Many of my friends had also passed the 11 plus, but many had failed, we didn’t know it then but these last weeks at primary school would be the last time that we saw some of the ones who had failed, we’d spent half of our lives so far schooling and playing together, and now, even though we all lived in the same area, some of these friends would not be seen again.
My parents were, of course, pleased with my achievement, although of course none of us knew how close I’d scraped it, but they couldn’t go over the top with their excitement, what with them having another son who was much dumber than I due to take (and fail) his 11 plus next year, so for me it was a smile and a “well done” without the reward of a new bike that some of my friends got, although to be fair my mother later bought me a “good pen” which I still have 30-odd years later.
After congratulating me, my dad’s mind instantly turned to practicalities, “ow much is the uniform going to be then ?” he asked of my mother, who instantly shushed him up with a look and a “we’ll manage”, for Leeds Modern had a strict uniform policy – you wore the uniform or you didn’t go, and you can’t get much stricter than that.
To buy the uniform you had two choices, you usually went into Leeds city centre to Rawcliffes where they held stock of every school uniform in the area, or you could go to the new upstarts, a shop called Hornes which had recently also started to stock school uniforms. We went to Rawcliffes because it was “done” to go there, and because my mother had been told that Hornes sold sub-standard uniforms and the womens grapevine was a powerful tool to have under your belt if you were a Rawcliffes shareholder – it was probably a Rawcliffes shareholder who had started the Hornes rumour.
My dads office was in the centre of Leeds, right in the centre of Leeds in fact, in city square, and Rawcliffes was a five minute walk away, so we met him there one lunchtime for the great ceremony – “the purchase of our Gary’s uniform”, I’m sure that he didn’t want to come as he didn’t usually “do shopping” but he had to sign the cheque as my mother, like most other housewives, didn’t have access to a bank account.
Rawcliffes was, and to some extent still is, a clothing store in the old style in that you don’t get to walk around and touch the clothing, you get to stand at a large wood and glass counter in which are displayed drawers of socks and school caps, and you wait for an assistant to serve you.
Eventually it was our turn and my mother proudly announced that I required a uniform for Leeds Modern – she said the words “Leeds Modern” very loudly so that the other mothers who were waiting behind would be aware that her offspring was among the elite of the intelligencia, of course none of us knew then that I’d scraped it by one mark.
The man serving us reached beneath the glass topped counter and pulled out a big folder, opened it and turned to an encapsulated sheet on which was printed the requirements for the Leeds Modern Grammar School uniform, there was no discussion or cheaper alternative garments, you got the full school uniform and asked no questions. There also seemed to be some sort of snobbery involved because my dad would definitely have tried to “do a deal” with him, but this time he seemed resigned to paying the full price without question, maybe he’d been warned not to try and get a discount by my mum.
The man serving us got to work, taking the printed list around the store with him, checking the shelves on the walls which were divided into pigeon holes labelled with the schools name and size of the garment stored within, socks were over there in that drawer, the jumper was here on this shelf, you’ll need two white shirts like these, I’ll get Mrs Gladstone to get a tie for you, this rugby shirt turns inside out to give an “away” strip that’s clever isn’t it madam, he’ll need a gym vest they’re downstairs, and some white shorts, football socks, cricket flannels are optional, a woodwork apron, gym pumps and a drawstring bag to keep them in, you’ll make your own drawstring bag will you madam, that’s fine ……
And then the three big items, firstly a cap. I didn’t want a cap as my mum had a friend who’s son was already at Leeds Modern and he’d passed on the information that caps were the first thing to be stolen from first years by the older boys, but my mum made the man fetch a red and black hooped school cap “because it looks nice”. Incidentally my mums friend was called Mrs Brown, she’d named her son Nigel, a very nice name under normal circumstances, but in those very non-politically correct days he had to bear the nickname “Nigger Brown” for the whole of his school career.
Next came the blazer, the most expensive bit, I heard my dad suck his breath in when he saw the price tag but he didn’t say anything, he’d kept quiet all the time we were in the shop, it was now obvious that he was on a warning from my mum, he was only there to sign the cheque at the end. There was a choice of blazers but actually there was no choice at all, Leeds Modern allowed the boys in the third year and upwards to wear a plain black blazer (with the school badge of course) and those that stayed on into the sixth form could wear proper suits (usually tweed) but first and second years got the traditional stripy blazer, red stripes on a black background with the school crest already sewn onto the breast pocket.
It could have been worse and I suppose that looking back now it was probably smart, but at 11 years of age it was the bit that I had been dreading, I thought I looked a right dick in my red and black blazer but there was no getting around it, the man in Rawcliffes said it was the stripy blazer for the first two years so I had to have it, in fact two boys out of our year of 120 started in black blazers and they were the ones who looked like dicks as they stood out a mile in assembly and were easily picked out whenever there was any trouble around.
Finally it was trousers, black, two pairs of, and unknown to us at the time the trouser issue was the most important issue to face you in your short life to date. Your mothers answer to the next question would decide your fate for your next five years at grammar school, her answer would dictate whether you were accepted as “normal” by your peers or conversely “a queer little mummys boy” which would stick with you through into adulthood.
“Trousers madam, black, two pairs of, will he be wearing long trousers or shorts ?”
Fortunately my mum thought I was ready for long trousers, although she still told me to “let the sun get to my legs” right up until I left home at 19, but on this occasion she made the right choice and bought me my first two pairs of smart, long trousers.
And now we must pause here for a minutes silence in respect for those boys whose mum made the wrong choice and answered “shorts please” thus sending their sons to their first day at grammar school looking like a five year old starting at infants school. Those poor lads (three of them in our class of 30) had a hellish first day, not only did they get ridiculed by the rest of the school (that was to be expected, all of us in the first form had to take the ridicule of the older boys) but they also took a hell of a lot of stick from their first year peers as well, in fact if you wore shorts to grammar school you could expect to make no friends and have a bloody miserable time until your mum came to her senses and bought you some long trousers.
Of the three lads in our form who wore shorts on their first day, two of them were shorter than the rest of us and were a natural target for bullies, the other one however was the biggest lad in our year and went on to become captain of the football, rugby and cricket teams as well as class bully and all round good egg, he was into long trousers within days of starting and probably never spoke to his mother again, the other two actually stayed in shorts right through their first year, very embarrassing but also psychologically damaging.
The school uniform was now piled up on the glass topped counter and the Rawcliffes man was busy writing the list of items on an invoice and totting up the amount due, being carefully scrutinised by my dad who was sweating up a bit and wondering (although not daring to question) whether all of this stuff was really necessary.
The cheque written we left my poor (literally) dad to go back to his office and we staggered off in the direction of Leeds Bus station with our many parcels of school uniform items.