My friend and fellow writer, Angus Wells, died sixteen years ago on the 11th April. He would have been 79.
I first met Angus through Laurence James, with whom I’d shared a student house in New Cross, S .E. London when we were students at Goldsmiths College. While I went into teaching, Laurence began a career that revolved around books and writing: initially a book seller, he moved into publishing, becoming a commissioning editor at New English Library, where he built up a notable list of science fiction and fantasy titles, before opiting to stay home and write – a highly successful decision, with more than a hundred and fifty mostly paperback titles to his credit before ill health forced him to retire.
It was Laurence who, aware that I was becoming restless with my role as teacher, talked me into trying my hand as a paperback writer, and who, several years later, persuaded Angus to follow the same course – although not, thankfully, before he had commissioned me to write for Sphere Books the first of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell – the toughest private eye – and the best. Simpler times.
It was clear from my first meetings with Angus that we shared a number of things in common – the most prominent being a love of western movies, ranging from early John Ford to Sam Peckinpah, as well as the European ‘classics;, and of music with an American country feel by the likes of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Stewart. We worked together on several series of paperback westerns – two of which, Peacemaker and Gringos, are now in the process of being reissued as e-books by Piccadilly Publishing.
When we were both living in London, Angus and I frequented the original Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, seeing, amongst others, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, John Hiatt and the aforementioned Jerry Jeff; a habit that, after we found ourselves in Nottingham, would continue at the sadly departed Old Vic – on one memorable occasion finding ourselves just about the only two males in the packed audience for visiting Americans Tret Fure and Chris Williamson, who were clearly bemused but not unpleased to hear us singing along heartedly to the chorus of Tret’s “Tight Black Jeans”.
When the market for westerns faded, Angus had considerable success in the worlds of epic fantasy – notably the Raven series, which he co-wrote with Rob Holdstock and his own Books of the Kingdoms. When this market, too, began to fade, his writing lost direction and, accordingly, he lost confidence, and, although we would meet for the occasional meal or to see a movie at the Broadway Cinema, he become something of a recluse. On the occasion of his death I was pleased to dedicate a seat to him in the cinema’s main auditorium – adjacent to that of a certain Charlie Resnick. There they are – Screen One, C5 & C6.
Over the last month or so, a small flurry of people (more than two, less that five) have asked about the influences, if any, of my early reading – that’s somewhere between Alison Uttley’s Hare Joins the Home Guard and the cadet edition of The Cruel Sea – on my early writing. Always supposing there to have been some early writing, essays on the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and humour in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers aside.
Well, yes, there were all those westerns, of course, their inspiration – aside from various volumes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual – coming from the cinema – everything from Saturday Morning Pictures to a John Ford Season at the National Film Theatre. And there is a brief series of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell, the toughest private eye – and the best – originally published by Sphere Books between 1976 and 77, and republished in print and as Ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media in 2016.
Here follows an extract from the introduction written for these new editions, providing, in part, an answer to those questions about early influences …
Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn’t even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake.
The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.
From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like Dames Don’t Care and Dangerous Curves—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed faux American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal.
I can’t remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with The Big Sleep—we’d seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren’t kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we’d do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is “He was thirty-five and needed a shave.”
I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.
When I mentioned it to my friend, Jennifer, as a reason for postponing our meeting – coffee and catch-up in the upper floor café at Foyles bookshop – she was briskly solicitous. “A fall, was it, or a FALL?”
I knew what she meant.
When my father first fell, really fell, he was getting off the bus outside where he and my mother lived, a small council block where the road levels out across from the reservoir on Dartmouth Park Hill. Bag of shopping in one hand, the other touching the railing of the bus briefly before stepping clear, he could as well, in that moment, have been stepping into space. Nothing until he landed heavily on one side, the few bits and pieces from his bag spilling out – sugar, tea, a small Hovis, frozen peas – his hip broken.
The ambulance took him to the Whittington, a little higher up the hill, and though he was treated and in time discharged – discharged too soon with a walking frame he rarely used – it was the slow beginning of the end. Within those moments he had begun the journey from being a physically confident elderly man in his 70s – he still talked about getting back on his bike – to someone whose movement and memory were increasingly uncertain, who was never the same again.
My first serious fall (or FALL) occured ten years or so ago, when I was in my early 70s. My partner, Sarah, and I were amongst the crowd hurrying away from White Hart Lane, a bustling thicket of mostly Spurs supporters spreading across Tottenham High Road on their way home. We were hurrying more than was safe, more than was necessary, stepping off and on the kerb into the road and back again. I saw the coil of orange wire before I could react to it, before my foot snagged inside it and the force of my movement sent me crashing to the ground. Some people stepped around me; others stopped to help. Somehow Sarah manoevred me towards the nearest shop – a women’s hairdressers – and asked if I could sit down while I recovered. One of the customers was a nurse, who, after a cursory examination, said we should phone for an ambulance: she thought I had dislocated my shoulder.
Not so many minutes later, or so it seemed – I think I might have been moving in and out of consciousness – I was strapped in the body of the ambulance, Sarah holding my hand while I gulped down gas and air and the driver used his siren to get us through the crowd and on our way to Whipps Cross Hospital.
An ex-ray proved the off-duty nurse to have been correct in her diagnosis; the doctor on duty gave me a choice of local or general anaesthetic while my shoulder was reset; without hesitation I chose the latter and around an hour later I woke up in the recovery ward with my shoulder back in place and an appointment with the physio department at the Whittington Hospital. Yes, that Whittington Hospital.
Since then, a minor fall some five years back when I failed to negotiate a kerb correctly, resulting in a minor fracture in my right hand – more trips to the Whittington, more physio – the occasional stumble out walking on Hampstead Heath – nothing serious, and then, two weeks ago, two weeks ago today, as Sarah and I were walking at a perfectly resonable pace along Goodge Street in Central London, on our way to see an exhibition of Caroline Walker’s paintings at the Fitzrovia Chapel, Sarah inadvertantly trod on one of my laces which had come undone, and I was pitched forward onto the pavement, face first.
Blood was gushing – yes, really – gushing from my nose and the back of my neck hurt like hell. People came running out of the adjacent restaurant with tissues, ice & offers of help; a passing London cabbie stopped and offered to take me to the nearest A&E, which he did, refusing a fare.
After due examination, I was admitted to the Acute Medical Unit at UCLH with a nasal bone fracture, a fractured wrist, two fractured ribs, and, most worrying, a spinal fracture at C1 (the top of the spinal column). After six days, various ex-rays and an MRI, I was discharged. My nose and ribs have been designated “self healing”, my wrist and lower arm are in plaster, and for the spinal fracture I have a neck collar – the fancifully named Miami J – to be worn 24/7 for twelve weeks. Fortunately pain is minimal, though sleep doesn’t come easy, and friends have stepped up to help Sarah remove and re-fit the collar every couple of days, for neck cleaning and general maintenance.
I’m wary about walking without assistance and it’s only the last couple of days that I’ve made it to the coffee shop around the corner without hanging onto Sarah’s arm. We both understand the importance of getting beyond that as soon as possible.
So … a fall or a FALL?
Time will tell.
Balance at our age is everything:
Like a perfect sentence depending on that all-important semi-colon; that comma,
Everything up to and including the final full stop.
There used to be a record store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, across the street from Selfridges, and if I were down in London from where I was then living in Nottingham, I’d make a point of calling in. Good and varied stock; friendly and knowlegeable staff. Can’t remember what it was called. But there I was – autumn of ’86? early ’87? – leafing through the racks of albums when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I was looking for anything special.
‘You’ve got the Kennedy one?’
The Last Campaign. Yes, I had.
‘Nothing newer than that, I’m afraid. But look …’ Reaching in amongst the albums. ‘If you like John Stewart, you might like this. Give it a listen.’
This was The Last of the True Believers by someone called Nanci Griffith. Presumably that was her on the front cover in a polka dot dress standing outside Woolworth’s, a fat hardback cradled in both hands. [On later investigation it turns out to be Donald Spoto’s biogrpahy of Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers.] And over to her right there’s a couple who might be just holding hands or maybe even dancing and the man is Lyle Lovett, surely?
I turn the cover over. Yes, Lovett’s on the record, singing harmony. And there are a couple of other names I know, Bela Fleck on banjo, Phil Donnelly, guitar. Plus another picture of Nanci Griffith with yet another book and this time it’s clearly Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel I’d only recently read and liked a great deal.
And as if that weren’t enough in the way of little markers of temptation, there’s a note saying the album is dedicated to Count Basie. Count Basie?
“This album is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie because he once made my clumsy feet dance upon the University of Texas ballroom floor as if on wing …”
Lovett, McMurtry, Basie – something interesting was going on here. Passing up the invitation to listen before buying, I paid up and was on my way. Perhaps I was in a hurry. It wasn’t till several days later, back home in Lenton, that I gave it a listen.
Side one begins with The Last of the True Believers and Love at the Five & Dime – two tracks still high among my favourites. Maybe all the songs weren’t equally strong and in the higher register her voice took a little getting used to, but with the next album, Lone Star State of Mind, which followed soon after, I was totally hooked. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds; Ford Econoline; Trouble in the Fields. Great songs. She even manages to purge some of the sentimentality from Julie Gold’s From a Distance.
It wasn’t so much later – the spring of ’88 and I was in New York, visiting a friend – when I noticed that Nanci Griffith was playing at a small club in Greenwich Village – I like to think it was The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, but can’t be sure – whatever it was called both Griffith and her band were on terrific form and what sounded very good on record was even more so live.
I didn’t know then that not long after I returned to England she would be appearing at Nottingham’s Rock City. Monday, 2nd May, 1988. Tickets £5.00 in advance. [My friend, David Belbin, saved his ticket, which is how I know.] It was as good as New York had been, if not better. Another friend who was there that evening, the singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, describes it as a key moment in her life.
Liz was with me again a few years later when Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra played a concert in London – and this is where the wheels of coincidence start turning – because who should she invite to join her on stage but John Stewart – over here on tour himself – to play lead guitar and sing duet vocal on Stewart’s song which closes the Little Love Affairs album, Sweet Dreams Will Come.
Just one more connection. The last time I saw Nanci Griffith was at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and a change in the personnel of her band had brought in the English guitarist – and singer/songwriter – Clive Gregson. The same Clive Gregson who would record and tour with Liz Simcock not so many years later.
Unsurprisingly, these long lockout days have led to some considerable discussion of the importance of children’s play and the accessibility of outdoor spaces; time that could be spent, largely free from intrusive adult supervision, with others of a similar age.
It was my good fortune in the early 60s, when I was in my final year at Goldsmiths, to join several of my fellow students as a play leader in one of the adventure playgrounds that had been set up by Camden under the influence and leadership of Joe Benjamin, one of the founders of the adventure playground movement in this country.
Just recently, I came across a cache of photographs from that time …
In a recent post dealing with school drama productions I’d been involved in while teaching in Stevenage, I made passing reference to an earlier piece about the life of Vincent Van Gogh from my time at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover. Like the Stevenage work, this was a co-operative effort involving as many students and staff as possible, although, as the production evolved, one student in particular, Stephen Lewis, had a fuller involvement as actor, writer and composer. As was the case with Van Gogh himself, no matter the circumstances, you can’t keep good man down!
Knowing a little of Steve’s later involvement with drama, I thought it would be interesting to ask him for his memories of the production and its significance. This is what he wrote …
Drama was my favourite subject at Harrow Way School and thanks to our enthusiastic and inventive teacher, John Harvey, it became a core part of my life. For the first twenty-five years of my career, I was involved in drama teaching, culminating in running the MA in Drama in Education course at what is now Birmingham City University. The strongest memory I have of the work John did at Harrow Way was the collaborative nature of it and the way that it engaged pupils and staff from right across the school.
As a 14 year old I was cast as Vincent in a show called At Last the Vincent van Gogh Show. The “At Last” was added because opening night was delayed owing to an industrial dispute and teachers having to work to rule; this meant that out of school hours rehearsals were postponed for a term. Because John wanted to involve as many pupils as possible, the only way of getting the whole cast together was after school and at the weekends. This was probably why I had a go at writing some of the script and enjoyed researching the life of Van Gogh in such detail.
The set for the show consisted of two 16 x 8 feet screens made by the woodwork department that were fixed at the front stage-right half of the traditional school platform stage and used to back-project images of Van Gogh’s paintings put together by the art department. The performance took place in front of the screens on the hall floor and a raised, tiered area built out from the stage-left half of the stage. This early practice of getting as much of a performance off the stage and thrust out into the audience space must have had a real impact on me, since very few of the hundred or so productions I directed subsequently were set on a proscenium arch with curtains.
I am sure that my attempt at scripting the show was very conventional and limited by an experience of plays that did not extend beyond what we had studied at school or I had seen on television. John had an overall concept for the show that included dance-drama numbers so that more people could be involved beyond the smaller group of characters surrounding Van Gogh’s life. Looking back, I can see now that this was a creative device to make scenes where Van Gogh was painting at his easel more theatrical and of interest to the audience.
While Van Gogh was painting sunflowers, for example, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun was playing and a group of dancers performed around the artist at work in one of his more happier moments. In contrast to this I remember the scene in the cornfield where I was surrounded by staccato-moving dancers dressed all in black enacting the movement of crows to the music of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. It was an expressive way of representing Van Gogh’s deep-seated depression and made the moment where he shoots himself in the groin seem more plausible. There was also a dance to a piece called Urizen from a jazz album by David Axelrod which is a fusion of orchestral sound and rock band. It has these rising glissandi on strings and listening to it again after all these years I can visualise the dancers rising up dressed in yellow and swirling ribbons of fabric around me.
John has written about the infamous ear-cutting scene which was portrayed by my holding up a 2 x 1 foot piece of ear-shaped polystyrene to the side of my head. I had to cut across the top of the polystyrene with a handsaw and I can still recall the squeaking sound it made as I sawed a lump of it away. The fragment of polystyrene ear fell to the floor and then a character dressed as a policeman walked up to me, picked it up and said to the audience, “’ello, ‘ello, ‘ello: what’s this ‘ear then?”. It got a laugh every night.
The fact that I can still recall this so vividly fifty years later shows what a lasting impression this production made on me. That the structure of the show was an example of Total Theatre or that using an oversized prop and a music hall gag at a serious moment was a Brechtian technique were unknowns to me at the time. But thank you Mr Harvey for creating the circumstances and providing the experience that helped me find my element in life.
Funny the ways in which school students remember their teachers, aeons on; funny if they remember them at all. I was buying a pair of jeans in one of those boutiquey men’s clothing stores in the centre of Nottingham, when one of the salesmen said he knew me from school – Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School in Langley Mill. “One thing I’ve always remembered – you coming into our English lesson with the record player and an LP, saying, ‘Right now. You’ve all got to listen to this.’ And you played Sergeant Pepper all the way through.” Worst things to be remembered for.
Four or five years ago, quite by chance, I bumped into someone I’d taught at Stevenage Girls’ School when she would have been twelve or thirteen: getting on for 45 years before. I didn’t recognise her, but she knew me right off. “Triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich!” she said and laughed. I’d used it in some way I can’t exactly recall as a metaphoric way of explaining a complex sentence; I think the middle slice, between the bacon and the egg, might have been a semi-colon.
Following my recent post about teaching at the Girls’ School in Stevenage, Pam Smith, one of the sixth form students taking the Modern paper in A Level English – Beckett, Virginia Woolf and, I think, Eliot – got in touch via a friend. What it seems she remembers most clearly was the lesson in which, reading from Malone Dies, I laughed so helplessly that I slid under the desk and onto the floor. [Whatever it takes … ]
A quick search along the shelves at home soon came up with my teaching copies of both Malone Dies and To The Lighthouse.
Pam went on to take a degree at the University of Nottingham and it was her enthusiasm for the Department of American Studies that led directly to my applying there to do an MA, making many new friends and renewing my acquaintanceship with what is surely the queen of cities.
Circumstances have got me thinking again about the years I spent teaching in Stevenage – four years in the English Department at Stevenage Girls’ School, 1971 – 75; the same four years that I was studying, part time, for a BA in English at Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. A course of study made easier by the generosity of Hertfordshire County Council, who allowed me one afternoon off a week, with pay, to attend lectures, together with four weeks – four whole weeks – off to revise for my finals. Outstanding.
Stevenage was the first of the New Towns to arrive in the wake of the Second World War, a brutalist cousin of two nearby towns that were products of the earlier Garden City movement – Welwyn to the south and Letchworth to the north. Up until 1969, there were two grammar schools, the long-established Alleyne’s School for boys in Stevenage Old Town, and the rather peripatetic Stevenage Girls’ Grammar School, which dropped the word ‘grammar’ from its title when it arrived at new buildings on Valley Way in 1968, in readiness for joining the comprehensive revolution.
It was my experience teaching young people in secondary modern schools – those who, in pre-comprehensive days, would have taken and failed their 11 Plus – that made me an attractive proposition for the head teacher, Miss Osborne – though to what extent Mrs Crewe, the Head of English, agreed, I was never certain. And it wasn’t just English I was teaching; I was also teaching drama. Lots of small group improvisation, probably rather too much wafting around to the likes of Britten’s Sea Interludes – and, on a couple of occasions, a full-scale production. The school play.
In my earlier post at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover I’d warmed up with an abridged version of Shaw’s St. Joan [called, of course, St. Jo – what else?] followed by the (almost) all-dancing, all singing At Last, The Vincent Van Gogh Show! – the highpoint of which was the actor playing Van Gogh coming out wearing a huge polystyrene ear and proceeding, slowly, and squeakily, to saw it off with a fretsaw. Well, it was the 60s! And something I might well return to in more detail in a later blog – but for now, back to Stevenage.
At the Girls’ School, the first production was Alice, based, of course, on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and very much under the influence of the Jefferson Airplanesong, White Rabbit.
One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all, go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.
You can imagine the scene: Alice, red hair, blue dress, and the first of several white pills and, pretty soon, the first sighting of the white rabbit itself.
Half-buried amongst a pile of miscellaneous papers, I found a copy of the programme …
It’s noticeable how strictly I was sticking to the protocols laid down by the Drama Department at Goldsmiths, where I’d done my teacher training, and followed through by my great friend and mentor, Tom Wild, whose productions of Brecht and Shakespeare with ‘secondary modern kids’ in Yorkshire were an inspiration. So, rule one, involve as many of the school as you can, and two, list them all equally and alphabetically . Everyone counts.
Having suggested ideas of madness in Alice – see the Cheshire Cat’s riposte to Alice above – the following year’s production, Split, was based on a case-study of a girl suffering from schizophrenia that was written about in R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self. [The 60s continued to loom large.]
The majority of the scenes were built up through improvisation during many rehearsals, improvisation that continued in performance, save for opening and closing lines, which acted as cues for the people doing music and lighting.
It was a recent exchange of emails with Moya Cove, one of the musicians listed above, that got me harking back to Stevenage days – and plays – and I was very interested to read Moya’s thoughts about growing up and going to school in Stevenage – thoughts she is happy for me to share …
The more I look back and think about it the more I realise what a unique ‘brave new world’ social and economic project we were all involved in. Personally, I feel we had the very best of Stevenage new town in those forward looking post-war days before the shine wore off. And it was successful – for an all too brief moment in time – in facilitating real social mobility, along with optimism, hope and a feeling for social justice. As a group of girls I would say we all came out of Stevenage -in those days of rising feminism – and were utterly determined to have careers and be economically independent. Our generation were incredibly fortunate to experience Stevenage at that time.
For proof of what Moya says about social mobility, a feeling for social justice, and the rise of feminism amongst Stevenage’s young women, I would point to the life of Sherma Batson (whose name appears in the Alice programme).
A community activist with a wide variety of interests, Sherma was one of the founders of the Stevenage World Forum for Ethnic Communities, and largely responsible for setting up Celebrate!!!, a multi-cultural showcase held annually at the Gordon Craig Theatre during Black History Month. A stalwart member of the Labour Party, Sherma was elected to Hertfordshire County Council in 2001 and in 2008 she was made an MBE for services to the county. In 2014/15, she was elected by the Stevenage Borough Council to be Mayor of Stevenage, the first black woman to hold that role. All too sadly, with so much more work to do, so much more life to live, Sherma died suddenly in January 2017, following a subarachnoid haemorrhage, at the age of only 59. In February of that year, Stevenage Borough Council posthumously conferred on Sherma the title of Honorary Freeman.
Reading Kate Clanchy’s excellent and moving book about teaching, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, got me thinking again about my own early years as a teacher.
In the late 1950s, in London at least, the shortage of teachers was such that it was possible to apply for a teaching post with fairly meagre academic qualifications – in my case, one A level and a handful of O levels (as they used to be called) and some experience of the world of work. Having evaded National Service via a dodgy medical examination and kept myself gainfully employed for a couple of undemanding years, I’d come to the conclusion that I should be doing something more worthwhile than packing parcels or writing up the efficiencies of various information recording systems. I applied for a place on a Teacher Training course at Goldsmiths, only to realise, after I’d been accepted, that in order to qualify for a full grant, I needed not only to have paid two years of National Insurance contributions but to be over 21, which was still almost a year away … so what better use of the time than to experience what it would be like as a classroom teacher at first hand?
The school I was assigned to was a small mixed secondary modern in Harlesden, a mainly working class area of North West London; two single storey prefabricated buildings – Upper School and Lower – with a playground in between. It was, as I discovered, a highly regulated set-up. Not only did the staff from the two parts of the school rarely mix, socially or otherwise, each half had clearly segregated staff rooms, one for male teachers, one female. And the kettle (of course!) was in the male staff room, which meant that when any woman teacher wanted to make a cup of tea, she had to knock on the door and ask permission to enter. Amazing, but true.
It was a three-form entry school, in which the first two streams were taught in mixed groups, whereas those in the bottom stream, for reasons that were never adequately explained, were segregated into girls and boys. In my charge were to be the first year, third stream boys, never less than thirty in number and on some days, I swear, closer to forty. Or maybe that was just how it seemed.
In addition to an extended form time which began each day, I was responsible for teaching my class English – for which extra lessons were timetabled – Geography and, heaven help me – and, more so, them – Maths. No wonder they never progressed beyond the most simple of simple equations. I was also to teach Geography to several other classes in the Lower School, and, in the absence of any other volunteers among the staff – the PE teacher certainly wasn’t going to give up his evenings and Saturday mornings – I took over ‘managing’ the Under 14 soccer team. The first time out we shipped ten goals, scoring none in return, and I had the devil’s own job persuading the few genuinely talented players we had to turn out again. Soon after that I found myself coaching the small but eager athletics team ahead of the local inter-school sports competition, and, on mornings when it always seemed to be cold and raining, accompanying the cross-country team to muddy destinations within the borough and beyond. For all this, I received a sum slightly above 50% of a qualified teacher’s starting salary. Just as well I was still living at home.
But switch back for a moment to the morning of my first day, when, having arrived early, anxious and more than a little bewildered, I was summoned to the headmaster’s office. The head was in his late fifties, possibly older, with neatly brushed silver-grey hair, a dark pinstripe suit, carefully knotted tie and highly polished shoes. He welcomed me with a firm handshake and a few well-honed words about the ethos of the school. Hard work, discipline and respect. In relation to which, he directed my attention to a large, leather-bound book on a table near the door. The Punishment Book. Only two members of staff were allowed to administer corporal punishment, he informed me solemnly, the Deputy Head and himself. And every instance had to be recorded in that book, which was inspected by the local authority. Was that understood? Yes, I said. Good. And as I was leaving the room, he handed me a cane.
Caning. It was how the school functioned, survived. Any pupil late for morning school, whoever had drawn playground duty administered a single stroke of the cane; more than five minutes late, two strokes, one on each hand. So it was with talking out of turn in class, flicking ink pellets, persistently turning round – out here now and hold out your hand. Some of the staff, a few, all men, seemed to relish the opportunity; the teacher in the classroom next to mine, who permanently wore a red tie and sold copies of the ‘Daily Worker’ in the High Street on Saturdays, had been known to resort to the wooden blackboard compass as an alternative to the cane.
Not knowing any better, I fell into line. The cane, after all, was all too familiar from my recent years in a boys’ grammar school, where, being a bit of cheeky Herbert with a liking for the sound of his own voice, a week in which I didn’t receive a caning was rare. You learned to keep the knuckle of your thumb tucked as far off target as possible and winked at your mates on your way back to your desk. And, in similar fashion, the thirty or so eleven and twelve year olds I met every morning and in whose company I spent a good proportion of the day, rarely seemed to mind. It was just school.
But perhaps because we spent so much time together, something strange happened – strange, in that it wasn’t something I’d really anticipated – I got to like them. Even – or especially – I’ll call him Derek – who lived with his father in a broken-down travellers’ caravan and came to school regularly smelling of urine; Derek, who, one day when I had pushed him too far, threw a chair in my direction then hurled himself against the wall alongside the blackboard and sobbed for a full half hour. At heart, they were nice kids, labouring, a good many of them, under a more than average set of disadvantages, and when it came down to it, they wanted to do well; they wanted to please.
Somewhere around the end of the first term, it dawned on me that, with them at least, I no longer needed to resort to the cane; I pushed it into the back of the drawer and there it stayed.