I thought of school during my dawn escape from lockdown yesterday; while walking through the still unshattered morning, past one of the village’s larger houses, whose sharp faux gothic momentarily reminded me of the old place, and before long I was seventeen again and wondering what the hell I should do next. And I think this regularly, even now, hoping that at any point a grown-up might arrive and tell me what it is I should be doing.
Revisiting this, I found myself thinking about a teacher whom we all called G___ , but which of course wasn’t his real name (we were never really certain which teachers had discovered their nicknames, but were pretty sure he knew we called him that). G____ didn’t have the long-standing history at the school that the others enjoyed; some had been around to see several generations from the same families. This was the very dog end of the old grammar school system you see, and our first couple of years there had seen teachers as masters, glimpses of gowns billowing along the short stretch of cloister, and a live-in headmaster. All of which very swiftly turned about in the seven years I spent there, but glimpsed it was.
So G____, who was the product of a comprehensive background, and from an inner city at that, was a very unusual and even exotic prospect indeed. Inevitably, we thought he was fantastic. When you’re young and naive, anyone with an accent (your own is of course ‘normal’ and default) seems otherworldly, and he was all that.
I was sat in one of the classes in the sixth form block, trying to memorise some table or chart or other when he walked past and poked his head ’round the door. This was the final term, final year, too. He asked if I was OK and might I need testing on anything, but quickly we ended up talking about the things that might unfold after exams and beyond the summer. There was calm and ease in his company because he did most of the talking, and he told me of his schooling which had been much avoided and lost to adventure and opportunity.
I think he was trying to get around to convincing me that pursuing a long string of potential possible futures in a vaguely sensible order was the most important lesson. He’d gone to college much later than expected and played catch up, and I should try to not stumble down a similar route. Well, I must have attributed that later because at the time growing up in London in the fifties seemed ridiculously good fun, and it was obvious he was enjoying the telling rather more than the message he hoped to convey.
One of the stories he told struck me as very odd indeed. It was my intention, I told him, that during the summer break I’d head off to the South West and take a look at various sites I’d only ever read about or seen in photos and sketches. Stonehenge, Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, and so on. I was at that point rather fascinated by stories of ghosts and mysticism and old magic. And I still am, if truth be told.
G____’s eyes lit up at this and he spun me a line about how he’d joined a relative’s delivery business for a while (I fancy this would be in the autobiography chapter entitled A Callow Youth) and he would regularly head off along the A303 – I’m imagining here a rickety Bedford van with shot suspension and those sun visors clipped to the top of the windscreen – stopping at Stonehenge en route to the West Country, pulling up by the ancient monument and sitting on the stones to eat a pack up. Cheese and pickle sandwiches, some parkin and an apple. Well, that’s what I would have packed, but I rather fear he didn’t even know what parkin was.
The stones were open to all, of course. No need to pay to view them, no respectfully distant rope behind which you’d be corralled and then instructed in the finer aspects of the untouchable ancient marvels. None of that, just pull up the van and go and take a seat on the sarsens while the wind whipped up off the plain and wheatears waited patiently for the crumbs.
His story caught up with my imagining at about the feeding crumbs to the birds stage, and so he’s there, like one of Dodger’s crew, unshackled from the monochrome pockmarked city, head clearing, freed of smog and all the expressive Ealing gewgaws I could throw at it, gawping in wonder at the space and the clear sky, flicking bits of drying bread beyond the perimeter of the bird’s caution.
I can feel that wind, there’s an edge to it, ripping across the coarse grass. I will paint a curlew’s bubbling cry into a distant corner, like an unnecessary flourish. There will be keening from some unseen glare-obscured hawk.
The past is painted on there, in that moment, in that brief exchange in the classroom. A varnish I am, I was, I will, revisit and paint on again. Sand down, and paint again. Sand down, and paint again. Flecks of it, written and rewritten history, deeper and deeper ingrained. You might say hidden, but not eradicated.
I went to the South West that Summer. I saw Stonehenge from a distance, and felt guilty that I wasn’t astonished and awed. Maybe, had I sat on the stone and thrown crumbs at the wheatears, that would’ve been different.
But, no. Look, here it is see, that specific tactile memory, rising. And if I want, now I can feel the rough stone and see the centuries of lichen raging across it that I never felt or saw then. Sand down, and paint again. And again.