“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll.
At junior school I didn’t have very much to do with girls, viewing them as being similar to boys, only even worse.
The girls tended to hang out together in their little groups. The dweebs, the cool girls, the sporty ones, you know how it goes. There’s always some poor bugger who gets left out though and, at our school, that girl was Nicola Dawson. She wasn’t clever enough to get in with the dweebs, wasn’t groovy enough for the cool girls and wasn’t interested in sports. So she spent a lot of playtimes and dinnertimes standing by herself in the yard. I felt a bit bad about it on the rare occasions that I noticed, but not bad enough to do anything about it.
Occasionally we all – almost all, you can guess who got left out – played together at playtime. If we did, it was always ‘schools’, which, even at the time, I remember thinking of as lacking imagination. When we played schools, the kids who were the clever ones got to be the teachers and the littlest kids got to be the kids, which must have been a right laugh for them, eh? I was always assigned the role of caretaker…
Diversion – My First Proper Kiss
Around this time, on Sports Day, I was sitting around on the field in the sunshine while some races that I wasn’t in were on. Probably reading. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see that it was Peter Howard, who did hang around with girls and had been labelled – as all boys who played with girls were in the 1970s – gay. Whatever that meant. Peter motioned me to go with him, which I didn’t. He told me that Sarah Coverdale wanted to see me behind the prefab. Sarah Coverdale wasn’t the cock of the school. that was Donna Larvin but Sarah was her right hand, er, girl.
I went with him and, behind the prefab, Sarah motioned for me to sit down next to her, which I did.
Peter announced that Sarah fancied me. I didn’t say anything. He then said, “Do you want to kiss her?”
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t mad about the idea, but Clanger had snogged Celia Newlove a couple of weeks earlier and told us that was the moment he realised he was a boy no longer. I didn’t like the idea of being left behind, so I said, “Yeah.”
Sarah said, “Go on then,”
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. It was true. Whenever I’d watched any films with snogging in, like James Bond films, I immediately closed my eyes because snogging was – of course – for girls. Don’t ask. Not for the first or last time, I hadn’t really thought it through.
Peter said, “It’s easy, you just open and close your mouth. Like a goldfish.” He did a goldfish impression. Like I keep telling you, nobody thought I was anything other than a moron when I was at school. Not without reason either.
So, I leaned over and did the goldfish thing and realised that, yet again, Clanger was full of shit.
I was due to be in a race, so I made my excuses. Sarah said, “I’ll see you tonight, here at seven,” It wasn’t a question. “Don’t tell anyone or I’ll kill you,” she said.
Back on the field, I sat next to Ian Russell and immediately told him what had happened. He wasn’t impressed in the slightest. I’d begun to cool on it too. I told him about the date that had been arranged for me that evening.
“You’ve had it, Mid,” was his considered verdict.
I decided to stand her up. Instead I did what I did every night, which was go to the park to play – as it was summer – cricket with my mates. I was a bit worried that Sarah might turn up and beat the crap out of me in front of my mates, but as the evening wore on, it seemed less and less likely to happen.
As the gloaming drew in though, I saw two figures approaching. It was Sarah and Donna Larvin. This was it. I was going to get killed by girls. In public. Probably in my bottom three* ideal scenarios for an evening at that point.
Donna approached and told me that if I ever messed her mate about again she would kill me. In public. She turned around and walked off with Sarah. I was surprised at Donna’s mercy. Perhaps she thought I was too much of a fanny to bother with, or perhaps Sarah had pleaded for clemency. I don’t know. Maybe neither. Either way, it put me off girls for a bit.
End of Diversion
There were some differences between our playtime school and our actual school…
Those were the days when corporal punishment still went on in schools. At ours, Mr Peach, whom I thought of as an insufferable prick, meted it out in assemblies every week on Friday. We’d be shepherded into the hall and sat down on the floor. When everyone was in we’d sing a hymn, then sit down again. Mr Peach would tell us a Bible story and then tell us how it related to our lives. After that, we’d sing another hymn. Then there were notices about what was on that week and where was out of bounds and all that. Then that week’s miscreants lined up on the stage and Mrs Williamson read out what the first kid had done wrong from the Black Book. Mr Peach then gave us a speech about why this kid’s behaviour was unacceptable and then they had to bend over the desk on the stage and Mr Peach would cane them. Hard. The caned kid would have to stand facing the rest of us, trying not to look like they’d been crying as Mrs. Williamson read the next kid’s wrongdoings out to us. So it went, until they’d all been dealt with and then we stood up and said The Lord’s Prayer, then back to lessons.
In our playtime school, corporal punishment was the province of the caretaker, except I wasn’t into it, so I just used to say I’d done it when I hadn’t. Also in contrast to Mr Peach’s preferred public beatings and humiliation, I used to take them behind a prefab and we’d just tell jokes or something for a couple of minutes and then wander back out again.
Whilst Mr Peach dealt with most of the caning, teachers were at liberty to smack you around if they felt like it, which they generally didn’t; most of them being women who perhaps were disinclined to waste their own energy when Mr Peach seemed to enjoy it so much – and there was always the extra punishment of knowing that, if you were going to get caned, it would be happening at the end of the week so you had something unpleasant to occupy your mind for the remainder of the week.
Apart from Mr Peach, there were only two other male teachers: first Mr Prince, who must have been at least eighty. He played the piano in assemblies and was known for being rather over enthusiastic in terms of making sure that boys in his vicinity had their shirts tucked in properly and the first warning you got was when you found his hand down your trousers because, “I’ll have to tuck you in, will I?” There was always at least one; you just learned who to make sure you were properly dressed in front of. The other one was Mr Parr, who was my teacher in the third year of junior school.
Mr Parr was the epitome of male sartorial elegance in terms of the clothing and hair – facial and cut – of 1972. By 1979, his kipper ties, flared suits and voluminous sideburns were anachronistic, but I didn’t really know that. Anyway, groovy teachers? Who wants one of those, except for comedy value.
Once, in an away changing room at a football match, Peter Williamson once asked him if he was married. Mr Parr told us, “No, I want to have some fun first.” Thirteen nine and ten year olds nodded sagely. The old ball and chain, eh? Who needs that when there’s fun to be had. Whatever that meant. Probably eating sweets for breakfast and not having someone making you have a bath, in which case, fair dos, eh?
Mr Parr taught us in a prefab. There was another class on the opposite half of it and an entranceway with coat pegs, toilets and a couple of sinks.
One day, Helen Storr had fallen in a puddle at playtime and had to get changed into her gym shorts which were those ubiquitous tight blue things that nobody ever looked good in.
It wasn’t the first time that Helen Storr had to spend the day in her gym shorts. One assembly, during The Lord’s Prayer, I heard what sounded like someone slowly pouring a bag of frozen peas onto the parquet floor. I turned around to see Helen Storr, eyes squeezed tightly closed, grinning with embarrassment, but also enjoying it a bit as she urinated mid prayer. What surprised me was how it was streaming between her feet instead of running down one of her legs. I knew girls ‘couldn’t wee standing up’, but Helen Storr can’t have read that particular memo because she was doing just fine as far as I could gather.
By dinnertime, the rain had led to an indoor dinnertime announcement, which meant that about eight of us were sat on desks in our prefab, unsupervised as usual. Dinnertime then was an hour and twenty minutes for us, so a lot of kids went home for dinner. My mum and dad were both at work, so I couldn’t have gone home even if I’d wanted to, which I didn’t.
On her way to the toilet – lesson learned, eh? – Ian Russell poked his finger down the back of Helen Storr’s gym shorts and twanged the elastic against her bum – ho ho – and then the conversation just went on as normal. Helen came back and joined in and, eventually, the kids who went home for dinner started rolling back in.
It was art all that afternoon, which meant painting with poster paints – whatever we wanted. Mr Parr didn’t have a lot of truck with the arts, being a ruddy bloody bloke. He was keen on ‘banter’, or ‘taking the piss’ as we called it then.
Once, when we were starting a new geography topic – Natural Disasters – Mr Parr asked the class if anyone knew what a natural disaster was and then answered his own question by pointing at me, saying, “Middleton. He’s a natural disaster.”
Along with everybody else, I laughed at it. You had to laugh at Mr Parr’s jokes because if you didn’t, he’d continue making decreasingly funny, increasingly unpleasant jibes at you until you finally laughed and then he felt he could move on. I say you had to, you didn’t, but you might as well have. It was just easier.
Towards the end of art, Nutty and I had to collect in all the palettes and wash them in the sinks in the entranceway. Whilst doing this, Helen Storr remarked to Mr Parr that Ian Russell had twanged her gym shorts. Mr Parr went berserk. He grabbed Ian by the collar and threw him into a table near the door. He then dragged him out, bent him over another table in the entranceway where Nutty and I were no longer paying any attention to the washing up and repeatedly belted him with a running shoe. Hard.
Later, Ian told us that the only reason he was crying was because when Mr Parr had thrown him against the table, he’d hit his bad leg. Kids always had ‘bad legs’ when I was a kid. They must have found a cure in the intervening time because I’ve not heard kids say it for years. Jokes have dried up too. I used to hear maybe five a week. I don’t think I’ve been told a joke by a kid in ten years now.
While we were in Mr Parr’s class, Nicola Dawson started being off sick a lot. Eventually it transpired that the poor kid had developed leukaemia and wouldn’t really be coming back.
She did though. Once.
Deep into a course of chemotherapy and wheelchair bound, she was ceremonially brought to the assembly hall to receive visitors. We were told what the situation was: anyone who wanted to visit Nicola was to line up in pairs outside the assembly hall. They would be shown in, chat to Nicola for a couple of minutes and then be led to the doors at the back of the hall and the next pair would be brought in.
I didn’t line up to visit her because I felt like a fraud. I don’t know if I’d ever spoken to her at all prior to her illness and to make out that I was pleased to see her and had things to talk about would have just made me a phoney as far as I was concerned.
While I was having my dinner, the queue began to form – all girls.
At the back of the assembly hall was a balcony which held a sort of annex to the library. I was allowed there because I was a free reader so once I finished my dinner, I went up the back stairs, picked out my favourite book from that section (‘They Were Brave’, which was a book of short stories about brave people: Bonnie Prince Charlie, George and The Dragon – stuff like that) as an alibi for being there in case any wandering teachers found me there, and I peeped over the railing to see what was going down, down in the hall.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget what I saw. A pair of girls were being ushered in. Nicola was sitting in her wheelchair wearing a headscarf like my Auntie Val did, except my Auntie Val was a large woman and Nicola was like a baby bird. The girls walked up to her and burst into tears, holding onto each other. They didn’t speak and Nicola didn’t say anything either. After a couple of minutes, a dinner lady came in and ushered them towards the back doors and brought in the next pair, who did exactly the same thing.
I watched three or four pairs of girls follow this pantomime and, deciding I’d seen enough, put my book back and went downstairs. Outside the hall, I noticed that all of the girls who’d already been in to visit her had rejoined the back of the queue.
I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew that people seemed to enjoy crying at the pictures, but this seemed different somehow.
Nicola Dawson’s parents came into the Friday assembly later that week. After the hymn and the Bible story, her dad stood up and told us how much Nicola had enjoyed coming back in to see all of her friends and how happy it had made her. All the while, he held his wife’s hand. She remained seated with her head bowed the whole time.
After that, we all had to stand up and clap. Then we sang another hymn, and the Dawsons were ushered out before that week’s miscreants were lined up on the stage and the beatings started up again. I found myself half wishing I was up there with them, and I knew exactly why.
I felt bad because I knew it wouldn’t have killed me to have gone over and asked her if she’d give me a hand with the corporal punishing when we were playing schools, but I hadn’t and now it was too late.
As we were leaving, I felt sick. Nicola’s mum and dad coming in and telling us about how great it was that her friends came to talk to her and how she’d loved it confused me. I supposed that before she’d gotten ill, she must have gone home and told her parents that everything was fine, and she must have kept her mouth shut about how she spent every single playtime and dinnertime stood in a corner of the playground by herself. That thought killed me. Maybe she was protecting her mum and dad so they didn’t worry about her. Maybe she felt embarrassed about it. Maybe she did tell them but they didn’t do anything about it. Maybe she told them but they felt they couldn’t do anything about it. Maybe she was just glad to fucking get home and be around people who didn’t just ignore her all day. I don’t know, but whatever she told them, she must have said that it went well and everyone was nice about it. Something like that, I suppose.
She didn’t get better.
Sometimes it still appears in my mind’s eye: the girls going in and weeping at her before being led to the exit and rejoining the queue again and again for an hour and twenty minutes. I wonder why they did that and while I don’t know for sure, I’ve sort of got an idea.
I started this essay with a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Walrus and The Carpenter from the generally misquoted ‘Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There’. I’m a big fan of the Alice books in general and specifically that poem, which is a sort of morality dilemma. The Walrus and the Carpenter both conned the naive oysters into walking along the beach with them before brutally eating them for a picnic. At the end, when the pair have eaten every last one, the Walrus has eaten more than the Carpenter and is upset at his act of deception. The Carpenter ate fewer but didn’t give a shit about it. So which one’s worse?
Diversion – The Beatles
John Lennon, as we can see in, ‘I Am The Walrus’ (1967), identified with, obviously, the Walrus. Later, however, he changed his mind and decided that he liked the Carpenter more – hence in ‘Glass Onion’ on The White Album (1968) ‘…Here’s another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul…’ Still, that’s him.
End of Diversion
The reason I’ve quoted it is because I think the girls were more like the Walrus. Making a big show out of crying about something they didn’t really give a shit about.
I was the Carpenter.
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.”
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There,, Lewis Carroll.
*The other two?
1. Stretching my legs out on something and someone falling onto my knees, breaking my legs the wrong way.
2. Being wrapped, naked, in draylon.