Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Train Journey and Class of RY

Between 1978 and 1985, I went to University College, a public school located in the heart of Hampstead.

In September 1981, at the age of 14, I began the class of RY. Confusingly, this stood for Remove Yates. This did not denote a pressure group or political campaign of any type, rather the Remove year (public school jargon for Year/Grade 10) of Mr Yates, our form teacher.

There were about 25 boys in the class and in the previous year we had been called EY, which stood for Entry Yates. (Years 11 and 12 were respectively called Upper Remove and Transitus!) One of our first collective discoveries, as RY, was that our charismatic English teacher, Mr Ronnie Landau, had been replaced by a Mrs Mary Read (soon to be nicknamed Hairy Mary).

Mrs Read’s first English essay assignment for the class was to describe a train journey and she gave us a couple of days to complete this task. The results were very interesting and gave an accurate snapshot of the type of class I was in.

The first category of pupils had no imagination at all. They observed the world scientifically and empirically. These pupils literally described their train journey to school. So, for example, their essays would be along the lines of, “... at around 8am I get to Golders Green Station. The train travels for about a minute before entering a tunnel and then after another couple of minutes, we get to Hampstead station...”

The second category of pupils had some imagination but not very much. Their essays described journeys in France, travelling through the countryside or along the coast.

Then, in the next category, you had the pupils, like me, with the strange imagination who had already read too many books. I described being an 8 year old child being rounded up and forced into an extremely crowded cattle truck, alongside my family, with only a tiny crack to peer out of. I detailed how, during the tortously long journey, people died of thirst around me and how screaming guards with machine guns and snarling Alsatian dogs greeted our arrival as we were all bundled off to the gas chambers.

(Incidentally, I got a B for this essay, with the comment: “good, vivid description and use of imagination. Well done!”)

Finally, there was the Jonny Zucker category. This category surprising only contained one pupil, my old friend, Jonny Zucker and was in a league of its own. Zucker wrote about a young man who got onto a train at his usual local stop. As the train journeyed, the man gradually aged and he watched all the main events of history unfold outside the windows. He saw the great world wars, the assassination of Kennedy and so forth. Then the train moved into the future as the man continued to age. He observed the nuclear holocaust and Armageddon caused by the final world war and then the train reached its destination, the burning fires of hell.

Zucker rightfully obtained a straight A for this and Mrs Read admitted she was dazzled by his ability. These days, he is a successful children’s author.

Class RY also produced Adam Lent, Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, Dr James Hyman and Sam Bourne/Jonathan Freedland all published, well respected writers and thinkers.

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