History > Reminiscences > #13

 

Reminiscences 

Joseph Arch 

 

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Further Reminiscences of St Peters School Barford in the 1950’s.
By Clive Byerley, now of Melbourne, Australia

No one stays still for long, though in memory, scenes from those days linger, like the long summer evenings I spent idly turning the roundabout in the playing fields. Actually I grew apace. The time came for me to graduate (it was called ‘going up’) to the next room - and into the power of a very different gynocracy. Miss Charles and Mrs Channing were to be finally left behind. What freedom! Goodbye for ever to ‘the sticks’.

Mrs Calvert, curiously, has not left such a vivid image in my memory as the other three; perhaps this is a good thing? Instead an impression remains of a stern but kindly woman whom we all grew to love.

She lived, as far as I can remember, in Banbury, and drove each day to Barford to run three classes in one room. She was to be addressed as ‘Ma’am”, like the Queen. I recall grey, curly hair, a dumpy, middle aged woman whose personality left one in no doubt as to who was in charge. I cannot recall a single tantrum or refusal to accede to her every wish.

We faced the fireplace wall in rows of cast iron desks, shackled in pairs like convicts. We had to sit together and stand together because the seat was shared. Monitors filled the china inkwells and gave out pink blotting paper, a new piece each week, as well as distributing replacement pen knibs. These knibs had to be licked to remove the grease they were coated with in their storage box. It was a common, though very annoying, prank to stuff tiny pieces of blotting paper into the inkwells so that, when they were filled, the ink held minute fibres immersed in it that were guaranteed to blot and streak your page. We received our instructions and got on with our work.

On our left, under the large window that drew light from Church Street, was a long table on trestles. This carried an ever changing array of study aids garnered from Saddler’s Fields and the blackberry-entangled hedgerows. I can vividly recall sticky buds in jam jars (the jars later replaced by sturdy pottery vases, bought with money raised from collecting old newspapers); these branches slowly opened their honey-coated points to reveal their leaves, like giant’s fingers, we drew them, described them and wrote poems about their beauty They remain, unfaded green in the slanting light.

When autumn turned all emeralds to rubies, and Harvest Festival drew near, we preserved branches of golden beech leaves by dissolving glycerine in their water. They remained all winter unfaded and glossy – like my memories.

It was in Mrs Calvert’s room that I read my first ‘serious’ book – that is one with illustrations only every fifty pages, or so. ‘Treasure Island’, by Robert Louis Stevenson was kept in a cupboard by the door to Mr Twigger’s room (fatal portal). We had to ask for it especially; it was a sign of our maturity when Mrs Calvert agreed to let us be the current reader. I look back to that book as the first step in a very long and discursive journey into world literature.

We played in a different playground now that we were more grown up – the one that the ‘big kids’ used. This admixture of junior and senior children could be perilous – though mostly we were ignored. I remember my envy and admiration as I watched boys throw a tennis ball up and over the high roof of the main block into our old playground, from which, by prior arrangement, it impressively returned, accompanied by wild cheering. It was a long time before I was strong enough to attempt this feat of manliness. On the fateful day that I girded my loins to show my prowess the ball went high over the roof and fell out of sight; I waited for my pal to throw it back – nothing came. Mr Twigger came instead, in a fury, carrying my tennis ball and demanding to know who was responsible for hitting him on the head! My discomfiture provided that day’s amusement for the assembled throng!

There was the boy (name withheld for defamation reasons) who thought he was farm machinery. He would spend all lunch hour going “brmm brmm” around the edge of the yard with his little finger stuck out at the side ‘being a combine harvester’. It takes all sorts.

At this time I suffered the ‘coke-hole catastrophe’. I cannot think now why it seemed such an amusing idea for Stephen Parr and me to roll around the perimeter wall with our eyes closed, but at the time it must have offered a certain frisson. All went well until I came to the ‘coke hole’, the yard-deep pit containing the vast, asthmatic boiler that Mr Twigger used to keep going day and night. Some one had left the door open; I rolled right into space and landed head first in the coke heap in deep shock. Luckily it was only my pride that was hurt, but I can never forget the suffocating fumes and the taste of coke.

The class photograph that graces the top of this site’s reminiscences page was taken against the wall in this playground.

During my years in Mrs Calvert’s room she retired. I well remember the gathering, the speeches and the presentation Mr T. made – a cheque for three hundred pounds (a tidy sum then) and a pink alabaster table lamp. Who replaced Mrs Calvert I cannot recall, perhaps some reader of this page will be able to add his/her comments?

My brother, Alan, was four years older and therefore in ‘Top Class’ in Mr Twigger’s room. One vivid memory remains bright of my being sent to sit with him until it was time for the seniors to leave. They were reading round the class, a ‘classic’ I never later was able to identify, probably Dickens, I recall “He put his hands into the dead man’s pocket...” my over active mind was chilled at this frightening image but impressed by the sophistication of the grown-ups reading such a novel in class!

Eventually that room became my own. A harsh and frosty atmosphere after the loving, feminine regimes I had become used to. I have written elsewhere of the iron rule of the Headmaster, his discipline and honour code; it took some getting used to, I can tell you!

In the end wall of Mr T’s room was a hatch through which hot meals were served by two tyrannical ladies. The food arrived in large containers, mid morning, and was served up in three sizes of plate according to appetite, or age. Pastel coloured plates offered stew, mince, or fish fingers, followed by semolina, blancmange or in the winter, coconut pudding and pink custard. I had been raised to eat what was put in front of me – what a blessing – when kids turned up their noses I was up for seconds and thirds from Mrs Davies, or Mrs Foster, the dinner ladies. I loved institutional food all my school days – and still do. We had to pay for this, of course; two shillings and six pence a week was quite a sum for my mother to afford. I was not going to let anything go to waste – except the mid-morning milk, that is.

Until Margaret Thatcher abolished free school milk those crates brought in by the milk monitor were a daily event. I hated room temperature milk! Tiny bottles, miniatures of the home-delivered ones, with silver metal tops (all carefully saved, of course), were handed out at break time; we could not easily avoid drinking. Most days I smuggled mine to Anthony Reed, (who I once saw drink six, and then smeared some around my mouth with smacking noises to evade censure. I still can’t abide warm milk.

There was the usual huge fire in the room, with a fire guard that would have restrained a mammoth. The walls were covered in framed maps and prints. Above the hatch, high up on the cream gloss walls, was a huge framed print of terrifying subject. ‘Vikings Landing on the Shores of England’, presumably someone had once thought it provided an ‘improving’ lesson to impressionable young minds. What the imminent rape and pillage of a Saxon town and its monastery could provide in the way of a morality story I am not sure. The barbarians were of hideous aspect, with horned helmets, waist-length beards and bloody axes. Many bad dreams (and other kinds) must have had their origins there.

I suppose I learned something in those years. Alan Bennet, the playwright said that “Education is what is left when you have forgotten all else.” And so this is what I must have received, since the dreary hours of Sums and Composition have slipped into oblivion. Compass work was memorable – when you could get the antique brass instruments to hold their pencil steady. I still can make patterns to impress a younger generation of ‘seen it all’ students, so it was not time completely wasted.

I shared my desk at different periods with Stephen Parr and Graham Marshall; together we coped with writing practice, spelling tests and the far more interesting ‘who is in love with whom’. There are always ‘royalty’ in each year – sadly it was not me. Keith Sandal and Linda Cowley were the centre of attraction. He so sporty, blonde and rugged; she dressed like a princess, with not a ribbon out of place. I worshiped from afar. Recently Jane, Linda’s sister sent me a photograph, forty five years on, both women are still stunning. Sigh!

Like sheep being counted for market, unknowing and uncaring if they are headed for sale or slaughter, our future was being decided. The Eleven Plus examination loomed. I hardly knew what it was, and certainly had no idea of its significance. A couple of boys received extra Maths tuition for it – but that seemed to me more of a punishment than a favour. Blind to the consequences I failed to put my name down for the exam because my mates were going off to the local Secondary in Warwick, and I had no desire to be separated from them. If I feel St Peters School ever failed me, it is only in this; I was allowed to pass without further enquiry to the local Comprehensive. All that would have delighted and enthralled me at the Grammar School slipped away. For years following I longed to have my name up high on the honour boards that listed the gilded youths who won a place to Warwick, or to Stratford Girls Grammar.

Years later, when my graduation from university drew near, it meant more to me than any prize or praise that my mother had told Mr Twigger of my decision to go into teaching. By that time he was an old man, retired and with not long to live, but the knowledge that he was pleased by my decision warmed me - and still does.

Last weekend I was buying pomegranates at the fruit and vegetable market when a young couple accosted me. I growled to warn off religious fanatics who prey upon unwary shoppers, but instead of the expected, “Are you saved?” I got, “Mr B, how wonderful to see you; do you remember me? I’m Jennifer. It’s really weird but only yesterday I was telling my husband about the time when you ....” The torch is passed on. Maybe it’s my fate also to be recalled in some distant memoire; my faults smoothed and my eccentricities lovingly exposed.

Do you remember the bumper sticker that once urged:

“IF YOU CAN READ THIS; THANK A TEACHER”?

I can; and I do.

 

Clive Byerley

to contact Clive by e-mail.

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