TAKE YOUR PICK!
Last year I was invited to a Golden Reunion at my old school; that is to say, for pupils (we didn’t have students then. They went to university.) who had left in 1965, or would have done if they had stayed on into the sixth form. It was, I must say, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. After all, many of the people there I hadn’t seen for fifty years!
There was a guy who had been awarded the OBE “For services to knotting in the British Film Industry” Not as ludicrous as it initially sounds—any film requiring the cast to use rope in any manner at all, required a specialist knotter for insurance purposes. Then there was the structural aspect—pieces of scenery temporarily held together by rope had, for safety reasons, to be knotted by an acknowledged and skilful expert. Les had written books about knotting as well, so he knew what he was talking about.
Then there was the Commodore RN (retd.) He had risen to the rank of Captain, to be told that he would go no further due to cuts, because at the time there were more Admirals than ships in the Royal Navy. “If he would like to retire, however, he would be pensioned off with a Commodore’s salary…………………….”
A trip around the school was an amazing experience. When I and my contemporaries were pupils there, admission had been secured by examination—the 11-plus, as it was called. If you were clever enough to pass the exam, you got in, regardless of social class, where you lived, or who your father was. “Social mobility” as it is no known was therefore implicit in the system. People like me, from council estates, merged effortlessly with boys from middle-class detached houses, farms and villas from the leafy glades of East Surrey. As the doctrinaire Labour government of the 1960s had decided that these schools represented privilege and discrimination of the worst kind, they abolished them, which was a bit rich, since most of that government had been either to grammar schools themselves, or indeed, public schools. Our school had resisted the enforced “Comprehensivisation” and had gone independent. This meant that once again this kind of education was available only to those able to afford it. The Labour Party has a history of own goals, and this was to prove another.
Back to the script… The school had grown enormously, and, as a retired Art Teacher myself, I was hugely impressed by the art work that was being done, both the size and the qyality being in excess of what we had been able to achieve a half-century before. Mind you, we did only have powder paint and charcoal! The facilities for Music, too, were awesome; so much more extensive than our Mr Thompson (Music and Woodwork) could have envisaged.
After a splendid lunch in the Head’s garden, we were then asked to talk about our experiences of the school in the 1960s to a present group of third years. Two girls were assigned to our group, called Mollie and Milly—–no really! After telling us what they thought of the school they now attend, we were asked what things had been like “in our day.” After a while, the question of discipline arose, and what kinds of sanctions we lived under.
“We’ve heard”, said one of our girls: “That you were beaten a lot!”
“Yes, that’s true. Some of us more than others!”
“Really? What with?”
“All sorts of things were used in schools in those days. The strap, the slipper, the plimsoll…our school used the cane.”
“This is just common assault! We didn’t you refuse?”
“That’s just the way it was!”
“So what would happen?”
Dredging my memory I came up with an incident which would have happened in the 3rd or 4th year. My great friend Pete Bull and I sat next to each other and silence was just not an option. The French teacher, a bit of a softie called Mr “Bongo” Taylor, came over and gave me a note.
“Take this to the Headmaster” Bongo ordered.
Walking at no great speed along the corridor, I sneaked a look at what had been written. “Please deal with Sparshott” it said. “He accepts no refinement.”
Arriving at the Head’s door, I knocked and was summoned in. I handed him the note.
“You don’t learn, do you, boy?” he said. There was nobody else in the room.
He then opened his desk drawer and produced a selection of canes, of various lengths, thicknesses and states of repair. There were five, if memory serves.
“Take your pick!” he asserted.
Now, dear reader, for those of you unfamiliar with Corporal Punishment in mid-20th century English schools, a few words of wisdom might not come amiss. Never pick a thin cane. They could, and sometimes did, cause bleeding, the staining on the trousers from which could cause huge embarrassment on the bus when homeward bound. There was one particular “thinnie” which was split at the end, such that it would also pinch the skin, guaranteeing a flowing of the claret. No, the one to choose was the thick one. This would leave serious discoloration, such that your backside would resemble that of a baboon, but it was definitely the least painful, and shortest lived, in terms of physical damage.
Cane selected, I was instructed to bend over the back of the handily placed chair, after which the Headmaster retreated to somewhere near the door. He would then advance, gathering speed until he delivered the blow. This happened five more times, after which he would stand, lips flecked with spittle, and order me to behave in future. There was no Punishment Book for the Governors to sign, or raise concerns over.
This was never universal remedy for bad behaviour, of course, although it did deter about two thirds of the school population. One third would never need it, a second would have it once, and never again, and the final third would carry on regardless. I was clearly one of the latter, a fact which I had forgotten until meeting up with some contemporaries some years ago in London, an ex- schoolmate said: “Oh, you were a naughty boy!”
Why Bongo? We had a lecture once, from the eminent percussionist James Blades. During the course of it, some of us were invited up to play one of the many instruments that James had brought with him to illustrate the various points he was making. Mr Taylor played the bongos appallingly.
I played the snare drum, and Mr Blades looked up at me and said: “Here, you’re quite good aren’t you?”
A result, I think, of a kind.
©Bari W Sparshott 2016