Some of my readers, I fear, have derived more pleasure from my reminiscences of youthful misdeeds than from my historical and psychological speculations. That says more about you than it does about me. Let us therefore travel back once more into that bemisted yesteryear when Men were Men, boys wanted to be men, and women were glad of it.
Like many schools, my school had a Founders' Day, an annual event that was celebrated by a religious service. My school had been founded as a charitable institution in the reign of Queen Anne. Many grammar schools were founded in that period, with the result that English education caught up with the Scots and gave the British a massive advantage over the rest of the world that lasted until Humboldt's Prussian education reforms of 1827. Whoops! I'm getting historical.
Our Headmaster had had the plausibly excellent idea of combining Founders' Day with Sports Day. No doubt his intention was that there should be only one day's disruption to his charges' education. Boys, on the other hand, relish disruption and are naturally anarchic. Now the one feature of the church service that gave the most grief was the singing of Psalm 23. The singing of psalms is (or maybe was; I have never heard it done since I left school) performed in a most peculiar manner. The words were chanted in a monotone, then at a specific point the pitch was raised. Like this:
“The Lord is my shepherd I SHALL not want”. (I'm guessing, obviously).
I never understood what principle governed the raising of the voice. It was not meaning, syntax or syllable count. Indeed, no boy understood it. Because it had always gone wrong in the past, the whole school were always kept back after morning assembly the day before the Big Day to practise this arcane art. The music master would intone:
“The Lord is my shepherd I SHALL not want”
and the little boys at the front would copy him at first, but because the big boys at the back would bellow:
“The Lord is MY shepherd I shall not WANT”
with authority the little boys would copy them instead. This had the music master tearing his hair out. After half an hour of deliberate misunderstanding, we would move on to:
“He maketh me to lie DOWN in green pastures”,
and that was followed up by the big boys:
“He maketh ME to lie down in GURRREEEEN pastures”
and when the music master was observed to be losing all self control:
“He maketh me to lie down IN STILL WATERS.”
Eventually the Headmaster would emerge from his study and make gestures of impatience; and we boys would get it right for the first and only time. Coincidentally, we had somehow missed Double Maths.
Next day, Founders' Day itself, the whole school would process under tight supervision, so as to minimise pushing and shoving, blowing bubble gum, and getting entangled in passing bicycles, to St Mary's Church in the centre of town. The small boys occupied the front pews, the middle-sized boys the middle pews, and the larger boys the rear pews. The masters were seated in the chancel, too far away to influence the behaviour of the boys at the back.
The service would start with the Founders' Day Prayer:
“O Lord we give thanks for our benefactors Sarah Ewer, Elizabeth Whittingstall, Francis Combe...”.
And from the back came:
“O Lord we give thanks for our benefactors AIRER SEWER, Elizabeth SHITTING-HOLE, Francis CUM...”.
From the middle came “Tee Hee Hee” and the determination to remember these profanities for the next year, as generations of boys before them had done.
Next came Psalm 23.
“The LORD is my SHEPherd I shall NOT want”,
chanted with such conviction that the smaller boys and the middle-sized boys got lost and the annual shambles resulted. After
“Thy Rod and thy Staff, you can stick them up your arse”
came the bit that I and a few companions were waiting for.
“Let us pray”.
The congregation would kneel, and my little group would scuttle on all fours to the side door, whence we would run as fast as our legs would carry us to the Woodman.
The Woodman was situated behind the old Covered Market and opposite a working smithy and wheelwright's shop. As a public house it was run on very strict lines, as its display notices testified. NO GYPSIES (imagine!) - A large table was occupied by colourful men speaking Romany. NO DOGS – The Gypsies' border collies and lurchers lay quietly under their masters' chairs and benches. NO BETTING OR GAMBLING – I have seen as much as £2,000 on their table in one game of poker. That would be around £60,000 in today's money. NO PERSONS UNDER 18 – A group of boys in school uniform, intent on drinking as much as they possibly could, were served without question.
There must have been some kind of afternoon roll-call, because we had to be back at school for Sports Day. Considerable ingenuity had been exercised so as not to be selected to take part in any of the events. One boy had even gone to the trouble of fabricating a dismantlable leg plaster for use on compulsory athletics afternoons. My own dodge was to have joined the school Bee Club. Sports afternoons were the only time the school could spare to allow us to carry out the ever-pressing necessity of painting the hives. I should explain that “painting the hives” consisted of sitting in a circle in the school orchard reading nude magazines and smoking our pipes. There was a certain element of competition in who could smoke the vilest mixture. My own contribution to internal and external pollution was a blend of Bewlay's Mixture and Black Twist. The latter was purchased in black sticks like licorice. It was invented by Jolly Jack Tars on the slave ships. Coarse tobacco leaves were glued together with molasses and caulking pitch, and bound tightly with ropes. It had to be broken up and teased into strands before it could be used. The resulting smoke, of a kind of leaden green colour, was heavier than air, pungent, and strongly adhesive. The bees kept well clear.
Those of us who had filled our skins in the Woodman would sprawl on the damp grass and jeer at the competitors. It must have been at such a time that two of us conceived the idea of forcing lollipop sticks into the soon-to-be-prepared cricket greens just where we estimated that the ball would bounce in front of the batsman. But I digress. Then, feigning interest in appropriately sited events, we would work our way towards the school orchard where the hives were. From behind the screen of trees it was a surprisingly easy matter for non-athletes to vault the six foot perimeter fence and run faster than any athlete to the nearest bus stop that we considered to be out of range of any passing master.
There is a postscript to this story. On my very last day at school, the master in charge of the Sixth Form, a kindly Welshman, accosted me and said:
“Watmough, I know what you used to do on Founders' Day”.
“Do you really, sir?”
“Yes indeed, look you, and I wish I could have done the same.”