The current (2017) edition of past pupils’ magazine The Grammarian contains numerous interesting articles, most with accompanying pictures, which cover life at Bangor Grammar School from the 1940s (and indeed earlier) through to the present day.
One fondly-remembered contributor, whose article, both reflective and humorous, has drawn especially favourable comments, is former music teacher and 32-year BGS veteran Ian Hunter, now enjoying his well-earned retirement in Spain.
Due to space limitations in the magazine – which nevertheless runs to a hefty 52 pages – Ian’s contribution had to be slightly curtailed. However, we feel the full article merits being shared with past pupils, including those who are not fully paid-up Grammarians and who do not, as a result, receive a free copy of the magazine. Despair not, for we intend once again to provide a link to download ‘free, gratis and for nothing’ the digital edition at Christmas. Our generosity knows no bounds!
Here is Ian’s article, with the same pictures which accompany the Grammarian article:
I think of Bangor Grammar School as a community, not a building
After suffering a perforated appendix on 3 January, 1969, I found myself in hospital for 16 days. Soon after being discharged, the advertisement seeking a music teacher for Bangor Grammar School appeared in the daily newspapers.
I remember nothing about the interview other than there were only two people present, Headmaster Randall Clarke and me. Before it, I recall sitting outside his office and Betty Sangster confirming some of my details and telling me in no uncertain terms just exactly what I was qualified and not qualified to do in the school. Most memorable was the aroma of their two offices. It wasn’t a ‘bad’ smell but rather a distinctive one and it stayed there all my 32 years in the school.
And so it was that in September of that year I, along with George Cameron and Tony Ragg, started teaching in BGS. Unlike some of my colleagues, my dealings with, and memories of, Randall Clarke were (and remain) good ones. No one could ever doubt that his heart was in BGS and the school came first in order of importance. Mrs Clarke similarly identified with the school and talked about ‘our boys’.
At a full staff meeting, either at the end of my first year or the start of the second, I vividly remember him saying in a sad tone that he’d had more cases of parents separating in that past year than in all the rest of his teaching career combined. He continued: “Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t affect the children” – and here he gave the table an almighty thump – “because it does!”
When his retirement was imminent he kindly included me amongst the staff members he invited to supper at his home in Ward Avenue. Now Randall Clarke knew his wines, whereas I knew, and know, nothing about wine, except how to put it to its intended purpose, so I was reluctant to take him a bottle. Instead my gift was the LP record of Palestrina’s ‘Missa Papae Marcelli’, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, directed by David Willcocks. To me this was a risk but I need not have worried for he accepted it with a mixture of surprise and delight, subsequently enthusing about it on occasions when we met.
I accepted the Grammarian editor’s invitation to write about some of my memories of BGS between 1969 and 2001 without realising the dangerous waters of possible libel suits into which I was paddling. Happily, many of my former colleagues are still enjoying retirement and, so as not to cause any possible offence, there will be some anonymous references. Nevertheless, please forgive me if you are offended by either inclusion or exclusion.
The Staff Room in the old Crosby House was a small, old-fashioned place. One of the first faces I saw there was that of Bill Langtry. Bill, with his deep, booming, bass speaking voice, had taught me at Annadale Grammar School. To the younger me he was strict, appeared very serious, severe and a bit scary. It probably didn’t help that I hated science, was lazy and unlearned in it. However, I was soon to learn that if ever there was a man made of cotton wool and wrapped in steel it was Bill Langtry. I enjoyed his friendship and help, and admired his dedication to BGS.
Daily Assembly included a badly sung hymn, chosen from a limited range in the school’s own hymnbook. The piano was played by Joe McKeown, then Head of Science. I did not interfere with the status quo. Many years before me, Joe had been a choirboy in Belfast Cathedral and we met socially at some annual past choristers’ dinners. His colourful life was kept well-hidden and included being a young placard-carrying protester for teachers’ rights and a Rosicrucian. He was responsible for creating the school timetable and reputedly the first thing he did each year was to insert free periods for himself on Friday afternoons!
At that time the only female teacher on the BGS staff was the wonderful Head of Art, Miss Edith K. Addy, who called all her colleagues ‘Mr’. On one memorable occasion, standing on the stage with other members of staff behind the Headmaster, as the hymn was announced she turned to her neighbour, a Geography teacher and subsequent VP and SVP, and said: “Tell me Mr X, are you singing the words or the tune today?” I still don’t know if this was a reflection on Joe McKeown’s piano playing, Mr X’s singing or both.
Eventually Miss Addy was to call Mr X and me by our first names. She, however, remained ‘Miss Addy’ to us all. Anyone taught by her will never forget her. By reputation she was talented at propelling a board duster at boys not paying full attention. I know that many share the respect and affection Mr X, many of her colleagues and I had for her.
In those very early days, with the Music Department still in its infancy, I had a little more time in the Staff Room than soon became the case. I mostly sat in silence and often marvelled at the intellectual conversations of men like Jack Murphy, Mike Foley, Jack Dalzell and George Heuston – an English Department worthy of any university faculty. Along with the likes of Bruce Greenfield, they spoke in sentences in which I seemed only to recognise the conjunctions. Pupils taught by them were indeed fortunate.
Of course, many moans of discontentment were aired in this room. George Heuston often ended these with “Someone should tell the Headmaster”, though he was numbered amongst those unwilling to volunteer to actually do so.
During my 32 years in BGS, Jack Murphy was the only teacher to die in service. His death was untimely and deeply sad, widowing his equally young wife, Rosie, also at one time a member of the Maths Department teaching staff, and denying too many boys the benefits of his mind, philosophy and teaching. When I think of the Bangor Grammar School where I worked, I think of a community not a building: a community made up of pupils (past, present and future) and staff (teaching, administrative, catering, cleaning and maintenance, past and present). Our community had been robbed of Jack Murphy by the cruelty of illness and over the years many staff members had individual, natural bereavements.
Two were not and each devastated a female member of the Admin Staff. One morning Helen Kennedy (General Office) was surprised to see her husband appear in school. He’d arrived to take her home because her brother had been shot dead by the IRA that morning after answering his front door. Similarly, one winter’s morning Etta Ross (Ivy Comyns’ colleague in Accounts) saw her husband come to collect her because their only child, Brenda, had been killed in a car crash whilst driving to her new job as a teacher in the Donaghadee area. Our grief with and for these members of our community, was tangible, widespread and deep.
After four years as a student preparing for a life of teaching I remembered only two things. In the first week of the first year we had to attend a lecture in every subject. This included one in what was then called ‘Domestic Science’ and it was a female domain so the males present were less than happy about being there. Hundreds were packed into a lecture theatre and later than the appointed time a woman bustled into the room and banged an armful of books on the table. She looked around the place slowly and then declared: “Men are okay but you have to feed the b…..ds!”
She had us eating out of the palms of her hands and taught us the invaluable lesson that to educate is to entertain and, in a school, to entertain is to teach. Happily that gender division is now history and BGS proudly and successfully includes Home Economics in its timetable.
The second important lesson learned was the importance of the school caretaker. Back in 1969 that was Jim Crossan, a tall, thin, gentle giant of a man whose office was the garage outside Miss Addy’s Art Room and what was the first Music Room. It was here that the legally-required photograph of the Monarch was kept hanging. Jim was ably assisted by Alex Colville, a parent whose son, Mitchell, studied Law at university, and Alex Lightbody.
I am not sure about the chronological order of the next two incumbents of this important position within the school. There was John McCutcheon, who left for a similar job in Bloomfield Road Primary School, where Julian Byers, BGS Old Boy, Musician and Trombonist, became Headmaster. By the time Fred Neill became caretaker the Music Department had moved from its first location to Room 27, eventually Plus 26, at the end of the downstairs corridor in the Orlit Building, and then to its last place in College Avenue, the entire top floor.
It was here I was working late one afternoon without noticing the cleaners coming and going. Eventually finished, I locked the Department and went down to the main door but found it was also locked and the school was deserted. Fortunately a Payphone for use by the boys had been installed in the corridor close to the Staff Room door. From here I called the Bursar who lived nearby and he arrived to release me.
The fortunate result of this experience was me receiving the key to the school’s main doors. ‘Fortunate’ not only for me but much more frequently for the number of pupils who went home on a Friday afternoon only to remember they’d left their instruments in school and needed them over the weekend!
It was on one such occasion that I walked down through the Connor House playground to unlock the door outside the Medical Room and go upstairs to the Music Department. On opening the door I was met by the most incredible heat and the presence of a Morris Mini squeezed into the limited space in the corridor. The explanation was that Fred had painted the Mini and the heating was on full in the Orlit Building to dry the paint!
Eventually the school was fortunate in appointing Matt McClements and Peter Sharpe to the Maintenance Department. The Music Department simply could not have made its music in the varied locations it found itself without the willing and total co-operation and help of these two gentlemen. I observed their wonderful rapport with staff and boys alike. Of course, the pupils teased them but the wit was more than matched and all banter was always well intentioned.
On my retirement Matt and Peter quietly presented me with a tool kit and on the lid’s card, after my name, is the suffix ‘HMM’ – Honorary Maintenance Man. It remains one of my most treasured possessions and, when necessary, I can locate it in two minutes.
After the number of female teachers started growing, and led by a Scottish lady, pressure increased to form a Staffroom Committee to arrange social aspects of the teachers’ lives in BGS. This was a good idea and one of the first actions of the new group was to democratically arrange for the provision of daily newspapers.
Prior to a general staffroom meeting, people were invited to list their suggestions on a page pinned to the notice board. Of course there was a mixture of serious and witty proposals, with teachers marking their support beside proposals. At the subsequent meeting, voting supported first one, then a second and then a third newspaper. Voting was then invited for the purchase of a fourth daily paper when up spoke a certain senior member of staff who asked why we needed more. He certainly didn’t have time to read more than three papers a day!
The questioner was utterly bewildered by the gales of laughter which greeted his statement. This same person, noted and respected as a brilliant teacher of his subject, is fondly remembered by many former pupils for the phrase: “Now watch the board while I go through it one more time!”
I observed various results of the growing number of female teachers in BGS. Of course it more accurately ‘reflects society’ and often ‘the best man for a job is a woman’, but women going upstairs must preserve their modesty. At first it was smart trousers but all too soon it became jeans. No matter how expensive they might be, no matter the name on their designer label, jeans are more ‘casual’ than ‘smart’ and in an environment where boys must wear the school uniform and male colleagues must wear shirts and ties with jackets, jeans are out of place and I very much regret they were not outlawed the first day they appeared.
Early in my career we were joined for a short time by one Mark Hunter, no relation. He was a tall newly-qualified young teacher who was dapper in appearance. One day he arrived wearing smart trousers and a jacket with a roll-top polo-style shirt. Randall Clarke sent him home to change into a shirt and tie. It’s one standard for all!
Am I wrong in thinking that if a child is ill the mother is more likely to absent herself from work to look after him/ her than the father? If I’m not wrong then this has implications for staff losing non-teaching periods to cover classes for absent female colleagues.
This, in turn, reminds me of the time when there were nine periods in the school day. Of these, one was for lunch while teachers usually also had one non-teaching period per day. So, on average, a BGS teacher could expect to teach seven periods per day. A former colleague kept a record of every non-teaching period he lost and when it totalled seven he took a day off!
I think affectionately of so many colleagues, including the following:
• Gordon Thomson, who always addressed the HM as ‘Mr Headmaster’ at formal meetings;
• The Art teacher who introduced me to the phrase ‘the best of bad taste’, one I’ve felt compelled to use far too often;
• The History teacher with a love of Wagner but who claimed his favourite piece of music was ‘Edelweiss’ from ‘The Sound of Music’;
• Harry Eadie with his catchphrase “Get off my cricket pitch!” in the days when it was located outside the wooden huts near the hedge at the back of some College Avenue houses;
• Bruce Greenfield who hated the misuse of the word ‘first’ as in: “When we were first married”. He would ask: “How many times have you been married?” or “Do you mean, ‘When we were married at first’”?
• The endlessly patient Head of PE who was evicted from his teaching room, the gym, every time it came to public exams, concerts, speech days, carol services, etc.;
• The Head of Geography who plunged Enniskillen into darkness by hitting electric power cables when out practising his javelin throwing in the grounds of Portora Royal School where he then taught;
• The English/ History teacher whose work in retirement as School Archivist seems not to have received its deserved appreciation;
• My friend and former colleague Ray Mowat and his wife Ann who are directly responsible for the life of retirement I now live in Spain. Happily we meet when they are here and enjoy reminiscing together.
Truly “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!”
As news of my impending departure from BGS slowly spread, I came into the Department one day where two Second Formers were waiting to go into a flute lesson. One asked if it was true that I was leaving and I said it was. He wanted to know what I was going to do in retirement. I enquired what he meant and he asked if I was going “to take up old people’s hobbies”.
“Like what?” I asked, and he replied, “Golf”. Happily that young boy, now a successful 28-year-old History graduate of Aberdeen University, is one of the many former pupils who number amongst my Facebook friends. The answer to his question? No, I haven’t taken up golf and the only old person’s hobby in which I indulge is to become an increasingly grumpy old man.
To hand I have a long list of former colleagues I haven’t mentioned and of course I remember all my Music Department teaching colleagues and instrumental tutors. Of the latter I daren’t mention individual memories or anecdotes in case of a reciprocal article and I fear they may have more material about me than I have of them.
When Dr Rodgers announced his resignation to become HM of Coleraine Academical Institution shock waves reverberated around the members of the Board of Governors. Until then the idea that an HM would prefer another school to BGS had been unthinkable.
The morning after the Board had gathered to appoint RJR’s successor I met one of the members near the school’s main door. We knew one another and I was comfortable in asking: “I know you can’t name names but did you make an appointment last night?” He replied: “Yes, and we’ve got the right man this time!” That man was the penultimate of the four Headmasters with whom I worked. Each had his own distinctive modus operandi but all supported the Music Department unflinchingly and for that they have my deep gratitude.
There were so many characters amongst the members of the staff, pillars of the school and giants in education, people who made teaching in Bangor Grammar School their life’s work and not just another step on a pre-determined career ladder. I salute them all wherever they may be.