Friday, February 19, 2010

Growing up in Wolverton - Part III


In 1942 it was time to start school and I was duly carted off down Cambridge Street and along Aylesbury Street to the Infants, Junior and secondary school. For the first few weeks my mother along with large numbers `of other mums would appear at the school railings in the back-way behind Windsor Street with biscuits sandwiches and/or other goodies. I recall on that first day being allowed to play with some rather splendid toys.

My recollections of actually learning anything are pretty vague although I must have learned something ! What I do remember only too clearly was within the first week or so being brought out to the front of the class for talking too much (Those who know me will realise that it didn’t actually do much good !!). Anyway I was so horrified at the thought that I would be found out when I got home and be in more trouble that I well remember rushing up to my bedroom and looking in the mirror to see if I was blushing!

I have rather more recollection of the junior school which was at that time under the redoubtable headmastership of Mr Herbert Lunn. To say that he was an old fashioned disciplinarian would be a monstrous understatement. He was what we would call today a teaching head and used this position to share his two great loves with us.  One of these was music, in particular choirs and the other was poetry.

When I say poetry I am assuming that this is the case based on the fact that he would regularly inflict large helpings of Hiawatha upon us as a result of which I developed a deep and abiding hatred for the wretched poem. This was probably explained by the threatening atmosphere which pervaded the room. Whilst Hiawatha was being read we were expected to keep our eyes riveted on “Lunny” in order that we might more deeply enjoy the experience. Anyone who failed to maintain this degree of concentration would receive an immediate visit from the narrator, who, whilst still narrating, would deliver a blow on the back of the unfortunate victims head with his book which was calculated to knock him clean out of his desk.

Singing as I have said was his other great passion one of the manifestations of which was to conduct the whole class to ensure that the choral quality was being maintained. A favourite of his was a piece which started;
 “In Han’s old mill his three black cats, watched the bins for the thieving rats.
Whisker and claw they crouched in the night their five eyes gleaming red and bright”
Now, in case you should think that my arithmetic is as bad as my English I should point out that one of the blasted cats turned out to have only one eye. If I had anything to do with it at the time they would all have been put down (although I like to think I have mellowed a little with age!).

Of course today when we consider events of this type words like sadistic, disgraceful and lawyer get bandied about and we should perhaps remind ourselves that Lunny was a man of his time. A man who enjoyed enormous respect in the community and became much loved by many who were taught by him (usually after they had left school)Anyway on one memorable (to me at any rate) occasion whilst the aforementioned cats were watching the bins etc. I had managed to get a good position in the back row. When Lunny was conducting positions in the back row were hard to come by as that was exactly where every single member of the choir had a burning desire to be. Anyway I had made it to the back row and I can only suppose that this must have imbued me with a greater than usual sense of confidence, utterly misplaced as it turned out. Just as we were in full cry another pupil (probably a little girl that I rather wanted to impress) walked through the hall in which we were singing (several classrooms opened off this hall) and I turned sideways and smiled at her, rapidly realised the enormity of the risk I was taking and turned back to face Lunny. Too late ! He was already on the move walking rapidly around the choir  and leaving me in very little doubt as to where he was heading. I could sense him coming up behind me when I received a terrific blow across the back of the head from the very large, heavy music book he always carried which knocked me clean out of my place ! Never did it again --- never sang about Han’s bloody mill either when I didn’t have to !

One day when we were having a particularly heavy dose of Hiawatha one of the teachers (Miss Illing I believe) arrived with a terrified pupil in tow whom we will call Bloggs to protect the guilty (I believe he still lives in Wolverton).  Bloggs it appeared had committed some misdemeanour which Miss Illing evidently felt had to be referred to higher authority and she had accordingly sent him to “see Mr Lunn” a euphemistic phrase wich more or less meant handing yourself over for a damn good  of a hiding. The enterprising Bloggs  (not a characteristic he was noted for) had decided to bluff and accordingly hid behind  a door instead of handing himself in. Unfortunately for the hapless Bloggs he was discovered by another member of staff who grassed him up, as they say to Miss Illing who then decided to personally conduct him to Lunny who, as I mentioned was in full throat with Hiawatha.

Miss Illing explained that she had sent Bloggs to see him and that Bloggs had failed to do so. Lunny looked at the wretched Bloggs who was already crying and appeared to have wet himself for good measure. “Why didn’t you come to see me boy ?” he asked with an air of quiet menace that was all to familiar to all of us. “I was too frightened Sir” sobbed Bloggs.
Lunny responded to this admission by seizing him by the shoulders, lifting him off the floor and shaking him like a rat whilst uttering the immortal words: “There’s (shake) no need (shake) to be frightened (shake) of me (shake)  then releasing him to fall into a crumpled heap on the floor)
Lunny’s wife often used to come into school to help out. She was a charming and gentle lady who used to read stories to us which we loved (Five on Treasure Island and The Just William stories were favourites of hers (and ours). Other teachers at that time included Mr Llewellyn who taught art ( and whom I was to meet many years later at a somewhat alcoholic sing song in Trafalgar square on New Years Eve).

Another favourite was Miss Faux whom I also met many years later when I moved to Potterspury.
A really unforgettable character was the woodwork teacher Mr Murphitt, affectionately known throughout the district as Spud. He doesn’t appear to have been too keen on this however as when one of the more unruly elements in the school painted the words “The Spudworks” on the woodwork shed door he immediately summoned us all together.

Spud always used to attract attention in the woodwork class by striking a small shop bell with a button top and shouting in a high voice “Gather round boys !”  He was quite a small man with rosy cheeks and on this particular occasion he was puffed up and red with indignation as `he informed us that “Someone has written something extremely rude on the woodwork shed door.” If he could see the sort of stuff that gets written on it nowadays the poor old fellow would have a coronary!

Spud had a little Austin Seven of which he was inordinately proud. I was told some years later that to avoid it being bombed in the event of Hitler having a go at Wolverton  (It was on his hit list because of the railway works) he had had his little wooden garage camouflaged.

It was, of course in the later years at the school that we took the eleven plus. All I knew about the eleven plus was that it was an exam which one had to pass to go to the local grammar school. My somewhat inaccurate understanding of the grammar school (because of its name) was that it was the sort of place you went to if you wanted to be good at English and “things like that” whilst the Technical School was about all of the things I was becoming interested in. accordingly I failed the eleven plus! In fact I seem to recall that for some reason they let me take it again … and I failed it again ! Eventually I took and passed the thirteen plus which qualified me to attend the Wolverton Secondary Technical School which was situated in Church Street (and was later burned down …. Not by me I hasten to add ! although I did nearly burn down one of the other schools in Woverton… but more about that later !)

.In those days it was more or less the tradition that boys wore short trousers up until the time they started at the Tech (or in the equivalent class at the secondary modern as it was by then known). Consequently the day I stated at the Tech was the first time I appeared in public in long trousers. It is difficult to comprehend today just how embarrassed boys were at this change, mainly because others took the mickey. I still can’t quite understand why we dreaded it so much but we certainly did (Or I did at any rate).

We certainly felt pretty grown up now. We even had a sort of tuck shop which consisted of Mr East from the Brighton Bakery (opposite the school) selling splendid cream buns ( I don’t doubt that in today’s world he would pretty soon be escorted off the premise by the food police).

The emphasis was very much on technical subjects such as woodwork, metalwork, chemistry, physics and biology. Although the school was mixed the girls were segregated from us in assembly and immediately afterwards disappeared through a mysterious door by the side of the main staircase and were more or less not seen again for the remainder of the day.

Metalwork was taught by Charley Castle who was pretty much of a hero to all of the boys as he was the proud owner of a Vincent Black Shadow – the ultimate motor bike (and still sought after today). According to school legend this monster, when in top gear only fired every third lamppost and for many years it was asserted that he had given a boy a lift from the school playing fields and accelerated away with a violence that left the breathless youth standing in the road with his legs apart like a cowboy without a horse (well it made a good story anyway).

Woodwork was the province of “Jake” Rainbow a kind and patient man whose mission in life was to start at least some of us off in life as craftsmen. I only ever saw Jake ruffled once. On that particular occasion one of the less gifted members of the class (at least from a woodwork point of view .. come to think of it from most other points of view too)) had been making a small bedside cabinet, a process which had already taken some weeks and was beginning to look like a lifetimes work.

The whole thing was clamped together and “Bloggs (we will once again disguise the guilty) the embryo carpenter in question was desperately trying to get it square in all directions. “For heavens sake Marks give him a hand” said Jake. I struggled for about ten minutes and when Jake returned he said with some exasperation “Here let me !”

Anyway he struggled with this thing for about another twenty minutes until he was happy that the whole thing was square. As he was about to walk away he looked closer at the masterpiece and said  “ You really should have been a bit more generous with the glue Underwood, it should be oozing out of the joints.

“Oh”, said Underwood  “I haven’t actually put any glue in it yet, I was just trying it all out”  To his credit Jake never said a word he just delivered one mighty blow sending clamps flying in all directions and walked away. It was some time later that I believe he just quietly said “I think we’ll call it a day Underwood” and the project was duly scrapped.

Mr Wenban universally known as “Whizzbang” taught us history he was the proud owner of a bright red Hillman Saloon inevitably referred to as Whizzbang’s fire engine. My main recollection of his class was being caught sending a somewhat incriminating note about a girl to someone else in the class and having the damn thing read out to a hysterically amused class.

A J (Ajjer) Pyne taught chemistry and physics in a room at the top of the building  with a glass roof which had been painted green. Whilst not in the same league as Lunny he was certainly a disciplinarian with clearly held views about the importance of remembering certain things word for word. I can in fact still recite with just about one hundred percent accuracy both Boyles’ Law and Archimedes Principle ( I will not bore you just to  prove this point but a pint will always produced a faultless recitation).
The hapless Bloggs (he of the bedside cabinet) managed to annoy Ajjer on one occasion (I can’t for the life of me remember how but he was pretty good at it)). His reward came before the end of the lesson in which we were being shown how to make Chlorine gas by electrolysis of salt water (just so you know I remember other things) and as soon as we arrived at the bit where we had to identify properties. Underwood was immediately selected to test for smell and never being one to do things by halves took a good hefty sniff. Not surprisingly in view of the fact that Chlorine has a very nasty smell and is extremely poisonous Underwood was almost immediately sick.

One of the more enjoyable moments was when the Kipps apparatus blew up whilst making hydrogen and sprayed the front row with hydrochloric acid. (and no, Underwood wasn’t in the front row) The site of poor old Ajjer panicking about burnt clothing filled us all with a rather unkind delight. Nothing like seeing someone in authority fouling things up !

Our other teachers at the Tech included Bob Fleming who taught geography. Lofty Williams, the headmaster who taught us English and Joe Richards who also taught English. Joe was famous amongst the boys for his risqué remarks and not many weeks went past without a new “Joism” being passed around the school. A regular example of this was when we filed into the classroom. Joe would stand by the door and to any boy with his hands in his pockets he would boom “Leave it alone boy”.
In those days of course, sex education in schools was non existent so one can imagine the anticipation on one never to be forgotten day when we were told that Toddy (Mr Todd) was off sick and that as a result our “bilge” (biology) lesson would be taken by Mr Richards. We were not to be disappointed. Joe decided that we ought to have some sex education and conducted a questions and answers session in which he used the vernacular language more often found on the walls of the boys toilets. That lesson was talked about for weeks after (And here am I, over 50 years on still talking about it !!) Many years later when I came to buy the house in which we now live in Potterpury Joe turned ouy to be the owner ! He had been appointed headmaster of the village school and the “School House” went with the job. Evidently Joe the persuaded the Count Council to sell it to him Then ran off with his new girlfriend leaving his wife (Heidi) behind. Sadly Heidi committed suicide and the house went on the market where it was purchased by yours truly.

For games we had to cycle down to the Stratford Road down station hill and along the old road. The playing field was about halfway along on the left hand side. It was a pretty run down sort of place with an extremely rickety old pavilion and changing room. There was no fresh water or proper toilets and the drinking water was brought along by the groundsman, Mr Adams who seemed to regard all schoolboys as something of a menace (often not without reason !). The surest way to upset him was to leave a water bottle around with the cap open (he used the old Corona type bottles with a captive, clip top. He would come stamping into the pavilion bellowing “How do you little buggers expect to keep the water sweet and clean if you leave the tops off !”  We were somewhat amused by this since a lot of the bottles which had been in use for some time, had a distinctly greenish tinge at the bottom !

We played football and cricket and in the summer, tennis, although the tennis courts were a pretty sad sight with sagging nets which had been patched and mended over many years.

I was never a sporting type personally and would frequently resort to such tricks as hiding in the boot locker to escape from football. I was the sort of player that you really didn,t want on your team ! if there was an own goal or a hit wicket you could bet on it that I was involved in some way !

For this reason I never seemed to hit it off with games teachers whom I regarded as bullies who were committed to trying to cause me severe physical discomfort. When we had a cross country I would be one of those who completely ran out of puff and ended up walking. When Toddy decided to organise a boxing competition in which all boys would have to participate I had little doubt what was in store. When the draw took place for the first round I found myself drawn against Bob Wade. Bob as I recall was the champion boxer at Fegan’s Homes, the orphanage in Stony Stratford (Currently the Mogul Palace Indian Restaurant). Fortunately Bob was a gentle boy who was a friend to me and promised to ease off. Unfortunately I was so bad that I didn’t know how to look convincing as I took a swing at him, and accidentally thumped him. The result was immediate and predictable Bob swung back in what must have been a reflex action and split my lip. The fight was stopped (Bob apologised later as did I ) and that I am delighted to say was the end of my boxing career. I was always convinced that Toddy regarded me as a wimp (which I was ) and set out to make life difficult for me. I suspect it had more to do with my own paranoia to be fair, and later when he also took us for biology in which I was interested and consequently quite good, the relationship improved.

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