I was on board a corvette in Belfast Harbour; while repairing a set and talking to the wireless operator, an officer stuck his head into the office and said “Williams…” and then he stopped. “I thought you were Williams, ” he said, “You sound just like him.” I smiled, he left and I got on with the job. Then Williams turned up. I discovered I knew him, he had been in my class at school. It was strange meeting him under those circumstances, and later, thinking about what had happened it led me to believe that schools have a stronger moulding influence on their pupils than they are credited with.
In our school, situated as it was in the heartland of the cockney accent every Friday during a pupil’s first term, all the new entrants were gathered together and taught phonetics and what amounted to elocution. We mimicked the vowels, the consonants, silly phrases about cows, peas and pace which stressed the difference between what was said inside and outside the school. We mimicked the master, Oxbridge to the teeth, so we too were now receiving an Oxbridge slant.
To extend the theme of mass moulding even further, both geographically and educationally, when I started at Queens University Belfast, as a mature, ex-service engineering student, there were only a few English students, most were Northern Irish with just a smattering of foreigners and members of the Commonwealth. Out of forty of us I believe there were something like fifteen of us who were ex-service, many married, some with children, all on grants, all with only one chance, no second bites of the cherry, all ambitious with ground to make up, all studying like mad. For the rest, they were straight from school and within a few weeks they found we were a force to be reckoned with.
From my perspective as an outsider, both from origin and age, I discovered unconsciously that the men and women who had come straight from school seemed to fall into categories conditioned by their schooling. Their attributes and outlooks seemed the same within each group and yet so disparate group by group. Without being specific, there were schools which produced people who were relatively innocent to a point of being almost naive. One group could have been classed as puppyish; another had the insouciance of the English Public School. There were some who had suffered such a strict and rigid regime that now they were out from under the repressive supervision, they did not seem to know quite what to do with their freedom. There was a tough crowd, polite but hardy, nothing would get past them and there were others who seemed so reserved as to be non-existent. To generalise is unfair to the individual, and probably many would not agree with my assessment. However, the fact that I have convinced myself that I discovered this apparent segregation in attitude and approach subconsciously, and that I believed it to be true at the time, must say something for the mass moulding of character and the responsibility the teacher has for the end product of his school.