Friday 9 October 2015

Education, 0-10

Apparently, an Oxbridge degree is worth £400,000 over your lifetime. Which got me thinking about my education.

I'll start off with the ages 0 to 10.

I didn't go to pre-school, or kindergarten. I don't think they had them way back then. So my first experience of education was at home. Before I went to school, I learned to read, or so my mother claimed. I don't remember. But I do remember being disappointed by my first day at Craven Park Primary School (now called Springfield Primary School). We spent part of the day playing with water, and part of the day looking at letters. C is for cat. Well, I already knew that.

When I was five, my father died of a heart attack. Some decades later, I learned that I have Leiden factor V, which means my blood is better than usual at clotting, when I got a DVT in my left leg. It was dealt with, but I suspect I inherited this from my father, and that's why he died. It didn't help that he was very overweight and smoked heavily.

The inpact on me, was that I was sent away to the Ann Muller Home in Broadstairs. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe it was because I was asthmatic, but I suspect it was linked to the trauma of my father's premature death, and the impact of that on my mother. Children don't get told "why".

So I spent a couple of years there. I don't remember much about it, except that there was a huge grass area where we'd run and play, and they were very keen on making raffia mats. We went for nature walks around Broadstairs. I had my tonsils out when I was there (in those days, a lot of children had a totally unnecessary tonsillectomy), but apart from that I had a good time there. Except that separating such a young child from his mother is not usually good.  My education must have maintained momentum, because when I came back to London, I was put into a class a year ahead of my age.

So from 8 to 10, I was at school at Craven Park, except for some weeks when I went to stay with my Aunt Betty (I'm guessing that my mother had another trauma), and I went to a different school, I don't remember the name. But I do remember that at some point there, the teacher set a complicated arithmetic problem, and promised a putty medal to anyone who got it right. I got it right, which I think she wasn't expecting, and she actually made me a plasticine medal which I proudly wore until it fell apart.

Back at Craven Park, age 9, I remember trying to learn how to write beautiful italic script (I failed) and endless hours chanting the times tables up to 12 times (which I already knew). I also learned long multiplication, which I thought was brilliant, and long division, which was even better, and the extraction of square roots, which was total magic.

At ten, I was the youngest kid in the oldest class at the school, our teacher was Miss Parker, and there were 41 kids in the class. Lots more arithmetic - we learned how to do arithmetic using pounds and ounces (16 ounces to the pound) and money - pounds, shillings, pence and farthings, and you just won't believe me if I explain the complexities of those. Not to mention tons and hundredweight (112 pounds to the hundredweight).

I invented arbitrage. I didn't know it was called that. I discovered that the price of marbles in the girls' playground was 8 for a penny, whereas in the boys' playground it was 5 for a penny. So I bought at 8, sold at 5, and I was making a steady profit of about threepence per day. These were old pennies, 240 to the pound. It was enough to fund my purchases of the various interesting items that you'll find in a 10-year-old's pockets, such as batteries, torch bulbs, sherbert fountains and so on. Sherbert fountains are brilliant.

And we started on geometry. Miss Parker asked the class what a straight line was, and while the other kids guessed with rulers, string and suchlike, she saved me for last. I didn't disappoint; I said "The shortest distance between two points, according to Euclid", except that I didn't know how to pronounce Euclid, which brings me to a major factor in my education. A lot of it was from books. And books don't give you pronunciation.

Stamford Hill Library. That was within walking distance of my home, and you could borrow books, for free, it was magic. And they had thousands of books. I started off in the Children's library, of course, but I persuaded the librarian to A) let me take out books from the non-fiction adults area, and B) give me several extra non-fiction tickets. So I was reading books like "Three men in a boat", and don't ask me why that was classified as non fiction, Dewey number 827 "English Satire and Humour". And maths books (Dewey 510). And I discovered Martin Gardner's "recreational maths". And physics, and chemistry. I was reading something like ten books per week, and I wasn't being too choosy about what I read. Lots of Biggles, Swallows and Amazons, Dr Doolittle and E Nesbit. Not Enid Blyton, because I was totally put off her by the Noddy books which were silly, so I missed all her best stuff. The Joneses and How to keep up with them. 1066 and all that. St Trinians. A A Milne (he didn't just write the Pooh books).

Stamford Hill library was my main source of education at that time, and for quite a long time after.

In parallel to Craven Park, I went to Egerton Road Synagogue to learn to read Hebrew. I had to go on Tuesday and Thursday evening for an hour, and on Sunday for three hours, which was sheer torture.  I'd watch the minute hand slowly, slowly creep round the dial. I was bored stiff. I practiced how long I could hold my breath, that's now bored I was. We weren't even learning to speak Hebrew, just to read it. We had no idea what the words meant. And, of course, the characters aren't remotely like the ones we use for English, and there are no vowels, you put marks under the letters to indicate the vowels. The idea was that, in a couple of years, I would be Bar mitzvah and would be called up to read a portion of the Torah. Well, not read, sing. And I had to learn it beforehand, so I'd get it right. On the way home from Cheder, we'd pass a pillar box, and we had decided that this particular pillar box represented the rabbi who taught us at Cheder, and we'd kick it and beat it with sticks. Childish, sure. But we were children.

The big thing that I did learn, was that religion was nonsense, and organised religion was particularly silly. I don't know how they managed to teach me that, because I think they were supposed to be teaching the exact opposite. The only good memory I have of Cheder, was that on Tuesday and Thursday evening, before you started "learning", you were given tea and bread and strawberry jam, and when you offer a child of ten unlimited bread and strawberry jam, he eats it. I still remember that bread and jam.

At the age of 10, I took my eleven-plus exam. I passed, and interviewed for the best state school around, which was "Grocers", the Grocers' Company School. So In September 1959, I went to secondary school, and that's a subject for the next chapter.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post, thankyou. Shame you never got into Enid's Secret 7 or Famous 5, though. I look forward to seeing if you discovered Tolkien during your secondary schooling.

  2. What IS extraction of square roots? - Aged 55

  3. I tell you a number, and you work out, what number when multiplied by itself, gives that number. So if I give you81, the square root is 9.

    It gets more difficult when the number is several digits long. You can do it with any decent calculator (but we didn't have them then). But when the number gets longer than several digits, you can't do it with a calculator or with a spreadsheet.

    I set a cache once that needed you to do long multiplication to multiply together two 40 digit numbers. Unless you could find an easier way (using a calculator was allowed, but wouldn't help you).