24 OCTOBER 1958, Page 9

John Bull's Schooldays

The Suburbs of Slumdom

By ALAN BRIEN T0ln not go to a public school and yet I still hated school. Defenders of the inalienable right of the middle class to educate their children beYond their means may take what comfort they from this discovery: it is not .necessary to Y to make your children unhappy. From the 4ge of five to the age of eleven, I do not remember a weekday morning when I did not wake with the thought of the coming day like a sour ball of bile in the pit of my stomach. I would lie !hire, tightly swaddled in blankets like a mummy, des- Ph in the warmth and the fuzziness, and des- Perm, Pretending that I did not have to go to school. I would listen to all the sounds of a li)urham working-class housing estate of the '930s—hoping that one would miraculously re- veal that it was a Saturday. There was the milk- horse doing its slow-motion clog dance °Ln the Wet road. There was the woman next door ueating Th a carpet over a line in the back garden. ere the was the machine-gun rattle of the riveters, whboping cough of the donkey engines, the ,C4Starlet clatter of the steel plates on the lorries tr °an the riverside shipbuilding yard half a mile Y There was the rummaging and banging of "IV sister in search of her .handbag to take with " her to work. And then there was the sound nlY mother calling up the stairs—'You'll be kale :; a Li you don't hurry.' Hope gurgled away down .., l'iughole. It was another schoolday. 13reakfast on a schoolday tasted differently. eToco_cornflakes were damp brown paper. The 4 was mud at the bottom of the mug and °ease at the top. The toast seemed to be made PaInted glass. My clothes never fitted on a 'uaY. My pullover scratched like a hair shirt. My short trousers were tight round the Slj e, Lite, My boots were lined with lead and as shrivIrrY as roller skates. My hair rose in a great rnr18-brush quiff like a Roman helmet, and Y knees would never wash clean. As I ran the quartel to school the road and the pavement *Ould tilt and rock like the deck of a ship so that I continually trod on my own heels and arrived breathless, moronic and scabbed with dirt and dried blood.

From the age of five to seven I was in the infants' department, which was in the girls' half of the school. It is often alleged against fee- paying schools that the boys may be permanently inhibited by. their isolation from the opposite sex. It seemed to me then That it is 'possible to see too much (literally too much) of girls before puberty makes intimacy a pleasure. How I hated those great big fourteen-year-old girls who marched arm-in-arm around the asphalt play- ground, giggling and squeezing and gossiping, as they trod the infants under foot. It is absolutely untrue that girls have some natural maternal affection for younger children. I felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Here Swift's degradation fan- tasies could easily come true. There was the ordeal of going to the lavatory during the play- time break. It was always full of girls. They blocked the aisle and clustered round the open doors, chattering while they took turns to enter one of the smelly, dark, echoing cubicles. A small boy with a bursting bladder was always cuffed to the back of the queue. Sometimes, as a final indignity, he would be hauled out in the act and passed round by the scruff of the neck like an incontinent puppy so that one of the dowdy, pinafored, woollen-stockinged queens could enter and 'hold court.

I remember nothing of the lessons of this peri6d. I was told much about God, I think; and ordered to be creative with plasticine. I usually combined the two by making images of .God in a bowler hat riding a donkey. I knew that God would, never wear a bowler hat on a donkey, but the teachers were much amused by my inno- cent ignorance, so I willingly accepted the role they cast for me. I remember there was a fat one who looked as if she had been cut out of Turkish delight and, much to our horror and fascination, would powder and lipstick her face behind the blackboard. Then there was a slim, beautiful one, who was always threatening to treat us 'like babies' (that was a clever piece of psychology they had taught her at training college) and 'smack our bare bottoms' (how stupid a piece of psychology this was I'm sure she never dis- covered). She certainly would have been shocked if she had known how exciting we found the idea.

At the ageof seven I escaped into the juniors —half of which was on the boys' side of the spiked wall and half on the girls'. The class time was co-educational, but at break we separated. The boys were much better playmates than the girls. The juniors were allowed to fetch the balls the boys had kicked or batted over the wall into the back street and take part as supernumeraries in the complicated rhyming games they organised. I learned to read and write and do simple sums and sing feeble-minded songs about little seeds which grew in the darkness and became lovely flowers. Only twice did I attract particular atten- tion. Once when I knew the meaning of the word 'perspiration.' Once when I turned up for the Friday afternoon free-reading hour (the teachers marked the register in red, ink then) with a copy of Shakespeare's Plays. Unfortunately, these were solitary aberrations and any hope that I might be' a genius disappeared when it was seen that my only other occupations in class were picking my nose and blowing huge spit-bubbles between my front teeth.

In the infants and the juniors, boredom was my main complaint. Then at nine I went into the seniors and made my first acquaintance with the tyranny of adults. Looking back now I see that the masters must have often been as afraid of us as we were of them. Year after year they had stood firm against the savage shock-troops from the suburbs of slumdom. Boys with iron heads shaved like convicts, idiot faces decorated like Maori war-masks with dirt and snot, teeth. as yellow and broken as an old fence, and the voices of rusty foghorns.

The senior department was a prisoner-of-war camp for captured boys. But, however often the Geneva Convention was broken, we were there for a short sentence only. The masters were there for life. Refocusing through childhood eyes I notice for the first time that their eyes were bleared through staring at illegible handwriting, their hands as scarred blue with ink as a miner's with coaldust, and their hair was grey wire-wool' under the unrelenting downpour of dry chalk flakes. We were determined to stay ignOrant and they had long ago given up attempting to' change our minds.

Yet still I cannot entirely forgive them. I re- member the day after day in those dark, cold, dirty-windowed barns, with the chocolate and green institutional walls, I spent imprisoned in the ink-mosaiced, iron-ribbed desks like medi. teval toboggans while we all just longed for the bell to dn. I remember those chtssroorn doors of hideous yellow-varnished oak like slabs of old toffee which slammed like prison gates. I re- member the cold iron-solid corridor floors along which we tramped from one period of communal confinement to another. I remember being taught nothing of any value whatsoever.

I remember some of the masters. There was Bandy—a palsied parody of Strube's little man with hen-feather tufts on his brown egg head. His enormous black boots were turned inwards like Chaplin's. His spotted grey flannel trousers were the back legs' of an elephant and bowed enough for a large dog to walk through. And he would breathe with a death-bed rattle while his purple tongue hung out like an epileptic's. At least he told us about something that was alive and once had been true. Each lesson was a long wandering account of his holiday in London— which might have been Samarkand to us in that windy, wet north-eastern town. How he saw the King, and the Queen, and Mr. Baldwin, and a tube train, and a cafeteria, and (though this never seemed to quite fit in) a submarine. And he would draw incredibly bad and complicated sketches of these things on the blackboard. The story never varied, even in an inflection, from week to week, and we would have complained if it had. Occa- sionally, as a treat, he would get down the only piece of scholastic equipment the school possessed —a pair of scales in a glass case—and explain what incredibly small quantities could be measured on it. Then he returned it unopened to the top of the cupboard.

Then there was the BA. He was called the BA because he was the only person in the school who possessed a degree of any kind. We admired him for the letters after his name, and his bored uninterest in us, and we all hoped that some day he would reveal himself as the rightful head- master and take over the school. But he never did. I suppose he was teaching English literature. This consisteth of reading Coral Island in turn round the class. We never started at the begin- ning and we never reached the end. We had all in our time read the middle a dozen times, but the myth was preserved that reading Coral Island was a great new treat. While we read he would lie back in an armchair in his hairy, wire-netting-patterned brown suit and stare at the strange Gothic patterns made by damp on the cracked white ceiling. If a boy stopped or stumbled, he would tap his glaring-white false teeth with a silver pencil and murmur, far off, like a man under an anesthetic, `Go on, next boy.'

There was one young master who still crackled with energy. He was young, with the shoulders of a wrestler and the grin of a music-hall comedian. He roared round the school like a whirlwind. His voice could be heard across three play- grounds and the swipe from the back of his hand had been known to lift the biggest boy out of his desk until his boots caught under the lid. He never concealed his contempt for his colleagues or for us. And he was determined we should not leave the school without knowing the rivers and kings of England. Perhaps if the others had shared his enthusiasm—and perhaps they did once—the school might have been at least as efficient as Dotheboys Hall. But amid all the boredom and muddle, he scared and bullied is into illiterate toadyism. As he came through the door, he would start asking questions, bellowing orders, collecting exercise books, opening win- dows, examining dirty necks, thumping dreamer`,. cuffing chatterers and spouting jokes. At first was keen to please him and show off my intelli- gence. After all, I had heard vague tales of a gra111' mar school miles over the c:her side of town which an occasional legendary boy had been transferred. But his pace was too fast for 015 slough of despond. I would put un my hand to answer a question only to find that 1 had confessed to having broken a window. Before I could clear up the misunderstanding I would be dragged out to the front, caned with a soil of off-hand gusto and then sent reeling back inw the mass. I would laugh obsequiously at his joke only to discover that I had been sniggering al Ethelred the Unready. If I got up to hand in all exercise I would suddenly find myself being beaten for moving during prayers. Sometimes I was caned ten times a day.

I will never willingly be a schoolmaster. II was only events entirely beyond my control whicil made me a schoolboy. Perhaps things have changed now in this Durham town. CertainlY, when I did escape to the grammar school at the age of twelve, I moved into a State institution which seemed flooded with light and warmth and intelligence. But most of our children are still in these elementary schools—whatever the bureau' crats may choose to call them—and I fail to see that the abolition of Eton will help to improve them.