Monday, February 20, 2012

Staying Alive by Colin Partridge

Colin Partridge taught English at the City of Coventry Boarding School 1959 to 1961. He was only there a short while but his teaching and approach to discipline are legendary among ex pupils who remember him. Along with his teaching Colin also ran the Literature Club (likened to the Dead Poets Society) and the school magazine - The Boarder, which he edited.

Now retired, Colin was born in Cardiff 1934 and obtained a B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham before teaching at the City of Coventry School and then as an assistant lecturer (and later lecturer) at the University of Manchester (1963). He emigrated to Canada in 1968 where he was appointed assistant professor in the University of Victoria's Department of English. Professor Partridge's publications include Thunderbird (1979 Catalyst Press), Modern American Fiction (1979), Will Warburton (1981), The Making of New Cultures: A Literary Perspective (1982), and Minor American Fiction, 1920-1940: A Survey and an Introduction (1984),  George Gissing: the critical heritage 1996, Civil Disturbances (2000). - Senso, a translation of the novella and discussion of the film - Tristana, a translation of the novel and discussion of the film - Yuri Trifonov: the Moscow Cycle - Moonshine Sketches of a Small Campus

Below, Colin has submitted an evocative autobiographical piece of writing called -

 S T A Y I N G    A L I V E

Craddock St. Cardiff
I started school in my native Cardiff in 194O walking with a brown satchel over one shoulder and a plain cardboard box dangling from a white string over the other. Inside the box was a gas mask.  Arriving in class, excitedly practicing for an air-raid, we would try speaking through the tight black rubber. We laughed at our nasal voices or peered at each other through the eye-holes astonished by the laboured sound of our own breathing. Staying alive in a gas-mask demanded effort.

When the light bomber planes came in 1941 women and children rushed from redbrick Victorian houses to arched steel air-raid shelters erected in the gardens. Men held candles or torches, guiding them before going back to the street to stand in doorways near buckets of sand or water. The gantries and tall cranes of a steelworks dedicated to armaments production loomed over the area. It was the objective for enemy pilots. The works had been built on firm ground; the terraces of workers housing stood on marshier land. Water seeped into the scientifically designed shelters rendering some useless and forcing neighbours to share. In candlelit darkness squatting on small chairs or a bunk-bed, conversation rose and fell, interspersed only by an occasional “Jesus save us” from an aged female voice. The increasing roar of approaching aircraft engines usually brought louder prayers and, after an explosion, tangible silence.

"36 Aberystwyth Street, Splott, Cardiff was exactly behind the house (now demolished)
where I spent my childhood. It is an almost perfect replica."
One night several bombs struck the primary school at the end of the street. As children we were delighted. But the middle-aged husbands and fathers acting as civilian firefighters did an efficient job. Only the third level of the school was destroyed – and never rebuilt. Classes resumed within a week and the school functions with extended facilities to the present day.

In 1944, during the last raid on the city, an incendiary bomb almost annihilated the street. But instead of hitting the slate roof of the next-door house and setting alight the wooden rafters, it fell onto the pavement inches away from the brick front-wall. My father – a middle-aged gantry-crane driver at the steel works and volunteer firefighter at night – told me it protruded like an arrow stuck in stone. He had grabbed the fizzing bomb and pressed it into a bucket of sand provided for such a purpose. The perfect round hole made by the incendiary in the stone pavement remained, ignored by all, until the whole area – works and houses – was demolished in the 1970s to turn the factory land and working-class suburb into an industrial estate.  

Moorland Primary School - The squat school deprived of its 3rd storey.  I was born and lived in a house on the street which led into the school. It has vanished and the land of the former street has become part of a small park. Author, Journalist and Presenter John Humphreys also went to this school.

By the 1970s much had changed in my life. I had completed military service receiving wonderful training to become a Russian translator, studied English and American literatures at Nottingham University, taught English at Cleobury Mortimer, attended graduate school for a year in the United States and another year at London University, obtained a doctorate, lectured for five years at Manchester University, decided that academic opportunities were limited in Britain and emigrated from Liverpool to Montreal on a liner filled to capacity with mostly British emigrants including 450 female teachers. The crossing held moments of high interest, especially as we approached the Canadian coast sailing at night through massive icebergs, trying not to think of the Titanic and yearning for human warmth.

It was summer 1968. Most migrants had planned to settle in Ontario but my destination was far-away Victoria, British Columbia, on the West Coast of Canada. I had to travel for days by train across country.

I was moving from insular confinement to vast space. And unknowingly, I had taken a job at a new university where students were vibrant with American pop-culture, intoxicated with political causes, experienced in the use of marijuana and anxious to administer the university. Small groups were vociferous, bringing forth ever larger demands for recognition of their rights. Leaders wore Che Guevara berets. Followers shouted eloquent slogans. Crowds assembled outside lecture-rooms and invaded faculty meetings. But, although the students claimed they were socially repressed, I had never met so many young people who already enjoyed so much freedom…

They were part of a larger movement which was not understood at the time.

Over the following decades it led to student empowerment. Young people were seen to have human rights. They need not be foreordained to live by institutional rules. They could assist in governance and share adult responsibilities.

If bureaucrats in Coventry in the 1970s had understood this international democratizing trend, the City of Coventry Boarding School might have become the scene of a great educational experiment. But the school was closed and an opportunity irrevocably lost.

In Canada by 1975 student challenges to university governance had diminished. A newly elected provincial Labour government in British Columbia had given students, elected by their peers, seats on the Senate and the right to attend and vote with faculty on administrative committees at universities throughout the province. The system remains and the University of Victoria has benefitted from student presence and commitment.

Victoria, like Harrogate and Cheltenham, is known as a retirement town. From all over Canada, the retirees come seeking peace and quiet. After seven years of student unrest, when the protesters gained what they wanted, quiet returned.

And in this more sedate post-1975 environment I slowly climbed the academic ladder publishing articles and books, mostly on literary subjects. As a side-line, I attempted creative writing but with no financial success.

The university has grown; its reputation is established.

And I, now old, feel happy that, in a small way, I have contributed to its life.

But staying alive, even without a gas-mask, still demands effort.     

Colin Partridge

Additional Photographs

The Old Library in Singleton Road - "Here I gained my love of reading and literature.
Although dilapidated, the single-storey old library is still a handsome building matching the architecture of the primary school."

Hinton Street - Distinguish between the old houses with elaborate doorways and newer ones which are more functional.
The newer ones, 1948-ish efforts, replaced houses that were bombed.
(The site provided a bomb-patch playing-ground in my post-war childhood!)

Aberystwyth is the ONLY street that remains of the demolished suburb of similar terraced
workers houses that extended, row after row, about a mile in depth.

The extent of bomb-damage extended to larger houses in adjoining Marion Street 
where the difference in building styles can also be read.

Looking up Hinton Street and the park

Aerial view of Splott - Cardiff showing the area where Colin Partridge grew up.

Shirley Bassey also grew up in Cardiff.

Colin Partridge commented on the photo above -
"I yesterday learned that Shirley Bassey was born and brought up at 132 Portmanmoor Road. This was the main road onto which all the lesser streets, like Aberystwyth, opened. On Portmanmoor Road the houses were larger. The photograph you posted of the road and the girls with the skipping rope startled me. The image was so familiar, including the head of a watchful grandmother poking out of the front door. Even the outlines of the bomb damage are a part of my consciousness. I waited for many a bus to town standing nearby staring at that gap in the road..."

By contrast - Colin's now lives in Victoria

Some memories of Colin's teaching at Cleobury Mortimer from David Partridge (one of his pupils and no relation).

David Partridge 
"....the highly thought of Mr Partridge, related to mugwump, guardian of the 'conkerbonker, candlelit reader of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', elicitor of ludicrous excuses for being nominally late for meal times, and all round 'good egg'? I sometimes wonder whether you contributed to the writing of 'Dead Poets Society'?"

"Perhaps Mr Partridge's greatest legacy ought to be as the originator of virtual corporal punishment. The punishment would take place in the masters study, the cane was used to violently thwack a convenient pillow while simultaneously the miscreant screamed a blood-curdling but entirely bogus howl of pain.The miscreants would be so delighted with the procedure they were unlikely to re-offend, while the uninitiated pupils within earshot were so terrified that they too would remain on their best behaviour.
Effectiveness total; Violence nil."


  1. Yes - I also remember Mr Partridge - suppose he was something of a "one off" - during my incareration at CCBS between the dates 1957 to 1961 I can recall most teachers but Mr Partridge was one of the better in my eyes - I recall the trepidation at the start of the lesson when our "essay" results were announced to the class - it was always either Neale Blackford or myself that came either 1st or 2nd.

    Recall on one occasion CP played some classic music at the start of the lesson and we had to write in essay format how we interpreted what came into our heads when listening to the music and put pen to paper. It's really spooky but I can recall as though it was yesterday that I wrote words to the effect it reminded me of standing on the quay side as a ship was pulling away from the harbour and saying goodbye and waving to a girlfriend not knowing whether or not I would ever see her again. (Must have been some sad music)

    Kinda strange how one stores these memories - that must have been circa 1960 - some 52 years ago. Luckily my health and memory are still ok - perhaps something to do with the clean Cleobury air. If you are reading this Mr Partridge - thank you very much for being part of my English education - top man- and of course 10/10 !! Signed : The Original M28

    ps I recall Sir, you had at one time a Ford Consul (or the like) motor car and you were not too bright at car maintenance - you asked me if it was ok to flush out the radiator with water from a hose pipe, having first opened the radiator valve - and you know what - it was ok !

    1. It's delightful to hear from you over such time... My WISH as a teacher was to stimulate creative imagination but my JOB was to instill grammar for O levels. Sometimes I felt divided...

      I still have no knowledge of car maintenance. The car was a Zephyr purchased on a Friday evening in September 1960 at a used-car lot on the banks of the Wye in Bewdley. I couldn't drive, so the car was left for later collection. I was on duty that weekend when it rained and rained ceaselessly. At Saturday tea a colleague said he'd noticed the Bewdley car-lot was flooding and likely to be completely under water... I couldn't leave the school and images of an
      upturned car - my first, my dream - floating downriver haunted me through Saturday evening and all day Sunday. The next day, after class two colleagues, possibly Mr Chopping and Mr Foy, drove me to collect the Zephyr and bring it to school. The waters had receded and the car was undamaged but seemed to gleam with fresh wax-polish. That is my haunting experience from those days...!