Summoned to Hemel Hempstead Grammar School  

EXTRACTS FROM THE MEMOIRS OF PAUL BIRNBAUM

Some of you may remember Paul, who attended Hemel Hempstead Grammar School from 1942 to 1946 having been evacuated from London at the age of twelve. Paul’s early years were not easy having escaped from Nazi Germany by the “Kindertransport” movement and resettled in England. Of course, English was not his first language but his proclivity for learning languages soon came to the fore and during his lifetime he learnt many foreign languages almost as a hobby! Paul passed away in 2013 and we have managed to trace his daughter, Rachel, who has kindly allowed us to publish the relevant parts of his memoirs pertaining to HHGS.



I was summoned to Hemel Hempstead Grammar School for an interview and test. After a short wait, I was ushered into the office of the Headmaster, Mr. Screeton, a tall man, who occasionally bent over and put his cupped hand to his ear to hear better. He dismissed the secretary, and we shook hands. “You have been warmly recommended by Mr. Wexler, of London University. I understand that, although you attend Elementary School, you are self-motivated, and have been teaching yourself subjects like algebra.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And you would like to go to  our school?”

“If I may, Sir.”

“You realise you will have missed much of the school curriculum, and may have to work hard to catch up?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Well, we would like you to do a small test for us. Take your time. You can sit in the small room next door, where nobody will disturb you. Let us know when you have finished.”

He showed me the room, which must have been a meeting room, because its entire middle was taken up by a large table and a number of padded chairs. He left me alone with the examination paper, and closed the door silently. On the wall the tick, tock, of a large clock punctured the heavy silence. Beyond the window was sunshine, and green leaves, and faint cries from the school playing fields. I opened the examination paper, and was shocked to find it was one for Form 2, well below my age level. Almost angrily, I began to work my way through the paper, finding the questions too easy and feeling almost cheated. I finished, checked one or two problems, corrected a badly-formed letter here and there, but did not have the patience for more. I strolled to the window and gazed out at the rolling lawns, and compared it mentally with the red Victorian brick of Apsley Manor School*, poking crazily into the London Road traffic. It would be a shame to forgo Grammar School.

I knocked politely, and returned the completed exam paper to Mr. Screeton. He looked through it, briefly, and then inexplicably, wished me luck.

“Goodbye, then, Burnbohm (sic). You will hear from us.”

On the 23rd October, the 8th Army under Montgomery attacked from El Alemain, and broke out. About the same time I got a letter from the School. Included was the address of a shop where the school uniform could be bought.

The blue school blazers were optional, but cap and tie were obligatory. I was to start in November. It was the end of Apsley Manor School. The old order was again changing, yielding place to newer. It was going to be strange, exciting, challenging. It was going to be very hard, and I was determined to succeed.

* Apsley Manor School was used during World War II for children evacuated from London.


PART TWO — August 1942


What a difference between our old, cramped, angular red-brick Apsley Primary School and these spacious halls overlooking playing fields and tennis courts! Here was a place with real school caps and real school ties, and even prefects! There were chemistry labs with smells and test tubes, as I had imagined them to be; and physics labs that I was sure, were not real laboratories, had it not been for secret cupboards all stuffed with esoteric instruments of unknown function. There was even a biology laboratory. There were long corridors, a gymnasium, an art room, a music room, numerous classrooms, subterranean football locker rooms, and a huge Hall for Assembly. But most impressive of all were the exercise books, stiff-backed and resplendent in their colours: all the Sciences were red, French was brown, others were blue, purple, green . . . and it was only with the progress of the War that budget cuts replaced this splendour with drab blues and beiges.

Morning Assembly consisted of a Hymn, a Lesson, Announcements, and a Record. The first two of these tended to repeat themselves from time to time, so that I became very efficient at both. The hymns I rather enjoyed:

    “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty

    Early in the morning my song shall rise to Thee . . . “

or

    “Angels in the heights adore Him

    Ye behold Him face to face . . . etc.”

Hemel Hempstead Grammar School encouraged part-singing, and so I generally remember both the descants and the “seconds”. Occasionally some Christological reference like the Blessed Trinity would make its appearance, and I would either switch off, or vocalise it, with mental reservations. The “Lesson” was from either the Old or the New Testament, but on the whole, ecumenically innocuous. Unlike in Salusbury Road School, we were not expected to learn passages by heart, but the frequent repetitions did the trick just the same. One began “No man shall have two masters” and proceeded to describe the dire consequences that might ensue. “Ye cannot serve both God and Mammon”. It sounded reasonable. Another piece was obviously from the prophet Isaiah: “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal?” It took me a long while to fathom, that the correct reading was not “or: shall I be ‘equal’?” (an alternative, new proposal) but synonymous with ‘to whom will ye liken me’?

Once the Announcements were safely over, Headmaster Screeton would put on a light classical record, perhaps The Overture to ‘William Tell’, or maybe Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. This unique custom was to afford us a few minutes’ relaxation before the day’s arduous toil; and to get us to love classical music. Officially, specific records could be requested by pupils, and in referring to these, Mr. Screeton occasionally felt constrained to explain that he, himself, was not too fond of that type of . . . music, but we must all listen to it patiently and do our best to understand it, as he himself intended to do. Normally, however, it was he who chose the record; or perhaps his formidable secretary, Miss Carpenter.

After Assembly, we all filed out to our respective classrooms, to whatever exciting subject our timetable dictated. I had been put into Form 3, and at 14 years 10 months, was old for the average age of the class. At least Screeton in his mercy had not put me into Form 2. That might have been an indignity hard to bear. Like most good things, however, it had its own price-tag: there were no, alas, no music lessons; those terminated with the end of Form 2. We of Form 3 were men now, and had no time for childish things. Art, however, persisted as a form subject until I was forced to drop it. But that is another story.

If I now missed Music, there was a wealth of subjects that I had well and truly ‘missed’ in a different sense, ranging from simple science such as Pendulums and Specific Gravity, to the fascinating properties of Parallelograms, with their corresponding and alternate angles. There was just no way in which I was ever going to catch any of this up. In Form 3 Geometry, we dived headlong into the Properties of the Circle, and anything prior to this we were assumed to have mastered. The same applied to most other subjects. Even in the 6th Form we never came to revise Form 1 and 2 material, and it remained a nagging gap right through my college days. Only in Algebra was I way ahead of the class.

I must admit that there was something very friendly about the Circle. All these points on the circumference, all equidistant from the centre! The angle at the centre always twice the angle at the circumference. It did not matter where on the circumference the angle was situated: it was always half of the angle at the centre, Joe Atwood, the geometry master, was quite firm about that. Joe Atwood was famous for his chalk circles, which he described on the blackboard with the aid of a white pocket handkerchief, bending his shoulders forward,and turning his head upwards. With his rounded head and red cheeks he looked like a middle-aged boy-bachelor. Whenever he entered the classroom, we would torment him by humming “Oh, no Joe, no Joe, no-o Joe, no!” to the well-known tune about the maiden about to be wooed for her beauty.


PART THREE — Languages


The most good-looking of our teachers was probably Miss Harker, who took us for English and English Literature, but could easily enough be diverted from the topic in hand. Somewhere along the line, I commemorated her in verse:

“Miss Harker takes English, on her beauty she banks;

She goes to the Pictures, and out with the Yanks.

At school she is sidetracked all over the shop,

Whether Garbo’s her fav’rite, or muni a flop?

The boys watch her slyly, their eyes growing bigger

At the sinuous moves of her beautiful figure.”

The last two lines were, I admit, not mine, but composed by Bravington of the 6th. Such concepts were well beyond me at that stage, but I had felt that my verse lacked ‘finish’ in both senses of the word, and had gone to him for advice.

English Grammar never presented a problem: how could it, after intensive training in German cases and prepositions in my previous Hirsch Realschule existence? In essays I performed strongly. I remember two in which I achieved high marks: one, in which I looked forward to a post-jazz period (my prophesy was closely argued); and one “On Noses” which was marred at the end by an unsuccessful pun, and duly castigated (“Dreadful lapse!) Miss Harker was not the only one to deliver herself of unsolicited comments. Miss Duncan took us for French, a language I felt I had a moral entitlement to. I also felt (for no particular reason) that I had acquired considerable knowledge of the tongue, albeit more from private study than from tuition. I wrote my first major exercise with joy in my heart, but when it was returned to me, it bore a criss-cross of red ink corrections, and a mark of 2/10 at the bottom. In my innocence, I had been utterly egalitarian in forming my past participles, and Miss Duncan tried to comfort me: “2/10 is what it is worth compared to the rest of the class. Learn the past participles: they do not all end in é! ‘-ir’ verbs end in -i, ‘-re’ verbs end in -u. Du courage!” Evidently there was an element of compassion behind her dour exterior, for the time being at any rate. By the time I had overcome the initial hurdles and was excelling in French, she took to criticising my handwriting: “Excellent style. Horrible calligraphy, inclined to prolixity.”

The stories in the illustrated French textbook are particularly engraved in my mind. There was the one about the “belle demoiselle”, who was tremendously pretty, or would have been, but malheureusement elle avait une GRAND BOUCHE. She is sent to the finest doctor in town, who instructs her to say a 1000 times a day “petite pomme, petite pomme”, (little apple). This is to make her mouth the size of a small rosebud. By the time she reaches home, she is repeating “petite poire, petite poire” (little pear), and watches her mouth reach traumatic proportions. Another story was about an “Homme qui avait une femme muette”, (a great blessing); and another about a girl called Juliette, “qui avait depuis quelque temps de graves accidents au coeur. Nous croyions a une maladie de cet organe, et nous nous attendions a tout”. All nice, healthy exercises on the Simple Past.

One of the stories that made a big impression on me was about a boy called Andre, who so covets a stamp in his friend’s album that, when invited to stay overnight at his friend’s house he creeps downstairs in the night, to look at it (or worse): I could empathise with that. Disaster strikes when he is discovered by his friend’s father: “Andre! Que fais-tu ici a cet heure?!” The story had a happy ending, and like the others, it augmented my “connaissances de la langue française’. Soon I was making rapid progress and even conjugating Principal Parts: -allant-alle-je-vais-j’allai-j’irai-j’aille, although the Subjunctive, at any rate, was not scheduled to plague us till the Fourth Form.

“Taffy” Evans took us for German. I must have been a thorn in his side, as I was keenly alive to teachers’ errors, and eloquent enough to correct them. I can remember nothing of his lessons except the School Certificate dictation, and can only conclude that he was wise enough to get rid of me.

PART FOUR — Sciences

That brings us to the Science subjects. Mr. Quarry took us for Chemistry. He hailed from the north country and always looked ill under his Lancashire (really Westmoreland) accent. From him I learned the secrets of platinum wires (real platinum!), and of sodium fusions, and much else that was fascinating. As I have said, the Chemistry Laboratory was as I imagined a real laboratory to look.

One traumatic day I was instructed to fetch a Winchester bottle of conc. Ammonium Hydroxide from the stores behind the laboratory. Tempted by a private whim I attempted to remove the glass stopper, and unable to do this easily, used excessive force. With a snap of a crack, the neck of the bottle came away in my unsuspecting hand. Choking clouds of ammonia poured out at me. Clutching my streaming eyes I staggered out of the stores, trying to find something, ANYTHING, that could be breathed. The story, like that of Andre, had a happy ending; and I learned to live and love Chemistry.

Physics, taken by Mr. Shackley, should really have been the senior science subject – for School Certificate we were to take something described as ‘Physics-with-Chemistry’ – but I could not develop the same affinity for Physics as I could for Chemistry: perhaps because of all I had missed in Forms 1 and 2; or perhaps, because ‘affinity’ is a chemical concept. In one of his lessons discussing barometers, Shackley had told us with great zeal, that the atmosphere could support a column of water more than 30 feet of water, almost as if this fact redounded to his own greater glory. It did not seem very likely, and feeling unsuitably facetious, I admittedly submitted a faithful rendering of the lesson, but prefixed it with the remark: “Our teacher told us (and we have no reason to dispute his testimony) that . . . etc”. I was rewarded with a mark of 6/10 only, and called into the Staff Room, where a school of assorted teachers looked at me with a mixture of sternness and amusement:

“Never  believe what the teacher tells you!” Shackley bellowed.

It was not the only time that I was invited into the Staff Room to help my Masters with their enquiries. This second instance happened much later. I had been trying out a psychological experiment, by offering to sell a perfectly good pound note for a mere ten shillings. Although I hawked this unhappy and much-insulted pound note around with all the persuasion techniques t my command; and although I swore that the note was genuine: there were no takers. I could only bemoan mankind’s lack of faith in manna from heaven. In the end a rather unsophisticated teacher invigilating school dinners took the note from me, examined it closely, looked at it against the light, turned it upside down, and smelt it briefly, before concluding that this was truly an impeccable pound note, and handing me ten shillings for it.

The experiment had worked, as far as my fellow pupils were concerned, and I was ten shillings poorer, but somehow the other teachers heard of it, and it was decided that the matter could not be allowed to rest there. I was brought before the Tribunal:

“Was the pound note really genuine?”

“Of course.”

“And were you prepared to accept ten shillings for it?”

“Yes Sir.”

“But that does not seem to make sense. Why would you want to do that?”

“As an experiment Sir.”

“As an experiment?”

“A psychological experiment. To show that nobody would take up my offer. Suspicion would overcome greed.”

There was a moment of silence, and the Dinner Invigilator flushed a little. Then one of the teachers asked:

“Where did you get the idea from? Did any of the older boys try this experiment?”

“Not as far as I could ascertain” I replied.

They do get hold of some funny words, don’t they?” Mr. Dunne commented comfortably, while the others looked at me in astonishment. At length somebody said, “You’d better give him his ten bob back!”

I was dismissed.

Mr. Dunne was our much-beloved Biology master, whose impudent sense of humour made his lessons something we looked forward to. “Come here, you half-baked son of a sausage!” he would address us. “The heart has two valves, the mitral (because it is shaped like a bishop’s mitre), and the tricuspid. But how do you know which is on the right and which is on the left? THIS is how you remember it: the bishops are NEVER in the right!”

The pancreas furnishes three enzymes to the duodenum, amylopsin, trypsin and steapsin. How can you possibly remember their names? “Easy”, says Dunne. “You know what it means when you have had ‘one over the eight’? It means you’re DRUNK. Now ‘duodenum’ means twelve. Can you imagine wht happens when you’ve had NOT one over the eight, but TWO over the TEN? Emil ‘ops in; the other one trips in; and the last one steps in!” That was our Mr. Dunne. Twenty minutes before the end of the lesson he would invariably declare: “In accordance with my usual generous custom, I shall now allow you twenty minutes to write up your lesson, and you’ll be able to do better things at home!” We would cheer lustily, and worship him.

But I must return to Shackley, our Physics master, for we had a certain cut-and-thrust relationship, heightened by the fact that he and his young wife Muriel lodged in my Landlady’s daughter Olive’s house during the time that Albert was languishing in India. I remember him putting the headline “Current Carrying Conductor” on the blackboard, and noticing my quizzical stare:

“Oh yes, Burnbohm” he commented smugly. “Alliteration!”

“Yes sir,” I countered, “I thought there was something wrong with it!”

If Quarry looked ill, Shackley had been ill, with tuberculosis, and Muriel had been a nurse, and had nursed him back to health, whereupon he had married her. One day I had to deliver a message for my landlady’s daughter, and as I entered the house through the kitchen door, I inadvertently came upon them, very much in each other’s arms.

“The height of discretion, Burnbohm!” Shackley admonished me, “The height of discretion!”

There was no need. As a 15-year-old adolescent I had heard all about love, and was prepared for discretion, whatever its height.

Still, all of this was essentially theoretical. I was, of course, much older than the rest of my class, and presumably more mature physically, but for the moment too preoccupied with clawing my way forward, to take much notice of the femininity of some of the class members. Sex – in the sense of ‘going out’ with a girl – was in any case not something that took place in the 3rd Form. It was more of a 5th Form phenomenon, and even then, though much talked about, happened fairly rarely. As for the ‘real’ thing, it was well beyond our comprehension, despite the unmentionables that were said to take place, beyond the tennis courts.

PART FIVE — Girls, Sports and Academia

Hemel Hempstead Grammar School was quite co-educational, so there was plenty of opportunity to rub shoulders with girls. Sports, of course, were segregated, hockey and tennis for the girls, football and cricket for the boys. There was plenty of opportunity to watch girls in tight sweaters. Fewer boys watched the winter hockey matches.

I did whatever everybody else did, and participated in football during the muddy winter. True to the above formula, I also tried cricket, for the first time ever. The event attracted amused attention, as I had been slated to bowl, and the opponent facing me with a derisive smile was Killick, champion batsman of the school. I had watched the game enough times to know that I had to aim for the wicket, and that Killick would hit the ball for six, or at least to the boundary. I walked slowly back in preparation for my run-in, as I had seen other bowlers do, and tried to get the feel of the ball; it seemed strange – hard and heavy. For a moment I felt like walking off the field, but this passed as quickly as it had come, and I ran towards my own wicket, swung my arm over and released the ball. Killick watched with expert eyes, raised his bat, and prepared to hit it over the roof of the pavilion. What happened next was not clear. There was a small, audible pop as the ball knocked the middle stump cleanly back. For a moment there was a stunned silence, while Killick looked foolishly behind him. Then there were tumultuous cheers; I had bowled him out. My first ball ever, and I had bowled the champion batsman out. The magic moment was powerful but brief. My next ball went a foot wide of the wicket; I had reverted to form.

Killick gathered his conies together and gave a press conference: “That wasn’t a proper bowl, it was a chuck!” he explained in self-justification. The implication was that I hadn’t really bowled him out. Not for nothing is it said, that cricket fosters fairness and team spirit.

One thing I have to mention before leaving the subject of sport, and that is the hours we devoted to P.T., or Physical Training. While they did nothing to obliterate my pigeon chest, the P.T. master did have the wisdom actually to teach me how to climb a rope, thus wiping out the long-standing indignity of being a “Mehlsaeckchen”. And all the while it had been a simple matter of a foot-lock! I clung stubbornly to a place somewhere near the bottom of the class, but there were always a few that were worse than me, and everybody admitted that I tried hard. I would never be an outstanding athlete, but I learned to dazzle bystanders with my headstand. I had integrated.

As for academic subjects, I had never been so happy. So much to learn, so much new knowledge, so much that interested me! I felt for a while what I had felt in those early days at Salusbury Road School, the same excitement, the same euphoria. And the same encouragement from some of the teachers. “Two out of 10” is what it is worth compared to the rest of the class!” Miss Duncan had written about my first French written exercise, even as Mr. Thomson had troubled to open before me the secrets of English weights and measures. I learned my lesson, in every sense of the word. At the end of the term it turned out that I had come second in the class. When I came top at the end of the next term, no-one was any longer surprised.


PART SIX — The Fourth Form

The new Term found us full of our holiday adventures, but pleased to be back at school. Old acquaintances were renewed, new textbooks were issued, and briefings were the order of the moment. This was, at last and irrevocably, the Fourth Form, quite a different proposition from the happy-go-lucky amateurism of the Third Form. The Fourth Form, we were again reminded, was where the back of the work was broken. Despite these exhortations, we remained good-naturedly unimpressed. As for myself, I had had the summer holidays to perfect my plans, and they slid into place as if on roller bearings. I had constructed an elaborate Table with room for all the school subjects: geography, physics, history and so forth, space for the marks, and provision for averaging them. It was more of a hobby than anything else, more like the challenge of crossword puzzles, but with a much greater need for current awareness, and managerial skills.

After but a few weeks I could not but congratulate myself, my marks kept consistently above the 90% level, and nobody had the slightest idea what I was doing, and why. If I could keep this up, I might finish with an average of 94%! What had started as a crazy idea was rapidly turning itself into reality. But I had reckoned without the jealousy of the gods. One late afternoon Taffy Evans took me aside and asked to have a word with me. “Look here Birnbaum,” he told me, without bothering with much of an introduction. “We have been discussing you in the staff room.” I looked at him a little disconcertedly, wondering what I had done wrong this time. But there was no cause for alarm, at least not in that direction. Taffy paused a little, and looked at me speculatively.

“How old are you, exactly, Birnbaum?”

“Nearly 16. Sixteen at the end of term.”

“So that you will be 17½ when you take School Certificate?”

“I suppose you realise that you are rather old for the rest of the class?”

I shrugged my shoulders as if to indicate, what can I do about it? and said: “I was put in the Third Form, Sir, when I came to the Grammar School.”

He nodded, smiling, as if he, too, had been able to work that one out. “But you are coping well with the Fourth Form work. Maybe even a shade too well?”

His face suddenly became serious, as he threw his bomb-shell, and pulled me out of my complacency: “We want you to JUMP THE FOURTH FORM!” Everything dimmed and shook, as my plans lay shattered around me.

“You don’t really mean, Sir, that I should JUMP the Fourth Form?” I protested. “But I have only just STARTED the Fourth! Surely that’s where most of the work is done, in the Fourth? How can I catch all that up and take School Certificate?”

The words fell over themselves. “I don’t know anybody in the Fifth . . . “ I finished pathetically.

Taffy regarded me with something akin to affection: “Don’t worry Birnbaum, you’ll be alright. Everybody will help you. The teachers, the pupils. Horner or somebody else from last year’s Fifth can lend you his class notes. Most of the stuff in the Fifth is revision anyway, so you can learn and revise at the same time. The idea seemed to appeal to his sense of humour, and for a brief moment he smiled again, before continuing: “You may have to drop one or two inessential subjects and use the time for private study.”

There was nothing I could do about it. It had all been arranged behind my back, signed, sealed, and now delivered. I would have to play by the new rules. Taffy looked at me questioningly: “So you will do it?”

I nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

“Good man. Report to me on Monday, and I will introduce you to your new teachers and see to it that you get issued with the right books and equipment.”

And so I was pitchforked into the Fifth Form    

PART SEVEN — The Fifth Form

I was given the choice of dropping History or Geography. It was a hard choice, as I was very fond of both subjects. In actual fact I was more keenly interested in History, and some of my essays had gained top marks. I thought fondly of “The Growth of Parliament in the 13th Century” (which I had learned by heart and reproduced verbatim at the end-of-year exam); and a “Newspaper Article” on King Charles’ execution, by a pretend-Royalist news-sheet: (“Whitehall Crowds See Monarch Die. Stirring Farewell: I Forgive”). And, of course, there had been others. However the syllabus for History would continue well into the second term of the Fifth, whereas for Geography the whole year would be one of revision. Another plus for Geography was my love of atlases, which dated back to my early childhood, and which had left me with the ability to draw an outline map of any country or continent, on demand. So I chose Geography. The other subject I had regretfully to drop, was Art. It was only two hours a week, and I enjoyed it tremendously, but I had to get extra hours from somewhere, and every little helped.

Not all the teachers had changed. Taffy Evans was still German master (not that I went to his lessons). Miss Duncan, as dour as ever, still ruled French, although the textbooks had changed colour, and were now red. Mr. Shackley and Mr. Quarry were still in charge of Physics and Chemistry respectively, and Mr. Dunne still took us for Biology: the shadow of Mr. Woolf was as yet not in evidence.

The main changes were in the various Maths, and in English (where white-haired, large-faced, bucolic-looking Mr. Harrison replaced the well-shaped but dizzy Miss Harker. English turned overnight into a serious subject, with adverbial clauses of concession, and oxymora, and tense sequences; and we were issued copies of Rath’s “Higher English” to stress this.

English Literature turned out to be not at all as I had imagined it, that is to say, a survey of literary output from the Pre-Elizabethans to the Post-Moderns, or to put it in another way, from Herrick to the Heretics. Instead, with School Certificate in mind, we were allocated what were described as “set books” which, translated into Hemel Hempstead Grammar School English, meant: Essays Old and New, Shakespeare’s Henry the IV (Part 1); and the poems of Tennyson and Browning, uneasy bedfellows at the best of times). In the event, this was not such a bad idea: it stopped us from spreading ourselves too thinly over a superfluity of material; and what was left was eminently quotable. Henry the IVth was particularly useful in that respect. All those contending protagonists!

“Revenge is a sort of Wild Justice” wrote Bacon in one of the essays: and what justice could be more fitting, than to punish me for my arrogance in aiming for marks in the nineties, by placing me in a form where I could not but finish at the bottom of the class? Still, I had accepted the challenge, and now I had to make the best of the situation. Taffy made good on his promise: teachers proved helpful; the class was prepared to receive me, and I soon made new friends. I did my best to keep up with homework and other assignments, while using other people’s notes to catch upon on what I had missed by jumping the Fourth Form. Life was stimulating and exciting.

The two leading contenders for first place were Geoff Hoare and Marion Benge, respectively. They had come top of two separate Fourth Forms, which had now been combined into one Fifth Form. It was clearly going to be a close fight between them. Still the fact that this was a mingled class meant that there could be surprises along the way; and it, incidentally, made integration easier. So, as mentioned earlier, despite the fact that I was a latecomer, room was made for me, and I got whatever help and advice I needed. Soon I was joining in all the social activities, and became friendly with a number of classmates, including the above-mentioned Geoff Hoare and Marion Benge. I had no difficulty in borrowing books for copying out material I had missed.

Schoolwork continued apace. My coming top of at the end of term no longer surprised anyone. The final, Summer Term would be the ultimate test, when School Certificate could no longer be avoided.

PART EIGHT — The School Certificate

Before we knew it, the time had come for our language Oral examinations, French first, and then German. The examiner took us two at a time, and Marion Benge and I were the first. Marion was a quick and clever girl, and we had tested each other on spoken French, and especially on “l’image explique”, (answering questions on some picture). We thought the examiner was unfair and beastly. Instead of giving us sufficient time to display our linguistic talent, we were unceremoniously dismissed within minutes of entering, while other pairs stayed in for a quarter-of-an-hour or more. As we sat there disconsolately, watching our classmates enter, and subsequently exiting with dazed expressions on their faces, we became more and more despondent. We knew we had failed. Well, of course, we hadn’t. Hadn’t failed the French Oral, I mean.

Taffy Evans, to whom we had confided our misgivings, must have spoken to the Examiner, because by the next morning, the day of our German Oral, the latter had undergone an indisputable personality change. “I understand,” he said, motioning us to sit down, “that you were worried because I dispatched you so quickly yesterday, at the French Oral!”

We nodded dumbly.

“Well,” he smiled. “That’s one worry you can forget about. The reason why I dealt with you so quickly was because it took me only a few minutes to see that  you were both way above the required standard. So why waste time?” Having adequately dealt with the aftermath of the French Oral, he now turned to me: “I understand from Mr. Evans that you were more or less brought up on German.”

I nodded.

“Well, then just say a few sentences for me.”

I said a few sentences for him. That seemed to complete my Oral examination in German. I stayed around while he briefly processed Marion and in little time we were dismissed with a good-luck handshake, and a request to send in the next two victims.

Learning for the “real” (written) examination could now begin in earnest.

For French Marion and I continued as learning-partners, testing each other mercilessly. After our success with the oral, we had no hesitation in adopting Miss Duncan’s other patented examination-passing techniques. For essays this meant using as many subordinate clauses as possible. According to Miss Duncan, that was the way to accumulate marks. Our notebooks were crammed with useful all-purpose phrases such as “un jour d’hiver, lorsque le soleille brillait et les oiseaux chantaient”, or “le chien aux oreilles pointues”, and we could but hope that some essay situation would call for a dog with pointed ears, on a winter day, when the sun was shining and the birds were singing.

For Geography, my only “partner” was an old, long-retired geography teacher, who had been brought in by the school to give me supplementary lessons. She was kind, but oh so slow! I felt a measure of guilt, as she penned superfluously neat notes on carefully drawn maps, while my mind drifted to other things. In the end I fell back on the robust geographical knowledge, gained at the age of four from my first love, Papa’s atlas. What you learn at that age remains with you for ever. When the examination paper finally appeared I could have fallen asleep. How could I not draw an outline map of South America, and insert three highlands, three rivers and three capitals? As the Soviet Union remained our “Gallant Russian Ally”, Geoff Hoare and his gang had betted heavily on a question on Russia coming up, and were duly disappointed.

For English Literature, the recommended technique consisted of flooding the exam paper with a surfeit of quotations. For Biology, the analogous instruction was to draw diagrams at every opportunity. “The more diagrams you draw,” said Mr. Dunne, “the less you have to write. The examiner hasn’t got patience to read your scrawl, anyway. And remember, if you have to draw the parts of a typical flower, do the Honeysuckle, and on no account the Primrose. By the time the examiner has seen 31,000 Primroses, he’ll love you for doing the Honeysuckle, and give you top marks!”

No special instructions were given for bread-and-butter English, and in Maths, standards differed so widely, that it was every man for himself. I was still way ahead in Algebra, but not all that good in Geometry, where I had missed so much material. In the actual exam, I remained true to form. I finished Algebra an hour before time, Arithmetic with 20 minutes to spare, and Geometry exactly as we were being told to put our pens down.

That left the rather weird subject of Physics-with-Chemistry, something halfway between General Science (a lowly subject) and fully-fledged Physics and Chemistry separate which would have been a somewhat greater challenge.

Later on, there would be the End of Year Festivities, but for the moment it was still officially “school”, and some sort of curriculum had to be invented and put into practice. In our case, Taffy Evans found a way of keeping us occupied, by teaching us Spanish. “It’s not all that difficult,” he encouraged us. “You all know French, and Spanish is very similar. What do you think “pen” is in Spanish? It’s “pluma”. Just like “plume” in French!”

We could not but agree, and by the end of the afternoon, we were all declaiming: “Yo no tengo una pluma”. Nobody pointed out that “tengo” bore no resemblance to the French for “I have”. “There you are,” Taffy smiled contentedly. “You can already speak some Spanish!” I got the distinct impression that he was keeping just about one lesson ahead of us, but who was I to talk? Had I not started English with “Good morning, Mr. King; Good bye Mr. Cook; Birds lay eggs”.

There was a sad side to Term End. After scattering for the Summer Holiday, not all of us would come back, and those that did, would now separate into Arts and Science streams. Before we left, however, there were the End-of-Year school festivities: an athletics jamboree, a swimming gala, a verse-speaking competition, and of course a festive School Assembly, where those with the highest marks in each class were called up to the Hall platform, to shake hands with the Headmaster, Mr. Screeton.

PART NINE — The Fifth Year Ends

As the end of the year approached, tension built up. Everyone in school belonged to one of the four “Houses”, with different names and House colours, and competition between the Houses was fierce, (and, I regret to say, encouraged). I belonged to the green Tudors; in those days a somewhat lack-lustre House. Others were Halsey, Dacorum, and  Salisbury, all named for reputed Hemel Hempstead associations. This was supposed to encourage civic pride.

Halsey, headed by a rather large boy called Clarke, had for years won the Swimming Cup. Clarke was the only one that dared to dive from the top board, and did so with aplomb, and to universal applause. Such a feat netted his House 3 points; the middle board would have gained him only two. In the various races, there was, again, an award of 3 points for the winner of the finals in any given event, 2 points for those that came second, and one point for the runners-up. Not only Clarke, but the rest of the Halsey team were strong swimmers, and the winning points they would accumulate made a formidable total. Halsey’s victory seemed unavoidable, but I thought that we of the House of Tudor might be able to surprise them. I called my dispirited fellow-Tudorites together, and explained my plan: “Our secret weapon will be ‘Standards’. It’s not only the races on Gala Day that get the points,” I explained to them, “If you reach the required ‘Standard’ in your swimming performance before then, you also get points. If you show that you can swim a length breaststroke, you get 3 points. If you do a width, you get 2 points. If you can do a length on your back, you again get 3 points for your House, and so on. I think you understand!”

It seemed they were beginning to understand, and I continued to outline my plan: Everybody, but everybody was to get as many ‘Standards’ as possible. It was all to be done with the maximum of secrecy, so that none of the other Houses would get wind of our plan. Luckily, Halsey were complacent, and the other two Houses demoralised. Another point in our favour was that nobody much bothered with Standards, it wasn’t exciting enough. As for the teachers, they might wonder a little at our sudden enthusiasm for improving our performance, but would assume it was because of the Gala. Which of course it was!

With me and my whip behind them, all Tudorites rallied to the cause. I kept detailed lists, harangued slackers, encouraged the despondent to gain just another point and yet another point, and watched the totals grow. I. too, made an all-out effort to set a good example by forcing myself to dive from the second-highest diving board. As I tremblingly made my way to the end of the springy board, the water surface seemed so far below me! But I steadied my arms, shut my eyes and leapt outward and down. It was over surprisingly quickly. I survived unscathed, and gratefully pocketed my two points. As it so happened, I had two further strings to my bow. I had made friends with a former Belgium national champion swimmer, and he taught me how to improve my breaststroke. The results were startling. I came second in the breaststroke width.

It was my old friend Mr. Whittle – who had previously taught me to dive – who now disclosed to me the hidden secrets of “plunging”, the art of travelling as far as possible without any demonstrable swimming movements. It was worth its weight in gold as I set up a record. Tudor House won the Swimming Cup that year for the first time ever and nobody quite knew how we had done it.

In athletics, of course, we were deservedly out-run. But in the Verse Speaking Competition I was able to score at least a personal triumph. We were given that passage in Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the distraught king has been cast out by his ungrateful daughters Regan and Gonoril, and his faithful escort is trying to persuade him to take shelter from a tempestuous storm. My main competitor was Geoff Hoare, but I disagreed totally with his interpretation of the character. With his deep voice, his anger at his daughters sounded like the rumbling of a volcano, about to erupt. When it came to my turn, I varied both the pace and the mood of the delivery. There was anger at first, when he challenges the elements to do their worst. There was total silence in the audience, as I poured myself into the character, and a palpable gasp of relief, as I shook myself free at the last moment. I left the stage triumphantly but our white-haired English teacher Mr. Harrison, looking more bucolic than ever, put me in my place: “Well, Burnbohm, you’ve won as usual. But let me tell you, your rendering may be nice and dramatic, but it’s not LEAR!”

The summer of 1944 entered into full gear, V-1 rockets were falling on London, but it did not affect us in Hemel Hempstead. As for me, I planned to have a “farming” holiday in rural Wales. Time enough for my School Certificate results when I returned to home base.


PART TEN — The Results

On or about the 12th of September, the postman delivered a postcard. On the reverse side of the card I had, like everybody else in the class, pre-written the subjects in which I was due to be examined, leaving the beleaguered teacher the mere job of entering the actual School Certificate results, and getting the Secretary to post them to us. Judging by the handwriting, the job had fallen upon Taffy Evans. So perhaps he had posted the card himself, since he could claim proprietary rights in my success, having engineered my headlong promotion to the Fifth Form. I stared at the results: School Certificate – Yes; Matriculation – Yes. English, Very Good; Literature, Very Good; Geography, Very Good; French, Very Good; German, Very Good; Maths, Very Good; Physics with Chemistry, Very Good; Biology, Very Good.

The results were excellent; as good as anybody had the right to expect. Despite all the obstacles, I had won through, and should have been satisfied. And, in truth, I was. A little said that I had had to drop history, but still satisfied. At the same time I was a bit disappointed that they hadn’t written Distinction (as they always used to), instead of the rather bland Very Good. It would have been just that little bit more impressive.

I banished such unworthy thoughts and fell to informing my various benefactors of the results. I wrote a special letter to my ex-teacher at my former elementary school, Mr. Rowland thanking him for the way he had encouraged me to widen my horizons and forge ahead in my learning, and particularly for introducing me to the pleasures of English poetry. I felt that my success in the School Certificate Exam was in no small measure due to him. It must have warmed his heart, because he wrote back, heaping quite undeserved praise on me.

“Your achievements are all your own,” he wrote. “Don’t let anyone take that away from you.”

At school it was assumed that I would continue my studies in the Sixth Form. There were several problems with that. In the Sixth Form I would have to specialise in either Arts or Sciences, and since I had achieved the same level of Very Good in both of them, there was no indication which direction to choose. The second problem was finance.

Up to now Families Wexler and Shaw, (and who else?) had been helping here and there, as well as – of course – getting me into grammar school altogether. But could I expect this from them for another two years? There was also the question of living expenses. The government paid landladies the nominal sum of 10/6 (10 shillings and six pence) per week, the assumption being, that taking evacuated children into your house was for love, and not for money. Mrs. Tibbles had taken me over from Mrs Coughtrey and was being very kind to me. But she had never really understood why I couldn’t “go out to work at 14, like what everybody else does,” and contribute towards the housekeeping money, like the rest of the family. And now, that I finally got my “Certificate”, why couldn’t I go out now, and get myself a job? There was no longer any mention of an Aliens Tribunal. For a brief moment I conjured up a picture of myself walking tamely to work, holding a packet of sandwiches with one hand, and grasping Pop’s hand with the other. The picture quickly faded, but I nevertheless felt the need to at least explore the possibility of gainful employment, if only to placate Mrs Tibbles.

Looking back, I must surely have got an indication of my School Certificate results well before that famous postcard with Taffy’s handwriting and mine on it: Autumn Term was due to start on September 19th, and by that time all arrangement would have had to be in place. At any rate, I ambled down to Nash Paper Mills, to be interviewed by the Personnel Manager. Mindful of my abortive attempts to find my sister a job three years earlier, I asked him straight away, if they, in fact, had jobs available for someone like myself?

“Oh, we’ve got jobs alright,” looking at me speculatively. “Question is, does the job suit?”

He gave me a quick whip-around of the factory. Lots of paper, and water, and steam and rollers and noise. I did my best to remain impassive.

“Well, what d’you think of it?” he asked, without waiting for an answer. “You finished school, then? Been to grammar school, haven’t you? Got your exam results with you?” I decided that concentrating on the last of his questions would be the most useful, and showed him my results. He gave me a long look.

“With those results, what d’you want to go out to work for?”

“Well,” I explained feebly. “I haven’t got any money, and I haven’t got any parents, so I’ve got to start earning somewhere!”

“No way,” the Personnel Manager shook his head, “We couldn’t possibly take you, it would be criminal!” He turned to someone who had just walked into the office: “Look at this Bill, the lad got eight Distinctions in his School Cert. and he wants to come and work in the mill. Never seen the likes of it!”

Disheartened, I didn’t try anywhere else. Instead, I decided to concentrate on the Sixth Form options. By now it was clear that if I were to continue my studies, it would have to be on the Science side. This meant Physics, Chemistry, Pure Mathematics, and either Applied Mathematics or Biology. As my aspirations in those days were to study medicine, there was no way I could forego Biology.

The big fly in the ointment was Mr. Woolf. We had adored Mr. Dunne, and any successor would have had a tough time.


Paul Birnbaum

. . . and so ends Paul Birnbaum’s memoires.

Paul Birnbaum’s Memories

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