Reliving history from a lifetime ago

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Grangemouth High's end-of-term show has particular resonance for local people, writes Miranda Fettes

t Grangemouth High, the assembly hall has been transformed into a huge air raid shelter seating 300 people. The end-of-term show is a remembrance of the Second World War years and a tribute to elderly people in the town who recall them.

Gerry Docherty, the headteacher, wrote As You Were from the school's war-time logs, personal memories of Grangemouth people and official war histories. The Grangemouth Heritage Trust was a huge source of information and inspiration for him.

The show tells the story of the war through the eyes of the pupils as well as a group of local women.

"A big bit of this is about the older community being valued by the younger generation," says Mr Docherty. "It is a celebration of them and a mark of respect for what they had to go through."

Grangemouth, with the largest airfield and aerodrome in Scotland, saw 400 men pass through its pilot training centre each year at the height of the war. The Falkirk town was also a major naval and ship-building base and records show 10 per cent of the ships involved in the D-Day landings had some association with it. The soap works made glycerine for explosives and the ICI factory produced quinine, antiseptic, antibiotics and anti-malarial drugs.

"With its strategic position in Scotland, Grangemouth was a key cog in the wheel of the national war effort," says Mr Docherty.

The school logs provide a fascinating insight into goings-on from 1939-45, during which time there were two headteachers. Mr Docherty reads the entry of March 14, 1941, by the then head, Hugh McClemont: " 'Leaving certificate examinations have continued every day this week. As an air raid alert lasted from 9.15 last night till 6.15 this morning, the pupils taking the examination in Latin today were at a very decided disadvantage.'

"That's the Clydebank blitz he's describing. The city of Glasgow was being pummelled by nightly bombings and my predecessor's concern was how performance in the Latin exam would be affected. It's totally devoid of sentiment.

"He talks about pupils' illness, scarlet fever, diphtheria, non-attendance, staff absence I It is an expression of normality."

Mr McClemont died in 1942. "A log entry reads: 'School went on as usual.'

It's an interesting comment. Everything goes on," says Mr Docherty.

"The next man, J. J. Harold, is a totally different person. He's fixated with fund-raising for the war effort. I think he very much felt the school had its part to play in the home effort for victory.

"On June 18, 1943, he wrote: 'Our Wings for Victory week has just finished.

We have collected pound;630 (three times our target) during the week. We were allowed a half-holiday to celebrate.'

"To put that into perspective, a house in Grangemouth at the time would have cost less than pound;600.

"In May 1943, the local schools agreed to hold a book drive with a target of two books for each pupil. The entry for May 31 records: 'A book drive has begun today to secure books for the forces, the bombed libraries and for salvage. We have promised to collect 600 books from this school.'

"You can imagine the pride with which he wrote on June 11: 'The second week has brought in over 5,000 books.' (The school collected 2,000 in the first week.) 'This works out at 26 books per pupil.'

"And in June 1944, D-Day has happened but all he's interested in is an appeal against a decision about an exam.

"I think there's almost a studied disengagement from the war."

There are also entries about the pupils going out potato gathering.

"It is a fascinating story. They strive to protect the school from all this incredible maelstrom that's going on around them. They are very restrained but there are some lovely touches."

Mr Docherty says his research has been valuable for the curriculum. "The history department do local history of the war in S1, so they've now got a new resource."

Pupils in the show found it eye-opening to learn about the town during the war. "I think we took it for granted that Grangemouth was just another town," says Ashley Page, of S3, "but it was really important during the war."

Some senior girls comment on the different style of music, hairstyles and clothes that women wore, rationing, spam and the black market of Horlicks tablets.

The pupils say they have a new degree of respect for the generation who lived through the war.

"Some old people have come to see the show and they've said it was really authentic and brought back a lot of memories," says Kirsty Dewar, of S5.

"It was an honour to hear that."

Mr Docherty has just been handed a letter from an "effusively grateful"

elderly lady.

"Thank you for making me remember all these people and all the things we did. You made me remember so much," she writes. "We had Ovaltine tablets as well as Horlicks."

Mr Docherty didn't include that in the show script. "I must read this out to the cast," he beams.

He is now considering keeping a school log himself. Perhaps in 60 years' time, Grangemouth High will put on a play about life at the turn of the 21st century.

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