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"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?"

Grammar School memories page 1 here


by David Smart
June 2011

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 class.
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 others.
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 after that.
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 -- FROM!
(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 Sub-Editors.
Note Edward only became Ted much later.
The 1948 also contains much of Edward’s early poetry and prose.
Geoff Griffiths (by email)