Tuesday, 28 January 2014

My Journey: Chapter 7. – A Tale of Two Schools

When I first started to write this chapter of the story of my journey from ordinary middle class boy to alcoholic drop out, I began to use real names. Courage, however, has failed me somewhat, so I have replaced real names with pseudonyms to protect the innocent, myself included. You may also be wondering what on earth all this has to do with alcohol. Well, nothing yet! But we’ll get to that bit later.

As my mum drove me down the long, tree lined, drive to my first day at ‘The English Public School’, I knew things were going to be different for me now, very different indeed. It was 1975. Harold Wilson presided over a recession battered Britain, the bloody Vietnam War had only just ended, the IRA was bombing London and unemployment had risen above the one million mark. Meanwhile, the pop charts were filled with the pleasant little ditties of Rod Stewart, Hot Chocolate and Jasper Carrot and the Sex Pistols had yet to scream their way onto the scene and lead the way for the avalanche of protest that would become British Punk Rock. I, however, was more concerned with my move to a new school.

I’d spent my first year of secondary education on what turned out to be a glorious testament to the comprehensive secondary education system of the time. Having made my own way across town courtesy of my shiny new council bus pass and the local maroon buses, I stood nervously by the entrance of the school ready for my first day. The happy, fun filled days of my primary school years had in no way prepared me for the culture shock I was about to experience. I had arrived early so I stood alone and waited by the entrance to the two-story, sixties built, school building. After a while, I saw another boy making his way across the tarmac towards me. He was a stocky built lad, with long black hair, black platform shoes , and even though it was the first day at school, his maroon school blazer was already worn at the elbows, obviously a hand-me-down from an older brother.

 “Are you hard?” He asked with no other word of introduction when he arrived at the entrance.
“No, ” I replied nervously, “err, not really”.
“Well, my brother is the hardest in the school and I’m going to be the hardest now.” He stated as a matter of fact. He then placed his school bag on the ground and stood, arms folded in front of him and waited to make his mark on the other new boys arriving at the school. That first encounter was to be the signpost for the rest of that school year in the British state education system of the time..

I spent the next twelve months of my life trying to be invisible. I learned to keep my eyes towards the floor as I walked between classes through the bustling corridors that always stank of stink bombs. Making eye contact with any other pupil would invariably lead to a “what you looking at?” challenge. In the classroom as well, it was safer not to be noticed as corporal punishment was the order of the day with each teacher having his own weapon of choice; the old trainer in PE, the ruler in maths and a good old fashioned spanking in RE. The ultimate deterrent was a sound caning by the headmaster which turned out to be not much of a deterrent at all as there was always a long queue of boys outside his office.

At lunchtimes any games of football were frequently interrupted by cries of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” as an excited crowd circled around the two combatants. This fighting was nothing like the handbags at dawn fisticuffs that occasionally occurred at primary school, this was for real. The boys got hurt; there was real blood and occasionally even real knives. Teachers didn’t break these fights up by themselves, re-enforcements were always called. Eventually, though, I found my niche in the school. I made some friends, learnt the routine and began to fit in. My hair grew fashionably long and my mum even relented and bought me some platform shoes, albeit the safe option from Clarks. Towards the end of the summer term I even got accepted by the smoking crew on the back seat of the top deck of the bus on the way home.

All this hard work was to go to waste though. My mum and dad, completely oblivious to what the comprehensive school was really like, had high expectations  of their eldest son and they were hoping to hear great tidings of my progress in what, for some unfathomable reason, they thought was one of the town's better schools. Alas, though, at the first parents' day, this was not to be. It was not my lack of progress that was the disappointment; it was my very lack of existence. Apparently, on collaring the headmaster of the school to enquire as to their son’s academic prowess, they were told quite simply that; as he hadn’t heard of me I must be doing OK! It would seem that my invisibility ploy had worked a little too well. And so, that evening in the car on the way home, my dad vowed to get me into the nearest public school, whatever it took. Holidays were cancelled, cutbacks made and mum went back to work to ensure that the school fees could be afforded and, an entrance exam later, I was being driven to my first day at my new, posh, school.

And so with a brand new blue blazer, uncomfortably short hair and a briefcase, replacing my old battered sports bag, I found myself being driven down a tree lined drive with a neatly mown cricket pitch to the left and an athletic field to the right, towards my first day at public school. My new school was an odd conglomeration of standalone old and new buildings that seemed to have been thrown together with no thought or planning. An imposing Victorian manor house sat oddly with the modern, two story science blocks and a long row of classrooms which protruded like a misplaced limb stretching out into to the playing fields, a separate building for changing rooms which stood well away from the school gymnasium. Two Portkabins served as classrooms for English and History whilst a vast, cold outbuilding which was heated by Bunsen burners turned up full in the winter served as the geology lab.

But, despite the haphazard conglomeration of building styles, everything was neat and orderly. One of the first things that struck me was the flower beds that were scattered around the buildings. They hadn’t been trampled down; there were actually flowers still in them! On my first visit of the toilets I was stunned even further, not only by the lack of graffiti, but also by the absence of any boys huddled in groups smoking.
The first teacher I met was my form teacher, who was also to be my English teacher, and he introduced me to my first friend at the school, Ian, who he had tasked with helping me find my way around.
I can’t say I was pleased to be starting at public school. It was a posh school and I had visions of scowling teachers with canes wearing gowns and mortar boards and pupils who spoke with plums in their mouths and were all heirs to fortunes. Instead, it was a surprising mixture. There were the boys who always had everything; full cricket whites for cricket, different boots for football and rugby, running spikes for athletics and always had a new pair of shoes for the start of a new term, but equally I was not alone in having to make do with playing cricket in my school trousers with my school shirt sleeves rolled up or running the cross country course in my heavy football come rugby boots. Despite this, I don’t recall experiencing any snobbery among the boys at the school, though comments were made about boys visiting from outside, state schools, for sports fixtures.
It was on such a day that the chasm between my old and new schools really struck me. The school day had ended and I was standing chatting with a group of friends just outside of the sports changing rooms when we spotted a group of boys we didn’t know walking toward us. Their worn maroon blazers a stark contrast to our smart blue ones instantly identified them as strangers from another school. Long hair, flared trousers and scuffed platform shoes, the football team from my old school made their way towards the changing rooms carrying their battered Adiddas sports bags over their shoulders.

“Hey, look who it is” one of them shouted. I looked closer and realised that they were from my year. At first, I wasn’t sure what to do. Pretend I don’t know them? But it was too late; they were coming over to see me.                

“What you doing here?” -  “You have gone all posh then?” the questions and greetings came thick and fast.

My public school friends melted away and I was left chatting with my old mates. We only had a few minutes before they were herded by their teachers into the changing rooms and the new, posh friends returned.

This strange and unexpected collision of two very different worlds, even at this early age, really did highlight to me the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots in England at that time; two different societies living side by side but with very different lives and very different aspirations. I would later be reminded again of these differences when I eventually allowed alcohol to get the better of me and I fell from grace in the upper echelons of English society.

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