High summer 1971. The country was still trying to get to grips with the new-fangled decimal currency. Decades, indeed centuries of the shilling, the florin, half crown and the guinea had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Those 240 pennies to the £ had been shrunk to the more logical, but less romantic, 100 new pennies to the £.
“Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” by the group Middle of the Road, stood astride the top of the record charts. (Boy, how standards seemed to have fallen since The Beatles called it a day the previous year). Arsenal had just completed the Football League and FA Cup double in English football.
And a collection of young men, formed into a vast variety of friendship groups and allied associations, were about to take their leave of each other, at the culmination of their formal secondary education. Many of these lads had known each other for seven years. For some, the affinities were even longer, stretching back to primary school inauguration. But now, they would soon be taking the next steps in their young lives. For many, it would be university or some other style of higher education, either on the island of Ireland, or “across the water” on the British mainland. For a few it might be even further afield. For others, the more immediate promise of cash in the back pocket, or money in the bank at the end of each week or month, would prove to be too lucrative a carrot to ignore. That chance to start taking control of their own financial destiny.
So those days of bumping into each other in the classroom, corridor, playground or assembly hall would be at an end. Actions, taken for granted, would be no more, to be replaced by the occasional passing in the street, or pre-arranged rendezvous, usually at holiday time. In the vast majority of cases there would be no meeting up. The world is a large place, and after June 1971, it opened up to these boys, in a meaningful way, for the first time.
Now wind forward to early September 2021. Back in Bangor for the 50th anniversary reunion. It had been originally meant to take place in late June 2021, but the pandemic still held Northern Ireland under a tight grip at the time. By early September that grip seemed to be finally beginning to loosen – for now. I had missed the previous reunion, held 10 years before so, indeed, I would be seeing the vast majority of these faces for the first time in five decades.
The last time I had been in the company of most of these people, we would all have been grandchildren, safely ensconced within the framework and security of the family. Doted upon by those grandparents who still remained; cherished, guided. Now, many of these men would, themselves, be those grandparents. The patriarch of their own particular family tree. Providing that guidance and nurture to their own offspring. Showing the light that had, indeed, been shed upon them all those years ago.
How would I react to all those old faces now, indeed, made old by the passing of the years? What stories would they have, to tell me of their lives, as they moved from callow youth, through to middle age and beyond, careers taking shape, reaching their prime, and moving on towards retirement? What of the hopes and dreams those young men would have harboured, all those years ago? Some ambitions achieved; others thwarted? How would the years have treated my contemporaries? So many questions, the answers to await.
And so, what of the evening itself? There was a pleasing array of people, gathered from all corners of the British Isles. Inevitably, the majority were local, still living or having returned to the scene of their youth. Sadly, but equally inevitably, Covid-19 had guaranteed there would be no representation from beyond the British Isles, although we were compensated by video representations from Australia and the west coast of Canada, the latter taking on a visual aura which appeared to be something of a state of play where MTV videos from the 1980s meets National Geographic, where Don Emerson used his photographic skills, honed over a number of decades, to deliver a cinematic portrayal of his life and times, both at the Grammar School and beyond.
The evening could be neatly divided into three parts. To begin with, there was the initial meeting of the participants, in the delightful surroundings of the Gloucester Room of the sumptuous Royal Ulster Yacht Club. The keynote of interest here was trying to identify those faces, all of which had been allowed to weather over 50 years, since last being seen. Raymy Parker and the organising team had helpfully provided name tags, but these did not appear immediately, which only added to the fun of trying to identify the bloke standing next to you without dropping a major clanger.
The next stage was the actual meal itself. Places had been allocated, around the three tables, to try to be as inclusive as possible. To judge by the general clamour and din, that punctuated the consumption of the most delightful three-course meal, Raymy and the boys were, ultimately, very successful in this matchmaking exercise. Initially the plan had been to have a stand up, buffet-style presentation of the food to allow for a greater mingling of all assembled to take place, throughout the evening, as had been the case 10 years earlier. But, once again, the spectre of Covid-19 had intervened, thus compelling a more formal cuisine etiquette to be adopted. This did allow for greater, in depth, conversations to take place amongst those people who were seated in close proximity to each other.
Therefore, this would allow dialogue to go beyond the basic pleasantries of renewal, to something more involved. Possibly individual views of those old school days could have been allowed to evolve, be they complimentary, or not, to the ways that Randall Clarke steered his ship all those years ago.
The final part of the evening then involved the post-meal conversations, possibly picking up on points raised before the meal, with those who were not seated at the same table. Or perhaps it created the opportunity to catch up with fresh faces; people who one had not been able to meet up with at the beginning of the evening. This would have allowed some conclusions to be drawn on issues raised in the early part of the evening, or at least create the promise of meeting up (or simply e-mailing) in the future, to maintain friendships that had been rekindled in the previous few hours. Again, it is likely that the tenet of most conversations would have focused on two main points; events that happened during school days, or those that had happened since, perhaps family developments or the prospering, or otherwise, of one’s career.
In all likelihood, there were two key questions to be asked, each involving three words that would have been liberally asked, throughout the evening. The first of these would involve the three words “Do you remember…..?” This enquiry could be applied to a person, a place or an event from back in the day. The second three-word question would have been “Whatever happened to……?” Now, at first thought, it might be considered that this is most likely to be applied to an individual person, or group of people, from our youth, but upon greater investigation, could also be applied to a place which no longer exists.
Now let’s be honest here; so much of Bangor has changed during the past 50 years. So many iconic features and landscapes, from our teenage years, have disappeared. The Tonic cinema, Caproni’s and Milanos dance halls, Pickie Pool, the bathing boxes and deckchair sales at Ballyholme beach, Cloud Nine, the nightspot located in the Co-op Hall in Market Square, the Boulevard ice cream emporium on Bridge Street, Woolworth’s, The Co-op megastore at the foot of Main Street, Barry’s Amusements… most of Queens Parade.
I could go on but I think I have made my point.
And, sadly, I would fear that, in the future, the pace of disappearance, of these iconic delineations of our childhood and youth, is only going to gather pace as the internet increases its relentless march through our very consciousness, making it increasingly difficult for business and social enterprise to make ends meet.
Between the ending of the meal and the final opportunity to have that farewell “natter”, a few brave souls took up Raymy’s daring “throwing down of the gauntlet” to make mini-speeches, once again falling, largely, into the same two categories: events from our time at school, or life in the aftermath of those school days. It was probably inevitable that the name of Randall Clarke would be pre-eminent during these orations. The man at the top of the hierarchy was always going to be the major influence of the deportment of the school, and all that it was going to stand for.
One of the speeches that I would make mention of was given by Peter Vannucci. He commented upon the two years that he spent in the Sixth Form of the school, a Roman Catholic within a Protestant establishment. There is always the danger that such a topic may well be controversial, within the background setting of Northern Ireland. Therefore it was most heart-warming to hear Peter say that, during those two years, there had not been the hint of hostility towards him. A lesson for our times?
And so, what conclusions can be drawn, looking back on this regathering of the Class of ’71? History may record that the times, in which this cohort of students grew up, and especially the opportunities that were afforded to the youths, all those years ago, as well as those contemporaries who couldn’t make it, were something of a “Golden Era”. This statement could also be applied to many post-war grammar school years, before 1971, as well as a few after 1971. Now this is something of an extravagant statement, so how can it be justified? Well, to start with, these children were growing up, in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when the National Health Service, having been established in the wake of the Second World War, was now old enough, and established enough, to be able to stand on its own two feet, to be able to display a dynamism which, sadly, seems to be increasingly lacking today, as the whole system appears to be ready to buckle under the twin threats of excess expectation and underfunding.
And, of course, we were all able to attend a grammar school, at a time when this sector of learning had been enhanced by assorted education legislation, once again following on at the behest of the 1939-45 conflict. One of the more positive features of this societal embellishment had been the dramatic improvement in social mobility, allowing many children from traditionally poor, or working class, backgrounds to embrace social and economic opportunities of a manner which their parents and grandparents could only have dreamed. Now I am not saying that grammar schools in general, and Bangor Grammar School in particular, were perfect. Anything but in many cases. Some might say that they were too academic, and too traditional in their outlook. Yet these opportunities were created which many in the Class of ’71 were able to take advantage of.
But perhaps the most pertinent point in favour of this “Golden Era” is the fact that many, in the year, could go on to take advantage of an education which was fee-free, with a means-tested grant system, at university, polytechnic and teacher training college. Compare that to the debt-ridden higher education student of today, or indeed the past 30-plus years.
Finally, thanks must be proffered to Alistair McNeill, Denis Thurley, Peter Dornan and, especially, Raymy Parker for their splendid, efficient organisation of the whole evening. And thanks must also be given to the staff at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club for their wonderful, good-humoured service throughout the evening. Let’s face it, Raymy could win caps for Ireland for his organising skills!
And so, fellow members of the Class of ’71, I look forward to seeing you in another 10 years, all being well. But what about the thought of making it just five years instead? Come on Raymy, what do you think?!