Ian McMillan: Pages from school life capture a rising talent

Have your say

I’M handling a precious historical document, as unique and important as a letter from a king or the ledger book of a medieval landowner. I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

I’m leafing through The Don and Dearne magazine, from Whitsuntide 1946. It’s the school magazine of Mexborough Grammar School and to read it is to be transported instantly back to a forgotten age.

Our school magazine at Wath Grammar was The Wathonian and one of my proudest moments as a young poet was to be appointed to its electoral committee in 1971.

That year they also published my limpid and gorgeous early piece Zoismic Poem, about a girl being found alseep on a bowling green beside her newborn baby, although I’m sure my position of responsibility had nothing to do with the work getting in print. Nothing at all.

There’s a section in The Don and Dearne where they mention that they’ve received magazines from other schools, including the Alumnus from Barnsley Grammar School, the Legolian from Castleford Grammar School and Woodnotes from Woodhouse Grammar School. Nothing about The Wathonian, though.

Maybe it got lost in the post-war post. Mind you, Mexborough and Wath have always been rivals, so maybe the magazine simply didn’t make it to the top of the pile.

To plunge into The Don and Dearne is to enter a world still recovering from the war; in the list of old pupils we see that E Tetlow was awarded the BEM for gallantry and devotion to duty in NW Europe, and Charles Bramfield was given the DFC and Bar.

Mind you, what about Eric Fisher? He “organised the packing of beer in London for our troops in France shortly after D Day”. Bless Eric Fisher!

There are tiny and moving stories dotted all over these notes, written in workaday and information-heavy prose. JH Dunk was a squadron leader in the RAF and “a gramophone record has been made of a broadcast of the actual happenings inside a British aircraft as it proceeded to and discharged its hazardous mission over Essen in the Ruhr. In this record his voice is clearly distinguishable”.

It’s not recorded what he was saying but, as Andy Warhol said, we all get our 15 minutes of fame. A Waldron “had the misfortune to become a prisoner of war in Germany” and Hedley Hepworth “the well known elocutionist who entertained the school just before Christmas, has recently fulfilled a number of engagements on a Northern tour”. The first thing I want to know is, what does an elocutionist actually do in an engagement? Half an hour of How Now Brown Cow, a couple of rounds of The Rain in Spain and then leave ‘em wanting more? The second thing I want to know is would he have approved of the locutions that JH Dunk used as his plane banked over the ack-ack guns over Essen? We’ll never know.

The creative writing, to be honest, isn’t that great. It doesn’t compare very well to Zoismic Poem, let’s put it like that. There’s a sweet piece by Patrick Webb from form 1C called Washday, the first verse of which goes: “The sky was hot, the sun was out, / it was a lovely day; / So mother put the washing out / While the children went to play.”

There was an interesting bit of satire by a sixth-former called P Elliott called Caesar’s School Days, imagining the Roman Emperor coming to Mexborough for a school dinner, and not really approving of the pudding: “And then, behold, the horror of horrors, STODGE! This also was a deliciously repulsive solid all beset with apples, pomegranates, nuts and bolts.” Very good, P Elliott. To the head’s study, boy!

The person who sent me the magazine pointed me in the direction of a couple of pieces: a rhyming poem about a cowboy called Carson McReared “who, South of the 49th was feared greater than any man ever before” and a prose piece called Harvesting. They’re both by one E Hughes. Or, as he’s more usually known, Ted Hughes.

Yes, that’s right: these are early pieces by the former Poet Laureate, one of the greatest poets that Yorkshire has ever produced. The cowboy poem isn’t much like the mature Hughes, but Harvesting has intriguing flashes of his style: “Around the edges of the field a thin strip of pale yellow stubble, dotted with sheaves, steadily grows wider. With each round of the cutter another line of sheaves appears round the edges of the steadily lessening patch of standing corn.”

It’s amazing to read this: it’s like finding a picture of your grandad as a lad, or coming across a recording of the early Mozart practising his scales. I know that’s impossible, but you get my drift. Here, in embryo form, is the work of a great writer.

So I hope somebody has hoarded my old poems from The Wathonian, and I hope that, once they’ve got past the reports of the house rugby matches, they come across a gem called Zoismic Poem. “He’s got a future, that lad,” they’ll say…