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Published: October 17th 2019
Bob Wood was my first Head of English. His initials were R. H., but I have no idea what the H stood for. He had been Head of English at Old Swinford Hospital School (OSH) since 1952, the year after I was born. When I was interviewed at OSH in 1975, I met the Headmaster (Mr Sheppard), the Deputy Head (Mr Charlwood) and Bob. He was a diminutive bespectacled man and came across as friendly, modest and humorous. We worked together until his retirement in 1983, and during that time I got to know him very well.
Bob presided over a very old-fashioned English department in what was, until Mr Sheppard’s retirement, a very old-fashioned school. There were just the two of us, and we split the English classes. I was the latest in a long line of junior English teachers serving under Bob. The previous incumbent, Brian Last, had stayed just one year, and all the others had moved on after a short time. I was destined to break that mould by staying at OSH for 10 years.
The books we used for teaching English were kept in a cupboard next to Bob’s classroom. Like everything else in
the school, they were exceedingly old-fashioned. Most of the sets were quite unsuitable for the boys we taught, and I had a hard time finding anything that might engage them. I remember a poetry anthology named ‘Here Today’
(edited, I think, by Ted Hughes), which was one of our few modern texts. Bob used to joke about the title, saying how unsuitable it was because of the idiom “Here today, gone tomorrow
”. A typically wry comment.
The best book in that cupboard, one which had been used over and over again, was ‘Cider With Rosie
’ by Laurie Lee. The cover of each one had been defaced and the word ‘Rosie
’ altered to ‘Dozy’. ‘Dozy
’ was Bob’s nickname because he often nodded off in class, especially during the summer when he was taking tablets for hay fever.
Bob didn’t teach me anything about English teaching, at least not formally. He never watched me teach or invited me into his classes, and we never had departmental meetings. Outside of ‘O’ and ‘A’ level, I was never sure what went on in his classroom, but the boys told me Bob did very little apart from tell them to get out their
readers and carry on. I remember one boy assigned to my class, after being with Bob, pleading with me to “do something
” in lessons. There is no doubt that Bob knew a great deal about English, but he was not motivated to teach interesting lessons. I put this down to two factors: his troubled home life and sheer staleness from having been at the same school for so long.
Bob loved literature. He called Keats “the greatest poet
”, and he had a deep understanding of Shakespeare. I remember him saying it was impossible to teach ‘Hamlet
’ to teenage boys because they had so little experience of life. He enjoyed teaching the ‘A’ level texts but used to call Dickens’s ‘Our Mutual Friend’ ‘Our Mutual Enemy’
, because it was so long and heavy for both students and teacher. A former OSH student, Jim Merris (now in his 50’s and a good friend of mine), recalls studying this book: “We spent a year on it. One blisteringly hot afternoon we were all slumped almost unconscious in the classroom barely able to read. I remember Bob putting the book down, slumping forward and saying 'What a load of shit. Shall we go
on to something else?' He looked round, let out a wild laugh and rocked on his chair, slapping the desk. Priceless!”
Bob and I often talked about books, and on one occasion I asked him to explain a particularly difficult 'A' level poem, ‘Dry Point
’ by Philip Larkin. What followed was a master class. He had probably never read the poem before, but he dazzled me with his perceptive commentary. For just a few minutes he came alive – as if to show me what he was capable of. After that he retreated back into his shell.
When a new Headmaster, Chris Potter, arrived at OSH in 1978, Bob’s days were numbered. I remember Potter’s first staff meeting, where the exam results were discussed. He praised the Maths department for their ‘O’ level results, even though there had been more ‘O’ level passes in English (not to mention the fact that there were three Maths teachers compared to only two English teachers). After hearing Potter praise the Maths department, Bob, who was sitting next to me, said “Well, he can stuff his school play then.
” When, shortly after, Potter asked Bob about putting on a school play, he
declined. In the staffroom afterwards Bob, who was a gifted natural comedian, sat sucking his thumb and repeating “I’ve been a bad boy
Potter saw what a ramshackle old school he had inherited and immediately called in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. The English inspector, Paddy Orr, told us that our book stock was antiquated, in no way reflecting the revolution in children’s literature that had occurred in recent years. The writing was on the wall for Bob and, in 1983, he decided to take early retirement. After breaking the news to Potter, he made me laugh by describing Potter’s reaction. Potter was full of ostensible sympathy, Bob said, but “you could see him visibly masturbating at the good news
Bob would sometimes visit my flat at lunchtimes to listen to jazz and drink my homebrew, but I rarely saw him outside of school because of his loyalty to his wife. He seldom went out. He may have been hen-pecked, but I’m not sure. His children were grown up and married, and I doubt if he had much fun at home. His wife, whom I seldom met, was perpetually ill and possibly a hypochondriac. In the end she died
of cancer. After she died, Bob described her to me as “a magnificent woman
”. I occasionally prised Bob out of his house (where I was never invited) and we met in the pub or went to concerts. Like me, he enjoyed the music of Stephane Grappelli, whom we saw perform at Dudley Town Hall. Bob loved the violin and used to play in a quartet at the house of Peter Mansell, the Art teacher. Bob considered the violin the most emotional of all the instruments.
He also used to make very tasty fruit wine. When I returned one summer from Cairo – around 1986 – I visited Bob in Stourbridge and drank his tea wine. I joked that he'd spent all year making it, and I had drunk it all in a couple of sessions.
Another interest that Bob had was bottle-collecting. In the Stourbridge area there were several Victorian rubbish dumps, where Bob would dig for old bottles. He gave me a very nice one, a perfectly preserved mineral water bottle complete with glass marble stopper, which graces my living-room today.
Now let me describe Bob’s greatest talent: he was a consummate director of school plays.
Lacklustre though he may have been in the classroom, he came alive on stage. In my first year at OSH I helped him direct '12 Angry Men
’ by Reginald Rose. I will never forget those rehearsals where he would get up on stage to show the boys how a part should be performed. He was in his element, an expert at work, knowing exactly how to get the best out of his actors. ‘12 Angry Men
’ is the best school play I have ever seen.
An immortal memory of ’12 Angry Men
’ is of the final dress rehearsal. The play was by now a well-oiled machine, the actors having been superbly drilled by Bob. As Bob and I sat in the front row, watching the actors go through their paces, something unexpected happened. One of the actors – Richard Pardoe, I think – went off script and ad-libbed his own funny line. His sense of humour immediately spread to the other actors, who also began taking liberties and substituting their own lines for the playwright’s. My instant reaction was that this silliness should be stopped and the actors reminded that the final rehearsal was a very serious business. Bob,
however, told me not to worry and to let the actors carry on enjoying themselves. He realized they were letting off steam and would benefit from a light-hearted session before the opening night. And so it proved: the following night the actors were at the top of their form. A master class in acting psychology from wise old Bob.
When I directed ‘Breaking Point
’ the following year, Bob decided he could not help me, and I found it tough going. Directing a play was just not my thing, and it gave me sleepless nights. Towards the end of rehearsals I prevailed on Bob to come in one evening and tell me what he thought. The actors were messing around on stage, something that Bob would never have allowed to happen, and I remember his criticism: “It stinks
,” he said to the actors (and to me). That stung. ‘Breaking Point’
was not exactly a turkey, but it was nowhere near as good as ’12 Angry Men
’. Subsequently Bob directed one more play – ‘Reluctant Heroes’
, an army comedy - with Jim Merris playing the lead. It was another smash hit. The difference between Bob and I when it came to
directing was that he knew what he was doing and enjoyed it, whereas I was a novice and found it hard labour.
At the back of the programme for ‘12 Angry Men’
is a list of all the plays directed by Bob from 1953 on. There are 22 (not counting ’12 Angry Men
’). One of them is ‘The Baron’s Xmas’
, which Bob wrote. It was performed in 1968 in the Great Hall alongside Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’
. I remember Bob saying that the local drama critic, writing in the Stourbridge newspaper, preferred it to Pinter’s masterpiece! Bob also wrote ‘Art and Kraft
’, performed in 1970. I have never seen or read the two plays that Bob wrote.
After Bob’s wife died, he sold his house, moved into an old people’s home and died shortly afterwards of leukemia. I felt terribly sorry for Bob when I visited him in that old people’s home in 1986 and drank his wine. He was living in a shoebox and ate his meals in a hall with the other old folk. He still had his beloved violin and would go to Peter Mansell’s house for musical get-togethers, but he must have been lonely. I
wondered why one of his children did not take him in. He put on a brave face and never complained – apart from one thing. He often mentioned the money he paid to private doctors for treating his wife’s cancer and then his own leukemia. I remember him being quite distressed when he told me his new doctor had spotted a terrible mistake, namely that the previous doctor had been prescribing the wrong tablets. That may well have been the last straw. After Bob’s death, I talked to Peter Mansell, who told me Bob had been in great pain at the end.
Bob’s legacy? He fathered two children. I know that the boys who took part in ‘12 Angry Men’, ‘Reluctant Heroes
’ and all the other plays he put on over the years will never forget him. Nor will I. Back then I was a callow, and occasionally hopeless, young teacher, and Bob never criticized me – except for telling me that my ‘Breaking Point’
Bob was a talented and very decent man with a lovely sense of humour. When he complimented me on something funny I'd said or written, I was chuffed, because Bob’s opinion
meant a lot to me. One day at lunch, I was telling him about a boy who confused Macbeth with Macduff; “He doesn’t know his McArse from his McElbow,
” I quipped, and Bob burst out laughing.
Overall, he was a slightly tragic figure, because he deserved so much more out of life. I have no idea what his younger days had been like, because he never spoke about them, but during the time I knew him – from 1975 until his death sometime in the 1980’s – he was in a rut. For whatever reason, he was a passive and ineffective teacher, and outside of school his life was on dreary tramlines.
I have five pieces of writing by Bob in my possession. One is a play, a comedy, entitled 'The Diggers'.
I haven't bothered to digitalize it, because it's quite long and, I have to admit, rather dated. I have no idea if it was ever performed. The second is a serious poem that appeared in the school magazine, The Foleyan
, in 1976: School Photograph We sit, or stand, or kneel in sardine-semi-circle, One second frozen in the dream of time. For modest
sum we buy ourselves To lie in corridor or lumber drawer. But future ages see thee fading ghosts And throw them on the garbage heap with stony eyes Or burn us as an act of faith. For we Affront their claim to live unfettered By another’s youth. They, too, will kneel, or stand, or sit And stare defiance as the camera turns; They, too, will die grey nameless ghosts In angry fire, or quiet earth.
The other three were never, as far as I know, published. Bob wrote them for his own amusement and perhaps shared them with students. He gave them to me typed on paper, and I have digitalized them. They show Bob’s talent as a comic writer. Parody of Wordsworth's ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of tents and dormobiles. Beside the lake, beneath the trees In lovely camp sites - what a squeeze! For oft when on my couch I lie In anti and in savage mood They flash upon that inward eye That makes me want to be quite rude. And then my heart with wonder fills - Where are the bloody daffodils?
Parody of Rudyard Kipling's 'If'
If you can drive and not make speed your master,
And overtake with safety as your aim;
If you can miss pedestrian and cyclist
And treat the bus and scooter just the same;
If you can drive in towns and keep your manners,
On motorways not feeling too sublime,
And never try to race another driver
And always give your signals in good time;
If you can fill the unrelenting minute
With sixty seconds' worth of safety won,
Yours is the road and everything that's on it,
And - which is more - you'll be alive, my son! The Horror (Comedy Monologue) They call me ‘The Horror’, The scourge of the school; They all think I’m silly, But I’m not a fool. Wherever there’s mischief You’ll find I am there; The teachers don’t like it I don’t really care. I chew gum, flick pellets, Get ink on my hands, And I perform wonders With large rubber bands. I’m mucky and messy And scruffy as well, And I don’t wash my neck, But you can’t really tell. I’m sweaty and sticky On long summer days And proud of the fact That I’ve never had praise. I slurp all my food And I spill lemonade; Of teacher and prefect I’m never afraid. If you emptied my pockets, You’d puke in disgust When you saw all the rubbish Ground in with the dust. My satchel’s a mess (I’m happy to say) For I broke an ink bottle Inside it one day. Well, a satchel’s not meant For just carrying things; It can be quite lethal The way that it swings. I hold the school record for detention and lines, Cuffs, bangs and big wallops, Last warnings and fines. At giving excuses I’m king of the school; I’ve got plenty of ruses To cover each rule, Such as looking quite sick Or shedding big tears To fool all the ladies; They love me – poor dears! In fact you can say, If you feel so inclined, I’m the toughest young schoolboy You ever could find! But all those things happened a long time ago. Now things are quite different, I want you to know. In my pinstripe and bowler, my neck sparkling white, I am now a commuter, returning each night, Executive briefcase quite spotless inside, My personal monogram in gold on the side, The scourge of the office, I’ll have you to know, And God help the slackers and those who are slow! The scruffy young junior I make terrified, And as for those smart guys, as soon as they try To put one across me, I shout “Crucify!” In fact you can say, if you feel so inclined, I’m the toughest young boss that you ever could find.
A former student at OSH in the 1960's, David Sawyer, has read my blog about Bob Wood and sent me some of his memories of Bob in English lessons. Here they are: Bob Wood had a lasting effect on my life. Hello Kevin, I really enjoyed your piece on Bob Wood. I remember him vividly as my English teacher at Old Swinford (1963-70). It's a peculiar fact that I have remembered him more than any other teacher, for good reasons. He created in me a lifetime's excitement with books, and also with the physical act of writing with a fountain pen. His reading aloud of 'King Solomon's Mines' had me enthralled. I couldn't wait to get to class to hear the next chapter. His love of Keats became my love of Keats too. I adored 'Cider with Rosie'. His odd facial twitching in class was endlessly parodied by the students, of whom he seemed only incidentally aware. He and Peter Mansell have remained with me all through my adult life, and fed my intentions of becoming an artist and musician. Bob had the most beautiful italic handwriting and would annotate our essays at length in his large red gorgeous characters, very carefully and slowly rendered. I loved to watch him write. He had a variety of pens for this, each yielding a different result.
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