A Morning with Alan (Chocker) Yates

It’s mid August 2010 and we are visiting Alan (Chocker) Yates in a care home in Southwell. Alan is now 96 (his son says 97 but non would argue) but still has bright eyes a strong handshake and a lucid voice that commands that you listen. We are taken to the library on the first floor, which Alan handles with ease and the help of the lift and a wheeled walking frame. This is the story of what came to pass over the next one-hour and a half of fascinating and revealing conversation. You can also read more about this fascinating man in a recent interview that he gave to the Nottingham Evening Post

Settling down on ether side of him (Alan is a little deaf) Alan takes control by saying that he is not totally sure what we want so we had better ask him questions. We explain that we just want him to talk and tell stories. Here then are some of the stories that came out. ‘Some’ you may ask; well now that’s another story.

SMGS in the 1930’s

School before the war was a huge contrast from the latest glass and steel structure of today. There was only one building and that was the old grammar school (apparently purpose built at the turn of the century). In 1936 the roll was 85 students, 4 teachers and the headmaster and his wife assisted by two maids.

Headmaster A Mathews and good wife who lived on the premises
Dudley H Doy teaching RE and Maths
JKB Ball teaching English and History
PA Yates French, PE and remove English
St Jorge King Day (yes that was really his name) teaching Physics and Chemistry
Charles Doughty of Oxton who taught woodwork on Saturdays

Dudley Doy was accident prone and well as in poor health as a result of the First World War. Dudley taught Steve Pulford in the pre war years and Alan describes him as ‘Steve in another suit’. His dedication can be imagined by the fact that after a firework accident in which he was temporarily blinded he still taught as school being guided from class to class by the boys. In his later year after several heart attacks he was confined to ground floor teaching and he had his final attack on ‘top ground’ in 1957.
JKB Ball (with a nickname of lobo but we will not elaborate) was an eccentric who seemed to care little for his appearance. It is said that his academic gown was so moth eaten that there is a photo in existence of moths actually flying from it. If anyone out there has this photo then we would value a copy please.
We were told the story of Alan’s first nickname of ‘Sonny’. In his words Alan looked very young for his age and shortly after joining the teaching staff he took a group of boys to play Magnus in Newark. When they had finish one of the locals took Alan for a student and said ‘did you win then sonny’ after that the name stuck with the boys. Alan had no memory of the genesis of ‘Chocker’ and for those who don’t know my research suggests the following. It’s a combination of ‘chocolate’ (which Alan was very fond) and ‘late’ as Alan was always rushing around, particularly on his bike. The chocko-late then got shortened to ‘Chocker’ as we all knew him. If anyone has another theory then please contacted us. The explanation brought a great smile from Alan.
In those days you entered the school via the ‘round steps’, the hall was on the right but then divided into two classrooms one of which had a stage. To the left of the steps was the 4th form (or remove as we all know don’t we) that doubled as a dinning room (must have been very cramped) and apparently the Head insisted on personally carving as well as serving the daily joint (all very Victorian I think). The chemistry and Physics lab was on the top floor, as health and safety wasn’t invented in those days.
There appeared to be a strange mixture of paid and free places. The church of course funded the free places for choristers but we are not sure what external funding was provided. We hear that Mr Mathews operated on a Robin Hood principle, for some of the places, even when this may not have been welcome by the more affluent locals.
Just one last word on dress codes; the boys were expected to wear full ‘Eton’ collars on Sundays.

A ‘Reserved Profession’ in Wartime

Alan was regarded as being in a reserved profession at the start of the war since he had joined the School teaching staff in 1936. However with the outbreak of the war he saw an ad saying all able bodied men with a good European language skill should write to an address in Aldershot which he duly did and got a return train pass to go for an interview. He had to be able to interview in French, to ride a motorbike fast at night without lights and be a good shot with a standard issue Smith and Western revolver (we are not told how he learnt the last skill). After a long interview he was put into an anti room and later told ‘congratulation sir on your early enlistment’ Alan felt elated but came down a little when told that the interviewer could speak 16 languages as well as Alan could French. More emotional swings followed when they found that he was a teacher (a reserved profession). He offered to resign his teaching post but they just ignored this. He had to sit things out until Dunkirk changed everything.

Alan’s war Begins

Finally the call came. He started in signals and was trained to impersonate a German signals operator to intercept Enigma traffic from Germany. This was highly classified in the war and as far as we know based at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. He was then commissioned and posted to SEAC in South East Asia. The next move was so secret that even his commander did not know his destination. He reported to ‘ME9’ in Mereut India and in his words follows ‘the most stupid interview of his life’. Alan could not talk about Enigma and his interviewer could not discuss ME9 and so the spent half an hour talking about nothing very much. Alan passed with flying colours and was posted to ‘Force 136’ the Far Eastern branch of SOE (Special Operations Executive)

Active Engagements

The plan for Force 136 was to set up two stations in Burma deep behind enemy lines with the northern one (station R) the main communications post. The only problem was the main northern station went silent fairly quick. Alan had the simple task to go in fix it and swap over field operators. He had a complement of Corporal Muir, a local man Ling, 8 mules and two drivers. Each person carried 100 rounds of ammunition for rifles and he an additional Smith and Western (in effect they were lightly armed and only able to handle ‘skirmishes’). The area was populated with very reclusive tribes and you knew if they were about since they displayed skulls (some apparently human) on the trees to word off evil spirits. On the way out they met up with a tribe that had one man who had some English as he had been in the Ghurkha Rifles but thought no more about it. They eventually found the station, repaired it left corporal Muir as the field operator and picked up a battle-hardened corporal Jones. The route back was less easy and after several days of very hard marching through jungle they had to rest. They built a small stockade of bamboo and tried to sleep. They were later awakened by the sight of fires and torches coming down a hill in the darkness and they readied for attack. They thought that the bangs was small arms fire and laid out the ammunition (about 500 rounds) and waited knowing that there could be only one outcome. There was no attack and after 2 hours of noise they decided that the attack may not come and decided to sleep one last sleep. In the morning they were awakened by tribes’ men who explained it was a wedding party who knew not only where they had been but also who they were. The Ghurkha Rifle connection had done its job. Despite being under attach many time and bombs exploding next to his slip trench Alan’s only wound was a burn from picking up a still hot piece of shrapnel.

The Great and the Good

When asked who were the most memorable boys that he personally taught his answers were: -
Sir Brian Rogers who was certainly the most gifted linguist and left school in 1957. He was a fellow of Trinity College, and Professor of French, visiting Professor at the Sorbonne. He was knighted in England and also had the equivalent bestowed in France (Prix Goncourt).
Paul Wall. Paul joined as a dayboy and in Alan’s words was idle, antisocial and withdrawn. It was eventually found that his father had died in the war and his family lived in very poor conditions with Paul often having to look after his very young sisters. The school found the money for him to board and by the 4th form his interest in History started to grow. He became Head Boy 3 years later and went on to get a first at university.
Neville Lincoln. Neville was a gifted linguist and a shared interest with Alan in butterflies but lacked confidence. He failed to get his school cert and left school as an apparent failure. When he told Alan that he had been called up to do his National Service Alan instructed him to tell the army that he wanted to go into the education department as a gifted linguist and that he would confirm this. The army offered him a short service commission guaranteeing him being fluent in 4 languages by the end of it. Neville went on to be a Professor of French at a university in Canada.

One Last Thing

It was clear that Alan wanted to talk about other things and the following just touch on some of the things that we discussed. First Alan does not claim to be religious and feel that religion is situational in that Italians are likely to be Catholic, children born in Israel, Jewish and so on but this is really just some manifestation of a greater spiritual thing. He then talked of the death of Joan of Arch as being one of England’s blackest days (Alan being heavily influenced by his own Grandmother) and finally the German poet Goethe who in his view wrote the most beautiful poetry even written. Alan a man clearly at peace with himself and the world.