Monday, 31 August 2020

The fifties - new school

The new school was supposed to be my actual education.  After the kindly, patrician prep school ambience of Southbourne Prep, Bournemouth School (not called ‘For Boys’, though it was) was a bit of what would now be called a culture shock, but was then just a kick in the head.

Bright lads from the north-west – Kinson, Moordown, Wallisdown, even parts of Poole – had passed their eleven-plus too, and so had to go to the grammar school.  They were mostly decent, but rougher elements inevitably made it in.  Their behaviour wasn’t their fault, but they’d been trained to make sure they came out on top, which meant someone had to be lower down: which translated to “find a victim and bully him.”  I walked into the role and they walked into me.

Just a couple of incidents will serve to illustrate this.  If intimate personal data embarrasses you, look away now.

Not long after I arrived at the school, I was induced to join the CCF – the Combined Cadet Force. I accepted this as just another of those things that had to happen, although there were aspects of it that I really enjoyed: the rifle shooting in the basement of the school (with live 303 ammo, would you believe); the drill (I was good at marching, and fairly quickly got promoted to point position); and the Field Days.  

This particular one was to Portsmouth (I was in the Navy section) including a visit to HMS Victory.  There’d been a ‘comfort stop’ on the way, but I’d been unable to pee then, so by the time we were lined up on the main deck or somewhere, I was bursting.  I may be the only twelve-year-old to have wet the deck of Nelson’s flagship, at any rate during the 1950s. Unfortunately it was noticed.  For months afterwards, my nickname was ‘springaleak’.

The second memory is of the Copse, a patch of waste land next to the school where we were allowed to play at lunchtime.  I might come back to the Copse later (here, I mean, not there – it’s probably flats by now) but the incident in question is that I fell over and landed in some dog do which stuck to my blazer.  Luckily the Bournemouth School blazer was already brown, but the smell lingered.  You can guess the rest, though how I failed to tell my parents (or for that matter how they failed to notice and get it cleaned) comes down, again, to my timidity.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Invisible Aliens

There was an item in yesterday’s Observer about this delightful guy in America who spent thirty years sending messages, mostly great sixties jazz, out into space in the hope of communicating with sentient beings on other planets.  (There’s apparently a film about him coming out somewhere.)

But – what about the speed of light?

There are about fifty identified Earth-like planets within fifteen light years of our sun.  Even if they all contained intelligent life capable of detecting and analysing the vast amount of data we spray out every second, understanding and picking out the specific attempts to communicate with them, and responding to those – even given that hugely improbable set of circumstances, it would still have taken at least eight years for the first reply to reach us.  And then we’d have to go through the exact same process: detecting, analysing and understanding.  And of course any reply from more than 15 light years away won’t have been received yet.

I have no doubt that there are billions of planets inhabited by intelligent life in our galaxy, never mind the billions of other galaxies – just stop fantasising that we’re ever going to make contact with them, or they with us.  The laws of physics are against you.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The fifties - we moved house1

We moved house! 

This was the biggest event in my life so far, bigger than starting school or even being born, because I was acutely aware of it and even had some influence over it, rather than it being done to me.  And it changed my life.

It was announced, probably over Sunday lunch.  We’re all going to live together in a great big new house!  Let’s go out and find it!  That’ll be fun!

Our parents had, I believe, come into some kind of inheritance.  My father had been doing well at work and had a significant promotion. His career had been built on scientific capability, but then, as now, the only way to reward someone was to promote them, and the only way to do that was to convert them from achievers into managers.  I don’t know how good a manager he became, but he was certainly happy to take the money.

 66 Watcombe was owned outright by my grandparents.  And the tenant in the Stamford Road house (which had been their first home that they’d somehow managed to retain and let) had become intolerable and had to be evicted, which meant that could be sold too.  So capital was available.

And there were practical reasons too, of course.  We kids would soon each need our own room. (That didn’t quite work out as planned, but that’s for later.)  Grandpa had had his stroke, whilst doing some decorating – it rendered him nearly blind, which we were told was due to him getting a chip of wood or something in his eye – and Granny wouldn’t be able to look after him on her own.  

Monday, 1 June 2020

The fifties, part 2: the bike,part 2

Customisation rapidly followed, of course.  The chain guard was the first to go.  I can’t remember the other tweaks I snuck in behind my parents’ backs.  I do remember the parentally approved water bottles, and I can still taste an aluminium-tinged warm sip through a paper straw.  We discussed the feasibility of taking a hacksaw to those clunky lugs to make them look like cutaways; even, I think, drawing fantasy designs, but it was never going to be the racing bike I craved.  But I can remember, quite vividly, the short and long expeditions it carried me on.  That was my first taste of real freedom, granted me, intentionally or not, I’ll never know, by my parents. 

I’d made a few friends at school by then, some of whom were also into bikes.  I think my most avid co-biker was called Mike Bone, but I’m sure there were others.  The furthest I can remember riding is Badbury Rings, which is about thirty miles from Southbourne.  We must have ridden along Castle Lane, then up past Wimborne Minster to reach this Iron Age hill fort, wandered around and marvelled at it, then ridden back home.  We also took our bikes across the Sandbanks ferry and hauled ourselves across as far as Kimmeridge and Worth Matravers, noticing the landscape and the coast.  These trips were to be a lasting component of my education.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

The fifties, part 2: the bike, part 1

1952.  My father had started to become disappointed in me by then, because I wasn’t becoming him.  It took years for me to escape from that double bind and accept that actually, I was.  So when he tried to teach me something, I automatically refused to learn it, until I was left on my own, when I determinedly taught myself.  

I remember very clearly the afternoon – it must have been during the summer holidays when I was between schools – when I got the old bike out, worked out how to balance (don’t stop), and by the time he came home was proudly doing daring circuits of the back lawn at 3 Stourwood Road.  I don’t know where that bike came from – it was a very heavy black thing - but then, for my twelfth birthday, I was given a proper one, or at least my parents’ notion of proper. There was some subterfuge which somehow meant I had to go down to the garden shed, there to be unveiled this gorgeous Raleigh, in a colour I’d now call magenta but then saw as very displayable red.

It wasn’t, of course, my dreambike.  That would have entailed full drop bars, alloy rims, 10-speed Derailleur gears, many other features I can’t remember:  all mounted on a Claud Butler racing frame with, crucially, cutaway lugs.  These latter were supposedly designed to reduce weight, which was obviously ridiculous – they were an early manifestation of teenage designer bling, and hence heavenly. Ian Kitchen had all of that, but I didn’t.  My bike had semi-drops, chrome-plated rims which rusted if not oiled weekly, a sprung saddle, three-speed Sturmey-Archer, old lady mudguards and, most dreadfully, a chain guard, in matching colour trim!  But it was still near enough to the top of the local game, and I loved it.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Forties: elocution

I'd forgotten about my speech impediment, until I was obliquely reminded of it just now by Z.

Until I was six, I couldn't pronounce the 'th' sound.  This was a serious problem, apparently, because I was sent to elocution lessons at Cranleigh Road school, where I rapidly learnt the trick.  You just put the tip of your tongue behind your top teeth.  (A phonetician writes: there are different vocables or phonemes, nasal or otherwise, of this combined consonant, as in 'there' or 'anathema'.)  (An elocution pupil writes: thuck off!)

So the cure worked, but the damage had been done.  Being told, before I was six, that I couldn't speak properly must have put me off the idea of speaking.  Once I'd got the hang of it, it probably took me quite a while to become brave enough to try it. 

(I also couldn't rrrroll my rrrrs, and still can't, but that's another tongue twister entirely.)

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The Fifties, part 1

The Fifties started in 1953, when several things happened to my life.  I went to a new school, having passed the 11 plus when I must have been only just 11.  We moved house.  And I taught myself to ride a bike.  But before that, the Sea Scouts.

It was a law that boys had to join the scouts, so I did.  We were sea scouts, which meant that we had blue kerchiefs held round our necks by a toggle.  (I'm sure there was more uniform, but the toggle is the only bit I clearly remember.)

The scoutmaster was called Skip.  He was an old man, probably in his forties.  He made us boys strip to our underpants and do exercises.  Some time later I told my mother about this; she was quite sure that it was innocent, because she couldn’t imagine that a trusted person could be guilty of bad things.  Certainly he never made any physical advances, so perhaps she was right in her belief that Skip just liked watching small boys prancing around in their underpants.

My main scout memory, apart from that, is knots.  Skip certainly taught those well.  I can still, in my head, do a clove hitch, a reef knot and even a sheepshank.  But there wasn't much actual sea involved in being a Sea Scout.  We never went to sea, or particularly near it.  Most of the activity was in the All Saints church hall.

The assistant scoutmaster was an irresponsible thug in his early twenties.  One bonfire night, we were taken down to the meadow by the river at Tuckton, where a firework battle was orchestrated – we were issued with bangers and matches, and had to light the bangers and throw them at each other.  It was terrifyingly great fun. 

I was yanked out of the Sea Scouts not long after that.  But something must have rubbed off and stuck, because when i was enlisted into the CCF at Bournemouth School a year or two later, I didn't hesitate or even think - it had to be the Navy section.