Saturday, April 25, 2009

My Experiences In The 1960s

So I found myself in a school which was, in almost every way, opposed to the development of art, poetry and the finer feelings amongst its students. Many of the teachers seemed to be either unqualified or under-qualified for their roles and some of them had an active hatred for children and for the power of the imagination.

We were driven through the usual miserable round of forced PE activities and the ritual humiliations in the classroom. I was made to stand up and be insulted and laughed at by teachers again and again and again. No matter how well I did at maths and english I was still treated as stupid. Perhaps for reading science fiction and comic books, both forms of literature regarded as 'trash' by the teachers. Or perhaps for being Irish. Or for being Canadian. Then again, maybe the reason was something else. There was plenty to choose from. I was a Christian of that variety which takes turning the other cheek seriously and declares for pacifism. I was a swot and a little goody-goody.

Probably it was a bit of all of these reasons rolled into one. As a child I kept to strict honesty and truth telling in a way that the average person would find difficult to believe. At that age I didn't yet realise how unusual my obsession for religious peace and truth actually was. There was definitely something odd about it. Most people would tell a lie sometimes. Not me, not ever. I didn't really begin to lie like a normal person until I was about 18 or 19.

In those days no-one had heard of Asperger's Syndrome but I think it's safe to assume I had it.

Outside of school hours I read stacks and stacks of books, mainly science fiction. I continued to explore the world on my bicycle and to injure myself with reckless adventures falling out of trees and the like.

My dad, a big muscular working man, was a hero to me with his wit and his kindness, his cooking and his gardening talent. He had a pleasing Canadian accent and sailor's tattoos up and down his arms.

My mum was a gentle, kind hard working person who scared the hell out of us all if she got angry, shouted, slammed doors, stamped her foot. Us kids would run out to play somewhere else and my dad would disappear to his greenhouse and the safety of his tomato plants. But, when she wasn't angry, mum was lovely, a beautiful twinkling-eyed Irish woman and a source of love and kindness.

We were so lucky to have parents who were good, kind people.

At some stage during the 1960s (and I'm not sure in my own mind exactly when it was) when I was maybe 10 or 11 or so, I went to the dentist and received an overdose of nitrous oxide gas. Now, if you know about the use of nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic in dentistry you'll realise how difficult it is to give someone an overdose. To make such a mistake requires a compounded series of negligences on the part of both the anaesthetist and the dentist. Nevertheless, somehow they managed it and I was transported into a physical-mental-emotional state of delerium. My mother took me home crying and giggling and crying my eyes out. The worst bit of it was that I was unaware of the state I was in. A woman in a newsagent's shop gave me some comics, and then some more comics, and then some more. My mum led me out of the shop wailing and crying as I clutched the comics. I asked my mum, 'Why did that nice woman give me all the comics mum?' 'To stop you from crying,' replied my mum. 'But I'm not crying,' I replied, seriously believing this to be true, even as I continued to sob and sniff. I was in another world.

Of course, it never occurred to my parents to sue anyone. People just didn't think that way in the 1960s, or, at least, not in the working class of England.

At school I sank into a lower grade and became the cleverest boy in a class of kids generally considered substandard. They taught us algebra and I got it immediately but the following two years they taught us the same algebra over again for the benefit of the majority who didn't understand it. I just had to tread water. Going nowhere.

The music teacher gave us two years of singing old folk songs from books while she plonked away on the piano. We were not allowed any hands-on contact with musical instruments in case we broke them. After two years the boys in the class were so restless the music teacher couldn't control them anymore so she refused to teach our class. This meant we wouldn't get music at all. The music teacher said she was glad she wouldn't be teaching our class anymore because she didn't want to be responsible for the boys all going out and forming rock and roll bands. As the class shuffled out the door the teacher took me to one side and told me in confidence that she would be willing to take me as an individual for tutoring, because I was 'such a good little boy'. I was horrified! She didn't think I was getting beaten-up often enough so she wanted to make me into a teacher's pet! Yikes!! Yuck!! I angrily refused her offer and told her she was quite wrong to be against rock and roll. She seemed pretty upset as I stormed off.

The art teacher didn't like art. He wanted to be a PE teacher but there weren't enough places to go round. He had to make do with being an art teacher and was openly derisory about both art and and our chances with it. I was good at drawing but you would never know it from the work I did in secondary school. We had to work with big stubby paint brushes and powder paint on sugar paper so that the most artistic 15 year old kid would be reduced to making work which would've been unimpressive in the infants. There was a glass fronted display case in the corner of the class and it was filled with high quality expensive art equipment so that the school governers and the parents could be impressed by it when they came to visit. The display case was kept locked. Permanently!

In science the boys got physics, the girls got biology and we both got chemistry. Apparently it didn't matter if the boys didn't understand biology and, anyway, it 'avoided embarrasment'. It, apparently, also didn't matter if the girls knew nothing about electricity and magnetism and no-one seemed particularly bothered if none of chemistry experiments ever worked properly.

I was made to stand in the cricket nets holding a cricket bat while the school bullies (prefects) were permitted to hurl cricket balls directly at my head and I was put into detention for moving out of the cricket ball's way regardless of whether I actually did or not.

I was informed by the teacher of 'Woodwork Technology' that my love of God and Christianity and telling the truth meant that I was a 'Uriah Heep' sort of person.

I was top of the class in all intellectual subjects and bottom of the class in physical skills like woodwork, metalwork and PE. My favourite class was religious education and I remained unaware of the existance of any religions other than Christianity untill I was 14. Then the RE teacher gave us a lesson all about the life of the Buddha. It changed my world. I suddenly realised there were other religions which still existed in the present day. I had previously believed that the old religions of the Greeks and Romans and Vikings and Egyptians were they only other ones and that they were all gone. I made up my mind to learn all about Buddhism and the other religions. This was in 1967 and it soon came to my attention that the Beatles were studying Transcendental Meditation in India and George Harrison believed in some sort of Indian religion which I needed to know about.

Suddenly my religion and pacifism were fashionable and I didn't know why. Nevertheless the other kids in class were torn between trying be my friend or continuing to beat me up as usual.

When I got to 15 they told us we couldn't do GCE exams because that was a better quality of examination which only the higher classes, or streams, were allowed to do. In our class, 5C, we were allowed to do a CSE exam, which was for substandard children and was generally considered by everyone to be a millstone around a young person's neck instead of an advantage.

I was asked which subjects did I want to aim for and I said Art. The teacher looked doubtful. 'You can't do art', I was informed, 'because the school has had to tighten its belt this year and we didn't pay the fee to the exam board which does art. We didn't think anybody would be interested'.

So I decided there was nothing to do but to leave school and get a job. I looked in the paper and found an advert for a job as an office boy for News Limited of Australia in Keystone House, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. I went up to London for the interview, got the job and persuaded my mum and dad to write a letter to the headmaster of the school granting their permission for me to leave school and start work. I had escaped the cruelty and the stupidity of school and was ready to start a new life as an office boy in the heart of London's newspaper industry!

And that's how, at the age of 15, in March 1969, I came to work for Rupert Murdoch.

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