Category Archives: Personal history
On a recent return visit to my ‘Alma Mater’ (Ushaw College, Durham) where I spent my formative teenage years living a quasi-monastic existence, I found myself plunged linguistically into the faintly forgotten past of a truly classical education. If I were to preface this by saying that four of my the eight O Level subjects (GCSEs) at Ushaw were classical, namely Latin, Ancient Greek, Roman History and Greek History, you would not be surprised to discover that the language of everyday College-life was riddled with, and indeed coloured by, classical vocabulary.
Furthermore, the dreaded annual ‘Reading-up’ ceremony was a clear demonstration of the importance of the Classics. The ceremony might be kindly described as the public acknowledgement of academic success, but the reality was somewhat different for the majority of students. Academic success was defined solely by your ‘success in Latin’, which for some was an annual ceremony of humiliation, because “many were called, but few were chosen”! Reading-up was an idiosyncratic ceremony (introduced with the words ‘Quod
felix faustumque sit‘ meaning ‘May it bring happiness and luck’!) where each year-group lined up in front of the whole College, and the results of the end-of-year examination in Latin were read out (in Latin, of course!). As your name was read out, you climbed back up to your seat in the Theatre. If you were in the top band, you hastened back to your seat soonest, holding your head up high. If you were an ‘also-ran’, you suffered the utter humiliation of waiting for the previous 49 names to be called out, to be left there standing alone, before you could crawl back whimpering to your seat, which was inevitably at the top of the Theatre, making your retreat into oblivion long and painful. So unjust was this evaluation of academic worth that students who were brilliant mathematicians and scientists were left stigmatised by their lack of success in Latin.
But how did all this emphasis on the classics (especially Latin) impact on our everyday language? Well, ground-floor rooms were linked by an ambulacrum (corridor), homework was written up in a manuscript (exercise book), a period of evening silence was a magnum silentium, an oral examination was known as a viva voce, and anyone who left the College before completing his studies, was referred to as Abiit re infecta (‘he left without the matter being completed’). Year groups were given singular names like Underlow (year 7), Low Figures (year 8), High Figures (year 9), Grammar (year 10), Syntax (year 11), Poetry (year 12) and Rhetoric (year 13). A permitted lie-in in the morning was called Aristote, the peculiar hat worn by clergy was known as a biretta, and a day free from classes was christened a Greek Playday!
At a much more prosaic (anglo-saxon) level, the terms we used to name some of the indescribable dishes served in the refectory were even more memorable. Pod (steamed pudding whose weight bore no relationship to its size!), Dead baby pudding (a forbidding swiss roll filled with red jam), Fly pie (pudding made of pastry and raisins), Squirt (jam spread on pastry, served with custard), Slops (any dessert like rice pudding, semolina, tapioca, sago etc…), and our bowels were kept in constant motion with regular servings of prunes and figs!
But frequently it’s the comic pidgin Latin that sticks in your memory: “Caesar ad sum iam forte, Pompey ad erat, Caesar sic in omnibus, Pompey init sat”!
Vento semper ut tuum in dorso. (May the wind be ever at your back!)
(Acknowledgement: grateful thanks to Pat Hurley who compiled a short dictionary of Ushaw vocabulary)
I have reported elsewhere on this blog (click here) about the closure of Ushaw College, for 203 years the principal Catholic Seminary in the north of England for the training of priests. A general gathering for the final Grand Day last March (Old Boys Day) to mark the closure of the College ignited the idea of a first reunion of my own class in the College, which turned into a 50th anniversary celebration of the year many of us started our College careers (1961).
But these things do not happen without a prime mover, and our reunion would not have happened without the initiative and sterling efforts of Peter Forster, who dedicated many months and hundreds of hours in laying the foundations for what turned out to be a very happy and successful occasion in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Durham (only 3 miles from Ushaw). People were tentative and a little nervous about renewing contact with old school friends they hadn’t seen in over 43 years. Would
we all revert to our teenage personae, and use those dreaded nicknames we were glad to be rid of when we left the College? A master-stroke was to include partners and spouses. It must have been a daunting prospect for them, but they all settled happily to meeting a sea of new faces and learning some of the ‘truths’ about the lives of their men-folk which pre-dated their relationships.
A lively, convivial meal was happily interrupted by a Skyped video-conference with one of our class-mates living in Minnesota, also by the reading of a letter from another whose clerical duties prevented him from attending. And a couple of powerpoint slide-shows brought to life a host of faded black & white photos which happily showed all of us in our better-looking days, and
Although several at the reunion lived within a short radius of Durham, some had come considerable distances, including one from Rome, one from Normandy, and one might have come from Dublin but for the sad news of his house being flooded by the recent rains.
For those who could stay the following day, we were treated to a final guided visit of the College before its definitive closure, and we now await news of how this remarkable property will be deployed in the future.
My middle name was given to me in memory of my father’s youngest brother, George, who had died in Operation Scipio in North Africa during World War 2. I had seen photos of him, handled some of his personal possessions, been intrigued by his soccer trophies, but I knew very little about him. Nobody in the family had ventured into N. Africa in search of his grave, and the 65th anniversary of his death was fast approaching. Time that his memory was restored and celebrated within the family.
So three years ago we took a package deal to a Tunisian beach resort and decided, one day, to take a local train to the town of Sfax where, through my research via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I had located his grave. Although Sfax is on the coast, it is a busy industrial town carefully avoided by all the tourists. This was evident not only by the absence of foreigners, but also by the total absence of women in the streets in this Muslim community. This made Jenny feel very obtrusive and uncomfortable as we made our way to the outskirts of town in search of the war cemetery. But we did eventually find it and, like most war cemeteries in Europe, it was beautifully tended and proved to be a welcome haven in the dirty industrial fringes of the town.
Uncle George had enlisted with the Yorkshire regiment of the 7th Green Howards, and had numbered amongst
the 300,000 rescued on the Dunkirk beaches. Then in 1942 he was shipped out to N. Africa and took part in the fierce campaigns in the early months of 1943. It was on April 6th 1943, during the battle of Wadi Akarit, that he was killed along with 160 of his regiment comrades.
It was very a moving moment when we found his grave, especially knowing that we were the very first members of the family to pay a visit. We spent time in quiet prayer and contemplation, took photos, and rested quietly in acorner before embarking on the return journey. My intention back home was to bring some of the family together on the 65th anniversary of Uncle George’sdeath and celebrate his memory.
But to my utter dismay, just before we returned to the UK, an electronic glitch had corrupted the memory card of my camera and I lost all the photos. There was no opportunity to get back to the cemetery to make good the loss, so I had to return home without the important photographic evidence for the rest of the family. My only hope was to contact the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and seek their help. The email I sent them I also copied to the British Embassy in Tunisia, asking them if someone might be able to visit the cemetery and take a new set of photos. To my amazement, I received a personal reply from the Ambassador himself, telling me that he and his wife would be paying an official visit to the cemetery at Sfax, and that his wife had already published a book on the war cemeteries of N. Africa. If I were to send
them details of my Uncle’s grave, she would be very happy to take a new set of photos and send them by email. And, within a week, this is exactly what happened, so the family celebration could go ahead with the promised photo-slide show.
Uncle George had been the youngest of 15 children, and he died at the age of 24. His commanding officer wrote to my grandparents, telling them “if he was as good a son as he was a soldier, then he was one of the best sons a mother could have….. He was killed whilst shooting with his own rifle. He was in a trench with Capt Coles and was shot in the head and died instantly. I feel his death very much, and since I knew him better than any soldier in my company (George was his batman), I feel that I can enter into your sorrow”. We all know that Commanding Officers were carefully schooled in the art of writing such letters, but his letter struck a note of warm sincerity which grieving parents needed to receive.
Then one day, early in 1982, I was cycling along the Hope Valley and remembered Joe had a climbing shop called Magic Mountain. We hadn’t seen each other for 14 years, but I thought I would drop by on the off-chance that he was there. Not only was he there, but I had literally caught him just before he set off for (what, sadly, turned out to be) his final attempt at Everest climbing up the notoriously difficult North East Ridge. All his equipment was laid out ready for packing, and maps were spread everywhere, studying the final details of the route before heading off.
We were delighted to see each other, caught up on each other’s news, swapped addresses and vowed we would keep in touch. And on this latter point, Joe kept his word. The four key members of the team were: Joe Tasker, Pete Boardman, Dick Renshaw and Chris Bonington. The route up Everest was so notoriously difficult that one section was known as the Death Zone. Dick Renshaw, in fact, had to be brought down from the ridge having suffered multiple strokes. Despite that, Tasker and Boardman decided they were going to make a bid for the summit, with Bonington as their base camp support. Their style of climbing was to make an Alpine dash, carrying all of their equipment rather than relying on back-up climbers and porters, and to make the summit in 5 days. Boningtontracked their progress until he lost contact with them, both visually and via their radio.
That was on May 18th 1982. And that was the last time they were seen alive. News reports came via the media that both Tasker and Boardman were missing, but it was several days before they were finally presumed dead.
It was during this lengthy period of uncertainty, when the climbing world was beginning to mourn the loss of two much loved and experienced climbers, that I received a postcard from Joe, sent from base-camp and dated April 24th. You can imagine the jolt it gave me. I had come to accept that Joe and Pete had not survived and yet, 7 days after the first report of their disappearance, I was reading a postcard sent by Joe before setting off on the final assault. The final lines read: “Things here going steadily- even if hard and cold again!! Tibet is fascinating”.
I mentioned in a previous post that I cycled past the site of a former climbing business, called Magic Mountain, based in the Hope Valley, Derbyshire. The business had belonged to Joe Tasker, an old school friend from the 1960s. As children, not only did we live in the same small
town in County Durham, but we also went to the same boarding Seminary College (Ushaw College) just outside Durham city. Joe came to the forefront in the climbing world in the late 1970s, along with Dick Renshaw and Pete Boardman, eventually teaming up with Chris Bonington.
My memories of Joe at school were of a tall, gangling teenager, little taken to sport of any kind, and always complaining of the cold! He invariably had four blankets on his bed, even in summer! His main strengths seemed to be in his studies. He was one of those enviable characters who could get by in exams without investing too much effort. But, one day, one of the masters took him down to a nearby quarry (where the stone had been quarried to build the College in the early 19th century) and taught him the basics of rock climbing. Well, that proved to be a life-changing experience for him. He was immediately hooked. In his university days, he devoted all his spare time to climbing, and when he started climbing in the Alps, he frequently got himself a holiday job in a dry-ice factory to toughen his body to sub-zero temperatures. What a change from needing four blankets on his bed!
He eventually teamed up with Dick Renshaw and Pete Boardman, and they began to pioneer lightweight, self-sufficient expeditions to the Himalayas. All this contrasted starkly with the multi-million £ expeditions mounted by Chris Bonington, who had the power to attract major sponsors, and who organised huge teams of sherpas, guides and baggage trains to get them up to base-camp. In the case of the Tasker/Boardman/ Renshaw team, it was a question of scraping together what they could to make anything happen. Their pioneering efforts sprung from a situation of need. They simply could not afford the ‘bells and whistles’ of the Bonington-type ventures.
(to be continued)
A little piece of history is about to be consigned to the recycle bin of fond memories (well, for some anyway….). Yesterday I took a train journey up to Durham, and a short bus-ride out to Ushaw College to ‘celebrate’ the last “Grand Day” of its 203 year history.
Ushaw College has been the principal Catholic Seminary for the north of England for 2
centuries, and was established from Douai College in northern France even before Catholic Emancipation became official in 1829. Read more here. The College has had a long and complex history, culminating in its fight over several recent years to survive the tides of change. After a couple of ‘stays of execution’, it has finally thrown in the towel and announced its closure in June of this year. The reasons given are entirely financial.
When I joined the College in 1961 as an 11 year old, I joined what was then a flourishing Junior House that formed part of the extended College, which trained students from the beginning of secondary schooling right through to ordination at the age of 24/25 years. There had been a post-war boom in vocations, and the Catholic church had invested hugely in seminary training from a young age, inculcating a curriculum that was heavily biased towards the classics with a quasi-monastic existence (which didn’t appeal to everyone!). It probably was not surprising that there was a high drop-out rate. The 60s and 70s heralded massive changes in society. Some say that if you can
remember that period you weren’t really a part of it. Those of us at Ushaw watched the 60s unfold from the touch line, and most couldn’t resist running onto the pitch to be a part of the great melée. Hence, the Junior House eventually closed down and the College continued as a Senior Seminary in liaison with Durham University becoming, at one time, a residential University College.
This year’s “Grand Day” (ie Old Boys reunion) was the final Act of the 203 year drama. About 300 former students of all ages, many in the ordained ministry, but perhaps the majority (like myself) lay members, gathered together for Mass in St Cuthbert’s Chapel (a historic monument in its own right) and a convivial meal afterwards in the Refectory, a place that conjured up so many memories for all present. Like most Grand Days, the celebration was rounded off with a game of Cat (a French game inherited from Douai College and unique to Ushaw in the UK).
As I hastened down the long drive to catch a bus into town, I chanced by another Ushawman from the 1940s who shared a number of fond memories of his time at the College. But what stood out for
him (a little painfully, perhaps) was that when his brother joined him at the College, his parents always sent letters to be shared by both of them, and they were always addressed to his younger brother. For several years, he had never received an unopened letter from home. And at the age of 76, that was still a little unresolved grievance for him.
So, many of us were meeting up for the first time since our College days. I counted at least nine from my own year group, and some of us were celebrating 50 years since we joined the College in 1961. And how we had all changed!! Memory has the habit of playing tricks on us. As we scanned the ranks for familiar faces, we conserved the memories of classmates as they had been 50 years ago, and that could be very deceptive. But by the end of the afternoon, we had all located each other, and this is the result. Happy days!!