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Sunday, 30 September 2007

Teachers Part 11

That’s the trouble with teachers. They get a bee in their bonnet and feel driven to share it with the one captive audience they have… until a bell rings and returns us to sanity. What was the man doing, talking about sex drives to a bunch of fourteen-year-old boys? There were girls in the class, too, but memory is sexist. I cannot remember what they drew or what they thought of it. I probably assumed they didn’t have sex drives. It was a different world.

But some things don’t change. Teachers and their incessant urge to pass on what astounds them and so must astound everyone else.

Following my MA, I did a one year teaching course in Aberystwyth. We had one lecturer who extolled the virtue of putting small children in cupboards, and get them to imagine they were in a witch’s cave. Interesting case for the defence. There were two other lecturers called Dr. Trot and Dr. Gallop. Gallop and Trot. University College Aberystwyth must have had an agenda. Had a Mr Canter applied for a job he’d have been hired, irrespective of his qualifications.

Dr. Gallop was a dark intense man. Dr Trot was the dreamer, also profoundly deaf. His hearing aids were bigger than his ears. One wet October morning he stood on the podium. His gaze swept the auditorium. “One day,” he said. “We shall be teaching in Space.”

Better than cupboards, I thought. Less risk.

“And what then?”

Again his gaze swept the auditorium, but no answer came. We knew he would tell us.
“How will our educational system cope? Think of it!” His voice rose, slipping into Welsh preacher mode. “The teacher on, say, a passenger ship to one of the moons of Jupiter will come back older than his own children, to a wife in her dotage!”
The lecture was on child development, but you never knew with Dr. Trot.

I did my teaching practise in Milford Haven. Milford Central, I think the school was called. Dr. Trot was my supervisor. He was responsible for observing me in class.
“I’ll be as unobtrusive as possible,” he promised. “Nothing worse than distracting a class.

The class looked forward to his visits.

First the door would open slowly, an inch or two, and a giant hearing aid came into sight, then an ear. The class stared in rapt and silent attention A moment later the door would open a little wider and an arm, then a shoulder materialised, followed by the rest of the body. Thirty pairs of eyes followed his progress as he slid along the wall like a limpet on speed. Finally he sat on a chair at the very back of the class, giving me a conspiratorial wink, as if to say ‘mission accomplished.’ There were moments when I wished he was on a space ship to one of the moons of Jupiter, even if he did come back younger than me.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Teachers. Part 1

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.

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.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

St Bonaventures, Maths and Jam

Two pictures of Hartleys Jam factory. For a fuller explanation of the cow on the roof go to the end of this post and you'll appreciate how Monty Python really won World War 11.

St Bonaventures was located at the bottom of Cedar Road. Next to it was a field of coarse, yellowing grass. Hartley’s Jam factory stood on the other side of the field. We could smell jam during PE, History, Geography, jam in maths, and English, jam in R.E.

If Monty Python had attended St. Bonaventures, they’d have written the ‘Jam Song’ instead.

The top of Cedar Road opened out into Walton Vale. On one corner was a black Methodist Church. When I was young, very young, I assumed there was a quarry somewhere that provided black stones exclusively for Methodist Churches. The industrial grime pervading most northern cities - and our lungs - didn’t figure in a child’s mind. What did figure was the grimness of the church and its posters, exhorting us to save our souls - follow Jesus or else - and something called love that bore an unfortunate relationship with old women and tea. The words were in red or violent magenta, and, like Northern grime, pervaded my world outlook, added to a general sense of gloom.

Facing the church was the Black Bull Inn, where the damned drank, and where we would too, one day. On the other side of the road, separated by a tiny park consisting of gravel two benches and black-painted railings, was the Midland Bank. Mammon and God, and us in between, with only the smell of Jam to sustain us.

The school was newly built and playground politics resembled Dodge City. Two other schools, Blessed Sacrament and Holy Name fed into it and with it, their established gangs and pecking orders.

Presiding over everything was Mr Coleman, stern, avuncular, and largely dressed in grey. He reminded me of a bear, who fed on honey and boiled egg, and growled when he was hungry, and caned you when you’d done wrong. These are the things that go through a small boy's head when other things around him don’t make much sense.

I’d seen egg crumbs on his grey pullover once - so that was a fact. Maths however was not a fact, important but largely incomprehensible. Mr Roberts taught us. He wore a tweed jacket, was sarcastic and dry, and I liked him because he was funny. He did a good job, teaching very large classes, his voice occasionally reaching me where I sat at the back.

My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment was when he introduced fractions. I was brilliant with addition, subtraction, even multiplication. I was getting the hang of these little buggers. Then, one day he drew breath and announced he was about to teach us how to divide fractions. I knew at that moment we were about to attempt the impossible. It was the way he drew breath.

“Well, boys,” (There were girls in the class but he never addressed them. I didn’t think it peculiar at the time) “Well, boys,” he said. ‘To divide fractions…you turn them upside down…” He paused. “And multiply them!” He glared round the classroom as though daring anyone to argue, or question the sense of it, and I dropped my pencil and lowered my head. This was all nonsense, nothing compared to the smell of jam.

The Blitz began in 1940 and, as was promised by William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw Haw), it started over Liverpool.

Another promise he made was to put "jam on the crackers", a reference to the bombers' aim to blow up Jacob’s Cream Cracker factory, which was situated next door to Hartley’s jam factory.

The threat was taken seriously by the management of Hartley’s who had already installed a fire-watch on the eight storey building. The previous week in the local area of Walton Vale a pub called the ‘Windsor Castle’ had been demolished by the Luftwaffe, also the local Catholic Church of ‘Blessed Sacrament’ had had its roof blown off. The bombers were after the local Royal Ordinance factory and so the area was to be targeted again and again.

Some diversion or camouflage was called for so the management of the two factories met together to discuss ideas. The roof of Hartley’s was chosen to be the area of camouflage as it was the larger of the two factories. They planned to paint the roof of the factory green and place rocking wooden cows on it. From a great height the cows would appear to be moving in a field, and so there appeared black and white Friesian cows on the roof of Hartley’s.

Unfortunately nobody had calculated the effect of high winds on these strange rocking creatures and one flew off and landed on an adjacent railway line causing the line to short circuit. A major enquiry was held and the rocking cows were retired from service.

No one is sure whether this story is true. But apparently ‘rocking cows’ were found in an old store room in Hartley’s factory.

True or false? It’s up to you to decide.

From ‘ Forty Square Miles of Walton’ by the Walton on the Hill History group, 2000

Saturday, 8 September 2007

I am Spartacus

The front entrance to St Bonaventure's Catholic Secondary Modern. It has since been renamed - but without telling me!

It was an act of opportunism. Two boys, finishing a morning paper round, kept their large canvas bags, perhaps in readiness for the evening delivery that followed school, perhaps not. En-route to our brand new school - St Bonaventure - they walked into a sweet shop in Rice Lane and watched as the shopkeeper stepped into the back for a fresh box of gum. A moment later, the shop was without four very large jars of pear-drops and mints. The two boys walked out with their packet of gum, their backs unnaturally stiff beneath the weight of twelve pound of sweets.

They didn’t have far to go. St Bonaventure was only two or three hundred yards away, down Cedar Road. Nor did the shopkeeper need very long to work out what had happened. The school received the phone call within the hour.

A special assembly for the whole school.


No one knew for sure whether the whole school would fit in the hall.

We were lined up in forms, the teachers lined up against the wall with knowing prison-guard smiles on their faces. The Head, Mr Coleman, paced the stage like an aging lion before a roomful of monkeys - curious rather than cowed.
The lion delivered his bombshell. A shopkeeper was accusing two of our boys of theft. Four empty sweet jars had been found in the toilets. We were to stand in silence while staff searched our pockets. Teachers swung away from the walls, some of them grim, others smiling menacingly. From later experience, I imagined they probably had some kind of sweepstake as to who would detect the culprits first. They would certainly have had their suspicions.

None of it mattered.

All of them were winners.

Sweets cascaded out from every boy’s pocket.

“I am Spartacus’ mumbled from eight hundred, sugar encrusted lips. The film came out four years later.

I learnt then the real message of Robin Hood, and guerrilla movements everywhere. I learnt then what Mao Ze Dong meant by guerrillas being the fish, peasants the water. We had all shared in the proceeds of the crime. Even this beast of the jungle, pacing the stage couldn’t cane us all…?

He played his final card - a very weak one. He called in the shopkeeper who’d been standing hidden behind the stage curtains. It was going to be an identity parade - with Mr Magoo. His glasses were so thick they looked more like binoculars.
The staff kept straight faces, most of them, as Mr Magoo did the rounds and the Head wheedled and threatened from the stage.

Finally it was over, and we stood there in silence, the whole school missing their break as a form of collective punishment. But Butch and the Sundance Kid had got away with it. And none of us were crucified.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Killing Frenchmen or catching fish

I think I was a strange little boy, trudging along in a Jansenist muddle, the highlights of the day consisting of the blue ticket dinner and the mid morning milk break: Milk Monitor, the acme of privilege in Blessed Sacrament. I never made it, though I once got to ring the school hand-bell signifying the end of break. Not leadership material then.

What to do with me? I needn’t have worried. The school had it in hand.


It was a large grey-paged scrapbook into which you could paste cutout and coloured pictures you’d researched about a particular career. You could write about them too.
I chose the army, seduced like an C18th peasant boy by red coats and breeches.

The History of the British army. Joy. I researched like a beaver, scribbling away, colouring, planning my route to the top. Eventually I settled on a favourite period -the late C18th to early C19th. Napoleon revolutionised style, but I remained loyal to British uniforms oscillating between the Hussars but finding romance in the colours of the infantryman. I dreamt of killing Frenchmen, and marching home to a rose coloured cottage in the middle of green fields; a beautiful woman waiting.
Eventually my teacher became concerned, perhaps about an unrealisable obsession, or a recognition that the army had moved on.

My scrapbook was replaced by another. It was empty. Alongside it was a book about fish.

Dutifully, I began all over again, cutting out and colouring, learning about fish. Maybe my career would lie in commercial fishing.
Cod, turbot, halibut, hake, Tuna, Pollock, Bass and Skate. I drew them all - occasionally subverting things by slipping in a regimental motif about the fins or gills, sometimes the tails. It made no difference. Whatever I did, they all looked the same. Flat or thin, long or squat, the same dead parody of a face stared out at me from the page.

Going to sea would be fine, I eventually decided, but not fishing. The uniform was rubbish.