School punishments

Speaking strongly with a student because of his persistent aggravation of his peers, aggravation that had particularly upset one student, I was aware of a sense of his indignation. Perhaps the strong words were the wrong strategy to have pursued with him, education has changed beyond recognition since my schooldays. Next time, I’ll attempt a dialogue in a place away from the sight and hearing of other students.

At our village primary school, punishments were casual. The teacher would lick her index and middle fingers and literally slap people’s wrists, or perhaps keep them in at break time. There was a cane, but it was never used. Perhaps there was no need for a punishment regime when a single slap would mean everyone went home and told their families, leading to a sense of embarrassment that was greater than any punishment.

At the secondary school I attended in the depths of Dartmoor, punishment was much more systematic and lacking in human empathy. The first level of sanction was the docking of pocket money, 10p-15p of the weekly 50p might be withheld if behaviour for the week was not considered to be in accordance with school expectations. At the next level, there were punishment duties, I once had to clean the school gym and games room for three days in a row because I had broken the school rules by borrowing another boy’s football boots. At the highest level, there was the cane, administered by appointment with the school principal, an experience I always avoided.

What was obvious to the boys was that the arbitrary rules and use of the cane did not change behaviour, but rather sowed the seeds of deep resentment. It was resentment that found its expression when a group of six boys attempted to burn down two of the classrooms. The fire made my sixteen year old self wonder about rules, discipline and punishment.

No matter how strict our schools were, they were considerably happier experiences than that enjoyed by many people elsewhere. A colleague tells of the sufferings of his mother who came to England from Ireland in the 1950s. She had attended a convent in Dublin, a residential institution where life for the girls was harsh. She would recount having to scrub the floor and being beaten across the back with a stick by one of the religious sisters because the floor was not considered clean enough. She received £30,000 in compensation from the Irish government redress scheme, a sum that could never ever remove the pain of her memories.

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Counting the pennies

A friend who grew up in rural Ireland in the 1940s used to tell of her mother’s keeping of the household accounts. They lived in a rectory in frugal times when clerical stipends did not allow for anything other than the basics and when every penny must be counted.

An old exercise book was kept for recording all expenditures and my friend used to notice that regularly recorded were the letters, NSPF. It being a clergy family, my friend assumed that the letters were reference to some charity or missionary organisation, but could never quite work out what fund they represented.

In later years, my friend asked her mother why they had made such frequent donations when they lived so frugally herself. Her mother was baffled. When reminded of the regular appearance of NSPF in the household accounts her mother had laughed. “That’s not a missionary organisation, that’s ‘Not Sure, Probably Food.’”

The keeping of carefully recorded details of housekeeping expenses seems to have been a habit encouraged in the post-war era. My mother keeps an annual tally, collecting every receipt and bill to tally her accounts at the end of the year.

An aunt goes further. Upon getting married in 1967, she opened an exercise book and recorded her expenditures every week, retaining each of the books she completed.

Even if there is the odd moment of uncertainty, the sort of moment when “NSPF” might be an appropriate entry, there seems something commendable in such careful stewardship. Perhaps the old maxim that if you look after the pennies the pounds will look after themselves is fulfilled in such careful accounting.

Hearing the jangle of coins in someone’s pocket this morning, I confessed that I had not used cash since the lockdown began on 23rd March.

“Are you afraid of infection?”

“No,” I said.

I didn’t attempt to explain.

Using a plastic card for everything has meant being able to keep a careful record of everything bought, credit card slips and printed receipts can be carefully tallied.  On the salary of a newly qualified teacher, it is probably sensible to be very prudent in budgeting, but there is something more than prudence.

There is a sense of empowerment in being in control of finances, however modest they may be, to manage the accounts so as to be in the black is rewarding. As Charles Dickens’ character Mr Micawber once commented, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

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Distant images

We were all once children. It seems something easy to forget. Leafing through a family photograph album, it can seem strange to look at pictures of people now long dead when they were young.

There are photographs of my grandparents in the 1920s. My grandfather was born in 1906, my grandmother in 1909, so they are teenage or in their early twenties. The people in the pictures are very different from those whom I remember.

The grandfather I remember was a quiet, reclusive man, sat at the fireside in a rocking chair. In the cupboard beside him he kept his stamp albums. Magnifying glass in hand, he would spend many hours poring over stamps from distant Commonwealth countries.

It is an image that seems far removed from the young man who stares out from a series of photographs.

In the album, he is a young man who is fashionably dressed and who is smiling and laughing in the company of friends. He is a young man who goes on outings,  a young man whose friends could afford to take casual snapshots.

In one picture, he is playing billiards. Someone has taken a picture of him at pocket level, from the other side of the table. My grandfather looks intent on the shot he is playing, indifferent to the presence of the photographer.

My grandmother gained a job in the Post Office savings bank when she was eighteen years old. Post Office jobs were gained through taking examination and she was proud of her job. Her colleagues included Hannie Collins, sister of Michael, the assassinated Irish Republican leader.

In later life, my grandmother confessed to a certain vanity in her younger years. Having a “permanent style” in her hair was a priority. “It might cost me a week’s wages,” she said, “but it was lovely having curls.”

The photograph of the fashionable young woman with her bobbed boyish hairstyle, fur collared jacket, and collar and tie is recognisably my grandmother, yet the image seems hard to reconcile with the person I knew.

Is there a point in life where we change from being one person into being another person who is very far from the image of the first? Does the original image endure beneath the exterior we assume? Is the process of change one that lasts through years and decades, or are there watershed moments when we move from being a person who would dress in a young way way to being a person who would dress in a much older way?

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Forty years a serviceman

Dad was “invalided out of the Navy” in 1962. Whether or not this was the correct term for his discharge, it was the term used by our family. It sounded strange to the ears of a child, the word “invalid” was one that went with wheelchairs and strange motor cars. Dad didn’t seem anything like an invalid, as I imagined it, instead he was just someone with severe asthma.

Trained as a radio and radar technician, his naval experience did not lend itself readily to civilian life. He worked briefly for Curry’s, a job he left after being reprimanded for finding a screwdriver and fixing the radio of an old lady who had had brought it to the shop, instead of selling her a new set. Then he went to Westland Helicopters for a few months, where the office job in which he was employed left him feeling constantly bored.

Eventually, he found a job with Airwork Services. He was again a radio and radar technician. He was again working on the naval aircraft with which he was familiar. He was again back at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, where he had served in his service days.

Dad loved the work he did, and especially loved it as a civilian. A naval officer once stepped into the hangar and rebuked the men for their failure to salute. He quickly became aware that the blue overalled men were civilians when they told him where to go.

Airwork was a civilian contractor, but there seemed to be a grey area where civilians functioned as defence force personnel. Both during his time with Airwork, and during his time with FR Aviation, who gained the contract at Yeovilton, Dad seemed to operate in a role that while not military, was not entirely civilian either.

There were regular “detachment,” groups of the men sent to support aircraft participating in Royal Naval or NATO operations. The air bases at Lossiemouth, Leuchars, Kinross, Macrihanish were familiar to Dad. There were frequent exercises based in Gibraltar, sometimes in Sardinia, sometimes even across the Atlantic. I remember him once spending three weeks at a United States’ Naval base on the Florida Keys.

The oddest moment of all came during the First Gulf War. Dad was fifty-four, his workmates of a similar vintage. The Royal Air Force was short of ground crew so civilians from Yeovilton were asked to fly out. Their destination was probably Cyprus, but the war ended when they had reached Sicily.

Dad was made redundant in 1992. There was no longer a call for his services. Having been invalided out of a job in 1962, he had continued to do it for another thirty years.

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A propensity for lies

Ironing a pile of shirts on a Saturday morning provides an opportunity to dip into the BBC Sounds App. The selection of past programmes and podcasts is sometimes too vast, there is too much choice. Time that could have been spent listening to inimitable BBC productions is sometimes wasted just scrolling through the options available.

A Simon Armitage podcast from mid-May seemed a good choice. The Covid-19 lockdown had left the poet laureate sat alone in his shed on a spring night. Working on a medieval text about an owl and a nightingale, he had gone to the shed in the hope of hearing the hoot of an owl on the cool air. (Apparently, Huddersfield is too far north for him to have hoped to hear a nightingale).

Simon Armitage talked about the I Spy series of books from the 1960s. The I Spy books were boon to those who were collectors by disposition. They took the principle of trainspotting into many other fields. Simon Armitage had the I Spy book of birds, in which sighting a tawny owl would score the spotter twenty-five points whilst the sight of a nightingale scored a mere twenty points.

His copy of the I Spy bird book, in full colour, had cost just one shilling. If it had been just a case of spotting birds for my own contentment, I would have thought it an excellent way of spending a shilling. However, if it had been a competition with some of the boys I knew, it would have been a pointless exercise – some of them told lies. If the book had included flamingos, ostriches and kiwis, I have no doubt these would have been among the birds that some of the boys would have claimed to have spotted in the depths of the English West Country.

I remember an outing from our school in Devon in 1976. I know it was 1976 because we went to Heathrow Airport to see Concorde take off on one of its commercial flights. I could probably find a precise date, because we then went to Windsor and found ourselves among the crowd that had gathered to watch the procession to Saint George’s Chapel for the installation of the recently retired prime minister Harold Wilson as a Knight of the Garter.

From where we stood, we could just glimpse through an archway that led into the castle yard and for a very fleeting moment we saw the Queen in an open carriage. It was a moment that lasted no more than a second or two. Listening to the boys afterwards, it was hard to imagine that we had not been standing beside the carriage chatting with Her Majesty.

Later that day, on the return journey, a teacher asked me what I had saw. I described the momentary glimpse. “That I saw, as well,” she said, “boys tell such lies.”

How could you have competed in I Spy with boys who had stood with the Queen?

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