Roundhay Grammar School, Leeds - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Roundhay Grammar School, Leeds

When we moved from Wakefield to Leeds it seemed as though we had moved to the other end of the world, but just nine miles separated the two cities. In those immediate post-war years, when the new official spin word 'austerity' governed everything we had and did, few people had cars. For Wakefield folk a day trip to Leeds was still a major outing on the bus: a permanent relocation to Leeds, such as our family made, was an emigration. I was feeling pretty gloomy anyway, quite apart from the weather and the move away from the railways. I really had not wanted to leave Wakefield and all my friends, and most particularly I had not wanted to leave the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School which I had waited for so long to join.

I already knew that our new home was in Gipton Mount, then one of about a dozen parallel cul-de-sacs leading off the right hand side of Gathorne Terrace in Harehills. Dad and sister Kathleen travelled first, by bus and tram, to get the keys from the agent and then open up the house ready for the arrival of the furniture. I travelled from Wakefield in the front of the furniture van with our pet cat Tiddles on my lap. My pocket diary records merely that Mum followed on later after clearing up in Cotton Street. I remember how my heart sank when I caught my first sight of Gathorne Terrace and I fear my dismay was noticed. Everything about the immediate neighbourhood looked forbidding and dirty - as indeed it was. Our new home, number 8, had cost £750 to buy. It was quite a let down from the smart semi in Wakefield but it was, presumably, all my parents could afford.

My first quick tour of inspection, while the furniture was being unloaded, revealed a tiny and totally useless garden area out front and a small backyard. A high brick wall at the end of the yard had a gate opening onto Back Gipton Mount, a cobbled cul-de-sac which was too narrow for four-wheeled vehicles. Our rear windows looked onto the backyards of the next street. On the ground floor there were two rooms: the Living Room and the Front Room. In those days the room designated 'front' was generally kept in a pristine condition ready for visitors but was otherwise rarely used. The living room, with a tiny scullery off, was used for everything else.
Just in front of the front door step there was a metal grating which turned out to be the cover over the hole down which sacks of coal were delivered. The coalman didn't drop the sacks down the hole: he emptied the contents down a steep chute which led directly into the cellar beneath, a drop of about twelve feet. Below ground there were actually two small, dark, dank cellars, one of which was where the coal arrived from the chute onto the bare concrete floor. The level of dust and accumulated grime had to be seen to be believed, although it appeared that the previous owners had made a half-hearted attempt to white-wash the walls and swill the floor. Coal had to be carried upstairs from the cellar in a scuttle which lived on the living room hearth alongside a matching small shovel, poker, hearth brush, and a pair of tongs, all of which dangled from a firedog (ornamental cast iron stand with hooks for the implements).

On the first floor there were two bedrooms and a bathroom-cum-toilet. It had already been decided, apparently, that the smaller of the bedrooms was for my sister and the other for my parents.
"Where do I go?" I asked, in no small panic. It transpired that the larger of two attics was to be my bedroom. Mum and Dad did their best to persuade me that it would be nice for me, now that I was 12¾ years old, to have my own private room at the top of the house. I was not convinced: it seemed to me that I would be completely cut off from the rest of the family.

The attics were reached from the first floor landing via a steep flight of stairs which had no safety rail. To be honest, my bedroom was just one section of a loft conversion: the floor boards and walls in the attics were bare and there was not even a door separating the two so-called bedrooms. There was no provision for any sort of heating and, even as I inspected it in the middle of that April day, it was cold and felt damp. There was a small un-curtained skylight in the sloping roof and a bare electric light bulb dangling from a ceiling rose. The light was controlled by two switches: one on the landing at the bottom of the stairs, the other at the top.
In the middle of one night, only a day or two after moving in, I awoke after sleepwalking a few steps in total darkness. Some instinct alerted me to danger and, after gingerly inching one foot forward at a time, I discovered that I was literally teetering on the edge of the sheer drop to the floor below. Nothing would have saved me had I over-balanced. Being unsure of exactly where the light switch was, I carefully backed off and climbed back into bed, still in total darkness, where I shivered from the cold and trembled violently from the shock of my narrow escape. I didn't tell my parents what had happened because I knew Mum would have worried herself sick. Some days later I acquired a small torch which I kept under my pillow. As far as I know, I never walked in my sleep again from that day to this.

Someone in the education system had noted that I was a grammar school boy and so I had been allocated a place at Roundhay Grammar School rather than a much nearer secondary modern school. On the day after we moved in, Dad took me on the tram to my new school for an interview with the Headmaster. My diary records that the Head was away and so the Second Master, Mr Hall, personally showed me around. I can remember nothing about Mr Hall, but I was mightily impressed with the sheer size of the school and its grounds. Roundhay Grammar was a huge sprawling boys' school separated from the equivalent girls' High School by a shared superb gymnasium, a large indoor swimming pool, and a long avenue of tall trees. What seemed then like a vast acreage of segregated playing fields spread out either side of the avenue of trees, provided a further obstacle for any boy or girl wishing to flout the non-fraternisation orders. That afternoon I went into Leeds with my parents and sister to get my new school uniform: cap, tie and blazer.

Image left: I still have my Roundhay School cap although it is now rather battered. The Latin motto, virtutem petamus, was translated to mean "We seek virtue."

The day after my conducted tour I set off from home on my own at 8.10am to catch the No 3 Roundhay Circular tram from the stop at the corner of Roundhay Road and Gathorne Terrace. I found it a splendid but noisy and bone-shaking ride: first up the hill to Harehills Parade, then past the imposing art deco Clock Cinema at the junction with Easterly Road, and finally onto the exciting, so-called speed tracks. The speed tracks ran in a separate highway parallel to the main road and threaded their way for about a mile up through the picturesque Gipton woods to genteel Oakwood village where trams and other traffic merged once more.
I got off at Oakwood and walked alone up yet another hill, Gledhow Lane, feeling very conspicuous in my brand new cap and blazer. After a hundred yards or so, the road divided; girls continued to the left while boys branched right along Old Park Road. There seemed to be hundreds of boys going my way, but no-one spoke to me. I went through the main front door to Reception and it was then I learned from the receptionist that the front entrance was out of bounds to pupils and I should have entered via one of the side doors. I sat down in a small waiting room and waited.

My Form Master collected me once the morning assembly had ended. He took me along several corridors to a large, airy classroom on the ground floor overlooking the playing fields where he introduced me to Form 1A. It felt a bit like a demotion being in 1A when I had just left 3A at QEGS. I was very shy, but I need not have worried. A new boy was something of a novelty and a welcome, albeit temporary, distraction from lessons, so the boys in the class greeted me warmly as I was introduced. While I was standing out at the front alongside the Form Master, the boys asked many questions: where I was from and why, what my father did, what my interests were, and so on. The Master let this interrogation go on for a few minutes and then he directed me to sit at a desk right at the front of the class by an open window. Obviously that seat had been left vacant ready for my arrival.

Once the introductions were over, we launched off into my favourite subject, Latin, and I was pleased to find that I appeared to be more advanced than the rest of the boys in that subject. I was invited to read some Latin out aloud and that prompted lots of giggles because no-one had told me that at Roundhay the Latin letter V was always pronounced as a V, whereas at QEGS the classical pronunciation was always used where V sounded like the English W. I soon realised that the Perfect Tense of the verb to love, amavi, amavisti, amavit, etc, sounded much more masculine when the Vs were pronounced as Vs and not Ws. I did wonder how anyone really knew how the ancient Romans had pronounced their language.

It was not only Latin as spoken in Leeds that had its quirks. I had to learn quickly, in the interests of what today’s teenagers would probably call street cred, to drop the fairly refined version of the Yorkshire accent I had learned to use at QEGS and adopt the distinctive Leeds dialect with its flat vowels and glottal stops. I caused hilarity when I pronounced my aitches and said that I had moved from “Wake-field” and now lived in “Hare-hills”. My school mates mimicked me at first – mostly in a friendly, bantering fashion. At Roundhay, initial aitches were almost always dropped and glottal stops were very frequently inserted instead of consonants – although I did not know about glottal stops then.

The teachers made absolutely no attempt to correct our pronunciation. I quickly learned to say, in school and out, that I had moved to Leeds from “Wa’field”, that I now lived in “Air’ills” and that I went to “Round-i” School. Who would have thought that nine miles could make so much difference? Throughout my time at Roundhay I always thought it rather odd that no-one seemed to be concerned about the correct pronunciation of English although the French and Latin teachers insisted on correct pronunciation of those languages.

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