Saturday, 25 February 2017

ECHOES OF A YOUNG ANARCHIST


ECHOES OF A YOUNG ANARCHIST

REMINISCENCES OF SCHOOLDAYS

BY

BARRY VAN-ASTEN

 

Having attained an age whereby I think it is fairly safe to ascertain that most of the illustrious creatures and sado-masochistic beasts that had a hand in my educational years have passed from this world of excess and depravity into more pleasant pastures, I bethought it wise to recall a few haunting escapades and glorious moments from my school days before it is all lost to oblivion. My only excuse is to preserve these simple tortures for the benefit of history. My initial dilemma has been one of discretion: should I change names to protect the innocent? And then I thought to hell with it, most of them are probably decrepit or gracing their graves and busy fuelling the fires of Hell so I shall present an honest account. It is not my intention to cause unnecessary offence or to be exceptionally insulting or to ‘get my own back’; I am just presenting my opinion from the perspective of the young boy who was there!
I attended Wheelers Lane Secondary Boys School in Birmingham from 1980-1985 and thoroughly detested my time there! Throughout my years at the school I was always in the second from top class (there were four form classes) and there was a good mixture of wannabe swots and intellectual psychopaths or roughs! Any weakness or signs of effeminacy were quickly seized upon and dealt with appropriately. There was one boy I recall who expressed a wish to join the Royal Navy when he left school – he had signed his own death warrant! The Navy being associated with homosexual practices (or so it was to our young minds) the rest of his time at school was made a living hell by constant taunts; but he seemed capable of taking the pounding in his stride and probably went on to achieve his goal! I had my share of tackling bullies from my time at Billesley Junior School where I fought the strongest boy in one year and the strongest boy in another! I also remember having chewing gum cut out of my hair and having internal bleeding from an older boy punching me in the stomach in 1976! I quickly learnt to make people laugh and it always helped having a good pair of fast legs, but wherever possible I stood up to them, took my beating and went back for more as a show of determination which often won through and warranted some sympathy or respect!
Perhaps the only real period I enjoyed, if being incarcerated for the best part of the day and made to do things one doesn’t want to do can be called enjoyment was my first year at the school when everything seemed new and strange. All the older boys seemed like big men to us small boys and they seemed to do what the hell they liked and get away with it; breaking the rules and sticking two fingers up to the teachers! They were a strange mixture of Mods, Rockers, Skinheads, Punks and Teddy Boys … all flouting the school uniform regulations.

There was a decidedly unwholesome Welsh element to the teaching staff from the Headmaster Mr. Griffiths; I’m not sure if the Deputy Head Mr. Rough, affectionately known as ‘Daddy Rough’ was Welsh or not, but there was also the P.E. teacher Mr. Roberts known as ‘Taffy’ who sported a moustache, and the bearded Mr. Kirkby who took Geography. Each morning began with an Assembly in the Hall as we awaited the presence of Mr. Griffiths to utter his words of wisdom leaning on his lectern like some mad dictator following the strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march!
My form teacher for my first year of school was Mr. Evans, a large bearded Welsh man who taught woodwork and rugby, not being greatly interested in sport the latter filled me with horror for I had and still have a very real aversion to mud! And it always seemed to be so bloody cold when we played either at the school or on Billesley Common!
My absolute nightmare at school was mathematics, perhaps that’s not quite true for I quite enjoy the subject now but why is it taught by such evil bastards at school that they make it detestable and spoil the subject for any future learning? Throughout my years at the school there was one who walked those ghastly corridors who was pure evil personified; a man so detested by me that he was nothing short of the Devil incarnate! The teacher in question was the mathematics teacher, or at least one of them named Mr. Hobbs. He was a pint-sized, portly, pipe-smoking old man who I believe had been in the RAF as far as I knew; a man who wore the air of a hero and didn’t mind reminding everyone of it that he single-handedly defeated the German Luftwaffe! If he was in a good mood, i.e. not breathing fire or pulling the heads off small boys you only got the chalk thrown at you; if he was in a bad mood it would be followed by the wooden blackboard rubber! His gruff and croaking voice would rise and fall and some of his talk would be almost inaudible and to show his contempt, which he did often, he would give a great sniff as if to say ‘you’re not fit to lick my shoes boy!’ I believe it would be safe to say that he wasn’t overly keen on foreigners or anything that was not ‘English’ and having a foreign name myself that swiftly put me on his list of ‘pupils to destroy with utter misery’ and he took great delight in his tasks! He would set us our work to do and sit at the front of the class casting glances and directing vitriol towards us as he flapped and fouled himself like a great bird of doom before it was time at the end of the lesson for him to squawk in that hideous voice which to this day torments me: ‘Homework!’ I passionately wanted to do what Mr. Hitler had failed to do – kill Mr. Hobbs! I spent my dinner hour (lunch in less enlightened counties) pondering the many and most inventive ways of murdering him and in class whenever he would cough and splutter I looked expectantly towards him, praying for him to fall to the ground in agony and expire before the class to cheers and clapping of hands! It never happened!
Another maths teacher was Mr. Ball. I actually liked Mr. Ball, known as ‘Uncle Jack’ as I believe his first name was Jack, because he was such a good sport. He was quite old and doddery and could be mistaken for a simple-minded man, yet he was sharp as a tack and despite his hard of hearing and his mumbling in class he was a good teacher. Many times during dinner time I saw him going to the local pub The Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath smoking his pipe. During one particular ‘April Fool’s Day’ the class had been taunting him rotten and he took it with good nature. I informed him at the end of the lesson that I had placed a sign on his back which read: ‘Kick me’ and he casually said ‘I know!’ On another occasion, Wednesday 26th September 1984, a boy in class decided to tell Mr. Ball that I had just drawn in the text book. I denied the accusation but I think it was a case of the boy who cried wolf; I had a reputation for bad behaviour. I took it in my stride and didn’t really care either way; it was all part of the adventure! A wonderful man!
The only other maths teacher I recall was named Marsh and he was a great lumbering, clumsy man with a deep voice who didn’t seem to stay very long.

In my first year I remember the music teacher, Mrs. Stevens, a lovely old lady with lots of enthusiasm and energy for the subject; a woman who believed in what she was doing and the integrity showed! She taught us to repeat the poem ‘Vita Lampada’ by Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) with its ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ I was in the school choir, I have no notion of how I got there (just as I have no notion of how I became a member of the school’s Athletics Team, but there I am in the team photograph looking thoroughly bored) and I recall being involved in only one inter-school choir competition; I can’t remember if we won, probably not, and I think it was the first and last performance!
I also quite enjoyed history and one of the history teachers was named Mr. Anney. This heavenly bearded creature with the features of a squat King Edward also featured halitosis that could stun a bull at one-hundred paces. Another redeeming feature of the man was his eyes which were continually in movement as if in a state of tremor and unable to fix a point to focus upon so it was difficult to assess whether he was looking at you or not! He was an enthusiastic teacher and I particularly enjoyed his classes on the ‘History of Medicine and Anatomy’! Another History teacher and one of my form teachers was Mr. Whitby who sported a fine ‘Walter Raleigh’ beard! We gave him the nickname ‘Buzzard’ due to his habit of staring into space as if looking for prey to feed upon. He was an odd man and I think a somewhat tragic figure; I remember some minor scandal surrounding him and I saw him many years later at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery skulking around the exhibits looking a little dishevelled. He looked right into my eyes with his buzzard gaze and fled into the crowds and out of sight! Another favourite teacher who took History was the lovely Christine Keats, a young and attractive woman who went on to become an influential figure in the teacher unions! She became an assistant to the Head, Mr. Griffiths and one day I was passing his office with his door open and I made a comment that the two were having an affair, knowing he would hear it and sure enough he came out like a badger from its set and glared at me!
I don’t remember who took us for Religious Education perhaps because I found it so dull, nor do I remember who took us for Computer Studies which bored me endlessly with its tedious inputting of data merely to write one’s name and print it! Technical Drawing was taught by Mr. Clayton, an elderly gent with an unremarkable personality if I remember correctly and I do not recall who took us for metalwork.
For Biology there was Mr. Goldstein, a Jewish teacher with a hooked nose and piercing cross-eyes beneath a bushy brow wearing a lab coat. A nice enough fellow who failed to notice that I had drawn a swastika (purely for shock value) on my breast pocket which could only be seen in a certain light to replace my school badge which was a yellow cart wheel surmounted by a yellow crown on a black background! Chemistry was taught by Mr. Lacey, a fine fellow whose son would sit in on the end of the lesson after junior school finished and wait to be taken home. Physics was taught by Mr. Millward, a stern yet impeccably dressed man in a suit!
The delectable Miss Parker taught French and she was a very beautiful lady; Pottery was taught by a kind old lady whose name I think was Mrs. Hodgkins.
Art was given by the extremely laid back Mr. Judges and I remember attending a course at the Midlands Art Centre in Canon Hill Park in September 1981 with the Art class, trying various musical instruments and going behind the scenes of the theatre etc. There was another beautiful young teacher named Miss Mathews who flirted outrageously and taught some sort of contextual studies. Other teachers I recall are Mr. Watling, Mr. Braniff and Mr. Hewitt and a large somewhat effeminate man called Cobbledick!
My attendance at school was quite poor to say the least, between 1983 and 1984 I had eleven weeks off school!

There was another great menacing man whose cold stare could chill a boy from a hundred yards! This ‘track-suited terror’ lurked and could be upon a boy with superhuman speed and he was known by all as the P.E. teacher Mr. Ward, another of the great moustaches at the school! The rumour was that he only had one of what most men usually have two of in their trousers and according to legend he slipped at the swimming baths and injured himself! I do not know if this is true or not but the association stuck with him! Physical Education was a bore, I hated swimming, rugby and wasn’t keen on cricket, basketball or football; athletics was dull and so was weightlifting but I didn’t mind badminton so much and cross country running which was a good excuse to get out of school and have a casual walk round the streets or nip off for a cigarette! 
I enjoyed going off the premises at dinner (lunch) time which was strictly forbidden. I had set up my own catering business (ah the delights of Thatcher’s entrepreneurial Britain!) supplying docile swots with chocolate and crisps at a price and making a little for myself; I happily went to the local supermarket in King’s Heath with my order sheet! On one occasion, Thursday 15th March 1984, a day when we caused a teacher named Miss Mason to burst into tears and run out of the class, a boy I knew set the fire alarm off and I was not present at the roll call so I was given a week’s detention: an hour during lunch and an hour during home time!

Mr. Griffiths the Head was the wielder of the cane but the preferred weapon of choice was the ‘slipper’ for minor offences. It was Mr. Ward’s honour to casually ‘slipper’ (actually an old training shoe) me along with three of my friends in the gym for going off premises and taking a trip to the local fish and chip shop in King’s Heath. He took a great run up and seemed to delight in the punishment, his moustache quivering with anticipation! This was on Thursday 26th May 1983. In fact, the same thing had happened at my Junior School, at Billesley, (Headmaster Mr. L. C. Galley) when a group of us went to the local shop and came back festooned and laden with sweets! Some swot of a girl, her mother was a teacher, told on us and it was the job of the Deputy Head, a fine man named Mr. Warburton who stalked the corridors like the figure of Death himself and had a habit of tucking his thumbs into his trouser waist and hitching his trousers up, to administer the beating. Once again it was the ‘slipper’ or what we called the ‘pump’ in the Assembly Hall. This must have been around 1978.  It was the kind Mr. Warburton who told me I was reading like a fourteen year old when I was ten, but I couldn’t stand those awful reading books on the curriculum and made no headway with them at school; at home I was reading encyclopaedias which I believed to be the only form of pleasure in reading! The Headmaster, Mr. Galley, was a mysterious man; I once saw him carrying a bundle in his arms which was a small boy kicking and screaming because he didn’t want to be at school and he unceremoniously burst into the class with him and seated him at his table, where he remained simpering quietly in floods of tears (the boy, not the Headmaster); I don’t recall whether he gave the boy a form of justice in the shape of his hand brought hard and fast upon his backside but it did dispel all rumours that the Headmaster only came out under the cover of darkness!

Many of my friends from Junior School went to my Senior School and I remember one boy who I was not best friends with but I did know him and like him. He had severe eczema and was eternally bullied because of it; he was a scruffy little urchin and whenever I remember him he is always either cringing from someone’s torment or looking over his shoulder. At Senior School Mr. Ward came into our metalwork class and broke the news to us that the boy in question had been hit by a bus and died, this was 1982 I think and I looked round to see the rest of the class smiling, sniggering and laughing – I had never seen anything so cruel and heartless! I didn’t learn anything about metalwork that day but I learnt a lot about human nature!
Some of my friends were also members of the 40th Birmingham Boy’s Brigade back in 75 where I was a member for about three years I think. Someone had told me how to make a battery bomb and I made it to the specifications with the intention of blowing up the Methodist Church where we had our Boy’s Brigade with Captain Nash. Of course I tried to set the thing off to no avail but even at that young age there was a desire for danger! Speaking of Billesley Junior School, my first memory is of being naked with my brother and a young girl being examined together. I cried knowing at this young age (about four of five) that it wasn’t right to be naked in front of a) adults, b) girls and c) strangers! It was all very innocent at the time and I remember the infants had a little fenced-off play area not far from the main gate (there was no sentry on the gate in those days and adults came and went). The infants often played naked in the sand pit or with the water troughs on view for all the world to see and no-one batted an eye lid! That wouldn’t be allowed today!
Another memory is of playing with the bean bags and hula hoops watching the grown-up passers by walking outside the railings and thinking how lucky they were to be free, walking in the sunshine and that someday I would be able to be free like them! School seemed to steal the best hours of the day away from you, the hours before midday and then the time towards two-thirty; I always believed this throughout my school life and it was only after suffering all those years in the name of education that I came to appreciate fully those hours! I pity all children that have to be destroyed by the same methods! I also recall almost drowning at King’s Heath Swimming Baths, where we went with the school. I was limp and to all effects lifeless, not that anyone took notice of me except my friend who dived down and pulled me up! It caused a fear of swimming all through my school years and my young friend, a fiery tempered black boy who I looked up to, used to have pretend fights with me to try and impress the girls (which in his case it mostly did!). He even saved me from Mr. Warburton’s wrath one day as I was busy fighting a young ruffian who had been bullying me. The bully played the coward’s way and tripped my legs so that I hit my head. When Mr. Warburton came rushing to the disturbance my great black friend took a vial of theatrical blood from his pocket and poured it over his face, thus causing a distraction for me and the bully to make our escape! Of course I sought out the bully for a re-match but he smiled with what I thought was a small degree of admiration and no re-match occurred! Mr. Warburton also took a class to King’s Heath and we did some brass and grave rubbings at the Parish Church. I was accused around this time by a silly young girl who told Mr. Warburton that I had been spitting from the top of the multi-storey car park which I think was Sainsburys as we had gone up to see the view of the area! Back in class he singled me out and I denied it. He accepted my answer and said if I find you have said otherwise to anyone I will know! Many tried to get the information from me but my lips were sealed and even to this day the oath remains!
In fact it was at my junior school where I actually cried in front of a teacher! She was a lovely old frightening woman with a deep voice like ‘Peggy Mount’ who shouted a lot but I liked her (and feared her) named Mrs. Hackle. I remember having to learn the words to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and make a cardboard replica of Dodge City. I also recall being in a school play and I had to play the part of a tree dressed in a flimsy see-through green gauze material. The reason why I was crying was because it was found I was intellectually above the class and had to be moved up along with my friend, a beautiful young Asian girl! I was reluctant to leave! Another play I was meant to star in as a munchkin was The Wizard of Oz; I remember the rehearsals with Mr. Warburton in the Assembly Hall but I never turned up for the performance! Other teachers at the junior school were Mrs. Brinkley, Mrs. Cran and Miss Bowman who was the music teacher and played the piano during assembly.
But I digress, back to Wheelers Lane!

I really enjoyed English Literature, although the rebel in me would not show any visible interest, I loved books! The teacher, Mr. Goulding was a young idealistic man who had a great enthusiasm for his subject. I regret deeply that I upset his lessons by messing about and taunted him for I actually admired and respected him for talking to us on the same level. He was a laid back, slightly long haired fellow who wore round ‘John Lennon’ spectacles. I am pretty sure his name was David and the class took to calling him ‘Davros’ (as in the character from Doctor Who) and shouting out ‘brown shoes’ because he did indeed wear brown shoes – such was the want of young boys to annoy their teachers with the slightest fancy! Two memorable books we read in class were: ‘A Taste of Honey’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’. It was Friday 9th March 1984 and we had been reading a book called ‘The Outsiders’ and Mr. Goulding had planned for us to visit the Classic Cinema in Station Street where it was showing as a double bill with ‘Rebel without a cause’ starring James Dean, a hero of mine! At the cinema I sat with my two friends whom I shall give the initials as N. S. and P. S. B. and Mr. Goulding sat in front with his beautiful young wife whom we had just met for the first time! I don’t think she stayed for the whole showing of the films for it was not long into ‘Rebel’ when my friends and I noticed the man sitting one seat away from me to my left. He must have been in his seventies and he had a terrible tremor in his right hand which he kept between his legs! He kept looking at me; probably because we were all wearing our school uniforms and he couldn’t believe his luck! And then as the aroma of stale salmon wafted through the cinema aisle Mr. Goulding casually turned round and asked ‘is that man doing what I think he’s doing?’ to which we answered in the affirmative and we all moved a few rows forward at his suggestion. Not perturbed, the old man with his lobster eye winking in the light from the projectionist, stood up and moved closer towards us, sitting down to resume his business! Eventually he got up and left and my eager friends were all for leaving too and following him and exposing him etc. but I was too engrossed in James Dean’s performance to bother with that! It was also in 1984 on Friday 20th July to be precise at the age of fifteen that I took up the art of smoking! I had had the occasional smoke previously but I now took up this charming activity with great enjoyment and even waltzed into the playground smoking a cigarette to the astonishment of many lesser brave souls!

On Friday 28th March 1985, the last day of term, a friend of mine brought into school a large tin of red paint! Another friend and I went absolutely berserk and it ended up all around the school daubed on walls and my friend had taken it outside school and decorated a car with it! Of course I forgot all about it until term began on Monday 15th April 1985 and all hell broke loose! The next day the school caretaker named Wilkins, a nasty vicious little thug made a citizen’s arrest on me and took me to King’s Heath Police Station where I spent a couple of hours in the cell! It was my first and only experience of the cells and I decided there and then that I didn’t ever want to experience them again! On the following day at school Mr. Ward made me write out a statement for the Headmaster which I did. The final exams occurred in June 1985 and by August/September I was free from the hell of school! I turned my back on all that useless waste of time, went to University and made something of myself despite those early years preparing me for a life of handouts and poorly paid work! I still have resentment towards authority and on any occasion will defy and thwart it as much as possible, it’s the old anarchist in me that will not die!

1 comment:

  1. I was the year below you (81 - 86), and it was wonderful to relive the experience (thanks for the memories!).

    The only difference is that when I look back, I think I may have enjoyed my time there :-;

    ReplyDelete