We ‘upgraded’ to the suburbs when I was 7 years old. The school I left behind was an austere Victorian building with separate entrances for boys and girls. Red brick outside, green tiles inside, and an overpowering smell of disinfectant. In winter we didn’t have to go to school if the outside toilets were frozen.
My mother accompanied me to school on my first day. After that I insisted on walking there alone. A relief for my mother I imagine. Three years earlier, to get my brother Mark to the school, she’d had to bring in reinforcements. My Nana (grandmother) helped her physically drag him there. Every day.
The school environment was quite tough. Sometimes I’d see a boy standing outside the headmaster’s office, near the main entrance to the building, with shit running down his bare legs. Passing children giggled, running away holding their noses. The boy looked at the floor, crying quietly. Snot glistening on his top lip. His punishment for not making it to the toilet in time was public humiliation. Much like The Stocks in Medieval times.
There was no school uniform but my mother wanted me dressed smartly. I had to wear polished shoes, grey shorts, collared shirt and tie. Each morning I stood next to her bed so she could tie the knot for me.
We moved only 4 miles to our new house. It was a wrench though. We may as well have moved to another country. I left behind my friends, and everything familiar to me, including The Boys Brigade. A similar outfit to the Boy Scouts but a bit heavier on the Christian stuff. I wasn’t into that, but I liked the games and the summer camps. My family weren’t religious at all but it was a rule of the Boys Brigade that you attend church at least once per month. I grumbled about this but received zero sympathy from my mother who thought it was hilarious that I had to sit through boring sermons. Chatting with my Nana I happened mentioned Heaven. ‘Oh Pete, you don’t want to go there’ she said, pushing her glasses back up her nose with her forefinger. ‘You won’t know anyone. We won’t be there!’
To enrol at the new school at Bilton we were interviewed by the headmaster, Mr Blogg, in his office. My mother recalls being made to feel small. Like we were unworthy urchins from the city. It’s a source of pride to her that we, my brother and I, thrived at the school. ‘You showed that Mr Blogg’ she likes to say.
Our new school was more progressive. We filed into morning assembly listening to classical music. The name of the piece and the composer written on a board at the front of the hall. We were encouraged to take part. During my first month at the school, my classmates and I were asked to read stories we’d written. Sat in the first of two rows facing the audience, I waited nervously for my turn. The girl next to me finished and sat down. I stood up, trembling. Holding my exercise book in front of me, I began to read. My voice cracking. The trembling got gradually worse until my arms were shaking wildly, uncontrollably, back and forth. My handwriting was a blur. I could no longer read it. The hall was silent. This was my own personal Tacoma Bridge disaster moment. When small movements grew gradually into huge, catastrophic waves.
Mr Blogg came up from the back of the hall to rescue me. Gently, he moved me to one side so he could sit in my chair. Reaching forward, he took hold of my forearms, to hold the book steady. I staggered to the end of the story. I doubt anyone was listening. They were too busy staring at me – incredulous.
My stories tended towards the unconventional. I wasn’t much into happy ever after stories. The plot of my story that day revolved around me picking flowers in the garden. The dark plot twist that the flowers died because the roots were torn off. The End.
Regular readers of this blog know that this crushing incident didn’t put an end to my primary school thespian activities. On the contrary. I regularly took the lead role in school productions.
I joined a variety of musical groups. The Spoons Group was particularly accessible. All you needed were two dessert spoons. Serious players wrapped Elastoplast around the handles to avoid blisters. We played along to a song from the 1930s called Over My Shoulder. A spoons veteran, Mr Swift led from the front. At the end of the song, with a showbiz flourish, we all threw our spoons… over our shoulder. Taking care not to hit the windows behind us. When the morning assembly was over we crawled beneath the stage, searching for our spoons. The smart kids had added their initials to the Elastoplast on their spoons.
I took guitar lessons for a while. That ended when I carelessly left the guitar against the back door at home. My dad knocked it over when he opened the door, snapping all the strings. In the Percussion Group we banged, slapped and rattled along to an album of TV theme tunes. The original Hawaii Five-0 theme our favourite.
There were the standard Nativity and Easter plays too. Lots of tea towels, bed sheets and garden string. At Easter, another disciple and I lifted Jesus carefully off his cardboard cross. Discretely, I stuck red paper stars to his palms – stigmata – which he unsubtly displayed to the audience. We carried him across the stage to put him inside the cave (a recess behind the upright piano). Ready to rise again. Minus the sticky red stars.
Older kids sat at the back of the hall on chairs. Younger kids sat, crossed legged, at the front on the floor. For one show the curtains were drawn. A spotlight shone on a mock coffin at the front of the hall. A boy dressed as Frankenstein rose slowly from the coffin, as the song The Monster Mash played. This was an inventive but ill-advised idea. When the hall emptied at the end of assembly there were pools of piss all over the parquet floor where the youngest kids had been sat. The caretaker, always ready with his bucket of magic sawdust, had his work cut out that day.