I have written previously about my early school days, but far less about my years in what we used to call ‘senior’ school. Yesterday I wrote a piece, entitled ‘If…’ that I intended to publish today. It made me chuckle and it set me off thinking about those far-away days. So I wrote what started off as a little introduction, which has now somehow expanded into two fully-fledged posts. I can only apologise. This is what happens when your mind is shut away with just old sit-coms on the TV, crisps and whisky for entertainment. Forgive me, but I cannot help wondering, if school maketh the man, what on earth did it make of me? There are two principles at play here:
1. There is probably nobody out there to correct me. When I first started this thing, a number of my old school friends read it. Now, a year and a half on, I think I have exhausted their patience as few of them seen to tune in any longer. I do not see that as a good thing, but at least they won’t be able to point out how bad my memory actually is.
2. How bad my memory actually is. I know that some of the ‘facts’ I am about to present to you will be wrong. This, most definitely, will not be done purposefully, but, I imagine that if anybody from school does still read this little hotch-potch, they may well feel it necessary to correct me when I err and then I will know that they are there, and that knowledge will make me happy.
So, what I intend to do today is to talk about school in general; not about specific instances – my memory is far too unreliable for that – and, besides, I don’t want to discover that I do have school-friend readers only by dint of receiving a letter from their solicitors informing me that they are about to sue. In truth, I do not have anything detrimental to say about anybody. If there was a prat in the class, it was me.
My senior school was a grammar school, which had only a year or two previously ceased to accommodate borders, and a torch-lit creep around the bunk-bedded rooms was an illicit delight, whenever backs were turned. The mattresses were gone, but the skeletal wrought-iron frames remained, along with the smell of dust and old socks. Sadly, being at the grammar school set me apart from many of my old junior school friends and confrontations on the way home became quite routine. Having to wear a school cap until the end of the second year did not help. Short of waving a sign above my head saying ‘Beat this boy up’ I could not have done more on my walk home to attract attention to myself. Old friends became new enemies. I became a mass of neuroses, not least, because we were told that teachers patrolled the area ensuring that we wore our caps until arriving home. Anyone found breaking the rule faced a Saturday morning detention scrubbing the school cloisters on hands and knees, or cleaning cloak rooms – it was the eternal quandary: a punch around the ear on the way home, or a Saturday morning up to the wrists in soapy water. I alternated, depending on whether or not the bruises had subsided from the week before.
We were not allowed Christian names. We were referred to by our surnames. We referred to each other by our surnames. In my class we had two Masons, both of them Keith, although only one had a middle name. Thus we had a Mason, K. and a Mason, K.W. Whenever we old boys get together, K.W. is still referred to in that fashion. Every boy also had a nickname. The nicknames and the surnames linger, but somehow it is difficult to conjure up the seldom used forenames. Where the nicknames came from, nobody seemed to know, we had a Biff, a Beefy, a Rex, a Bins, a Pooh, a Rev, a Gabby, a Chooky… and once you got the nickname, you were stuck with it. I was Queenie, and I have spent a lifetime trying to shake that off. We were split into Houses: Bluecoats, Greyfriars, Lindum and Minster. I was in Greyfriars, or in second place as it was commonly known. Bluecoats was always first, Minster always last. The more academically gifted were always in Minster, which made them a joy to play at rugby.
The teachers were referred to as tutors, and there was a strict hierarchy to which they had to conform: the Professors, the Masters, the Ordinary Graduates and the rest. Many of our tutors wore their university gowns around the school, it was considered normal, but only the headmaster, J.C. Faull, wore his mortar board. Mr Faull was the figure that struck fear into all year one and two Scrotes. He moved around the school silently. Sometimes you would see just a corvine shadow along the wall and sense the drop in temperature as he passed by. He ascended to the upper floor via a spiral staircase that was reserved for the exclusive use of tutors and prefects. Being caught on that ‘special’ staircase by a prefect led, inevitably, to detention. Being caught there by the headmaster himself, led to ritual flogging and possibly human sacrifice – I think. Instead, we, the pubescent hordes, used either one of two steel-edged stone staircases that sat at opposite corridor ends. In the crush between classes they were lethal for the unwary. I still recall the pain of ‘skiing’ down them on my shins, unable to stop myself without distributing my load of precious Latin text books under the massed stamping feet of a scholastic year on the move. I remember also the pressure of having to pretend that I was not hurt. A life lesson learned: always have your hands free when on a staircase.
To be continued…
I owe a lot to my teachers and mean to pay them back some day – Stephen Leacock
Grammar schools are public schools without the sodomy – Tony Parsons