VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 8: Grammar Grub
Chapter written 1999 & last revised 2013

So many former pupils of QE contacted me about this chapter when I first published it that I set up a separate website for discussion and reunions.  It has worked out amazingly well.
The preparations for my new school in the summer holidays of 1954 somehow offered a grim foreboding of the years ahead.  For example, it was necessary to visit the school shop with my mother to buy the school uniform, rugby kit, cricket gear, gym kit and army-style kitbag.  Every item, even the towels for the showers were strictly regulation and could only be obtained from the school shop, a little cupboard somewhere in the dark bowels of the wretched school. Of course, it was all ridiculously expensive and had to be renewed quite often.  To the end of her life (2000) my mother would still use "all the sacrifices we made to send you up there" as a means either of trying to make me ashamed of myself for turning out so badly, or to explain why I was doing so well, as circumstances and mood dictated.  She was also in the habit, again until recent times, of whispering conspiratorially to people (check-out operators, for example) "up the Grammar!" by way of explaining to them how come I was so clever, so well-spoken, so handsome etc.  (To explain why I was so dim and ugly, she whispered "vegetarian!")
This paragraph has been widely misinterpreted as referring to the staff and the regime. In fact it is more a recollection of my attitude at the time towards the majority of my fellow-pupils! In reality, from my first to my last day at Queen Elizabeth's, I experienced the place as a vile prison full of nothing but nastiness, stupidity, ignorance and pettiness.  It seemed to me to be a very clear example of how the world should definitely not be, and helped boost and shape the revolutionary ideals that had already been born in Regenesia.
On the first day I stood in a long queue of new boys, stretching down Queens Road from the gates of the school grounds, with the diminutive Martin Butcher.  This boy had also attended Underhill, though our paths had somehow not crossed until this dreadful day in September 1954.  We immediately struck a chord as we looked in vain for signs that perhaps all was not lost.  When a gowned senior prefect appeared and started screaming at us like a sergeant-major to "move it" and enter the school, Martin and I finally concluded that we should definitely abandon hope.  The first thing we learned was that we didn't have teachers but masters who had to wear their academic gowns at all times when teaching.  The second thing was that referring to each other by first names was totally unacceptable. Indeed, everyone tried to conceal his first name for the whole of his time at the school, because it would inevitably be the cause of great mirth if discovered, whatever it was.  If you happened to know someone's first name, as I knew Butcher's, for example, you didn't split on him if he was your friend.
Apart from the general distress expressed rather strongly above, I have practically no memory of the first year or two at QE, beyond a rather startling recollection that I was actually doing quite well in some subjects to start with, particularly Latin. This would have been because of the Latin master, 'Winkie' Wingfield. Like all the masters, he demanded total silence during the 'period' as classes were called, but for an unusual reason.  He was busy at work on his battlefront memoires (eventually published as The Only Way Out) when he was supposed to be teaching.  He took no interest whatever in what the boys were doing for most of the time during his periods, as long as they were doing it in silence.  If there was the slightest disturbance, somebody - it didn't have to be the perpetrator - would get his head slapped with the corner of Winkie's gown.  If the boy protested that this was unjust he would be told "There ain't no justice, laddie!"  He always advised us to do whatever criminal activity we might choose to engage in during his periods behind a wall of books erected upon our desks.  "Remember that the only crime is getting caught" he would often say.  This struck me as refreshingly honest and I took a great liking to the man. The feeling seemed to be mutual, since he always singled me out for a few friendly words at the end of the class. Given the freedom, like everyone else, to do what I liked (but quietly) during his 45 minute periods, I chose to teach myself Latin!  I suppose I was the only one to do so, and it was no wonder that I soon shot to the top of the form in this subject. However, we eventually had a different Latin master, Mr Whitely, who made sure that everyone else learned Latin as well, and my preeminence in this subject soon came to an end.
In general, the things I remember are not specific events so much as bad states of affairs that remained throughout my time there, getting steadily worse as the years ground oh-so-slowly on.  These involved the masters, the boys, games, academic work - well, everything, actually.  My bad relationship with the masters (except Winkie, who openly favoured me) was a result of my attitude to games and gym, and my total inability to get done on time the masses of homework we were set in several subjects every day.
The fact is that so much time was given over to games, gym and swimming (the school has its own pool) that all that homework was needed to get through the academic syllabus.  For a timid and physically weak boy who detested sport, this was not the school to be in.  The 6 hours of games per week during official school time was only the start.  In the summer, cricket, rugger and athletics went on until about 8 o'clock in the evening on some days, but a great deal of homework still had to be done when you eventually got home.  There was school all day Saturday, too - lessons in the morning, and compulsory attendance at school matches with other schools in the afternoon.  There were 2 or 3 gym periods a week on top of all this. The prospect of rugby terrified me, and I actually managed to avoid playing in a single game in all my time at the school.  I managed this by conspiring with my father to have a number of vague illnesses which, like Yosarian's, always fell just short of being anything specific.  However, I was forced to do gruelling cross-country running instead.  There was no getting out of cricket.  Whenever I saw that damned ball coming towards me my only thought was to duck (when batting), or run in the opposite direction (when fielding).  This of course excited the utter contempt of both boys and masters.
Swimming lessons were another nightmare.  Boys who couldn't swim were obliged to wear tiny red 'slips' instead of swimming trunks.  No doubt the idea was that the embarrassment would soon force them to learn.  In nearly all other cases, this strategy worked,  but I was still wearing mine, much to everyone's great amusement, when I had got rather too big for it.  I still can't swim.
As well as tiredness and my natural slowness, a big factor in my failure to get homework done was the television.  Whereas other boys were helped routinely by their parents with homework,  mine couldn't help at all.  Instead, they had the television blaring away all the time.  Our house was very much smaller than the average size of the houses that those boys inhabited, and there was just no escape from the noise.  And it was a noise that was not unattractive to me - I wanted to be watching the box, and I did so by quietly opening the door of the living-room a little and peeping in.  I spent a quite lot of time doing that.
The punishment for not doing homework on time or for getting poor marks for it was 'lines'.  At QE this simply meant copying out 50 or 100 lines from anything you liked.  If you didn't hand the lines in on time, they were doubled.  These lines accumulated, until I was (theoretically) obliged to spend even more time pointlessly copying out any old nonsense than doing homework.  I started trying to get up in the middle of the night to do the lines and/or the homework, but I'd simply fall asleep again.  Eventually I was caned by my housemaster, 'Cov' Covington for getting hopelessly behind with it all.
It's rather puzzling, looking back, that this was the only time I was flogged.  Some boys were beaten regularly, occasionally while naked in the showers by one master, as I once witnessed.  I was lucky to be in Stapylton House, because Cov was a softie - his heart wasn't really in it.  Boys who were in Broughton or Harrison quaked on the way to their floggings: 'Tiger' Timson (Ancient History) and 'Slasher' Pinnock (Religious Instruction) were said to really lay it on.
The time came when survival depended upon turning to all sorts of subterfuge and deception, including forged notes purporting to be from my parents.  I also made the discovery that if you absented yourself from the periods of certain masters like 'Sam' Cocks the geography master, and 'Frosty' Winter the history master, they didn't notice that you were not there.  (Frosty 'taught' by pacing up and down mumbling to himself - endless dates of battles and kings, as far as I could hear).  This strategy of simply not turning up necessitated spending many hours hiding in places such as the cloakrooms and lavatories, in constant dread of being caught.
The hardest to deceive was 'Alfie' Alford, the contantly angry young English and maths master, who had an especial dislike of me.  He pretended to be horrified by my working-class accent (already a source of amusement to some of the boys) and made me stand by the desk to recite "the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain" and "how now, brown cow?"  He it was who had me caned. A few years after leaving school I stormed into the place after far too much to drink, barged into Alfie's class and gave him a piece of my intoxicated mind (fortunately it was the end of the lesson and the boys were too busy rushing out to take much notice of me). The first thing that took me by surprise me was that he had something of a northern accent - I hadn't noticed it before! The second shock, which fairly took the wind out of my three sheets, was that he was apparently totally unfazed by my sudden appearance and verbal assault. "Ah", he explained apologetically, with a pleasant smile,"you see it wasn't long after the war and we were all still militarised. Times have changed". I weaved my way back down Queens Road in some confusion.
Although I was certainly bullied, terrorised and held in utter contempt by most of the boys, of whom my worst tormentors were Coutts, Simpson amd Murray, I eventually became part of a small circle of friends who were either the victims of bullies themselves or were at least of a more gentle (and genteel) disposition than the majority, whom I perceived as coarse, idiotic middle class thugs.  The two boys who emerged particularly as my friends were Butcher, already mentioned, and Palmer.  Unfortunately, by the end of my third year, I had been consistently bottom of the form for a while, so was not allowed to go up into the next form.  Therefore my few friends were now in a different year and I was even more out of place in a class full of boys all much younger than myself.
Martin Butcher was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 16, shortly after leaving QE. Butcher had also learned the art of skipping periods and we started prowling about together.  In fact we became partners in crime.  We developed a reasonably lucrative business which consisted of stealing from the pound (a wire basket in which lost items awaited their owners, who had to pay a fine) and selling the loot well away from the school. The basket had a lock on it and we seemed to be the only ones who had discovered that small hands could squeeze through a gap where the mesh was damaged. There were some good pens and watches to be had from us for a song. This seemed a perfectly proper thing to do - it was retribution to which we were entitled by natural law.
The really dreadful last year at that place, lightened only by my growing friendship with the law-abiding Nigel Palmer, will be described in a later chapter.

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