CLICK IT IN THE PORTICOES FOR PHIL BEARD'S ACCOUNT
As I get towards the great tapering, I am interested in how I managed to turn out this way. I am not claiming any particular distinction for myself. There is no reason to read this unless you are interested. Feel free to skip from dodgy event to hilarious pratfall. The memory is fallible. My account is not the truth so much as how I have remembered it. A visualisation of me as a child on a tricycle cannot be a visualisation of actuality but a memory of a lost photograph. Many images are the residue of wishful thinking. Many narratives are no doubt reconfigured to make me funnier, more noble or simply endearing. I write for family and friends and not posterity because I longed to find an equivalent from my father’s hand but never did.
EARLY DAYS IN CHESHIRE
My first school was in Handforth in Chershire, a village not even listed in my Handbook of Cheshire Villages. The survival of three photographs of the Coronation Year School Fete of 1953 helps me to start this account on a basis of actuality. My Father was a Parish Councillor and fixed it for me to be Sir Walter Raleigh who laid down his cloak for the Queen to cross a puddle. I delivered a loyal address to microphone, wearing a pie dish cover around my neck and a paper rose on each sandle. We were all given a five shilling piece each and a blue commemorative glass which proved almost impossible to break. I enjoyed handwriting and observing rules about placement of letters on parallel lines.
Arriving in Watford from Liverpool in 1955 I went to the Cassiobury Primary School, a walk across the Park from Gade Avenue, Watford. I developed a reputation there as a great reader of the classics of Western Literature but I had a secret supply of the Classics in Comic Form (available at W.H.Smith’s in town) , and could rattle up points feigning familiarity with such tosh as Masterman Ready and The Swiss Family Robinson from these strip cartoon narratives. Perhaps this contributed to passing my Eleven Plus to become a Grammar School Boy. The Watford Grammar School for Boys was second only to Manchester Grammar, and, I was told, it was a privilege to gain entrance.
Only when I started researching the Watford Grammar School for Boys (WGSB) in September 2013 did the years 1956-1963 come back with all their traces of fear and loathing. I rationalise this as the period between Suez and the Cuban Missile Crisis, both of which brought their own share of fear and loathing. By every concentric diagram of A Bomb damage, Watford was prime territory for those who were horribly radiated and wished they were dead.
At first, I tracked down the names of some of those who taught me, and then, through finding Michael Rosen’s account, I was reminded of a few boys from my year who had made it in later years as sportsmen. When I came across somebody who actually confessed to hating the place, I felt I had acquired a licence to free my memories.
Before the start of term, I attended an interview with Headmaster Harry Ree and Deputy Head Herbert Lister to decide where in the academic streaming I was to be placed. Ree was urbane and kind, Lister sadistic and fearsome. I was handed a questionnaire which offered me a bit of code cracking which the war hero Harry Ree of the Special Operations Executive would have found engaging. “Two Russian statesmen please, Mullen, five letters, then six. Using the code grid on a separate piece of paper.”
Without so much a pause, I identified Lenin and Stalin about whom I had talked with my Grandfather, an engineer in Metro-Vick’s Thirties machine-wrecking efforts in the Soviet Union. Ree and Lister looked at each with a sort of smirk and I entered the elite stream based not on powers of cryptography but unusual general knowledge and sheer bluff. It is an important aspect of my character that I was a skilled mimic, and many of the dolts I encountered at this period, couldn’t tell the difference between the real and the curiously fashioned facsimile. Having no idea of what was to be expected of her son, my Mother had bought me the General Knowledge tests offered to the students at King William’s College in the Isle of Man (Cresset Press 1954). This set a life-long habit of amassing banks of useless facts recalled using a prodigious memory, and being regularly rewarded for being what I was not.
My first year in the A stream at WGSB was a misery as I cared little for the work, and for Latin in particular. My visual talents had been spotted early and instead of conjugating and translating impossible bellicose narratives, I designed a Lunatic Asylum on a large roll of Wallpaper with many cells and punishment devices. The fools and shirkers of the day’s lesson were incarcerated therein.
“Do we have a cell free, Mullen? If so, write in the name Forbes-Simpson.”
I was called upon to do little else. In English Language I wrote a highly imaginative story for homework about a malevolent force that rippled the gravel outside 13, Gade Avenue, and was duly given a detention, having been unfairly accused by Mr.Greenwell of plagiarism.
Being designer and chatelaine of the Latin Asylum was my first success in evading the humiliation and artificial rivalries induced in my A stream class. Latin was for the A stream, and for the Boys who were a Cut Above. No wonder my first report warned me to avoid being the Clown of the Form. My Father sat there glumly with my first term’s report warning me that I would have to work harder to justify my place at Watford Grammar School, to justify being a Fullerian. My peer Andrew Davis who lived down the road was in the A stream and carried a cello to school. He could never have been the Clown of the Form.
Only when I was advanced to the Second Year and quickly dumped into the C Stream, (e.g. subsequently Lower Geography) did I find a regime in which I felt I could be creative in writing and in making images. I was with boys like me, cynical and rude, who saw no need to play the Teachers’ games designed to pull us closer to, then beyond Manchester Grammar.
My parents’ house was in Gade Avenue, seven minutes walk from the School. I turned right out of the house, then right up Cassiobury Park Avenue, and past the Watford Metropolitan Station. Across the Sports Fields, the solid brick façade was waiting for me. I turned right off Cassiobury Park Avenue right into the Shepherd’s Road and, tense with anticipation for the events of the day, walked into the Quad/Playground. Often I went home for lunch, but often took food in the canteen or from the Ice Cream man Mr.Grillo who served his wares with a stained damp yellow resin bandage around his right wrist from an approved site just inside the Gate. No ice cream ever again tasted like burnt plastic.
The Main School Building was a grid structure of corridors and rooms. Something of it can be glimpsed in the film of Alan Bennett’s film The History Boys which was shot there. I dumped my satchel at my desk and proceeded to Assembly. There we sat in pre-ordained rows. Later you got to gather in the First Floor Gallery among the undistinguished portraits, grubby plaster swags and the sad tar stained face of the Lady Founder. The day’s labours loomed ahead. The timetable swam into mind, evoking in advance the tastes and colours of the day, each day different yet the same.
I can remember going back to the classroom after Assembly, opening the desk and pulling out the brown paper covered text books for the lesson, without a single feeling of pleasure, of curiosity or delight. It was a period of time to be survived with minimal embarrassment and pain. Each Master swept in and reinforced discipline with immediately launching into the substance of the lesson, be it an overnight poem, an algebraic graph or botanical drawing. Curtness was the order of the day, not a moment to be lost, and, above all, little time for reflection.
Coming up the stairs it was a constant temptation to turn left down the corridor to the Library. Turning away from the Classroom you could walk along the Gallery and, looking down, you could see the Staff Room with clusters of fearful lads and irritated masters. There was a sort of Tuck Shop further along. Straight ahead of you, through the large windows, boys were already on the running track or trying to slip into School unnoticed.
I have a vague remembrance of laboratories and outside separate buildings where I spent most of my later time; the Art Room, next to its mirror image the Carpentry Workshops. In the former with Mr.Smith I felt secure and creative, while in its mirror territory with Mr.Vale I fumbled and blushed.
Another separate building was a Giant Wooden Shed from which School maintenance team emerged. Here I contributed weekly to the Boys’ Work Group, a mixture of offenders and conscientious objectors, forever associated with the smell of creosote and camaraderie.
The theatricalities of the Boys’ Toilets and the Cloakrooms, their design and narrative potential will be described later.
The Gymnasium was itself a large and expensive structure with changing rooms, showers, and a large open space within. Up the stairs ahead of you there was an entrance to a Gallery. Up there it was possible to hide under the parapet during the sessions of leaping, vaulting and playing Murder Ball. You simply got your arrival noted and you then disappeared, sneaking up the stairs to the Gallery. Neither PE Master seemed to rumble the ruse. Often eight recalcitrants lay horizontally on the Gallery floor, unobserved from beneath, while they talked of Girls and Pop Music. The timing for a return to the changing rooms was crucial as it was unrealistic to stand fully dressed among the sweaty singlets. Having chosen your moment to re-joining the classmates you then did up your shirt front with a towel round the neck.
In the Lower Remove (the year before the Sixth Form) I carefully cultivated an ingrowing toenail by hitting it at home with a hammer. It bled into the bandage in support of a sealed note from my Mother. Nobody could understand why it never got better. It even developed a sort of carapace and the occasional inflammation.
The school week was divided fiercely into periods and double periods with whole afternoons devoted just to Sport. Mercifully Physical Education was rarely more than a single period, and after you had changed, it was time to shower and go off to History. The double period of a science subject was doom laden in prospect.
In front of the dignified façade of the main buildings and beyond the Quads were the extensive sports fields where Circuit training unfolded, and where in the Cricket Nets I could demonstrate to any passers-by my stylish but ineffectual defensive blocking of spin bowling. On the Sports’ Fields I represented my House (New House) at arm sports, such as Putting the Shot and Hurling the Cricket Ball. Fleet of foot I was not, The lush Hertfordshire landscape and manicured grasslands provided instead a suitable backdrop to the fine trajectory of a hard red cricket ball exceeding the anticipations of the Master whose job it was to measure my accomplishment. I entitle this canvas “Landscape with Admiring Throng. Mullen Christopher hurls the Cricket Ball into Swimming Pool”.
So powerful was the pull of the School’s regime that I never thought of, nor ever fantasised about running off in my singlets and shorts, leaping the fence and charging all the way home in terror or rage. There was something immutable about the demands made, the time imposed, and the values instilled. It was not at all healthy.
The Immutable Law of the Timetable revealed to me early on that I saw things in colours that were in monochrome on the grid, and that each period had its own clear taste in the mouth. A double period in general science was tarnished in my mind from the very start, a dingy, rusted yellow, tasting bitter and sharp at the back of the tongue. I found over the years that this varied in ways I did not understand. The colour in my responses might change if another master came in to the classroom, covering for his sick colleague. This extended into my own teaching career in colour in anticipation of the next lecture. The Watford Grammar School Personal Palette and Succulence is even now painful to recall, even at a time when I doubt I could still exact adequate revenge.
I can find no sympathetic way of describing Herbert Lister, known as Fanny, a peppery little man, squirrel eyed and dapper, always on the cusp of punishing somebody. He drank in that fear of his appearance and his bright little eyes swept the room to see if he could identify any divergence from the norm. Let there be no mistake, he was a sadist. With his billowing gown and brandished plimsoll, he was always disappointed unless he could book a lad for a thrashing, or even administer the pain in front of the class.
His trademark cry was “WINDOWS” instructing the class monitor to open the windows on his arrival, as if to blow away complacency or the odour of youth.
In 1989 I was in charge of the interim assessments of the MA Narrative students at Brighton University with Quentin Blake as an external examiner. Treating myself to highly personal aside, I walked across the room and murmured, “WINDOWS” with characteristic rise and fall as an echo of the intrusive sadist himself. Quentin looked at me. “Ah Mister Lister, eh?” How did he know? His school friend and collaborator, John Yeoman had been an English master at Watford and had retold the story of that clarion cry and the highly individual way of seizing the group attention. Fanny Lister would have been confronted, even arrested today, and there must be many such as I who strained every nerve to avoid a beating, yet cannot claim it gave them any sense of discipline or dedication. It taught me to use my imagination to mentally concoct subtle punishments and come-uppances for those who I despised.
I am often accused of nursing perpetual grudges at minor slights. When I was approached later to be an Old Fullerian, merely an income generating device, or when my later academic accomplishments reached their ears, it was the memory of Mister Lister that intervened, raising his plimsoll in the air and throwing back the casement. I just wouldn’t give him the pleasure, in his starved retirement, with ill-fitting dentures, of thinking that I had finally made it because of his efforts at concentrating my mind.
My C Stream class was, as you would expect a mixed bunch, and I wonder in retrospect how many of the Rougher sort might have thrown fear to the wind and given Lister himself a beating. The spectacle would have broken his hold over our imaginations, and other confrontations might over the years have ruined his schtick. One such candidate for intervention on behalf of the School Boy was Daniel Ignatius Patrick O’Carroll, a sturdy and cheerful lad, not above gratuitous twisting or thumping of Toffs in the A Stream. He was always compassionate towards me. I basked in his approval because he was convinced I was Irish and needed his protection. This cost me nothing. I can see him now rising slowly from his desk and advancing on the Sadist with a Plimsoll. Mouthing a torrent of unspeakable curses he seizes the spluttering Master by his throat and throws him across the classroom, grinding him with his large boots where he falls.
In actuality there was one such incident I witnessed but the delicious spectacle will wait for later in the telling.
Standing with the Head in a classroom, I was narrowly missed by a milk bottle hurled through a window by a boy in the corridor outside. “Don’t ever do that again, it could have been dangerous. Now clear it up.” He often brought a lit cigarette into the Prefects’ room. Three of us in Lower Geography had decided to refuse to join the Combined Cadet Force and made a claim to be conscientious objectors in this dull period of national reassessment after the Suez disaster. Not knowing Harry Ree that had been a conscientious objector himself we were delighted to be granted the status, and to be delegated ground work in CCF periods. “I am struck by the logic of your argument and will tell Mr.Marrow.” He looked very pleased at his decision.
No uniforms for us, but rusty tins of creosote, just like the Bloomsbury group working on the Land in the First World War. Others lads were jealous of our new status sanctioned by the Head. We were free from uniforms and blanced belts. There was no marching, no enforced week Camps in Wales and straining after promotion. Just the smell of creosote. Bless you Harry Ree. Damn you Herbert Lister. The Headmaster after Harry Ree was a severe dullard called Mr.Turner who I found I could ignore. He had a pendulous lower lip which was always wet in the dim yellow corridor lights.
BUZZA AND YIRRELL
Manichean opposites were accommodated throughout the school.
We encountered Mr. Buzza and Mr Yirrell for Physical Education, a Flogger and an Aesthete. Mr.Buzza was, we were told, Cornish, perhaps accounting for his rasping surname. As he urged the unfit and uncooperative masses across a muddy field in pursuit of some ill-defined conclusion, he would jog fiercely behind the back markers and flick their buttocks with his finger tips, a cause of pain he seems to have invented. No open palm for him. This would of course goad you to get out of his way, but little else.
He was, as we recognised quickly, rather dim, and most of his efforts were devised to conceal this from his colleagues and young charges. Mr.Yirrell was all the more elegant and confident in his intellect. For him, Physical Education was about skill with a certain amount of elegance. Mr. Buzza just hit the peg with the hammer and with an empty smile, watch the Big Bell ring.
“Do you know?” Mr. Buzza’s voice shrank to a whisper, “that Mr Yirrell is one of only three gymnasts in Europe capable of moving considerable distances while standing on one arm.” For days after, after the rumour was spread, Mr.Yirrell must have been aware of jaws dropping at his approach, at the crowds parting. Sadly, the Hungarian State Circus appeared on Television a week after Buzza’s claim, and an entire troupe of Hungarian Tumblers made their entrance , each performing a handstand on one arm, feverishly circling the arena in a pointless display of athleticism.
Mr. Yirrell must have been aware of the contempt with which he was subsequently viewed, which was nothing to that visited on Mr.Buzza, the author of the False Claim. This has led me to be highly suspicious of sporting claims, even my own.
MR VALE, WOOD AND METALWORK
My work for Mr.Vale in Wood and Metalwork was pathetic and inept. The Toilet Roll holder I took back to my parents to persuade them of my manual skills, regularly spilled the roll at embarrassing moments, enraging my Father who was keen to preserve the solemnities of his Bowel Evacuation. He always kept the door open and once I saw the Holder fragment as the Roll spilled out onto the Landing. My Dovetail joints trembled even when turned into a Broom Holder. My metal work spanner was held up to ridicule in class by Mr. Vale, but he failed to realise that manual incompetence in manual skills might be seen as a Badge of Cool. I was treated with a whole new respect by my peers when the Mullen Made Tool disintegrated when offered up to a Nut and Bolt. I had mastered that smile used so brilliantly by Orson Welles as Harry Lime, when Holly Martins spots him in the night’s doorway. Oh Whoops! Did it really do that?
Mr Smith (“Smut”) was another matter, and I can remember no other Art Master during my stay at Watford. He was shuffling and kind in aspect, not unlike Christopher Isherwood in expression and haircut. He smiled as a matter of course, which was unusual among the staff. The art room was self contained with a room in the back where books and materials were stored, and where Smut had his lair. The chosen ones not only had access to this room where they could skulk but in time had their own keys. The art books were Smuts own, battered Phaidon monochrome monographs on Michelangelo and Donatello. Van Gogh was represented in huge sepia plates. But it was home for the three of us, Phil, me and someone I remember as Thorpe.
I was so keen I even went in during the Holidays, and thus managed to decorate one space above a long window looking out on the woods with an ambitious mural of a Surrealist cast. It showed a primeval landscape with Telephone. On the Telephone was written “Dial 54842” which was my parents’ Cooperative number registered for dividends. The machine was surrounded by a forest of Douanier Rousseau plants. In retrospect I realise that ‘Dial’is an anagram of Dali, then our favourite artist. I had saved my lunch money up to buy Robert Descharnes monograph on that artist. In 1962 with Phil I took it to a quiet bank on the River Gade and poured over its glossy pages.
Smut encouraged us all and allowed us to develop within his territory. His relationship with Phil had not started well. Phil was at the back of one class, gossiping to his mates when Smut threw a stick of chalk at him, a characteristic gesture. With audacious courage Phil caught the chalk (a feat never repeated on the cricket field) and threw it back at Smut. Mr. Lister would have exploded like John Cassavettes in The Fury. But Smut resolved the situation with a detention for Phil and an amused smile. He held no grudges. Phil established a reputation that outlasted Mr.Yirrell’s one armed cavortings.
My relationship with Smut did not start well. When I was fourteen( and an impressionable adolescent) he had written on my end of year report that, while my imagination was terrifying and impressive, I must learn to use Gamboge more effectively. My Father called me in to give an account of the failure, but I suspected he didn’t know what Gamboge was.
I lacked drawing ability beyond a few measured devices gleaned from major artists, and tended in my nervousness to use religious art as a default. A face or figure badly drawn often took on a solemnity of an Old Testament Prophet or Jesus on the Cross. It was a sure sign that I could hatch beautifully be it coastlines or the grass in open countryside. When in doubt, keep hatching, was my dictum, giving me time to work out exactly what on earth I was doing.
Phil was more talented and indeed went on the Watford Art School Foundation Course and then Chelsea School of Art. He could draw. After a few desultory exercises in hatching Yves Tanguy style amoeba, I settled early on a style that accommodated colour (mostly ill judged) but effective when separated by broad black lines. I do recall Smut having to put in an extra order for a big tin of Black Powder Paint, so productive was I when I hit the rhythms.
My final portfolio was a bulging package of gloom and resonance, shadow and highlight tipped liberally over Three Wise Men, Satan and his Legions, and Sinister Clowns. A smattering of rote learning from Pevsner and Gombrich, and a a good memory for the black and white illustrations, saw me through A levels My Surrealist urges evaporated in the Visual Arts but survived in my poetry. One such number was printed in the School Magazine with the immortal first line, “And diarrhoea walked carefully on the carpet”. I remember it being posted on a noticeboard, and being flattered by the sniggering response from my pals.
It was more than access to materials and time spent. It was being creative in the vicinity of a teacher who understood the problems, and after a fair grounding, let you see if you could express yourself, rather than perform to the curriculum in the larger glory of School’s academic reputation. After his retirement Jim Smith became a volunteer at Oxfam, where he encountered my Mother, anxious to improve her son’s ability to cope with the demands of a mercantile world. He got word to me that my Mother would be happy if I tempered academic research with the purchase of a suit to wear at interviews. My Mother was reassured when Smut said that he doubted whether I’d ever change anyway, quoting my line about diarrhoea.
Another Internet voice has recalled Mr. Smith being the nicest teacher in the school and probably the best. Another recalls a crit with project work on the floor and him on a bench above. It is said he jumped down onto the painting of which he disapproved and ostentatiously wiping his feet. My memories of Smut are heightened by the constant urges to suppress memories of other teachers and their punitive ways largely unrelated to the process of learning. Smut has always been there in my mind, ready for service and encouragement.
MR. WILES, “Willy”
If Harry Ree was responsible for the more spiritual aspects of Fucking, then it was Willy Wiles' job to explain the biological aspects. We started off on Tomato Pips as the easily understandable side of procreation. My homework was to cut open a tomato and draw what I saw. Anticipating a high grade, I was shattered to find when the exercise books were returned , that I had cut the Tomato at ninety degrees to the intended axis. While I gave a firm account of the pink mush, it failed to address the concealed pips. I protested that I exactly followed the wording of the question and we eventually compromised with a revised drawing with fastidious hatching. Later I had made a quip as a quiet aside when Willy talked about Gonads. “Go Nad Go!” I said under my breath thinkto some group merriment, and I made him cross.
Looking back I admired Willy’s bravery setting us microscope exercises with semen, which he brought in to work in a milk bottle. He remained impassive as we asked for an explanation of where this teaching aid had come from.
MIKE BENTON Sixth form English
From the maunderings of Mr.Gregg, to the inspiration of Mike Benton. He was a revelation in talking about Romantic poetry. He talked about the stuff as if it had been written by people,and not found in textbooks. I wrote a science fiction novella called pretentiously STRABISMUS which he was kind about.
C.R.THOMAS. French Master.
Although my command of French required regular private weekly tuition along with Lofty Thompson, Mr. Thomas did his best to make his lessons interesting. He invented for each pupil a persona which was sustained through the academic year. Phil Beard was Le Barbe Bleu, capable of horrific mass murders. I was Marcel Mule, Le Saxophe Celebre, another effective mask behind which I could retreat.
Phil and I took this burgeoning familiarity with the French tongue seriously. He smuggled a copy of Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror through the Customes in his underpants at the end of one holiday. With our Collins Gem Dictionaries we translated whole chapters of this Surrealist classic. Later, when the book was more commonly found in Libraries and Bookshops in the John Cournos translation, it was impressive how our version differed in virtually every detail from the published version. Marcel Duchamp would have been delighted.
Before I end this cavalcade I want to celebrate one master whose name I have forgotten who taught Chemistry. He styled his laboratory a Space Ship, and those who entered “Space Meeses”. One day we were told he would be taking some time off. We never saw him again. It turned out he had become enraged with Fanny Lister and knocked him to the ground.
A reluctant pleasure at WBGS was the range of sport available, all of it appropriate to the class and academic aims of the School itself. I played Rugby, Hockey and Cricket, with the occasional foray into the Shot Put, the Javelin Chuck and Hurling the Cricket Ball. Memories of High Jump and Long Jump are necessarily a bit thin. Swimming I avoided as much as humanly possible in the unheated pool across the sports fields. Some of my class could glide effortless through chlorinated water but I was more impressed by Phil without his spectacles savagely beating the water’s surface with his fists and making little progress towards the other edge.
A sturdiness of build and an inner rage made me suitable for the Rugby scrum and I was chosen as Hooker in my second year. The other candidate for any School Team was Terry Needham, built along similar lines, and a genuine laugh as we packed down face to face.
In the early stages we enjoyed the Hooker’s Rivalry. Both had been teased by members of the family for big knees and neither took the whole thing very seriously. Being a Hooker meant labouring in a restricted area, while others ran like greyhounds and got clattered. Thirty boys would all meet in gear (black and green hoops with heavy muddy boots) at a sports field some way away near my old Primary School. Two captains made their choices from a dwindling lines of candidates. Although physically enormous Beresford Hutchinson was always left to last because of his laboured breathing and wandering concentration.
The two teams faced each other. It did get confusing because we all wore the same rugby kit. The coloured sashes soon muddied up or were torn away. There was a serious drawback that members of the scrum were aware of. Being open fields, there was often a scattering of dog turds that had evaded the Groundsman’s scrutiny. All Sports Masters seemed to enjoy our predicament, rarely agreeing to move the scrum a few feet to the left. “Scrum Down” Buzza would say, jabbing his boot a matter of inches from the Turd.
It was amusing if the ball was put in, it landed in the shit, and either Needham or I hooked it back to the Scrum Half who just noticed the handful of shit before he passed it on down the line. The threat for the Hooker was packing down with your arms pinned around the props, hovering uneasily over the shit, into which you could plunge face first and helpless. “Get that wiped off, Mullen. Really! If it happens to anybody, it’ll happen to you..”
Everything went swimmingly until the Colts Team for WBGS was to be selected. A trial between the Possibles and the Probables was organised one afternoon, and a cluster of Masters assembled on the sidelines. It was known that the Colts practised on the Saturday Morning at the Cassiobury Park sports fields, starting at 9.30am. Needham and I both went into a flat panic and for the duration of the Trial, both of us were striking against the head, booting rather than hooking, to compromise the other. Buzza the Referee was furious and decided to appoint a completely different candidate, not realising that this, of course suited us both. He did lack the larger perspective. Mr.Yirrell would have given both of us the job, the other as a substitute on the bench. My Rugby career had ended but Hockey proved a more considerable threat to my well-being and free Saturdays.
I have preserved the image of being at right back on my first outing with a Hockey stick. Taking a free hit, I managed to get the white leather ball to travel at murderous speed the length of the pitch without touching the ground. Joe Sly turned on his heel and asked if I could do that again. He stopped the game and I repeated the action. As a result I found myself the next week in the WBGS first XI for the game.
You perhaps can imagine by now how my heart sank, how sick I felt when told my name was on the Sports Noticeboard. My parents were unused to this athleticism and immediately bought me the best Hockey Stick available. My Hockey Debut was at Merchant Tailors’ School to which we travelled in a hired coach. They were in all counts, a cut above the Fullerians, in experience, bodily strength and endurance. Every minute of the journey made me more anxious, fearful not of failure but further commitment. As in all school sports, I received no instruction. Athleticism was considered innate, and teaching technique vulgar. I received the sole strict instruction to haunt the right hand side of the pitch and on no account advance beyond the halfway line. No overlapping full back I.
Our secret weapon was a burly thuggish centre forward with no scruples, called Howard (his surname). In the first minute I saw him race up the field and slam the ball into the opposition’s net. Joe Sly’s jaw dropped but he knew this advantage was temporary. As the game progressed I found that I could cut off a ferociously hard hit aimed at bypassing me by hurling myself horizontally at the trajectory and with accurate stick work, divert the ball into touch. The first time I did this I was unnaturally pleased with myself but was warned by the referee that this was not in the rules of the game. I was ill-prepared to argue with him. When I did it again, I was penalised.
True Athletes usually choose this moment to glower at the fellow who let the side down. However no Fullerian had any knowledge of the rules of the game and my fellow players were outraged at the injustice. They could only see as conspicuous exercise of skill, delivered horizontally at some personal risk. The horizontal block with feet off the ground may now be an accepted part of the game, but then it was Devil May Care, an ostentatious gesture of contempt at the Opponents and the Educational establishment.
There was a second small triumph I still remember from this match. They had won a short corner. I was told to line up with the others but to stand close to the right hand post. This made sense. The opposing forwards were of course gigantic, each one at least two years old than us. Even Howard looked smaller in their company. During the match I think he lost a front tooth further up the field in a rare advance. Standing beside me, meeting their gaze, he gave a half smile as the blood trickled over his lips.
The ball was pushed out to one opponent who for a reason none of us quite understood was kneeling in the mud. He appeared to trap it with his hand enabling an even larger forward to hit it fiercely towards our goal.
I was slow to realise that the ball, travelling at high speed was coming straight for my genitals. There was no time to step out of the way, to protest or leap above the point of impact. Automatically two study forearms pushed the stick forward towards the ball which it met perfectly, sending it over the Bar.
I had the presence of mind to behave as this was a naturally developed skill that could be counted on in the future. However, the more realistic side of me determined that I would under no circumstances put myself in a position where this would again be tested. On the coach going back, I maintained the posture of normalcy. Christopher Wyndham Mullen, acerbic quasi intellectual who from the age of 13 had read The Times (but not understood it ) in the classroom, the first boy to affect Buddy Holly glasses in the whole of Hertfordshire, probably, was seen briefly as a Jock, as a cool customer who expressed himself in horizontal leaps and accurate stickwork in avoiding being disembowelled.
How I eased out of my Hockey Period is hard to recall. The fifth form year (Lower remove Geography) was ending and there was more freedom in the Sixth Form. I had a good line in Parental excuse Notes which accompanied with a persuasive limp and perfectly timed migraines. My life as a Jock was over. My A Level years as an Artist with my own key to the Art Room were about to begin.
My potential was recognised by the School Hierarchy through the House system as many other superb athletes have experienced. There were four Houses whose names then were perhaps Raleigh, Drake and Frobisher. The fourth, to which I was allotted, was New House, as if refraining from evoking Britain’s Nautical past. What the Establishment failed to recognise was that I had undoubted gifts throughout my career at Watford as a Mimic, of Masters, fellow pupils, American Blues stars, and most of all, Freddie Trueman the anti-Establishment ex miner and fast bowler.
Many of my pals were in New House which seemed to be selected from boys in the immediate vicinity of the School, Tiny Thompson, Lofty Thompson, Beresford Hutchinson and my Soul Mate, Phil Beard. As with Hockey, none of the rules were explained, or the finer points of the game. My mother was instructed to buy whites and cricket shoes that were spotless and dazzling in the sun. The shoes were made white after scuffing with an applicator with a sponge end, applying a rather washy white over green stains and bruising. We went to Lillywhite’s shop in Watford and bought a cricket bag into which my gear was packed for my first representative game for New House. I found myself nominated as Captain and thus I could indulge in long Freddie Truman style run- ups to bowl and take myself off only when Glory was fading and I was knackered. Peter Openshaw was the Umpire, or Old Shiner as he was known. In my first over I rapped the pads of the School’s opening batsman. Because neither Lofty Thompson and I knew the protocol, neither of us said, Huzzat?” so the Umpire as he delighted in telling us, could not give the Star Batsman out. I learnt a lesson from that disappointment.
This pantomime version of Fiery Freddie succeeded in promoting me to the School First XI where my build and general attitude qualified me as a Wicket Keeper. No sprinting round the boundary for me, just a stately progress from wicket to wicket. I took several catches and missed several stumpings but had to invent my modus operandi by myself. In my first game, I was not told about wearing damp chamois leather gloves inside my Keeper’s gloves. As a result, at the end of their innings, my hands which had swollen to the size of Puffer Fish could not be extracted from my Gloves.
At the end of the contest, the Captain asked me where my box was. I had gone through the whole match ill-informed and unprotected, necessitating another visit to Lillywhite with Mother to buy a heavy metal conche shell with webbing to defend my knackers.
The very next week I was keeping to John ‘Spud’ Taylor, a much more effective facsimile of Fiery Fred than I ever was, I took the full force of a ferocious bouncer in my box. A booming crash was heard around the Rickmansworth, and my box was horribly dented. On these occasions the fielders all laugh like drains, but my responding laughter was hollow and fearful. It was time to start dropping catches and book more time in the Art Room.
Returning to their office for a report on my potential and career prospects a week after, the Advisor tapped the report with a single digit and shook his head. I feared the worst. “Apart from the Lord Chief Justice, there has been nobody we have interviewed so obviously destined for a long and distinguished career in the Law.”
My Mother and Father couldn’t believe the evidence presented at some cost, to them. Just when they assumed that my affecting long hair and Buddy Holly glasses were signs of homoerotic excess, the Good Folk at Vocational Guidance, had cut through the flim flam to find the real me. It was demonstrated to us that, by cross checking responses from the reverses of the fifteen pages, it was easily possible to discover if the Candidate was over egging the pudding or even taking the piss. I was capable of both as my Father knew, but he was persuaded by the course they mapped out for me. I was articled to Howard Chinnery of the Law Firm, Lawrence Messer of 16, Coleman Street in the City of London. My secondary education was at an end and two of the most dreary years of my life about to begin. I exchanged the rote learning of the Grammar for that of the Law Society’s Schools in Chancery Lane. An early lecture I attended there was called “Discharge by Frustration” an aspect of the Law of Contract. In retrospect, it seemed appropriate.
In School uniform.
ANDREW DAVIS My great pal David Watkin, cinematographer and music enthusiast, held Andrew Davis to be the worst conductor ever, but only after he was sure it was Davis with the baton for a particular performance. That I knew of him in childhood caused David’s particular scorn.You could have stopped him then,Watkin said unkindly.
WATFORD METROPOLITAN STATION. The station building and forecourt remains the same now as it was then. There was a tobacconist newsagent on the left hand of the station entrance, and a hairdresser on the right. The woman who ran the hairdresser’s was, it was rumoured, secretary of the Dusty Springfield Fanclub.
MY USUAL LUNCH AT HOME Usually thick white bread toasted with hot tinned tomatoes.
DANIEL IGNATIUS PATRICK O'CARROLL The rhythm remained with me, and the impression of the boy’s Dennis the Menace persona. The other name that has remained is Count Camillo Benso di Cavour from readings of Trevelyan in History. The name of classmate and politician regularly trip to the tongue unbidden.
O"CARROLL was quite capable of personally demolishing a cello brought to school for practice, and once discussed it with me. Perhaps this was why Andrew Davis took up conducting.
CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS C.Mullen, Phil (JP) Beard, Jeremy (Scrotto) Williams. I also seemed to escape Cross Country Running as a matter of course, perhaps having also found an issue of morality.
GYM MASTER Known as Aggy, for A.G.Yirrell.