I was born in Norwich, but between the ages of five and eleven I lived in Coventry, about as far as you can get from the sea in this country. Not that I was aware of that at the time. I’m not sure I was aware of very much except my immediate little circle of activity, which centred on Stivichall School. This was (and still is) pronounced Sty-shull – a fact that rather complicated life when I came back to Norwich in 1956, after the death of my father, and went to the City of Norwich School.
My new teachers had to make a note of my old school, and they rather expected something like Lakenham, Earlham, Costessey or a name equally easy to pronounce and spell (for them). Stivichall rather stumped them – and embarrassed me, because of course I had to spell it.
When you’re just starting secondary school, the last thing you want to do is stand out, but I had no alternative. All those other eleven-year-old boys were strangers to me, and I was now even stranger to them. Who was this lad from a school they’d never heard of? Why did he have to spell it? I don’t remember ever being bullied – just feeling an outsider, something that I suspect has never really left me.
I was befriended, however, by a boy named Fred Riches, who turned out to play a big part in my life. Later, he introduced me to my wife, and was best man at our wedding. We were out of touch for a while, but now see each other fairly regularly. Like my wife, he became a primary school head teacher and then took on other educational roles.
He also developed a lifelong love of Gilbert and Sullivan and sang in the school performances of their operas every Christmas. Despite being self-effacing, he was gifted and talented in that area (as in quite a few others). I too developed a love of G & S, despite being much too shy to get up on stage. I just loved the brilliant word-play of Gilbert and the ingenious way that Sullivan wove his music around it.
Last month I got a fresh taste of it when Fred took part in the latest CNS “Class of 61” reunion. These get-togethers – looking back to our year in what was then the fifth form, where we took what were then known as GCEs – were started by a couple of CNS old boys, Adrian O’dell and Tony Friedlander, a few years ago.
On each occasion it has become customary for one of our number to talk about his life, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. One of us worked at CERN, for instance. He used to be quite a good country runner, but I could beat him at chess. He beat me at everything else.
As well as talking about his life in education, Fred chose to pay tribute to the former teachers (Doe, Court and Harvey) who had inspired his love of Gilbert and Sullivan. And, with the help of a few brave colleagues and a drafted-in female singer, he performed excerpts from such memorable shows as Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and of course The Mikado.
With a minimum of rehearsal and costume, this came over remarkably well, and I for one could have done with more of it. The performance took place in St Martin at Palace Plain church, close by Norwich Cathedral, after an excellent lunch in the Louis Marchesi nearby.
The following day my wife and I had what was nearly an encore, when Fred spoke again at our golden wedding party and produced a brilliant adaptation of “I am the very model of a modern major general” in which we featured fairly strongly. A very special moment.
Stivichall seemed a very long way away.
(for David Coomes)
One morning early,
before what used to be breakfast,
you sigh finally, like a breeze,
step out of the moral maze
and into something quite new,
The pain disappears,
not gradually but all at once,
replaced by something cool and warm
something quite new
Through unexpected channels
you give birth to yourself, look round,
someone is holding you
and there is no sea
The touching clumsiness of old life falls away, and
you move in different directions,
You reach out for heaven again
and touch it