logoCollege Memories By Herbie Brennan


The historian Turtle Bunbury recently prefaced an anecdote he wanted to tell by asking if I knew who he meant by Mary Peters; and I had the pleasure of responding, “Know her? I used to wrestle with her.” I did, too, in the Prefects’ Common Room at Portadown College and never won a single match.

I joined the College in a particularly good year, sharing my education with young versions of Ken Bell, the physicist, Gloria Hunniford, the TV personality, Dennis Hawthorne, the producer, Dennis Brennan (no relation) the actor and Mary herself, of course, destined for fame as an Olympic athlete.

By the end of my first nervous week, I realised I had come home. I was no longer mocked for using words of more than one syllable or beaten up for being clever. I was surrounded by youngsters who were just as smart, just as ambitious, just as middle class as I was, and I loved it. I joined the Debating Society, (where I soon discovered I could win debates by making people laugh) lost weight and indulged in small, popular acts of rebellion like wearing blue suede shoes with my school uniform.

The shoes didn’t last long. There was a staff meeting about them and the only one to support my bid for independence was Eric Anderson, the French Master. The following day the Headmaster told me to leave them at home. I retaliated by attempting (unsuccessfully) to revive the Et Non Society, stopping off for lunch during the annual cross-country run, and growing a beard.

The beard didn’t last long either. During a break in the School Dance, as I recall, a group of my friends pinned me to the floor while Carlo Tortolani shaved off half of it, then released me to remove the rest myself. The beard grew back, but only a few weeks ago I learned to my dismay that Carlo had died in a car accident. I had lost touch with him over the years, but sadly mourned his passing.

Just before my seventeenth birthday I began to write my first novel, a self-conscious pastiche in the style of Eliot’s Wasteland. From childhood I had wanted to be an author and now seemed a good time to start. I had read somewhere that authors should write what they knew, so Song of Autumn was choc-a-bloc with teenage angst, romantic longings, naive philosophical speculations and heavily repressed sexuality. It was about a boy suffering (profoundly) from unrequited love for a girl named Patsy. By the time it was finished, it ran to 55,000 words and ended with the words:

The song of Autumn.

Since the autobiographical element was so strong, I was too embarrassed to show it to anybody and hid the bound copy away in a box. The work, produced in fits and starts, had taken more than a year and forced me to think seriously about my future. I was in my final year at Portadown College, sitting for my Senior Certificate examination. Most of my contemporaries were headed for university, if they got the grades. I was not so certain.

My mother had long expressed ambitions for me to take teacher training in Stranmillis College, a prospect that appalled me. I had vague ideas of trying something more creative — an English language degree, for example — but that prospect appalled her. “What good would it be?” she asked incessantly. “At least you’d have security as a teacher and there are nice long holidays.”

In the event, I took neither the English degree nor the teacher training. My exam results were good enough for university entrance, but by the time they were announced, I had had enough of school. Classrooms had begun to feel like prison cells and I wanted freedom. Specifically, I wanted to get out into the big wide world.

I sent Song of Autumn, the novel I wrote while at Portadown College, to a London literary agency. They sensibly turned it down, but asked to see anything else I might have. I sent them some short stories, which they promptly sold for me. It was the start of my literary career and I haven’t done an honest day’s work since.