"And then in the middle of serious work, there were the wild moments
when he would stride to the window, look out and announce, "The
school is now anchored off the east coast of Madagascar" or other
similar improbabilities. Who would not but respond warmly to such a
Grammar School memories page 1 here
JOHN FISHER AT MEXBOROUGH GRAMMAR SCHOOL: A
by David Smart
Although I was at MGS for most of the fifties, with three years in
the Sixth Form, I only became closely associated with John Fisher in
my final years.
In my earliest he was something of a removed and a revered figure.
In my first year I should, perhaps have been taught by him but he
was on his American exchange and his American replacement took the
He, on one occasion, was discussing plurals - ox- oxen, goose -
geese etc and then, memorable for an 11 or 12 year old, came the
question, 'What do you do about a pair of pants? Singular at the top
and plural down below!' This has stayed with me because - a
sensitive issue - I would undoubtedly have been unwillingly still in
short trousers at the time. But this is an aside.
When Fisher returned I registered him only as a tall figure, rarely
gowned, not quite gaunt, but with a long, slim face, a passionate
reader of 'The Manchester Guardian' which he always seemed to carry.
(Later in class, I heard him frequently read out the spelling
mistakes that worthy broadsheet was capable of in those days.)
He was involved with drama both as producer and actor/director of
pupils' and also staff theatricals. There were several of these in
my time. One remaining fragment has survived: a series of short
dramatisations of newspaper names. I remember 'The Daily Mail' in
which a pretty young PE teacher was visited by a succession of male
teachers each of whom claimed a kiss as she ticked off the days on
her calendar. Each caller raised a storm of delight in the audience.
I suspect it was Fisher who wrote the witty skits on Flanders and
Swann and the political jokes about the Suez affair amongst many
In my early years at MGS inter-house rivalry burned brightly and I
remember him as recorder for the hotly-contested school sports day,
seated in a variety of weathers at a table in the middle of the
running track keeping scores and announcing results as dramatically
as possible.. He seems also to have been responsible for the O level
retake examination that took place each autumn and which he dubbed
The November Handicap.' It goes without saying that he had a lot to
do with the school magazine 'The Don and Dearne'.
But is was as an A level English Literature student that I made his
closer acquaintance and his influence on my life really began. I
guess my group numbered no more than ten or a dozen. He announced
the course as :The Prospect Before Us' and we who had chosen
literature and the arts had chosen Life itself. Science popularly
obsessed with the Bomb at that time was, by implication, Death.
Working with texts, especially Shakespeare, he was well-read and
knowledgeable and he knew his mythology and Bible. He was witty and
a considerable wordsmith, conjuring up characters (he really brought
Falstaff to life) and their historical contexts. He was, for
example, brilliant on the First World War background to the soldier
poets. He was, of course, near to war itself. Only ten or so years
before, he had been in the navy serving on the North Atlantic
convoys. When he was passing down the corridor and encountered a
crowd he would pass through it with the words 'gangway for a naval
officer...' A few anecdotes about life on the ships made it into the
classroom: the bitter cold, the high, dark seas, the icefields off
Russia... But there was no self-indulgence here. Nothing, not even
his own life- stories, would deflect him from his beloved attention
to the text.
I can still see him stalking around the classroom in flannels,
jacket and high-necked jumper dictating background notes to us on
'Wuthering Heights' (which he taught brilliantly), Hopkins etc.
Often he had the window-pole in his long-fingered, strong-wristed
grasp. This tool was found throughout the school and was used to
open the upper reaches of the towering high panes found in many
classrooms.. He used the blackboard to write up names, dates, always
clearly scripted. When marking homework-essays he would write
generously long comments, often in red ink which did not signify
censure. He had a clear, fluent, individual hand, a joy to read. But
the nitty-gritty of his teaching was working with his students
through discussion of the texts and leaving them to make such margin
notes as they felt they needed.
He recommended critics like Leavis, Spurgeon, Bradley, and the
earlier Hazlitt etc. and made sure their books got into the library.
He made a personal recommendation of Goddard's 'The Meaning of
Shakespeare' which I managed to buy. That one book served me well
through university and much of my own teaching career. This was a
typical choice for him as it placed Shakespeare in the context of
world literature and made me aware of the Russian novelists and
European writing movements as well. When asked who his favourite
writer was he answered wisely, 'The one I happen to be teaching at
the moment.' He was broadminded and European in outlook, not to say
international. He read well too, strongly in a slightly sonorous,
clearly pronouncing, sensitive, expansive, voice.
I could never detect the North West in his speech patterns but I
feel sure it was there.
He grew up, like Wordsworth, on what is now the Cumbrian coast, a
fact that made Norman Nicholson a favourite poet. We used him
sometimes in our wonderfully elucidatory practical criticism
sessions. Fisher's expressive eyes would regard our sallies into the
texts he gave us quizzically, shrewdly as we tried to assign a
passage to its period and perhaps its author. His glasses would be
on and off his nose to be grasped at times in his gesturing hands
and, at other times, set down on his desk. And then in the middle of
serious work, there were the wild moments when he would stride to
the window, look out and announce, "The school is now anchored off
the east coast of Madagascar" or other similar improbabilities. Who
would not but respond warmly to such a character?
I was cast in two plays he produced with the Sixth Form Dramatic
Society, being Captain Horster in Ibsen's 'An Enemy of the People'
and later Danforth in Miller's 'The Crucible'. Both plays indicated
his close interest in world literature as well as politics, perhaps
particularly as practised at town level. (He was a candidate in
local elections on occasions.) You would have to describe his
production techniques as warm and passionate. To get the moves or
gestures right for a character he would walk the actor, arm around
his/her shoulder, hand in his/her hand, speaking the words and
performing the actions as he wanted them. Both plays feature crowd
scenes. In the Ibsen he placed actors amongst the audience in the
hall who would call out and heckle on cue. Relations with other
staff members must have been good because scenery, props, costumes
were of a high standard and he would have needed help here though he
certainly did have his own practical streak.. There was lots of
support on performance nights with staff coming in to help with
make-up and hair and stage management. It was backstage that Fisher
brought special academic/university friends he had invited to meet
the cast and perhaps help them to a college place. It was at times
like these that we all felt gathered into those long and widespread
arms of his. He was truly what is now called a mentor.
I was almost 19 when I left MGS and had been under his guidance for
three years. The university place I secured was in no small part due
to him. It was my determination to read for an English degree and
so, to an extent, he set about widening my general artistic
horizons. He it was who first got me into classical music beyond
singing in one of the school's several choirs and in assembly where
hymn singing was an almost daily feature. He invited me to his home
on Low Road and played me the first symphony I had ever heard in its
entirity, an LP of Sibelius Second. I went back several times to
listen to others and got to know his daughters, Angela and the one
he called Fanny Lizzie Lottie. He leant and, indeed, gave me books
from his own collection always inscribed on the fly leaf 'John
Fisher'. Symphony sessions usually ended with a stroll along to the
Ferry Boat Inn where he bought me and taught me to drink Mackeson. I
continued to make this my drink of choice in pubs visited in later
years, that is, until it disappeared from the shelves. In the Inn he
seemed on good terms with everyone, waving to the other regulars
across a crowded bar.
On a number of occasions his was the guiding hand behind
out-of-school visits we made. There was a trip to see 'Look Back in
Anger', 'Der Freischütz' and the ballet, but the real coup was to be
included in a visit he arranged to see T.S. Eliot open a library
named after him at Sheffield University. I am sure our small party
would have travelled there in his car, probably the Citroen, of
which he was so proud. I believe he had his degree from Sheffield so
he had a kind of entree. Eliot, incidentally, read engagingly and
gave a short, often witty address. 'The Waste Land' seemed easier
Which leads me to Ted Hughes, Fisher's greatest protégée, who
dedicated one of his prose works to his former teacher. It was
appropriately about analysing and writing poetry. Hughes had been
Head Boy at MGS but I have no recollection of him in that role. By
the time I was in the Sixth Form his name was on the literary radar
and his first book had been warmly received not least by Eliot
himself. Fisher was ecstatic, of course, and had a few reminiscences
of Hughes to pass on to us. Apparently Hughes had been very keen on
Shelley and was much into the natural world. It seems he brought
back arm-fulls of bluebells from the local woods in late springtime
but he knew his birds of prey well too. It was no time at all before
the library had its copy of 'The Hawk in the Rain'.
With Hughes' star shining ever brighter it was an outright coup to
book him as guest-speaker for the 1961 Speech Day on Tuesday July
18th. Fisher must have been instrumental in securing this. Hughes
was not a natural for this sort of thing and, in fact, gave no
speech, reading some poems instead. With him he brought the slightly
built and smiling, dark-haired Sylvia Plath, then his wife, and with
perhaps a year or so to live. I shook hands with them both as I
received my certificates on that auspicious stage. I still have the
booklet produced for that very remarkable evening.
This was unquestionably a high point for me, meeting and sharing a
few seconds with two world class literary figures. And it must have
been so too for John Fisher sitting on the stage where he had
secured for himself and for others so many successes, in the
presence of his best-ever pupil and surrounded by an audience of
grateful and admiring ones.
'Mexborough is the best place in the world to go for a holiday --
(John Fisher who didn't really mean it)
● I remember an English lesson in the
early sixties when Mr Fisher mentioned a pyramid in Rome near to
the grave of either Keats or Shelley. I stuck up my hand and
proudly told him that I had visited the spot whilst on a camping
trip to Rome travelling by Billy's Coaches driven by my Uncle,
Ron Pattenden, Mr Fisher immediately gave me a two shilling
piece as a reward.
Peter Shaw (by email)
●Alerted by an old friend, I have just read the tribute to John Fisher. I started as a pupil at the beginning of the Second World War when the
name was Mexborough Secondary School. In a very short time Mr Fisher; Mr Langley, who wrote the words of the school song and Mr White
left to join the forces and we didn’t see them again until they were ‘demobbed’.
However, I too found John Fisher an inspirational teacher
during my years in the Lower and Upper sixth. Some years later, April 1961 I returned as a member of staff and well remember Ted Hughes
and Sylvia Plath coming to Speech Day.
Incidentally, I still have copies of The Don and Dearne dated 1947 & 1948. The 1947 edition was edited by J E Fisher with Sub- Editors
Olwyn Hughes ( Ted’s elder sister) and Edward Hughes. The 1948 edition was again
edited by J E Fisher with Edward Hughes and Charlotte Lindley as
Note Edward only became Ted much later.
The 1948 also contains much of Edward’s early poetry and prose.
Geoff Griffiths (by email)