A memorable teacher

Every reader of The Wychwood has memories of school days, days that were, reputedly, the happiest days of our lives. These memories revolve around friends, subjects taught and, perhaps especially, our teachers.  We would like to start a series of articles about your memorable teacher, memorable perhaps for their personality, approach, ability to communicate or, conversely, the fear they induced!  Here is the first article; after that, it’s up to you.

Teenagers live for the present and maybe for the future, but to many, the past is a closed book.  The history teacher therefore faces a challenge.  At our boys’ grammar school on the edge of Birmingham in the 1960s, we were lucky.  If history was never a favourite subject, losing out to woodwork and PE, it soon became a popular one, and that was due mainly to one man, a larger-than-life character, Graham Butler or widely referred to by his initials as GHB, if only because of the teenagers’ fondness for wordplay, where the initials GBH had a very different connotation.

What was his secret?  One former pupil, Peter Traves, in his book ‘Not great hopes’, described GHB in the following terms:

He was wonderful … incredibly well informed and intellectually engaged …he was witty and his lessons were lively.

Ah yes, lively they were.  I well remember the time the 6th form lesson was held in the cricket pavilion straight after break, and we had prepared the room well – door left ajar, wicker wastepaper poised above, awaiting the entrance of GHB.  It worked.  Rubbing his head slightly ruefully, he caught his breath before saying in a worryingly calm voice:

“Right, you’ve had your fun; now it’s my turn.  Line up behind Cannadine.”

Teenage glee turned to apprehension.  Very slowly, he walked to the cupboard door, reached inside and emerged with a cricket bat (avert your eyes, all you of tender disposition).  One by one, we were called forward and bent over then rapped firmly but not harshly on the backside.  Lesson learned.

But his lessons were always stimulating, never dull.  Variety was the key.  He frequently drew cartoon figures on the board to illustrate his teaching, and to ensure that any disengaged teenagers were entertained, we were taught little wartime ditties such as the one where the genital shortcomings of leading Nazis were sung, and for low-brow readers of this magazine, just Google the words ‘Hitler has only’ … and all will be revealed.  But he also started his pupils as real historians, overseeing research projects that took us into the bowels of the Central Library. Yes, variety was the spice of life.

But quite why I was picked out for attention one afternoon escapes me. In our upstairs classroom, GHB strode across and lifted me out from behind my desk, a pint-sized cross country runner being no burden.  Carrying me over to the window, he slid it open and dangled me outside, staring wide-eyed down to the playground while my ‘friends’ howled their encouragement.  I was both safe and concerned as the chuckling teacher held my legs firmly.  This ‘jolly jape’ ended suddenly when he noticed that it was school open day and a startled mother with her immaculately groomed ten year old stared up from the playground to see what was amiss, very amiss.

Yes, this was the teacher who claimed that he would earn more at Austin Motors but teaching was far more rewarding.  And as for the above mentioned Cannadine, he is now Sir David Cannadine, Professor at Princeton University, President of the British Council, frequent broadcaster and whose list of qualifications takes up far more space than this article allows.  His subject?  History, of course, and I would guess that Mr Butler had something to do with that.

Bob Forster

April – May 2022