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Chapter 6: Success at School

The next several photos came from our first summer holiday “on the continent,” as the English say, in June 1963. Not very far on the continent, to be honest. We stayed at the Belgian cross-channel ferry port of Ostende rather than move on any further. Here I am checking out the trains at the local ‘gare.’

I held mum and dad responsible for what I did then. My hyperactivity was their fault, as was my constantly being told off and growing delusions of persecution. But it wasn’t all bad. They gave me an independence which enriched and broadened my life from a very young age, even if it did start out as an escape from the pressure cooker of our home. And they helped develop another quality that would become central to my life: intelligence.

Oddly enough, mum accomplished this because she too held dear the emotional pattern of finding a way out of assuming her own responsibility for things. We are all children of our times. My hyperactivity drove her close to desperation, and when I was four years old she took me to see a psychiatrist to see if it could be fixed, if I could be fixed. He prescribed medication which calmed me down, but as mum told it both she and dad were horrified at the change in me wrought by the drug. So they quickly stopped the course of treatment and learned to live with my zooming around. Thank you very much, folks. Good for you!

But there was a consequence of that visit to the psychiatrist that would be felt for a long time to come, a kind of unintended perverse effect. In trying to explain me to my parents, the doctor told them that at the age of four I had a mental age of seven. This sounds like a dubious claim now, because of the difficulty measuring such things for young children and the obvious attractions of that sort of explanation for worried parents. To be honest, it did not appear dubious for most of my life: rather, I did not challenge it and let it foster my belief in my own intelligence. But I now know that child psychiatrists often help their charges indirectly through helping their pathogenic parents. The idea that intelligence prompted my hyperactivity exonerated both mum and dad and relieved any guilt that they might be feeling for inflicting their adult problems on me. Things probably improved because parental guilt will have been reduced.

As a consequence, mum in particular latched on to this explanation, with its distinct advantage of exonerating her. I was not hyperactive because of dad’s affair or her misery or Sue’s falling on her head and ensuing epilepsy. I was not hyperactive because of the sheer disturbed and disturbing passion roiling around at home. No, I was hyperactive because I was very intelligent. I immediately became her very intelligent son, focused as I
got older on confirming that for her and thus pleasing her, and my intelligence was forever reinforced, relatively speaking. My intelligence was enhanced through psychiatric diagnosis!

Sue and I happy as clams on the Belgian beach. I discovered looking back that color photographs started for us in 1963.

Not surprisingly with that kind of background, and with the story of that visit and the psychiatrist’s conclusion being as much a part of family folklore as the pea-souper when I was born and Sue falling on her head from the draining board, I did well at school. School was great. I cried at first when mum would leave me in Bristol, but was so bored at home that the attractions of this world of unlimited young people were soon visible. The first school was a Catholic school in Fishponds, a bus ride away. I remember the nun who was our teacher correcting me once when I asked to be excused to go to the toilet and specified that it was for “number two.” She told me that I did not need to specify, which was a much appreciated lesson. I adored the climbing frames in the playground, and throwing myself head over heels over a metal bar, or hanging from a higher bar and pulling myself up.

I do remember one terrible day at the school, or so it felt. I got into a nasty fight with another boy in the playground. I have no memory of the actual cause, which was misty even as a sense of having been taunted remained. I do remember a terrible sense of injustice, and flailed against it wildly and ferociously. When a punch hurt, and there were a few, it made me angrier. Who actually won, if anyone, escapes me, but I think that I did. I just didn’t feel like I’d won anything. I hated that fight, and was furious with everyone around for causing it. Somehow, the injustice was linked to the group rather than the boy I was fighting. Maybe we were egged on by those around us, and I couldn’t figure it out rationally but knew it in my gut. As the real fight wound down, I lashed out mistakenly at one of the other boys watching and cheering. I thought that he was taunting me anew. Fortunately he ducked down and let it go, the crowd dissolved and I slunk away. “Slunk” is the right word. I felt really bad, as bad inside as angry with the group. I can’t believe that
any small boy naturally wants to make another small boy hurt to the point of tears or bleeding or bruising.

Mum and dad abroad, I think in Bruges, which we visited for an organized day trip. Note the inevitable pack of cigarettes in dad’s pocket.

Mum and dad took me out of the Catholic School relatively quickly. It was nothing to do with the fight or, I think, with the nuns. More likely it was just too far away from home. Mum had been obliged by the priest who married her to promise to raise her children Catholic, and my guess is that initially she thought that he intended her to send us to Catholic school. But she was pleasantly pragmatic about her faith, and when sending me so far away became a practical problem, she let it go. At times she went back to work as a comptometer operator to help with the ever tight pennies. We probably started going to the school that we could walk to when mum went back to work for a while.

That bus commute into Fishponds exposed us to real tragedy soon after I started at St. Joseph’s. Fire engines and ambulances cluttered the road one lunchtime on the way back from school, and the bus crept along as police officers, firemen and ambulance drivers looked busy and preoccupied. We learned that an airplane had crashed earlier in the woods not far from the main road, behind some houses that looked just like ours. Pieces of
the plane, including one of its engines, almost intact, had smashed their murderous way through the trees to those houses. I remember thinking that it could have been ours. Fortunately, we also learned that no one in any of the houses had been seriously hurt. Not so the occupants of the plane. They were conducting a test flight, and all fifteen of them had died. The plane, a Bristol Britannia, had been designed and built by dad’s company, and had taken off from its airfield in Filton, where he worked. Yet there was little discussion at home: mum and dad probably decided to spare us little children the gory details. But it was all over the evening paper, and I was suitably quieted, feeling the weight and the gravity of what had occurred.

A Bristol Britannia of the type that crashed in Downend during a test flight. Not three months later, the Munich air disaster decimated Matt Busby’s “babes” at Manchester United.

My next school, Westerleigh Road School, was just down the road in Downend, and I stayed there for one and a half years. Before leaving, I was so proud of being the first in my class to stand up in front of everyone and recite all the times tables from the 2s through the 12s. The school was new and bright. Not a lot of memories from there. No moments of embarrassment, which I am tempted to observe are more likely to occur at Catholic School, but that may be unfair. I don’t remember any other playground fights. The big disappointment at Westerleigh Road was having one of dad’s volumes of “Railway Wonders of the World” stolen from the cloakroom, where I had left it during the break. He had been given them by his father or grandfather. I had brought it to school to show it off, and apparently it had really impressed someone. The three other volumes remained in 2008 on the top bookshelf at home.

About ten months after mum’s admirer declared his love for her, we moved from Bristol to Birmingham so that dad could accept a better job. I was eight years old, Sue six, mum 34 and dad 35. It was not until very recently, browsing through mum’s diaries after she died, that it occurred to me that perhaps dad was moving her away from Keith as much as getting a better job.  The key theme of my childhood was being uprooted for dad’s job. Of course, dad’s advancing in his career was intended to benefit all of us, financially at least, and so it was hard to argue with. But each time it felt terrible, leaving behind everyone we knew and, much worse, trying to make friends in a whole new world where everyone else knew each other already.

The people in the background are in better focus than us! That says that dad took this one. We had great weather that whole holiday in Ostende, which was far from guaranteed.

I started at Haslucks Green County Primary School in February 1961, about six months after the other children in my class had started there. Of course, it would have been better if we had moved the previous summer, so that Sue and I started when all the other children started. But in any event, many of the other children had known each other through earlier years in other local schools. It felt so hard to adjust. Perhaps I tried too hard to find a community to replace Downend. Perhaps breaking into new communities is always hard for children. It could have even been that I was too concerned about something that flowed easily over time, friendship between children. Or that I desired to be number one too quickly. But my perceived solitude, or rather perceived inability to be the number one choice of my number one choice friend of the moment, preoccupied me for a long time. Mum would tell me when I recounted stories of real or imagined slights that those inflicting them on me, whether they were real or imagined, were jealous. I was not so sure: what could they be jealous of? It wasn’t as if we were rich. I did well at school, but felt far from clever enough to warrant jealousy. Often, it was simply that as an interloper my choice of special friend was already taken.

The last photo here of our holiday in Ostende, again out of focus. Those pedalos were a scream! Whenever the weather wasn’t good enough to spend time on the beach, Sue and I would agitate for a ride.

Haslucks Green flattered me by putting me in the top stream from day one, a feeling that I definitely liked. Mum repeated regularly what the psychiatrist in Bristol had told her, and I began to concentrate on doing well at school. What started as something I did to make her happy became one of my central personal goals. I began to apply myself consistently to the schoolwork at the age of about eight or nine. When we were being taught fractions, I would ask mum to set problems that I could do for her, ask her so often that after a while she would refuse to set more until the next day. I loved showing her what I could do, proving it to her again and again. When we were set a project, I think I was ten years old, I picked the topic because dad’s job gave him easy access to the information necessary to do one. He had moved on from airplanes to baking, and Bread, the topic, was his company’s staple product. He found me a lot of material, and my project of photos, pictures and my own text was over 100 pages long. I still have it in 2008, buried in a cardboard box in the garage. By the time I left Haslucks Green, doing well was so important that I once snuck a look at class grades in my last year, 1964, saw that I was third in the class and told everyone that I came top anyway. I felt guilty about the lie, and small for not coming top. I was hooked.

It worked, too, if achieving academic success young was what I personally really wanted, which it had in fact become. When I was eleven years old, mum and dad entered me in competition for scholarships at two prestigious Birmingham schools. In the first, King Edward VI Grammar School for Boys, I made it through two full days of competitive exams, being selected for the next stage each time, until the final stage, which was structured as a Hindustani lesson for the thirty-odd boys who remained. I was very uncomfortable with the format, scared of speaking in front of this unknown group, with the boys being asked questions by the instructor and monitors counting the number of times that we put our hands up to volunteer to answer. This was the format that I grew to know and love 20 years later at law school, where they called it the Socratic method and omitted only the monitors. Legalese is my career version of Hindustani! The instructor finally asked me how to say my name in Hindustani, having explained that to say one’s name the syllable “ji” (or something like it) was added to the name. “Ianji,” I dutifully replied after a pause to swallow my shyness, and the instructor looked confused. “Stockji,” he corrected. Years later I would interpret that exchange as one of my first contacts with the English class system: in the upper class, one has a last name first. In Haslucks Green, only our first names were used. That little contact hurt.

The second set of exams, at Solihull School, was more fruitful. The same two full days of written exams led this time to a day of interviews. I didn’t know it yet, but generally I would do very well in interviews. On this occasion I won one of the five full-tuition scholarships awarded each year by this minor public school, public meaning anything but
public in English educational terms. I was thrilled to bits, as was everyone else in the family. Even Mr. Fox, my headmaster at Haslucks Green, called me into his office to congratulate me, not the normal reason for a visit to Sir.  Everyone repeated and insisted how well I’d done and, less explicitly, how wonderful I was for doing so. Aunty Margaret, mum’s oldest sister, gave her own sons, my cousins, constant lectures almost designed to lead to inferiority complexes for not accomplishing as much. Sue was never even entered in competition for such a scholarship, although she is certainly no less intelligent than I. The scholarship was not just a one-way street for feeling good.

Here is a page from the Bread project at Hasluck’s Green. I was able to incorporate trains, my obsession.

But where it felt good, it felt very good. This was extrinsic proof that the psychiatrist in Bristol had been right, and that his diagnosis had not served simply to calm down my parents. Maybe I was just a little bit special. I found out at Solihull School that I was unusual even among the five annual scholarship winners. Most had either spent their primary school years at the School itself or in fee-paying preparatory schools. Scholarship winners from state primary schools like mine, although arguably the only winners belonging to the social class that the scholarships were theoretically intended for, were very unusual. These private schools did not restrict their self-justification to their misleading category of “Public School.” They used their always limited scholarship programs to claim to the more democratic elements in UK society that they were not in fact solely for the children of privilege and money because they offered scholarships for the needy. It obviously wasn’t their fault that those who won the scholarships in assuredly class-less competitive exams ended up being sufficiently well off themselves to have spent two to four years in private fee-paying schools before the scholarship exams. Somehow I squeaked around that trap, perhaps because of having moved so much and having such good dialogue at home. It certainly helped me feel special.

One of the advantages of moving to Birmingham was that mum’s three siblings lived there. Dad had no siblings. Here are two of them, Uncle Cyril (far left) and Aunty Vi (next to him) at Pam and Dave Warrington’s wedding in 1966. Dave is Vi’s older son. Sue was a bridesmaid and is between Vi and Peter, Margaret’s older son. Ron Warrington, Dave’s younger brother, is between Pam and the other bridesmaid.

Unfortunately, most of my school friends from Haslucks Green were going to other secondary schools, although that became almost academic when, about nine weeks before the end of the school year, we moved again, not far this time, and without dad changing his job, to a nicer house in Dorridge. I had spent three and half years growing up with one group of children at Haslucks Green County Primary School. Then, without even changing cities for dad’s job, mum and dad managed to move us again, and the academic success that they had sought for me again moved me away from my friends. The Dorridge home, which we moved into in the spring of 1964, was on a road with a four track level crossing for the railway line to London that we heard in the distance. It was also our first home with some kind of central heating, electric storage heaters that “stored” cheap middle-of-the-night electricity for use during the day. Needless to say, spot heaters were still necessary, because as any electrician will tell you, you can’t really store electricity. Dad had satisfied his urge to pinch pennies while conceding to maternal demands for central heating. I spent eight or nine weeks at Dorridge County Junior School, where they gave me a First Class Certificate for English Composition.

© Ian J. Stock

Next chapter: Chapter 7 Dad’s Career

Previous chapter: Chapter 5 Home as a Pressure Cooker

If I Only Knew: table of contents