Sunday, 11 September 2011




Funny what you can remember and what you can’t.

Last week I walked back from town with a heavy bag of shopping. Once in the house I remembered that I’d left the car in the town-centre car park. And I could tell you countless other little occasions like this. Provided of course that I could remember them

So how is it that I can still recall my first day at infant school? And the smell of the leather in my dad’s first car, a little Morris 8? And the day in the back lane when Henry Coxon, after filling my mother’s milk jug with his ladle, let me ride in his cart and call out instructions to the horse; and another day when uncle Will went down his backyard to kill a chicken for us? These are such sharply etched images, smells and sounds and at times – after intervals of months or years even – they pop up unbidden.

And here’s an odd memory. I can remember the day I first heard the word ‘affable.’

‘Affable?’ I asked my mother. ‘What’s that?’

We’d just been to see my headmaster – it must have been during the Easter holiday of 1940 and I have no idea of why we had gone to see him – and on the way back home my mother had come out with the word.

‘Mr Lucas was very affable today,’ she said. I’d never heard the word before.

She explained.

I’d never thought of the distant figure of Mr Lucas in that light. To me, seeing him ghost along corridors, passing him when he seemed to be whispering State secrets to other teachers, he was a mysterious, all-powerful figure. I’d never been in his presence before that morning. At least, never close up to him. The only times I really heard his voice was in assembly when, on a direct line to God, like some Old Testament preacher he sermonised, warned of the most awful outcomes for disobedience and generally scared the living daylights out of us before telling us, in the same terrifying way, of the first eleven cricket results, the splendid success of some senior boy and the forthcoming gas-mask inspection.

Affable? I’d not seen that characteristic. That vulpine smile he’d given us as we left his study hadn’t reassured me. I’d heard stories about his caning boys.

Such memories are precious now as a source of amusement, pleasure, wonderment even, and they’re particularly useful for writers. Schooldays are a goldmine and I’ve no doubt that the following scene from And Such Great Names as These owes something to my time in school. And, by the way, as I later learnt, Mr Lucas was a decent, straightforward, kindly man, highly effective in his profession.

So here is ten-year old Joshua in his junior school listening to Mr Pybus’ history lesson when into the room comes Mr McKie.

A kind of involuntary spasmodic shudder went round the room.  It was Mr McKie.  He rarely came unless somebody was in trouble.  Then it was six of the best.  Or at least that is what all of the children seemed to believe.  They used to say that if you put a horse hair across your hand, it would split the cane.  They had often talked about that but who ever had a horse hair on him at the right time?  And anyway, Joshua had often told himself, if the cane split, it might nip your hand as well as all the other damage it did.  These thoughts ‑ about canes and horse hairs ‑ always passed through Joshua's mind when Mr McKie came in.

And his worst fears, almost the stuff of nightmares, were realised because today Mr McKie had come for him. 

As Mr McKie bent confidentially towards Mr Pybus, Joshua heard his name mentioned, saw Mr McKie turn away briefly from Mr Pybus and look for him down the rows of desks.  After more whispering between the two men, Mr Pybus stood up straight.

'Joshua Slater.  Go along with Mr McKie.'

'In my office,' Mr McKie added.

Joshua's knee jumped involuntarily, his legs felt limp and rubbery as he made his way past Michael and Jackie who stood in the narrow gangway between the rows of desks.  Sixty pairs of eyes on him.  Why him?  Why me?

Mr Pybus said nothing until Joshua was near the door, on the point of opening it.
'Right now ... The White Man's Burden ... everybody ... now, pay attention ... don't take any notice of him ... right, now ... The White Man's Burden ...'

And Joshua closed the door on Mr Pybus, his Empire and his Burden.

The walk to Mr McKie's office was no more than thirty yards.  It seemed to take a lifetime.  Why was he being called?  He'd done nothing wrong; he was convinced of that.  Was there anything in the last two or three days?  Not that he could think of.

Mr McKie had reached his office before Joshua had closed the door of the classroom.  Reaching the green door, the boy was unsure whether he should knock.  After all, Mr McKie must know he was there.  So had he shut the door because he was not ready for him?  Was he getting out the cane?  Did he have to move furniture before caning?  Or was he busy with other important things?  Should he knock?  He had never been in there before.  He scarcely knew Mr McKie.  He didn't usually speak to any of the children until they were in the top class.  Next year, of course, Mr McKie would teach him.  He was not looking forward to that.  He knocked at the door.

'Come in.'

Joshua opened the door and Mr McKie was sitting behind his desk.  Strange how, anxious as he was, Joshua had time to take in the brown painted walls, the two or three pictures, a book case full of books, a pile of copy books on the desk, a brass ashtray containing Mr McKie's pipe. He looked around for the crook-handled cane.  He had heard so much about Mr McKie's cane.  Horse hair, he thought.

'Sit down, Joshua.'

I imagine that you’ve had similar experiences and I’ve no doubt from time to time they’ve figured in your writing..

Hope you found this interesting. If you did, please pass it on.

Back next week.

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
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1 comment:

  1. (the smell of the leather in my dad’s first car)
    I hadn’t thought about that smell in years but as soon as I read that line I remembered – leather and cigarette smoke and dad’s aftershave.