Festive Season LEGS Reunion
White Lion, Sawley, Saturday 29th December 2012

LEGS Revisited

Last LEGS Reunion - 3rd & 4th December 2005

Last LEGS - or the Last Detention - was billed as the last ever chance for ex-pupils to wander around the old main school building before it was converted to a small business centre. Difficult, given its Grade 2 listing and other planning restrictions - but in the end pretty well done.

Long Eaton Grammar School from space

The old Long Eaton Grammar School from space
Photo courtesy of John Simpson and Google Earth

I don't know how many came - all tours were sold out but there were enough no-shows to let opportunists in. 720 has been mentioned. I was surprised that so few stayed for a chat - most just went in, did the tour, looked at the memorabilia in the hall, and scarpered. Expensive (mostly German) cars entering and leaving a yard that used to know only a bicycle or two. Back then, skateboards were two decades in the future, roller skates had a wheel at each corner and dental care was free. Trade in the Tiger was much like then, said the landlord. Only my third or fourth time in there - we used the Bell.

There was a proper reunion - LEGSless - in the Tiger on the evening of 3 December 2005 for the late 1960s leavers, which seems the most cohesive crowd - a LEGS Golden Age? Although we are, I suppose, the youngest of the groups regarding the old part of the school as fundamental to our experience. It was pretty well attended, but mostly by locals. In this context, I consider just about anywhere within 200 miles "local" - there are ex-pupils all over the globe. I was in Germany myself for nine years and only happenstance brought me back.

What of the old school building? Well, a stupifying experience. In at least 38 years (and others tell me it's much more) the place had changed so little it was breathtaking. This is the point at which all superlatives fail. The senses were simultaneously assaulted - it was the same shape and size, the same reverberation, the same temperature, the same dim lighting in the corridors at night, the same smell - every observed detail crashed home to reinforce the one before. How did four decades go in minutes? Did I nip out on some trivial errand and absent-mindedly have a couple of careers and raise a family?

The original building was no longer really "the school" as I knew it. Even as I was leaving in late 1968, the new buildings were open and the old hall area had been redesignated as a sixth form centre - plans were in hand to enclose the balcony and turn it into a common room. That was done, and the old apertures along the upper corridor from which so many school dance photographs were taken were closed off a little later. It's odd - none of us would ever have thought of such things as a danger. There were perspex screens above the main staircases, too. The stage had been cleaned out, and the lighting platform had gone; together with the old pullover I kept up behind the dimmer panel and the half case of cider under the stage. The partition between rooms 12 and 13 that we folded back on Film Society nights was a solid wall, the projection room had gone, and the deputy head's office was a toilet. No kidding. The Demonstration Room where the Debating Society - subscription a shilling (5p) a year - used to meet had lost its tiered floor. There was a doorway into the library and the whole area including the old chemistry laboratory was stuffed full of the latest PC technology - top of the range flat screens and slimline towers. The library shelves had been changed; the long tall central spine with its side bays that were such good cover for developing relationships - free periods were fun if you sat by the right person and slid your chair over - had been replaced by an aisle flanked by much lower racks. Mind you, getting a seat at all was sometimes a fight and the disenchanted overflow would trudge off to Room 15. Or somewhere. Like the old Chemistry Laboratory for a discussion about decimal time - how many Whittlecognes in a Gastleton. Or the other way round.

Almost all of the rooms had different functions. The male staff room was a music room with a couple of Bongos in the middle of the floor. I mused in the dark over a can of Carling on what would have been said about that four decades before, through the choking fag smoke that used to roll out of the door whenever it was opened. Dr Gray's room - opposite the main hall on the lower corridor - was a support office; the almost luxurious furnishings and the old clockwork copper disc opposite his desk that ran school life by ringing the bells had gone.

I'm not sure, indeed, if any of the rooms at all were used for what they were back in 1968. You can take a virtual tour of the upper and lower floors of the old building on John Simpson's site.

Walking round the place was like flitting backwards and forwards through a timewarp. You looked into a space with no one in it, and it was 1965. You looked back at your friends, and it was 2005. At one moment you expected to see someone just as he/she was four decades ago, and the next you looked round to see them behind you just as old as yourself. Or older. And both older than your teachers were. Voices change less than faces - a call from behind and you spun to someone you recognised but didn't. The thin dust in the air - shoes kicking dust off the solid floor - was evocative, and the heating smelt just the same. Just for a moment I leant against a radiator I shared for a time with a certain girl during lunch hours four decades before. Just the same temperature - scalding, but somehow the girls could take it. The place had probably been painted once or twice (it was done once while I was there) but that wasn't really obvious. The main thing was the centre of school life had long since moved elsewhere - although there were a few notices about, there weren't nearly so many as a school needs. It was a satellite building - the old massive timetable charts outside Dr Gray's office long gone.

Though you wonder - in the IT age, does a school still post timetables as we knew them - or does each pupil now get a personalised spreadsheet via intranet email? The first day of each term was often spent pointing out to Dr Gray - politely - that some timetable items on that chart were physically impossible. A much scribbled-upon document.

And have the old homework pigeonholes been replaced by laser printer output stackers, one per teacher?

Delicate little notes used to be passed along trusted paths - now they can be passed in safety across the room, between rooms or even between continents. Has the old eager anticipation of a tap on the arm been replaced by a quietly vibrating pocket? No more hand signals and winks, either.

The evening amble was reminiscent of Film Society nights, when I stayed behind - as one of the projectionists - to reset the furniture for the next school day. By tradition, I walked home to Borrowash, sometimes with pleasant company part of the way, and by the time my boots were on I was one of the last to leave in the quiet. The old building seemed to be sighing as it settled for a night's sleep before the bustle of the next day. There was then and now a strange feeling, walking down the dim upstairs corridors past darkened classrooms to the stairs down to the "Girls Main Entrance", which was the one we used at the time. And arriving the next morning, two minutes late because of Service 39, and being remorselessly written up in the Late Book by the very girl I was going out with. Heartless creature.

I stood for a quiet moment in Room 9 to remember the day back in November 1964 when Dr Gray came in to a 4C french lesson to tell us Jennifer Lipscomb had died in hospital in Nottingham. At the time they told us she'd died during her thymus operation - I now know she was found in a toilet, having somehow wandered there from intensive care unsupervised. A beautiful, graceful but desperately shy girl, she was often the last to pair off in the Bassets' Country Dancing practice during rained-off sports periods, and as a consequence got the shyest of the boys. It's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

I went in the girls' toilets for the first and last time. No secrets, just as cold and bare as the boys' except more cubicles, no urinals and no smell. Not a place to linger. The contraption that used to launch gas attacks on the back yard had gone. How did four urinals ever cope with the male pupil population after double periods on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons? Especially when we only had a couple of minutes to get to the buses in front of the fire station.

Looking at the building with twenty-first century eyes, it's clearly obsolete. It would be hard to design a floor plan with more external surface per square metre of useable space - perhaps a good idea when light was more expensive than heat and pupils wore outdoor coats in winter, but the old place must cost an absolute fortune to heat today. No double glazing, either. And the high ceilings, wonderful in summer, just made things worse. A real contribution to global warming - and with the coming explosion in energy costs, a nascent liability. It's inflexible, too - those beautiful solid brick walls have resisted all but minor tinkering with the layout for nearly a century. It was built to last and it damn well did. How ephemeral we all are compared with its massiveness.

It makes you wonder whether listing such buildings really helps. It prevents the use of solar panels - for which the roof is geometrically ideal - and double glazing. It preserves the fabric but makes its use impractical.

The new school is different in many ways. One striking feature is the perimeter fence - according to Wikipedia 'reminiscent of a prison'. Our school was open to all, and I don't remember any vandalism.

Would I like to wind the clock back? No - that would involve losing other wonderful memories from the intervening four decades. Marriage, children, etc.; we had a big family reunion just the day after Last LEGS. I read a German science fiction story about a man who made a pact with the devil and went back - then found he was imprisoned inside a body that was retracing his life to perfection with him unable to change anything. It closed with him wondering whether he was trapped in the loop. A meld of Dr Faustus and Groundhog Day. Shudder.

Perhaps the saddest thing at Last LEGS was knowing that this visit can never be repeated, and that those who couldn't make it will never have the chance. More recent pupils, of course, will have their memories anchored in other buildings that sadly for them have now been swept away completely.

More than a little dewy-eyed, and I was only there four and a half years. If half-way around the globe was too far to come, you can achieve the effect. Follow the virtual tour, close your eyes, breath deeply, and engage every memory of your senses. I promise - everything you remember is still there, just as it was. Even the old Golden Brook. And if you weren't there to remember people in person, many of them were there and remembered you. Names fell like snowflakes.

Magic memories. I fell desperately in love in the place several times, and had my heart broken there as many times, too. I wonder how often that's happened since 1910.

There was another reunion on 16th/17th July 2010 at the new school to mark the centenary. People are still showing up saying they hadn't heard about the Last Detention or seen the web sites until now. More new old faces. And perhaps even more next time.

One thing we don't talk about much is those who didn't make it. Sad to know you'll never see them again - even sadder to hear of one girl I knew who only just made her twenties. David Wardell made the Last LEGS 2005 and 31 March 2006 reunions, only to leave us a month before the October one.