until, in 1985, a friend of mine (also an 11 Plus failure) passed the tests enabling him to join Mensa, the society for people with an IQ in the top 2% of the country. Naturally I thought, “If that idiot can do it….” took the test myself and got the same score as him! I have been a member ever since.
When I started this blog I was slightly surprised to find that my classmate Michael Vincent (who was, of course, the reason I started it in an effort to compete with his own efforts in that area) is also a past Mensan.
Now I wasn’t (I’m fairly sure) the brightest member of that particular intake of 11 Plus failures at Copleston and probably neither was Mike but statistically the 2% bracket of IQs for that age group in Ipswich ought to all have been at the Grammar school but plainly were not.
So what I want to know (and I don’t know if sharing this post on our Year Group’s Facebook page will help me here) is this:
How many others of that brilliant bunch that I used to (and to a large extent still do) associate with are also unrealised, warped and twisted geniuses like Mike and I?
Given our similar wits, senses of humour and stated feelings of under-achievement, quite a few I would think!
And if any of them wants to look at me and say “If that idiot can do it…!” let me know and I’ll tell you how to go about taking those tests – they are a bit like the 11 Plus for grown-ups! It would be nice to have a few classmates around me when I attend the Mensa AGM in September 2017 – in Ipswich!
*Look it up if you don’t believe me!
**A quote from the 1930 novel “The Saint Closes the Case” (aka “The Last Hero”) by the excellent Leslie Charteris who will (along with his most famous creation) feature in this blog SOON! ***
***I know! I’ve been promising that for at least 6 years now – but I need to work out what angle to approach it from! I have started it though.