It was right, that old school book. Can’t remember the name of it now, but it had a blue hardback cover. All the school books were hardback then. And the part in between was hard too!
In spite of page after page of solid text there were still some writers who could inspire. There always are. I remember the opening of a chapter in a history book. It was about Egypt. I still remember it. I read it when I was 8 and over 70 years later it’s as clear as clear. The chapter began:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax
Of cabbages and kings.”
The book began, “We are not going to talk about cabbages in this chapter but we will have something to say about all the other things that Lewis Carroll mentions.” What a way to start a history lesson! Of course we all looked through the chapter to find sealing wax and shoes just to check the book hadn’t made a mistake. That’s good teaching isn’t it? Getting the reader hooked! Anyway, this writer planted a little flower by the highway of the history syllabus. It’s a pity that he didn’t mention cabbages, though.
Going back to the blue book, chapter two was ‘The Seven Ages of Man’. There was the text, you know, ‘All the world’s a stage’ and so on, but the pictures on the other page showed each of the seven ages with little drawings. How boring the text books were in those days. ‘Text’ was the right word! Normally they were text and nothing but text from start to finish. And it was heavy stuff, not the lively prose of Bryson. Far from it, I’m afraid! Not many illustrations at all, so you appreciated the few that there were. And no colour. Definitely no colour. That came later. It was page after page of black text. Now, where was I? Ah yes, there was the schoolboy, then the lover and so on. And the pictures went in a circle. The poor old chap sans teeth, sans eyes and sans everything was right next to the mewling, puking baby. Full circle, you see. We end up where we start.
Well, we do if we’re lucky. What’s so sad is when the thread is cut half way. A road accident or something. Half the road untravelled. That’s what’s sad. Life should be circular, you see.
I was at school at Waterbury. It’s a small city with a big cathedral. The cathedral brooded over the rest of the houses like a mother hen over her chicks. The city was so small that not much of it was outside the sphere or even the shadow of the great cathedral.
Ah yes, school. Rugby on Monday afternoons, Thursday afternoons, Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Even then, Friday was the best day of the week. I don’t know why, because the weekend, looking back, was hardly two days of freedom. School on Saturday morning, rugby on Saturday afternoon and then more prep. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, rugby on Monday. Down on the rugby field, a furlong of level meadow, near the edge of the city by Mount Woods. The city was very small. We walked from the school which was by the cathedral to the rugby field in 10 minutes, and the rugby field was in the country.
November evenings, and in a pause in the game, when the scrum was down and we in the backs had a second to ourselves to think about life in general, you could see in the distance St Aidan’s with its square tower. This tower had windows and turrets, and looked like a grey owl keeping an eye on the city. The two windows were the eyes and the turrets were the ears. That’s what it looked like in the November mist. An owl looking across over the low red roofs of the houses to where we were playing. The ball’s out now, concentrate, scrum half, fly half, me, look for the gap, always look for the gap, go for it, through it, now
There’s only the full back to beat, on with the game!
The school was in many different buildings, old buildings scattered around the liberties. Each building was a young bird’s flutter, as Keats would have said, from the cathedral, and the cathedral dominated the life of the school. How many times did we walk up and down the Liberty! Even between classes.
Everything at school changed with the seasons. In the December evenings the air was crisp and cold and at 4 o’clock it began to grow dark. The day was closing down and the evening was saying, ‘Go inside now. Go home!’ The lights of the houses all said, ‘Come in!’
The fields, the hedges and the lanes were all shutting up for the night.
The birds had given up and turned in long ago. All life had moved inside. The houses were turning on their lights, making the rooms as cheerful and cosy as possible. Well, I’m wrong there. The houses of the good folk of Waterbury may have been cosy but our dormitories had no heating all the winter through. They were enormous fridges. You went to bed and waited for what seemed to be hours, and was probably twenty minutes or so, for your feet to warm up. They were long minutes though, very long.
Rugby finished at half past four. Then back, shower, change. Always in a rush. There was no time to hang around. No time for melancholy. Ten to five. Ten to five in the afternoon. I would be in the passage at school queuing for tea. Ten to five in the afternoon. Stands the cathedral clock at 10 to 5? We would join the queue in the corridor and shuffle forward to the hatch that opened from the big high kitchen. At the hatch we collected a mug of tea, six slices of bread with a small cube of butter and a little jam and, on Sundays only, a slice of cake. On Sundays only, remember. Then up the stone steps and left into the dining room. After tea it was prep, chapel, supper, prep and then a few minutes of free time before bed. And that was the evening, week in week out, term after term.
That was the Waterbury day, and even now, after 70 years, I still go by parts of it. It’s 5 o’clock now, so I’m late for tea.