Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


[82] ICHS – Part Five

I have done my school days in roughly chronological order, so I am left with the Sixth Form at Ilford County High School. But because it’s been a bit rambling, there will be lots of other leftover bits as well!


You will, of course, have read Parts One, Two, Three and Four already.

I have described the school and its location but have only recently found this picture. It shows the school frontage, which is largely unchanged today and the local church that we sometimes used – for inoculations, medical visits and GCE O Level oral examinations.

But also shows this large rough field to the front. You will remember, from Blog [36] that fireworks on the Fifth of November used to be much more common. This feature would have a rough bonfire and some of the boys might gather with bangers. Organized Fireworks night events were unusual – they were just informal gatherings.

Sixth Form

It was assumed at Ilford County High School (ICHS) that all students would move on to the Sixth Form to study selected subjects at A Level and there were very few exceptions to this rule. There was just one boy in our class who left after O Levels.

GCE A Levels were the only option for us. (AS levels did exist but I never heard of anyone taking them. The other qualifications below degree level were OND, HND and HNC. There were Further Education Colleges doing things like these.) A few scholars who failed to achieve the necessary grades could re-sit and catch up later with A Levels. The general standard – for continuation into Sixth form, or for many jobs elsewhere – was five subjects at O Level, including English Language and Mathematics.

As for O levels there was no element of coursework in our studies.


I will do things the other way round and start with the options available to us, the classic subjects which were more or less the only subjects generally available at University, so they were the main subjects available at school.

There were the sciences: Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology; Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics; Languages: English (which at A Level meant Literature,) French, German, Spanish, Latin and Ancient Greek; and the arts and humanities: Art, Geography and History.

[I may be wrong about Botany and Zoology. It may have been just Biology. I am not sure how a few had managed to get to O Level Greek. Music, PE or RI may have been available but were rarely chosen.]

For the Sixth Form we picked three subjects. Probably not every possible combination was available. Those doing Mathematics generally did four, like me, usually Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry.

ICHS Today

AS Levels have come into use as the first half of A level courses and the School now starts the Sixth form with four AS subjects selected from quite a long list. Their web site suggests that any combination of four subjects is acceptable. These are usually cut to three in the final year for A Level study.

Sciences are Physics, Chemistry and Biology with the addition of Psychology and Computer Studies. (In the fifties and sixties, Computer Studies did not exist and Psychology started at University level.)

Mathematics and Further Mathematics are both available (replacing what to us were Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics.)

Languages are English Literature, French, German and Spanish. Classical Civilisation is available, replacing the Latin and Greek of our days, which sadly seem to have disappeared as school subjects. (There is also English Language and Literature.)

Art, History and Geography effectively complete all the options available in our day. (Music, PE and RI are still there, probably still very much minority choices.)

With more stress now on real life and business, they have the three additional options of Economics, Government and Politics, and Design Technology (Product Design).

I must add this section with the following, taken from the School web site: “The Sixth Form at Ilford County High School is one of the most successful in the UK and in 2012 the Department for Education cited it as the most successful state school in England for progression to university.”

I think it was pretty good back in the sixties!

Sixth Form Studies

Then, as now, the Sixth Form was different. We were taught in much smaller groups in a way that was slightly more relaxed and informal. (I suspect that all teaching is much more informal nowadays!) We had free periods when in theory we did private study and the Library was allocated for this use. I am not sure to what extent we were allowed to leave the school in free periods but we certainly did sometimes. We used loose-leaf files instead of exercise books.

There were some other things in the timetable. There was a new thing called ‘Use of English,’ for one period a week with an examination at the end of the Lower Sixth. It was designed, I think, to side-track English O Level for non-native speakers of English – it may have included an oral exam.

There was also something called General Studies, which covered some odds and ends of real life to avoid a blinkered sphere of study. (Don’t ask me what was included. Perhaps politics, economics, British Constitution, current affairs.) The School now includes an AS subject called Critical Thinking which develops analytical and writing skills it develops. This looks like the successor to General Studies.

It was at the height of the importance of Russia and the USSR and we had a teacher who I think came back from a year learning the Russian language. When I started in the Lower Sixth, there was an optional O Level Russian course available.

[It clashed with something so I couldn’t do it. I bought the standard text book, which in those days was effectively produced by a department of the USSR government, and could only be ordered by post from Moscow. I taught myself while at school and University and took the O Level a few years later.]


Back to subjects – I have left until last those I did at A Level and next on my list is Mathematics, always known as Maths. (US: Math) I think I always knew that I would go on to study Maths at university. It was always my favourite subject but I can’t remember the particular Maths teachers. It was just Maths up to the Fourth Form, taking O Level Pure Mathematics early, then Additional Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the Fifth Form – and Pure and Applied for A Level. I think Mr Taylor, the deputy Head (known as Gat) taught some of the A Level Applied Mathematics.

I remember Mr Rigby as a Maths teacher but I am not sure if he actually taught us. He was near to retirement and, in a time when all teaching was done on a blackboard, he was allergic to chalk dust. He wore gloves when writing on the blackboards and would write everything for the day before lessons started.


I need to go back to the earlier years of Maths, when we did algebra and geometry and the geometry include various constructions with triangles and circles – things like bisecting angles and bisecting the sides of triangles. We all had geometry sets, often in a little tin like the picture above.


A geometry set always contained two set squares (US: triangles) of different proportions (90-45-45 and 90-60-30), a protractor for measuring angles up to 180, a pair of compasses for drawing circles (now sometimes just called a compass), and dividers (like compasses but with two points). It may also have included a six-inch ruler, coloured pencils and a pencil sharpener. The picture above is, of course, far too modern. Set squares, protractors and rulers were wooden, not plastic, buy otherwise modern equipment is similar.

Later we did trigonometry and learned to use logarithms. I think slide-rules were not used until the Sixth Form. (Calculators were just emerging but were not yet allowed for use in schools.)

We did trigonometry round about the Third Form and some calculus in the Fourth Form. I think our syllabus reflected changes so that the calculus was new.

For A level much of what I remember for Pure Mathematics was more calculus – including trigonometric expressions and natural logarithms. For Applied Mathematics we did uniform acceleration, statics and friction – basically mechanics. There was none of the statistics which has come in later to the syllabus.

I can’t comment much on how the teaching of Maths has changed except to say that by the early eighties (when I taught for a few years) it had changed little. In the eighties calculators had replaced logarithms and slide rules, probability and statistics were included, but the basics were similar using textbooks.


There was a very popular combination of Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Physics and Chemistry and those were the subjects I did. For Chemistry I am pretty sure that we had the same teacher through O Level and A Level but I can’t remember his name. For reasons that were not clear, we did O Level Chemistry half a year early, in January – presumably to allow more time for the A Level syllabus.

Chemistry was heavily based on practical experiments – something like two theory periods each week and two double periods of practical experiments. I definitely preferred practical lessons. There was a Junior Chemistry Laboratory (JCL) for O Level and Senior (SCL) for A Level. Chemistry theory seemed relatively boring – just a new element every week – reading about its sources, mining and extraction and uses etc., just reading learning by rote from textbooks.

Conical-Flask1 Flaming Bunsen Burner Against Black Background

Practicals, done in pairs, involved chemicals in conical flasks, burettes, pipettes, Bunsen burners and litmus paper. (Pictures above of conical flasks and a Bunsen are far too modern.) We always wore our own white lab coats for practical lessons. For Chemistry we also had to supply a small metal spatula at our own expense.


We had chemical balances that would weigh to 0.001 grammes.

The balance was in a box like the picture above. It was so accurate that it was sensitive to air movements.

Normally we knew what the result of the experiment would be, having done the theory. But for A Level we developed a complex flowchart of tests to identify a simple sample. The A Level included a three-hour practical exam – we were allowed to use our flowcharts.


I loved Physics and might have chosen it as a subject at University. We were taught by the senior Physics teacher, Mr Landau, always known as ‘Tonks.’ (He took the Jewish boys for separate assemblies and I am told that his nickname derives from his piano playing abilities.)

He was by far the best teacher at ICHS, on a level with the revered Mr Adlam from Highlands.

As for Chemistry, lessons were mainly practical. Tonks instilled in us the need for rigour in experimentation – often doing things in two or four directions and averaging results. We had to write up each experiment formally in a special exercise book. Unlike all others (small 80-page standard school exercise books) the Physics practical books were black, larger and semi-hard bound.

Every experiment had a description of the apparatus, with a diagram, and a clear Method with Results and Conclusions. Only when it reached his standards of excellence would he initial the page as a true representation of work done. His aim was that for those doing Physics at university, work approved by him would not have to be repeated. (If the work was imperfect he would put a note on a piece of paper slipped into the book – so that the final approved pages would be all in our own writing as our work.)

(Somehow I lost my Physics practical exercise book. I regretted this fifteen years later when I taught Physics briefly in a minor capacity.)

In describing the apparatus everything had to be included. For work with electricity this always included dccccw – double cotton-covered copper connecting wire. It was well before the time of plastic coated electric cabling.

Physics included electricity, heat, light, sound, and things like Hooke’s Law – for the expansion of a wire under stress.

Lab assistants

For Chemistry and Physics there was some work to be done in preparing for practical exams. Each year one boy from the Upper Sixth was selected to help the teachers for a few hours each week. They were paid real money for this. (About a pound a week?)


To complete my notes about ICHS there are a few more bits. As for most schools then, there were prefects with prefect’s badges and the power to give minor impositions (essays) to erring pupils. Among other things one prefect would ring the bell between lessons. (He had to go to the school Office to do this.)

They controlled the boys in school dinners and made sure that only those with notes from parents could leave the school grounds at lunch time.

Up until our year more than half of the Upper Sixth would become Prefects. With the much larger numbers in our post-war bulge a tier of sub-Prefects was instituted. I didn’t make Prefect but was a sub-Prefect. [If you haven’t read about the War or our bulge year, don’t blame me. It’s there if you look.]

School Life

I can’t add much to what I have said already to represent what happened in the Sixth Form. After about the first year I always walked to and from school – about two miles each way – and I gave up school dinners.

In the Sixth Form we didn’t have the 32-strong forms but were in smaller groups, and I mostly associated with those doing Maths and sciences. Sometimes a few of us went to the Curry Emporium at Gant’s Hill. It had just opened and was for many people their first taste of Indian cuisine. A prawn biriyani cost, I think, 8s 6d. (That’s 42.5p) I liked it with chappattis.

You can read about my initiation into alcohol with a few school friends.

I spent too much of my spare time in the Upper Sixth form playing Three Card Brag, something like Poker but with just three cards. Stakes were very small staring at a penny. (That’s an old penny, less than half a modern penny.) I wasn’t particularly good at it.


Finally this is me, a bit earlier than the Sixth Form.




[67] One, Two, Three …

When I was at school we had to do Mathematics so we had some quite difficult ‘sums’ to do – without mobile phone apps and even without calculators. How did we manage? (I will get to computers later but I have to start back at school.)

I should be honest here. I like Maths. I did ‘A’ level Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at school, then ‘S’ level Mathematics, then I went to University and did a degree in Mathematics. Now I play around with spreadsheets for all sorts of things. But like everyone else, back in the fifties and sixties I had to do it the hard way. (If you read on you will see that it got easier in the seventies.)


Mental arithmetic at school was important. From very early days at school the times tables were taught by rote – from two times two is four up to twelve times twelve. We did these back in my days at Grange Hill from the age of about seven.

We used our knowledge of tables to do relatively simple sums. At junior school we learned about decimals, subtracting large numbers, long multiplication and long division, all done just by using pencil and paper methods. I won’t go into the details but before Secondary School we knew how to work out: 3456 x 789, and we knew how to find 3456 ÷ 789 as a decimal. (We didn’t do sums quite that hard but we knew the method.)

LogTables SMP%20Tables


At Ilford County High School we needed a quicker way to work out arithmetic. (Of course the same was true at all other schools.) Probably in the Third Form, we did logarithms, a relatively easy and quick way to multiply by using addition. I have considered at length whether to try to explain the way that logarithms work – and I have decided against it. It would take quite some time to do it clearly and I suspect that WordPress would fail with the mathematical notation.

I will show you an example. The oldies can sit back, reminisce and gloat – thinking: ‘Yes, I remember those books. We did that. The young generation have it too easy nowadays.’ And the youngsters can just think: ‘What! Surely no-one actually had to add up three-digit numbers!’

I will give actually give two examples.

A printed list in a little book allowed you to look up every number from 1.01, 1.02, 1.03 all the way to 9.98, 9.99, to find the logarithm of that number. Ok we will call them just Logs. (The battered SMP booklet in the picture is probably from the eighties but the numbers inside were the same!)

Here are the first ones. Log(1.01) is 0.004, Log(1.02) is 0.009, Log(1.03) is 0.013. (I have simplified it by using three figures. The tables coped with four. The Log of 1 is 0.000 and the Log of 10 is 1.000. You don’t need tables for them.)

If you wanted to know 2 x 3, you looked up 2.00 in the book of tables. It’s 0.301. Then you looked up Log(3.00), which is 0.477 (Believe me, I knew both of those. They were part of what we learned at school. I didn’t have to look them up!) Then you wrote down a little sum and added them up:

Number Logarithm
2 0.301
3 0.477
???? Total     0.778

Now we have to get the answer by looking up anti-logarithms. We want a number with a Log of 0.778, so we turn to another page in the book, look up Antilog(0.778) and the answer is – Surprise, Surprise! – 6!

So we complete the table.

Number Logarithm
2 0.301
3 0.477
6.00 Total     0.778

Because we always show our working, we write 2 x 3 = 6.00 (using logs) and put the table by the side.

That was easy. You all knew that 2 x 3 was 6, so here is just one more example, not quite so obvious.

12.34 x 567.8 = ???

Number Logarithm
12.34 1.091
567.8 2.754
7007 Total 3.845

You add the right hand column first, then look up 0.845 in the Antilog tables. So the answer is 7007. [You will either know, or will have worked out by now, that the bit before the decimal point in a logarithm tells you whether its 7.007 or 70.07 or 700.7 or 7007. It gets more complicated for 0.7007 or 0.07007!]

We did everything with those books of Log Tables. As well as multiplication (as shown above, by adding Logs) we could do division, (subtracting Logs) powers (multiplying Logs – using Logs), and sines, cosines and other trigonometry (using other tables in that little book).

It was the way calculations were done in a world without calculators.


Slide Rules

A year or two later we learned to use slide rules, which were just physical devices using the same methods as logarithms. You can see in the picture three wooden graduated rulers fitted together. The middle one slides along. In the diagram it is set up to multiply by two – so you can see how it shows that 2 x 2 = 4 and 2 x 3 = 6. For points in between you count along subdivisions, so you can also read 2 x 1.5 = 3.0 or 2 x 2.3 = 4.6 . The method was not quite as accurate as Logs but it was easier and quicker.

(It doesn’t matter if you haven’t followed the last few paragraphs. If will give you a sense of wonder at how clever we used to be.)



We come now to something I thought at first would be simple – just mention calculators. They were non-existent in the sixties; appeared in the early seventies; were cheap enough for general use by the mid-seventies; and were allowed in schools by the late eighties, replacing all that work with log tables and slide rules.

But then I realised that these cumbersome machines are now so outdated that most youngsters have never seen one and wouldn’t even recognize one! You probably have a Calculator app on your phones. The picture above shows an early calculator. It’s small strip of LED (light emitting Diodes) at the top was all you had then to show what was happening, with physical buttons to enter data.

The picture shows a scientific calculator, which could do trigonometry and other functions. Early basic models just did addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

All you really need to know that these things just didn’t exist in the early sixties. At schools we had to manage with pencil and paper methods, log tables and slide rules.


A Diversion about Tractors

Why am I talking about tractors?

Well, for about six months after I left school, in 1966, I worked in the Accounts Department of Ford Motor Company at their Tractor factory at Basildon, down the road a bit from Ilford. Looking back on that period now, it is amazing that businesses ever managed their accounts with such primitive technology. Most of the time I was sorting through bits of paper, matching invoices to delivery notes so that we only paid for goods actually received.

In theory, every invoice was matched by its proof of delivery and that happened some of the time. More often numbers and dates did not match and there were all sorts of bits of paper to split, rearrange and match. Difficult situations were referred to ‘the Auditors,’ always said with an air of trepidation. I was just a humble clerk – not even that, just a ‘temp.’

[For those who want to reminisce about tractors, there were four models then of different sizes: Dextra, Super Dextra, Major and Super Major. They were bright blue. The one shown in the picture is a Dextra, the smallest model. Every part that arrived at the factory had a part number. Most started C5NN, which meant they were painted bright blue. Engines just had a long number. Delivery notes always seemed to include part number EZE 35, wooden pallets, which were returnable and free.]


Calculating Machines

At the Ford Tractor works, I dealt mainly with internal transfers from Belgium. If I remember correctly, the turnover just for this was about a million pounds a month, a lot of money in those days. It was before the hand-held calculators shown earlier so all we had were some slow, bulky adding machines and these ‘Facit’ machines for multiplication.

You had to manually set up both numbers, then wind the handle several times to get the answer. It was entirely mechanical and so the machines were noisy. It was a miracle that accounts were published every months with figures bearing some approximation to what had actually happened.

Most people in businesses through Britain would not have ever seen something so technologically advanced as this.

They did have a computer – just one for the whole factory complex at Basildon – and I will come to that later. This was going to be blog about computers … Maybe next time.


[66] ICHS – Part Two


I have many more (mostly good) memories of my seven years at ICHS. While I will try to look at things roughly by years, I also have to look at specific topics and subjects, so it will be a bit rambling. Yes, I know, it’s always a bit rambling!

As now, the school’s curriculum was split into three chronological periods. I will compare things fifty years ago with modern day ICHS, where many basic points seem unchanged.

Curriculum for the first Three Years

ICHS now teaches the following subjects for the first three years: English, Mathematics, (General) Science, History, Geography, French, Music, Art, PE and Games. So far it’s the same as back in the sixties.

Spanish or German is chosen in the second year as a second language. Well, when I was there we all had Latin as a second language from the Second Year. Spanish or German came later as an option. (Not for me. I think I took Additional Mathematics instead.)

They also now have Food Studies, Design Technology, Information Technology, Philosophy and Ethics and PSHEE, none of which came into our education at any time. The nearest thing to Food Studies would have been Domestic Science (more or less cooking) a subject taught to girls only. (See [20] Sex Discrimination.) Design Technology and Information Technology didn’t exist as subjects but we had Woodwork. Instead of Philosophy and Ethics we had Religious Instruction or Religious Education (RI or RE).

Parents could exclude children from RI and from daily assemblies. Ilford had a significant Jewish population and about a fifth of our class had their separate Jewish assembly and religious education. No one then ever indicated any other religion or opted out of Christian (Church of England) teaching.

If you remember [60] Young and Innocent you will understand that Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (which I had to look up) and, in particular any education about sex, simply did not exist. Anything in these areas would be left to parents, who would probably say nothing.

[I have been juggling with possible timetables on a spreadsheet. I can make the First Year add up to 35 periods, as it must, but I’m not sure what happened in the Second and Third Years. We added Latin so somewhere we must have lost five periods. Maybe Art and Woodwork were just for one year.]

The First Year

We were the post-war ‘Bulge,’ which caused some problems. (See [46] The War) Until we arrived, ICHS had worked on a four-form intake but when we came they had to take six classes of 32. Initially, there was no attempt at streaming so that the first year could be used to sort us out. Classes were named from the form teacher. I was in 1J and I always assumed that Mr Jermy was in his first year of teaching. He was learning what it was like to be a form teacher. I have no idea what subject he taught!

(Some Facebook chat about ICHS suggests that Mr Jermy taught Mathematics, so he probably did. That means that he almost certainly taught us Mathematics. I can’t remember everything!)

They say that ‘boys will be boys’ and inevitably there were those among us who tested the limits to see what we could get away with. But Mr Jermy did learn to cope. We were more or less kept under control and we all survived the first year.

There were also other pupils who suggested that 1L was the class for those expected to form the ‘A’ stream, with the others being generally mixed. As one of the top pupils from Highlands I was disappointed not to be among those in 1L. It was said that Highlands was not one of the better streaming schools and so their pupils were not expected to do so well. I felt the challenge to prove myself capable of doing well. (I suppose I was a bit of a swot. I have always liked learning.)


At the end of every year term we had formal examinations in every subject. Marked papers were returned to us. As well as a percentage score, everyone was given their position out of 32. (Always exams in first and third term, not sure about middle one.)

We had reports, which we took home in a sealed envelope. The report listed every subject with a very short comment, the exam result and position. Then there was a section marked ‘Conduct.’ Dad was always much more interested in our conduct and expected ‘Good’ or ‘Very Good.’ Sometimes it was only ‘Fair.’

Second and Third Years

I remember the transition to the next year, which was unusual because of the bulge. From the Second Year onwards we would always be in streamed classes by ability (and in some subjects, in sets, over-riding class streams.) But for the bulge year this would be difficult. Nobody wanted to be put in the bottom stream of six streams. They invented a new structure with 2A, 2B and 2C for the top three classes. The rest went into 2X, 2Y and 2Z, which were treated equally. We were all called into the Hall and class lists were called out. I went to 2A. Classes for our cohort kept to this structure as we moved up to the fifth form.

I can’t remember all the names or details of teachers but my old Latin dictionary has been useful. This was also pocket-sized, like the hymn book, always carried round with us and my receipts for School Fund were stuck in the blank pages at the end. One for April 1960 is signed by Mr Cully, so he must have been the form teacher in the Second Year. I think he taught History. That’s about all I remember of him. He probably taught us History.

Unfortunately the teacher for the third year just put his initials ‘JE’ on the receipts. I think he was Mr Evans and taught Geography

[It was only long-standing teachers who seemed to come with established nicknames. The headmaster was ‘Harry’ and his deputy was ‘GAT,’ which we all assumed, wrongly, was from his initials. My older brother assured me that it came from an allusion of him with his gown, which he always wore, looking like Batman. I will come to a few other nicknames later but Mr Jermy, Mr Cully and Mr Evans did not have nicknames.

Our respect for authority meant that we always called teachers ‘Sir’ and referred to them as Mister. But when the boys talked about teachers Mr Jermy would become just Jermy.]


From the Second or Third Year some subjects (Mathematics, French and Latin and, later Physics and Chemistry) were taught in sets rather than streams. So, for example, 2A, 2B and 2C had Mathematics lessons at the same times but were taught as 2 Set 1, 2 Set 2 and 2 Set 3.


I am going to end this post with a look at all the subjects we only did in the early years.

I can’t say I remember much about Religious Education. We were growing to the age where we questioned things and no longer took what the teacher said as necessarily true. So belief in God was beginning to waver. Lessons were still effectively stories from the Bible. (Religious Education meant Church of England education. We were never told anything about other religions.)

It was the subject where pupils had little interest and teachers found things like discipline most difficult. I can remember quite well-behaved boys testing the teacher with a bit of messing around and I think several teachers did not last long.

It was one of the first subjects to disappear. It may have been an option for GCE but I don’t think anyone did it.



In today’s world, where Health and Safety concerns permeate life, it may be hard to believe how we did woodwork. With just the supervision of a single teacher, a class of 32 were let loose in a room equipped with hammers, saws, planes, chisels and other pieces of equipment. At the front of the room there was a circular saw and the only safety measure was that we were sent outside when this was in use. (Facebook chat suggests that the teacher may have been Mr Noakes. The name is familiar.)

There were no serious accidents but I do have a line across one thumb, which many years ago was a blood-marked line following over-vigorous use of a chisel.

We learned to measure accurately and to construct in the old-fashioned way – with dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joints and strips of wooden dowel. Measurements were, of course, sixteenths of an inch, not millimetres!


I have to squeeze in Art, which stopped in the lower school. To be honest I can’t remember whether we had one, two or three years of Art. It was more or less a single drawing or painting in a double period every week but we did learn some of the techniques – light and shade using highlights and vanishing point perspective.



Music was a subject that we only did for two years. I wish I could remember the name of our music teacher because it was a subject I enjoyed. I did have the advantage of having had a short period of piano lessons. (See [44] Boars and Antelopes, Craneflies and Earwigs.) We had Music in the School Hall where the teacher could use the piano that lived there for assemblies.

There was no attempt to teach us to play music or to read musical notation.

For the first year we sang. We had song books with the words – usually the sort of song with several verses and a repeated chorus. I suppose the books had the music (or perhaps we just picked up what the teacher was playing.) To be honest, I have no idea whether we sang in tune but that was not the point of the exercise. We enjoyed singing heartily.

There were familiar English folk songs like Barbara Allen, Scarborough Fair, Clementine, Heart of Oak, Early One Morning and the Lincolnshire Poacher; and sea Shanties like the Drunken Sailor.

The Second Year marked the beginning of puberty for most boys, when voices broke. Our music teacher felt that with our changing voices boys would be self-conscious and less keen to sing. So there was no more singing. Instead he played us classical music on an early record-player.

He picked pieces that he could use to illustrate musical topics and would explain everything about the piece before playing it, so that we had something to listen out for. Some of them told stories through music, like Peter and the Wolf.


Danse Macabre

I am sure that you all know that Danse Macabre is an artistic genre, dating from the Fifteenth Century, portraying by analogy the universality of death, showing a personified Death calling those from all walks of life, typically the Pope, an emperor, a king and a labourer, to dance among the graves – to remind us of the fragility of life and its vain glories. (To be honest, I have had a little help from Wikipedia.)

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a song in this genre for voice and piano and later re-worked it for an orchestra as a piece of music that I will always remember from our music lessons. It uses various instruments and musical tricks to paint a picture of the dance of Death.

I can’t recount exactly what the teacher described to us, but here are some notes, again helped by Wikipedia. The legend is that at midnight on Halloween Death calls the bodies of the dead while he plays the violin. (I will say something about Halloween in a later blog.) The music starts with a single note repeated twelve times for the chimes of midnight. The solo violin is tuned down a semitone so that it can use two strings to make a harsh dissonant sound to call out the dead.

There are then two themes, played on separate instruments through the orchestra, gradually becoming more energetic. After a direct quote from the Gregorian Dies Irae, it returns to its two themes in a full orchestra crescendo.

The ending represents the cock crowing at dawn (with an oboe) and the skeletons scuttling back to their graves. As in another piece by Saint-Saëns (Fossils from the Carnival of the Animals) a xylophone is used to indicate the rattling bones of the skeletons.

This is still, definitely my favourite piece of music, and it always reminds me of that lesson. (More about music in [26] Music (1) and the two follow-ups.)


Although I have lots to say about ICHS, it’s going to be a series with unexciting titles and few pictures. More to come …