With a distinct “Oof!”, I bounced off the unyielding door, a door which – and I mention this purely in the interests of historical accuracy - had a large metal 'H' screwed onto it. Not painted; screwed on. Even then - at a time in my life when the word was replete among the comics of the era - I didn’t often say “Oof!”. In fact, I don’t think anybody outside of ‘The Beano’ usually did, but in my defence, if I hadn’t been eleven years old, fresh out of catholic primary school and sincerely afraid of going to hell for doing so, I’d have said “Fuck!” and probably with some feeling. However, at that point I hadn't begun my swearing career, and 'Fuck' was yet to become my favourite word, although that process would not take very much longer.
1976 was a momentous year for more than one reason – each of them enough to justify a well-rounded expletive (and trust me; I got around to that within a matter of days). Most important of all, it was the year of the United Kingdom's best summer in living memory, and as a freshly-released primary school pupil I was gloriously free to enjoy the sunny, hot weather for a whole six weeks before embarking upon the greatest - and therefore the scariest - adventure of my short life; starting secondary school.
It was a summer of bright colours, sunburn, a plague of ladybirds, scorched grass and lots of time spent at the local open-air swimming pool (which, in deference to the roasting air temperatures, consistently offered water cold enough to turn a human body an interesting shade of blue within ten minutes); a summer for being outside every day without ever getting rained on. The light that summer was somehow special, the traditional family beach holiday was the best holiday ever (no rain!), and by beginning secondary school I was – as far as I was concerned, anyway – going to finally be growing up.
Walking - with that peculiar stiff-armed ‘walk’ that kids do when they’re actually running on school grounds but pretending to themselves and everyone in authority that it really isn’t the case - to the school bus taking me home from my tiny primary school for the very last time, I was unknowingly leaving behind something precious; something really quite wonderful and which I would fail to appreciate for many years. Perhaps it was a good thing that I was blissfully ignorant of reality. It hadn’t dawned on me that I was leaving behind all of my best friends, many of whom I would not see again for fully twenty five years, and even more – including my best and closest friend ever - whom I would never see again. I had no idea; I wasn’t able to imagine that far into the future.
Had I but realised the brutal, absolute finality of that last day at Our Assumption of Catholic Guilt Primary School, I would have cried my little heart out. I’d have pleaded for those days to never end. I would have sobbed uncontrollably and yearned for the open, innocent and honest friendships that I had enjoyed so completely for the previous six or seven years. I would have looked into my future with horror – even if unnecessarily - instead of with mere trepidation and a little excitement. However, being too young and just a little too stupid to fully grasp what was happening, I scuttled along that concrete driveway towards the school bus which would take me home one last time. My heart, in its innocence, was singing. I had, after all, six entire glorious weeks - almost half a lifetime - to prepare myself for the next phase of my life.
The sense of loss which embraces the ripping away of those friends is still very real to me more than forty years later, and although at the time I blundered into my future wrapped in a cloak of ignorance, I’m now grateful that I was spared that particular agony of awareness at such a young age. Even as things are, the scars have not healed. This is how I know with utter certainty that, had I but realized the truth – had I but paid attention to what was happening - I would have cried like never before.
My primary school had been an ostensibly genteel, if not quite completely gentle establishment. The Catholic Church, with its history of vile oppression, torture and brutal warfare against people who had the temerity to have grown up somewhere else (and therefore to have not been ‘blessed’ with the chilled-out preaching of a hippy Palestinian carpenter), officially strongly disapproved of any un-Christian nastiness in the schoolyard or classrooms. This was unless such nastiness was perpetrated by a teacher upon a child up to and including the age of eleven (basically, the smaller, the better). Nuns were, of course, exempt from all the rules - including the laws of the land – when it came to cruelty towards children. In the case of nuns engaged in the training of young minds, the idea seemed to be that psychopathy was a desired character trait.
I was fortunate to have been taught (with one glaring exception during my very first school year when I encountered a lady of whom it is rumoured that she went on to join the East German secret police humiliation squads) by a series of compassionate and caring teachers. Authority figures, however, were not in short supply; the deputy head of my junior school – together with the rather more remote and aloof headmaster-man himself - scared the crap out of me, mostly because both wielded the ultimate punishment in times of moral or ethical crisis: the cane.
The cane was a terrifyingly thin piece of bamboo (it looked as if it could slice clean through a human torso when in the expert hands of a senior teacher) with a hooked end, exactly like every instrument of evil schoolroom torture I had seen in the old black ‘n white movies. The cane promised unimaginable pain and humiliation, followed by the very worst consequence of all. The worst thing that could happen (there was no question about this) was to have one’s parents called in to explain why the teacher had been forced – forced, you understand – to thrash their recalcitrant offspring with a piece of desiccated vegetation. It went without saying that parents always took the teacher’s side. It was what parents/adults did; they banded together against the kids. We knew and understood it; as good Catholic children we were after all – and we were reminded of it every Sunday just in case it slipped our sinful minds – basically unworthy, and therefore by default deserving of punishment. We didn’t know quite what we were unworthy of (it was all kept deliberately vague, I think in order to avoid awkward questions), just that we fundamentally were – and this was a notion with the full support of the regularly visiting priests, of course. Yep, we Catholic kids were utterly and irredeemably unworthy, and that was that. We knew our place...
By today’s standards, the prevailing attitude towards children was leaning towards the brutal end of the spectrum, but in truth, it could have been much worse. Through some curious twist of church bureaucracy we were a delightfully nun-free school, however my elder sisters (ten and thirteen years my seniors respectively) had both told stories of pure terror about their secondary school days, populated as they were with pupil-beating nuns, whose manifestation of devout worship seemed to be ruthless -if righteous - cruelty towards powerless children. Typically, the only time I saw a nun was at church (they would occasionally turn up in very slow-moving packs of dried-up, twittering, rosary bead-fiddling biddies) but they tended to be very elderly examples, and well past their best child-thrashing age. Nuns in school, it became clear, were an entirely different kettle of wimples (now there’s a fascinating mental image) and were, I was solemnly advised, to be avoided at all costs.
The one brief incursion into my childhood by one of those pious, cowled monsters occurred when, in order to replace a teacher who had rather selfishly fallen ill, we were ‘blessed’ with a temporary visitation by the redoubtable Sister Presumpta (not her real name; that was, of course, Attila). A middle-aged (and thereby to our eyes, ancient) woman who obviously worked out with heavy weights each morning after a light breakfast of nails and broken glass, she ruled her unfortunate class with a rod of iron (and the thin edge of a ruler across the back of the hand) for several weeks. When not actually engaged in torturing people, she patrolled the corridors like a black Dalek, grim-faced, black-eyed and ready to pounce with ridiculous – and awesomely righteous - outrage upon even the most inconsequential misdemeanour. Sister Presumpta was, it’s fair to say, universally feared and despised – except of course by the headmaster and his deputy, both of whom seemed to revere her as a saintly influence who was doing both of them (and us) a huge favour by gracing us with her presence. It was her ghastly – if thankfully brief – reign of terror that began to sow the tiny seeds of doubt in my mind about the notion of a ‘merciful’ God and church. Upon reflection, she did some good, then.
The main weapon of choice at Catholic school – just as in the churches - was psychological torture. In particular, the Catholic church and its followers were very big on the twin virtues of guilt and humiliation, and Catholic schools were the places where this message was most insidiously reinforced. Never a moment slipped by without our unworthiness (at least as far as the school leadership was concerned) being made apparent, as was the underlying – and traditional - sense of an afterlife filled with pain and horror, because (as we were constantly reminded) we were all sinners. The paradox of Catholic belief (at least among every Catholic I ever knew) seemed to be that we were all somehow born rotten to the core and had to spend the rest of our lives making amends for being so sinful before even drawing our first breath (which, as it turned out, was all Eve’s fault), but also that everyone we ever knew who had died, had quite definitely – no question about it - made it to heaven. To even entertain a thought that it might not be so was considered very bad form. This puzzled me at the time, because I was aware of quite a lot of people who didn’t seem to be the kind of person that God would want to have in heaven, yet not a single one of my ancestors had apparently failed to make the grade. Statistically, this seemed an unlikely state of affairs.
I was never sure how that mental somersault worked, but by golly, I was assured that every one of my long-dead grandparents were looking down upon me and wagging a reproving finger whenever I stepped out of line. Yes, that’s right; they were all dead. Not one of them had stuck around into my childhood; only one hanging around long enough to see me reach the age of a few weeks old. I thought that was rather bad form, actually. Of course I couldn’t say anything; they were watching me from above, with much disapproval.
Our innate sinfulness and their aloofness allowed Mr. Barker (the deputy head) and Mr. Fillmore (the big cheese himself) to regard the small, unworthy people in their charge with permanent expressions of distaste, if not at times outright disgust. Each of them prowled the school corridors with a look about them as if they were unable to shake a foul smell; an expression that would intensify when in direct contact with a child. I felt their respective contempt on two occasions in four years, both of which left me quivering with self-loathing and fear in equal measure. It’s now a little too late to thank them for their influence over my adolescence (both having doubtless made full and frank confessions of their lives of sin, received absolution and therefore risen to eternal life in paradise, from where they are wagging their holy canes at me right at this very moment), so I won’t bother. The miserable bastards.
Mr. Barker was a very tall, very thin and very creepy-looking man. If he was alive today, he’d be an internet meme, but only rated for ‘Teen’. His height was bad enough for a child who was already small for his age, but compounding his looming creepiness was a permanently pale countenance, emphasised by a fierce blue beard shadow even at the start of the day. Steely, dark eyes peered out malevolently at the world as he bestrode the corridors and revelled in his power as the not-quite-but-almost boss of the school. He was never seen to smile (not even if a child tripped and injured themselves right in front of him), and the consensus was that he never blinked. Rumour also had it that he was indeed married, but kept his poor wife locked up in the house when he was at work. How the heck the person who started that one came up with it, I’ll never know - but I believed it for several years. He was that kind of man.
Mr. Barker always, always dressed in a brown suit with drainpipe trousers. The suit – made of high quality rayon - rustled slightly as he walked, the interlocking, agitated fibres generating thousands of volts of static electricity. Every ten or twelve paces, he would pause to ground himself on a metal window frame or door handle, the pain of each static shock strengthening his resolve to never stop hating the children under his supervision. Mr. Barker, through word and deed, was the grim reaper whom we all feared. Following my innate sense of self-preservation, I kept my distance and allowed my unreasoning terror of him to quietly and steadily develop.
At one point in my third year at the school, together with a couple of my friends, I took to spending time inside the classroom at lunchtimes. There we would read, tell each other silly stories, and draw. It was simple stuff, innocent and utterly harmless. Staying indoors wasn’t exactly banned, but was definitely frowned upon (the school didn’t usually bother with ‘gently discouraging’ anything, and leapt straight into thundering disapproval), since the merciful Lord’s fresh air was deemed to be good for us. Other teachers had seen the three of us making our own fun and had quietly warned us to not make any noise (for reasons not well explained), but otherwise left us alone, since we were doing no harm and not actually breaking any rules.
One day we all decided (for the same reasons that kids will stand in the shower with their raincoat on, or watch TV lying upside down on the settee, or try to drink milk through their nose) to sit underneath one of the classroom tables and read a favourite story from the library shelf. It felt a little like camping – it was fun! For a while we giggled and chortled (quietly) at something very innocent, but were interrupted by the shock of a huge BANG on the top of the table. For the first time in my life, I farted with fright. I looked up to see – to my horror – a pair of brown drainpipe trouser legs standing motionless right next to the table, the occasional crackle of high voltage sparks playing across the surface of them. Mr. Barker, the seeker of all things sinful, had found us.
His curiously high-pitched and hoarse voice reached out to us in a dry, rasping whiplash; “Come OUT of there at ONCE!”. The indignation in his tone was palpable, as was the gently crackling magnetic field being generated by his suit. We didn’t even look at one another, so deep was our terror. Trembling, we emerged from underneath the table to stand, huddled together for protection, under the distant gaze (he was very, very tall) of the fearsome electrode-man. Above him boiled and rolled a black cloud, from which lightning bolts flickered and jabbed. Obviously he hadn’t grounded himself in the last few minutes…either that, or I was hallucinating. “WHAT do you mean…” he hissed, baring discoloured, narrow teeth in oversized gums; “…by this BIZARRE behaviour?”.
I was nine years old, and had absolutely no idea what the question actually meant. Nobody had ever used the word ‘bizarre’ towards me before. As for what did I mean…well…I didn’t mean anything! I was just quietly having fun. I doubled the amplitude of my trembling. “WELL?” roared the mighty pipe cleaner, flaring his impressive nostrils. My dad had big nostrils – with bits of hair poking out of them - but Mr. Barker had him beaten on that count by several dozen as far as I could tell. “I don’t know sir.” a small, reedy voice said. I was a little shocked to realize that it had found its way out of my own mouth.
I knew instinctively that – feeble, contrite voice or not - this was a poor response. He flared his mighty air intakes again; “YOU DON’T KNOW?” he bellowed (as well as he could, with his sinister, hoarse voice), his eyes widening to pin-pricks. “You don’t KNOW? How can you not KNOW? What on EARTH would lead you to…to…sit under a table at…at…lunch hour?” The latter part of the question was delivered with an almost hysterical emphasis ( his question prompting me to wonder if he thought that sitting under a table at some other time of the day was perfectly acceptable), and I could see some white, foamy spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. I took that to be a bad sign, and allowed my bottom lip to quiver accordingly. To my left, my good friend Paul took a leadership role and managed to burst into tears, with the accompaniment of soft sobs and the gentle vibration of his mop of blonde, curly hair.
The great man hissed again, warming to his task now that he had caused some real distress for at least two children; “I have never come across behaviour of this kind before; I find it quite incomprehensible.” I found his sentences pretty hard to understand too, but I decided not to mention it. I was still a little fixated by the spittle, and was feeling queasy. “You boys...” he went on “…will stand outside my office in silence for the REST of the lunch hour. THEN I will decide what to do with you…”. The last part was left hanging in the air, as if everything up to and including public execution might be one of the options he was considering. I wouldn’t have put it past him, but of course the prospect of the application of the cane to my nether regions was uppermost in my thoughts. Trying my damnedest not to wet my shorts, with my two fellow criminals I dutifully made my way along the corridor, past the open door of the staff room to the wall adjacent to Rayon Man’s office, there to wait under a large, depressing crucifix (bearing a gory and most unhappy-looking Jesus) in unabashed fear while our fate was decided.
As it turned out, no further punishment was ever forthcoming. This may have been due to the reaction of the deputy headmaster’s colleagues, because as we passed the staff room door, I had caught a glimpse of my own teacher, Mrs. Hill, with an expression upon her face of mixed puzzlement and irritation. She was an eminently sensible and caring lady, and would never have handled the ‘situation’ (not that there really had been one) in the same way. I’ll never know, but I hope she placed a metaphorical rocket up the idiot’s back passage. Nevertheless, the damage had been done; I was terrified and traumatized for the rest of the week and despite all the government information films of the era encouraging us to do so, you’d never again have found me sheltering under a desk or table in the event of a nuclear attack. The petty fool would probably have been pleased about that.
Worse, however, was to come. The day that I incurred the wrath of my headmaster is one that even now conjures up memories of dreadful shame and humiliation. Once again, the issue was almost non-existent, given that I was only ten years old and very much in the process of learning about the world. The entire school had been tasked with obtaining sponsorship funds for some Catholic charity (something like supporting the Pontiff’s laundry bill; all those whites don’t clean themselves…) and several of us had come up short of the target that our erstwhile headmaster had set for us. In my case, the lack of sponsors was the result of: a) most of my extended family not being on speaking terms with my parents, b) the neighbourhood around my home having been saturated by fellow pupils on the same mission and c) this one most of all - the fact that I was excruciatingly shy, and found it desperately difficult to knock on a stranger’s door for any reason, let alone to ask for money. My parents had spent my entire life inculcating me with the idea that I was to never ever accept money from anyone. Ever. As in: never. I didn’t know why, but I suspected it might be an obscure kind of sin. Of course, this being a Catholic school - and a school of the mid-1970s to boot, excuses of any kind were treated with dismissive distaste, and so on the day of the deadline I was feeling very nervous.
Each day began with a morning assembly of all the pupils, from the tiny infants all the way up to the big kids of ‘Junior 4’ – a full eleven years old and therefore almost adults in our eyes. The assembly ran as normal; prayers, announcements, more prayers, a hymn and finally a word or two from Mr. Fillmore. He was an imposing figure (to us at least); mid fifties, always clad in a suit (he dabbled with more daring colours than did the very brown Mr. Barker; grey or beige for instance), the morning light reflecting importantly from his bald pate and his lumpy, hooked nose doing its very best to touch his chin. He always looked pissed off, but he rarely spoke to the pupils on a personal level.
“Two weeks ago, you were all given sponsorship forms to take home and complete. You were all expected to return those forms yesterday, filled with sponsors to support this great and holy cause (the pope’s undies must have had terrible skid marks that week). Most of you have fulfilled the expectations that I had of you.” This was about as supportive as he got, but then his face darkened. “SOME of you, however, have failed miserably!” My heart beat quickened as I sensed trouble. “The following uncaring and uncharitable people will go to my office immediately and wait for me there.” He read out five names, including my own – at which point some poo might have come out - and one of my friends. The school was small enough for us all to know everyone (with the exception of the tiny infants, whom we haughty ten year-olds regarded with the bored curiosity that a dog might have for an old toy) by name, and being called out like this was a deep humiliation. One after the other we stood, red-faced, and endured the righteous gaze of two hundred ‘caring’ pupils who instinctively summoned up their latent Catholic judgement and found us wanting, based entirely upon the headmaster’s comments. Like condemned prisoners, under the withering glare of hundreds of righteous eyes we trudged out of the hall in silence while Mr. Fillmore regarded us grimly and worked on his expression of contempt.
Thirty seconds later we all stood with our knees gently trembling outside the headmaster’s office, situated at the very end of a long corridor and next to the teacher’s and other adult’s school entrance (we were never allowed to use this door). We stood in silence as the school secretary’s typewriter clacked away in the background, certain that she too knew just how awful and uncharitable each of us was. After what seemed like an hour but was in reality just a few minutes, we heard the rest of the school leave the hall in a hubbub of noise, and sure enough, moments later, Mr. Fillmore strode around the corner and into view. He wore an even deeper expression of distaste than usual. My thoughts once again went to the cane, and whether or not this was going to be the worst day of my school life.
The great man swept past us all and into his office without a glance. His silence and diffidence was almost worse than anything he could say. Almost. Within a few seconds he was out again, glaring at us and shaking his head. He regarded these five children, young people whose lives, in that moment, he had the power to influence one way or another “You…disgust me.” he said. The words were shocking, humiliating, crushing. “You clearly don’t CARE about people less fortunate than yourselves, do you? DO YOU?” He waited for a response – an admission that we were what he had decided we must be. I kept my mouth shut for fear of what might happen if I did or didn’t agree with his opinion of me. For the next five minutes he berated us and our appalling attitude to charitable causes, our lack of feeling for others, and the shame that we had brought upon the school, our families and the church. I’d never been told that I was quite such a worthless piece of shit before, and the effect was very disturbing. Biting our lips, we dumbly accepted the blank sponsorship forms that he thrust at us with instructions to fill them and at his behest, stumbled in a depressed haze back to our classrooms, there to once again be subjected to the withering gaze of our peers. It wasn’t exactly Victorian England and I wasn't being forced to climb up sooty chimney stacks for a penny a day, but there were times when – having no past lives to compare our lot with - being a kid in the seventies could be extremely difficult. Looking back now,
I’d much rather have had my backside whacked. At least I might have been able to forget that pain.
The change from primary to secondary education was a major landmark. In the spring of our final year of primary school, we were one day ushered into the school hall and pushed towards the first written examination of our young lives. The ‘Eleven Plus’ as it was universally known, was THE examination which had the potential to determine how the rest of your life would pan out. It really was that significant, although at the time I viewed it purely as the means to get to the same school that my brother occasionally spoke about in glowing terms – or so it seemed. A ‘pass’ at this level meant being eligible to attend a grammar school, considered to be the upper echelon of secondary education. A ‘fail’ on the other hand held the prospect of sliding down a grubby slope and into a Comprehensive school, which, despite the title, offered a far less complete or rounded educational experience to students who were – how do I put this delicately – regarded (unfairly, I should say) by the system as the likely cannon fodder for the economy. Most of us were desperate to pass this first and hugely important test. The minority who couldn’t have given a brass donkey’s ding dong about whether or not they passed - at least according to the system - in all likelihood headed for a place more suited to their approach to life.
Secondary, or ‘big’ school as we had always thought of it up to that point, was the beginning of a new phase of our lives, as well as the end of many things which belonged to young childhood. It was the end of wearing shorts to school, for one thing. This was something to which all the boys – and in particular, our blotchy, hairless and consequently frost-bitten legs - eagerly looked forward. Long trousers as part of our school uniform would be a welcome sign of maturity, as well as legitimate protection from exposure-related injuries. The end would also prove to be nigh for things such as privacy (shared changing rooms/showers!), being called by our first names and for the most part, being taught by teachers who genuinely cared about their charges (Messrs. Fillmore and Barker as well as any type of nun notwithstanding). It was also the final hurrah for the days when we constructed our sentences without using the word ‘fuck’ or one of its derivatives at least three times(for example: “The fucking fucker’s fucked!”).
It wasn’t quite the end of childhood, but for one small, insecure urchin with a painfully spherical haircut, it certainly marked a formal transition from being an insignificant - yet relatively content - little boy into a Grammar School student (one of the top two percent, dontcha know, what?) who was by reason of his achievements to that point, a person with potential – and even a leader of the future.
How wrong they were...