Losing My Religion

Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up her own mind, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of her own. Then we understood it was really about getting the parents a brief respite every Sunday from noisy kids.

As a six year old, I didn’t enjoy Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left the clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.

Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.

Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if they hit the ball they had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.

There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.

The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)

The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.

Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there was one Asian and two Jewish boys. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But seeds of doubt were soon being sown in my mind.

Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.

(Dr Raper was later to raise his head above the parapet during the pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair in the summer of 1971. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr L K Turner – known to us as Trog. Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot because he was already on his way, or if this incident caused the headmaster to encourage him to move on.)

My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. Surely the only reasonable conclusion was that they must all be mistaken?

My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. An austere, thin figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.

Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.

The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.

Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.

The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.

This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.

I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.

A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?

My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?

Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.

In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?

Library Night

I used to make use of late opening on Monday evenings, and call in on the way home from the station. I would browse through the beautifully illustrated children’s books and choose six to bring home to read to the girls. The rather stern lady checking out the books said “I don’t like Dr Seuss – it’s just playing with words.” Poetry, then.

Rachel was excited when I brought them home, and tired and impatient for dinner though I was, I loved sitting with her nestled against me on the bedroom floor, enjoying each other’s complete attention as I pointed to the words and she followed. Children’s books had become much brighter since I was a boy. There was Quentin Blake, with his wonderful, affectionate drawings of beaky, friendly people.

And Martin Waddell whose books sometimes achieve a strong emotional pull, every bit as powerful on parent as on child.

I loved watching her respond to the theatricality of the books. One simply described a walk in the country on a summer’s day, but as you turned one page there was a double page spread of a brightly coloured tractor harvesting a field, showing a brilliant blue sky, a sea of golden wheat, the cloud of dust around it, and a frenzy of birds wheeling overhead: I watched delighted as she experienced the shock and joy of turning the page to see that dramatic picture.

I included some educational books, and Rachel was keen to be educated. One was a well-written simplified guide to space and the solar system. It was thrilling to watch her bright eyes as she took it all in, asking question after question, each one showing she had understood the previous answer.

I loved these exhilarating teaching moments, aware that I would not always be able to answer Rachel’s questions, that she would some day no longer look to me for answers, and that she might one day even lose her boundless appetite for learning. The last of these, I’m glad to say, looks unlikely to happen.

Cliff Richard and The Shadows, O2 Arena, 26 September 2009

History books will tell you that From Me To You was the Beatles first UK number one. That’s not how I remember it. Rob and I were listening to Pick of the Pops on the BBC Light Programme with Alan Freeman on our radiogram in Oxhey, in March 1963. Rob was nine, I was six and a half. Cliff Richard was our hero, and we were not pleased to hear that Cliff’s Summer Holiday had been knocked off the number one spot by a noisy song called Please Please Me by some upstarts called the Beatles.

(The reason for the discrepancy is that the standard reference for chart history, The Guinness Book of Hit Singles, used Record Retailer charts, while the BBC at the time compiled its own averaged chart.)

Mum and Dad were great music lovers. Opera was their thing, but they indulged our enthusiasms. I remember being taken to see Summer Holiday at the cinema. Later Mum made a great sacrifice by taking us to see A Hard Day’s Night: the only tickets available were in the front row, and she had a terrible headache from the frantic unceasing movement. They even took us, early in 1965, to see Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – a panto at The London Palladium starring Cliff and the Shadows. (Oh no they didn’t…)

Rob and I were thrilled to see Cliff and the Shadows live. Mum and Dad enjoyed seeing Arthur Askey as the Widow Twankey. Dad was tickled by the gag where Hank Marvin tried and failed to scare someone by wearing a ghost mask – until he gave up and revealed his face, whereupon the victim screamed in horror.

When the Beatles, the Stones and everyone else burst onto the scene in 1963/4, Cliff was able to retain his popularity – if not his relevance – by continuing his trajectory from young rock’n’roller to family entertainer. The low point was Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha. In doing so, he jettisoned most of the respect he once enjoyed for his early recordings, and all of his cool.

But you don’t forget your first heroes, and I retained a fondness for Cliff Richard long after he became deeply unfashionable. I was thrilled in 1969 when Cliff and Hank made what I thought was a superb record, Throw Down a Line – an apocalyptic song which Hank Marvin has said he wrote with Jimi Hendrix in mind – now that would have been something. His artistic renaissance in the 1970s produced the exquisite Miss You Nights, and his biggest US hit, Devil Woman. He could still pick a song.

*******

I came to Move It late – understandably, as I was two when it was released. Without question, it is the first authentic rock’n’roll song produced outside the USA. Before the arrival of the Beatles, the only other undisputed non-American classic is Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.

Like Cliff, the Shadows became uncool during the 1960s, but Hank Marvin’s reputation was later burnished as heroes of later musical generations – Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, Brian May – queued up to pay their respects. Cliff, though, has found such respect harder to come by. Is that fair? When Move It was made, Hank wasn’t even in the Shadows, or the Drifters as they were called at the time.

But just listen to it, the throbbing, angry rhythm, the polite but committed and insistent vocal. Jazz critic Steve Race had written in Melody Maker “So rock’n’roll is dead, is it? All right, then. My funeral oration consists of just two words: good riddance.” He went on to say he didn’t know what the next craze would be. Ian Samwell, an early member of the Drifters, was inspired to write the song as an angry riposte: he really did want to know what could replace it. He composed the song on the top deck of a Green Line bus (the 715) on his way to Cliff’s house in Cheshunt.

It serves still as a passionate war cry and anthem for the music. Move it was first released as the B-side of the insipid Schoolboy Crush, but fortunately TV producer Jack Good heard it and insisted that Cliff should sing that one if he wanted to appear on Oh Boy! The record was flipped and reached number two in the charts.

The implication wasn’t lost on British fans. Just as Buddy Holly had shown that ordinary looking guys could become rock’n’roll stars – not just exotic godlike figures such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard – so Cliff proved you didn’t have to be American to make it. There were earlier British attempts at rock’n’roll, of course, but to properly understand the impact of Move It, what it meant to teenagers at the time, it’s worth listening to dire previous offerings like Tommy Steele’s Rock With the Caveman.

Cliff became such a fixture in British life that it’s not always appreciated how desperate he was for success and how hard he worked for it. A story about High Class Baby, his follow up to Move It, is revealing. After recording the song, he went home and cried, believing that his early success had been a fluke. “I thought that was it” he said. “It just didn’t compare in any way to Move It.” He was right about that record, but soon broke through again with Livin’ Doll and never looked back.

Many of Cliff and the Shadows’ early recordings still sound good today: rock ballads like Livin’ Doll, Travellin’ Light and The Next Time, out and out rockers like Please Don’t Tease and We Say Yeah, pop/rock songs like Bachelor Boy, Dancing Shoes and Don’t Talk to Him, and the big film themes The Young Ones, and Summer Holiday. And those two films are cheesy but still fun and full of youthful energy, in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney kind of way.

My wife and I had seen Cliff Richard in concert many years before, but when we heard that he was getting back with the Shadows for some 50th anniversary concerts, billed as the Final Reunion Tour, we knew we had to be there: they very rarely played together these days, and having the Shadows along would keep Cliff to his more rocky early material. I invited cousin Phil, nostalgia king and an even longer-standing Cliff fan, to join us.

Known for years as “The Peter Pan of Pop”, it was claimed that Cliff had fans from nine to ninety. In truth, there were few under fifties there. We did spot a nerdy looking 12 year old boy with his parents: I assumed he was there under duress, but later we noticed him mouthing the lyrics like a true fan.

When the lights went down, the years dropped away and we all felt like teenagers again. They opened with a pulsating We Say Yeah, and the mood for the evening was set. (A version of which Johnny Hallyday has also used to good effect to open his show). “Please sit down – you’ll only get tired” said Cliff considerately, viewing the frenzy his opening number had unleashed. The Shadows, always consummate musicians, were tight and energetic, and Cliff looked delighted to have them back on stage with him. They were all having a great time.

It was full set, stretching to three hours, and fans would struggle to think of any big hits that were left out. Cliff performed with an energy belying his 68 years. The Shadows had the stage to themselves for a while to play some of their hits, which they did with accuracy and intent – for example the cleanest, sweetest Wonderful Land you could imagine. They even threw in some trademark dance steps.

The audience had a huge helping of exactly what they wanted: it was, without doubt, the best a Cliff Richard and the Shadows gig could be. When I expressed my opinion in that way, it was sometimes greeted with a smirk, but I meant it as a high compliment. We had a wonderful time. When eventually they had run out of hits, Cliff introduced their final number by saying that when, if ever, we met again, we will still be The Young Ones. Not a dry eye in the house.

Cliff Richard has always been polite, and lacked the air of danger which characterises true rock stars. He was never going to be Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury or Ray Davies. But he’s definitely Cliff, and he’s served up some great music over the years, and if, as he’d feared, he’d faded away straight after Move It, his legacy would still be substantial. And for people of a certain age, he’s just always been there, part of the British fabric, like David Attenborough or the Queen. We understand that you’ll never be cool. But we love you, Cliff.

Set List

  • We Say Yeah
  • In the Country
  • Gee Whiz It’s You
  • A Voice in the Wilderness
  • Livin’ Doll
  • Dancing Shoes
  • I’m the Lonely One
  • A Girl Like You
  • Do You Wanna Dance?
  • Shadoogie
  • Wonderful Land
  • The Savage
  • Sleepwalk
  • High Class Baby
  • I Could Easily Fall (In Love With You)
  • Willie and the Hand Jive
  • Sea Cruise
  • C’mon Everybody
  • Dynamite
  • Lucky Lips
  • Travellin’ Light
  • Time Drags By
  • All Shook Up
  • Please Don’t Tease
  • Apache
  • Foot Tapper
  • Atlantis
  • F.B.I.
  • I Love You
  • The Next Time
  • Don’t Talk to Him
  • On the Beach
  • Summer Holiday
  • Bachelor Boy
  • Nine Times Out of Ten
  • It’ll Be Me
  • Visions
  • Move It (encore)
  • Singing the Blues
  • The Young Ones

Odontophobia

When I retired, one of my tasks was to register with the local dentist. Part of the process was filling in a questionnaire, which included the question “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means not at all, and 10 means extremely, how anxious are you about visiting the dentist?” I marked it an 8. The nice lady asked if I had suffered bad dental experiences. I said yes, in this very building, nearly fifty years ago.


We British have a reputation – mostly deserved, I’m afraid – for bad teeth. In America we’re famous for it. We sent over Keith Richards

and David Bowie

as dental ambassadors. I put this down to a generation of dentists who seemed to come from a military background, recruited in the days when physical strength was required for the job. They thought their patients should take their punishment like men.

Mr R of Rosebank was such a practitioner. He got off to a terrible start by calling Rob Bob and calling me Dick. I needed fillings. He injected local anaesthetic with such force and vigour that it was difficult to imagine it was protecting me from anything still more painful. But my imagination was given some assistance when he started drilling, with what felt like more enthusiasm than accuracy. There might have been an extraction too, my memory is probably trying to protect me.

A handful of visits to Mr R left me so traumatised that when I was of an age to arrange my own dental care, I just didn’t. I dread to think what was going on inside there. Fast forward about twenty years (I know) to the birth of our second daughter. She was born with a cleft palate, and we were told that in the coming years she would need orthodontics and oral surgery. And I realised I would have to look her in the eye and ask her to be brave and tell her it would all be worth it.

So one day in my lunch break I took the first and most difficult step: I went into the dentist and made an appointment for an initial examination. I explained to my colleague why I would soon be taking quite a lot of time away from the desk. “Really? So when did you last go to the dentist?” “Well…you remember Boney M?…”

When I at last got in the chair and opened wide the dentist must have thought she was Aladdin peering in the Cave of Wonders. There was a lot of work to do: fillings, extractions, root canal surgery. There were many appointments over a few weeks. And it wasn’t actually that bad. They were careful and empathetic. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t fun either, but I found that if I forced my mind to wander, the time soon passed. I also felt a bit proud of facing up to my fear, although everyone else had been seeing their dentists every six months without any fuss for decades. Before long I was able to revert to routine dental care.

Happily the team at Rosebank Dental Surgery are also first class. I am attended to by a team of gentle and skilful women, and the ghost of Mr R has been driven from the building. My dental anxiety levels have lowered: I’m down to about a 6 now. As I write this under lockdown, I’ve had to miss a hygienist’s appointment and I’ll soon miss a checkup. But don’t worry, I’ll attend those appointments when I can, and in the meantime I’m flossing and brushing like a pro. I know I’ll never have gleaming perfect white film star gnashers, but I’d like to still be eating steak to a ripe old age.

Sallie

At about 5pm on February 1st 1971, Rob and I got off the 335 bus and started walking home up the rough surface of Park Avenue. We were surprised to see Mum and Dad walking to meet us. We knew something had happened. When we reached them, they told us that Sallie – our grandma, or Nana as we called her – had died. We would soon learn much more about her.

Sallie and her husband Jack had lived at 22 Malpas Road in Wallasey, a neat little road with low brick walls and tiled front paths. Mum would often take Rob and me there on the train for a week in the summer holidays: Dad’s miserly allowance of holiday precluded him from making the trip. I remember it as a modest but tidy house. There were few toys there, but I remember Jack finding a strong magnet and some paper clips which kept us amused for some time. Mum would often take us to the beach at New Brighton: once I remember her getting us home in a violent thunderstorm. She was probably more scared than we were. Mum would be sure to arrange to meet up in Liverpool with her best friend Speff, who sealed the affection of her godchildren with generous presents.

In 1963 our Dad’s mother, known to us as Nain, fell ill. Mum and Dad planned to move from Oxhey to a larger house in Chorleywood, intending to bring Nain and Taid – Dad’s parents – from Dolgellau to live with us. But Nain died in December, and when our move went through early the next year, Taid decided he would rather stay in Wales. It was decided to invite our other grandparents, Sallie and Jack instead, and they arrived some time in the summer of 1964. Soon after we got a dachshund, named Tumbi after the dachshund she had owned in Wallasey, in turn named after a dog Philip had encountered on service in India.

Chorleywood Tumbi

Mum was a qualified nurse and a dutiful daughter, and although both her parents were in good health, she was no doubt motivated by a wish to be sure they were properly cared for in their old age. But it probably didn’t hurt that they could also help to look after the children: we would have been about eleven and eight years old.

Sallie was a small, warm and cuddly woman with soft features. Her hair had been white for many years. In contrast to the shy Jack, she was chatty and sociable. She was always vague about her age – I don’t for example recall an eightieth birthday celebration – and about the date and number of their wedding anniversaries. Later we would find out why.

But I know that she was 77 when they came to live with us, and she had lived long enough and been through enough that she no longer cared – if she ever did – what people thought of her. She could be blunt to the point of rudeness, and made instant judgements about people on very little information, but was seldom wrong.

On being told that the man engaged to her niece was a lay preacher, she opined “Lay preachers! Hypocrites, the lot of them!”

On meeting the charming and pretty girlfriend Rob brought home, Sallie offered her view to Mum, at high volume: “A shallow girl!”

She was older than Jack, and once told Mum that “marriages work better when the woman is older.” I wondered what Mum, five years younger than Dad, was supposed to say to that.

Here are some of Sallie’s sayings:

“Drink plenty water!”
“I’ll believe you, thousands wouldn’t!”
“Would I thump!” (as in “would I hell!”)

“Stir it and stump it, and blow your own trumpet, or trust me, you haven’t a chance!” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore)
“Go on Kath, it won’t hurt the boy!” (when being an indulgent grandma).
“Can’t stand the man!” when the wrong person appeared on television.

Here are some of the things Sallie did:

She sat rocking her chair, passing comment on the television news.
She drank tea from her favourite floral design china cup and saucer.
She washed her hair using rainwater collected in a metal pail, because she didn’t like using our hard water.
She put her false teeth in a glass of water with Steradent by her bed every night.
She talked politics with Mrs Caradine when she came for tea, especially at election time. (Both were strong labour supporters.)
She walked Tumbi through the woods and over Chorleywood common.
She squashed chocolates between her thumb and forefinger to test if they were hard or soft. (luckily she liked the soft ones).
She set a fire in the dustbin when the contents were overflowing.
She surreptitiously fed Tumbi with cake at tea time and scraps from her plate at dinner time, thus encouraging the dog’s appalling table manners.
She knitted jumpers for Rob and me.
She smoked the occasional cigarette, always with the appearance of a novice smoker and a guilty schoolgirl. Very occasional, compared to Mum’s forty a day.

Here are some of the people and things Sallie liked:

Harold Wilson (She was very excited to go to hear him speak in Watford)
Pears Soap
Harry Worth
Dachshunds, preferably black and tan
Danny Kaye
Songs of Praise
Wordsworth
An occasional sherry
Rose’s Lime Jelly
Tennyson
George Eliot

Here are some of the people and things Sallie did not like

The Rolling Stones (“dirty!”)
Jimmy Savile (“horrible man!” – my god, how right she was)
The Queen Mother (“waving all the time, with that silly grin on her face!”)
Loud music coming from our bedroom (“thump thump thump – it sounds like the washing machine! They all sound the same!”)
Edward Heath

Sallie’s natural sociability no doubt eased her transition to life down south, although Jack sometimes seemed ill at ease. Life in our home was harmonious for a few years: Sallie made cakes, knitted, read books and drank tea. Jack, who had been a ship’s carpenter, made beautiful and useful things out of wood, and carried out the more skilful part of the work in building a swimming pool in our back garden.

In 1968 Jack became ill with arteriosclerosis, and he was moved to the downstairs living room where Sallie and Mum nursed him with dedication. This must have been physically and emotionally exhausting for both mother and daughter, and they may have felt some relief when his struggle ended.

Sallie outlived her husband by two years, a period I remember as turbulent. Mum didn’t enjoy sharing her kitchen with Sallie – perhaps jealous of her more confident cake baking skills. Rob recalls a ferocious argument when Sallie secretly baked a sponge cake and stashed it under her bed. Mum was upset at the suggestion that her cakes weren’t good enough.

For Mum the combination of friction with her mother, the arrival of the menopause, an overactive thyroid and differences with Rob – now going through a lively adolescence – could make an explosive mixture. Dad, Tumbi and I tried to keep our heads down.

The day Sallie died, our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway, known to us as “Gorgeous Gus” found her in her favourite rocking chair, with Tumbi at her feet.

Written by Kath and Aelwyn

After Jack died, Sallie told Mum part of their history which she hadn’t shared before, and when Sallie died, Mum in turn shared it with Rob and me, now 17 and 14. Jack had not been her first husband: she had previously been married to David, known as Davy. Her older brother Tom, fighting in the Great War, met Jack and brought him home to meet his family, and Sallie must have taken a fancy to him. She left Davy and went to live with Jack, causing quite a scandal. Her divorce from Davy took some years to come through, and Mum told us that her parents were married between the birth of her brother Philip and her own birth.

I found it difficult to picture my kindly white-haired grandma getting up to these shenanigans, but Rob and I enjoyed the romance of the story and imagined the handsome young Jack rescuing Sallie from Davy’s evil clutches.


Sarah Emily Cooper was born on 19 March 1887 in Chirk, just inside Wales. Her father John Cooper was a brick and tile maker who had moved there from the Potteries in Staffordshire.

John Cooper, in his Besses o’ th’ Barn uniform

Sallie had two older brothers, Dick and Tom, and an older sister Bella. When Sallie was just fifteen months old, her mother Alice died of typhoid fever. John was left with four children to care for, and it appears that Alice’s mother Sarah came to help out. But she developed cancer of the womb, and it might have been with her encouragement that Alice‘s younger sister Edie moved in – probably in the early 1890s – and became John’s common law wife. They couldn’t be officially wed, because until 1907 it was illegal for a widower to marry his deceased wife’s sister.

(This prohibition arose from canon law, which regarded brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law as siblings, and hence viewed sex between them as immoral. From the 1860s onwards there was a campaign to get this archaic law repealed, along with the corresponding law prohibiting a widow from marrying her deceased husband’s brother. This became such a perennial theme that Gilbert and Sullivan satirised it in Iolanthe, in which the Queen of the Fairies sings:

He shall prick that annual blister
Marriage with deceased wife’s sister.
)

Aelwyn on John Cooper (1997)

Edie had two children of her own from her first marriage, and it seems there was no room for the two younger girls with their father and their stepmother/auntie. Bella was sent to live with her aunt Annie and her husband John Stanford, a prosperous couple in Wrexham. Sallie was not so lucky. She and her brothers were sent to live with their Uncle Tom – Alice’s brother, and his sister – her auntie Emily, who was disabled, and worked as a seamstress.

So before she was seven, Sallie had lost her mother, been sent away from her father, and separated from her closest sibling, Bella. The three children were now living with an uncle and auntie who may well have resented their new responsibilities. By all accounts, hers was not a happy childhood.

Tom never married. He was a coalminer, and apparently a heavy drinker. Sallie is said to have hated him. One story is that Tom would walk for miles to reach England go to the pub – at the time pubs in Wales were closed by law on Sundays – and his route back took him over the Chirk Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, perhaps arriving home in a foul mood. Mum said Sallie used to pray for him to fall drunkenly to his death.

In 1910 at the age of 23 she married Davy Hughes, described as a terracotta model maker. Surprisingly the 1911 census shows them both living with Tom and Emily, when they might have had better options. Family stories do not support the evil persona Rob and I had invented for Davy, instead painting him as sweet natured and gentle, happy to give Sallie’s niece Marjorie a ride on his bike.

Sallie and Davy had no children. Perhaps they were happy together for a while, but when her brother Tom came back from the war and introduced his friend, Sallie must have seen something in Jack that won her over.

Sallie’s brother Tom, with Jack. Taken during WW1

In 1920 she left Davy for Jack. This was not an easy choice for her. Her behaviour was regarded as scandalous, and was frowned upon by some in her own family. But Bella was supportive, even at the cost of fierce arguments with her husband Ernest, and the two sisters remained close until Bella’s death in 1956. Davy sued for divorce, and the papers, describing events of a hundred years ago, are interesting reading.

I now see Chester and Runcorn in a new light.

Sallie and Jack set up home together: Philip was born in 1922, and Kath (my Mum) in 1925. Kath was so small at birth that the midwife doubted her chances of survival, and prepared the couple for bad news.

Sallie and Kath

The divorce was a lengthy process, and was not finalised until January 1927. Two weeks later when they married, Sallie gave her age as 34, shaving off five years, and perhaps Jack never knew her true age. Hence her reticence on the subject.

Sallie and Jack

Years later when Jack died, Sallie must have decided that Philip and Kath should hear the story of her first marriage from her, rather than perhaps from their older cousins Marjorie and Mollie. Kath now understood Sallie’s vagueness about their wedding date. But Sallie still didn’t quite tell her the full story: in her later years Kath always believed that she was born after her parents were married, and this seemed important to her in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps Sallie was sparing her feelings.

It appears that Sallie and Jack tried hard to conceal their “scandalous” history from their children – not, I imagine, out of shame – it was just love – but to protect Philip and Kath from feeling any stigma. According to her niece Maureen, Sallie burned all her old photographs, presumably to prevent her children finding them and asking awkward questions.

A couple of years ago, my daughter drew my attention to an intriguing dedication inside a volume of Tennyson’s poems which we had passed on to her.

Why would Jack dedicate the book to his “wife” Sallie in 1919, when she was still married to Davy and living with him? Perhaps he was promising Sallie that he would marry her when he could. But probably this inscription was added or amended retrospectively to deflect questions about the date of their marriage.

Without question, their life was tough, and Jack often struggled to find work in the shipyards during the depression. But they worked hard and were frugal, and my Mum’s stories from childhood suggested little money but no shortage of love and care. Sallie loved reading, and set much store in the value of education. This attitude bore rich fruit, especially in Philip, who became a Professor of English Literature and a world renowned authority on Shakespeare.

Sallie and Philip

By the time of my first memories of visiting Sallie and Jack, they seemed settled and content. As Sallie lived with us for seven years – and because she had a strong personality – she is the grandparent I recall most vividly. She was ruthless when she encountered dishonesty or pretension, and – at least at the age I knew her – made no effort to be tactful. She made rapid judgements about people, but was fiercely loyal to friends and family. She was a warm and kind person, and a loving and much loved grandma. I never knew how much she’d been through.

The Bubble-Car Picture

I hadn’t thought about it for years. After our dad died, my brother and I were performing the melancholy task of sorting through the stuff in his garage. Dad hadn’t driven for the last few years, and had sold his car, so we had used the garage to store old furniture and other things he no longer needed. An upholstered armchair doesn’t look its best after doing time in a garage, so this and most other contents were soon sorted onto the pile for the house clearance people. But there was a box of papers and pictures – some framed – which caught my eye, and I took it home with me to sort through at leisure.

My grandfather Jack – my Mum’s father – had enjoyed painting, and there were a number of his paintings there. I flicked through them, until a rural scene in a battered frame suddenly seized my attention. I was instantly back at my childhood home, where the picture had hung in our lounge. A canal runs under a bridge: a large oak tree grows on the bank beyond. Tiny figures descending a track add a cartoonish touch – a man and his dog, the man with something long over his shoulder, perhaps a gun, a fishing rod or a spade. It is annotated:

Red Bridge – Chirk ‘56. John Brockbank

Jack was not a man who liked to blow his own trumpet, so I take it either that he was proud of this painting, or that perhaps it was a gift to my mother who might have asked him to sign it. Either way, I’m glad he did.

The painting is pleasant and carefully executed, but not especially distinctive, apart from one detail which hooked into my memory and confirmed that this was indeed the picture I remembered. Through the small arch of the bridge, Jack had painted two bushes, either side of the stream. To my childish eye this had looked like two people in a bubble car, and even after I had inspected it closely, I could never quite shake this impression. And now, perhaps fifty years later, I was looking once more upon the bubble-car picture.

Chirk is in Wales, just on the border. Jack had no personal connection with the place, except that his wife Sallie had grown up there. In 1956 they were living in Wallasey, on the Wirral, some fifty miles away, but they didn’t drive. I try to imagine the day. Perhaps my parents, who lived in Irby in Cheshire at the time, took Sallie and Jack to Chirk for a picnic – possibly a nostalgic trip at Sallie’s request. Rob would have been nearly three, me a bump in my mother’s tummy. Or perhaps their son Philip came for a visit from Cambridge with his wife Doreen and baby Jonathan: Philip was restless and enjoyed trips out. I can imagine Sallie catching up with friends in town while Jack, never at ease socially, elected to remain on the riverbank with his sketchbook.

I had the painting re-framed and it now hangs in our dining room.  I had been hoping to try to find the Red Bridge – Chirk on a trip to north Wales my wife and I have planned in September: but as I write in the third week of the Coronavirus lockdown, it is looking doubtful whether we can go this year. And then, when I posted the painting in the Chirk History Facebook group – in the hope of finding its location – I was told the sad news that the bridge, on the Llangollen Canal, was destroyed in the early 1970s, and that the tree came down a few years ago.

Ah well, I still have the painting. And a lovely fellow from the Facebook group offered to take some pictures of the site on his walk and send them through.

The scene today from Jack’s viewpoint. (Phil Roberts)

The remnants of the Red Bridge. (Phil Roberts)

And I’m told the bridge looked just as Jack painted it.

The Laboratory in Chestnut Avenue

paper round 2

Mum thought she was doing me a favour, and perhaps she was. Shopping in Rickmansworth one Saturday morning she had seen a notice at the newsagent: Paperboys/girls required. The same afternoon I was signing up for duty. It wasn’t perfect – the nearest available round was Bridle Lane in Loudwater, a hilly two miles from our home in Chestnut Avenue. But it paid thirty shillings a week – one pound ten! That was better than five bob pocket money.

It was November, and the dark mornings had arrived. Next morning I switched on my battery lamps and cycled down the rough of Park Avenue, freewheeling joyfully down Troutstream Way, and pedalling laboriously up the other side until my legs could do no more, and I had to get off and push. Mr Ward met me there and showed me the round: Bridle Lane was, and is, a genteel and quirky private road, with names not numbers if you please, and more than its share of thatched roofs and swimming pools. Presumably the children who lived there had no need of extra pocket money, or else attended boarding schools.  “This can be a great job” Mr Ward confided, “when you’re up before everyone else, and the sun is shining. When it’s cold and wet, though…”. He showed me the hidden entrances and pointed out where the aggressive dogs lived. “Get it done by eight during the week, nine at the weekends.”

A few weeks in, I found a manilla envelope sellotaped to one of the front doors, marked For the Paper Boy. Inside was a ten shilling note. A decent Christmas tip for about twenty deliveries.

But the first winter was tough. The roads were frequently icy so I had to take the downhill very gingerly. Going up Troutstream Way there was grand looking house with a large window, showing a rich red carpet adorning two flights of stairs. It looked so warm and luxurious in there, I felt like an orphan boy, shut out in the cold.

And there was a girl, a pretty one, who rode with her bag of papers in the opposite direction, but we didn’t acknowledge each other. I invented scenarios where she had fallen off her bike and I came to her rescue, but it didn’t happen.

paper round 1

By the time I had reached Bridle Lane, my fingers were numb from clutching the handlebars, and could barely open the stack of papers, or separate them. The only effective remedy, I found, was sheepskin mittens.

Sometimes if Watford had been playing the night before, I would pounce on the pile, and pull out a tabloid to find the score inside the back page – back then newspapers actually contained news, sometimes. I would also make straight for the Daily Sketch, so I could read Peanuts.

If a customer had cancelled their papers for a holiday, still half asleep I might accidentally put the next paper in the stack through their door, at which I cursed myself. I hated to get it wrong. Someone complained that their paper was soaking wet on delivery, and I worked out that, on rainy days, it might be better to keep the paper in the bag until I reached the front door.

Sundays were good and bad. Good, because I had an extra hour in bed. Bad, because the papers were huge, especially the Sunday Times. At least they seemed huge to a small thirteen year old boy, and the narrow bag strap cut into my shoulder. If a house had a tiny letterbox, sorry but the paper was left on the doorstep, rain or shine. Fridays were heavy too, back when everyone took the Watford Observer.

Bridle Lane

We never took a bath in the morning back then, and a shower was just something I had at school after rugby. I just got back from a forty minute paper round plus a strenuous four mile bike ride in my school clothes, washed my hands – filthy from newsprint if I wasn’t wearing gloves – ate breakfast and went off to school. Did I stink? In winter probably, in summer definitely, but hey, all the boys did in those days.

Saturdays were the best. The start was late and the stack was light. And I could pick up my pay in Rickmansworth. It seemed like a fortune. I think now I should have spent it on adventures with friends, bought classic pop records, even spent it on girlfriends if only, but I was a prudent little fellow and “invested” it in my coin collection, convinced that the old coinage would soar in value after decimalisation. I still have the collection, and I’m still waiting.

Cycling four miles each morning before breakfast must have made me fitter, but I was envious of my older brother Rob, who had taken on the paper round in our road for a rival newsagent. He just had to roll out of bed and walk for five minutes to pick up his papers: sometimes I wondered if he finished the round without waking up. So I asked Mr Ward to let me know if the round in our road came free. At last it did, so I quit the Bridle Lane round and took it over. My pay went down by one sixth but the time went down by one third, and Rob and I would pass each other in the road with our bags.

Chestnut Avenue2

Eventually, with his A-levels approaching, Rob decided to give up his round. The opportunism and ruthlessness later to characterise my business career was already taking shape, and with his cooperation I hatched a plan. Without either of us telling the shop, I took over his deliveries for two weeks, and turned up at the newsagent in Chorleywood – then on the corner of the Rickmansworth Road and Solesbridge Lane – to claim my pay.

The shop was run by a sour-faced lady with a disconcerting habit of shaking her head doubtfully while you were addressing her. At first she demurred, but I explained that Rob had quit, and I had already been doing the round for a fortnight. Her small eyes narrowed in concentration, and she must have reasoned that, indeed, the pay had not been collected, there had been no complaints from customers, and that I had saved her the inconvenience of finding someone else for the round. The job was mine, and at just fifteen, I controlled the newspaper delivery racket in Chestnut Avenue.

I experimented with doubling up: I put one bag on each shoulder and tried to complete both deliveries in one circuit, but I limped like an overburdened mule, and on Sundays the weight was impossible. In addition I would frequently have to retrace my steps when I forgot to check one of the bags for the next delivery. In the end, scientific study showed that it was no slower, and much easier, to do the rounds sequentially.

This had consequences for the disgruntled customer who, leaving for work unreasonably early, complained that his Telegraph was often arriving too late. I offered a perfunctory apology and walked on. He must have escalated his complaint to the shop, who probably reassured him that the delivery was being made before the required deadline. Soon his daily paper appeared in the rival newsagent’s stack: sadly for him this was the batch I delivered second. I like to think he saw me walk past his house, knowing that it would be another half hour before I got round to bringing him his paper. That’s what you get.

Power corrupts, they say, and hubris was setting in. There was a local evening paper, the Evening Echo, and we had a daily delivery by car. I couldn’t tolerate the presence of these incomers on my territory, so I volunteered to take it over. I was shown the round on a driving tour of Chorleywood and half of Rickmansworth, four miles, perhaps, with deliveries to about fifteen houses, dotted around the Rickmansworth Alps of Valley Road, the Clump and the Drive. It took two fellows to give me this tour: perhaps one fellow was showing me the ropes, and showing the other fellow how to show the ropes to other fellows.

Echo newsboys and newsgirls collected the money from each subscriber on Friday evening, and handed it over at base camp less their bit of pay, so pay was proportional to the number of houses on the round. With the help of a sales promotion, I hatched what seemed a brilliant business plan. I energetically canvassed my road for new subscribers, and signed up about ten. Then I toured round to the five most isolated and awkward houses on the route, and informed them that deliveries would be discontinued. I had turned a widely scattered round with fifteen subscribers into a compact one with twenty. Brilliant, no?

You might have spotted the flaw in my plan. When I returned to base next Friday, I was given one week’s money in lieu, and told that my services were no longer required. A customer had kicked up a fuss at being told he couldn’t have the Echo delivered, and the sales team had taken his side. I learned, perhaps, that the smartest business plan will fail if it upsets customers.

About this time my grandfather, a retired headmaster, expressed in a letter to my parents his disapproval at me having three paper rounds, and his concern that I might be too busy and too tired to apply myself properly to my studies. Ah, that’s why I couldn’t do calculus. Still, it gave me cover to make a graceful retreat.

By now my own A-levels were approaching, but there was still time for one more experiment on my remaining rounds in my Chestnut Avenue laboratory. I learned that some school-friends distributed Christmas cards on about the 10th December, to remind their customers that t’was the season to be generous. Cynical? I suppose. More cynical, though, (but perhaps it could be excused as a contribution to economic science?) would be to distribute cards only to the even numbers, and then keep a careful tally of the returns.

I estimated that the delivery of a cheap Christmas card boosted tips by an average of about 50%, which was nice to have, but this insight came too late to be useful, because before long I hung up the old shoulder bags for good. And that would have been that, but for Mrs H, a family friend who lived at number 45. She had heard that her friend across the road had received a Christmas card from the paperboy, and enquired gently with my parents whether she had upset me in some way. Er, no, sorry about that, Mrs H.

Basil Murray Savage 1910-1994

mr-savage-wfs-0001

You don’t usually remember much about the kids in the year above you at school: any interaction tends to be fleeting, unless, for example, you’re good enough to play in the school football team a year early.  But I remember Andrew Skinner, or should I say, Skinner! because that was how I usually heard his name, being shouted by an angry teacher.  He was frequently in trouble, but to me he seemed wild rather than malicious.  More than fifty years after we were schoolmates in primary school, I know much more about him.

I recently wrote a piece called Teacher’s Pet, gentle nostalgia about my time at Watford Field School, including recollections of my fourth year teacher Mr Savage, who taught me in 1966-67.  Ten year olds have only the vaguest idea of the age of adults: he was clearly older than my Dad and younger than my grandfathers.  In fact he was 56 years old when he taught me.  He was heavily built, an imposing physical presence for ten year olds.  He had been at the school forever – back in 1939 he was recorded as a schoolmaster, living in Queens Road, Watford.

I painted him as old fashioned, strict, inclined to corporal punishment, but quirky and in some ways likeable.  Of course this view was coloured by my personal relationship with him: I was good at my lessons, hardworking and hated getting into trouble, and I generally liked him – enough even to come back with a friend to visit his class once or twice after starting at Watford Grammar School.  But not everyone had my habit of obedience, or got the answers right.

Savage signature001

After Teacher’s Pet appeared in the Watford Memories Facebook page, some former pupils offered a very different view of him.

“Being lifted off the bench by your ear, your hair forcibly rubbed the wrong way, a blackboard compasses needle being rapidly stabbed between your widespread fingers and the Chinese burn on your wrist weren’t something I can say I enjoyed. Not forgetting the table tennis bat.  I was frequently clipped around the head or ear for really doing nothing other than glancing away when he was talking or patrolling. On the occasion he grabbed my wrist and struck me across my knuckles with the edge of a wooden ruler I vowed I wasn’t going back to school. I feigned illness for a few days but my father twigged and got the whole story out of me. Parents’ evening was coming up and on the night he put on his full RAF uniform and peaked cap and took me with him. He was 6 feet tall, athletic and a Warrant Officer. As a one time Flight Sergeant and drill instructor he knew how to stand tall and direct his voice. At the time of the appointment he asked the teacher certain questions – along the lines of 1. Does my son attend school regularly? 2. Is he on time? 3. Does he behave? 4. Does he try his best? And 5. Is he polite? Mr Savage replied (and I remember this very clearly) in soft appeasing tones a positive yes to each question. My dad stood up to his full height and said. “If my son misbehaves then by all means punish in a way that is appropriate but”- and he leant forward and put his forefinger on the nose of the teacher – ” should you again strike him for no reason there will be a hole in that wall behind you … formed by you passing through it”. And with that took my arm and led me away straight to Mr Colman in order to inform him of what he had just said to Mr Savage. At the age of eleven, my respect and sense of awe of my dad went sky high.”

Savage’s behaviour here fits the stereotype of a bully who is, at heart, a coward.  Another story confirms his tendency to arbitrary acts of violence:

“Mr Savage could be very nice and smiley and almost purred when he was in a good mood such as on a school coach trip to Cheddar Gorge that I was on. He came up to me and started stroking my right ear whilst saying he remembered my older brother (who had been in his class 5 years before).  I didn’t feel comfortable with him doing this but kept quiet. When I joined his class the next term I soon realised that he easily became flustered and irritated when there was any behaviour that he disliked, as there was with two or three of the boys. He went very red and called out to whichever miscreant to come up to the front of the class and would say “bend over boy” before hitting him on the backside with one of his several bats depending on the seriousness of the misdemeanour – a table tennis bat for the first offence and then larger instruments like a rounders bat up to a cricket bat for really serious transgressions.

I didn’t want any of the above to happen to me so I didn’t play up at all. However I suffered a very unpleasant episode when I arrived for school one morning. Mr Savage came up to me very obviously flustered and red in the face. He asked me “where is so and so?”  I can’t remember who he was asking for. While I thought about it he started hitting me around the head with his hand which was very unpleasant. This only stopped when he realised I did not know about the person he was talking about. He hurried off to approach someone else. This incident really shook me and I told my mum about it when I got home. She was all for going to see the headmaster, Mr Colman, the next day but I asked her not to as I did not want Mr Savage to take it out on me for reporting him, so she reluctantly agreed not to go into school.”

From a female perspective:

“He was evil. The bat wasn’t only for the boys. He didn’t care what he used.  The board rubber used to fly across the classroom.”

Savage’s conduct with the girls in his charge did not go unnoticed by school authorities at the time:

“After complaints about the way he treated girls he was given a boys only class for a few years until it was forgotten. It was like priests just being moved to another parish where they could start abusing again.”

Yet most agree that Savage was an effective teacher by some criteria. Success was measured by how many of his pupils went on to the local grammar schools: in earlier years through the eleven-plus exam, later through his continuous assessment reports.  My parents certainly thought highly of him.  He was thorough, hardworking and methodical, but fear was an important part of his armoury.  Some former pupils have spoken in his support, albeit usually in qualified terms.  One of the girls he taught commented:

“I remember Mr Savage well and didn’t particularly like it when he went for your ear lobe and gave it a rub but I seriously don’t think he meant it in an abusive way. It was a game of ‘quick get away, he’s got me’ and we all used to laugh. It was always in the open. I was at Watford Fields during the 60’s and have many happy memories. Sure, we tried to avoid Savage wherever possible but back then it was ‘normal’ to get punished for misbehaving, my brother was one of these but it hasn’t caused him any sort of anxiety, we just took it as normal. I was tapped on the bottom a couple of times by Savage in a ‘playful’ way, but I was only ten so had no knowledge of any sort of sexual misbehaviour. In hindsight I can see that it was highly inappropriate but I have laughed about this with several former pupils over the years.”

A boy he taught said this:

“I was in Mr Savage’s class 4B and never had a problem with him apart from getting the bat across the backside and having the chalk duster thrown at you if you were misbehaving. He went out of the class room one day so we took the opportunity to break his wooden bat in half, he was furious but never did find out who did it. I don’t recall anyone having an issue with him, he was strict but most teachers were back then.

The most glowing report of him comes from a boy who Savage taught while still in his thirties:

“Yes, I was a Savage victim. Savage by name and nature but by God he got results and I not only remember him, but his ruler and every detail of his button nose and glasses…and he had a class of fifty pupils.  He taught me to observe and love live and to take an interest in whatever. I still remember most of the poems that we were obliged to learn by him and that was in 1949. I got a scholarship to Watford Boys Grammar and from there bigger and better things. I thank Savage for most of my education. I learnt more in that one year that has lasted me a lifetime, and I am now 82.”

 

Teacher’s Pet was intended as a light-hearted piece.  It was the truth through my eyes, but it wasn’t the whole truth.  I omitted the story of my worst experience of Savage, which still troubles me, and which I have previously shared with just one person.  But if Andrew Skinner has the courage to tell his story, it shouldn’t be so difficult for me.

One afternoon Mr Savage was called out of class.  He set the class some reading, and as I was one of his favourites, and regarded as reliable, he instructed me to write down the names of any children who spoke while he was gone.  Of course, we were lively kids, and after a couple of minutes there was already quite a hubbub.  I set about my task diligently, perhaps vengefully, recording friends and foes alike, annoyed that the “authority” I had been given was being ignored.  There were nearly fifty in the class, and so many were now talking that I struggled to keep up and became flustered.  Little Robespierre that I was, I took the instruction literally: one well behaved and good natured boy, whom I counted among my friends, politely asked whether he was on the list.  Well he was now.

When the noise had built to a crescendo, the door suddenly opened and Savage strode back into the classroom.  He took the list from me, and called the names from it one by one – I think this included the girls – and made each kid – bad and good – bend over, and hit them on the backside with what I recall as an outsize table tennis bat.

Soon after he had finished, the bell rang for afternoon break, and a sombre class filed out into the playground.  I stood on my own in a corner, horrified at what I had wrought, unable to face my friends.  One or two kids did approach me, though – the louder ones, hardened by habitual punishment, to ask why I’d failed to put them on the list.

If anyone held a grudge, it didn’t last for more than a day or so, but the memory stayed with me.  So much that in the age of social media, I made contact with one of the victims – the one who had asked if he was on the list – and apologised.  He had no recollection of the incident, but I have found it harder to forget.

 

The tone of gentle nostalgia in Teacher’s Pet struck an especially false note for Andrew Skinner.  He commented:

“I am glad he didn’t harm you. Fifty four years later and I am still suffering from the damage that man did to me.”

Skinner is autistic but was diagnosed only recently.  In the 1960s when he was at primary school, autistic behaviour was not widely understood, and was not distinguished from misconduct.  Many teachers thought the remedy was a good beating.  Skinner describes one experience in vivid terms:

“Mr Savage lost his temper with me and launched an assault. He slapped me around the head, body and backside until I blacked out and lost consciousness from the pain. I came round in a pool of my own urine and dragged myself to my desk as he continued to beat me. My life was effectively destroyed by that man.  My life and self-respect died that day.”

The trigger for this assault was astonishingly trivial.  Another boy had knocked the blackboard off its easel – clumsily rather than deliberately – as the class filed back in after lunch, and Savage blamed Skinner.  The punishment was inappropriate for an accidental offence and it was given to the wrong person, but most damagingly it was hugely excessive. Only recently has Skinner found some closure for this trauma:

“I made a report to the police over fifty years after the horrendous abuse took place. I spoke to a specialist historic abuse team who were very sympathetic and they took a statement. They came back to me and told me that they could find no trace of him still being alive and at that time they had not received any other complaints. It was good to be listened to. This along with the comments made here (Facebook) by other victims helps with a sense of validation.”

I contacted Skinner to ask his permission to tell his story.  He summarised his view of Savage:

“It is true that he could be charming, inspirational, funny and that he got results. He was also a petty tyrant who ruled by fear.  He regularly casually struck students around the head, seemed to take pleasure in hitting both boys and girls with his bat and occasionally completely lost control and launched attacks like the one I suffered.”

As Skinner went on to Watford Grammar School, ironically Savage may have regarded him as one of his “successes”.  At the age of 64, Skinner is now a 7th dan black belt kick-boxer teaching 15 classes a week, and his Facebook page shows a good life and a happy family.   So I gently questioned his assertion that Savage had destroyed his life.  This was his response:

“The experience had far reaching, some permanent impacts. My self-confidence and self-esteem were shattered and there was an impact on my sexuality and ability to make and maintain relationships. I still have nightmares and have had periods of clinical depression and anxiety. I really only started addressing it a couple of years ago when I had a very late diagnosis of ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) which made sense of a lot of other experiences. Yes I have had two successful careers and am very lucky in my second marriage. I have seen the world and enjoyed some great experiences. This has been despite the experience.”

Skinner seems to have received little parental support.  In response to the story above which concerns the RAF father, he posted

“I wish I had a dad like yours. If I had complained to my father even after he beat me unconscious I would have been in more trouble for getting in trouble at school.”

His parents’ perspective may have been to welcome the school’s help in curbing what they saw as the bad behaviour of their son.

Former pupils’ recollections of Savage fall into three broad categories.  There are those who did not (often) get on the wrong side of him, and perhaps look back on him tolerantly – although in my case, he still left his mark.  There are those who frequently behaved badly, but recognise that their bad behaviour was a choice: they knew what the likely punishment was and accepted that they “had it coming”, and that it was “the way things were done in those days”.

But the third category is where the damage was done, in cases where children felt there was injustice, perhaps because Savage hit them when they had not misbehaved, or merely for getting an answer wrong, or where there was extreme violence.  In Skinner’s case his autism meant he was not able to modify his behaviour – perhaps distraction, staring or an expression of confusion being mistaken for insolence – and he was severely punished for something outside his control.

Corporal punishment was widespread at the time, particularly at more traditional schools, and it may be that most children suffered no lasting damage from proportionate discipline – if seen as just, by contemporary standards.  But where injustice is perceived, or the punishment is excessive, it creates a grievance which can cast a long and dark shadow.

Savage has been dead for twenty-six years, and has been put on trial on Facebook with no chance of reply.  We should not judge him for his failure to recognise autism – very few did back then.  His teaching methods – when kept within reasonable limits – were effective, and not unusual by the standards of the 1960s.  And we don’t know whether he might himself have been the victim of violence in his childhood, or traumatic wartime experiences.  But he has had his supporters in this debate, and none has denied that he regularly hit children or that they feared him: meanwhile others have confirmed the extreme severity of his punishments.   His repeated bullying of children, and the awful violence of his attacks when he lost his temper – these are difficult to forgive, and for some, impossible.

Of course Andrew would always have had to try to manage his autism, but his traumatic and violent memories – caused by the absence of diagnosis and by Savage’s temper – mean that it has taken most of a lifetime to rebuild his self-esteem and his life from zero.  With ongoing therapy, it is still a work in progress.

savage grave

(Thanks to Andy Skinner for allowing me to tell his story, and to a former classmate for the photo of Savage.)

Teacher’s Pet

Watford Field 1A
Watford Field Junior School, class 1A with Mrs Stanton, 1963/64

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.

Rik
What Alan Bennett has described as “a fully developed ability not quite to enjoy myself”

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.”

 

The shadow on the lawn

Chestnut Avenue

and it was, let’s say, late July, early in the holidays…hot days, promised by the morning fog and dew, time suspended…papers delivered hours ago, work done…toes trailing in water, sun on my back…John Arlott…360 for 4, Sobers bats next…drifting to the side, nudging to the middle…bee buzzes…I raise my head, the shadow of beech trees creeps closer…getting near five thirty maybe now but still warm

pool

THE GRILL PAN HANDLE

9DEBC9D1-F7A0-4328-AE27-F65926542D3F

Three days after my wife and I moved into our first house together, the previous owner arrived unannounced at the front door.  He was a confident young barrister with a wife who was heavily pregnant: an aspirational couple, which no doubt influenced our decision to buy the house at the top of an overheated market.

I was upstairs when my wife opened the door, but I had no difficulty in hearing him, as he declared his business in his best courtroom voice.  He went through a few loose ends arising from the house purchase before producing with a flourish an object for us from his bag.

“AND THIS…IS THE GRILL PAN HANDLE”

Of course.  It must, we thought, be often the fate of the humble grill pan handle to be separated from its parent grill pan: the grill pan stays in the oven and is going nowhere, while the handle is sent on its travels with the other contents of the utensils drawer. You’d think removals people would get used to that one.  Anyway, we gratefully accepted it and saw it happily reunited with its parent.  But the manner of its return stayed with us, and for some years our kitchen would resound to dialogue like:

“Please could you pass the GRILL PAN HANDLE” and

“Have you seen the GRILL PAN HANDLE?” and

“I put it to the court, M’lud, that this is the GRILL PAN HANDLE.”

Ours was a terraced house, and the lady the other side of the shared wall worked as a journalist on the Evening Standard.  I couldn’t comment on the quality of her research, but one day we did notice an article headed The ten biggest causes of marital rows.  Grill Pan Handles was right there at number three after money and sex.

A few years later, the anticipation and excitement felt on the approach of the year 2000 was qualified by fear of what the millennium bug might wreak on us: missile defence systems would be accidentally triggered and cause nuclear war, supermarkets would run out of yoghurt, etc.  In the event, thankfully, the bug turned out rather a damp squib, although it was reported that in two states of Australia bus ticket validation machines failed to operate.

But this rare turning of the year didn’t pass without an epic moment.  Just hours before the new millennium dawned, my brother phoned.  His family had moved house a few days earlier, and he had called me to report that the previous owner had just called round…to drop off the GRILL PAN HANDLE.  Or perhaps just the grill pan handle.  I don’t recall which, it was eighteen years ago.

Colin

boys in line

My primary school was near the middle of town: a Victorian building, surrounded by tarmac playgrounds, bounded by black iron railings. Boys would play in one part, girls and infants in the other. I remember it vividly. I went to look at it recently when I was in town: since 1967 nothing has changed, it’s still the same, even the light blue paint trying to brighten up the doors and windows.

There was a boy called Tony. A friendly lad, and bright enough that he was in 3a rather than 3b. He had a speech impediment, although he could always make himself understood. He also had an incontinence problem, which resulted in his wetting himself in lessons from time to time.

He was a playground buddy, and when we tired of kicking a sock-ball around the playground, Tony and I would join with a boy called Colin and the three of us would run around playing ‘it’ or some other game of our own invention.

At the end of break, or playtime as it was called, a teacher would come out and blow a whistle: the boys were supposed to form into orderly lines ready to file back into class. One day, Tony was standing close to the front. The boy standing behind him, who was called Carl, decided it would be funny to hold his nose (although Tony was dry) and take himself to the back of the queue. The next in line was a crony of Carl’s, and did the same.

One by one, as they came up behind Tony, the boys peeled off. I had started about ten places behind him, but rapidly moved up the queue. Soon it was my turn.

I went to the back.

Colin had been one place behind me. Now he stood behind Tony. There were jeers.

“Are you a bed wetter too, Colin?”

Colin’s face turned bright red, but he stayed there, and at last we filed into class.

* * * * *

Recently I discovered that Colin and his wife were running a small B&B in the West Country: as we were planning a holiday in Cornwall anyway, we booked a couple of nights there. It was a lovely place, and after fifty years Colin’s character was just as I remembered it. When we were leaving, I asked my wife to take a picture of the two of us. Looking at it later, it struck me how contented he looked – happy in his own skin, a good man.

Silly Mid-Off

cricket

WBGS u12s fifth wicket down. Time to pad up. Sit down, standing up shows a lack of confidence in the boys at the crease. Waiting. McKenzie and Wright are doing OK. I bat at number eight and I don’t bowl, so I don’t know how I got in the team. I guess the best batsmen are also the best bowlers. My stomach is churning. I hate this part so much. Only six overs left, perhaps they’ll bat it out. Or perhaps not.  There is a shout and my chest tightens at the small distant movement of wood.

I’m vaguely aware of Colyer saying “good luck” and slapping me on the back as I get ready to go. It’s a long walk out there. Please god, let me score one run, and I won’t be the worst. I nod at McKenzie as we meet. He got fourteen, not bad. As I reach the wicket Wright raises a hand to acknowledge me, but has no wisdom to impart. I ask for middle and leg and make my mark.

The visiting captain orders a boy in to silly mid-off and he tries to stare me down. Suddenly I’m not nervous any more, my blood is up. He’s trying to intimidate me. Got that wrong hasn’t he? He might catch me out, but I could knock his teeth in. Legitimately.  He tries again. “They make ’em small in Watford, don’t they?” I glare back, flexing the bat. “I’m going to play my shots mate. Try not to get in the way.”

The bowler runs in fast, but seems to lose momentum before he bowls. It’s a loose one, thank you god, and I clatter it to the leg side. There’s a loud thwack – I didn’t time it well – but it’s good for two. I’m on my way.

– – – – – –

WBGS u13s. A hot Saturday afternoon. Twelfth Man. Some kids hate it but I don’t mind, it means I can be part of the team without having to do anything. The visiting team has only brought eleven.

It’s not going well. They bat first and reach 124, and we struggle to 78 for 9. One of the fielders twists his ankle, and the umpires consult. Mr McCabe calls me over. “Edwards! You’re fielding for Latimer.”

I look at the captain, and he sends me to silly mid-off.  Cowardly, he wouldn’t go there himself, he won’t even order one of his own team there. I take up position and he motions me still closer to the bat. Paul Green is at the crease. I give him an apologetic grin, and he nods back. Three balls pass without incident. The fourth he plays forward, and it’s nothing, it just bobs up a little.

Before I can ponder my loyalties I have sprung forward and got my right hand under the ball. Green looks at me wryly and shakes his head. There’s a smattering of embarrassed applause from the visitors. As we head for the changing rooms, the visiting umpire seeks me out and gives me half a crown. “Well done son. Buy yourself a shandy.”

The team are all right about it, I tainted the opposition’s victory a little, and we were going to lose anyway. I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. Not quite sure what a shandy is, though.

– – – – – –

WBGS 3rd XI, 15 June 1974. A large windy field, Tiffins School. It’s not going well, we’re 42 all out. But get this, I scored 15 of them, no-one else managed more than 5. Mr Roxan told me I was the only one in the team to play a straight bat.

They get to 39 for 3. I’m in the outfield, and suddenly, it’s a high fly ball, Charlie Brown. Time slows down as the ball arcs down into my waiting hands. And out again. It dribbles over the boundary. Match over, with no chance of redemption.

That summer afternoon in 1974 was the end of my competitive cricket career. I missed it a little. But how I felt when I was next in, no, I never missed that.