The worst days of my life

Last week, it was announced that Hackney Downs comprehensive in east London has no future. It will become the first school to be closed on government orders. Commentators have contrasted its present plight with its supposedly glorious history as a grammar school, whose alumni included the late Lord Goodman and Harold Pinter. But was the past so rosy, even for the bright ones who passed the 11-plus? Another old boy, Steven Berkoff, the actor and playwright, recalls life in the C-stream.
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The Independent Online
ONE of the rites of passage of a young lad is forsaking the cosy comfort of junior school and entering the huge grown-up world of secondary or grammar school, where, instead of one familiar teacher, you are trained by a variety of characters.

One crisp autumn morning I made my way in my school colours, cap, blazer and badge, to Raines Foundation Grammar School, in Arbour Square, Stepney, and breathlessly awaited what strange adventures might befall me. For the first time I would be carrying a briefcase for books and would even be given homework. I remember that first day distinctly; it was filled with the promise of a new way of life and untold possibilities.

I spent a reasonably happy two years there, scoring some exceedingly high marks in my favourite subjects, particularly English in which I was "top boy, very good indeed..." according to Mr Chivers (father of the BBC producer, Mark Chivers). In 1950 (I was not quite 13) my family moved to Manor House. We had been relocated by a benevolent Labour council to a smart council flat in north London. I had to find a more convenient school and was sent to Hackney Downs. This idea didn't bother me in the least, since Raines had been given to bizarre practices such as caning you for accumulating "three ink entries". These "entries" could be earned by no more than a bit of chattering in class.

Hackney Downs School in 1950 put me in mind of some old Dickensian institution and for many years after leaving I had nightmares in which, as an adult, I was forced to return. I went into the forbidding,Victorian Gothic front of the building, having first entered the huge walled grounds in which the school stood like a fortress, cold, aloof and slightly sinister. At Raines I had been among the top few of my form and in the A stream, since they practised streaming in those days, following an examination which I had passed with flying colours.

For some reason, which even today I cannot fathom, in Hackney I was placed not in an equivalent A group or even a B group but a dreaded and shameful C! I assumed they wanted to test me out or else thought that the standards of Hackney Downs Grammar School were far superior to those at Raines. In any case, the damage to my self-esteem was terrible and I remember going home for lunch on the first day, even though it was a half-hour bus journey, because I couldn't bear the humiliation and the low white trash in my class. I was intensely proud and tearfully crossed a dreary damp Hackney Downs which reflected my mood as I made for the bus stop.

Eventually, I adjusted to my demotion and began to make pals with one or two in my class and even enjoy the PT and art classes. A fascinating feature of the school was the assembly hall which was shaped like a Roman amphitheatre with long seats that curved round the entire hall. This is where many of the pupils would gather at lunch-time, eat their sandwiches and play an extraordinary game called shove ha'penny where you would use an object like a comb to shove your halfpenny and get it to hit the "ball", a sixpence, into the opponent's goal. I became really quite proficient at this. As far as I was concerned, this extraordinary amphitheatre might have been built for this very purpose since the C group never enjoyed the privilege of participating in its other function, presenting drama. The impression I have been given since leaving is that the school once had a great and marvellous history, a dedication to learning. It had literary as well as music and debating societies and, I believe, it even had an arts club. But all these activities were kept secret from the chaps in the Cs. I had Joe Brierly for English, who Harold Pinter (another ex- pupil) has often said was a great influence on him when he was there, but for us he chiefly gave mundane grammar since C-class boys would never be professionals or university material, let alone artists.

The higher grades did drama and wrote creative essays. I remember begging for a chance to write essays since I had enjoyed doing them so much at Raines, but this was always denied. I felt it a shame - I had written essays since a child at primary school. In our very last term we were given creative writing at last and, after reading my opus, Brierly confessed that he wished he had given me less grammar and more writing, but by then it was too late.

Some of our teachers seemed innately crusty if not unbalanced. Our French tutor was called De La Feld, for some reason known as "Dodo", and French, which had been my chief love at Raines, became a pain under the tutelage of this sadist who seemed to take a delight in cracking you over the skull for petty infringements. My marks - I have preserved my school reports - dropped from the high seventies and eighties I had achieved at Raines to the forties. Our maths teacher seemed insane and had no communication with the class whatsoever. The days were spent in a kind of weary agony waiting for the one or two lessons I could at least give myself to with some fulfilment. Woodwork was a great source of fun and I made a beautiful small bookcase which I proudly gave to my mum. The pain of the school, the long, weary, deadly hours and lack of motivation or joy soon got the better of me and I began to play truant, which nobody seemed to much care about.

Eventually I was being caned regularly until one day, by now a young man, I decided to resist. I stood up to the headmaster, Mr Balk, and said: "No, you will not do this any more." I was kicked out of school, causing my father to trudge reluctantly up to the school to make amends. Today I think Mr Balk meant well. A child will, like an elephant, remember every kind word and, equally, every cruel one. Mr Balk once gave me a small sermon on how mothers get older and we must be patient and kind to them if they forget to iron a clean shirt for the morning. I never forgot that and stopped complaining to mum.

Being a bit of a swimmer at one time, I actually swam for the school but was so out of condition what with smoking, truancy and other self- indulgent habits that I was unable to bring them any prizes. My chief memory was that of loneliness and neglect. It may have been a totally different experience for those in the other classes with whom we had nothing in common. They went on trips abroad with the masters and visits to the theatre and, of course, will have a quite different memory. We were the commoners destined for simple trades. A month before my 15th birthday I left, with no ceremony, no future and no guidance, and threw myself on the bewildering mercy of London.

I had turned from a young idealistic boy with a love of languages, arts and life into a sour, downtrodden youth with not a hope in hell. I was to sink further before I was able to climb out of the pit that Hackney had dug for me.