Well, I mite have expected it. The game's up. They got me just when I thort I was safe. So here I am back at skool agane for a joly term chiz chiz chiz.
There's a rather threadbare towel hanging in my kitchen. I dried my hands on it a couple of hours ago. It has a name tag on one edge, put there by the loving needle of my mother's sewing machine about forty-five years ago and still firmly attached. Things my mother sewed always stay sewed. They would never dare to do anything else. The towel is the only physical object remaining from my school days, the only thing I have, apart from my memories, to prove that I was really there.
I have no other artefacts from that time of my life. I don't even have any photographs. All such memorabilia got thrown away after my parents died. By then I was living on the other side of the world and it seemed quite pointless to spend money shipping things such a distance just for the sake of sentiment. So it all vanished. Today I rather regret their loss but at the time it made sense. Recently, thanks to the kindness of old friends from school, I've been sent scans of those school photos, and I treasure them. One of the pictures now forms the background behind the log-in screen on my computer and people look at it and play the game of ‘guess which one is Alan'. I always give them a clue. "I didn't have a beard when I was at school" I tell them. It doesn't seem to help.
When only memories are left, it can sometimes be fun to take them out and prod them a bit, just to see what wriggles. Most of my time at school was spent listening to teachers haranguing me, so naturally most of my memories are of those teachers. Some were good teachers, some were bad teachers, some were indifferent teachers and some were downright creepy teachers, who probably should have been in jail. Nowadays, I too am a teacher and several times I've caught myself imitating some of those teachers of my youth, who still dance and gibber in my head, hopefully, not the creepy ones, though.
Mr Tennant never said much about my work in the class (apart from giving me good marks) but he certainly noticed what I was doing and, in private, he was always encouraging and supportive. Of course, being the man that he was, he couldn't do it without sarcasm. He had the sharpest tongue in the world. His words could make a week-old corpse squirm with embarrassment.
He always claimed that he knew exactly whom I was reading whenever I wrote an essay for him. I was a stylistic chameleon and my prose always seemed to transmute itself into the authorial voice of whatever library book I'd borrowed that week. He followed me through Leslie Charteris, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, distinctive stylists all, though I was extremely puzzled when he accused me of Raymond Chandler, since I thought I was channelling Len Deighton. He kept telling me that I needed to find my own voice, to stop being so dependent on the voices of others and he assured me again and again that I really could do it. That early encouragement was very important in the development of whatever voice it is that I use in my writing these days.
Meanwhile, in the class, he provided me with the tools that I needed to make my writing more effective. We took sentences apart, looked closely at the individual bits, sneered at them and then put them back together again. He taught me the structure of the language and he taught me about the subtle rhetorical and grammatical glues that stick the words together. He taught me to love words and the patterns that they make. When all the right words line up in a sentence, they go ‘click' as they slot in with each other. There is no such thing as a synonym.
Recently, I destroyed a few hundred thousand words of juvenilia, much of which dated back to those school day scribblings. Many, many more hundreds of thousands of words remain intact. I've published two books and, goodness only knows, how many articles. I've written scientific papers and doggerel verses, computer manuals and comedy sketches, fiction and non-fiction. One year I made $500 from selling my words to newspapers and magazines. That was a high point. I've never made as much money before or since. Probably none of it would have happened without Mr Tennant and, as an added bonus, he played clarinet in a jazz band. How cool is that?
When I went into the sixth form, I had to choose the subjects I wanted to study. I followed the siren song of the sciences and specialised in maths, physics and chemistry. I loved the logic and rigour of science. I loved the way it arrogantly took on the challenge of explaining the universe, trying to figure out what it all meant and how it all worked. Nevertheless, I embarked on that study with a real sense of regret. I could hear intellectual doors slamming shut all around me. I was reading C.P. Snow and that ominous phrase "two cultures" was ringing in my ears. I wasn't at all sure that I'd made the right choice.
One of the mandatory sixth form subjects was ‘General Studies', a catch-all course that tried, not always successfully, to round out our education by giving us at least a nodding acquaintance with things outside of our specialised areas of study. Here, Mr Tennant came back into my life. He ran a History of Science course, an odd subject to be taught by an arts person, but he proved to be both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about it. He was particularly good on the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe (he of the silver nose and exploding bladder), but as well as bringing the personalities to life, he managed to explain the scientific ideas that these people were exploring as well. This was an eye-opener for me. Here was a man who obviously had no time whatsoever for the two cultures. If you straddle the fence, they don't always build the fence right through you. Sometimes your legs grow to compensate. I began to feel a lot more comfortable with my chosen specialisations, another insight that I owe to Mr Tennant.
Of course, once I started to specialise in the sciences, I needed a firm grounding in mathematics. It's impossible to do any significant work in physics and chemistry without using maths. Unfortunately, I was rather weak in maths. That was where Mr Ludlum came in. There's a certain cold pleasure to be taken from a mathematical proof. It isn't a coincidence that mathematicians refer to particularly clever solutions to any given problem as ‘elegant'. Mr Ludlum understood this perfectly and he knew exactly how to share it. He kept my head above the mathematical waters in which I was swimming. It wasn't until my second year at university, when tensors entered my mathematical life, that my life jacket ruptured with an enormous bang and the waters rushed over my head and I drowned.
As I struggled with the mathematical underpinnings of physics and chemistry, I always took solace from Einstein's grumbles about how hard he found mathematics to be and how difficult he found it to describe his insights in the mathematical terms that were really the only possible language that could describe them and explore their implications. But at least he understood tensors, damn him, and he used them in his work. Perhaps that's why I didn't discover general relativity. Well, that and the fact that I was born fifty years too late.
Mr Ludlum's genius lay in making it all sound so easy. He would cover the blackboard with small, neatly lettered equations. He never missed a step out. He explained things clearly and precisely. Whenever he said "Therefore..." the conclusion he drew really did follow on from what went before it. It was never the baffling leap into magic and mysticism that it so often was when his colleagues used the word. Like Winnie the Pooh, I am a bear of very little brain and I really appreciated the baby steps that Mr Ludlum took and I loved his beautifully dotted ‘i's and his neatly crossed ‘t's.
My handwriting has always owed much to the stylistic school known as drunken spider. I am perfectly qualified to write prescriptions. However, after a short exposure to Mr Ludlum's blackboards, full of nifty squiggles, I made a conscious effort to re-style my own writing after his. It looked so pretty! I got just as much of an aesthetic thrill from the appearance of a page full of neatly lettered equations as I did from the elegance of the logic that underlay them. Perhaps that's an odd reason for working hard at mathematics but, nevertheless, it was a real one. I'm sure Mr Ludlum would have understood, though I never discussed it with him.
I also enjoyed looking at a page covered with multiple instances of alpha, beta, gamma, delta, pi, epsilon, theta et al. and thinking that's all Greek to me. I never claimed to have a sophisticated sense of humour.
Mr Brearley taught us religious instruction. The lessons were quite dull affairs, during which we had many opportunities to practise falling asleep with our eyes wide open. Mr Brearley did his best but even though he had an appearance and personality that consisted mainly of idiosyncrasies and speech patterns that consisted mainly of impediments, he seldom managed to inject much flavour or interest into the subject. I suspect he might have found it as boring as we did.
One of the boys, Brian Teal by name, was the class clown and he could always be relied upon to add mirth to almost any situation. He was a marvellously eccentric boy. He would run home every lunchtime so that he could go to the toilet (he found the school toilets too disgusting to use). By noon each day, he was generally to be found with his legs crossed, bouncing up and down in his seat. Sometimes a teacher would construe this as eagerness to answer a question. But Brian had other things on his mind and seldom obliged with anything coherent. He was a great fan of the Beach Boys and in between classes he was often to be found playing the drums on his desk top and trying very, very hard to sing four simultaneous falsetto harmonies, with mixed success.
On one particular day, in one particular religious instruction class, Mr Brearley was rambling on about Jesus' ministry and how it might have been perceived by the society of the time. Jesus really was quite radical in his thinking, quite scandalous in his teachings. The hand slapped the cheek, the breath was sucked in with a mighty squelch and then expelled with a sigh as Mr Brearley said, "...and Jesus lowered himself to speak to fallen women!" As he said that phrase, every eye in the classroom moved to Brian Teal, who was sitting at his desk behind a pillar, concealed from Mr Brearley's direct view. Brian pantomimed staring down a sheer cliff and waving ‘hello' to the people at the bottom. The class erupted into hysterics. Mr Brearley looked puzzled for a moment and then slapped his hand back to his cheek again. The Yorkshire accent became particularly prominent as the stress got to him. "Is it that choomp Teal, be'ind t'pillar?"
Games periods were loathed by the less sportily inclined among us. Many of us had a fundamental lack of eye-hand coordination skills and any excuse was taken to avoid the humiliation of being the last one chosen for a team. Peter Freeman forged a note from his mother to Mr Ryan, the games master. It read "Please excuse Freeman from games because I have a cold." and at the bottom was the scribbled signature "Freeman's Mum". Others were less inventive. Steven Garside simply never turned up for games. Every games period would find him hiding in the school cellars, smoking cigarettes. At the end of the year, most of us got the usual phrases written on our reports by Mr Ryan, "Could do better", "Lacks enthusiasm". On Steven's report Mr Ryan wrote "Who is this boy?" Some excuses were more legitimate. One term Malcolm Brown was properly excused games because of illness, and he elected to do woodwork instead.
The woodwork class was supervised by Mr Gallagher. He taught us to make mortise and tenon joints and dovetail joints. He taught us to plane a plank of wood square. He taught us to saw in a straight line (the only one of these skills that I retain to this day). I built a small bookshelf, a stool and a coffee table in his classes. All were sturdy constructions, all were useful and all were used. This pleased Mr Gallagher.
Malcolm elected to build a coffee table. He measured and marked, cut and planed. Mr Gallagher checked his work every so often. "The edge is not square. Look, you can see daylight when I hold my set square against it. Plane it some more." Malcolm planed it more. "It still isn't square. It has to be square. You can't make a table if it isn't square. Plane it some more." Malcolm planed it more. Over the course of a ten-week term, he planed and planed and planed some more. At the start of the term, the planks he was planning measured eight inches across. By the end of the term, they were two inches across, still not square, and suitable only for building furniture in a doll's house. The next term Malcolm voluntarily went back to playing rugby. It didn't demand a square field or a square ball and he felt much more at home with the irregularity.
The school had its own swimming pool, which was quite a novelty for those times. A curious construction of concrete slabs rose from the side of the pool at the deep end. From these you could dive or belly flop into the water, depending upon your skill level. Set up in one corner was a small trampoline (we called it a trampet), upon which the braver people would bounce up and down, going higher and higher with each bounce. Once the height and momentum were deemed sufficient, the bouncer would alter the angle and project his body out into space, entering the water with a huge splash and a shriek of enormous triumph or, depending on the angle of projection, enormous pain.
The boys' changing rooms were on one side of the pool and the girls' changing rooms were on the other side. A narrow corridor went from each changing room via a disinfectant foot bath at the pool. The sexes were strictly segregated and any lessons that involved use of the swimming pool were carefully timed so as to be exclusively mono-gendered. Mostly it worked.
After a games period, many of the boys had developed the custom of showering and then having a swim. This was particularly their practice if the games period was the last in the day, for then they could take their time over their swim and just mess around in the pool for ages. Nobody ever bothered wearing swimming costumes for these impromptu events. We'd seen each other naked so often in the changing rooms over the years that nobody really cared very much at all. There was nothing worth looking at.
One Wednesday, after a particularly strenuous rugby game, the pool area was full of shrieking, naked young men racing around the pool, throwing each other in, diving from the steps and generally having a fine old time. One boy, Andrew Dale Webster, was bouncing up and down on the trampet, taking no part in any of the things going on around him. Bounce, bounce, bounce, lost in a trance, deep in a world of his own. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Meanwhile, unbeknown to us, the girls were just coming back from a particularly strenuous game of lacrosse. "How about a swim?" someone suggested. "Oooh, yes!" They all changed into their togs (‘cos that's what girls do) and padded off to the pool where they stood open-mouthed with astonishment at the sight that greeted them. Almost without exception, the boys stared for one horrified moment at the girls who were staring at them and then, one and all, covered their groins with their hands and jumped into the concealing safety of the pool. Only Andrew, utterly lost in his trance, failed to notice the girls' arrival as he went bounce, bounce, bounce on the trampet and with each and every bounce part of his anatomy waved hello!
Teenage boys, of course, are simply hormones on legs and they think about sex approximately four times a minute. When they aren't thinking about sex, they are thinking about food. And when they are thinking about neither sex nor food, they are thinking about football. This leaves almost no time left over to think about school work.
One weekend Mr Stone, our history teacher, got married. Our first lesson, at 9 o'clock on the following Monday morning, was history. Mr Stone strode into class, much as he usually did, and began to regale us with an interminable discussion about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. There is absolutely nothing titillating about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Even teenage boys cannot find a double entendre in a discussion about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. There being no immediate possibility of sex, food or football, tedium descended upon us all in thick clouds. Richard Withey, stimulated by boredom, decided that something had to be done.
"Did you have a good wedding sir?" Mr Stone seemed somewhat taken aback at being interrupted in mid flow but he rallied well. "Yes thank you Withey. It was very nice." "I bet you got really drunk on your stag night, didn't you sir?" continued my classmate. "Tell us how much you drank sir." We all sat up and began to take notice. This might be fun. "I never touch it, Withey." Mr Stone sounded quite indignant. "I never touch it at all." "No sir," said Withey in tones of wounded innocence. "I was talking about what you were doing on your stag night sir, not what you were doing on your wedding night." There was a moment of shocked silence as we all replayed the conversation in our heads. Had he really said that? Yes, he really had. Gales of laughter swept across the room. "Harrumph!" said Mr Stone, glowing somewhat pinker than usual. "Boy, you are a buffoon! Now, after the Corn Laws were repealed..."
Latin lessons offered even more opportunities for disruption. Double entendres were far too subtle for Latin lessons. In Latin lessons we got single entendres. We learned to count and the class had to chant in unison, "Unus, duo, tres, quattuor, quinque, sex." That was as far as we ever got. The forbidden word never failed to induce hysterical delight, much to the exasperation of Mr Rushworth, the Latin master.
Latin was not the only language that amused us. I still remember my first French lesson. I was eleven years old and I'd just started at Crossleys. Along with all the other new boys, I sat in my classroom waiting for who knew what? There was a clump, clump, clump on the stairs and the door was flung wide to the wall with a resounding CRASH. In came a begowned schoolmaster, who strode to the front of the room and announced in ringing tones, "Bonjour toute la classe! Je me suis Monsieur Antoine." For the next forty minutes he harangued us in French. Gabble, gabble, gabble. We all stared at him in complete bewilderment. Then the bell rang to signal the end of the lesson. "Au revoir!" He strode from the classroom, slamming the door behind him.
For the rest of the year he taught me French. He believed in the total immersion method and would not permit a single word of English to be spoken in his lessons. Outside the class, Mr Anthony was a perfect English gentleman and total eccentric. He felt that hymn tunes were far too dirge-like, so he sang them fast and cheerfully at morning assembly and was invariably two verses ahead of the congregation, much to the consternation of the pianist and the discomfiture of everybody else, since his singing voice was powerful and tended to overlap and lead the crowd. Hymns invariably ended in total confusion, with Mr Anthony looking puzzled, all the other masters looking angry and the school as a whole feeling semi-hysterical.
Inside the class, Monsieur Antoine spoke French, and only French. I still treasure the memory of the day he taught us the French words for various articles of clothing. As he named an article, he would take it off and wave it at us. Perhaps I should point out that, to this day, I do not know the French for ‘underpants' but I do know ‘jacket', ‘shoes', ‘shirt', ‘vest' and ‘trousers'. I've had a soft spot for foreign languages ever since, though Latin tested that tolerance sorely and it is probably worth pointing out that I learned more French in that eccentric year with Monsieur Antoine than I learned in the next four years with more conventional teachers. I remember him very fondly and will always be grateful for the firm grounding he gave me in the one foreign language that I can claim to speak with a fair degree of fluency.
In ‘The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy' Douglas Adams taught us just how important it is to know where your towel is at all times. Mine is hanging in my kitchen, wrapped around my schooldays. I dried my hands on it a couple of hours ago.
(1961 - 1968)