Everyone knew who Jacobs was. He was tall for an 11-year old, and he was black, and as one of just two black kids in our school he stood out. Whether he was actually a troublemaker I couldn’t say – I was in 2A and he was in 4B – but Mr Savage (yes, that was his name) certainly thought he was. So Mr Savage made straight for him when he saw a ruckus developing in the playground.
“Who started this? Jacobs, was it you?”
“Not I, sir.”
“Don’t say not I, Jacobs. Not me!”
I had already embarked on a lifetime journey of pedantry, and sensed that an injustice had been done. But I didn’t get involved: I was Mr Savage’s favourite, and there was no reason to put that at risk.
With hindsight that status conferred doubtful benefits. Savage had a peculiar gesture which he reserved for his favourite boys: he made a V shape with the forefinger and middle finger of his right hand, which he slid down over the top of my ear after I’d given a correct answer, saying “Arr, Edwarrds” in his Cornish burr. That might not have got him arrested, even these days, but certainly it felt strange.
By the time I reached Mr Savage’s class, 4A, I was also favoured, presumably due to my small stature, when he sought to demonstrate the technique for dividing by a fraction. He put me on a seat, bent down to seize my ankles and dangled me in the air. “Turn upside down and multiply!” he said. He didn’t act out the multiplication. “I should really be doing this to Gillian Bone” he said, referring to a bright but talkative girl repeating her final year in primary school, “but it wouldn’t be allowed”. No sir, it wouldn’t.
He could be fun, though. Sometimes in the summer term, probably after he had completed the continuous assessment reports which would largely determine our secondary schools – and perhaps set our courses for life – he would announce that as the sun was shining, we were going to have a game of cricket in the playground. We would file out of mid-morning lessons and take turns to bowl, and to bat at a spring-loaded wicket on a wooden base, sitting on the tarmac. The ball must have got up quite high, but I don’t remember any casualties. I can’t recall, though, whether the girls took part in this activity, and now I wonder if they might have been still in the classroom, getting an early briefing on the facts of life.
Mr Savage was a disciplinarian, and sometimes used what looked like an oversized table tennis bat on unruly boys – and sometimes girls – to keep order. At the time he probably felt, like most of his contemporaries, that corporal punishment was a crucial part of his armoury – he had a class of nearly fifty. Meanwhile Mr McDonald ruled 4B in military style – when you reached the fourth year, there was no escape, it was one or the other.
I started at Watford Field Junior School in September 1963, having attended Oaklands Avenue Infants’ School – a tranquil little place nestling in pleasant Oxhey suburbia, with kindly lady teachers, just two classes, mostly well behaved pupils and plenty of grass and trees. Watford Field was altogether more mixed, situated near the centre of town, with a tarmac playground.
On my first morning I was ill at ease. But at break time on my first day my brother – three years older – came over to where I was tentatively playing with friends from infants’ school and introduced me to some of his big friends, who ran around and played games with us for a while. I felt honoured and protected.
Half way through my first year, my family moved from leafy Oxhey, one mile from school, to leafier Chorleywood, six miles away. Me being such a swot, Mrs Stanton, usually undemonstrative, was aghast when I told her about the move, until I reassured her that I would be remaining at the school: our mother worked in South Oxhey, and was able to drive us to and from school each day. But living so far from school certainly made play dates more difficult.
In the playground, the default activity was football, but bouncy balls weren’t allowed: classroom windows overlooked the playground, as did the back windows of the houses in Tucker Street. So a short cut to popularity was to have your mum or grandma sew up a nice tight ball out of your dad’s old socks, and there would be a few days of high quality football (using the markings of the netball court) before the ball became ragged and limp. Some kids would game the rules and put a tennis ball in the middle, but anything bouncing too high would soon be confiscated.
I dreaded the cold weather: while the other boys whizzed around on lethal ice “slides” I would stamp my feet and shiver, just counting the interminable minutes until we were allowed back in the building.
Supervised sports were conducted on the eponymous Field, and one time Mr McDonald was trying to lick the football team into shape when Watford FC manager Ken Furphy rocked up and took a turn. If he was scouting for the youth team, he was disappointed. “You could drive a bus through that defence” was his comment. Furphy had children at the school, Susan and Keith, likeable kids with none of the swagger which might have come from having such a famous dad. Ron Rollitt, secretary at Watford FC also had twin boys at the school, Michael and David, among my friends in class.
My football career was mixed: despite my size I was good enough to be on the fringes of the school team, and was proud to put on the light and dark blue hooped WFS shirt. We had a run of three fixtures in six days: just before the first of them we were confined by rain to the classroom at lunchtime. Someone threw a paper dart in my direction which I ducked with such vigour that I cut my forehead open on the desk. Blood was pouring from the wound, and after being patched up I was driven by the headmaster Mr Colman in his white sports car to Watford Peace, where the injury required several stitches. When the excitement of all this attention had worn off, I was devastated to be missing three games, just when I had become a regular selection. Mr McDonald showed his kinder side by allowing me to attend the third match as a linesman.
In my second year I managed to lose my football boots. I can’t remember how, but I must have felt responsible, because I raised no objection when Mum and Dad told me to replace them cheaply from the secondhand pool run by one of the teachers. So at lunchtime with heavy heart I went to see Miss M, a woman of Rosa Klebb demeanour, who brought out a dusty box of horrible, uncomfortable looking old boots, more Dixie Dean than Bobby Charlton. I couldn’t bring myself to try any on. The rejection must have stung Miss M: at morning assembly next day there was a pointed announcement about boys refusing “perfectly good boots”. I wasn’t named, but I’m sure anyone watching would have noticed me turning bright red. When I told Mum and Dad about this humiliation, they relented and agreed to buy me a new pair.
A better football memory was from a Saturday morning match: chosen to take a free kick, I booted the heavy, wet leather ball hopefully in the general direction of the mob in the penalty box, but nobody got a touch and it trickled inside the far post. I couldn’t pretend it was planned that way, but hey, a goal is a goal.
I was also fond of cricket, and was batting in a supervised after-school game on the field when a girl from the year above me came in to bat at the other end. Sceptical comments were silenced when she faced her first ball and whacked it to the boundary. We developed a good understanding between the wickets and put on about forty runs together. I was thrilled to be in a successful partnership with a girl.
The old school was old school: seven eights are fifty-six, rods poles and perches, πr squared, how many stamps 5/8ths of an inch x 9/16ths of an inch will be needed to cover the walls of a room this big by that big with windows yay big. The A-stream teachers were solid, and I remember Mrs Stanton, Mrs Gregory and Mrs Otter with respect and affection. But there was also Mr H who “taught” 3B: he took us for handwork, and it emerged that besides struggling with discipline, he struggled with simple arithmetic. I exchanged looks with Tony Johnson, my main rival in our fortnightly tests, and we said a silent prayer for the children of 3B.
Some fifteen years after I left the school my mum saw in the Watford Observer that Mrs Stanton was retiring, and that former pupils were invited to the party in her honour. I went along and showed her my photo. She must have taught over 600 children since I was in her class, so I wasn’t expecting her to recognise me, and she didn’t. But she pointed straight to the worst behaved boy in the class. “Karl something. I remember him.”