The Spirit of Willy Woodthorpe

19890611Ashford Woodthorpe Road School5Recently the daily prompt at WordPress asked me to write a memorial to part of my childhood that had been destroyed.

It’s not fashionable to admit liking school. Sometimes anti-intellectualism goes too far, and so I am here to tell you that school was happy for some of us, at least some of the time.  My secondary school was horrible, but primary – well, I lived in heaven for several years, my dears. I told you about one of my teachers there the other day. The fantastic Mr B.

It wasn’t just Mr B though; it was the school itself. It wasn’t Hogwarts (if Hogwarts ever had a prep school, which it didn’t, but never mind), with Houses and homework and ghosts – although allegedly there was a ghost in our classroom. I think Mr B made him up, but you can’t be too careful about these things. The ghost lived in the roofspace over our classroom; you see that big arched window in the main building? That was our classroom, and Willy Woodthorpe, the ghost, lived above it.  At the end of the day, when we were getting giddy, Mr B would sit us down and play his version of Sleeping Lions. We had to sit at our desks and not smile or giggle. Meanwhile he stalked among us, telling us about Willy Woodthorpe and making silly faces and noises until we cracked. The last one to laugh won.

When I say the school was special, I don’t mean the teachers, although most of them were fabulous. Except the one who threw the blackboard wiper at your head if she got cross. She was not fabulous at all. She was the threat we held over annoying kids.

“I’ll tell Miss Scary!”

That wasn’t her real name of course, although it was how we thought of her. I doubt she meant to be scary, but she did get quite angry quite often. She used crutches because she had had polio as a child, and so she was not very mobile. I suspect the throwing was compensation for a clip round the ear, which other teachers might have adopted.

Anyway, not the teachers. The school itself, the bricks and mortar and crumbly, fading glory of it that you could pick out of the cracks with prying fingers when you were bored.

It was typical of many schools of that age – high windows and ceilings, resulting in cold rooms with grumbling, clunky radiators fighting a losing, cantankerous battle, and a polished wooden floor in the main hall where we went to sing hymns and do gym (not at the same time). The stage had library shelves at the back which you were allowed to use once you were good enough at reading. It was brilliant. There were books about astronauts and dinosaurs and volcanoes, although sadly not all in one stupendous volume.

The playground had lots of nooks and crannies, because the building was so fractal on the edges. It was a bit like Slartibartfast’s fjords, lovely and crinkly, providing a baroque feel. By unspoken agreement, different year groups inhabited different areas. Once we were in the final year we took over the space outside our classroom and held manic conker competitions and pretended to be daleks and had fights and long, soul searching discussions on the benches (because it was almost, but not quite, time for puberty).

During playtimes we might see our mums going past on their way back from shopping in town, which meant we had to be reasonably well-behaved otherwise we would be in trouble at home time. There was a rain shelter (you can just see the edge of it on the left hand side of the photo; it’s the square brick wall poking in behind the railings) which only held about half the school complement on days it was wet, so the smaller children tended to steam slightly if they sat near a radiator on a wet afternoon. We always went outside at break, without exception. Blue knees were pretty common because the girls all had short skirts and the boys all had short trousers; the science class on circulation of the blood made complete sense once you had examined your mottled knees and realised your life was being sucked from you by vampire winds. Our mums knitted balaclavas to keep our ears warm, but knees were left to fend for themselves.

I suppose the school was hard to heat, although the kitchens cooked us hot dinners every day so it felt warm in the hall itself. The only way in and around was up and down stairs, which were problematic if you had difficulty walking, like Miss Scary, or like the boy in our year who had cerebral palsy. He took forever to get up to the classroom. At the time we just waited because that was how long he took, although some of the boys called him names when the teachers weren’t around.

The downside to this suburban idyll was the toilets. When I say toilets, don’t be fooled into imaging pristine water closets with working flush mechanisms and gleaming porcelain. This was the 1960s. They were in special blocks the other side of the playground, and they were unspeakably horrible. I suspect most of us, if we learned nothing else, learned top quality bladder control because really anything was preferable to having to use them. It was a wonder we didn’t all catch cholera, although if we had I expect we would still have had to go to school. You needed a cast iron excuse to be off sick, such as death, and even then only if your mum wrote a note.

Most of us were happy there. Most of us learned to read and write and add up enough to get by.

I also saw the first man walk on the moon one summer day, and discovered that not everyone speaks English when a couple of Chinese children arrived (no one actually explained but I suspect they were refugees). I had my first crush on an actual boy, won another boy’s best conker in a fluke attack, and did handstands against the toilet block walls with the other girls. I made a model of an archaeopteryx which hung for the rest of term from the classroom ceiling.

Admittedly I also learned some unsavoury lessons, such as: if I hit the boy who teased me, he got in trouble for teasing a girl, and no one believed I had hit him. He learned the game wasn’t worth the candle and left me and my friends alone afterwards.

Eventually the council got fed up with the crumbly old building and hazardous toilets. They sold it to the Salvation Army and this is what is there now.

But the spirit of Willy Woodthorpe lives on, and, to paraphrase appallingly, you can’t take my school from me. Cue fiddles!

Take my love, take my land

Take me where I cannot stand

I don’t care, I’m still free

You can’t take the sky my school from me.


Take me out to the black

Tell them I ain’t comin’ back

Burn the land and boil the sea

You can’t take the sky my school from me.

Know my school and you know me.



Crisis? What crisis?

Today your friendly EBL will explore her reaction to crisis. It’s edge-of-the-seat, hold-onto-the-safety-rails, keep-all-extremities-inside-the-blog kind of stuff. Woo!

According to my mother’s newspaper everything is a crisis. The weather, the latest health scare, immigration, scroungers. Sometimes she gets scared by it. I feel pretty cross about the newspapers for doing this. Sometimes I feel like telling her the paper has gone bust and buying her Woman’s Weekly instead.

Sigoth and I have an understanding. In a joint crisis, and I’m not talking about rheumatic arthritis here, one of us deals and the other falls apart. We don’t discuss it, it just happens. These kinds of crisis mostly have receded to the past and tend to involve Offspringses puking or otherwise extruding from orifices like the gushing waters of the Congo as seen on David Attenborough’s Africa this week. I will not digress on the natural wonders of bioluminescent fungi, mother snakes or David Attenborough himself. Or the ninja wildlife cameramen of the BBC.

So back to vomiting Offspring…either I would clear them up while Sigoth retched in the bathroom, or he would deal with the “other end” while I retched in the bathroom.

These are not major crises, but the everyday code reds of parenting, all part of the fun. What does not kill you makes you stronger, in this case at least.

I’m good with deaths. I know that makes me sound a bit creepy, but I can cover them quite well. All the paperwork, all the routines. I’m a fixer. I can put the grief on hold and sort things out. There’s the initial shock of course, when everything goes buzzy and distant, and I feel cold and shivery. Voices come from a long way away. Then things come back into focus and I get on with it.

I’m good with serious illness. When my mother was mistakenly sent home from hospital I dealt with it, sat in the A&E all night until they found her a bed, then went straight back into work to sort out the computer upgrade. I didn’t even have a cup of tea, but I did have several mugs of espresso. The guy working with me also kept me company espresso-wise and ended up hospitalised for dehydration. I have a serious caffeine addiction.

I’m good with potential emergencies, like fire alarms and so on. I am the one organising people to get up and leave, find the way out, counting the heads of the group I was with, reporting to the fire warden.

I’m not good with my own emergencies. I can’t be ill or weak. It’s against the rules. A couple of years ago a fell down on rocks and smashed open my head. Much blood – scalps are a bit prone to gushing like the good old Congo. It was incredibly frustrating not to be able to organise everything. I became agitated and irritable, because no one did what I said. Admittedly it may not have been coherent, and may have suggested I was capable of walking several miles back home to get a nice cup of tea and would everyone stop fussing. As it was I needed help getting up and into the ambulance.

The only time I actually panic is when there is no crisis. I panic when I’m depressed or on anti-depressants which trigger panic attacks. When I’m depressed I imagine a crisis, such as Sigoth and the Offspringses all being dead or dying, and then I panic. Sigoth has to calm me down and explain that it is not real. I don’t always believe him, at least not straight away.

What I can’t do is the easier stuff. I can’t decide whether I want a thing green or blue. I can’t choose which flavour of ice cream. I can decide how to sort out a project or computer installation that is going wrong.

EBL may be your blogger of choice in a crisis, but don’t stress her out over the small stuff.


Best. Teacher. Ever.

A recent daily prompt asked me (yes, me, personally) to write about a teacher who had a strong influence on me. I wrote about our French teacher from Hell yesterday before I saw the prompt, which coincidence amused me. I am easily amused.

Teachers have had a massive influence on my life, for good or bad; I am sure this is true of many people because many people spend a lot of time in their formative years with teachers. In his younger days, Sigoth was a primary school teacher and the children loved him very much, He is still in contact with some of them, over 20 years later, having seen them grow from barely more than toddlers to graduates and working adults.

I had a teacher like that too. Lots of my teachers were frightening; they thought that was how you managed children, poor things, or they enjoyed it, even more poor things. Imagine finding happiness by scaring little kids – how sad is that! Either way, I had one teacher who just loved teaching us and found great things to show us and teach us about.

The most important lesson he gave me was when he got the better readers in the class to sit with the slower readers and work through their books. Can you guess which I was? EBL: you can say many things about her, but not that she is slow with a book.

I sat with a boy who was virtually illiterate. The first thing he asked me was how to spell “phlegm”. I had no idea and supposed he wanted to write something rude, but I had a go and got it wrong. He was absolutely delighted to tell me the correct spelling and our teacher agreed he was right. I looked at the boy with fresh eyes and then we worked through his book.

I’m sure you can guess what had happened. Mr B, the teacher in question, explained it to me later so that I didn’t feel too bad (the lad had not been very gracious!). It wasn’t a fluke or chance that he got the spelling right, he had been primed by Mr B so he could show me he knew something I didn’t. That he could learn, if someone spent the time to teach him. That he was not, in fact, stupid.

Well, it worked. The boy felt better (and I hope he isn’t reading this! If so, know this: the respect stands), and I learned a lesson about hubris, which I can also spell.

One of the best lessons we had with Mr B was following an “incident” at school. Someone, someone you see, had been writing on the outside walls a very rude word. We didn’t know about graffiti back then, because it was the 1960s and English suburbia. Mr B got a boy to admit it (it might even have been our hero of the earlier story, in fact – hence my readiness to believe he might want to write “phlegm” somewhere). Then Mr B told him it was a bad thing to do, and paused.

“The thing that really upsets me,” he said, clearly upset because he was a bit red and huffy, “is that you spelled it wrong. It has a C in it. It’s actually an old Anglo-Saxon word for having sex. If you are going to do this kind of thing, at least make sure you know how to spell it and know what the word means. Swear words aren’t just swear words. They mean something.”

You could hear the jaws of 35 kids hitting the desks.

There was no more graffiti.

I kept in touch with Mr B after moving on to the school from hell. It was him that made my parents enter me for the scholarship. He told them that if I went to the comprehensive down the road I would be so bored by the time I was 12 that I would be in prison by the age of 14. I think he may have been right. He knew me well; I get destructive when I am bored. He wouldn’t have known how awful the teachers were or how soul-destroying the school could be. Even if he had, it was still better than the alternative. I won my scholarship and went to the posh kids’ school where I was bullied by some children and some teachers, but also had a chance to learn all the fancy stuff I love. Thanks to him I kept out of prison and went to university instead; my parents would not have put me in for the scholarship without his intervention. They did so because they liked him and trusted his judgment too.

So Mr B kept in touch and even came to my wedding. He was a lovely man and we often slipped up and called him “Dad” instead of “Sir”. He loved taking us all out for walks on the Common and bringing back pond water to look at under the microscope. He showed us how to make paper, and papier-mâché dinosaurs and how a candle went out in a bell jar because it needed oxygen. He taught us to respect the world and that we would lose the pandas and rhinos if we didn’t take care. He taught us to ask questions, and that knowledge was more important than tradition; he was incensed at a hymn we had to sing one day because none of us understood the words (“He who would valiant be”) – so we had a whole morning on what they meant and who John Bunyan was. We held trials in the classroom, where we had to play judge and jury, and prosecute or defend a moral argument.

He got in trouble for not teaching us traditional lessons, but we were the brightest class in the school.

He was inspiring and I have become unexpectedly emotional writing this. It was my privilege to have known him.

I hope you have all had the fortune to have known a teacher like him.



Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign

When I go abroad I am expecting to find “foreign”. It’s what I am looking for, to indulge myself in a little frisson of unexpected encounters and different ways of doing simple things, secure in the knowledge that in a few days I will be able to wrap myself in the comfort blanket of home.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to take a holiday in Singapore. It was never going to be homelike, being as I live in a cold, northern European, rural environment, and Singapore is hot, equatorial and urban. I had been warned of the need for additional warming layers indoors due to the fierceness of the air-conditioning; of the need to carry an umbrella (but not a coat!) against sudden rain showers; of the chewing gum ban.

I was looking forward to exploring the city, to trying out a day on a tropical beach, and to being somewhere new and interesting. Places to go, photos to take, memories to treasure. I did all those things and it was brilliant! I took loads of pictures of how things were dofferent from hoe. That is what I expect from going abroad – different.

I absolutely loved it for being so new and sparkling to my English eyes. I was tall and pale and out of place, and that was interesting too, because I live a privileged life at home where I am part of the majority so that I don’t really think much about how being different might feel. These experiences are why I find foreign travel nurtures my soul. I can be more aware of my assumptions and expectations by being able to contrast them with foreign-ness.

What I had not anticipated was things tat were, so far from home, just the same; the shock of the colonial past. It was painful to see my own homeland layered upon somewhere so distant, like lipstick on a goldfish. I would wander around wonderful old city streets, soaking up the architecture away from the crowds and modern shopping centres, and clicking away on my camera like a demented zambra dancer on their castanets; then suddenly around a corner – wham! – a red pillar box, completely out of place, as if I had been suddenly transported to London.

It wasn’t just the pillar box either. The old colonial buildings and the Raffles statue and all the announcements in English emphasised the colonial history of the city. The modern buildings were not an issue. Globalisation has hit all large cities, and if it’s a modern form of colonialism, then at least it may include a wider range of sources, such as Pikachu or Cobra beer. At least it’s shared by all of us.

But a red pillar box in the middle of Singapore? No, it’s not right. It’s not a coincidentally red pillar box, after all. It’s Royal Mail red. Specifically Royal Mail red.

This is the kind of sudden shock that makes it real. My ancestral countrymen bullied their way around the world, and their mark remains. I can’t change it, but I recognise it and wish it could be otherwise. I had expected to feel like a gawky Westerner. Not feeling foreign – that was the worse surprise.