Saturday, 18 February 2017
Embarking on Education At St Botolph's
I was enrolled at St Botolph’s School in September 1945 by my mother much against the wishes of my staunchly Roman Catholic Father who had not yet returned from serving in the Eighth Army. When he did return there were many Words about it because quite apart from the differing spiritual dimension, the Catholic School was a mere hop, skip and jump from our backyard and altogether much more convenient. It wasn’t as if my mother was a follower of a different faith, she had been brought up within a large and dysfunctional family that was steeped in Catholicism but where religion was concerned she was known to vacillate wildly. For that reason my brother was baptised as an Anglican, I was baptised twice and both of us were regularly sent to various Fundamental Christian Sunday Schools. As if all that wasn’t confusing enough we were also required to attend eleven am Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church on The Hill, a tall and forbidding building that I intensely disliked. By way of contrast, St Botolph’s Church was a breath of fresh air, its interior always welcoming. After a shaky start I enjoyed my time at the adjacent school and for the most part during those formative years, there I was allowed to remain. The school had first opened at the side of the churchyard and perilously close to the chalk pit in 1838 and remained relatively unchanged for a hundred years. Electricity was not installed until June 1938 but in 1977 sadly, as far as former students like myself were concerned, the place disappeared from its old site to an entirely new location in Dover Road. When I last visited the site a year or two ago, the old school buildings were mostly demolished and an air of gloom and melancholy seemed to pervade the space where the classrooms once had been. But long ago it was for most of us, largely a happy place in those years between 1945 and 1951. The alternative for those who did not identify either as Catholics or Anglicans was the local Council establishment, known as The Board School where I was told the students were a Rough and Ready Lot and regularly attracted the attention of The School Board Man. My maternal Grandmother, Old Nan, did not hold with school at all having never attended at any stage herself but even she was fearful of The School Board Man and said she’d had Many a Run In with him years before. During my first couple of years at St Botolph’s Mr Tilley was Headmaster and I knew him only as a distant and Very Important Person. I started on the same day as my best friend Molly’s younger brother. It would be fair to say that the only thing Georgie and I had in common was his sister, but on that day in September 1945 we sat companionably together crying loudly and piteously for in those times our mothers were told to simply disappear and not return until three pm. There were no pre-visits to the infant classroom to help us adjust and in fact I don’t believe for a moment that any parent would have deemed it necessary. Going to school was simply a traumatic adjustment that you were expected to cope with like everybody else and little fuss was made about it. The Year One teacher at that time was Miss Honor, a young, tall and slender woman with long blonde hair that curled below her shoulders. She wore a smock over a smart plaid skirt and sometimes rode a bike with a basket on the front. When I managed to stop crying, after a day or two, I found I liked her very much. I liked her even more some weeks later when I heard her discussing me with the Year Two teacher, Mrs Johnson. Miss Honor had decided I could not be my mother’s natural child. She thought I must be adopted. I should state here and now that this was largely because of my mother and I being ardent followers of the BBC and not because of innate scholastic brilliance. In our house the radio was on all day long and much of the night and even curled up in bed I was still able to hear it. As far as the presumed adoption was concerned, Mrs Johnson seemed to be in full agreement with Miss Honor and said it was a Phenomena. They did not often come across children like me. I glowed with pride though I was not entirely sure what adoption meant and certainly did not understand the idea of a Phenomena. I was hopeful that I might be being singled out because of my cleverness with recognition of upper and lower case letters, or my familiarity with the day to day doings of various animal families such as rabbits or squirrels in the books that were read to us or even perhaps my ability to count up to fifty. But I rapidly came to realise that my only area of talent appeared to lie with the fact that I was speaking Correct English. Just like someone on the Wireless, Miss Honor observed and despite the disappointment as far as early academic success was concerned this gave me a definite jolt of smug self importance. I immediately decided to devote even more attention to the BBC, especially The Shipping Forecast which was quite a favourite of mine at the time. Mrs Johnson looked at me approvingly and said she would be glad to have me in her class next year and as soon as school finished that day I asked my mother if I was indeed adopted and she reassured me that of course I was not and that she didn’t hold with adoption because you never knew how they would turn out, it was a mystery. Once the fundamentals of adoption were explained to me, however, I told everyone who would listen that I was an Adopted Child and nobody knew how I would Turn Out because it was a Mystery. This eventually became ever more confusing for everyone involved in this odd deception including myself. If these two infant teachers were waiting for me to display further ability of an intellectual nature to add conviction to the idea that I somehow or other came from an upper echelon of society they were sadly disappointed. For the next two years I did nothing to distinguish myself except show off my secondary talent, that being an ability to recite prayers and sing religious songs. My mother had a weakness for prayers and a very good singing voice. I could also sing Edwardian Music Hall items a la Marie Lloyd and Nesta Tilley faultlessly but at the age of six wisely decided Bless This House and Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam were safer choices. In Year Three I went into Mrs. Allen’s class and she was a no nonsense woman who got a handle on me almost immediately. Her knowledge increased ten fold when my father for some reason best known to himself decided to acquaint her with just how difficult and contrary I was at home and from then on she treated me accordingly and I was punished, most of the time physically, for every slight misdemeanour. One day she even advised me to Stop That Stupid Affected Manner Of Speech, causing me a great deal of offence and ensuring that our pupil-teacher relationship reached a new low. I very much looked forward to becoming old enough to transfer into Miss Biggs’ class where I pledged to myself I would give less time to the BBC and please my mother by acquiring more friends. Never having had much luck with friendship herself, she was most anxious for me to do better in this respect but so far there had been little rapport between me and the rest of the class. Many years later when I already had children of my own, one of whom appeared to be suffering from a similar problem, we discussed these early social problems that seemed to afflict me. In her old age she was direct, unambiguous. `Your problem has always been you are much too quarrelsome – you were then and you are now. That’s always been your problem and always will be!’ I elected not to argue though I didn’t for one moment agree and instead thought back to the painful year in Mrs Allen’s class. One day I plucked up the courage to directly ask a new and so far friendless girl called Erica if she would like to be my Best Friend. She looked me briefly up and down and then shook her head. `Why not?’ I wanted to know. She hesitated for a second or two and said, `Because you talk too daft – and anyway I don’t like you.’ At the age of seven this was demoralizing and a distinct blow to my confidence.