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Colin O’Brien Goes Back To School

July 27, 2012
by the gentle author

Commonplace, an exhibition of photography by Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien runs at the crypt of Christ Church Spitalfields from tomorrow, Saturday 28th July until 26th August. Colin O’Brien will be talking about his work this Sunday at 2pm. During this week, I am revisiting stories I have done in collaboration with Colin, accompanied by his photographs that span an extraordinary career extending from 1948 until the present day.

This is Colin O’Brien, head boy at Sir John Cass School in Aldgate, on the day he left the school in 1955, proudly holding aloft the Lord Broughshane Cup and making a fine show of facing the future with confidence. Standing up straight, with his hair neatly brushed, he is the incarnation of youthful optimism.

So, as you can imagine, Colin was a little tentative when he returned to his old school last year, more than half a century later – for the first time since that day – to attend the leavers’ evening and meet the class of 2011.

“I think I was eager to please, and I was very happy,” was Colin’s self-effacing explanation when I asked how he became head boy, as we walked up Aldgate to Sir John Cass School, “I was always top of the class, even though I am not academic and I left with no qualifications.”

While still at school, Colin had shown flair in photography, recording the life around him in Clerkenwell where he grew up and even the car crashes that he witnesses from his window, so it was perfectly natural for him to take a set of pictures of his classmates to record the moment when they knew each other best – before they went their separate ways for ever.

I joined Colin on a sentimental quest to discover his youthful self of this photograph taken in July 1955 at the Sir John Cass School. We looked first in the school trophies cabinet for the Lord Broughshane Cup but it was no longer to be found and, to Colin’s surprise, when he climbed up to the rooftop playground where the picture was taken, he discovered that a garden had grown there, with beehives in a row, and flowers and vegetables sprouting where once he used to play. Yet, unexpectedly, evidence of his youthful presence remained in the form of indentations in the bricks, where Colin and his pals used to polish pennies by rubbing them into the wall, creating round notches that remain half a century later. And, to Colin’s delight, there were names graven into the brick too, among them “S.Worthington 1955″ and“Tony Racine 1954.” – names that he remembered as those of his classmates.

Once these unforseen discoveries confirmed that Colin’s memory was not a dream, his photographs not mirages and his youthful self not a spectre, we were emboldened to enter the assembly hall where, beneath the gaze of eighteenth century worthies that lined the walls, the current pupils of Sir John Cass School were gathered with their parents to say farewell to the leavers. Unlike Colin, who left at fifteen to face the world, these pupils were only completing their Primary education at ten or eleven and going on to Secondary education in the Autumn. Yet they were each required to stand up and complete a sentence that began, “When I leave university, I want to be…” and they did so with admirable resolve and ambition, even the ten-year-old realist who rewrote the sentence declaring, “I don’t know yet what I want to do when I leave university.”

Colin was there to give out the prizes to his youthful counterparts at the culmination of the evening, after performances by members of the school string orchestra and drama presentations. He shook hands with each of the leavers as they were given their bible, dictionary and thesaurus – revealing to me later that he still had his own leavers’ bible at home. And then, as the event drew to its close and all the achievements both individual and collective had been celebrated, the equivocal emotional nature of the event became apparent, as in the melee a few gave way to quiet tears. Meanwhile, there were a host of others running around with digital cameras to collect pictures of classmates as keepsakes, just had Colin had done all those years earlier.

As we descended a staircase afterwards, Colin pointed out the spot where he was first told about sex, admitting that he did not believe it at the time. In the playground, he confessed that this was where he felt the tingling sensation inspired by the object of his nascent affection Olive Barker, the daughter of the caretaker of the Bishopsgate Institute. “She never even looked at me,” recalled Colin fondly, “It was my first experience of love.”

Colin O’Brien, 18th July, 2011

Colin O’Brien, July 1955

Olive Barker, the object of Colin’s unrequited youthful affection is on the right.

Colin & the girls

Mr Hunt with members of his class.

Sir John Cass School leavers, 2011.

The notches in the wall where the class of 1955 once polished pennies.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Commonplace, Photographs by Colin O’Brien 1948-2012, runs at the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields. Open Tuesdays, Saturdays & Sundays 1-6pm.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    July 27, 2012

    What a great story. Thanks

  2. Juliet Wrightson permalink
    July 27, 2012

    “Where are you now, Olive Barker?”

  3. Tony Pretlove permalink
    October 5, 2012

    Colin, Just(5/10/2012)found this website with your lovely photos. My Dad went to Cass during the first world war and I have some photos, somewhere, of his time at the school. Would you like to see them?? Send me an email if interested.
    Best wishes,

  4. Tony Racine permalink
    January 29, 2016

    Good times at sir john cass (most of the time any way)

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