The Music Teacher – A One Woman Play In 4 Parts – Part 2.


Anyway the upshot was that I started at Bede’s on 9th September 1959 at the beginning of the Christmas term.  The week before, I had left the family home for good so that I could concentrate on what was going to be my new life.  Travelling between Alkrington and St Bede’s College was too tiresome what with two buses and a walk in between adding at least two and half hours on to every working day.  I rented a bed sitting room in a large Victorian house on Alness Road, just down  from the College in “leafy Whalley Range”, from an old lady who had set an advertisement in the Manchester Evening News.  It had a shared bathroom and toilet and my room besides having a bed of unknown vintage, had a small table and chair and an easy chair, a cupboard and a gas ring and a small gas fire to keep me warm, it was sparse but it would do until I was established.  Daddy helped me move in.  His only advice was “watch yourself at night, Julia”, he didn’t expand but I soon learnt that the streets and flats in the area catered more for the women of the night rather than the woman of the day like me.  There was constant passing traffic and men of all nationalities walking the streets and clunking up the stairs and enquiring as to my business.  It was a little scary but these women realised I was not in opposition and tended to watch out for me.  These women of the night seemed to be women of the day as well, as the banging of doors and the creak of the stairs never ceased but I promised myself that this sojourn was of only short existence, I had my eyes fixed on a modern block of flats they were building near the playing fields, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, a kind of luxury I was used to.

At once, as you entered St. Bede’s by its playground entrance on Alness Road, you knew you were in somewhere special, with the recently completed Beck building on the right, the 1930s Henshaw building on your left towering over the tennis courts, the main buildings in their Victorian splendour beckoning you in and the remarkable and vast covered playground where the boys played football, cricket and basketball whatever the weather.

That day I was up on the stage in the Main Assembly Hall feeling slightly uneasy in my cap and gown, surrounded by twenty or thirty older lay men and the same number of priests, all smelling of cigarettes and the faint odour of the unwashed, looking out at the serried ranks of over 600 boys, feeling as well rather queasy in this multi-coloured company, as the only woman.  Seated in front of us was the Rector, the magisterial Monsignor Thomas Duggan and his grimacing Headmaster or Prefect of Studies as Monsignor Duggan liked to call him, Fr Geoffrey Burke, both of whom I had passed on the Main Staircase earlier on and after a brief curtsey from me, they had passed by without acknowledgement, perhaps a faint curl from Fr Burkes upper lip was the only recognition.  The Prefect of Discipline, Fr John Rigby, read out the results of the previous year’s summer exams, with each class standing up as their Form was called out and each boy in order of position sitting down, so that those with poor results stood to the end until finally sitting as their name was ignominiously read out.  I thought that rather cruel and unnecessary.  However it was not for me to try and change the tried and tested.  After each class roll call, the boys trooped off to their form room and the names of the assembled new first year boys read out with the name of the Upper Third Class to which they had been allocated.  All that was left was the first year 6th Form, The Lower Sixth.  These were boys who had taken their O Levels that summer and excelled enough in most subjects to gain entry to the Sixth Form and hopefully onwards for University or Seminary experience.  Six subjects at O Level were sufficient to enter this company and compared to other junior years their numbers were few.

While on the subject, I cannot pass by the position of Prefect of Discipline, as it actually non-plussed me when I first heard of it.  The sole purpose of a man with this title was to punish pupils.  He was there seven days a week in his little office on the first floor of the main building, oiling and making more flexible a selection of straps and strops with which to beat the boys as they lined up with notes from their class teachers.  My only experience of discipline was at Notre Dame where well-mannered put-downs were enough to keep us in order.  This violence, this blood-thirsty need to inflict pain, smacked more of 18th century naval tradition than the higher reaches of male education.  As far as I could see in the following weeks was how decent the boys were, any male exuberance could easily be put down with one or two well-chosen words.  This draconian violence perpetrated on these young men could only have been for gratification, it had no other purpose.  I got to learn how the boys reacted to this discipline and how the hard men treated it as a way of gaining a certain kudos from their cohort.  They would be beastly to certain members of staff in order to qualify for a note to see the Prefect.  A beating everyday would make them soar in their friend’s eyes.  The school did not have a chance faced with this bravado, it could only diminish the authority.

After that initial experience in the Assembly Hall, I needed time to reflect but not for Gordon or Mr Frost as he liked to be called, he threw me at the coalface immediately, by asking me to take the various first year classes, the Upper Thirds, as they were known, for their first music class, listening to their singing voice and try and pick out those with choral possibilities.  This at least got me working and more or less dispelled the vague uneasiness I felt.  Mr Frost was guffawing up his sleeve and behind my back as this labour of mine moved through the lower school, with me organising the Junior choir whose main concert of the year was Speech Day in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, where the assembled students performed in front of parents and all that was great and good in the Diocese of Salford.  One moment a very fine soprano voice with massive potential for solo pieces developed quickly into a bag of nails and had to be swiftly replaced.  It was a never ending process and I always had to have one or two voices in reserve in case the inevitable happened.

The pupils in the school were roughly split between about 100 boarders, mainly boys who were training for the priesthood and about 600 dayboys gathered from every street corner in Manchester and beyond, rich and poor, there was no distinction.  The only qualification was to achieve high marks in the 11+ examination and satisfy Monsignor Duggan at an interview, arranged by himself at which a parent could attend for part of the process.  St Bede’s College was a Direct Grant Grammar School which meant that central government paid 50% of cost, local government paid 25% out of rates, the only criteria was intelligence, the other 25% were paying pupils who had passed the school’s entrance examination having failed the 11+, 10 or 11 of these were boarders financed by the Diocese.  We never knew who the other 20 or so fee paying boys were but you could have a good guess, they were boys who never excelled, scraped through but lasted the course and whose manners were not what they could have been.  In this system there was obviously room for manoeuvre and I got to realise the masterly way Monsignor Duggan filled his school with his type of boy but they were nearly all there on merit.  They were a very lively and intelligent bunch of pupils, lovely lads, who came, willing and able, for the supposed process that was before them.

However the best times for me were early evening when I took the individual piano tutorials.  Myself and Mr Frost got on reasonably well although I soon realised that his name in Manchester music circles was probably better than his expertise on the piano, he was more allegro and forte, with plenty of expressionism, he wasted little time on adagio and grazioso or even legato, if you understand my meaning, whereas as I put in what was needed for the piece.  He was however a decent organist, an instrument that requires a little rumbustiousness.  I tried to get him interested in my other key instruments the saxophone and the piano accordion to widen the boys minds with what else was possible but he was not interested saying “Monsignor Duggan would not be interested in the products of New Orleans or the bordellos of Buenos Aires”.  Faced with this negativity I did not press my case, I could have easily pointed out that his practice piano was more suited for a honky tonk house of ill repute in Chicago than an instrument with which to sooth the Classical ear.  (a musical interlude possibly The Entertainer *)

The boys coming for individual piano tuition were a very decent set of young men, all incredibly talented, a mix of dayboys and boarders.  Given their head the boarders, the potential priests, would sooner play jazz piano and the less serious day boys were intent on the classical style.  There was a lesson there if I could figure it out.  What I did notice however were their beautiful manners, their refined inquisitiveness to learn and strangely their submissive nature when lightly scolded by myself.  Considering there was only a few years age gap between myself and the older boys, I was always treated with courtesy, never once was there a sign of flirtation.  I loved every one of them, in the nicest possible way of course.  They were a teachers dream.  I was really enjoying the work, admiring my ability to pass on my talents and luxuriating in the progress my boys were making.  Except for one boy, Michael from Longsight, who only wanted to play rock and roll and blues music, the classical stuff that was my syllabus had no sway with him, although when pressed he could deliver but I could not go up his road, what would Mr Frost say, never mind Monsignor Duggan, who I think would stop instrumental music altogether, allowing only the choral stuff, given half a chance and then where would I be.  So my time with Michael was rather fraught but he was a lovely boy and willing to absorb what I was saying but if I had to leave the room to find a nun for example, free expression rose to the surface and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard started echoing round the hallowed halls making me scurry back, almost unfinished in my ablution.

It was midway through my first Easter term, one Wednesday evening, I remember, as I was in a hurry to finish my last lesson, as I was going home for my parents 26th wedding anniversary.  My father had booked a table at a local restaurant and there was to be a small family gathering.  Michael walked into the Music Room, with its many desks but also Mr Gordon Frost’s fine Brodmann grand piano.

His shoulders were hunched, his head down, he made straight for the piano and immediately started hammering out the rhythm of Good Golly Miss Molly something even I cannot do yet.  I rushed over to him, screeching him to stop, trying to put the lid down on his fingers.  He stopped immediately and bending over the keys, he started sobbing his heart out.  He was more distressed than I had seen anyone be, he was almost out of control.  I put my left hand on the back of his head and tentatively hugged his right shoulder.  I was at a loss for words or action.  I didn’t know what to do for the best.  After 20 seconds or so of this, he calmed down, became silent and brushing me aside, rose from the stool and dried his eyes with the sleeve of his blazer.

“Sorry Miss” he said “sorry, it’s nothing”.

“What’s the matter Michael, this is not nothing, tell me and I will try and help”.

“It’s nothing Miss, it’s just that I got a note to go up and see the Rector”.

“And”, I said “what did he say to you that caused all this”.

“Nothing Miss” and with that he pushed me aside and made straight for the door, “it’s what he did, Miss” and with that he was out in the Main Corridor and away, there was no point in me running after him.  I was dumbstruck.  What had the Rector done to make Michael so upset?

I knew that certain teachers when brought to the end of their tethers with a boy, used to bypass the Prefect of Discipline and send boys up to the Rector.  This kind of punishment seemed to be the ultimate deterrent and was usually done by the weaker teachers, who could not control their classes.  On the bus up to Alkrington that evening, I presumed the beating he received of Monsignor must have been a little harsh and promptly forgot the incident, vowing to take it up with Michael again at our next class.

We had a lovely night in the restaurant, I love the way Daddy makes a fuss of Mummy at these special dos we have.  He seems to still treat her like the young music student she was when they first met in 1929 and when he was at Medical School at the Infirmary.  It’s all so gooey but lovely.  They still adore each other after all these years.

The following week Michael came in for his lesson, he said nothing and I was not sure how to start but we got on with (Some passage of music) which he liked and was competent at.  Eventually I said “what was the matter last week, Michael, we lost that class and each one is important”

“It was nothing, Miss.  I was just upset, nothing, it won’t happen again” and with head down he concentrated on his fingers, but I could see his heart was not in the passage, there was something definitely bothering him, but I also knew he was not going to tell me.

3 thoughts on “The Music Teacher – A One Woman Play In 4 Parts – Part 2.

  1. More of a radio play , I think Paul ; but horribly true to life . I shan’t sleep well tonight .

  2. Just a few minor points where your recollections differ slightly from mine.
    (1) At least in my time, the Prefect of Discipline had more to do than just beat the shit out of us. He also took the register every day. (I expect, though I don’t know, that he had other administrative duties too.)
    (2) When Monsignor Duggan interviewed me, both my parents were present throughout.
    (3) Old Frostie was rather a good pianist. At least that was my opinion at the time. (I studied piano for 7 years – independently of St Bede’s – so I guess my opinion carries as much weight as yours.) The piano in the music room was quite a good one too – though I am comparing it with the one that my distinctly not-wealthy parents were able to buy for us at home. If you want to use concert-hall standards, it might not rate so highly.

    1. Linda,
      In my day the Prefect of Discipline collected dinner money and also looked after lost property between bouts of thrashing.
      I cannot comment on your interview we were seven years apart. In 1964 Duggan was coming to the end of his rampant life.
      This in the play is coming as the opinion of a classically trained award winning pianist. The piano in the music room was a Brodmann, a great piano. I have used licence with the practice piano, there was none.

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