Saturday, 25 September 2010

The happiest days

When I was at school, during the Second World War, our teachers were men who had been drafted in because they were not in the forces. Some had been dragged back from retirement and the younger ones were there because the forces wouldn't have them. Most of them were senile, exhausted, ill, drunk or just sunk so deep in Weltschmerz that nothing much, not even sadism, held any pleasure for them. Some of them had been had up for indecent exposure before the First World War.

But, my word, they were a splendid bunch of characters who enriched our lives beyond measure. Even now, the names we gave them them still conjure up affectionate remembrance:  Little Man, Gloom, Daddy Parr, Uncle Tom, Golly, Hack, Stodge... Only those we really despised were not given nicknames; Holy Joe was an exception; he was despicable but we felt a bit sorry for him as he was a lone pious voice in a singularly godless establishment; as I recall, the Christian Union there had only three members, and one of these was deaf.

A few of them had been brilliant, with honorary degrees from several European universities, but they had forgotten much; one man had been fluent in a dozen languages but by the time he came to us had difficulty with expressing himself in English. But somehow they managed to impress us with the remnants of their erudition, for we knew no better. 

There was only one man who really couldn't cope, and that was our PE (we called it Gym) instructor. His problem was that he could no longer do many of the things he was supposed to demonstrate to us: "Now just pull yourselves up onto the beam with a nice easy movement, in this way.... EURARGGH!!! The sweat would pour off him and the veins would bulge out on his poor old forehead. We all spent every lesson praying that he wouldn't die before it ended. But he survived until we spent a whole term in arduous rehearsal of an intricate display we were to put on at the end-of-term concert; the morning before the great occasion, he was taken very ill, and we never saw him again. The item was replaced by a sixth-form barbershop quartet harmonising "Home on the Range". Ah, they were good times; funny how trivial events like these stick in the memory, as does the occasion when a tree blew down, a large branch of it fell on the headmaster and he was away for two months.   

The fact that no-one actually taught us anything much was unimportant, for wartime standards in public examinations were very low and you could pass them with little more than your name written neatly at the top of the paper and then some cheerful and confident-sounding ramblings with a vague relevance to the questions. This was one of the reasons why I later found myself trying half-heartedly to get a degree in a subject for which I had no talent and in which I had no interest.

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