Mr Capaldi was our woodwork teacher. He came with the brand new Craft Block. I hated woodwork but liked Mr Capaldi. He was small and slightly chubby. He had a smile that was both merry and gentle. He had curly black hair but the first signs of balding were apparent, and he didn’t throw blocks of wood at pupils when he was cross. I never saw him cross. Even with my sad little efforts with chisel and wood.
We all of us made our mahogany crucifixes, each on a three stepped plinth. This involved a certain degree of mutilation as chisels slipped, gouging out holes in the wood, before leaping into softer targets. My crucifix adorned our bedroom cabinet for a time, before it was broken in a fight with my brother. It had never been very strong and made a pretty poor club.
The only other thing of note I ever made was a rosewood bowl. Memory probably makes it more beautiful than it ever was, but being persuaded to give it away as a present to a teacher still grates, and regret makes the bowl even more beautiful. It stands up there with anything to be found in the British Museum or the Met.
Mr Bird taught us history. He was lean and sardonic, invariably wore a dark blue jacket, sometimes with a red sweater, and he had black hair which hung a little over his forehead, and which he’d sweep back when getting angry. We all took note.
I loved History, bombarding him with project after project: Alcibiades, ancient Sparta, Roman emperors; I stopped at the Boer war.
Once, he drew what looked like the trunk of a tree on the blackboard; two vertical, lines, narrowly spaced. Complete the drawing, he said.
It was better than dictated notes, so we drew. Some drew tulips, Bunsen burners, others drew swords or spears. I drew a Fred Perry tennis racquet.
I spent some time on it, especially the latticed surface but for all my efforts, it looked like a crack spider’s web.
Mr Bird walked round, making encouraging noises, sometimes a comment. He paused over mine for a long time. Then he walked back to his desk.
“What are we doing this for, sir?” John Dickinson, I think.
It was the obvious question, no one had asked until now. We were a docile bunch. Give us a trench, and we’d have gone over the top with undue fuss.
“It’s a psychology exercise.”
“I thought we were doing history, sir.”
"Just something different," he said. "It shows the strength and nature of your sex drive.”
I was crushed. I had drawn a Fred Perry tennis racquet. The right answer was the sword and spear, even a Bunsen burner.
I plucked up courage. “What does mine show, sir?”
He looked at me and smiled. “Yours is complex, Michael.”
And I’ve been pondering on that ever since.