Green Remembered Hats

A quest to find old paperwork finds me sorting through boxes in the loft. Not that many, actually, since I’m not a hoarder and I’d rather look forwards than over my shoulder. I find the documents I’m searching for but also another folder which contains certificates. Leafing through them is quite unsettling as I discover records of achievements for everything from my degree and professional qualifications down to third prize in a miniature garden competition! Who was that girl, I wonder, who skied, swam, typed, quizzed and first-aided her way to success?

Prompted by the imminent arrival of a dear friend, I also recover a box full of our school magazines and lose an afternoon reading them. In a week that’s brought heated debate about Theresa May’s intention to lift the ban on establishing new grammar schools, I remember how liberating, exhilarating even, it felt to be in a place where academic excellence was celebrated and every girl - it was a single sex school - was encouraged to reach her full potential.  

All right for some, you might say, but I wasn’t from a privileged middle class background and I certainly didn’t have private tuition; my dad was a carpenter and joiner and Ma spent most of her working life - when she wasn't raising me and my sister - as a school cook. I remember a withering comment from a neighbour from one of the new ‘posh’ houses up the road that there surely must be some mistake that I had passed the eleven-plus and her son hadn’t. And whilst I was overjoyed at the brave new world opening up for me, I was keenly aware that my parents had to work harder than ever to pay for the long list of uniform requirements and equip me to take up my place.

So yes, I was lucky, and fortunate, too, that my parents encouraged me to go to university in an age where further education for girls was still seen as a ‘waste’. However, it’s not the rights and wrongs of our education system that are foremost in my mind as I read the school magazines, but the names and the faces. Several times I’m moved to tears; I read a funny, engaging account by one pupil of her university interview in one magazine, the next year there’s a poignant obituary to her. Here’s a poem by that gifted all-rounder in the year below me who went on to have a stellar career yet died, aged 44, of a brain tumour. There are fabulous illustrations, wonderful music - yes, one of the magazines contains a vinyl record of music and poetry - reminders of school plays and trips, sporting achievements and speech days. A testimony to the superb teachers who drew out the best in us. How many of those bright girls, I wonder, carried on achieving, how many simply got crushed by life?

Like most people, I’ve had ups and downs along the way, but the seeds of my own career are planted in those school magazines; I rediscover poems, travel pieces, life writing and reviews and remember that I worked as an editorial assistant on two of the editions. I’ll always be grateful that I was encouraged to fly and wish more children could have the same opportunity. Give a girl a pair of wings - or in my case a green hat - and you never know where they’ll take her.


Frances said…
Chris, I was fortunate to have a similar experience to your when I got to college, at a then all female school with high academic standards. It was also my first chance to get to know young women who had grown up in places and circumstances very different from my own. My world opened up.

I expect that you and your school friend are going to have a fabulous time together.

What a pleasure to read your poem, and discover your early talent at evoking a particular place and time. Beautifully done.

Chris Stovell said…
Dear Frances - thanks for bearing with an early draft of this post which had all kinds of formatting problems! It seems we were both very lucky to have had that experience - like you, I felt a new world had opened up. My school friend has now suggested lots of reading to me, poetry and prose, so a new world of reading beckons too. And thank you! Cx
Flowerpot said…
How wonderful t have all those achievements and a record of them, too! Sadly I hated school and did very badly, had very little to show for it except a basket full of memories I would rather keep hidden. I don't even keep in touch with anyone from there - my world started after school. But it;s part of what shapes us all isn't it? Well done you! X
Chris Stovell said…
FP, I was simply very fortunate to be at a school I loved and I'm sorry that's not true for all children. As you say though we are all shaped in different ways. Cx
Annabel Mallia said…
I was so grateful to pass the 11+ since my dad had just been made redundant. We didn't know how lucky we were; everything was state of the art. We had new science labs, a language laboratory and such spacious grounds. If you still have the black and white jazzy-covered mag I think there is a short story of mine in it. Don't think I have the magazines any more.
Chris Stovell said…
I'll look for you, Annabel. I didn't realise that had happened to your dad. A tough time then, for your family. We were very lucky though x
Frances said…
Hello Chris, here I am again, with my memory finally kicking in.

I keep meaning to mention that you and Tom might enjoy another blog I follow. Marianne is the author. The blog is to be found at

If you click over there I think you will enjoy your visit. xo

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