Ian McKellen Writings

17 September 1958 | School-Leaver's Notebook

Published in the Bolton Evening News, page 2

Moving staircase
* * *
Grammar-school advantages
***
Approach to Utopia
* * *
Beginning to remember

After eight years at grammar school I have left.  I have travelled from the first form to the sixth,  and now reached the largest class of all, the Old Boys' Association.   Now I am nothing to the School but a face among 800 others on the four feet of photograph hanging in the corridor, a name set down in gold on the lasting pillars of the Monitors' Board.  To the School I am gone and it grieves me a little to think that she (schools, like ships and cars, are feminine) can manage very well without me.  Nowhere is the growing boy more aware of his growth, of his increasing age and developing talents than at school.  For there, although everyone is going up the moving stairs at the same speed, there is always a bottom step behind and a grade to be reached ahead.  By these fixed points he can gauge his own progress.  So there is the annual delight of entering a new form each September.  The last week of the Summer Holidays was for me always one of impatience and never of regret, a looking forward to the joys of a different desk in a strange form-room.  The night before the return was a restless one and I cannot remember when I did not need an aspirin to bring on sleep and morning.  I could not understand those to whom School was a prison-house and the seven hours within it shades of torture.  Of course there was the boredom of subjects ineptly taught and the exasperation of punishment, but when we walked home we laughed at it all. 

The secondary day school and in particular, the grammar school give a unique benefit to their pupils.  Because the boy lives at home, the community to which he belongs is the town rather than the school.  Instead of trying to monopolize his time the school suggests how he can discover the attributes of the town and begin to take a part in its life.  Thus, it was in search of an answer to some geography homework, I think, which took me to the Reference Library for the first time; and a vague interest in politics, that the school had encouraged, which brought me first to the Reading Room to search out the Daily Worker and the magazines beyond.  Down the steps I went as a child to the Aquarium and up them as a grammar school student to the Art Gallery and Museum.  One of my first visits to the Little Theatre was with a school party to see its production of King Lear in the 1951-52 season.  Concerts at the Victoria Hall, talks in the Central Lecture Theatre and, across the passage, the French Circle, all await the grammar school boy.  Because his school is a part of the community and because his education takes him through both levels of the G.C.E.  examinations, he is fitted socially and intellectually to take advantage of the town's services.

But to the lucky ones like me, knowing Bolton is only a step towards another part of the world which Bolton does not know. 

I long for a community where a faultlessly complete library is at hand, where a cinema declines to show bad films and a theatre presents new, good plays before they are old or have gone bad.  Utopias must be dull places, full of satisfied people in a lifetime of retirement, content and as active as ruminating cows; perfection, like complete virtue, is fortunately inhuman.  But when will a local cinema and a professional theatre give what I and so many others want?  The Theatre Royal tried a month or two ago with the "Bolshoi Ballet" but, because of poor support, has apparently reverted to giving Bolton only what it deserves (showing this week is "Bride of the Monster," certified "X").  Perhaps the Hippodrome Company might begin to look around for a play as good as "Hindle Wakes" and "Rebecca" were in their own day.  Then, in their 1,000th week of repertory (under a year from now), having taken off a week for rehearsals, they could shock and delight us all.  In the meantime we must provide for ourselves, and to see Bolton's Film Society, Little Theatre, and other dramatic clubs presenting worthwhile programmes is fine and only puts the professionals to further shame. 

Cambridge, by all accounts, is as near perfection as is good for one, with the University Library, the Arts Cinema, and Arts Theatre.  I shall be in Cambridge in three weeks.

Now I have left school for university I am entering that age of man between growing up and growing old;

And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.

A tale of contemplation and melancholy when I see boys 10 years younger than I, and I realize with a shock that as I shall outlive my father so will my son me.  Heirs have heirs.  I am infinitely jealous of those young boys because they have before them what I have now behind me.  For as schooldays have gone for me they have just arrived for another, and I am envious because I have been happy.  Yet I do not wish to relive my boyhood, although I envy those who are about to do it for me.  I had far rather watch the play of my life than take the title role.  This is not a unique relationship.  There must be many graduates — I know one — who, in their middle age, envy me — of comparatively no age at all — my advent into Cambridge. 

Nostalgia increases with age, and I remember, I remember the house where I was born.  I remember the twice-yearly fair on the market place and the time I disobeyed my mother by going on the roundabouts when infantile paralysis was spreading in Lancashire.  The Saturday mornings when I queued up in the Market Hall, with rations and pocket money, for Santus’s treacle toffee.  The Christmas mornings with the Salvation Army band at the end of the street blowing away the cold and the quiet with "Christians Awake!"

The glamour
of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast.
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past. 

It is just a week since school started again and in those seven days I have seen for the first time visions of boyhood.   Ian M. McKellen

 
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