LETTER: Good times at Hackney Downs with Pinter and Berkoff

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The Independent Online
AS AN old boy of Hackney Downs School in Harold Pinter's time - just ahead of Steven Berkoff - my experience could not have been more different ("The worst days of my life", 5 November).

Hackney Downs didn't have a glorious past. It had a phenomenal past: hundreds of working-class kids like Berkoff, Pinter and myself were encouraged, inspired, cajoled, and beaten in an anachronistic East End public school, to read copiously, and start to think; then to throw off their class restrictions to enter universities and get degrees.

It was an environment that we would only have read about in Boys' Own fiction. There were houses and sporting elevens; prefects; uniforms; teachers wore gowns, were all ex-public school, and mostly Oxbridge. There was the fine assembly hall, laboratories; music lessons and funds for instruments if parents couldn't afford them, a school choir and an orchestra; a gym; detention; "lines" and caning. Some of the teachers were First World War veterans.

Berkoff's description of De La Feld as "Dodo" may be because this teacher spent the whole first year on phonetics with strange flower-pot drawings said to depict the tongue and mouth. But the teachers had to be extremely dedicated. They could all have held posts in the public school world from which they came.

Berkoff is a great talent; but part of his talent is his effusive exaggeration. In a different mood, I heard him say in a radio interview that he owed his career to the English teacher Joe Brierly and his great enthusiasm for the dramatic society. This is undoubtedly true - as it is of Pinter. I recall Pinter strutting arrogantly around the playground rehearsing his Romeo lines; and the titter running round the lower forms as we watched him lying across the Juliet from the local girls' school.

Of course there were imperfections. Once condemned to the C-stream it was difficult to emerge. As embryo thinkers in the A-stream we knew even then it was wrong and discussed types of comprehensive systems. Years later it became a comprehensive and had to change. It couldn't last. It was something of the past.

E H Gibbs

London E11

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