Saturday, 22 September 2007
Salad cream and the Sparrow-hall gang.
The Dinner Centre, a half mile walk from the school. It's a post-war prefab that doubled up as a prison camp in my imaginary world. Ironically it's still standing, and being used as a nursery in the C21st, when much finer buildings, including Blessed Sacrament School, have been knocked down.
For the record, the boys holding the bin are John Garland, Donald Rimmer and Neil whose surname escapes me. The boys in St Bonaventures Library holding my project on Ancient Rome are Kevin Molloy, Neil Campbell, Donald Rimmer, John Garland and Neil.
These were my first friends. I haven’t seen them for over thirty years, and probably never will, but they remain as fresh in my mind as though it were yesterday.
I was slow to make friends, or friends were slow to make me. It was painful at the time. I can remember that. Long-term results have been mixed. The biggest casualty was confidence. I’ve learnt to be sociable since. As a career, I consciously chose teaching instead of librarianship afraid that the latter would reinforce a preference for my own company. That’s not an option in a school.
Day after day, hour after hour, a bell would ring and, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I’d assume an entirely different persona on entering a classroom, reverting to a morose misogynist on getting back home. Marriage and children sorted that one out. Previously confidence and the social graces were an act I put on like a suit.
The other thing about having no friends as a child is that it forces you in on yourself and your own resources. I’m not a ‘joiner in’. I watched but didn’t participate. I never became an alter-boy. A later involvement with revolutionary socialism didn’t last very long either. Marriage and children leaves me with a bemused sense of wonder. Where did that come from?
So much happens or doesn’t happen between birth and the age of ten and it influences the rest of your life.
The Sparrow-hall gang left their mark.
At lunchtime, we walked to the Dinner centre, a long prefabricated building on Longmoor Lane, about quarter a mile away. We sat at long tables, each taking it in turn to sit at the head of the table. This wasn’t an honour. It meant that you took the order for food and went to the serving hatch to collect it. The process involved heated discussions, last minute changes of mind and the dangerous reality of weaving your way back to the table with a tray that was heavier than you. It stopped long queues in a building that wasn’t big enough for long queues, but meant the occasional spectacular crash and a tsunami of food on the floor.
On this particular day it was salad - so it must have been Summer - though not necessarily. I brought everything back; plates piled high with lettuce and tomatoes, sliced eggs, and a thin pink strip of spam. I even remembered the salad cream, pouring great globs of the stuff on every plate. It was yellow and thick and came out of a stained, stainless steel jug housed at the serving hatch.
The next course was apple pie. The portions were small, so I piled on the custard and thereby met my Waterloo. I can say with authority that apple pie and salad cream is the ultimate abomination. Unfortunately, everyone else on the table thought so too, and knew whom to blame. Worse…the apple pie had all gone. They could only offer us custard. There was plenty of that because some idiot had been using the salad cream.
The table was piled high with plates of un-eaten pudding and by the time I’d cleaned everything up, I was late for woodwork - nothing that a brisk run wouldn’t sort out in normal circumstances. Normal circumstances were rare at St Bonaventures. The wood-work and metal work rooms had yet to be built, so once a week we walked the two miles to St. Philomena’s. The walk involved travelling through hostile territory. The Sparrow-hall gang ruled their area with apache-like ferocity, and we’d walk through their patch in a convoy, reeking of testosterone and fear.
By the time I’d cleared up, the convoy had gone. I was to travel alone. I felt like a Texas Ranger, galloping through Comanche territory, though I don’t think the Comanche were quite as bad as the Sparrow-hall gang.
It was one of those days.
Ten minutes away from the school a group of youths detached themselves from a low garden wall. Within moments I was surrounded, and soon after that was tied to a post in a secluded back alley. They lit a small fire about my feet - obviously they watched the same films as I did. One of them climbed on the wall behind me and started dropping small bricks on my head. And then someone opened a window in a neighbouring house and told us all to clear off. They did. I couldn’t, at least not immediately.
Nearly forty-five minutes late I burst into the Wood-work lesson and immediately had a block of wood thrown at me by a loud and bad tempered teacher - ex armed forces or, perhaps, a former member of the Sparrow-hall gang.