Aged 11, I passed my exams for a very good Grammar school and my folks were absolutely chuffed to bits. They always believed in the importance of education, home ownership, a strong work ethic and personal development. So for their eldest child to make it to Baines GS was a proud moment, not least because for the previous few years I’d shown no great aptitude for learning and was placed in the bottom quartile in every exam. So in the final year at primary school they paid for me to be privately tutored – it must have been a stretch for them – and it was enough to get me through the 11 plus. Hurrah!
But they didn’t rest on their laurels and as a reward I was bought a racing bike to get to school, which I bloody cherished, and, to help my learning, a really decent globe and a 10 edition set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and that was all in addition to a massive collection of uniform requirements (including running spikes, cap, blazer etc). Again it must have been a real stretch especially as there were two brothers coming behind me and a daughter on the way. But again they wanted me to have the best reference tools at my disposal to maintain some learning momentum.
And I didn’t let them down, happily. I took to Grammar school big time. And that globe and set of encyclopaedia became absolutely indispensable to me during the many hours of homework. Which actually was a bit of a surprise because the encyclopaedia were oddly compiled. Arthur Mee was a journalist by trade but he had a fascination with collecting data and started producing a children’s monthly newspaper to answer all those questions regularly asked of parents – why is the sky blue, why do the stars not fall down etc? The newspaper was eventually turned into a set of encyclopaedia and he went on to make a small fortune selling these volumes to striving families everywhere…
The thing was that weren’t organised alphabetically but by a series of 19 divisions (which took a bit of getting to discover) along these lines…
What’s more Mee himself was described as a man of fine moustache, great curiosity, wide interests and extraordinarily narrow sympathies. He wasn’t a bad man but he held some strong views on things which probably ought to have been edited from a reference work aimed at young people. For example when talking about the new settlers in Australia and the indigenous people he said ‘The race on the fringe of the continent has been there about a hundred years, and stands for Civilisation; the race in the interior has been there no man knows how long, and stands for Barbarism.’ Yikes. Then again he did confess to ‘knowing nothing about children’ which is an odd admission when talking about your target market.
Let’s just agree it was a simpler time. And yet, despite sharing enthusiastically in the most outrageous prejudices of his era, his bloody books were often a fantastic source of knowledge and information and got me through many homework assignments.
Now yesterday I was prompted to recall one specific bit of homework from 55 years ago. I’m both amazed to recall it and shame-faced to tell you about it. I first read something very nice that my daughter S had written about me and then I watched an episode of Frasier about a Heroes fancy dress party where Niles had gone geared up as his father Marty. It took me back to a chat I had with my dad one afternoon upon returning from school. He usually asked me about my homework assignments if only because he was bloody great at helping with my maths – not my favourite subject. But he was brilliant at recalling (and solving) everything from quadrilateral to differential equations. But that night I had a bit of geography and French and an essay. ‘On what’ he asked? ‘My hero’ I replied pulling a face that suggested it was such a lame theme. ‘Oh ok’ he said ‘and are you sorted on that?’ ‘I dunno’ I replied ‘haven’t really thought about it as yet.’ He said something like ‘alright son, I’ll leave you to it then’ leaving me with a wistful look, on his face, this time.
I decided I’d do the simpler tasks first then have a crack at the essay after dinner. Later upstairs in my room I’d been thinking about who’d be the subject of ‘My Hero’ essay. I didn’t have the front to talk about Bobby Charlton because my English teacher was very staid and I guessed he’d regard that as frivolous. It needed to be a significant person in history I reckoned. But who did I most admire? Wellington, Churchill, Shakespeare, Newton? But to be honest at 12 I didn’t really know much about any of them. Who did I know a lot about and admired enormously? Umm. The answer wouldn’t come so I resorted to flicking through the pages of the second division in my Arthur Mee’s encyclopaedia. I passed on Michaelangelo and Chaucer and their ilk and settled on the person nearest to my own time, which happened to be Field Marshal Montgomery.
To be honest I didn’t know much about him either but figured it’d be a well-regarded subject by my teacher and started writing up the piece by lifting passages extensively from Arthur Mee’s long and fulsome tribute. Honestly you’d have thought he single-handedly won WW2. I now understand he was actually a bit of a busted flush after El Alamein but of course Mee never acknowledged any criticism of his later military tactics nor any diminution in his standing. I never realised it because I had no cynicism then of course (made up for it since!).
I was about to write a concluding sentence along the lines of ‘Montgomery; soldier, strategist, leader, true hero’ when up popped my dad to see how things were going. ‘Hi son, just wondered if you fixed on a subject for your My Hero essay?’ he asked. ‘Yeh’. ‘Oh great, dya mind sharing?’ ‘Sure’ I said turning to him directly. He had a genuinely warm smile on his face. ‘I’ve gone for someone I think is admired by so many people, not just me’. He smiled even further.
‘Montgomery ‘ I declared.
I shall never forget that look on his face and I immediately realised that I’d missed all the cues. Oh lord. I think he’d been secretly hoping for a little tribute from me to him. Oh shit. I’d just mildly disappointed a humble breadman who’d married the greatest woman he’d ever meet, left the back-backs of Moss Side, Manchester to bring up his family in leafy Fylde, worked like a trojan to become the biggest-selling bread salesman in the history of the massive Blackpool bread industry, against all the odds secured a mortgage on a great house in lovely Poulton, bought a brand new car, got his son into Grammar school (and each of his 4 children), given up every personal interest he’d ever had to ensure his family had everything they needed to develop in ways he never had the chance to do so himself and who showed us how to be a man of achievement whilst displaying the utmost selflessness, love, modesty and decency.
‘That’s a fine choice son’ he just said to me, and went downstairs.
I resolved to one day make it up to him. Bob this is for you. Ly