The Ups And Downs Of Jeremy James

Whanganui Collegiate School: Form 6 & 7 (1975-1976)

 

 

Whanganui Collegiate

 

As I mentioned above, my brother Michael and I needed to go to a boarding school and as Whanganui High School did not take boarders, we went over the road to Whanganui Collegiate.  This was another big change in our lives.  Attending this school really was a great privilege, as Collegiate had a very established reputation of being one of the best schools in New Zealand (even if my friends at Whanganui High School thought they were all a load of tossers).  One of its ex-students had been Sir Arthur Porritt, the previous Governor-General, who I had briefly seen at Stratford High School about 4 years previously.

Collegiate had about 560 students and at that time these were split between 6 boarding houses and 2 day houses.  Our boarding house was ‘Gilligan’, which was a bit unusual, in that it was separate from the School, being located a 5 minute walk away.  All the other houses were within the main school grounds, including a day house that had been named ‘Porritt’, named after guess who.  Altogether we had about 64 boys in Gilligan from 3rd form to 7th form (ages 14 to 18). 

One thing that often came up in conversation with other students was the fact that my parents were living in Bangladesh.  People sort of thought that I was from Bangladesh, but of course I saw myself as being from Whanganui and before that Taranaki.  There were also a few other students in a similar situation, in that they were New Zealanders, but their parents were living overseas and so these students were now at boarding school.

The cost to send a student to Collegiate was incredibly expensive, so lots of the students had parents who were quite well off and some were super rich.  The result was a diverse range of people who were in some ways similar to my previous schools but in other ways were very different.  Whereas, at High School a lot of the students felt you were pretty stupid if you wanted to go to university, at Collegiate this was very much the other way around, the general attitude being that you would be pretty stupid if you didn’t try and make it to university.

One thing I did find odd, was all the petty little privileges that were gained as the students progressed up through the age groups.  At Gilligan only 6th and 7th formers were allowed to walk through the front door.  All the younger students had to use the side door.  The juniors had to do their evening homework all together in the common room, but the seniors had much more spacious study rooms that they shared in small groups.  I could understand the reasons for the study rooms, as there was probably a shortage of space, but I did think that the front door rule was ridiculous.

As this was a boarding school, we were supplied with three meals a day.  Everybody complained that the food was not very good but to me it seemed fine.  Looking back, I was still consuming a lot of food which contained dairy, and this continued to make me tired, but of course I was so used to this, that I just assumed I felt normal.  The fact that I was useless at sport and my school work was rather variable, certainly frustrated me, but that was the way it was.

I had been very pleased to have passed my School Certificate exams but my marks had been rather erratic.  My highest mark was in Biology, despite me not expecting to get good marks in this subject.  I had also passed Chemistry, Maths, English and History but I had failed Physics, despite the fact, that I had always found this subject to be fairly easy.  Luckily for me, because I had passed everything else, a fail in Physics was not really a problem.

In the 6th form at Collegiate, there was generally just 2 classes for most of the subjects and these were streamed.  One was the high class and the other was the lower class.  Sadly for me, I was put into the lower class for all my subjects but I just made the best of it.  To start with, I found some of the work difficult but over time I made reasonable progress, except of course in English.

In addition to the core subjects (English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology), I also took a new subject called ‘Computer Studies’ and we all had to take ‘Religious Studies’.

Computers were a very new thing (no one had one at home) and the teachers were very proud of the fact that the school had recently purchased one, at great expense.  I can’t remember what the model of the machine was, but I do remember that it did not have a screen.  You put information in using switches and punched tape and you got information out via a series of lights or via a printer.  I would assume that this computer was based on an Intel 8080 processor, which was state of the art at that time (1975) and had a clock speed of 2MHz.  A typical memory card would have been 16kb (my pc today has a clock speed of 2GHz and a memory of 238Gb).

I don’t remember much about the detail of our computer course but a memory that I do have was that some of the students used to play a game called ‘lunar landing’.  You would punch some numbers in and the program would then send some numbers out.  Unless you got your input right, the output usually said that you had crashed on the lunar surface.  I found the game frustrating but the course was great and most of us passed the exam at the end of the year, so we were happy. 

It was also in 1975 that small electronic calculators started to appear, and these really were fantastic.  It was brilliant being able to quickly do multiplication and division without being slowed down by having to use logarithm tables (invented by John Napier, 1614).  By the following year these calculators also started appearing with trigonometric functions which made them even more useful.

Religious Education (RE) really was a subject on its own.  It was only one period a week (1 hour), there were no tests and no final year exam.  We had this subject occasionally at primary school and we then had it consistently all the way through secondary school.  In those days religion still was a big thing for our parent’s generation, most of whom believed in God or at least thought there might be one, even if they didn’t really know what he looked like.

In my generation, the number of believers was diminishing, and I certainly wasn’t a believer.  Religious Education seemed to be in the curriculum, simply because it had always been in the curriculum, and it would have been a very big decision in any school, for a headmaster to decide to discontinue it.  However, there was a major problem.  The majority of students were not interested in being taught religious studies and in my experience none of the teachers ever managed to engage with the class and get anything useful out of the time spent.  We had one teacher who told us we were all stupid because we believed in evolution, solely because we were taught it as part of the Biology curriculum.  He told us in unequivocal terms that any idiot would know that we did not develop from monkeys.  After this rather robust lecture, he said a short prayer, and our one hour lesson was once more brought to a close.

Looking back, possibly it could have been a lot better if Religious Education had been taught as a subject of history.  They could have covered the origins of the Bible and the other early religious texts that existed in the ancient civilizations, most of whom believed in multiple gods.  Then we could have progressed through the Greeks and the Romans to the time of 391AD when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the Bible, translated into Latin, became the number 1 book.  Then the time of Muhammed (570-632) and the Muslim religion and a few hundred years later the Crusades, when everyone took sides and every now and then met up to fight it out (and achieve nothing).  We could have also touched on some of the religions in India and China.  The next big event was John Wycliffe's early translation of the Bible into the English language in 1384 and the incredible resistance to this that went on for a further 150 years.  Reformation of the church was begun by Martin Luther in 1517 and King Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1534 continued the change, … etc etc.  The other thing that would have been good to have learnt more about, was the way that kings and politicians manipulated religion to help them meet their goals (or their society’s goals).  I have probably rambled on a bit here, but I hope you get the picture.  Really, in my opinion, Religious Education at school was a lost opportunity. 

I understand that this year in New Zealand (2020) the government has finally taken the decision to drop Religious Education from the curriculum and replace it with studies on Climate Change.  An excellent decision and I understand that very few people have objected to it.

While I was at school, I was never keen on reading books but I do remember reading ‘Tom Jones’ by Henry Fielding, which was a very old novel, first published in 1749.  The story is about a highly active young man by the name of Tom Jones, who travels around the place getting into all sorts of hilarious scrapes and escapades, often involving young ladies.  He keeps going and at the end he marries his sweetheart, the beautiful Sophia Western, and we assume that they both lived happily ever after.  My kind of story.  Sadly, I did not read many books until later in my twenties but this was certainly the first real novel that I ever read and I enjoyed the story immensely.

Living in such close proximity with your fellow students meant that you got to know them very well.  Over time you learnt to your cost that, while most were quite reasonable, there were some that you could not trust and there were some that were straight out violent.  I was beaten up a number of times and there was nothing I could do about it.  They were bigger and stronger than me. 

I also had a situation when I sold an electronic calculator to one of the other boys.  He paid me half the money with a promise that the rest would be forthcoming, but he never paid it.  This led to a lot of anger and he also beat me up.  These experiences were truly terrible, but I certainly learnt a lot about judging a person’s character and this has always been a great help to me in business.

Something that I really did hate, and I had not experienced this at previous schools, was all the name calling and total lack of respect often apparent between many of the students.  We had one particular student in our house who was always being called “poofter” (homosexual) when it was obvious that he was not.  I felt this was very unfair.

At Whanganui High School I had been called JJ but here I was called Jerry which I never liked.  But it was even worse.  Being small, I had a high pitched voice, so the other boys nick named me “Chirp” and it stuck for the whole time I was at Collegiate.  I was infuriated by this but again there was nothing I could do about it.  The big strong boys could do whatever they liked but us little guys had to always take a back seat.

School is a great place for boys who are older in their age group and bigger in stature (fast developers).  They have a fantastic time.  They are that little bit more mature and when it comes to push and shove, being bigger, they do the shoving and they don’t get pushed.  They have the advantage in any competition.  To win you don’t need a lot more, you just need that edge.  Winning builds confidence.  They get given more responsibility.  They learn to be leaders.

At the time it just seemed really unfair.  People like me were just there to continually lose and to help make the winners feel important.  If you won some and lost some, then that was a great balance and that is how it should have been.  For me life was often just shit.

I joined the school brass band during my first year at Collegiate and once more took up learning to play the cornet.  I found this to be very different to my experience at Stratford High School (3 years previously), where the bandmaster, most of the time, gave us lots of encouragement, but at Collegiate the bandmaster, who was the school music teacher at the time, just gave us constant abuse.  The problem was of course lack of practice.  I suppose the bandmaster at Stratford just accepted that when you are dealing with students, this was just the way it was, but at Collegiate the band master seemed to think that if he was incredibly abusive towards us, then we would all start doing more practice.  Nuts!

In fact, due to circumstances, practice was rather difficult.  We did have a practice room across at the school, but I was down the road at Gilligan House.  Here we had a small study room where you could play instruments but it made a lot of noise and some of the other boys complained.  I remember Derek Cotton was exceedingly good on the clarinet, but this was a much quieter instrument than my brass cornet and when he practised, he could produce quite a good tune.  My attempts were not quite so musical, they were very noisy and consequently, it did not go down well.

Once a year we had a few days where the whole school stopped and we all did army cadet training.  I was quite looking forward to this, as I had assumed we would be running around shooting guns and all that sort of stuff.  In the end it was a bit of a let-down, as none of us got to shoot any guns and all the members of the band were put into a separate group (the cadet band).  We all went to camp and the bandmaster told us we should use the opportunity to practise and so in the evening we all did.  It was very noisy with everyone doing their own thing but overall it was good to get a bit of practice in.  This was going quite well, until all of a sudden a very angry teacher burst into the room and told us off for making such a terrible racket.  We were a bit stunned, as we thought we were all doing very well, conscientiously practising on our separate instruments.

The following morning we were told that we were naughty boys and that all the band members were going to be punished (except of course the bandmaster).  I can’t remember what the punishment was; perhaps we all had to wash the dishes or something similar.

At the end of the year I looked back at my time in the band.  It had been fairly bonkers.  Gilligan had won the House music competition, so we felt quite good about that, but as a school band we had not done any performances at all.  Surely as a band, you need to do performances, as these are what you enjoy the most.  You practise, practise and practise with a focus on the date for that big day, but in our case that performance never happened. 

In life lots of things go wrong and it is often a set of circumstances, not necessarily one person’s fault.  However, on this occasion I look back and I do feel that the bandmaster could have done a better job.  I never liked him as a person.  He always seemed a bit odd and instead of spending his time hurling abuse at us, I think he would have achieved much more, if he had focused on his own self organisation skills.  I decided not to continue with the band in my second year, as I felt there was no point in doing something that I was not enjoying.  I thought no more about the bandmaster after that but years later I heard that he got in trouble with the law and was convicted for interfering with little children.  Horrible man.  A very odious character indeed.

On the TV news towards the end of 1975, we watched coverage of the New Zealand general election and we were all very pleased, when Robert Muldoon won, as most of the students at Collegiate were from families who were keen National Party supporters.  I am not sure if Robert Muldoon turned out to be a very good prime minister but that is another story.  The country had been suffering from continuous strikes and most people were by now fed up with the unions who did not seem to be acting in the best interests of their members.

Another big change in New Zealand this year was that the wearing of seatbelts in cars became compulsory.  Old cars did not have seat belts fitted but all cars sold in the country from 1965 onwards had safety belts on the front seats and later this rule was extended to the back seats as well.  Where fitted, they now had to be worn.  Road deaths in 1973 had peaked at 843 but in the following year (1976) they were to drop to 609.  This drop in the death rate had also been helped by the decrease in the speed limit at the end of 1973 and in 1974 it had also become compulsory for motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Over in the Middle East, Egypt and Israel had stopped fighting each other and the Suez Canal was opened again, having been closed for the preceding 8 years (1967-1975).  In the United Kingdom a lady called Margaret Thatcher had become the leader of the opposition (the Conservative Party).  This was very unusual, as most of the important jobs were always done by men.  Looking back, there has been a lot of very good progress on gender equality during my lifetime.

Despite my difficulties at school during the year, I did the study and I got relatively good marks at the end of my 6th form (except for English but that was not unexpected).  Sadly, my good marks were not enough to get me moved up to the bright class, so the following year I just had to stay put and make the most of it.  Again I took Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Maths but I was finally allowed to drop English, so I took Economics in its place.

I found Economics to be fascinating and I could not understand why a lot of the other students found it to be difficult.  It was probably easy for me because it was really more numbers based, rather than words based.  The teacher (Mr Hooper) told us all sorts of things, about how companies made money and lost money.  In some cases, companies would make a product or a service that consumers needed but in other cases they would make something and then just convince customers that they needed it, when in fact they didn’t.  As an example, he told us about a company that had come up with a very novel idea, ‘bottled water’.  Selling bottles full of water, was unheard of at that time and most of the students in the class thought that the whole idea was crazy.  We all knew that water came out of a tap and it was free.  Only a dumb person would pay money to get it in a bottle.  Looking back, I can see how wrong we all were, as over time, consumers started to buy water in bottles!

One thing that students did spend money on was records and in Gilligan we were able to keep up with all the latest music releases as there was usually someone who would buy a new record as soon as it came out.  Around this time I remember the albums ‘Crime of the Century’ by Supertramp (1975),  ‘Horizon’ by the Carpenters (1975), ‘A Trick of the Tail’ by Genesis (1976) and ‘Hotel California’ by ‘The Eagles’ (1976).  One thing I always remember about these albums was the cardboard covers which were always brilliant pieces of visual artwork.  To people of my generation, these record covers are always instantly recognisable.

 

‘Crime of the Century’ by Supertramp (1975).

 

 

‘Horizon’ by the Carpenters (1975).

 

 

‘A Trick of the Tail’ by Genesis (1976).

 

 

‘Hotel California’ by ‘The Eagles’ (1976).

 

One music group that had been very popular at this time was ABBA who had burst into the spotlight when they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with their song ‘Waterloo’.  What was even more amazing was that they were Swedish but they sang their songs in English and gained worldwide popularity.  In 1975 they produced their 3rd album which was called ‘ABBA’ and in 1976 they produced ‘Arrival’.  Initially everyone loved their music but after a few years their popularity began to wane.  I remember Derek Cotton referring to their style as “popcorn music” and he was no longer a fan.  It just wasn’t cool.  All of a sudden, most of the other students were saying similar things and the ABBA records quickly became music from a past era.  Initially I just followed the crowd but after a while I got thinking about this.  I still quite liked to hear the ABBA music, even if nobody else did.  This then got me thinking about a wider question, why do we sometimes think and act as a herd?  Why don’t we think for ourselves and act as we wish?  This is not an easy question to answer but I do know that I still like the music of ABBA.  I have also seen ABBA the movie, ABBA the musical and I have also experienced ABBA the dinner.  I just like their music.

 

‘ABBA’ by ABBA (1975).

 

 

‘ABBA Arrival’ by ABBA (1976).

 

During all this time, I had continued growing slowly and in the 7th form I had finally started catching up with everyone else.  I was certainly not tall but I was probably reaching an average for my age group.  However, despite gaining an increase in my height, my body never filled out, probably because I wasn’t eating a suitable diet (I needed a non-dairy diet).  In sport I started to make some progress, but I was not big enough to play any effective part in games like rugby.  I did however manage to get the average time in the 400m running race and likewise in some of the swimming races.  The one bit of joy that I did have, was winning the diving competition.  However, I was so unused to winning and so lacking in confidence, that I actually convinced myself that they had made a mistake with the scoring but looking back I am sure they didn’t.  I won it and I deserved it.

 

1976: Gilligan House, Whanganui Collegiate School.

James Brow, Michael Peacocke, Greg Porter, Colin Hickey, Grahame Hopcraft, David Patterson, Peter Richards, Nigel Thorne, Max Willacy-Kuhn, Duncan Caird, Jeffrey Pugh, Alan Mountfort, Matthew Taylor, Ross Coulthart, Andrew McPhail, Nigel Sibbald, Duncan Fraser, Neil Gray, Michael Renai, Criag Jenkins

Russell Hotter, J Kutt

Michael Heath-Caldwell, Ross Freebairn, Charles Collins (Rod), Hamish Curtis,  Warwick Oakden, Quintin Dodd,  Brendon Darby, Michael Godfrey, Nigel Smith, Ian Averill, Robert Gardner, Rick Manning, Noel Bamber, Danny Blankenbyl, David lee-Jones, Peter Broomhead, Christopher Fogg, Michael Blackburne, John Maikuku, Stephen Abernethy

Stephen Le Poidevin, JJ Heath-Caldwell, Peter Abernethy, Derek Cotton, Chris Black, Mark Croker, Jean Martel, Geoff Martel, Jean Morris, Alec McNab, John Freebairn, Paul Desborough, Tim Hardwicke-Smith, Richard Pugh, David Peacocke

Nitish Niranjan, John Gray, John Tannahill, Richard Lay, R Hewitt?, DE Moss, Jack Renouf, Andrew Butchart, Tony Signal, Brett Wilton, Hugh Duncan

 

Towards the end of the year we were all swotting for our Bursary exams and also making choices about which University we would like to go to and what subjects we would like to study.  I decided that I would like to try and do Medicine at the University of Otago but I knew this was very competitive.  They only took the students with the highest marks but for the first year you actually did science subjects and of course you could continue these if you did not win a place in Medical School.

Back in those days not many students went on to university but if you did, you could decide to do pretty much whatever you wanted (except for certain subjects like Medicine).  I filled in the form and posted it off to the University of Otago, to tell them that I had decided to go to their university and that I would be arriving on the 20th of February.  I would be doing the science year and if I got high enough marks at the end of that, I would be very grateful for a place at their Medical School.  There was no requirement for me to visit the university before hand and there was no requirement for any interviews.

I also chose the University of Otago because it was located down in Dunedin, in the South Island, and I had never been to the South Island before.  Years earlier in Stratford, I remembered Pat Steven telling me how much she and her husband Upham had enjoyed their days as students at Otago.  It seemed to me that it could be a great adventure.  Founded in 1869 it had also had its own stamps on the occasion of its 100th anniversary in 1969.

 

First day cover with stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of University of Otago (1869-1969)

 

My time at Collegiate had taught me a lot.  Academically I had progressed, but I had also learnt a lot about people and a lot about myself.  I was still very immature for my age group and I had very little self-confidence (that was to come much later).  The other thing that I had realised was that one of the most important things in life is not to be poor.  Making more money than I needed, was going to be the overall number one priority in my life.  Every morning when I cleaned my teeth, I looked in the mirror at my mouthful of jumbled teeth and my desire to make money became stronger and stronger.  If I ever had any children, I was going to make sure that they ended up with straight teeth.  For the moment, my only problem was, I had no idea as to how to make money.

Many of my experiences at Whanganui Collegiate School were very disagreeable but, looking back, I am very glad that I went there.  I gained a very wide range of experiences in my secondary school education.  I spent the 3rd form at Stratford High School which was very much a country school and I spent 4th and 5th form at Whanganui High School which was a city school, both state funded institutions.  Then for my final two years, 6th and 7th form, I experienced life in a private boarding school and one that had an exceedingly good reputation.  In these schools I met a very diverse range of people and I learnt the ability to look at situations from a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives.

By now the flying school project in Bangladesh had come to an end and Mum and Frank were once more living in our house in Whanganui and Frank was looking for his next job.  He had a good break from work for a few months and later in the year he took up a job in Christchurch working for NAC (Air New Zealand) teaching a group of Indonesian students to fly.

I spent my last day at Collegiate but I have absolutely no idea of what I did on that day except that I definitely walked out of the gate for the last time, feeling like a free man (a young man aged 17).

I think I must have spent the summer holiday dossing around home and doing a bit of gardening.  I also passed my driver’s licence.  In the 1970s you could sit your licence as soon as you turned 15.  The test consisted of a written exam paper with multiple choice answers, then an oral test with 5 questions and then a practical test.  I failed the written test by one mark and so had to do it a second time.  I also failed the oral test and had to do it again but I managed to pass the practical first time so I was reasonably pleased (after 2011 the requirement changed in New Zealand and the licence is now done in stages from the age of 16).

 

1976: My driving licence.

 

Another major event at the end of the year, was that on the 14 December, New Zealand officially changed from imperial to metric measurements.  Unlike decimalisation, 9 years earlier, when we woke up to a new country that was in dollars and cents instead of pounds and pennies, the change from imperial to metric was not really all that noticeable.  We had all been using both imperial and metric measurements, side by side, for quite a few years, and most of us preferred metric because it was easier.  Instead of miles we now had kilometres for road distances.  For general measurement, chains, yards, feet and inches were replaced by metres, centimetres and millimetres.  For area, acres were replaced by hectares (1 hectare = 10,000 square metres)  Temperature was now in degrees Celsius rather than degrees Fahrenheit.  Weight was in grams and kilograms rather than pounds and ounces.  Volume was in litres rather than gallons, quarts and pints.

It was great to see logical legislation to bring in metrication and make numbers much easier.  Some people were against it but the majority were very pleased with the change.  It is a pity that something similar can’t be done to legislate for improvements in the English language but as I mentioned much earlier in my story, the English language and how we use words, is the way it is.

I don’t remember much about that summer holiday period except for sheer elation when my exam results came through.  Against all the odds, I had passed, and I had got an ‘A Bursary’.  The way Bursary worked was that the government took the initial test results and then scaled all the marks up or down, so that half of those who sat the exam passed and half failed.  This was very horrible for all the students who failed but what it did mean, was that the standard of achievement would be comparable every year.  Out of the five subjects, if your score added up to be over 250 you would be awarded with a B Bursary.  If your score added up to be over 300 you would be awarded an A Bursary.  My score was 323, so not only had I won an A Bursary but I had got an exceedingly good mark.  I was incredibly pleased and my confidence gained a good boost.  My overall level of confidence was still fairly low but at least is was now on the way up.

 

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