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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Home Chemistry and Explosives Precursors

Tasker Dunham’s chemistry set boosted his school science marks, but how easy is home chemistry today?

Without anyone really noticing, new regulations relating to the “supply of explosives precursors” have recently been introduced in Britain. From September, 2014, you need a Home Office licence to buy chemicals that could be used in the illicit manufacture of explosives. From March, 2016, you need a licence simply to possess them. The list includes potassium chlorate, sodium chlorate, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid. The licence also covers a number of poisons, including mercury, and there is a further secondary list of reportable substances for which any suspicious transactions or thefts must be reported. This includes sulphuric acid, acetone, and ammonium, sodium, calcium and potassium nitrates.

What strikes me most of all about these regulations, is that these are chemicals of interest to the home scientist. I used to have several in my childhood chemistry set. It seems we now need a licence to pursue an innocent educational interest. The licence costs £39.50 and must be renewed every three years. Children under eighteen will only be granted a licence in exceptional circumstances subject to additional conditions requiring adult supervision. See the gov.uk web site for the official guidance.

Do these regulations really prevent terrorists from making explosives, or do they just make things unnecessarily difficult for innocent members of the public? I would have thought any chemist worthy of the name would easily be able to make or extract any chemical they need from sources such as weed killer, fertiliser, bleach and drain cleaner. It used to be common knowledge that if you wanted to make a bang, you just mixed sugar with weed killer, taking care not to blind yourself or blow your hands off. You can't have your hands sewn back on if you can't pick them up to take them to the hospital.

I have some concentrated acetone in my garage, a half-full nineteen-eighties bottle of nail varnish remover. It was my mother’s, but I kept it because acetone is useful as a solvent for removing sticky marks and so on, and as well as that, it's nice to have a quick sniff now and again. Am I in danger of being arrested for terrorism if I fail to take proper care of it?


My Kay chemistry set was one of the best Christmas presents I ever had. I had drooled over it in the toy shop window for months. It had an array of exciting chemicals in stoppered glass test tubes: blue and green sulphates (sometimes irritatingly now spelt with an ‘f’, which just looks wrong) , purple needles of potassium permanganate, white powders, silver-grey chunks of zinc and glittering grey-brown iron filings. Its apparatus included further test tubes, a teat pipette and a round bottomed flask, together with litmus paper, a plastic funnel and filter papers. There was a stand to keep the test tubes upright, and a device to hold them as they were heated in the flame of a methylated spirit burner standing on a heat-resistant asbestos mat. There was a booklet of experiments, ‘The Wonders of Chemistry, prepared for the young experimenter by an experienced science master.”

The experiments in the booklet were interesting enough to begin with: growing differently shaped crystals from hot saturated solutions as they cooled – most memorably the bright blue diamond gemstones of copper sulphate; turning litmus paper from red to blue in alkalis, and blue to red in acids; mixing brown ‘logwood chips’ with alum to extract a vivid blue-purple natural dye. It was even possible to make small quantities of oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, but not enough to match the fabulous wizardry of some of the things we did in chemistry at school. Let’s face it, you don’t just want a chemistry set to grow crystals and change colours, you want to make invisible ink, smoke bombs, poisons, evil smells and explosions.


I got hold of a better book, ‘The Young Chemist’ by F. Sherwood Taylor, which is not easy to find these days but my ragged copy remains in my bookcase. It was great. There were new experiments which, the dust jacket claimed, “… can be carried out at home cheaply, easily and without danger.” Looking at the contents now one has to question the absence of danger. There are sections on gases: carbon dioxide, oxygen, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, chlorine; sections on acids: sulphuric, hydrochloric, nitric; and sections on various other substances: sulphur, caustic soda, iodine. But any nagging concerns were clearly unfounded because, as the dust jacket reassured, “… it [the book] has been ‘vetted’ by the Home Office.”

Most experiments in ‘The Young Chemist’ needed additional equipment - a Bunsen burner and a crucible - and additional chemicals. “Real iodine,” it says to distinguish it from tincture of iodine, “is a black shiny solid. Ordinary chemists stock it, and it costs 2s 4d an ounce. A quarter of an ounce will do for quite a number of experiments.” It seems unlikely that if you walked into your local branch of Boots today and asked for thirty grams of elemental iodine you would be very successful. In America you have to have Drug Enforcement Agency authorisation to buy iodine or its compounds because of its use in the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamines such as ‘crystal meth’.

But in those days, buying chemicals really was as straightforward as the book made out. My dad called at the chemists and came home with bottle of hydrochloric acid, in a hexagonal emerald-green poison bottle. That same bottle, empty, was still on a ledge at the back of his shed when I cleared it out forty years later. We mixed the acid with zinc to produce hydrogen gas which went pop to a match flame held at the mouth of the test tube. ‘The Young Chemist’ goes on to show how to make enough hydrogen to fill a balloon, but I could never get a seal tight enough not to leak.

Safely guided by the book, I made free chlorine gas from hydrochloric acid and bleaching powder. “It is not wise to make any considerable quantity of chlorine,” it warns, “but it is quite safe to make small quantities and use them at once, if care is taken not to let the gas escape.” So I carefully made just a small quantity of the greenish-yellow gas in a test tube, and was curious to know what it really smelled like. Having previously sniffed a tube of ammonia I’d made by heating ammonium carbonate, and lived to tell the tale, I felt sure the warning could be ignored. Maybe if I had reflected on the fact that my fascination with chlorine stemmed from its use as a chemical weapon during the First World War, I might have been a bit more sensible. Even a cautious sniff had me coughing and reeling with a burning pain inside my nose.

The book explains how to ferment glucose and distil alcohol, which it acknowledges as illegal, but “… as long as the alcohol is not drunk or sold it is unlikely that the excise authorities would object.”

Even the humble Bunsen burner had its potential dangers. Nineteen sixties houses had brass gas taps emerging through the floorboards beside the hearth for the purpose of supplying gas through a rubber tube to a free standing gas fire. As mains gas appliances now have to be permanently plumbed in by ‘Gas Safe’ engineers with all the right up-to-date certificates, gas taps and free standing gas fires that burn mains gas must now be illegal. I haven’t seen a domestic gas tap for years, yet all seemed perfectly safe at the time. You simply needed to be aware of the dangers. Everyone knew the fires gave off noxious fumes, caused terrible condensation and were easily knocked over, and that gas taps could be turned on by curious children wanting to know what happens when you fill a room with gas, which in those days was poisonous coal gas rather than the less toxic North Sea gas. So we were very careful. It seemed entirely natural to run a gas supply to my Bunsen burner through a long rubber tube, around ten yards in length, from the gas tap, across the room, out through a partly open window and then a short distance across the yard to my ‘laboratory’ in the shed. What could possibly go wrong?

Bunsen burners mixed gas with air so, unlike methylated spirit burners, they were hot enough to melt glass. ‘The Young Chemist’ shows how to bend tubes and blow glass bulbs. I only burnt myself once.

Today, the book’s claim to be without danger might not stand up litigious scrutiny, and the Home Office would be unlikely to ‘vet’ it so leniently. Perhaps this is why some of the cheaper chemistry sets now, especially for children under twelve, seem particularly feeble compared to sets from the nineteen sixties. Some are so safe they have only plastic test tubes and no glass, substances ‘warmed’ by immersion in hot water because there are no flames, and the biggest deficiency of all, no actual chemicals, or at least nothing you can’t eat. The bleaches and disinfectants under the kitchen sink are more dangerous and more poisonous than the contents of these so-called chemistry sets. Some sets contain only materials such as balloons, clay and starch, with serious warnings to handle them carefully. The largest and most prominent item is often a pair of safety goggles. Woe betide anyone who blows up a balloon without wearing safety goggles!

In America, things are even worse. In some schools, science teachers have to sign out ‘dangerous’ substances like vinegar and baking powder from locked cupboards. This, in a country where guns and ammunition are freely available! You even need a criminal background check to buy laboratory glassware. Coffee machines contain three items that would violate the drugs agency regulations if found in a home laboratory: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker and a heating element. There are reports of innocent home chemicals suppliers being raided by police under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, accused of supplying banned substances such as sulphur and potassium nitrate which might be used to make illegal fireworks.

The most expensive chemistry sets now available, costing over £150 (such as Brightminds Chemlab 3000), do still seem to measure up to the old sets in terms of apparatus, but you have to obtain many of the chemicals yourself, especially anything liquid, such as meths for the burner, sodium hydroxide, ammonia solution, hydrochloric acid and silver nitrate solution. The internet now makes these easier to find, but safety and regulation still take precedence over interest. And £150 might be more than most families would be willing to pay, especially if a £39.50 licence is required as well.

It is all a far cry from my school science days, when bottles of sulphuric acid were always on the benches, we rounded up droplets of mercury spilled on the floor by the previous class, and wafted large asbestos mats at each other. One wonders how children are supposed to gain confidence in the handling of hazardous substances and with other risks, when chemistry sets are so bland, ineffectual and uninteresting. I was dismayed to see my own children’s uneasy clumsiness in trying to strike matches to light a candle.

One also has to wonder whether the hands-off passivity of demonstrations, videos and simulations, enthuses as much interest in science as running experiments first hand. My own chemistry set, at least for a time, boosted my school marks, and although in my case these interests later waned, there are many professional scientists who fondly remember how their careers developed out of a passion for carrying out experiments at home. It isn’t right to impose too many restrictions on these things.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Get back on t’land whe’re y’belong

Aunty Bina's Farm

The Vale of York locks fingers with the Trent, Ouse, Aire and Don across an expanse of low-lying land known as the Humberhead Levels. In winter there is little protection from the cold winds that blow uninterrupted up and down the vale, or along the estuary from the North Sea. In the autumn, thick fogs drift in from the rivers and rise up from the fields. In summer the baking sun cracks the soil into deep fissures. Parts of it are warpland, where turbid river waters were once diverted to flood the fields to deposit layers of fine, fertile silt. Some call it ‘pancake country’ because of its never-ending flatness. Stand upon the slightest rise and in one direction you can see the chalky yellow-green line of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. Turn the other way, and you can just make out the grey-brown smudge of the Yorkshire Pennines.

The region is dotted with remote villages and isolated farms. Aunty Bina’s farm was along a deserted lane that stretched straight and level from the village where my grandma lived, past enormous, silent fields of sugar beet, wheat, potatoes and fallow grass. Hardly anyone goes down that lane now except in a motor vehicle, but in days gone by we walked from the village, a good two miles, me and my younger brother running happily ahead of grandma wheeling baby cousin Anna in her pram. In my imagination it was an expedition through a strange and extraordinary land. It came back vividly, years later, on reading about the distant tracts of Tolkein’s Middle Earth and the care-free floating islands of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra.

Cousin Anna had been living with us while Aunty Bina had been in hospital for an operation. She was supposed to have been in for just a couple of weeks, but things went wrong and it was four months before she got out. Even then she was still too ill to cope with a one-year old, so Anna stayed with us for longer. She had learned to walk and talk before she went home. Some of our neighbours assumed my mother must have had another baby. It meant, though, that we visited the farm frequently for Bina to see Anna. It also meant we could play on the farm with cousin Brian.

I loved going to the farm. There were sweet smelling hay stacks to climb and burrow in, quiet shady barns to explore, nests of semi-wild, warm, furry kittens to stroke and befriend, and away across a field a mysterious, dark wood with fallen tree trunks to scramble over. In summer, when the wheat grew long, you could make mazes of channels and trenches to crawl through and hide, so long as Brian’s dad, Uncle Ben, didn’t spot you. He was usually somewhere out on the farm, but the one time he caught us flattening his corn just before harvest time there was hell to pay, especially by Brian after we had left.

I liked playing with Brian, despite being twice his age. I never found it hard being with younger children, possibly because my brother was quite a lot younger too. It was only awkward when another friend my own age was present, when it seemed both embarrassing and inconsiderate at the same time; embarrassing because playing with the younger friend risked ridule from the older one, and inconsiderate because paying attention to the older friend was to ignore the younger one. I even became expert at entertaining baby Anna, provided none of my school friends were around.

If I could have analysed this more deeply at the time, I might have beaten Basil Bernstein to his concept of restricted and elaborated linguistic codes, the obvious idea that you talk to different people in different ways. I knew exactly what he meant when I came across it in some dull sociology text book years later. But, as they say, sociologists only tell us what we know already.

Aunty Bina and Uncle Ben had married at the church across the road from my grandma’s house on a snowy February day when I was little. They lived in a series of smallholdings of gradually increasing size, one of them a winding walk along the river bank. Later they took the farm at the end of the long lane, where some of the farm buildings were at least two hundred years old.

Ben was a hands-on farmer, accustomed to hard lonely hours on the land, with the farmer’s practical toughness towards matters of life and death. Once, making our way along the lane, we spotted him in the distance, across a field, standing motionless with his shotgun, daring any crows or wild rabbits to covet his crops, or as he would have said, “shuttin’ t’crows an’ t’rabbits.” He had sheds of egg-laying hens, but for farmers, there can be no room for sentiment when a hen’s egg-laying begins to decline. He had a series of farm dogs, loud, ferocious, vicious things that sprang up at your face on chains, snarling as you edged past, back against the wall. I never thought to ask what happened when they got too old, or what became of the litters of kittens produced by the semi-wild farm cats. In later years, he regularly bought white Charolais calves, and raised them almost like his own family, but in the end they were always dispatched off for slaughter and replaced by new ones. He called them “be-asts”, splitting the word into two syllables.

He was a big man. I once sat behind him at a wedding and marvelled at the breadth of his back, just like one of his own ‘be-asts’, the result of years of hard physical work. But he knew his job thoroughly, the diversity of skills involved, how to operate complicated machinery, how to calculate quantities of feeds and fertilisers, how to buy calves, when to sow and harvest crops, when the weather said to wait a little longer, and when the weather said it was all right to hide indoors out of harm’s way and play pool with Brian, or watch cricket on television. Aunty Bina would have been quite happy to retire to a little cottage in the village, but Ben would not entertain the idea, and continued raising Charolais for market, even when he was “pushin’ eighty”, as Bina put it.

Uncle Ben’s rural toughness applied to his dealings with people too. He could seem rude and aggressive if you were not used to him, and more than one relative refused to have anything to do with him. We used to tell ourselves we went to the farm to be insulted. As I got older he always looked me critically in the beard and said, “You scruffy bugger! What’s up? Can’t th’afford a razor?” And when it started to go grey it was, “Why! Bloody ‘ell! Look who it is! It’s bloody Father Christmas.”

I once went with my dad in a new car I’d bought, and he came in saying, “I couldn’t see who it wa’ from ove there across o’t’ field, except it wa’r a rich bugger wi’ a new car an’ a scruffy bugger wi’ whiskers.” I didn’t dare tell him it was my car, and I was both the rich and the scruffy bugger.

I don’t know how many of Brian and Anna’s prospective girl- and boyfriends he saw off with his dismissive manner. One of Brian’s girlfriends was a teacher. You can imagine the likely scene when he eventually took the educated young lady home to meet his father.  

“What the ‘ell do you see in ‘im then? He’s a right ugly sod! Still, you won’t bugger up two ‘ouses.”

Ben’s confrontational style of humour came straight out of pre-war country village life, stemming from the days when field workers were always in the company of others, laughing, joking and exchanging banter as they laboured in groups, forking straw on to wagons drawn by horses. But by the nineteen sixties things had changed, and farmers worked long hours on their own, driving up and down, up and down, on their tractors. So Ben saved up his acerbic wit for visitors. If you were in tune with it, he was one of the wittiest people you could ever hope to meet.

“What! y’don’t ‘ave sugar in y’tea? Bloody ‘ell! What d’y’think we grow it fo’?”

“Vegetarian? Y’r a vegetarian? We wo’k our bloody guts out raisin’ t’be-asts fo’t’market, and y’come in ‘ere sayin’ y’r a vegetarian!”

Ben had been born in another village, some distance across the river, and implied he only married Aunty Bina to improve the local blood line.

“If t’Blue Line bus ‘adn’t started comin’ thro’ t’village, th’d ‘ave all bin imbecil’s ‘cos o’ t’inbreedin’.”

If I ever had an accent like that, then regretfully I lost it living in other parts of the country. I was unaware just how much until one day, over the telephone, I was dismayed to hear Ben telling Bina “th’s some posh bugger asking fo’ y’r on t’phone.” When Bina came on the phone I could hear her defending me. “Why, it’s not anybody posh,” she told Ben, “it’s on’y our Tasker,” and then to me said “I suppose y‘ave to talk proper like that when y’r at work.”

Farmers had to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Life was unforgiving and there was no place for layabouts and moaners. You just got on with it, no matter what problems chance dealt you. Aunty Bina had a bad leg which started when she fell off a stepladder at one of their early smallholdings. It damaged the blood supply to her hip, but it wasn’t properly diagnosed at the time, and the bone died. That’s why she had been in hospital. She had a hip replacement that didn’t work, and ended up with an immobilised hip and permanent abscesses on her leg and foot. But she still did her jobs, limping around the house and farm without complaint, even when in later life the treatment for the abscesses raised the levels of copper in her bloodstream, causing partial sightedness. She once wrote me a letter from hospital, mentioning she had had a “minor” stroke, but not to worry because she had seen the doctor straight away, and had been all right since. “She wants bloody shuttin’,” Ben would say.

Ben had his own problems, blood pressure, farmer’s lung from years of exposure to hay and fertiliser dust, and he was not allowed to drive because of epilepsy. I once saw him cutting winter turnips “fo’ t’be-asts” and was shocked by his breathlessness, and the colour he turned. But he, too, just got on with things. In any case, even with epilepsy, farmers are still allowed to take their tractors on public roads, and he would if he felt so inclined, holding back long queues of impatient drivers, desperate to overtake.

The best way to handle Ben’s prickly comments was just to shake your head and ignore them. That’s what Aunty Bina did, but there were some who returned as good as they got. One day, they were visited at the farm by ‘our Mary’, an overweight elderly relative, and a similarly overweight friend, who arrived side by side on bicycles, gliding slowly down the lane, tyres bulging to bursting point, suspension compressed to the limits, fat thighs straining at the pedals, saddles submerged inside the overhanging folds of their abundant bottoms.

“Look who it is!” shouted Ben from his stackyard. “It’s t’bloody Rolly Pollies.”

“Bugger off y’dirty farmer all blattered up in cow muck”, came the reply. “Get back on t’land where y’belong!”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good put down.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Lookin’ for a ‘feet’

Tasker Dunham gets beaten up

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” said a coarse voice behind. We both pretended not to hear and kept on walking.

We were on our way home from school for what we used to call our ‘dinner’, now usually ‘lunch’, and had gone by way of the back lanes so we could take off our school caps. You had to wear your uniform to and from school at all times, including the hideous cap: navy blue, badge on the front, four showy yellow triangles joined on top. Be caught without it and you got an automatic Saturday morning detention. This applied just as much to sixth formers as younger pupils, even those who stayed on an extra year to try for Oxbridge entrance, and they could be nearly twenty! Caps on sixth formers looked even more ridiculous than on us, as nobody ever bought a new one, and so they walked to and from school with tiny first-form caps perched insecurely on huge sixth-form heads.

Nonetheless, we all knew that once out of sight, concealed beneath the high walls of the back lanes and cross streets where you were unlikely to be seen by a teacher, it was safe to put your cap in your pocket, so long as you kept away from where the German teacher lodged. The only danger was that the lanes and cross streets were frequented by secondary modern school boys who flaunted their toughness and maturity by walking home smoking. Modern School boys detested Grammar School boys, considering them anything other than tough and mature.

The voice behind was quiet for a time, so my friend Burling resumed talking about school work. He was usually top of the ‘A’ stream, and apart from cricket, talked about little other than what he was currently studying. That particular day he had been going on about surds, managing to convince me that the square root of fifty was equal to five times the square root of two, and had then switched to early nineteenth century history, prattling enthusiastically about William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. He could almost convince you it was fascinating, but from the way the disagreeable voice behind had pronounced fight as “feet”, I suspected we were being overheard by someone who thought surds were absurd, a pit was where you might get a job, and that canning was what they did with peas and carrots at the factory on the Doncaster Road.

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?”

There were two modern school boys behind us, both smoking. I recognised one as the notorious Pete Jibson, who although only a couple of years older than us, was one of those lads who by the age of fourteen could pass for twenty. He was heavily built, with greasy hair, dark stubble, a lined forehead and a perpetually malicious expression. I had once seen him ask for three Woodbine in the corner shop. He was definitely not someone you would want to fight. My experience in these situations was that it was essential to be conciliatory; better to lose face than teeth. Unfortunately, Burling lacked any sense of self-preservation. He never went out enough to acquire it.

“I said you two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” repeated Jibson.

“Why?” asked Burling, brightly. “Have you lost one?”

This, of course, was not at all a sensible thing say. Jibson pushed forward, picked up Burling by the lapels of his school blazer and rammed him backwards, hard against the wall.

“You clever grammar school c***,” he growled, Woodbine still in mouth. He let Burling go and turned to walk away with his accomplice, smirking.

“Charming!” I whispered as they left, but a bit too loudly, and Jibson turned back to give me the treatment.

“What was that, you b******? What did you say?”

“I didn’t say owt,” I protested in anxious, conciliatory, wide-eyed innocence. “I didn’t say owt.” I didn’t want to sound too posh.

Jibson let me go and turned again to leave. I was just about to give a sigh of relief when Burling, like the idiot he was, piped up, “He said you two were charming.”

“Oh! Right!” said Jibson menacingly as he turned back. There was a sudden flash, a heavy thump under my chin, and I staggered backwards to the ground. As I struggled to get up I could see Burling being smashed against the wall again. When Jibson had made his point he flicked the smouldering stub of his Woodbine at my head, and swaggered off.

We waited until they were well ahead before continuing home. Burling had a few scrapes and scratches, and I suffered no worse than damaged pride and a bruised chin. We took the main roads home for the next few weeks, and kept our caps on.

*                   *                  *

Such fiery animosity between the two different kinds of school is hardly surprising. Only around a quarter of eleven year olds went to the grammar schools, yet they enjoyed typically three times the resources of the secondary moderns. Grammar schools had the pick of the best teachers, and guided their pupils intellectually and culturally towards membership of an elite new middle class. Even their own families could feel left behind. As interests and horizons expanded and widened, old friends at the secondary moderns gradually dwindled away. Although perhaps none of us were truly aware of it at the time, it was social engineering on a grand scale. Grammar schools and modern schools were likely to lead to very different jobs, levels of pay and ways of life.

The vast majority at the secondary moderns were thought to have no future in education and encouraged to leave at fifteen, whereas most at the grammar schools were still in education at seventeen, and usually went on to university, teacher training, the civil service or the professions. Meanwhile, boys from the modern schools found themselves in blue-collar or unskilled jobs, typically in the engineering industries, the building and motor trades, the railways, road transport, shipping, the armed forces, mining and agriculture. Girls might at first go to work in shops or factories, but most saw this as a temporary measure on the road to marriage, children and home making.

At the grammar schools, we enjoyed for free the kind of privileged, public-school style of education some parents now pay tens of thousands of pounds for. We had rugby, cricket and hockey teams, summer athletics sports days, outdoor pursuits such as climbing, rambling and pot holing at the school hut in the Yorkshire Dales, foreign exchange trips to Belgium and Germany, geography and biology field excursions, drama productions, arts, crafts, hobby and debating societies, all led by highly-qualified, experienced, content and enthusiastic staff. We studied for G.C.E. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level qualifications across the full range of sciences, humanities, arts and classics. We had well stocked science laboratories with work benches for individual experiments in physics and chemistry, dissections and examinations in biology, all housed in a purpose-built science block. There was a magnificent, fully equipped stage with a proscenium arch and modern lighting rig, and in the hall, a multi-keyboard organ with bass pedals, the preserve of the ancient but gifted head of music who accompanied our uplifting Christian hymns at daily morning assembly. We had a dedicated gymnasium with retractable beams, ropes and wall bars, with vaulting horses, spring boards and basketballs in the overflowing store cupboards. Everything was respected and looked after; there was very little theft or vandalism. They only things the modern school had that we didn’t were vegetable plots, greenhouses and chicken pens for lessons in horticulture and animal husbandry.

Even the buildings shouted different levels of privilege; the grammar school’s attractive Georgian architecture in Flemish-bond yellow-orange brick, its Queen Anne cupola, the town coat of arms carved over the door, and the foundation date in prominent Roman numerals high above, all scorned the modern school’s plain functional redbrick.

The injustices become even more conspicuous when one realises that selection for the grammar schools was not entirely based on merit. Middle-class children, perhaps from homes full of books, culture, intelligent conversation, and the time and space to enjoy them, were far more likely to get through the ‘eleven plus’ than those from poorer backgrounds, and if there was any doubt about their abilities, ambitious parents would pay for private tuition to ensure they did. One study found that in Nottingham, two thirds of children from one middle class suburb went to grammar school, against fewer than one in fifty from a neighbouring poorer area. In some depressed northern industrial towns, less than ten per cent of all children got in. Then there were children who actually did make the grade, but found their grammar school place turned down by their parents, often on grounds of cost, as they were needed to earn a wage as soon as possible. I also remember two boys from council houses who would easily have passed, except they were discovered to have ‘dirty magazines’ in their school desks, and in an act of such unbelievably small-minded, puritanical snobbery, were peremptorily denied any opportunity of a grammar school education. They were eleven for goodness’ sake! Their places must have gone to two others, innocently unaware of the inexcusable circumstances of their arbitrary good fortune.

Even the ideology of selection at eleven was influenced by the outrageous fraud of the educational psychologist and government advisor, Sir Cyril Burt, who faked his studies of separately-raised identical twins to declare that intelligence and ability were fixed at conception, primarily determined by genetics rather than upbringing. Had he been right, then selecting children for different kinds of education by measuring their intelligence might have been sensible, but the Nottingham findings, mentioned above, are just one of the many pieces of evidence that he could not have been more wrong; such a large difference between communities could never be down to intelligence alone, indicating that they were measuring something other than what they thought was fixed at birth. 

Not only was selection so very, very unfair, it was also wasteful of talent. Many late-developers found it impossible to recover from eleven plus failure. They and countless others, given the opportunity, could have succeeded in the grammar schools just as well as their more fortunate peers. I know of several eleven plus ‘rejects’ who went on to demonstrate this in the most superlative way. One, after a year at the modern school, was thrown the lifeline of a transfer back into the first form at the grammar school, which he then passed through a year late before getting into Cambridge University and qualifying as a veterinary surgeon. Another first form transfer went on to qualify as a solicitor, although he did need two goes at his ‘A’ levels, which meant he was nearly twenty-one by the time he left the sixth form. Thankfully for him, a new headmaster had by then pronounced the old school caps and uniform archaic. Significant numbers of others too, allowed to transfer to the grammar school at sixteen after having overcome the considerable hurdle of passing their ‘O’ levels at the modern school, went on to respectable careers. It goes to show that with encouragement and determination, most of us can achieve anything. But how many ‘false negatives’ and ‘late developers’ did the system miss?

Grammar schools brought in a never-before, and perhaps never-again seen era of social mobility for those lucky enough to get in. When we had left, we could look forward to a wide range of influential and well-paid careers throughout the country, if not throughout the world, at the highest level our abilities could take us. Despite being from fairly ordinary homes, the opportunities were limitless.

Perhaps today there may be something in the view that we have gone too far the other way. Almost half of young people now go to university, which means that large numbers of recent graduates would never in the past have got through eleven plus. This is undoubtedly a change for the better, but during my later career at one of the less-prestigious universities, I came across some students who simply lacked the basic levels of literacy, numeracy, ability or diligence to gain much at all from degree level study. They didn’t seem to grasp what we were doing, or why they were there. “Pass them anyway,” said the management, off the record, “because that’s what the government wants us to do.” I suppose at least now, few can genuinely claim they were not given some kind of a chance. But if comprehensives and academies had achieved their declared aim of providing a universal grammar school quality of education, it seems unlikely that private education would have flourished as it has. Selection and networking through wealth and class now seem even more prevalent.

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Jibson and his mate of the ‘feet’ incident both left school soon afterwards. In all likelihood, Jibson would never have enjoyed a grammar school or university education. I heard he went to work at the local concrete factory making reinforced panels - dangerous, corrosive and life-shortening work. I saw his accomplice again only a few months later. To my consternation he was at our house, whistling and joking noisily with the local firm of decorators as they painted the outside woodwork. I don’t think he recognised me, but just in case, I crept in quietly from school each day and made myself scarce until they had all gone home. His job, as a new apprentice, seemed to consist mainly of fetching and carrying things for the more experienced decorators, and pushing an enormous two-wheeled flat barrow around the town, loaded with boards, ladders, paint pots, brushes, turpentine, and so on, which was how tradesmen moved their tools and equipment before they all had vans. He may later have progressed from fetching and carrying to become a qualified painter, perhaps even rising to the heights of grainer, a specialist in creating artificial grain effects in paintwork to give ordinary wood a façade of quality. That would have been his working life, until, that is, we all installed uPVC doors and windows, renewed our interior woodwork with laminated grain-effect surfaces, took up DIY and did our own decorating, and painters and grainers were no longer needed.

Ironically, one of the factors in putting so many tradesmen out of work by facilitating our home DIY efforts, was the availability of a particular, ingenious, folding workbench, initially patented by one of my grammar school near-contemporaries (although it is said that he and the company he worked for may have stolen the idea after seeing it on display at a trade fair). As for Burling, he went up to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics. He later became an economist at the Bank of England.