INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
When we moved from Heywood to Bury in December 1960 something very unsettling happened to my school life. I’d been a contented kid at St. Joseph’s Junior School, a modern building constructed for, and ingrained with, a purveying sense that we were there to learn something new and exciting. However, once at Guardian Angel’s School in Bury, a derelict decrepit place with plaster literally falling off the ceiling and a central heating system that hardly ever worked, my happy days were over. It was as though all the rough kids of the county had been sent there, with cissy old me thrust into their den.
They perceived my Heywood accent as ‘posh’ and my voice as ‘soft’ and very soon I was The Bullied Child. Skinny of frame and unworldly by nature, I couldn’t understand the taunts of “Posh boy!” and “Listen to ’is Nancy Boy voice!” as I walked home. At playtime I would be grabbed and thrown into the janitor’s rubbish bin, rolled around the playground and dragged out again, their cries of “Not so posh now, Jonesey!” ringing in my ears.
I was happiest when, in morning assembly, the deputy headmaster stood at his upright piano and conducted the school singalong. ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘The Happy Wanderer’ were my favourites and I’d trill the melodies with full gusto. The other kids would mock my high-pitched singing and imitate me with operatic whoops but I didn’t care. For half an hour each day I was in my perfect little world of music, inwardly mocking their tuneless meanderings and ugly cackling. It set me up for the dreadful day ahead.
One of the horrors of the day was when I needed to go to the loo. Not because of what would happen in there but what one was expected to do beforehand. We had to go and speak to the teacher-with-the-key, in full view of the class he was taking, and ask for some toilet roll. After one had hissed as quietly as one could, “I want go to the toilet, sir”, which he would never quite hear and so insisted on it being repeated another couple of times, he would get up, go to a cupboard on the wall, open it and slowly move his finger along a row of keys until he came to the one marked ‘Lavatory’ in big red letters. He would then take that to another cupboard, unlock it and delve into the back of it, finally extricating the roll of toiler paper. He’d carefully tear off two pieces of loo roll which he would place on his desk, put the toilet roll back in its cupboard and return the ‘Lavatory’ key back onto its hook, close that cupboard door and then sit at his desk. In one’s outstretched hand he’d dismissively place the two pieces as though they’d already been used.
With a hurried “Thank you, sir” one would run off to the outside loos clutching those two shiny pieces of Izal like they were five-pound notes rather than horrid disinfectant-smelling and utterly useless bum rubber. It smeared, never soaked, it scratched, never soothed. It was another example of the torture which that God-forsaken school devised for what they viewed as their disgusting brood of nit-infested unwashed hoodlums.
The outside ‘lavvy’ itself was a cold, draughty wee-smelling sanctuary at the farthest end of the playground and the fact it was connected to the church behind made it even more of an ordeal. There was always the sense that God was even watching us on the loo.
Much to everyone’s surprise, I failed my 11-plus. This meant that, rather than go on to a good grammar school I would have to start afresh as the new boy at St. Gabriel’s Secondary Modern, a newer building than Guardian Angel’s but even rougher. Here the headcase older lads roamed the playground each day looking for victims of their wrath.
One of their favourite pastimes was the New Kids’ Initiation Ceremony. This involved some poor new boy being held by the scruff of his neck over a dustbin full of broken glass and, as the unfortunate child squealed for mercy, he would be dropped feet first into the bin. Oh, the laughter emanating from the bubblegum-chewing Big Boys. They’d clap each other on the back, pop their gum and wander off for a sneaky fag behind the bike shed while the younger kids would rescue their pal and dust him down. Amazingly there were never any serious injuries, and, small blessing, it only happened to you once.
The police, however, were regularly called to sort out other more serious larks such as a stabbing in the girl’s playground, or to find and punish the culprits of a blazing case of arson on the railway embankment behind the school. Other times an ambulance would be called to someone passed out from swallowing too many ‘black bombers’, the regular lunchtime drug-snack for some of the older pupils. Their Highs were the school’s Lows, as the reputation of St. Gabriel’s worsened, while the intake numbers ironically increased, to the point that the A – D streaming had to be extended to an E stream.
The streaming was based initially on 11-plus results then on end-of-term exam results. If you rose into the Top 5 of the B stream you were moved to the A stream the next term, and vice versa. Like a Hit Parade of brain power. The A-streamers automatically took their GCEs in the fifth form, the B and C-streamers sat CSEs. D & E were expected to aspire and work towards going up to at least the C stream by the fourth year, otherwise they simply left school at fifteen with no qualifications.
As we lined up in the playground each morning, watched by the line-duty teacher and his patrol of beefy Prefects, it was usually a first year E-streamer who would be grabbed by the ear and dragged to the front of the line. The teacher would shout at him for a few minutes then cane him in front of us all. I was always amazed when, a couple of hours later during playtime, the punished boy would be showing his reddened swollen hand to his admiring classmates, laughing and joking about how much it hurt, their wounded hero for a day.
I remember some of the E-stream boys wandering round with shaven purple heads, the treatment for lice in those days. Again, who the hell devised that? They were little beacons of shame and filth to the higher-streamed boys, fair game for a bit of bashing up after school.
The social hierarchy game, without any prompting, had already begun.
Sadist teachers also roamed the corridors, looking for anyone likely to need a damned good thrashing. One teacher had wrapped shiny copper wire around his cane so it had that extra bite and weight when it landed on a kid’s outstretched hand. The female staff were mainly elderly single ladies living with ‘mum’. I used to wonder if they’d ever been in love, perhaps left alone by the war or ditched at the altar. Whatever their story, their love for Jesus only increased their contempt for the pupils.
The only exception to this band of ancient crazy monsters was the P.E. Teacher, Mr Richmond. He was a tall lean man in his thirties who talked rather loudly, walked very quickly and ran around the football pitch with his ‘lads’, blowing his whistle enthusiastically and shouting “Shot!” whenever a goal was scored. His eagerness to exhaust left me completely uninspired and as often as I could I would ‘forget’ my kit or come down with some dreaded lurgy which prevented me from moving any further than the changing rooms. As the mumbled “cissy Jonesey’s ill again!” taunts faded into the winter air I would sit blissfully happy, snug against the heater on the shiny pale green wall for whole games periods.
Then, one awful unexpected day as I was settling onto my cosy bench, Mr Richmond decided he’d had enough of this and, insisting I take part in the match, thrust a pair of ludicrously oversized shorts at me, a filthy shirt which looked more like one of Mum’s well-used dusters, and a beaten up pair of old football boots.
“Put them on!” he ordered.
My school tie kept the shorts up and my feet barely held the boots on. Stinking of someone else’s B.O., I trudged outside to the delighted gasps and guffaws of my ‘chums’ and stood on the edge of the frozen field, pulling the overlong sleeves down over my blue hands and hopping from foot to foot to try and get warm.
Just as I was daydreaming that Mr Richmond would take pity on this pathetic freezing kid, blow his horrible little whistle and tell me to go back to the changing room, he took charge of the ball, dribbled it round and kicked it towards me. In slow motion, I saw the terrifying object hurtling through the air in my direction and foolishly lifted my foot to kick it back. What felt like a lump of concrete slammed into my foot, a numbing sharp pain shot up my leg and, in true football hero fashion I fell to the ground and writhed in agony.
I looked up to a circle of faces staring down at me, puzzled and even concerned faces, so I screamed very loudly. They parted like a wave and began shouting:
“It looks pretty bad, sir!”
“I think he’s broken his leg, sir!”
And more alarmingly, “Shall I call an ambulance, sir?”
Mr Richmond’s authoritative voice broke through the melée:
“Come on, lads! Let me through!”
In the guise of St Christopher, he bent down towards me, swept me up in his strong arms and carried me, Scarlett-like off the pitch:
“Don’t worry, son, you’ll be alright,” he told me.
I felt suddenly rather fine. I could have lain there all day.
In the changing rooms, he laid me gently onto the bench and inspected my leg for any damage. Finally, with a quick decisive nod, he said,
“Better just rest up here, Jones. We’ll see how you are at the end of the match.”
He efficiently ushered his mumbling brood back out onto the pitch and I was left, once more blissfully alone in the stale-feet smell of the clothes-strewn room, the silence periodically punctuated by the distant enthusiastic cry of “Shot!” and a long piercing whistle breaking through the freezing December air.
I got even lankier as I entered my teens, my limbs and neck stretching almost alarmingly, a large Adam’s Apple appearing like an unwelcome guest in my throat. Developing acute short-sightedness as puberty beckoned was the sour icing on a bitter-tasting cake. I was now the skinny lanky wimp with glasses.
My elastically thin legs meant I wasn’t bad at Long Jump but I had “no discipline!” according to Mr Richmond. When you’re scratching around in the sand for your glasses after landing rather awkwardly on your arse, a whole classroom of kids baying, “Useless! Useless!”, ‘discipline’ is the last word which comes to mind.
When I was fourteen, I auditioned for the annual school play. Drama rehearsals always crossed over Games Periods, so it was an absolute no-brainer for me. The new drama teacher, Miss Shaw, who also taught art and was a stylish ray of light on a grey landscape of dull tweeds and flat shoes, had chosen ‘Nicolo & Nicolette’. It was a fantasy piece which called for someone to play The High Cockalorum. He was a dandy character with fine plumage and a crow which was ‘feared for miles around, from country field to town.’ After reading a bit of it for Miss Shaw, I got the part.
In the first rehearsal a few days later I got to the crowing bit, where everyone else on stage cover their ears and wait for the thunder. I was just about to crow everso loudly when Miss Shaw stopped me and said she wanted a slightly different take on The Crow. To demonstrate what she had in mind, she minced on, limp wrist dangling by her side, the other jammed onto her waist and shimmied to centre stage.
Standing to attention she lifted her head proudly and, in a very refined, very slow, rather precious high-camp voice, she cooed,
“A-cock, A-doodle, A-doo.”
It was utterly brilliant and made everyone laugh. She instructed the other performers to slowly take their hands from their ears and look mildly puzzled rather than awe-struck.
“Try it, Jones,” she told me.
I did, and it worked, people were in fits of giggles.
“It’s only a small part,” Miss Shaw told me, “but you will be remembered for the rest of the play, Jones!”.
Hometime came, and as we were leaving the assembly hall, rehearsals finished, she asked me,
“You live Bolton Road way, don’t you?”
I told her yes, I did, and a few minutes later was sitting next to her in her open-topped green MG sports car as she sped, film-star-like out of the school gates. Boys stood gawping at me as I rather grandly waved at them, Miss Shaw chuckling to herself and pushing the car into full throttle.
Miss Shaw was a real beauty, the stuff schoolboy’s wet dreams are made of. High cheek bones, shoulder-length dark hair, slim figure hugged into tight mini-skirted outfits, knee-length high-heeled boots which literally shook the corridor every time she stomped stylishly along. She had this bird-like way of looking round her as she walked, head going from side to side in quick sharp movements, taking in everything as though it was the first time she’d seen it. Her wide dark mascara’d eyes seemed to dare anyone who stared – and they usually did – to look away. Boys would sigh as she passed. Their youthful lust was palpable. Think of the lady on the front cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, and you have a virtual twin of Miss Shaw.
And here was I, the effeminate loser wimp of the school, side-by-side with the untouchable siren of every boy’s fantasy. The lads could not believe their eyes as we va-va-voomed past them.
Over the noise of the engine, in her gorgeous deep husky voice, she talked about herself, how long she’d lived in the area, where she’d lived and taught before. It was all rather lovely and I felt very special in her company.
Then, we came to my road and she stopped to let me out. I thanked her and was just about to open the door when she pushed her sunglasses onto the top of her head and said to me:
“You’re ok doing this part in the play, aren’t you?”
“You don’t mind the, well, the campness of how I want it played?”
She paused, continued looking at me, then said, “I know what a difficult time you probably have…with other boys in the school. You are quite different from anyone else. You know that, don’t you?”
“I do, yes, Miss.”
“And you do have a hard time sometimes, don’t you?”
“Sometimes, yes, Miss.”
“Well, listen to me.” She stopped the engine and held me with her eyes. “You are different. You have a style about you. I watch you walk about the school and you have an aura which is very self-contained and rather wonderful. You are not like the other lads and that’s why they make fun of you. I see them doing it. But be proud of what you are, Jones. Be different. No matter what anyone tells you, or calls you, or however much they make fun of you or laugh at you. Life will occasionally be very difficult for you, my boy. People and their prejudices will make it so. But face it, head-on, don’t be afraid. Hold your head up high and stare them down. It works. I know it does.”
She beamed a huge smile at me, squeezed my arm and briskly said,
“Now, off you go for your tea. Have a nice evening. See you tomorrow.”
Feeling rather odd, a little shaky even and resisting the urge to give Miss Shaw a big hug, I quickly thanked her, got out of the car and waved as she sped off. Her black shiny hair blowing wildly, she waved back as though casually drying her bright red nail-varnish.
The following evening was the play’s first night and my High Cockalorum brought the house down. My parents and Gran Wood were sitting in the second row and my abiding memory is of Gran clutching Dad’s arm and laughing her head off, her hooting laughter ringing out above everyone else’s.
The next day, lads were coming up to me in the playground and patting me on the back. One-by-one they stood round me, full of smiles, suddenly my friends:
“Well done, Jonesey!”
“You were fantastic!”
“My mum thought you were the best thing in it!”
Then someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Mr Richmond. He held out his hand and said,
“Put it there, Jones. I thought you were utterly amazing last night. You might be rubbish at football, but, boy, you are something else on stage!”
On the last night of the play, we were given an after-show party in the Assembly Room, orange juice and sandwiches and a fair sprinkling of mutual congratulation. As we all stood round chatting excitedly about our performances, feeling very pleased with ourselves and extremely relieved it was over, someone mentioned that I played the piano.
“A piano player too!” Miss Shaw shouted. “On you go, Jones!”
“And he can sing!” one of the girls added.
“Oh! Even better!”
With just a little cajoling and encouragement, I sat down at the piano and did ‘Homeward Bound’. Very quickly I realised that the hilarity and hubbub which had buzzed around me had melted away and in its place was total silence. When I got to the last chorus everyone joined in. It was a truly beautiful sound. At the end, the room erupted into applause.
“Excuse the language, boys and girls, but Bloody Hell!!” cried a delighted Miss Shaw. “Another, please, Howard!”
I wished I could have played all night but, with my encore of ‘Blowing In The Wind’ wildly applauded, I had used up my entire catalogue of songs I knew off by heart. I stood, soaked in the cheers and looked across the room. Miss Shaw was beaming at me. She raised her glass and did a little bow.
“Well done!” she mouthed.
The playground the next day was abuzz about my High Cockalorum’s special mention in the Bury Times’ review. And it got better. The kids who had been at the last night party told everyone about my impromptu performance. I was suddenly aware of a crowd of admiring faces, staring and smiling at me.
I was never bullied or picked on again.
copyright John Howard 2016