I recall the staff at St Botolph’s School in the late nineteen forties with a certain amount of affection. I greatly admired Miss Honour who I saw as unbelievably glamorous when I was five especially after I overheard her comment that she thought I must be adopted because I was quite unlike my mother. I regarded Mrs Johnson a little more cautiously because she was not as easily fooled by the BBC accent I was trying to cultivate when I was six but on the other hand she gave me Enid Blyton stories to read. I was not quite as keen on Mrs Allen who threatened me with physical punishment when my father complained to her about my behaviour at home (despite the fact that she was heard to say I was as Good as Gold at school) but felt secure with Miss Biggs who helped me complete the doll’s bonnet I was trying to knit. Each of them were sound teachers and basically kind. All were eclipsed, however, by Mr Clarke in whose class we found ourselves for two wonderful years and whose teaching was at times inspiring and whose pupils without exception loved him dearly. The boys were particularly intrigued by his war record. He had been a fighter pilot during the war and was shot down and became a POW. This information did not emotionally move the girls nearly as much of course but Will Clarke was able to enthuse and motivate each one of us in a way that eludes most who decide to enter the teaching profession.
Friday afternoons were in particular an exciting time devoted to ideas and to books. Mr Clarke discussed with us all manner of interesting ideas such as the rights and wrongs of cannibalism and what human flesh might taste like. John Dyke wanted to know if he meant when it was raw or when it was cooked and Mr Clarke paused momentarily before assuring him that he meant when it was cooked. Even quiet and good Wendy Maxted who rarely said much raised her head at once and wanted to know exactly how it would have been cooked. A few of the more assertive and popular girls began to laugh but stopped when Mr Clarke treated that question seriously also and explained that he thought it might have been simmered in a cauldron with roots and vegetables and perhaps a few herbs. This cooking method and the resulting taste was then hotly debated until Mr Clarke said that he had heard that human flesh when cooked with care tasted a little bit like lamb. With that we were silenced although I found myself contemplating this interesting morsel of information on every future occasion when the Sunday roast happened to be lamb.
On one occasion he led us into a discussion as to whether or not children would ever be allowed to vote and if it was a good thing and if so which political paths we might pursue. He listened carefully to the reasons why our families were Labour or Conservative without passing comment. A substantial number of us surprisingly perhaps supported the Conservatives though one boy admitted to having a father who was decidedly Communist and believed in Communal Farms. The rest of us did not understand how that particular form of agriculture worked and Mr Clarke enthusiastically explained and the following Friday told us something of Russian History and how and why the 1918 revolution happened. Those of us who lost interest and became bored by these Friday afternoon debates were allowed to doodle or fall asleep without comment.
It was also a time when we were introduced to poetry – The Lady of Shallot, Daffodils, The Destruction of Sennacherib and were urged to read the Myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. And occasionally he would encourage us to write our own poetry if we felt so inclined. For these reasons though time passed I was never quite able to relinquish memory of Mr Clarke.
Six decades later Molly Freeman, then determinedly beginning to master the use of email, sent me an excited message because she had by an odd accident of fate involving an article about football in a local paper, rediscovered Will Clarke, by then in his nineties and living in The Midlands. We were ecstatic to make contact once again with the man who had deftly turned what might have been two completely ordinary primary school years into a time during which learning became distinctive and exceptional. And he, more than at ease with the intricacies of electronic messaging, communicated with each of us with enthusiasm and deliberated all aspects of those St Botolph’s days. We learned that his time at the school had not always been as uncomplicated as our own and that the loss of his teenage son in a road accident had all but paralysed him emotionally. We also began to understand that the demands placed upon him and the rest of the school staff by the most unpopular headmaster, Mr Cook,had made life anything but enjoyable and had caused him to examine frequently the reasons why he stayed.
This latter sentiment we certainly understood because if we found Will Clarke hard to forget, few of us who attended St Botolph’s School during those years have found it easy to forget the tyrannical Mr Cook. How this disturbing head teacher ever became involved in the business of educating the young is a mystery because he was truly a man as sadistic as Mr Clarke was compassionate and as terrifying as he was gentle, as poor an educator as he was inspirational . Now I find myself seriously wondering how and why he made the choice he did, what caused his alarming rages, and if he actually realized the degree of terror he instilled in us. And did he ever ask himself why it was that his pupils feared him as fervently as they loved Will Clarke?