It would be silly to claim that I can remember anything useful about the first five years of my life. I clocked up a higher-than-average pram mileage, learned to walk and talk in the usual way, registered without much enthusiasm the arrival of a baby brother named Richard and generally settled into an uneventful routine. So the news that there was something called 'school' caught me unawares. It couldn't happen today, when children are eased gently into the business of education, throwing plasticine at each other in a playgroup and then learning the basic survival skills by part-time attendance at school. But I had to do it the hard way.
I have probably got it wrong, but my memory tells me that one day I was a free spirit roaming the fields and the next was screaming my head off in the iron grip of Miss Besgrove while my mother disappeared through the door. I was even more disturbed at the end of the afternoon to learn that education was not a one-day event. Considering that the Battle of Britain was going on at the time I suppose my problems did not rank highly in the total scheme of things, but they seemed serious enough to me.
I was dragged to a desk, given a piece of paper and a crayon and left to contemplate my surroundings. There was a lot to take in. Ringmer Council School was easily the biggest building I had ever been required to find my way around, although by adult standards it was a modest enough affair. It stood at the crossroads formed by the main village street, Harrison's Lane and Bishops Lane, and in 1940 it had changed little since it was built. A compact brick and flint structure, it was set back from the road behind the front playground. To one side was the teacher's house, occupied at this time by the headmaster, Mr. Self. To the rear was a smaller infants' playground, the school vegetable garden and a playing field. Like many Victorian schools it was short of classrooms, having been designed for an age when children left at twelve years old, and this had led to a certain amount of sub-division inside. Standards 3 and 4, however, still had to share the large room at the front.
In these days of universal secondary education it is easy to forget that for most Ringmer children at that time the village school was the only one they ever knew. Four years after I arrived the new Butler Education Act made it possible for some to take the competitive 'scholarship' exam for Lewes County Grammar School at the age of eleven, but the majority would continue at Ringmer until they left at fourteen, having spent their last three years in Standard 6, a single multi-age class conducted by Mr. Self. I do not know when secondary education for all was introduced in East Sussex, but until it happened a lot of late-developing talent must have been lost as village children languished in Standard 6's all over the county.
Having been for nearly five years an only child living in rural isolation I did not take kindly to classroom discipline. I failed to see why I should have to compete for attention, sit still at a desk or put up my hand before speaking. But Miss Besgrove had ways of making you learn these niceties quite quickly, and not by appealing to your better nature either. Still, given the sort of class she was landed with I dare say she was entitled to take a few short cuts.
She was a dumpy, grey-haired lady facing a menacing bunch of grubby, five-year-old scruffs - and that was just the girls. I need to be cautious about naming names here. Some of the boys may have fallen victim to occupational hazards – a gangland massacre, say, or a single shot from a Mafia hitman - but most of my former classmates may well be still alive. After all, if you lived to celebrate your eighth birthday at Ringmer School you were shockproof enough to survive into ripe old age. But I'll mention one boy I'll call Ron, just to convey something of the ethos of the infant class.
Ron was lank-haired and darkly grimed, and wore the same motley clothes every day of his school life. When he arrived his movements went largely unnoticed inside his voluminous jersey and shorts; when I last saw him vast expanses of arm and leg protruded from them. Ron smelt, and we had no hesitation in explaining why nobody wanted to sit beside him. He was normally a silent child, but we quickly discovered that if we taunted him enough at playtime he could be roused to impotent fury, his fists flailing wildly and his eyes blinded with tears. In this state he would scream obscenities, whereupon the girls would rush off in simulated shock to report him. At the beginning of the next lesson Miss Besgrove would summon him to the front of the class and order him to apologise. Weeping with humiliation he would mumble something incoherent while we smirked back at him. It's a bit late now to say sorry, Ron....
Like many children in the school Ron lived at the Broyle, an isolated settlement on the fringe of the village. For some reason I never actually saw it (perhaps I valued my life too much) but I imagine it was the sort of council estate that local authorities in those days tucked away out of sight to avoid offending the eyes and ears of respectable citizens. When the Broyle was mentioned our teachers would react in much the same way as a resident of Hampstead forced to discuss Tower Hamlets - a mixture of proper compassion and sheer thankfulness at not having to live there. Terrible tales were told of fights on the journey between the Broyle and school, and when I was old enough to take myself to school it was always a great relief to me that the howling mob would turn right outside the gates while my route lay to the left, in the company of rather nicer children from the tranquil centre of the village.
More often than not I would walk with a group that included a dark and dainty girl called Eileen, who lived in a picturesque cottage next to the Brewer's Arms, opposite Dr Rice's house. As time went by we got into the habit of walking alone, and at the age of seven we agreed to marry as soon as the war was over. Lacking an engagement ring I plighted my troth with some treasured sweets from a food parcel sent by our American relatives. But it never came to anything, for reasons which I shall explain later. Where are you now, Eileen?
The only girls who came close to displacing Eileen in my affections were the Beresford twins, who stayed for a term before their parents woke up to the terrible mistake they had made. The twins were polite, well-spoken and in all ways alien to the prevailing ethos of the school. They spent their days in a state of disbelief at what they saw around them but led a charmed life, protected by a daunting middle-class confidence that could make insults die in the mouth.
Their precocious experience of adult life fascinated us, and I would seek them out in the playground for serious discussions. One day we had a spirited argument about television. With the authority gained from a brief paragraph on the subject in Radio Fun I put forward the view that television consisted of the news in moving pictures. I had a hazy idea that through television, the bald radio accounts of military activities could be replaced by pictures of actual tank battles and dogfights in the air. The Beresfords begged to differ. They had actually seen television and were in a position to say that it offered nothing more than “plays and things and ladies singing and boring people talking”. I suppose we were both on the right lines, but the Beresfords have proved to be more accurate. For a few exciting days I sat next to Christine Beresford in class while Eileen sulked and walked home alone, but it couldn't last. The twins disappeared as mysteriously as they had come, and with them went the pleasures of intellectual conversation.
In general the boys were friendly enough, but the girls were a bossy lot and few of them inspired affection. Their natural leader was Dorothy, who ruled by virtue of size alone. Overweight and under-talented, Dorothy had few interests outside her own appearance and could be provoked to dangerous fury if her hair was even slightly displaced. Messing up Dorothy's hair was easily the most daunting challenge a boy could undertake to prove his courage, and every newcomer to the school was required to attempt it as a kind of initiation test. It always ended in tears - and not from Dorothy. Once a fortnight she would be absent from school, and on the following morning the teacher would wearily go through a long-established routine.
"Where were you yesterday, Dorothy?"
“My mum took me to have my hair purled, Miss."
We were never sure what 'purling' was (could she have meant 'permed'?), but the dialogue was repeated so often that it became a tradition for us all to join in the chorus.
I have no doubt that I was totally at home after a week in this new, rumbustious world, but that first year remains a blur in my mind and I wish I could remember more about it. I wish even more that the fly-on-the-wall documentary had been invented, because a video of Miss Besgrove in action could have replaced a whole year of teacher training. It is enough to say that by the time she handed us over to Miss Taylor twelve months later we had become a well-behaved class, proficient in simple reading, ready for joined-up writing and capable of getting to the lavatory in time. Or rather to the 'offices', which was our particular euphemism for the twin malodorous brick sheds in the back playground. They were unmarked and indistinguishable from the outside, so it was inevitable that on my first day I should have selected the wrong one. I was hauled out, given a clout round the ear by Dorothy and never made the same mistake again. You don't get efficient social education like that these days.
If Miss Besgrove wielded an iron fist in a velvet glove I suppose you could say that Miss Taylor didn't bother with the glove. She was the archetypal schoolmistress of the time – tall, angular, hair in a bun and comprehensively tweeded. Nothing deflected her from the job in hand, and she was certainly not going to make any concessions to a silly war, so she was just the sort of teacher we needed in the miserable days of 1941.
Under her supervision we consolidated our grasp of the basics. After the morning hymn and prayer ("hands together and eyes closed") we would go through the enjoyable ceremony of chanting our tables, progressively adding to our repertoire until even the tricky closing stages of the twelve times table were grafted into our minds. (I am sorry that this doesn't happen nowadays because it is not only valuable but entertaining too.) Handwriting was perfected with the help of the traditional copybook, printed with lines rather like music manuscript that ensured that we achieved the precise height and depth of each letter. I believe that even at the age of seven we were into long multiplication and division, enjoying the way in which those complex sums worked themselves out and formed neat patterns on the page. Everything was done with formal precision, not easy when we had to write with a scratchy pen in one hand and a piece of blotting paper in the other.
Miss Taylor was a great one for rituals. At morning break, as we sucked up our third of a pint of milk, a sombre queue of children who had been officially pronounced 'undernourished' would form at her desk to receive a tablespoonful of treacly malt from a large jar. No doubt this was part of her duties, although she made her humanitarian task seem like a ceremonious kind of punishment that you received for not eating up your greens. (When I later came to read Oliver Twist the image of Miss Taylor and the malt came immediately to mind.) After we had eaten our midday sandwiches she would call "heads down", the signal for us to put our arms on our desks and rest our heads on them. We were supposed to take a nap, and since it was a tiring day many of us did so in the manner of vagrants in a public library. It is a tribute to Miss Taylor's disciplinary powers that although she left the room at this point - possibly for a cup of tea or even a quick smoke - none of us would have dared to move or speak. A few minutes before the end of afternoon school, when every trace of our activities had been cleared away, she would say "Let's see who's ready to go home." In a flash we would fold our arms, brace our backs into total rigidity and desperately try to catch her eye. "Right, John", and some creep who had managed to assume the most deformed posture would be allowed to leave the room first.
It all sounds a bit silly now, and when I go into a primary school today I can see that the children sitting informally at tables are happily relaxed. But they still appreciate rituals, and there is a lot to be said for punctuating the day with fixed points of formality, however artificial they may be. If they do nothing else they give children the reassuring experience, increasingly rare today, of an adult totally in command. When we entered Miss Taylor's classroom we could face the day with serene confidence that nothing untoward would occur. Even the famous occasion when the school was machine-gunned from the air did not throw her; she sat unmoved as bullets shattered the roof. “Get under your desks, and there's no need for chatter” was her response to the might of the Luftwaffe.
Only once did I see her less than totally composed. It was the end of the day, and we were ready for the usual farewell ceremony. But instead she hesitated, cleared her throat and muttered "I've brought a few sweets for you." And she walked slowly up and down the aisles with a paper bag while we each took a peardrop. "Thank you, Miss," we whispered, transfixed by the sight of a whole month's sweet ration. "Yes....well....off you go then," she said, scrabbling in her desk and sheltering behind the lid as we tiptoed out.
Mention of the dreaded malt reminds me that our health was rather more strictly monitored than it is today. As a farm boy I was lucky enough to be brought up with no lack of milk and fresh vegetables. In other homes, I suspect, the diet was pretty rudimentary. I knew at least one boy whose midday meal consisted of nothing but dry bread. So there were regular medical checks for rickets, anemia and other disabilities, and the unfortunate teachers had to cope with the necessary remedial measures. The 'nit-nurse' was a frequent caller, combing ruthlessly through our hair in search of worse things than head lice.
But the dentist was the one we feared. He would set up his stall in some broom cupboard or other and we would be called out one by one for inspection. Dental philosophy today sets some store by preserving childhood teeth for as long as possible. Not then. The clattering of the probe and mirror was accompanied by an explicit commentary that seldom boded well for the future. “Out” was the recurring cry to the nurse standing by with her charts.
In due course we would be driven six at a time in Mr. Self's car to the schools dental surgery, which at that time was located just behind the barbican of Lewes castle in a gracious house that gave no indication of the horrors that lay behind its intricately-carved front door. The surgical procedure was simple. The six of us were lined up and injected with anaesthetic in quick succession. It was called cocaine, although I can't say I ever found it particularly addictive. Then we were sent to sit in the waiting room, becoming more numb and incoherent by the minute as we stared at posters telling us that 'Careless Talk Costs Lives', which we interpreted as a sterner version of the message we received every day from Miss Taylor. Incapable of even careful talk we watched another six from a different school go in for the same treatment. Meanwhile yet another six would be stumbling in through the front door, ready to take our places as we returned to the dentist's chair for tug-and-crunch time. You had to give the dentists credit for the kind of cost-effective efficiency that would be warmly applauded by National Health Service administrators today.
The medical attention we received may not have been user-friendly but at least it was there. In the days before the National Health Service it took a serious illness or a bad accident to force working-class parents to consult a doctor, so routine checks for most children would have been non-existent without the schools medical service.
In much the same way our intellectual health was looked after by the county library. Each month a number of large, flat boxes would be unloaded at the school - our new supply of reading matter. The books were not only used for silent reading sessions in class but could be taken home and regularly exchanged. I have good reason to be grateful for that provision.
The more I think about Ringmer school the more I realise how good it was. The tone of any small school is likely to be set by the head teacher, so we were lucky to have Mr. Self. He was a jovial, outgoing man who took his responsibilities seriously and never seemed discouraged by the unpromising material he had to mould. Obviously I knew nothing at all about the day-to-day problems he contended with, but I imagine that the combined demands of the education authority and the war took their toll. Nevertheless, he was always relaxed, and in spite of his full-time teaching commitment with the senior pupils he would make a point of visiting other classes to chat with us about the work we were doing.
The one occasion when I was summoned for an interview with Mr. Self effectively put an end to my dalliance with Eileen. In a fit of generosity I had made her a gift of my last sixpence. Her mother must have interpreted this in the worst possible way because Mr. Self took some trouble to explain that the conventions did not permit cash payments of this kind. It was all done in a reasonable, man-to-man style, and I took his point. I also took my sixpence with some relief, because I was already regretting my reckless gesture. Eileen tended to avoid me after that, and perhaps it was just as well. So many of those wartime romances ended in disillusion and recrimination.
Regrettably I can remember almost nothing about Miss Liversedge and Miss Bettinson, in charge of Standards 3 and 4 respectively, except that they were comparatively young - in their thirties probably. In fact I don't recall those two years at all, and I can only assume that they passed in relative tranquillity. Which is more than I can say for Standard 5, which hit us with the shock of an explosion. The lady who lobbed the grenade was Mrs. Bentley, a human dynamo who would cycle in from Lewes whatever the weather and launch herself into the day with brimming enthusiasm. She was almost certainly the first married woman to teach at Ringmer School, the result of the wartime relaxation of the rigorous rule that women teachers in primary schools should be single. Needless to say, she was still 'Miss' to us.
It is no exaggeration to say that my whole future life - education, career, wife, family - was decided by Mrs. Bentley. Although I was unaware of it at the time, a small group of us must have been marked out as possible 'scholarship' candidates, so she had the difficult task of grooming us for stardom while at the same time motivating the rest of the class. Small, wiry and bespectacled, she fizzled round the room, coaxing, commanding and clarifying. She improved our word power by setting us crosswords from the daily paper, starting an addiction which I have never been able to shake off. It was Mrs. Bentley who first explained the parts of speech and showed us how to construct a sentence. Mysteries like decimals and the division of vulgar fractions gave up their secrets magically at her touch. She would involve us in lively discussions on topics of the moment, paying grave attention to our ill-informed responses and tactfully encouraging us to articulate our ideas. She was a magnificent teacher, and even at the age of ten I sensed that she was taking us into a different league.
The scholarship examination, the culmination of all this frenzy, came virtually unannounced. I have only a hazy memory of the written papers, which were presumably done in school, but I recall very clearly travelling to Lewes shortly afterwards with Mr. Self and my friend Michael Ellis. We were the two survivors into the second round, which consisted of a brief and halting interview with the deputy head of the grammar school. After that the excitement died down until one afternoon towards the end of the spring term, when Mr. Self came in to announce to the class that Michael and I had been accepted. Since nobody had explained to us what a grammar school actually was, much of the euphoria passed over our heads, but when Mrs. Bentley hugged us impulsively it became clear that she was pleased with us, so that was all right. But for me it was a near thing. The eleven-plus examination had been introduced in 1944, so if I had been two years older I would have been destined for Standard 6 and who knows what afterwards? If I had been just one year older I doubt whether the school would have been able to organise itself in time to take on the unfamiliar task of preparing us for grammar school transfer. So it was sheer good luck and the dedication of Mrs. Bentley that changed the course of my life.If my parents were anxious about the financial and other problems ahead they did not show it. They did the traditional thing and bought me a new bicycle, an event that made far more impression on me than the examination result. And since nobody else was nervous neither was I. It was 1946, the war was over, summer was coming, the holidays were in sight, I had a new bike. It was quite enough to be going on with.