Saturday, December 29, 2007

29th December
Just before Christmas, I got a flyer in the post for a new and forthcoming book coming out to commemmorate my secondary school's 150th year. (A little creepy, this, as i was there for its Centenary).
The book was to be called "The Best School of All" and its editor was asking for memories of the school.
The examples they showed were the usual crap about 'the happiest times of our lives".
It really angered me, and I felt compelled to write:
"Dear Cheryl Trafford,

(A little health warning before you read any further: I've just read it through once again, and it's a bit of a rant. I keep my name on the old boy's register because I am still trying to come to terms with my dreadful experiences of Clifton. And I'm afraid the request for happy memories filled me with rage. Don't for a minute think any of what follows is directed at you!)

I know you've been commissioned to write a celebratory book about Clifton, and so won't be interested in my memories of the place at all.
But as I opened the flyer this morning and found myself invaded by memories, I felt very strongly I wanted to remind you, at least, that it is not all a rosy glow; and that for many of us the words of that vile song, "the best school of all" seemed like a sick joke.
I was at Wiseman's from 1963-67. The housemaster at the time was a stupid insensitive man whose traces of kindness were utterly ineffectual. The school was run by a system of vindictive institutionalised bullying that was designed to promote insensitivity, sexual repression, and emotional illiteracy. All glossed over by the repulsive hypocrisy of compulsory visits to the college chapel.
Just before my 14th birthday, in my second term, I was sent to Coventry. I can't remember why. It meant that for most of that term no-one spoke to me: they acted as if I didn't exist. My mother had died 18 months previously; there was no-one I could turn to. (I noted the name of the individual responsable for this among those attending a recent reunion. Do you think his memories are really that happy?)
One teacher in particular, my house tutor, a Mr. Tomes, saved my life. Looking back, it's clear he did, though he shouldn't have had to, and he may not have known what he was doing (I would like to find him again, so i could thank him).
I loved the school library, because it was a refuge from the brutalities of the school world; and I loved the house library, because it was there we used to rehearse for the house plays.
I was so happy there.
I always got the girl's parts, and soon that too became another source of torment because it became clear to me that I would much rather be a girl.
The discovery terrified me and filled me with shame.
And again, there was no help. I could tell no-one.
It also left me terrified of the theatre, and almost completely turned me away from my true vocation.
I didn't get my first play performed until i was 35.
About ten years ago, I was in Bristol again to record a radio play at the BBC.
I went back to the school. I looked at Wiseman's house.
I realised that i did not suffer through my own failings (as the school led me to believe). I suffered because I was trapped in an evil institution.
Evil for me, at any rate.
I am proud of the fact I did not succumb; proud that my stubborn resistance to it and its core values led me to where I am now, having in spite of everything acghieved much success and happiness.
But one shouldn't have to develop in spite of adversity. Or else die.
That's not how it should be at all.

I know that's not how it was for many people, and they are the ones whose voices get heard. They attend the reunions, they contribute to the magazines.
They are the ones to whom you are contractually obliged to give heed.
And forgive me if my memories upset you. I repeat: somehow our voices, too, need to be heard.

All good wishes, and good luck with your project

Jo Clifford

Jo's plays on tour in early 2008:
Great Expectations - Scottish tour by Prime Productions
Life is a Dream - Irish tour by Rough Magic

Recently published by Jo:
LUCY'S PLAY by Fairplay Books
LA NUOVA TONACA DI DIO (God's New Frock in Italian)
Follow my blog. (updated more or less daily) and get more info at"

I'm about to go on a 5 day retreat.
I wonder if I'll emerge at all reconciled...


Good heavens, Jo. If I were to receive such an invitation for my school's anniversary, I'd be writing to them with exactly the same thoughts. I even had to get out of our chess club room because it turned out not to be the refuge I hoped. The physics and maths classrooms in my final year were the best places I found. Mind you, the unofficial motto of my school was: "Wisnae me."

Best wishes for your big trip abroad, when it happens. I stayed on home soil, and the event was absolutely worth it.
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