My primary school head teacher – Mr David – had about five stories that he told us several times a year; on the presumption that regular repetition of eternal truths was preferable to the pursuit of novelty.
A slight, neat, wiry man with crinkled hair and a crinkled forehead, widows peak and Bible black eyes; and a bit of a black hole quality to match – seeming to absorb energy more than radiate it – he was never seen to speak – or act – outside his role.
This was in the early 1960’s of course.
Religious Instruction was just that. Bible stories. Lords Prayer in Assembly every day. “Forgive us our trespasses”. A prayer before home time. Chairs up then “Hands together. Eyes closed.” And no one allowed to go until everyone had stopped fidgeting. It sometimes took minutes that felt like hours.
The stories had the familiarity of everything else about Assemblies. The closed seasonal cycle reflected in the hymns we sang every morning. Hymns for autumn, spring, summer, carols for Christmas – “Lord dismiss us with thy blessing” at the end of term – every term – (as the official benediction shared with every other school in the country) subverted in the playground by the more raucus
“Two more days of school, two more days of sorrow.
Two more days in this old dump and we’ll be home tomorrow!”
also probably shared with every other school in the country and sang with delirious abandon as we wheeled around with our arms across each others shoulders like a cartoon of solidarity – in a wild mood that evaporated as soon as the bell went.
The words of the hymns, hung on the tall wooden partitions high above our heads, in books that seemed six feet long and almost as thick, as weighty as a slab of commandments; great scrolls handed down from on high that had been there for ever and ever amen, their pages turned with great poles that looked like pikes*- “Thus is was and ever more shall be”- with poor old Mrs Smith plonking the tunes out on an upright piano; in a style more driven by concern for audibility than inspiration or feeling. Production line piano playing. She only ever cut loose at the end, as we all trooped out to class, with a non religious familiar tune that she obviously liked (which I have never heard at any other time in any other place) and played with a bit of bounce and gusto (and possibly relief that she’d got through an act of vocal worship without any bum notes).
The stories were each told with exactly the same intonation every time. That of a disappointed judge. A steady, slightly grim and downbeat construction of the mental walls our ancestors had always lived inside – if they had been good – and the standards against which we should expect to be held. He always had an air of world weariness and disappointment in the failings of humanity in general (and us in particular) probably inevitable in an intelligent Jewish man of his generation; barely twenty years after the death camps casting an overwhelming shadow of the recent past; with a sea of tiny South Essex factory fodder looking up at him as a portent of what the future was threatening. I imagine that something like the Duke of Wellington’s remark about his army at Waterloo might have gone through his head at times. “I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me.”
We were, almost to a child, the offspring of factory workers. When we were in first year Juniors we were asked where our dad’s worked – it being assumed that our mums were all housewives ; and it was, Thames Board Mills, Thames Board Mills, Hedleys, Thames Board Mills, Tunnel Cement, Thames Board Mills, Docks, Thames Board Mills. And so on. All 44 of us. Gillian Brainwood’s family owned the pet shop on Clarence Road; but she was our entire middle class cohort. Only one of these workplaces is still there. Hedleys soap works, now Proctor and Gamble. The rest are long gone, as is the future we were being prepared for.
Because that’s what the stories were all about. We were destined for small roles, bit parts in someone else’s world, but we needed some self respect to be able to carry them off.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe, the horse was lost, for want of a horse, the rider was lost, for want of a rider, the message was lost, for want of a message a battle was lost, for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost – all for the want of a horse shoe nail.
The little Dutch boy who did his duty by his community by plugging a hole in a dyke with his finger and dying of exposure rather than let the tiny leak grow into a flood that would drown them. Tough one for seven year olds this.
Aesop’s fable about the foolish dog that was carrying a bone across a bridge, looked down, saw his reflection, became greedy for the bone he could see, opened his mouth to bark – and dropped his bone into the river.
And, consider the ant thou sluggard…the Ant and the Grasshopper. All very puritanical. A good life being about hard work, frugality, keeping your nose clean and your head down and yourself to yourself – and the probably fatal consequences of hedonism.
And an odd one for a Primary School that seemed to be told with particular relish. “Now I am a man, I have put away childish things.” This posed the future as a sort of joyless trap. All work and no play. As serious as the elder relatives that would come and visit and sit in the hard chairs by the windows talking about serious everyday things in a serious everyday way.
All this was about restraint and discipline, the potential nobility and necessity of working hard as its own reward, playing a small part and doing it well, and also of being content with what you had, not being greedy or wanting too much – because there’s not enough to go around. Don’t use it or there won’t be any. This was two parts solidarity to three parts know your place.
In some ways, grim and narrow. Definitely not “aspirational” in neither an individual nor collective sense; because it was assumed what our future was going to be. Thames Board Mills, Thames Board Mills, Hedleys, Thames Board Mills, Tunnel Cement, Thames Board Mills, Docks, Thames Board Mills…we would be going round the cycle, feeding the factories with our labour, forever and ever amen. A few might make it up, out and away, but most would not. The thought that any of this could be redefined and reordered was beyond the limits of what could be thought. Even sacrifice for the greater good was defined as a way to keep things as they were.
The Spring of 1968 was three and a bit years on…
*This is, of course, a mix of two memories becoming more than the sum of their parts in a creative re-imaging of my primary school as even more like Gormenghast than it actually was. The poles were for opening and closing the high windows. Similar poles were in use in the school I worked in until a couple of years ago – where they still opened and shut all the upper windows in the cathedral height classrooms; or at least those that had not been painted shut by a team of painters who might have benefited from one of Mr David’s homilies; had they ears to hear with, or had they not been working for a bunch of cowboys who quoted cheap and moved on fast. The Hymn books were on a Heath Robinson system of pulleys, so they could be pulled down and the pages reverently turned to the appropriate hymn, then re-hoisted above our heads like a flag ceremony. Less spectacular, but every bit as much of a ritual.