Wandering through the garden on a warm summer’s afternoon the heady aroma of the flowers and herbs filled the air. I plucked a sprig of rosemary as I passed and settling on a nearby seat rubbed the leaves between my fingers the distinctive musky smell evoking memories of many past lamb dinners.
Rosemary for remembrance: My thoughts drifted back to the early days of my life and I saw myself, short trousers, new school cap and blazer and socks about my ankles standing in trepidation outside my new school.
When I had finally bidden my farewell to the Junior School I had worked my way through the system from insignificant newcomer to the dizzy height of an all-powerful and revered fourth former. Younger pupils stepped aside when I passed by and were flattered if I should deign to speak to them.
Now here I was back at the beginning. I was very much the new boy, small and still wet behind the ears. Looking through the gates I could see the other pupils. Most of them looked like giants and all had a mean forbidding appearance.
Stainstone Senior School was a grim red brick Victorian building. The stonemason had carved high on the side of it the words ‘Stainstone School Board.’ Next to the inscription a plank of wood had been affixed to the wall. I suppose it was co-incidental and had been put there to conceal some part of the inscription that no longer applied but I remember puzzling for many years what was the significance of this piece of wood to have a carved inscription in stone referring to it.
Junior School had been a preparation but now my real education was to begin. In addition to the three R’s I was to learn the hard and difficult art of survival in the real world. The kids here were tough. Most of them were far more street wise than I was. Bullying was a matter of course and had to be coped with.
It wasn’t long before I had perfected the practice of hanging back until the tormentors had gone and arriving at the school gate just as the bell rang for assembly. Sometimes I was late but I didn’t mind because it meant I would be kept in at playtime where I was safe.
After school I would hide behind the bike shed until the coast was clear and run all the way home.
Playtimes were more difficult but I resigned myself to taking my turn at being thrown into the dungeon by the older boys.. This was a small fenced area with steps leading down to a lower level in the corner of the playground. The only way out was via the steps which they stood guard over. You could be incarcerated for the whole of the playtime.
I tried not to go to the outside lavatory if at all possible. To start with it was not very sanitary and again there was always the risk of being ambushed. If I was desperate I would stand in agony until it was vacant. If not, I would invariably be left with wet legs and boots or some-one would barge into me causing me to piddle all over my trousers.
As I grew stronger I was able to retaliate and after a few playground scraps the bullying abated and I was accepted into the gang. The initiation ceremony involved a tin of black Cherry Blossom Boot Polish and some imagination. I was now one of the oppressors not the oppressed and life became a lot more bearable.
Our gang was one of the tougher ones and in gang warfare we usually came out on top. Learned psychologists write long and erudite thesis’s about why people bully. I can explain it simply. We did it because we enjoyed doing it.
The teachers at the school were the usual mixture. Some we liked some we could dominate and make their lives a misery, some we tolerated and some we feared. And then there was Mr Grimsdyke!!!
Mr Grimsdyke was the mathematics teacher. He had a paranoid hatred of all children. I believe the reason he became a teacher was so that he had an opportunity to vent his spleen on them.
My first sighting of him was through the glass of the classroom door. With the light behind the silhouette of his hooked nose, humped back and flowing hair he reminded me of Nosfaratu the Vampire I had seen in a film at the local flea-pit.
The Empire Picture House affectionately known as the Flea Pit was the smallest and cheapest Cinema in town. The lowest admission price was 6d as opposed to 9d elsewhere.
It was a small dingy place with moth-eaten red plush seats, many of them with exposed springs. The balcony was particularly liked by courting couples as it had a number of double seats on the back row which was very cosy and convenient.
Films were categorised as U for Universal Viewing, A for persons over 16 years of age or accompanied by their parents and X for Adults only. These were films of exceptional violence, Horror Films and the occasional racy French Film.
The racy films were few and far between because in those days the censor would ban any film depicting nudity or even suggestive dress. Actors and actresses were not allowed to be in the same bed unless they kept one foot on the floor and any kissing had to be simulated.. What a change from today.
Of course we wanted to see the X films but we were all under age.
Lofty was the tallest and oldest looking member of our gang. Provided the manager wasn’t in the foyer and Marlene was on duty in the Box Office he could usually get a ticket.
The foyer was poorly lit and Marlene was usually more concerned with manicuring her nails than the age of the individual she was selling a ticket to.
We would all have a whip round to pay the sixpence and would wait outside near the emergency exit door. Lofty would open it from inside by pushing the crash bar and we would slip in quietly and get lost in the dark.
No doubt the censor was right for I saw many adult and scary films and as a result suffered many restless nights hiding under the bedclothes.
I am and never was any good at math’s and I attribute this largely to the fact that I was so terrified when I was in Grimsdyke’s class I just couldn’t concentrate on what he was trying to teach me
Consequently I was his poorest pupil and so was the recipient of his wrath at all times. The other pupils were delighted because it took the heat off of them.‘Boy’ he would say pointing at me ‘Eight times twelve?’ I would stammer and my brains turn to jelly”.
‘Come out here boy. Repeat the twelve times table’
‘One twelve is twelve two twelve’s are twenty four three twelve’s are thirty six four twelve’s are forty nine’
‘Wrong’ he roared. ‘Bend over and touch your toes.’ ‘Now remain in at playtime and write out the twelve time tables twenty times.’ he commanded.
’‘Oh well’ I thought. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining. At least I won’t get beat up in the playground. Who was the fool that said schooldays were the happiest days of your life?’
On reflection I believe he was not only a tyrant and a bully but a sexual deviationist aroused by the sight of a young boys arse clad in tight stretched short trousers. The application of the cane probably gave him great sexual satisfaction. He certainly applied it with a will.
The other teachers always caned you on the hands with varying degrees of expertise. Each teacher had his own favourite weapon ranging from thin whippy Malacca canes to stout bamboo rods. The thin ones were the worst because they cut deeper into the flesh.
Old Four -Eyes Stokes the English Master had a thick cane but as he was short-sighted and wore pebble glasses, hence the nickname, he invariably missed the palm of your hand catching the ends of the fingers which was excruciating. ’You should have kept your hand still’ was his unfeeling response.
From time to time as part of our English studies, Four -Eyes would arrange a class debate. It was ironic that one motion for discussion which he chose was ‘Should corporal punishment be banned in schools.’ As one of the more verbose pupils I was chosen to take part. I was very pleased at this as I had a lot I could say on the matter.. ‘Oh no my boy, You will be speaking against the motion.’
The thought of playing devil’s advocate made me feel I was betraying the cause but I set to with a will and succeeded in putting forward a very convincing argument. Not unsurprisingly in spite of my powers of oratory the motion was carried unanimously. It made no difference. The caning continued and it was not until 1987 that it was abolished.
Looking at the difficulties teachers have nowadays keeping discipline and the abuse and physical attacks some experience I wonder whether this was a wise move.
The most popular master was Bumpy Rhodes the PT and Swimming Coach. He was a hard taskmaster and worked us untiringly but we enjoyed it. We all loved sports and he would show infinite patience teaching us the finer points of Cricket of Football. In the pool he taught many of us to swim and dive properly.
We idolised him but as always happens our idol had feet of clay. His reign came to an abrupt end when the headmaster on one of his routine ‘walk-abouts’ entered the boys changing room and was mortified to see his sports master en flagrante with one of the younger boys who had his gym shorts about his ankles.
The School tried to hush the matter up for the sake of the school’s reputation but the boy’s parents when told demanded retribution and unsatisfied called in the police. The press got wind of it and it was front page news. Bumpy was arrested, tried and detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.
My parents didn’t have a cane but my father had a stout leather belt and my mother’s left hand was a lethal weapon when it connected with one’s ear.
Although I was repeatedly threatened by my mother with the dire punishment my father would inflict on me ‘When he comes home’ I can only recall one occasion when I was chastised by him.
It was in November and the other members of the gang had dared me to put a lighted banger through the letter box. It blew off the flap burnt a hole in the doormat and the door had to be re-painted.
Our gang used to play a game based loosely on ‘Consequences’ or ‘Truth and Dare’ we called it ‘Truth, Dare or Got to’.
Two of the gang would wrestle until one had the other pinned to the floor. He would ask his victim ‘Truth, dare or got to?’ If the poor unfortunate answered ‘Truth” he would then be asked some excruciating personal question, ‘Do you wet the bed. ‘Do you pick your nose and eat the snot?’ ‘Is it true your sister doesn’t wear any knickers?’ And so on.
If he answered ‘Yes’ the rest of the gang would taunt him as he walked down the street with ‘Willy Jones wet’s the bed’ or whatever.
If he were to answer ‘No’ The committee (i.e. the other gang members) would vote whether they believed him or not. As the decision was always against him they then went on to ask ‘Dare or got to?’
The dare always involved doing some stupid thing likely to get oneself into trouble, eating some revolting substance or creature or drinking some revolting concoction (Live worms and urine were quite popular.) or exposing some intimate part of one’s anatomy.
If the luckless fellow chose ‘Got to’ It was expected that whatever he was asked to do he would do it. Failure to do so meant he would be beaten up by the other members of the gang.
Realising that inevitably he would end up with it anyway most of the victims opted for the ‘Got to’ option from the start.
The boys were masters at thinking up fiendish tasks. No reciting ‘Mary had a little lamb or turning around three times and touching ones toes.’ I remember one of my tasks was to smoke a cigarette the wrong way round. (i.e. with the lighted end in the mouth) I took the precaution of filling my mouth with saliva but still sustained a couple of painful second degree burns.
I doubt if you will find “Truth, Dare or Got to” in any compendium of children’s games.
In those days games were an important part of life. There were, of course no televisions or computer games.
We used to wander at large wherever the fancy led us and no-one would have heard or knew the meaning of the word ‘paedophile.’ Oh we knew and kept clear of the dirty old men in the district and had been warned never to speak to strangers but I cannot honestly say that they ever caused us any trouble.
Of course in those days we still had the death penalty and the penalty for sexual deviants was much more severe
We played all the usual games, Marbles, Conkers, Five Stones, Release (An outdoor form of Hide and Seek’ and Kati (A strange form of basic cricket involving a short stick pointed at both ends which the player flicked into the air where the other players tried to catch it.)
Lofty was the proud possessor of an ancient cricket bat and ball and we played football with coats as goal posts.
Today’s youngster’s form of transport is the skateboard. We did not have such things but, if our parents could afford it we had roller skates and of course our trolleys. My Dad had built me a really super one out of an old wooden soap box and perambulator wheels. It had no brakes but could be steered with the aid of a rope.
Our trolley races down the steep hills were hazardous to say the least of it and I shudder to think what today health and safety pundits would make of it. At least we weren’t worried about any other traffic. There was very little of it about. Cars were few and far between because people couldn’t afford them and there were more Horses and Carts than Lorries.
In winter time there were sledges and snowball fights between rival gangs. There were no holds barred and it was just a case of who could find the biggest stone to hide in the middle.
The pavements were treacherous for the unwary with the glass like slides we used to make on the ice. No-one tried to stop us. In these days of civil litigation we would have the authorities down on us like a ton of bricks and no-doubt massive injury claims for minor mishaps would be levied at our parents.
Easter was another break from school. My parents were not particularly religious but I remember them sending me out early to the bakers for hot cross buns with our breakfast on Good Friday.
Today hot cross buns seem to be in the stores all the year round so they are no special treat. I did decide on Good Friday that I would get some but found all the bakers closed for the holiday.
The other gourmets delight was Fish and Chips. ‘a piece of fish and threepennorth of chips and can I have some batter bits?’ Wrapped in newspaper the newsprint gave the dish that special flavour which is lacking today. I cannot honestly say I have ever heard of anyone dying from eating chips out of a newspaper.
One regular visit to our area which was the cause of great concern was the arrival of the fever wagon. Looking like an oversized shooting brake it would collect the sufferers from contagious diseases who needed to be taken to the Isolation Hospital.. Everyone would watch to see which house they were visiting wondering if they had been in recent contact with any of the inhabitants.
Considering the things we did and the places we played in I and my friends were extremely fortunate not to have to avail ourselves of the service. One our favourite haunts was the local rubbish dump where we would scavenge for empty cigarette cartons or any other useful items.
. We did however succumb to the usual childhood ailments. My mother used to regularly dose me with Cod Liver Oil and Malt. Parishes Chemical Food and Syrup of Figs but in spite of this I think I contracted the whole set. Chicken pox, mumps, German measles, scarletina and whooping cough.
I still vividly recall when suffering from a particularly nasty bout of measles, lying in the front room, normally a holy sanctum only used for receiving honoured guests but temporarily converted into an isolation ward, with a blazing fire under a pile of blankets and an eiderdown.
I never recall that fire being lit at any other time that we lived in the house.
My friends were not allowed to come into contact with me but they had gathered outside the window gazing in wonder at the huge crop of bright red pustules on my face. I felt as if I was in a freak show. Roll up! Roll up! And see the bearded lady, the two headed pig and the horrible scabby blistered face of the boy with measles.
A cause of great excitement was the arrival of the council road roller to re-surface the road. The heady smell of hot tarmac, the steam and the mighty lumbering forward and backward movement of the heavy roller crushing the flint stones beneath it was a spectacle to behold.
Somehow todays sophisticated machinery does not have the same effect but then there are so many marvels nowadays that we tend to take them for granted. Older people reminisce and many younger people are fascinated by the age of steam. The old threshing machines, the steam plough, steam organs and the steam trains. I think its called nostalgia.
The School term seemed to drag on for an eternity there were of course the short breaks in the routine Christmas, Easter and Whitsun but these were only like long weekends. Over much too quickly but then the spring term drew to a conclusion and at long last the Summer Holidays. Four weeks of freedom.
‘No more teachers, No more stick, No more blooming arithmetic.’ we chanted.
In those days summer holidays seemed to last forever. We were too poor to go away but lazy hazy days down by the brook fishing for polly- heads or tadpoles, birds nesting, climbing trees and tearing our clothes.Sitting in our den in the bushes smoking an illicit Woodbine or drinking from the bottle of India Pale Ale that dad was looking everywhere for was pure magic.
It’s strange but I can never recall it raining. My memory is of long hot never ending sunshine.
Nearly every adult in those days smoked cigarettes or pipes blissfully unaware of the dangers of lung cancer. It was considered cool and sophisticated.
There were all sorts of exotic brands of cigarettes. Black Russian with gold tips, oval Balkan Sobranie turkish. Camel: By the smell probably containing real camel dung.
There were long thin cigarettes and tiny ones which ladies smoked in long cigarette holders. The grownups did it so why shouldn’t we even if it did make us feel sick.
in those days the makers put cigarette cards in the packets. We were all avid collectors and would never pass an empty cigarette packet in the street without checking to see if the card had been left in it.
Having acquired the cards we carefully stuck them into the specially provided albums little realising that by doing so we were effectively ruining any chance of future value.
Some collections of pristine cards now fetch thousands at auctions. Oh how I wish I had them now and all those comics I read and then threw away.
The cigarette companies issued sets of cards on every subject under the sun and there is no doubt, that whilst unaware of it at the time it was a valuable source of education.
I could name all the wild and garden flowers. I knew the Kings of England, recognised the native wild birds and butterflies and the flags of the world. In addition I could wire an electric plug. Make emergency repairs to a burst pipe and clear a blocked sink. To this day I find knowledge gained extremely useful when taking part in quizzes.
The most sort after collections were those of sports personalities especially Footballers and Cricketers. I remember bartering a whole set of Film Stars for one Stanley Matthews which I needed to complete the set.
Lofty had managed to acquire, while the newsagent was otherwise engaged, a copy of ‘Health and Beauty’ This together with ‘Men Only’ was the nearest thing to erotica allowed in those days. We passed it round looking goggle-eyed at the black and white photographs of skinny men and buxom women playing volleyball in the nude.
I remember there was a great fuss made when a pupil was caught passing saucy French postcards around in the playground. The photos were confiscated and the boy’s parents summoned to the school. I don’t know what happened to the postcards but no doubt they enlivened the teacher’s coffee break.
Like all good things holidays had to come to end and as the fateful day drew near I found myself fretting and worrying at the thought of returning to school and to Mr Grimsdyke.
Although I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone whatever they put me through I was in such a funk that I really did wet the bed.
I tried to think of ways to put off the fateful day but soon realised that feigning illness would only delay the inevitable and that running away to sea would be rather difficult as we lived in the Midlands.
It was about a half mile walk to the school so I had plenty of time to work myself into a state by the time I reached the gate.
As we stood in our classes in the playground with the teachers in front of us I looked for him but could not see him.
‘Where’s Thrasher Grimsdyke?’ I asked
‘Didn’t you know’ replied Chunky my mate, ‘He’s left. I think he’s retired or something.’
My heart leapt for joy. A ton weight lifted from my mind. Any replacement would be better than him. Suddenly the birds were singing, the sun was shining and everything in the garden was super-lovely.
Our new maths teacher was Miss Jones. She was young had a smashing figure and a really friendly smile. I promptly fell in love with her. She had infinite patience and would sit with me at playtimes to give me extra tuition but it was all in vain.
In these days of calculators and computers who needs maths anyway. I’m still better than the girl on the checkout counter.
I’m sure that by now you will have formed an impression of me as an old died in the wool traditionalist looking back at the past through rose coloured spectacles out of touch and suspicious of progress.
Not a bit of it. I welcome and embrace the future. Life today is so much better in every way than it was when I was young. At my age I would either be dead or confined to some chimney inglenook whereas now I enjoy a full and active life
I have my plasma screened TV set with all its channels that I spend hours flicking through to find one worth watching. I have my mobile phone, although whenever I try to ring anyone their phone is off or my battery is flat. I have my Sat-Nav which guides me to some weird and wonderful places and my computer to which I am completely enslaved.
Perhaps I’ll get a Tindle. You can increase the size of the font which would be great as my eyes aren’t what they were
Schoolchildren nowadays do not have their Mr Grimsdyke’s. At least I hope they don’t.
It’s nice to feel nostalgic about the good old times but in reality I happily chant ‘No more teachers. No more stick. No more blooming arithmetic.
So everything in the garden is lovely.
The garden: I came back to earth with a bump. It was turning cool and time to go in for my afternoon cup of tea. Fancy me remembering old Grimsdyke after all these years. I wonder what ever happened to him. I hope it was something horrible.
No. Schooldays were not the happiest days of my life and I had no regrets when the time came to leave them behind but at least I must thank Thrasher Grimsdyke for one thing. He did teach me my twelve times table.
Rosemary for Remembrance: It’s strange how I can recall those long gone days so vividly but cannot remember what i had for dinner yesterday. ‘Now was it lamb?’