Well I was here back in Manchester for the second time in a month, the last time was full of joy for my new grandchild but this time was a sad mission. I was here to attend the Requiem Mass of a truly great and good man. I had been ferried over from the West of Ireland in a make of a plane called a Dash 400 and the last thing you want in going to a funeral of a friend is a dash. You want calmness, circumspection, a measured head and certainly not dash. The plane was full of people my age, no youngsters at all. Are we baby boomers the modern mid-week argonauts? We all looked as though we were travelling the same path. We all looked as though we had seen the dark days.
Because make no mistake the twenty years after the war, the second war that is, Manchester was enjoying dark times and to make matters worse we were led by a Church that wanted total obedience and gave nothing but fear, led by priests who offered damnation and took away our souls and into this darkness I entered St Bede’s College in Manchester to start my second level education in 1957.
We did not know it then but we , the product of VE Day excitement, were a different breed to those who had come before us. We did not accept what had been landed on and forced into previous cohorts who meekly swallowed what they were taught . We wanted questions answered, we wanted a fresh look at the dichotomies that life threw at us but all we got was gloom, depression and fear. Fear in the respect of the need for discipline, fear in the respect of bullying, not by our peers but by the generation or two older who taught us and had not the wit or ability to answer our questions.
But in this opaqueness there shone a light, a light that opened our eyes and helped us to see. A light that not only answered our queries but a light on full beam that showed us the way ahead. That light shining in the torpid, black vacuum that was St Bede’s, was Mr A W Martin or Spike as he was known to over 30 years of pupils.
In the formative years of 12-16, when you need a helping hand often, when you need a nudge in a particular direction, Spike was there to help, advise and guide. His gentle persuasiveness set our course through life. If not obvious at the time, it became obvious as we notched up the years and that is the mark of a true educator. Not to be bullied and beaten into success in a subject, a way of life, a subject and a way of life that you soon rebel against and cast aside, but Spike’s gentleness, Spike’s wit, Spike’s interest made you return to those qualities time and again as you past through your adult years when all exams were past tense.
He took us out of the dull classical past and made us look ahead to a bright, brand new modern future. His teaching of English and History made us appreciate the value of words, the lessons of the past, the joy of being in your own time and space as apposed to someone else’s of a hundred years previous.
As I write these words, it is nearly 6.00am in the early morning of what looks like a cloudy, sad day. I am nearly 70 years of age and I am thinking back over all those years and trying to think of iconic figures in my life. There are one or two grey shapes who I think could be this one or that but in the middle is that clear image of just one man, Spike. And dear reader, do not think I have gone over the top, that I am full of sadness for our dearly departed or that I am overcome with emotion. Yes there are tears in my eyes at his leaving us but as I have said before, I am what he made me into. He will never leave my mind and that cannot be said of many. How lucky we were to have that experience.
Spike’s funeral mass is at 12.00 noon, I will prepare myself, keep emotion in check as best I can and hope everybody else does the same. The last time I was in that church of St Catherine of Siena in Didsbury to wave goodbye to another good man, Dave McGarry, three or four years ago, I received a punch in the back and called a hypocrite by a worthy parishioner. I could well get the same today and more, but Spike taught us to look with disdain on blows, he taught us how to be men. My mind goes back immediately to the figure of a bullying, useless priest who was taking nets practice at the playing fields on one lovely summer evening in 1963, who scathingly put me down after I had bowled him out and Spike who witnessed it and condemned his behaviour later, gave me hope. I will not bother with details as I have told the story so often but concentrate on Spike’s little nudge.
Another thing about Spike was his marvellous memory. I met him in Rome some years ago and although I had spied him from a distance before, I felt unable to approach him. He was the master, I was the fool, I felt sure he did not want me in his life. My maturity took a long time developing. Anyway this time I determined and went up and introduced myself and before I could continue my praises, he interrupted me, “Paul Malpas, yes the lad with the pikes in Cheshire”. He was referring to an essay I wrote some 38 years earlier of which I was rather proud and of which Spike was not. “D slapstick, write again” was his comment.I did not and he did not insist, but why should he remember such an insignificant piece?
He used to give us reading lists at the end of each term, books the College would never have heard of and even less approved but books which opened our minds, books by angry young men and not so angry old men but books that made us think and made us ask questions, books that made us understand the joys of reading and made us appreciate words. Certainly books that could not be obtained in the College library as the last new book had slithered in unrecognised sometime around the time Duggan, the Rector of the school, had been a pupil there before the Great War.
But I digress a little, I like to keep these postings down to 1ooo words but I have already used that up and I have not arrived at the ceremony. Eulogies and no ceremony is my wish but I suppose Spike would rather ceremony and no eulogy. Ceremony not for himself but for the boys he turned into men, to remember him by. So let the ceremony begin.
I was there 45 minutes before the appointed time, it was nice to sit there in the deserted church and think of the man, but my dreams were interrupted by another early bird, John Byrne, the cause of Spike’s early retirement 25 years ago. Byrne was the thrusting new Head put into place by the Governors in the mid-1980s. Byrne’s view on history was not as Spike would allow and as Byrne was boss in position but not in intellect,Spike took the honourable course and divorced himself from Byrne’s hostile company. I guessed he had come early to expiate for past sins and so he should. Byrne was closely followed by Moynihan, Byrne’s side winder during that painful but successful epoch, who generously but unknowingly came and sat next to me. We had past history and I was half expecting a stab in the back and a dig in the ribs.
There was a sprinkling of teachers from the school from Spike’s day, Barnes, the admirable Berry, Noonan, Weiss, Gibson brother and sister, one or two old boys, I was surprised how few and a lot of parishioners, all to a man and woman, a lot older than when I had last clapped eyes on them. However the church was only half full, I have seen more at a villain’s funeral.
There were four clerics on the altar going through the motions. I am that far removed from the Catholic Church and its witchcraft, the action meant nothing to me but I was nicely surprised to see my photograph on Spike’s mass card. A picture of the U 15 cricket team in 1961 prior to our trip to Rome to beat the Venerabile into submission on the hillside overlooking Castel Gandolfo and Lake Albano, surrounded by cardinals and bishops to numerous to mention. The game after the ceremony was to match a present day’s face with that of sleek youth.
One of the team gave a eulogy and more or less said what I have just written, it needed saying and I stress again how lucky we were and after that I wanted my own thoughts. I did not bother with the crematorium or the funeral breakfast after, I just wanted my own peace, so I returned to my daughter’s house and shortly afterwards headed west.
If there is a God and he certainly is not the God of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church let him please look after Spike because he has a gem of a man there.