A Knight’s Tale (29: Early Interviews)

In the summer of 1952, I spent a considerable amount of time in the public swimming baths at Latimer Road in Wimbledon. It was there that I taught myself to swim.  I needed to do this in order to pass the scholarship.  This was a name applied to the eleven plus exam which would take us to grammar school.  I had no idea what it was, but I wondered how I would be able to pass it if I couldn’t swim.  With that daft conception in my head it is a wonder I did pass it.  Without getting wet.

Speaking recently with my sister Elizabeth, we realised that a visit by our great aunts Mabel and Evelyn to our home in Raynes Park, followed by individual invitations to tea, was probably a series of interviews resulting in Dad’s inheritance of Mabel’s house in Wimbledon.

In 1953 I was to experience another life-changing interview. Having passed the eleven plus examination I was entitled to attend a grammar school. Admission to the Catholic Wimbledon College, pictured above during my time there, required getting through another test. This was an interview with Fr Wetz, one of the three Jesuit priests from the school whose obituaries I was later to read in The Times. The only exchange I actually remember is the sporting one. I, who had never played any formally organised game in my short life, was asked which sports I liked best. Knowing the school’s bent, I replied “rugby”. “Oh”, was the response. “Where have you played that?”. “With my brother and sister”. I lied lamely. I must have been marked up for quick thinking.

On 22nd January 1965, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was to appoint Anthony Crosland Secretary of State for Education and Science. In her biography published in 1982, Susan Crosland wrote that her husband had told her “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales, and Northern Ireland”. I will be ever grateful that I finished my period of education long  enough before he succeeded. My schooling ended earlier in 1960, when the result of the trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ meant that it would be possible for the Crosland quotation to be printed in full. I have no doubt that copies would have been widely circulated by those boys attending later that year.

The book, by D.H. Lawrence, was published by Penguin Books who were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. The verdict, delivered on 2 November 1960, was “not guilty” and resulted in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing explicit material in the United Kingdom. The prosecution was ridiculed for being out of touch with changing social norms when the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, asked if it was the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read”.

Someone nicked my copy, so I took this image from the many on the internet.


  1. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was banned in South Africa for many years and so copies of it circulated amongst the students when I was at university, soberly covered in brown paper!

    1. You might well ask. The Labour government saw them as offering education fo the select. In fact, without them my education could not have been as good as it was. They were, however, destroyed, but for very few. Thank you very much, Laurie

      1. Life is complicated, isn’t it? Grammar school means something quite different in the United States. Basically, it’s a term used to describe schools for children who are eleven and under. So there was a bit of a misunderstanding on my part.

      2. I was reading “Grammar School” the same way as you, Laurie. But I DO know that in the last sentence of the post, “nicked” means “stole.” I’m feeling quite British for knowing it. lol

  2. A friend of mind now owns and lives in “The Plumed Serpent,” the house D.H.Lawrence lived in in Chapala while he wrote the book of the same name. It is now a hotel and the trees that run along the wall outside it have been trimmed into the shape of a plumed serpent.

  3. I read a lot of D.H. Lawrence in college and thought I still had a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, but I just checked and I only have Sons and Lovers. I’m going to look in our used book nook at the library today. This post was very interesting to me – thanks for sharing your memories of grammar school!

  4. How did you pass a swimming test without getting wet?

    Times change. I remember having to read ” A Clockwork Orange” and “The Godfather” one year for English class in High School. I am sure both would have been banned in the past. I did not enjoy either one.

        1. Teachers can have some strange motivations for the books they assign. My ninth grade English teacher assigned us to read The Hobbit (which I absolutely hated!) because he thought Bilbo Baggins was a Christ figure. Then one of his (my teacher’s, not Bilbo’s) graduate professors told him, no, it’s just a story; there are no Christ figures involved. My teacher collected the books, and that was that. No more hobbits.

  5. I’m confused about the swimming test, too. 😀

    I read Lady Chatterly’s Lover for a project in I did as a high school senior. I don’t think I was particularly impressed. I can’t imagine someone asking now if a book is something you’d want your wife or servants to read!

  6. He hadn’t quite killed off grammars by thr time I started in 1968 but both Surrey where I started (Purley grammar,) and Hampshire where we moved in 1969 (Brockenhurst Grammar) were moving to comprehensives so I ended up attending a newly minted sixth form college. Such a stupid plan, methinks

  7. HA! 😀 Interesting for sure to look back on what we thought, felt, and did when we were younger…during our schooling years. 🙂 HA! I can remember some of my own questionable/daft notions. Ha! And how they did or didn’t play out. 😉
    I enjoyed reading your memories!
    Impressive architecture in that photo of the college!
    I’m always amazed at what books different people want to ban or destroy. I always looked at it this way…there is an audience for every book. And if a person doesn’t like a particular book then don’t read it. Or DO read it and then discuss it with others to see what can be learned from it.
    With my own kids, we often read books together (or simultaneously as they got older) and then discussed the pros, cons, what we could learn, etc. 🙂
    (((HUGS))) 🙂 and Happy New Week!!! 🙂

  8. An intruiging set of memories. There, for a moment, I was telling myself that Britain really had a superior schooling method, and then you brought it all crashing down. And after all that destruction of “elitism”, from afar, it looks as if only the elitely educated make it into politics, and so lead the masses in a life they themselves have no concept of. That may be harsh, and in error, but Johnson etc don’t translate well on the world stage.

    1. You are so absolutely right, Gwen, that I almost made the same point, but I try to steer away from politics – I did slip in the elite, though, with that in mind.

      1. Aha! You provided the key word, and I obligingly tumbled into your dastardly plot to get me go there! Knowing we Aussies have less decorum. Haha. Actually, I try not to be overtly political on my blog either.

    1. Nice one, Liz. Have you heard of Tom McGuinness? Formerly of Manfred Mann, now The Blues Band. He and I were the only two who passed that year. There will be more of our friendship and life at the college coming later.

  9. Good guess, Liz! I love to swim and taught myself how one summer in our above ground backyard pool which was about 2 feet deep. At least I learned how to float and move my arms. I hope you eventually learned how to swim.

  10. That is a perfectly composed image of Catholic Wimbledon College, I’d rate it 10 on 10. The account of acceptance of explicit writing in United Kingdom is interesting, as are the views of the puritans about grammar schools. As for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, fortunately for me it was not till I had read Lawrence’s signature novels that I landed upon the work, which made me better understand his theory of blood consciousness.

    I too have an account of unexpurgated edition in Sanskrit embedded in my heart, involving me, my father and a bookseller, that I have been meaning to narrate on my blog. I am not sure when if ever I am going to write that.

  11. The abolition of the grammar schools was the worst thing any government has done in the post-war period. Now all the rich people are in charge and the rest do their bidding.

  12. You passed without getting wet? Hahaha ☺️ What a beautiful college! I saw time ago a movie in which all books have been destroyed and was a very sad world! Why in world would want someone to destroy the grammar schools?

  13. It was the first time I felt betrayed by grown-ups. In 1969 I passed the 11-plus, despite my inability to swim. After a year they abolished our school and joined it with the secondary modern next door to make a Comprehensive school. All that work and worry for nothing.

    1. Indeed. So “fucking” destructive. An important additional memory for this section of my history. Ruined a very bright schoolboy – and no doubt many more. Thanks very much, Quercus.

  14. Just curious: what did Mr Crosland have against grammar schools?
    British educational system is fascinating to me; it is so very different from every system I am familiar with.

    1. It was a Labour Party contention that everyone should be equal and not separated on merit, despite the fact that those who failed at 11 were given a second attempt at 13. This ushered in the Comprehensives that we have now. Thanks very much, Dolly.

  15. ‘The book’ was still banned in Australia for quite some time. It was about 1963 when we scored a rather spirited English teacher. All I can remember of that year of her teaching is of her lamenting that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not on the curriculum. Looking back it is one of the great ‘If only’s’ of life. She would have brought even more to such a beautifully descriptive novel. Thanks for reminding me of one of life’s characters Derrick.

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