Tuesday, 14 February 2012

33. Of Primary Schools, Pets and Pauper Lunatics

Edinburgh from Queen's Drive, Hollyrood Park 1998

When I was a small boy we moved home multiple times. In this blog I piece together, with a variety of distractions along the way, an account of the places where I receive some primary school education. There are six in total, one a year on average before I go as a boarder to Wells Cathedral Junior School in September 1949 at the age of nine. [Here, in case you lose track in the rambles that follow, is the school route in chronological order: 1. Monkton Combe, near Bath, Somerset; 2. Edinburgh; 3. Itchingfield, Sussex; 4. Cambridge; 5. Bath; 6. Wells.]

I am reaching (have reached would be more truthful) the age where I can't necessarily recall what I did yesterday or why I am standing in the bedroom holding this empty coffee cup I have brought up from the kitchen. Perhaps I should blog a collection of my best senior moments for your amusement but, as Sharon points out, how would I remember what they were. So loss of short term memory does have its upsides it would seem.

My long term memory, however, is reasonably good. And if I remember wrongly (or differently) about my primary schooling I am sure my big sister Elizabeth, who is two and a half years older than me, can set the record straight. In fact both of us rely for precise dates in our early years on my mother's record of our family life. Since my copy of Mum's autobiography is stored away at present Elizabeth has sent me a list of dates of the places we stay in between 1940 and 1952 when we move to the smog-filled winters of Queen's Park in London.

I was born in June 1940. My Dad is in the Sudan and so Elizabeth, my Mum and I live with my Grannie and Grandpa Henderson at 8 Greenbank Crescent in Edinburgh. We move twice from there in 1940, first to a cottage in Gorebridge, Midlothian, and then to friends of my mother's in Dollar, Clackmannanshire. We move again in October 1941, this time to a rented property, Mount Stuart in Glen Devon, and, in May 1943, just down the road at the Yetts 'o Muckart bus stop, I meet my Dad for the first time.

 Mount Stuart, Glen Devon 1998

In September 1943 Elizabeth goes to her first school, the Muckart Village School. I go with her once for a day to the single schoolroom but it hardly counts as my first primary schooling; I am only three or four years old and just play with the toys.

In September 1944 my Dad, having recovered from cerebral malaria contracted in Africa, takes up a teaching post in Monkton Combe, Somerset, and we move from Scotland to rooms nearby. From there I go to my first school, a dame school at Freshford. I can remember little about the school itself, only the trek up the gloomy road between the fir trees with my big sister holding my hand, a mile’s walk to school from the Manor House by the River Avon at Limpley-Stoke where we are lodging and where the railway line with its one train a day at eleven o’clock in the morning runs through the orchard at the bottom of the garden and you can hear the buses and trucks grinding painfully slowly in first gear up the Warminster Hill on the other side of the valley.

On the way to school in the winter, if it has snowed, the older boys roll up snowballs as big as boulders, leave them in the middle of the road and wait to watch the cars coming down from Freshford taking evasive action on the icy surface. But I don’t like school. We are just down from Scotland and the teacher can’t understand a word I say, so I deliberately thicken the Scottish accent I am so proud of. She, in response, puts me to stand in the corner – it seems a bit hard in retrospect, given that I am only five at the time. I am delighted when Mum and Dad take me away and let me stay home and play with a friend, and he and I can watch the train pass each day from a hiding place beneath the apple trees by the railway track.

In 1945 we move again, this time to Shutecroft, a school house in Monkton Combe. But that September Dad starts theological studies at Ridley Hall in Cambridge and Mum, Elizabeth and I go back to Edinburgh for a spell to live with Grannie Henderson at Greenbank Crescent, Grandpa having died the year before. Elizabeth and I go to and fro on the tram to the Rudolph Steiner School in Colinton Road. Grannie thinks Mum is stupid to send us there when there is a perfectly good school a five minute walk away just by the Morningside grocery shop that Uncle Peter has inherited (and now runs, together with the Bruntsfield shop, before adding a third of his own over in Blackhall), but, since there are daily tram rides, I think it’s great and have fun making a lovely mess with paints and crayons and potato cuts and other arty things.

Much to Mum’s dismay, Grannie only makes a fuss of Elizabeth and shows little interest in me. But I don’t notice Grannie's preference so I can’t lay at her doorstep my desperate desire for affection and love, my sense of isolation, my fear of abandonment, my intense competitiveness, and all the other psychological baggage we are supposed to acquire in our formative years, and do acquire of course (or invent later when we have the language of psychobabble to inspire us), but don’t have to burden ourselves with forever unless we so choose. To compensate to me, and to escape Grannie, Mum takes us on tram rides across the city to Joppa or Portobello and, since we board the tram near the Fairmilehead terminus, Elizabeth and I always rush up stairs, me first, to grab the front seats on the top deck. We repeat these journeys in future years when we are packed off to Scotland in the school holidays to stay with Grannie and she gives us thruppence each - a penny fare being enough for a child to ride from one end of a tram route to the other - and a cut lunch to take ourselves off for the day, and occasionally comes with us to the Portobello swimming pool and sits there dozing in the sun, dressed from head to toe in her widow’s black, listening to us scream with delight when the wave machine is turned on, a wonder of the world to us in those days. I go back to Portobello in August 1998 and a run-down and shabby place it is.

In the Spring of 1946 we are on the move again, this time to White Turret in Barn's Green, Sussex. It is the children's home of St. Julian’s, a religious retreat house that later becomes Mum and Dad’s spiritual sanctuary over many years. My Mum is part of the White Turret staff and Dad rents a cottage down by the railway line so that he can study in peace and quiet. 

Occasionally Mum takes Elizabeth and I on the bus from St. Julian’s and I eagerly anticipate seeing, as it comes round our corner from Coolham, that it has Horsham as its destination and not just the local Barns Green. I demand that we sit as near the driver as possible so that I can ‘drive’ the bus myself round through Barns Green and on to Horsham, a journey I repeat endlessly at home with the dining-room chairs in a line, a make-believe driving wheel in my hand, changing gears, accompanied by appropriate engine noises, at all the right places along the way. Even now, in my seventies, I can visualise each bend and gear change in that road. Up the hill to Itchingfield - where Elizabeth and I attend the village school run by the tiny fur-coated Mrs Grabey with the fluffy miniature dog she always carries in her arms as she watches us in through the school door, and where I won’t take my new leather gloves off and just stand in the playground in my smart brown check coat and watch the other children playing, - over the hill and down the other side before changing gear for a ninety degree right hand turn and the accelerating flat run to the stop at Christ’s Hospital where there are all those boys in their funny blue coats, before immediately making another ninety degree turn, to the left this time, and heading off through the gears to join the main road into Horsham. I didn’t know then of course that later I would decline yet another change of school and stay at Wells, where I was happy, and that it will be my younger brother Stuart who becomes a bluecoat boy. Or that years later my confidence in my memory of Sussex roads, and in my driving skills, will be deeply shaken when, on aggressively driving at high speed on the return to London from a visit to Stuart at school, I take a left hand bend far too fast, cross the oncoming lane and almost end in the ditch on the opposite side of the road, mercifully without harm to myself and my young family. And shaken again in 2008 when Sharon and I are briefly lost and confused trying to find that road on a detour back to Sacha's place in Hemel Hempstead from visiting my brother and my friend Anne-Marie in Brighton.

The next year, 1947, we move to join Dad in some digs in the rheumy-eyed Miss Job’s house at 10 New Square, Cambridge. In the large (and in those days largely empty) New Square car park Dad teaches me to ride a two wheeler bicycle, holding on to the saddle and running alongside while I yell “Let go, let go, I can do it, I can do it” until he eventually has the confidence to let me wobble off by myself. After that I spend hours of fun playing bicycle football with my friends in a back alley and, since I am the smallest boy on the smallest bike, I can turn inside the others, like a Spitfire outmanoeuvring a Messchersmitt I pretend. It must be at Miss Job’s that I embarrass Mum and Dad by complaining loudly to a visiting bishop that he has put jam on his first slice of bread and butter, he being blissfully ignorant of our frugal family teatime custom of ‘plain piece first’.

At New Square we are squashed in next to Miss Job, her Springer spaniel Elijah, her cat Elisha, and her two ducks Theo and Cleo, who she feeds in the backyard, shuffling around in her faded blue slippers with her stockings around her ankles and her ample bosom falling out of her half-tied dressing-gown. From there Elizabeth and I trek across Midsummer Common each day to Brunswick Council School, which, in comparison with the Rudolf Steiner, is all grey concrete and monotones. At school it is very organised and very cold, and at home we are constantly nagged to shut the doors when we go out to play because Miss Job, already mentally suspect because she is Pentecostal, is convinced that, if Elisha or Elijah escape, the vivisectionists are just waiting round the corner to nab them.

I continue at Brunswick Council School after Mum and Dad go to Honeywell Road in Wandsworth Common to look after Grandma Deeks, Elizabeth staying with her friend Veronica’s family and me farmed out (though I have no recollection of this) to some young couple with a baby. But I only spend a year at that school too. In September 1948 we move to Odd Down, Bath. Finally, on my circuitous educational journey to the Cathedral Junior School at Wells, I spend a year at St Luke’s Primary School at the back of St. Philip’s Church at Odd Down, the daughter church of St. Luke’s down the hill at Bath Flat, Dad’s first curacy after his ordination.

At home in Odd Down I have my own bedroom above the church institute, and can hear the click of the billiard balls in the evenings and the old-time dancing on Saturday nights. At school there is a tall blond teacher who has a nasty habit of slapping us on the calves when we make mistakes. But there is a grass tennis court at the back of the institute and curacy, abutting the school wall, and I spend endless happy hours bowling tennis balls against the wall to make them land on a penny on the rebound, or hurling the ball at the wall with all my force and trying to hit the rebound with a cricket stump – having read somewhere that is how Don Bradman learnt to bat.

My cricketing practice at Odd Down is the precursor of other games I play after we move to London in 1952. First at Queen's Park where, using a seven iron of Dad's and a plastic golf ball, I hone my chipping skills by trying to hit the golf ball from our tiny back garden through a first floor bedroom window. Later at the vicarage in Enfield, I play a game to sharpen my cricketing reflexes and harden my hands, letting a golf ball rebound onto a grating in the concrete path by the back door from which it shoots off at unpredictable angles, as though from a slip cradle, and I endeavour to catch it, and invariably do because, if I miss, the ball rips into Mum’s carefully nurtured flower garden and she calls my game off. It serves me well later as a gully specialist, a position I love, stopping or catching full-blooded square cuts. I do manage to dream up some extraordinary games in our various back yards, to say nothing of house-bound games in winter kicking balls and balloons along corridors and up stairs. No wonder I am good at sport and soon manage to beat all the family at any game that has a ball in it and put paid to Dad’s dreadful if charitable tendency to let me win.

I have cricketing memories of Sussex too, travelling there on a week’s summer tour with the Selwyn College Cambridge eleven, memories of the soft hands and lyrical jazz piano of Mike D’Abo who is a Sussex Martlet but liable, when faced at mid-on with a hard hit drive, to pull his hands away, much to our disgust, even though his fingers are insured. He wisely drops out of cricket and college but I see him once years later, from the upstairs front seat of a number six bus travelling up Lower Regent Street from The Duke of York Steps, striding along the pavement below with a peacock feathered hat and Old Harrovian panache, enjoying to the full his new role in replacing Paul Jones as lead singer of Manfred Mann.

However, I have detoured. Back to my primary education.

Finally in 1949 it is to school at Wells, initially travelling to and fro at the beginning and end of terms by bus from the Red Lion, Odd Down, later by train from Paddington in London, two other routes locked in my memory. I could describe for you the landscape coming around particular corners on the bus route or the little halt (called Lavington I think) where we change trains for Wells but I won't bore you with further reminiscences along such branch lines. Is this fascination with and precise knowledge of how to get from place to place and recognition of all the stops along the way some psychological compensation for my sense of not knowing where on earth I belong, for frustration with all these childtime re-locations/dislocations? A product of an early life of moving around but never arriving at a settled destination? Of branch lines without termini? More of those night sea swimmings?

A final detour however. One of the last bus stops before Wells is outside the high walls of the Mendip Hospital, which back then was a mental institute or, as I and my schoolboy friends called it in those pre-PC days, the looneybin. As the bus comes down the hill you can see the extensive complex of the hospital below but this gradually disappears behind the high walls that surround it. I watch cautiously and curiously those who alight and embark at the stop beside the gate lodge. What I expect to see I have no idea; they are all probably cooks and cleaners and psychiatric nurses and not a looney among them. Until now, when I have googled Mendip Hospital, I have no idea of the history or scale of the place. It is one of many nineteenth century institutions set up with public funds to house and secure the mentally ill, usually in out of the way countryside places. The earliest is established in 1811.

The Mendip Hospital, built for four hundred patients and staff, opens on March 1st 1848 as the County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics. Its principal architect is George Gilbert Scott the designer of St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial in London. It has a number of name changes over the years before being taken over by the National Health Service in 1948. In 1991 it is closed and the buildings converted into flats, apartments and homes which now form the core of the village of South Horrington.

If Miss Job, our Cambridge landlady has a strange relationship with her pets, it is nothing compared to that of our very own 'pauper lunatic' in Bath, Miss Hamper,
who claims that her dog Billy has been given to her by the Emperor of Japan and can speak to her in Japanese, which unfortunately she doesn’t understand. Harmless as she seems to me, colourful indeed, even if a bit weird, they take her away and lock her up in the Mendip Hospital. She bequeaths us Billy, a pedigree cocker spaniel, and Mum renames him Blink, in memory of her own childhood spaniel. (What is it with the genteel middle class and their droopy sad-eyed spaniels? At Amberfields we have a border collie. Now there is a real dog. Kate and Harriet name him Kurt, after Kurt Cobain and when Kurt’s eyes fix on a car that he can chase along the fence line you would swear he is on drugs.) Much to my dismay, Blink subsequently displaces me in the family hierarchy since, in trying to recall my name in general conversation or to attract my attention, Mum often first goes through a brief recital of her other ‘children’ – Stuart! Elizabeth! Ruth! Blink! - a long pause… John! Ah well, Mum, I’m sure you loved me really, your firstborn son. But perhaps my ultra competitiveness was driven by a desire to rise above the status of a dog in the household pecking order.

Mary's Dad had a dog too, a disgusting poodle called Nicky that liked to rub himself on the legs of little girls, and her Mum, who first meets me shortly after Mary and I return from Sydney and is ever after convinced, no matter my denials, that I am just visiting from Australia, was brought up with farm dogs. Our first Christmas together Mary and I go round to her sister Anita and brother-in-law Neal's place in Manurewa for a bar-b-cue and I am introduced to Anita’s best friend Lianne. Having randily appraised the new man in Mary’s life, and instructed him in no uncertain terms to pour her a bigger whiskey, and not so many ice cubes, Lianne turns to Mary and observes that I look like a drover’s dog – all ribs and prick! And I thought only poets bore Humboldt's gift of big pricks to parties.

And so to the Junior School at Wells to listen to David Fear, a weekly boarder, sobbing himself to sleep each night as he sucks on his big toe, a contortion we greatly envy. Within a year David is dead of a heart attack, falling down in front of us while we are rushing around in the play ground. We are really upset because he is the best half back we have in the school soccer team. I am happy that I failed to obtain a choral scholarship and so can play sport after school, rather than dress up in a choirboy suit and file off to the Cathedral for evensong. Not that all the switching of schools seems to have done me any great harm educationally. Indeed the Headmaster, Mr Hall, who sells me on the school when we go for the interview by talking to me about cricket and asking me to demonstrate my forward defence shot, comments in my first term’s report – in which I am top in everything – that I have been very well grounded in my previous schools, particularly in English, and by the end of my first year of ‘excellents’ and ‘very goods,’ and lots of stars and almost no stripes, and commendations for taking an interest and working really hard, he reports that I can play cricket quite well (only quite well, what a cheek) and that I must guard against the danger of too much success! What do they want, these teachers? I am even excellent at divinity.

At 8 Greenbank Crescent, Morningside, Edinburgh, August 1998




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