An Awkward Question

Harpurhey, north Manchester, is a poor area, and was in the 1950s and 60s as I grew up. Rows and rows of terraced houses, with no bathroom or indoor toilet, straddled the Rochdale Road. There were no luxuries, but my childhood was happy. I was well fed and clothed and I got new football boots whenever I needed them, as my feet headed rapidly towards size 12. I left the area in 1966, and without doubt, had benefited from being an only child with a Dad who laboured very long hours on the railway.

My house was about 150 yards from Bernard Manning’s2World Famous Embassy Club’. Even closer was Stiles Undertakers. Local folk lore had it that, ‘His dad boxes ‘em up and Nobby3 provides the corpses’ (something about the way he played?)

Harpurhey hasn’t had many famous residents and only three ring a bell with me. Brandon Williams, currently playing for Norwich City, Anthony Burgess, whose Mum briefly ran a pub and the lovable nut Freddie Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers fame4.

In 1966 my life was about to change as I left for university – but I had to get there first. I suppose that all started with a Mum who taught me to read before I went to school. I did well and the 11+ didn’t hold too many fears for me. I was still mightily relieved when the results came through and I can still recall the excitement I felt when I shared them with my pals. We were all asking, “Did you pass?” None of us gave much thought to those who said, “No, I failed.” I’ve since realised how cruel that system was for the majority.

Aged 13 everything I did in school was ‘for a laugh’ and my headmaster, who I hated, made me think. He wrote, “Two men looked out from the prison bars and one saw mud and the other stars.”

Over the next few years I did enough work to gain decent ‘A’ level results. Again credit to my Mum, who ‘was on my case’ immediately if she caught me slacking. It was time for university.

When it came to choosing a course I hedged my bets and applied to do History (main) and Sociology (subsid.). My rationale was History was my best subject and Sociology was something I was vaguely interested in without knowing much about.

Just turned 18 I was called for interview at York. I’d been there once before, on a day trip, from Junior School and I’d been very impressed with everything I’d seen. The comparison with Harpurhey was stark and the impact was clearly visible on the wide-eyed faces of my classmates. My interview was to take place at the King’s Manor, which was a few minutes walk from the railway station. On the train I’d checked all necessary details and started to get nervous. This was my first ever interview.

I arrived at King’s Manor, which oozed history, and felt very much a fish out of water. I was thirty minutes early, and was directed to a long, narrow, gloomy corridor. I sat directly opposite the interview room. The name on the door was MR. H. KOCH. I wouldn’t be meeting him for half an hour, so there was plenty of time to get even more nervous, and to think about my forthcoming ‘ordeal’ (definitely the way I was seeing things). Did Mr. Koch have a Dutch or maybe German background? Was he young or old? What questions would he ask?

As the minutes ticked by I stared at the door, which seemed to have taken on an intimidating persona all of its own. Nothing at all happened, except two individuals came out of other rooms along the corridor, and completely ignored me as they walked by – no smile, no ‘hello’ or, ‘good luck’. Interview time came and went. Nobody emerged or went into the room, and I heard no sound from within. Then, 50 minutes after my arrival, the door opened and there he was, Mr. Hans Koch! He was a thick-set, fattish man of about 40. He had black, spiky hair, a corduroy jacket and milk bottle thick glasses. Build – wise, he was the perfect shape to make a rugby prop forward (assuming, of course, that he could see the ball.) Welcoming he was not. No smile, no handshake, just a deeply piercing stare and the words “Mr. Orton?”

I was told to come in and sit down, and introduced to a Sociology lecturer who did at least smile. He struck me as a completely insignificant man, and was to play no part in the interview. I got the impression that he had committed some minor misdemeanour and, as punishment, Hans had sent him to go and sit in the corner, and told to him to ‘keep quiet’.

Jellylike, I waited for the interview to start, as Hans placed his elbows on his desk, and his chin on his hands. He withered me with his stare. I remember only one question, the first one, delivered with an accent that left me in no doubt as to his country of origin:-

Well Mr. Orton, who do you think was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War?”

I would guess that Mr. H. Koch has written many notable books over the course of his career. I’d be very surprised if any of them were on ‘Interview Technique’.


1 Harpurhey, North Manchester, identified in 2004 on the Government Index of Deprivation “as the poorest out of 32,482 areas in the country.”

2 A very successful comedian in the 1960s

3 Nobby Stiles played in the 1966 World Cup team. He was also a long standing player for Manchester United.

4 Freddie and the Dreamers were a successful 1960s band

Alf Orton

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