Returning to a British school in 1930 seemed totally alien from what I had experienced in Africa. The hours were different, I had to walk over a mile each way to school, morning and afternoon and the classes were bigger. When I arrived we worked with rooms lighted by gaslight in winter afternoons and, worst of all, I was out of my depth through losing two whole years of schooling. I sat next to a boy who constantly wet himself and there was a permanent aroma. We were not allowed to change seats because it saved the teacher calling the roll twice a day, as we sat in alphabetical order – unfortunately. I remember one teacher who had come from New Zealand and who seemed only to teach Maori customs. She had us making endless native huts and constantly drawing maps of the place.
There was a strong amateur dramatic interest in the school with end of term plays and it was about this time that I learned sword dancing. The swords were made in the school woodwork shop, where the woodwork master was not averse to throwing bad work at the head of the poor incompetent who had made it, and he rarely missed. The dance called for eight participants and as we danced round we put the swords to our shoulders, and with a good deal of pushing and wrestling, twisting and turning, we managed to get the swords locked together to form an octagon, rather like a large Jewish Star. The whole shape was held in the air by one sword, by the team leader; when it was lowered the swords were withdrawn with a flourish, clashed together high in the centre, like the thin spire of a church and then the dance continued. We gave exhibitions, why I never quite understood, because it was a very dull dance, every bit as dull as Morris Dancing, especially as we were too young to get well oiled before we started. I suppose that was the main difference. I also became re-acquainted with discipline. (See Sex & Child Abuse) Nowadays young people seem to think for themselves more than we did, they are more cynical and less malleable, or do I imagine that?
Believe it or not, it was an honour to be ink monitor. Can one think of any greater example of brain washing than to make a child actually want to go to school earlier on Monday morning and stay later on Friday afternoon than his compatriots, get his hands filthy dirty with an almost permanent stain and perhaps ruin a perfectly good shirt into the bargain, while he washes out a whole boxful of grungy, chipped, china inkwells of their coagulated mess, then mixes the astringent smelling powder and finally refills them. Not content with that he has to carry the trayful up several flights of stairs and place two in each desk with the inevitable spillage and further chore of cleaning up, all the time worried should this honour be taken from him.
There were the art classes where the inept were cheek-by-jowl with the insouciant, and plagued by the competent who always came just when things were going wrong, with words like ‘Isn’t that nice,’ said with all the insincerity of a street pedlar, hurriedly followed by an entreating ‘Come and see mine’, a plea for praise and perhaps a statement of insecurity. It was strange that in a school where none were undernourished, why the licence to have biscuits and hot Bovril after a swim in the swimming bath of a neighbouring school, was such a great inducement that few, if any, brought notes of excuse. That was the era of cigarette cards. No one failed to collect them, but some collected them for a strange game like a coconut shy. The boys had areas along the playground wall marked out rather like the Oche for darts. Against the wall were propped cigarette cards at intervals and the players would stand at different lines, depending on the distance from the wall, and by flicking a card of their own, from between their fingers, they had to try to fell a cigarette card leaning against the wall. If successful, one received a number of cards equivalent to the offer for each line, say two, three or even ten if it was a back line. There were tricks of course. The stall holders would bend the cards slightly so they arched away from the wall and were thus stiffer to hit. The throwers, – or I suppose, the suckers – would use stiff cards because they flew better and harder and they also adopted a scything technique so they could fell more than one target card at a time, to the annoyance of the stall holder.
There were no lollipop ladies; policemen were stationed at crossing points and held the hands of the smaller children as they crossed the traffic in flocks. The children vied for the favours of the policeman and most policemen reciprocated by giving the appearance of being interested in their stories.