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Friday, December 06, 2013

School Memories

How is it that any memories of school are never of actual lessons? In fact, I don't really remember anything at all about things we were supposed to be taught.
Walmsley House school was I think the first school I went to, and it was in Kimbolton Road in Bedford. School dinners weren't cooked on the premises and used to arrive in a gray van that used to turn up in the playground and the meals came in large tin containers.  I presume the meals were cooked elsewhere in the town and then delivered in this van , but to this day I have no idea where this was. I think most people's memories of their school dinners were of over-cooked cabbage, lumpy gravy and custard and possibly liver that was as tough as shoe-leather and inedible meat that was full of gristle and fat and which you had to chew fifty times before you could sallow it. The school always had a permanent smell of that awful boiled cabbage. Enough to put anyone off  that particular vegetable for life. Perhaps Brussels sprouts have the same effect on perhaps 95% of the population. I had no choice in whether I liked them or not, as my father, being a farmer and a Bedfordshire farmer at that, grew Brussels sprouts and we had to eat them. Not the tiny little  excuses for Brussells they sell today in most of the supermarkets throughout the country, but  a much bigger variety. And actually, as a result of having to eat them, I can say I actually like them, a great deal down to the fact that my mother didn't boil them to death. They should not be soggy and tasteless but cooked to the point that they are still crunchy.
Something else I recall about school lunches that that school was that there never seemed to be enough space for everyone to sit in the dining hall. Some people had to sit out on the landing of the staircase which lead up from the front door of the school. We can't have been supervised by the teachers very well, or perhaps it was that the teachers were useless at keeping control of their charges, but I remember some delightful child throwing food over the bannister along the landing and onto the floor below. I'm not sure whether any landed on anybody passing below, but it's something that sticks in my mind.
Every year the school used to put on an out-door show on a raised piece of grass in the playground. It was something like an outdoor stage. A dancing display was part of this entertainment and parents came to watch. I think this dancing was similar to country dancing with two rows of children facing each other and you moved forward in time to the music and slapped your opposite number on their opposite hand, for example, right to left, left to right. The music was played on a record player and operated by a teacher at the side of the stage. Unfortunately, during one performance, this teacher, who wore high-heel shoes, trod on the electric cable which ran from a power socket to the record player. There was a cloud of smoke and no doubt a bright blue flash and the record ground to a halt, no doubt making quite a spectacle in itself, and the whole proceedings came to very ignominious conclusion no doubt amidst roars of laughter.
I have never been a great lover of sport. I didn't mind gymnastics, athletics or field sports, although I wasn't that good at any of them, but cricket and football left me feeling totally uninterested and still do. Cricket to me has to be one of the most pointless sports invented.
Walmsley House didn't have it's own sports ground so we had to walk to Bedford Park to play football. My one and only goal I ever scored was a real disappointment. I kicked the confounded ball in the wrong goal. Nobody had the sense to teach me the rules and to say that you kicked the ball into the opposite goal depending which way you were playing. For a seven or eight-year old it must have been a real let-down.
From Walmsley House I progressed to Rushmoor School, still, I believe in Shakespeare Road in Bedford. I have always had - and still do to this day- real problems with maths. I think it may have been because I was mildly dyslexic. Numbers and maths were my real stumbling block at school. My two elder brothers managed to get into Bedford School but I failed the entrance exam when I was around 10-11 so I went to Rushmoor instead. I have to admit I didn't enjoy it. As for sports, we had to go to a games field up a hill in Brickhill Drive (where now Bedford Modern School stands when it was moved there from the town centre in the 1970's.) We had to trudge up and down this muddy hill, come rain and shine, and then play this benighted game of football usually when it was pouring with rain or it was freezing cold. Well, I imagine it would be extra cold with a bighting wind whistling around our bear knees in the middle of winter. I suffered greatly from the cold and the added extra of mud and rain didn't exactly help matters.
In the summer it was cricket. Just as bad for me. I had trouble with my left or right hands. I think I should have been left-handed but I was made to use my right to write with. I think this, and the mild dyslexia didn't help either. As a result I found using a cricket bat really difficult and as a consequence my ability to hit a ball with it, and one flying at several miles per hour was not exactly going to make me into a first class cricketer. So, as a result, I was never chosen when teams were being picked. I usually ended up fielding, if you could call it that, and I managed by some stroke of effort to end up in the long grass and as far away from the action as possible. But it was a good way to spend a hot summer's afternoon I suppose.
I remember clearly an incident while I was at Rushmoor. Unlike today, punishment could be metered out if you did something wrong, usually with a cane, administered my the Headmaster. This particular incident revolved around a cupboard in a classroom, which was used to store art supplies, such as paint, paper and so on. The teacher had found a screw or a nail lodged in the keyhole of the cupboard so that he could not open the cupboard. I think he had a vague idea who was the culprit was  but he needed to find out who had done the deed using a form of justice which involved the entire class. We had to stay behind, probably during break or it might have been after school, and he asked us one at a time whether we had stuck the screw in the cupboard's keyhole. Nobody would confess. If things weren't resolved he would use a ruler and make us hold out our hands and hit us with the ruler on the palm of the hand. It really hurt, as you can imagine, but if you flinched in the slightest he did he again. As a result you didn't flinch or attempted to not flinch. It really stung your hand and the pain remained for quite a long time after. I don't know whether the culprit was found but it meant that the entire class had to take the blame for one stupid person's crime. I don't exactly believe in capital punishment, but in this case it did make you think again before you did anything wrong at school. Today there is absolutely no sort of 'ultimate sanction' such as this and as a result children seem to get away with all sorts of bad behaviour. One teacher used to walk up and down the room when we were supposed to be silent and would hit you on the top of the head with a bunch of keys which hurt. I think he was a bit of a sado-masochist to do this, gaining pleasure from inflicting pain on his charges, but at least it kept you focussed and you never spoke if you had been told to keep quiet.

We put on a couple of plays when I was at Rushmoor School. I'm not sure whether this was where I got my interest in theatre from. Probably not. Being an all-boy school, there was a problem as regards  casting for the female roles. As a result I got cast as a female in these plays. Don't ask me why, but in one, an up-dated version of "Oliver Twist" I got to play the matron character. My mother managed to solve the wig-situation by making one out of wool. It had to be worn the right way round, but for one performance this wig was put on the incorrect way. For one of my entrances unfortunately I came on through a door which was far too low for my height and the 'wig' (for want of a better word) brushed the door and rode up and I got a laugh which I shouldn't have. As a result of putting on this play we were taken one Saturday to see the musical 'Oliver!' This was the original West End production starring Ron Moody as Fagin, at the New Theatre, renamed the Noel Coward Theatre. It had a profound influence on me and I have really loved the show ever since. We went up to London by train. I'm not certain if it was this visit to London or not where we had to travel on the Underground, but I do remember a member of the party getting on an Underground train which he wasn't supposed to get on and the rest of the party had to follow, I suppose so that we were at least together and so none of us got lost. I have an idea it would have been the Circle Line, so we would have just gone round and come back to where we had got on! When I think of the effort it takes today to take school children out, doing risk assessments and making sure the outing is fully of an 'educational' nature, I can't believe how we managed to go to London. Later on we had another theatre trip, that one being to see another musical, perhaps not as long-lasting as 'Oliver!' but also based on a Dickens novel and starring Harry Secombe, 'Pickwick." It was running at the Saville Theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue, but the theatre closed years ago and the site is now a cinema. 
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