A Knight’s Tale (35: Mum Gets Me Through)

Wimbledon College was not really geared for art, so it was an unusual, if not the first, request for me to sit the GCE ‘O’ Level examination in 1958, and no books were available. Although I don’t remember, a contemporary, Matthew Hutchinson, who would have walked it, must have sat it too.


The examination was largely an assessment of your artwork, but there was one set book, ‘Parish Churches of England’, by John Charles Cox and Charles Bradley Ford. The school failed to supply this essential volume, and my parents could not afford it. Mum ordered it from Wimbledon Library. As the weeks rolled by, we waited with bated breath for its arrival. It was in our hands after school the day before the exam. Using a twenty four hour clock this would have been the sixteenth hour, but it certainly felt like the eleventh.

Having the advantage of reducing the text a little, this small format architectural history of our traditional places of worship was lavishly illustrated with black and white photographs. It had to be read in order to answer exam questions that would face me the next day. There would be possibly four illustrations from the book which I would need to identify and to comment upon.

I skim-read the pages of the book. I stared at what seems like hundreds of pictures. I couldn’t memorise them all. I selected some I thought most likely examples of various periods or styles of architecture.

It was rather late by then. I was pretty tired from the reading, and Mum had completed her normal heavy duty day of caring for the family. Our adrenalin, however, kicked in.


That was the answer. A mnemonic is a device dreamed up to aid memory retention. There are various types of these, one of which is rhymes, an example of which is ‘Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November………’, enabling us to remember how many days there are in each month.

Fixing my eyes in turn on each of the images that I thought most likely to turn up on my desk the next day, I recited an invented nonsense rhyme until it was burned in my brain. Mum then took the book in hand, and, opening the tagged pages at random, asked a question about the photos thereon. By running the relevant rhyme through my head I came up with an answer. At first these were not always correct. A certain amount of repetition, late into the night, was required.

Finally, reasonably satisfied, we repaired to our respective beds. I had chosen well. I recognised each of the illustrations in the exam and answered the questions to the satisfaction of the examiners. Phew!

Two years later I was not allowed to sit the ‘A’ Level, “because it would interfere with my other subjects”.


    1. Neither. I opted for a different career involving, as the eldest of a family of five opting for going to work to bring in some income. How this was changed will come later. Thanks very much, Pat

  1. Schools! I left a girls-only grammar school to go to the local technical college becauseI couldn’t study the subjects I wanted at school. The headmistress predicted a sorry ending but it wasn’t, far from it.

  2. You and your mom made a good team–and you certainly worked hard.
    I’m not entirely clear on the levels and exams, but it’s a shame you couldn’t pursue art.

  3. That is an unforgettable memory binding you and your Mum and Wimbledon College together. Undoubtedly, but your prescient selection of illustrations combined with Mum’s relentless revision sessions helped you join the iconic institute. Again, I am sure your Mum got you through much more in life.

  4. What a barrier to someone who is obviously artistically inclined as you occasionally allow us to see! Interestingly enough, our daughter who has such a talent was advised not to study fine art at university because ‘it would stifle her talent’. What has stifled it is having neither the time nor the space to devote to it. This is a warming anecdote of your mother’s devotion to helping you achieve your goal.

  5. That mnemonic for remembering the months was the first one I ever learned. 🙂 You and your mother made a great team, Derrick. She was a wonderful person and I agree, a devoted mother.

  6. How unfair for the school to require material for an examination not easily accessible to all of its students! But life is never fair, as your mother knew well. She found a way, as caring and determined mothers often do. What a beautiful memory of her to hold close to your heart <3

  7. As I read this, I thought you might b interested to know that my mother attended Royal Holloway College, studying mathematics, before coming to the US. I don’t remember hearing stories such as this, but I am sure there were some, as it seemed a regimented a school as yours!

  8. What a wonderful memory! YAY and HOORAY for your Mum getting you through…again. Because I know she helped you many times in your lifetime! What a great Mum! Mums make the best teammate when it comes to their children! 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your memories/life story, Derrick! You are stirring up some good memories for me in my own life. 🙂

  9. I bet you shared that story in the family get together today. Art has remained in your life, while Latin has fallen by the wayside. So there,Wimbledon Jesuits! How wonderful of your mum to support your aspirations.

  10. I was never apparently going to make any sort of grade, I did once but in a split second it was stifled and I never got that chance again…lost in a world of disabilities & a mother who felt I’d be in a coffin before I was an adult, that put me completely on the back foot. Disabled people in the 50/60s didn’t get any chance!

    Just writing this I wish the old bat was here now – she’d probably have rekicked the bucket at the thought that her daughter is doing alright…

    (apologies that’s mean…but not everything in some peoples lives were all roses and cream)

  11. “Peter slipped clumsily…” (reactivity series), “Come on, s*dding Derby County…(geological epochs). The problems start, though, when you realise that you have forgotten the mnemonic, as just happened to me with those two.

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