Desert Island Discs #4 – Miss Wright

I was born in the middle of the decade known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’: my third birthday was in June of the ‘Summer of Love’ (1967), at the height of the so-called ‘hippie movement’ (long hair, kaftans, love, peace and dubious substances – you get the picture). No real surprise, then, that my first desert island disc is one that belongs to the end of that era: ‘One and One is One’ by Medicine Head was released in 1973 and was the very first single I ever owned, having received it as a birthday present the year after its release. Listening to it now takes me right back there, to that day, my tenth birthday party at my parents’ house when everything started to change and listening to records suddenly had more appeal than ‘Pass the Parcel’.

My parents were not hippies, and they had an intense dislike of the glam rock era that followed, with its ambivalent sexuality and taboo-shattering androgyny, thanks in large part to the influence of the late, great David Bowie. Their musical preferences included the melodious and comforting tones of The Seekers, so they really didn’t like the ‘noise’ of ‘Top of the Pops’, which was banned at our house: my younger sister and I would trot around the corner to watch it at a friend’s house. His parents were older, but much more in tune with the current music scene than ours, so Thursday evenings became an exciting time of the week for us watching the likes of Marc Bolan, The Sweet and Suzi Quatro strutting their stuff wearing glittery make-up, silver clothing and impossibly high platform heels. It was so much fun, and felt quite daring!

Despite the joy of popular music, I do not remember it featuring in my secondary school life until much later. I attended a comprehensive school in the East Midlands, which was on a split site: the Lower School was for Years 7 to 9, and the Upper School for Years 10 and above. When I was in Year 11 (known back then as the Fifth Form), and preparing for my ‘O’ Levels, I always used to look forward to Friday in the foyer of the sports hall, where we had a weekly lunchtime disco put on for us and the Fourth Formers. This was always an edgy event, and we would push the boundaries about as far as we could with our playlists, which included tracks by The Sex Pistols and other cutting edge groups. I remember the thrill of taunting our teachers by singing “We don’t need no education …” at the tops of our voices whilst punching the air in mock protest. It was at this time that I learnt to head bang (this comes with a health warning, by the way!) to the sound of ‘Smoke on the Water’ and other heavy metal classics, and I was introduced to the wonders that were Rush, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath: I was most definitely a ‘rocker’. My boyfriend at the time was a ‘mod’ (short hair, long parka), so I had a foot in both musical camps, and going to see ‘Quadrophenia’ with him was certainly an experience I shall never forget! In the end, though, it was the rock camp that prevailed: it was Queen, fronted by the flamboyant and vocally talented Freddie Mercury (sadly missed), who provided us with the soundtrack that brought us all together for the last time in 1980 (many left school at sixteen back then). I remember the warm, salty tears rolling down my cheeks as we all sang along to one last refrain of “We are the Champions”, because that’s what we were, we thought. Every year group, quite naturally, sees themselves as special and somehow different from all others, and we were no different, but this was the end of our childhood, and we were ready.

For me, the completion of ‘O’ Levels meant moving into the Sixth Form and then going to university: I went to Keele (other alumni include Dr Gibbs and Mr Gould), and as this was my first time living away from my parents, it was a very interesting and exciting adventure. For the first time in my life, I could decide what to do and when to do it – it was truly liberating. My musical tastes widened, and I built up a collection of cassette tapes (yes, you read that correctly!) covering most of the musical spectrum. I remember listening to Jackson Brown, Chris de Burgh, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd: it was quite a mix. The cassette tapes are long gone, of course, but all of the albums now reside on a NAS drive at home, and I still listen to them from time to time. There is one song, though, that sticks in my mind from my university days: I first heard it on the radio during a very cold winter (early 1984, I think) when the window in my room at Keele was covered in ice, frosted like the glass in a bathroom window, for about three weeks. I would get back after dark, make myself a coffee, sit on the bed and have a cigarette (another health warning!) whilst listening to the radio, just like the lyrics in the song. That song was ‘Listen to the Radio (Atmospherics)’ by Tom Robinson, and somehow for me it captured the feeling of walking home after dark amid the snow and ice, which glistened in the streetlights, and the joy of arriving back to a warm, cosy room with its soft lamplight. It still gives me goose bumps after all these years.

After five years at university, including a year living in Germany, it was time for me to enter the world of work, and I became a retail management trainee with Littlewoods, but that was not to last. In the end, I went back to university (Nottingham this time) for one more year to study for a PGCE, and it was during that year that I applied for a job at Trent College, another independent day and boarding school like this one, and the rest, as they say, is history. I have very happy memories of my twenty-one years at Trent, but particularly of my first year and especially my very first Fifth Form class. This was an interesting bunch: they had spent the whole of their Fourth Form giving our timid French Assistant the run-around, in the absence of a full-time teacher, so to say that they were behind when I took them on is an understatement. This was an all-male group: at that time, there were no girls at Trent below the Sixth Form. My first lesson with them was scary: I walked into the classroom and they stood up: most of them towered over me as young, muscle-bound members of the 1st XV, and I distinctly remember wondering what on Earth I had let myself in for. I took a very tough line with them: we had a lot to get through in a very short time. Gradually, as that first year of teaching progressed, I became more confident and they grew to trust me. Eventually the time came for them to sit their GCSE French and we faced our last lesson before study leave. I remember walking into the classroom that day and sensing that something was not quite right: “Where’s Jan?” I asked. “Oh, he’s gone back to Wortley, Miss”. “Why’s he gone back there? Has he forgotten something?” “Yes, he has, Miss.” “What has he gone back for?” At that moment, the door opened and in he walked, guitar in hand. He started playing, and every single boy in the room started singing along. The song was by James and was called ‘Sit Down’, but the lyrics were different that day: they were all about the year of French lessons they’d had with me. Things like this don’t happen very often, and I cherish the memory: it encapsulates for me what this job is all about. I’ve had lots of wonderful GCSE classes since, at Trent, at Holbrook Academy and here, but I’ll never forget 5:2 French at Trent in 1990-91. Happy days!

Leave a Reply