Monday, February 09, 2009

Take A Seat, It Looks Like Bert Was Right

Some forty years ago I was a student at Fircroft College in Birmingham. Fircroft was a hotbed of left-wing, working-class, revolutionary fervour and its student community had representatives of almost every radical grouping in existence at the time : from Stalinist to Trotskyite, from syndicalist to anarchist. If you added the staff into the mixture there was a sprinkling of Labour Party members and even the odd Liberal. And there was one unrepentant Tory - Bert the Gardener. 
At some stage in the early history of the College, someone had the bright idea that the intellectual endeavours of the students should be counter-balanced by physical activity. The physical activity chosen was gardening : each student had to undertake at least two hours of gardening every week. The grounds of the College were quite extensive and could easily soak up the gardening efforts of the fifty or so students. But we students considered ourselves at the vanguard of the new revolutionary spirit of the times. We should be up and about building barricades, marching down streets and leafleting the workers : not weeding the cabbages. We turned all our youthful energy into trying to get out of our gardening duties.
Our weekly efforts were recorded in an exercise book which was kept by Bert the Gardener in his hut. Outside working hours the hut was safely locked up. Each week, the College Principal - a splendid man called Hopkins who once handed out copies of Hobbes' Leviathan to the students who were occupying his office - would inspect the gardening book to ensure that everyone had completed their two-hours' worth. I'm not sure what the punishment for not doing your gardening time was, but I recall it was something we all wanted to avoid.
And so it came to pass that one night I was part of a raiding party which had a plan. We would break into Bert's hut after he had gone home and "doctor" the book. Originally the idea was to burn the book and so strike a blow against bourgeois convention, but eventually we decided to just forge the relevant columns so it looked as though we had done our gardening for the week. We crept up to the hut in the dusk of the evening and prised open the window. The smallest and slightest member of our gang (I can't remember of it was Irish Tom or Singapore Mike) was hoisted through the window only to discover Bert sat there, smoking his pipe and reading his Daily Telegraph.
We received a lengthy ticking off and a punishment which, I seem to recall, included a double dose of gardening that week. If we didn't accept the punishment, details of our twilight raiding party would be passed on to the Principle. We took our punishment like men but I couldn't resist getting a parting verbal shot in. "You Telegraph-reading Tory bastard", I said, "you will see that we are victorious in the end". "No", replied Bert with a calmness that was wonderful to behold, "in the end you will finish up reading the Daily Telegraph as well".
It was game and set to Bert and this morning, if he had been watching from his gardeners' hut in the sky, he might have thought it was match as well. I went to the shop and bought a copy of the Daily Telegraph. But just in case you are smiling with a gentle satisfaction up there, Bert, let me explain. Isobel has got her eye on a new settee from M&S but she is unsure whether it would be too big for our room. Eventually I suggested that we should cut a paper pattern the size of the settee and try it out for size. The Guardian has now gone Berliner size, and the only relatively suitable alternatives - the Indie or the Times - are tabloid. So when I got to the shop this morning I had to break a promise I made myself forty years ago. I bought the Daily Telegraph.
LATER : Having bought it to cut it up, I couldn't resist having a little read whilst I drunk my morning tea. And actually, there is some quite good stuff in there. Might even buy it again at some stage. So, today, there will be one happy gardener in heaven.


  1. Anonymous9:08 AM

    Hi Alan,
    I was at Fircroft 67/68 but memory is a bit you know and I'm not sure if I recall your name. Icertainly recall the events you essay so charmingly.

    Todday I learned of the 2008 fire and was in tears. But it sent me on a web search which is proving deliciously fruitful.

    Many thanks for your contribution.

    Denis Grant

  2. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Great to read of your Fircroft times Alan and am really sorry that I didn't see them before the little pamphlet I've put together for Fircroft's centenary went to the printers.It does have a picture of Bert the gardner though!

    Helene Pursey- Guidance Tutor and ex-librarian at Fircroft.

    1. Anonymous8:15 PM

      i was at fircroft 1990-91. i remember helene very fondly. before leaving fircroft i decided to relieve the library of some mainly left wing books, packed in to a suitcase. weeks later i had a knock on the door at my home address, yes helene had come to collect the books. she was not at all annoyed and stated that at least fircroft had given me a tast for reading. eugene

  3. Andy Tyacke1:24 PM

    I was at Fircroft in 1963-64 and was very great friends with Bert, despite his slave-driving. My mate John Higgins and I regularly went with Bert to watch Aston Villa home games. When I told Bert that my team (West Ham) would win the Cup in 1964 his response was "We've 'ad it pinched more times than yoh've wun it!" - but we did win it and now we've won it more times that villa had it nicked!
    My year at Fircroft was the happiest and most exciting time of my life. I learned so much from the teaching staff - particularly Frank Burchill and Wilf Leighton as well as from the huge store of knowledge and intellectual rigour exerted by the other students. At Fircroft you needed to be able to back up statemments both factually and intellectually. Hoppy was a great guy and absolutely perfect for what was not an easy job. I well remember his calm response to my scoring a direct hit on him with a water bomb I dropped from the roof and intended for one of my mates. Unfortunately I was too busy trying to think of a good story to remember exactly what he said - but I do remember that it was (typically of him) witty as well as pointed.
    Our little gang of trainee alcoholics would often take Mrs Hopkins down the Pub (was it the Oak?) when Hoppy was away and then all trundle back to Chateau Hopkins and put the world to rights until the early hours of the morning


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