Sad news this week — Mike Houghton

12 December, 2009

Mini-Peewiglet with second Christmas guitar

I had some sad news earlier this week.

About a month ago I was browsing around on the internet when it occurred to me to go and look up one of my old primary schools.

We moved to Formby in, I think, 1969, though it might have been 1970. Formby started life as a little fishing village, and Wiki tells me that it had the first lifeboat station in the UK, and possibly the world. In any event, back in the late 60s and early to mid 70s a lot of fields and pussy willow plantations were ploughed up to be replaced with housing, for people wishing to move to a more scenic and less frenetic place from Liverpool and its close environs.

My sister and I were sad to leave our old house, and swore to buy it back and live there together when we grew up. (How things change! *g*) We very soon settled happily into Formby, though. I made dens in the pussy willows, and spent long days down in the sandhills catching what I now realise were the rare, and now protected, natterjack toads…

Natterjack toad

…and waiting literally hours by streams and ponds in the hope of seeing a stickleback…

Stickleback

…or–most prized sighting of all–a newt.

I made friends amongst my parents’ friends’ children who are still my friends today.

Back in Bootle, though, I left behind a really excellent little infants and junior school called St. Robert Bellarmine’s. The headmaster there had been Mr Lyonette, and it had been a very forward-thinking place for a little state primary school back in the 1960s.

St. Robert Bellarmine's

I’d been pestering to be allowed to start school for ages, and was allowed to go at 4 instead of 5, probably because my mother couldn’t stand the whining any longer. I don’t think Ma ever quite forgave me for rushing enthusiastically away into the classroom on my first day there, while other children clung, weeping, to their mothers’ skirts *g*

Some time afterwards, I quite clearly remember being one of what felt like hundreds of children taking a musical ability test in a very large room, and shortly after that I was furnished with a recorder. I’d first learned to pick out tunes on the piano on my grandmother’s knee, but the piano lived at Nana’s house and the recorder was the first musical instrument I owned.

I also remember having French lessons, which must have been virtually unprecedented in a school of that sort, at that time. Shiniest of all is the memory of the tin of brightly wrapped toffees we were each given at Christmas. They were a major treat in my household, as my parents didn’t go in for a lot of chocolate or sweets at any time of the year.

I have lots of good memories from those days. During the winter there was an ice slide down the side of the playground, and we stood in line at break times to hurl ourselves along it. I also learned to ‘jump in’ to the long line of girls skipping with a rope. Wafer biscuits in gleaming plastic wrappers were on sale in the playground at break time, but I didn’t often get one as money was quite short.

At dinner time we were allowed to put up our hands when we’d finished, for seconds, and older children would collect our plates and return them to us a few minutes later, replenished. We had to keep our hands up until a plate had come back, and I recall that even at 4 I was a little revulsed by the idea of ending up with some other child’s plate, as some of the children doing the carrying would put down their plates at the nearest available waving hand.

I remember taking part in a fete, dressed as a pink pig–my poor mother had to make the costume–and I also remember attending a fancy dress party as an elf: I still remember the way the felt and sequins on my costume felt, between my fingers. My sister went as a Christmas tree, I think, and she won a prize. I didn’t win anything, and seem to remember crying *g*

My teacher, Mrs McNamara, organised us into a band for a Christmas concert. She read out a list of percussion instruments, and we all flung up our hands to volunteer for the ones we wanted to play. I wasn’t chosen for anything, and I clearly remember a crushing sense of disappointment which turned quickly to excitment, however, when immediately afterwards I was told to go along the corridor to Mrs Thompson’s classroom and ask her for the glockenspiel. I can still clearly remember repeating “Glockenspiel, glockenspiel, glockenspiel,” to myself as I trotted along the corridor, anxious not to get the new word wrong.

Mrs McNamara had apparently decided that I was to perform a solo. I played Love is Blue–an odd choice for the glockenspiel, and presumably one I made myself, as I remember loving that tune as a small child. I no longer remember this part, but my mother told me that I made a mistake soon after starting, and that I quite composedly told the audience that I’d gone wrong, started again and played it through *g*

I also became engaged at a precocious age to a small and exceptionally naughty boy called Nicky Clarke. I invited him back to my place after school, and my mother was horrified when he climbed all over the kitchen, like a little monkey. I was charmed, though. We decided to marry (I suspect it was my idea), and I remember that as we were kneeling next to each other in church one morning I explained to him that he’d have to remember to ask me formally when we grew up, as otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it, since the rule was that the boy had to ask the girl. I think we must have been aged 5 or 6 at the time *g*

So! I was very sorry to leave St. Robert Bellarmine’s, and my beloved Nicky, when we moved to Formby. My parents’ plan was for my sister and me to attend the new St. Jerome’s primary school, but the building wasn’t yet complete when we moved and so I spent a term or two at Our Lady’s in Formby village. It was a successful school, but strict and regimented: very different from St. Robert Bellarmine’s, and not one that I enjoyed.

St. Jerome’s eventually opened, though, and we settled in. The first headmaster was Mr Duffy, but I soon spotted amongst the teachers one I’d already seen at St. Robert Bellarmine’s. This was Mr Houghton, and he and his family had presumably moved to Formby at the same time as us. I was fascinated by the coincidence, and sought him out in the infants’ school to tell him we’d been together at St. Robert Bellarmine’s, and to sing him a song. He was in conversation with Mr Duffy at the time, and I remember that they both looked quite surprised *g*

There weren’t a lot of children when the school first opened. I was in Junior 1, and soon made friends there and amongst the girls in the year above mine. In the second year a friend of mine, Wendy Haycock, took in a guitar that her father had given her–a huge, heavy, archtop sort of thing. I loved it, and immediately asked my parents for one for Christmas. I got it–a small, nylon-stringed affair–and took it into school when we went back after the holidays.

It turned out that Mr Houghton knew how to play the guitar, and he offered to give lessons. Quite suddenly children all over the place began to appear at school with guitars, and Mr Houghton began to give up almost all of his lunchtimes to teach us. I think we had an hour for lunch, and we’d bolt it down and then dash over to the Staff Room to ask for Mr Houghton. The dinner ladies tried to protect him but we were cunning, and slipped in behind their backs, and Mr Houghton never refused us. A thriving guitar club grew up, and very quickly an annual concert was arranged for the children and parents.

Sunday visit

Then somebody took in an accordian to school, and of course I had to have one of those too. I’d had piano lessons, and so it seemed easy to play, and I remember my father finding an advert in the Liverpool Echo and driving me over to the vendor’s house so that I could try it out. I was shy, and didn’t want to play in front of the strange man, but I told Daddy I wanted it and so we took it home. When we got home I got it out and played it, and Daddy told me off for not having played it earlier. It was then hidden away until Christmas day, but of course I managed to find it and play around a bit with it in the meantime.

Accordian Christmas -- my sister, Papa & me

In the second year, I think, Mr Houghton took over from Mr Duffy as headmaster, and around about then we had our first trip to Castlerigg Manor, near Keswick.

Castlerigg Manor, Keswick

We went for a week in the summer, and had the most fantastic time. My parents had introduced me to country walks much earlier in life, but I’d not been to the Lake District before. I loved the exciting hills and mountains, and the great fun we all had sleeping in dormitories and sneaking around after dark. The rooms were so extremely dark when the curtains were closed that it was possible to slip out of bed unobserved, steal over to a friend’s pillow and scare her witless by screaming in her face! I’ve never known a darkness like it, since.

Mr Houghton told us that a werewolf–Grogg–stalked the gardens at night, and were were shown a place in the woods that was said to mark Grogg’s grave. Naturally we were both delighted and terrified, though I’m pretty sure, looking back, that it was a cunning ploy to prevent us from trying to creep out of the building after dark *g*

I’ve been looking through some old pictures this morning, and I’ve found some taken at St. Jerome’s on sports day. I looked forwards all year to sports day, because I was a very sporty child, and I still remember the enormous surge of excitment when my house, Barlow, won the house cup.

Sports day at St. Jerome's -- c.1971

My sister, my aunt and me

After St. Jerome’s I went off to quite a strict school, run by nuns, and school was never as much fun again. I wasn’t allowed to take in my guitar or accordian, and the exhuberance encouraged at St. Jerome’s and St. Robert Bellarmine’s was frowned upon. One nun even complained to my mother that my hand was always first up whenever volunteers for any sort of new activity were called for. Um….??? I grew quickly bored, switched off and learned virtually nothing in what turned out to be 7 wasted and damaging years.

For a few years I returned to St. Jeromes on an annual basis, though, to play a guitar tune at the annual concert with my friends Liz Heery, Liz Spall and Gillian Williamson. Mr Houghton made time to help us choose the song (first Streets of London, I remember, and two years after that The Boxer), and then to check up on our progress. (We’d moved on from baby chords like D, G and A to ‘real’ ones like C and F, and I remember being told off for not having practised the difficult transition between C and F properly *g*)

We also went back to Castlerigg together, and captained teams of younger children. Mr Houghton managed to transform tidying the dormitories from a chore into a thrill, by setting up a competition. Each morning he and his fellow teachers would inspect the rooms, and we’d be awarded marks out of 10. By the end of the week I’d be surprised if squads of army recruits in their barracks would have been able to match the standards of tidiness and cleanliness that we achieved *g* He really understood how children’s minds work.

By the time I was old enough at school to give any real thought to my teachers I was a little disillusioned, and it’s only now, in looking back, that I realise what an enormous part great infant and junior school teachers can play in shaping their pupils’ lives.

I was more sorry than I can say to receive an email from Mr Houghton’s wife earlier this week, telling me that he died 5 years ago after a long battle with cancer.

I owe Mike Houghton an enormous debt of gratitude for helping to lay the foundations of what have become life-long hobbies of mine: music and walking. I learned other, more valuable, things from him too, although I didn’t realise it at the time. Stuff like the importance of kindness, and of making time to help people, and of never being afraid to have a go at things.

I’ve known for a few years that Mr Lyonette was no longer living, from having tried to track him down on the net, but I’d hoped that it might still be possible to get in touch with Mr Houghton and thank him for all that he gave me. I tried more than once some years ago to find him but I failed, and thought that perhaps he and his family had moved away. I’d contributed a couple of tunes to a CD put together by an internet acoustic guitar group that I used to frequent, and dedicated them to Mr Houghton. I’d hoped to send him a copy of the CD but I couldn’t find him. Now I wonder why it didn’t occur to me to contact St. Jerome’s sooner.

I understand from Mrs Houghton that their son, Tony, is teaching at a local primary school. I looked it up on the net, and saw that he’s the teacher governor. I wasn’t surprised. Clearly he’s following in the path that his father laid down. His parents must be very proud of him, and quite rightly so.

Thank you, Mr Houghton and Mr Lyonette, for helping to shape the good parts of what I’ve become today. (I don’t hold you responsible for the bad parts. Those’ll be the fault of the nuns *g*) You both live on in the lives of the children you helped to create, and I, for one, will never forget you.

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So glad that Piglet won’t be applying to schools for a while yet…

28 November, 2009

ZOMG… I’m so glad that Piglet, Piss-Piss and I don’t live in New York!

Here’s a fascinating glimpse into the agonies suffered by New York parents attempting to get their 4-year-old children into the city’s best kindergartens. I read a novel about this annual nightmare a few months ago–Admissions. This documentary, though, brings it all to life.

The documentary follows 3 sets of parents. One family is applying excusively to private schools, and the other two are hoping to get their wee bratlings into Hunter College Elementary School, the highly regarded NY public school (in the American sense, i.e. state school) that caters for academically gifted children. With 25 applicants for every place, though, the competition to get in is fierce.

One of those two families is only applying to Hunter–that’s where the Dad went–and the other (a single mother in a low income job) is hedging her bets by also applying for scholarships at academically high-powered NY private schools.

I’m only half way through so far, so I don’t know how it all pans out. My guess, though, is that the exclusively private parents will get the school of their choice–they’re wealthy, successful and personable, and their little boy is very engaging–and that one of the other two will get into Hunter. If my guess is right then I hope the unsuccessful one gets a scholarship somewhere else.

(Update: Ooh! I was wrong on every front. Interesting stuff!)

Fortunately, Piglet won’t be going down this road for some years yet. And, of course, she still has to master navigation. Still, though; she’s only 53.5 weeks old, and she does have Piss-Piss as a tutor.

Here’s a link to episode 1 (of 6–one hour in all, on the ever-excellent YouTube). Enjoy 🙂