MUSIC LESSONS 1954
I started my school career as a mixed infant just two days before my fifth birthday in Abbots Langley Junior and Infant School. I do not remember very much about my early school career. There was a reception class, run by what I now suppose was a rather attractive young lady, who taught us all how to hold a pen and how to formulate letters and numbers. Then Mrs Hayes developed the skills that we were supposed to have. The final year of Infant School was run by Miss Sullivan, a small and fierce woman, who took forty village brats each year and turned out forty more dangerous brats who could read and write and do basic arithmetic. Her accuracy with the wooden blackboard rubber was comparable with that of a modern professional darts player. Without the basic skills that she never failed to instil, there isn't really much value in continuing education.
I do remember being sent home by Mrs Hayes. Some big boys had challenged me to walk through a temporary pond that had appeared following heavy rainfall. Mrs Hayes caught me sitting in class with my wellingtons full to the brim with water. My mother was displeased. Sometimes I used to doze off in Mrs Hayes's class; but never in Miss Sullivan's. Recreation was playing on the school coke heap until the caretaker chased us off; playing marbles in muddy ditches; digging for garnets in the school field; competing to see who could pee highest up the wall of the boys' toilets; knocking conkers down from the horse chestnuts in the adjacent churchyard; avoiding Ann Mellors' games of Doctors and Nurses (mutual inspection of genitals); playground football; and “he” which is what is known elsewhere as “tag”. Most of those activities were inherently dirt-attracting and damaging to clothing, shoes, and knees.
When I was eight I had a fit of being intelligent. At that time I read such of Dickens' novels as I have read in my life plus a wide range of library books. As a result I got promoted to the class two years above my age group and had to suffer the company of the big boys. Mr Burgess, our teacher in the penultimate year, tried to shut me up by making me read George Eliot. I did not enjoy George Eliot. In my final year I came under the charge of Mr Jennings, a pleasant and kindly young teacher. I ruined his theatrical reading from Longfellow's Hiawatha. “Minnehaha! Minnehaha!” “Ha Ha!” I echoed... and got the cane. The Junior School was split into two streams. The B stream contained the real toughs. And when I say toughs, I mean toughs. In adult life the young thugs of Littlemore used to call me “Sir” because they knew I came from Watford, and Watford toughs had dominated the violence on the football terraces. If they had known that Abbots boys were wont to give Watford toughs severe thrashings on sight, they might have shown even more respect. Anyway, the canes were kept in our classroom cupboard, so a malefactor from the B stream would be sent to our classroom to ask for the cane with which he would be chastised. That was part of the punishment. In my final year, the B stream teacher was a Canadian ex-lumberjack whose strength of arm was legendary. You could hear the swishing through the party wall. Even so, I do not recall any boy's behaviour being in any way modified by the big bamboo.
Once a week we had Music Lesson, given not by the class teacher but by the music mistress, one Miss Dowdall. She was a sour and probably embittered lady. We probably were at least part of the cause of her embitterment. She had to sit with her back to some of us in order to play the piano, and naturally we took advantage of that. Occasionally we had to chant “taffatiffy taffatiffy taa-aa” in reponse to semiquavers and minims displayed on the board. This was tremendously dispiriting. More usually we had to sing from “The New National Song Book”, a book that was probably responsible for some of the prejudices with which I am still encumbered. “National” meant belonging to the four nations of Great Britain, and the four were served more or less equally. The Welsh songs were given their Welsh words in italics, as well as English versions usually translated cumbersomely by A.P. Graves, the father of Robert Graves the poet. That was my first introduction to the Welsh language which I subsequently came to love, if not to develop any great expertise in. The selected Irish songs were suprisingly nearly all anti-English songs. For instance “Avenging and Bright Falls the Swift Sword of Erin” (tune Cruachan na feine). Words by A.P. Graves. Very strange! I now know that Cruachan na feine means “Jug of Wine”. A.P. Graves is known to have written the folk song “Jug of Punch” for a wager. Similarly, the Scottish songs were mostly what George Borrow called “Charlie over the Water nonsense”. Most I thought were rubbish then, and think are rubbish now. The Skye Boat Song is a work of beauty because of its pentatonic tune. I used to enjoy “Rum on the stern, Egg on the port, Muck on the starboard bow”, thinking that sailors in those days did not take a great deal of pride in the cleanliness of their vessels. Even the English songs included protests against the English Government: “And here's ten thousand Cornish men Will know the reason why!” And Welsh songs were similar. Os treisiodd y gelyn fy ngwlad dan ei droed = “Though the enemy (guess who) has trampled my country underfoot.”
Anyway, Miss Dowdall's choice of songs was probably governed by a lack of confidence in playing the piano. One of her favourites, which I came to loathe with incandescent passion, was “Charlie is my Darling”. It goes:
Charlie is my dar-LIH, My dar-LIH, My dar-LIH
Charlie is my dar-LIH
My bold chevalier.
None of us knew what a chevalier was; nor could we pronounce it. The word was enunciated in a kind of random mass mumble. Our disgust with the song was expressed by at least some of the boys leaping up in the air on the syllable LIH. The difficulty was that we were accommodated in double desks, in which the seats were articulated on heavy cast iron hinges. You can still see such classroom furniture in museums. The skill in leaping up and down consisted in not being trapped behind the knees by the seat rebounding forwards and trapping the boy upright. Any boy caught trapped in this way was sent to the Headmaster to be caned. The really naughty boys (the Irish term “bold” is perhaps more accurate) were expert at avoiding the telltale clatter of ironmongery and the consequent entrapment. But every now and again a more timid boy would get overexcited and leap up and down. He was the one who would be sent for a caning, to the great glee of those of us who were more practised in misbehaviour.
The classes were, as I have said, mixed. Girls were not, of course, caned; but then, girls were not expected to misbehave in such a way as would merit the cane in any case. This disparity in behaviour and treatment led to a phenomenon which has coloured my understanding of relations between the sexes ever since. If a boy did something conspicuously naughty, the girls would go “HO-O-O-O”, a long-drawn out, hollow, echoing sound. The boys interpreted this sound as approbation, and we would compete to earn the girls' “HO-O-O-O”. I remember the smallest boy in the class leaping on to the top of his desk during “Charlie is my Darling” and waving his arms about frantically. He certainly achieved heroic status during that lesson. “Cockles and Mussels” was interpreted as “Cockles and Muscles” and performed with indecent actions by those boys who were out of Miss Dowdall's line of sight.
I used to share a double desk with my friend Syd Heilling. We invented the game of knee fighting during music lessons. The object of the game was to give your opponent a dead leg by striking him in the nerve just above the knee with your own knee. This game required considerable concentration, and it was only interrupted by the compulsory jumping up and down during “Charlie is my Darling”. Every now and then two kneecaps clattered together with a horrible painful “clunk” that resounded through the classroom and caused Miss Dowdall to stop what she was doing and look round. I think it is fair to say that my desperate lack of musical knowledge dates from having to concentrate on protecting my knees during the unfortunate Miss Dowdall's lessons.
At the end of Summer Term, after we had taken the Eleven Plus, the day of the last ever music lesson arrived. The boys were “demob happy”, and instead of singing, as required, “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves”, all the boys sang with great gusto:
Rule Britannia, Marmalade and Jam,
Five Chinese crackers up your arsehole,
Bang Bang Bang Bang Bang!
Miss Dowdall sent us all to the headmaster for the cane. The headmaster, though, did not like caning the boys, and it is thought that as we queued outside his door, he retreated through the school and retired to his house next door. We never did get caned.