Up from The Cape: 5 Mar 2017
I read somewhere that people who have been kept hostage can bury the emotional trauma of that event for ten, sometimes twenty years, but often they’ll need to find emotional release eventually. This may account for some of the reminiscences I’ve been having with a friend about my school days. In some respects my school days were like a hostage situation.
It was an email exchange that triggered the memories. Once they’d started, it all came out in a sort of boiling torrent, carrying me along on the surface like a tsunami victim. Some of the memories are amusing. Some of them contained wisdom I’ve carried with me for years. The most noteworthy memory was when a teacher told us “Nobody here can force you to do anything. All we can say is ‘If you don’t do what we tell you to do, these will be the consequences’….. but you may be willing to accept those consequences.” That sort of insight can help us determine how we face the world, and I’m grateful for it.
Overall, I have to concede that most of my school memories beyond a certain date are either just unfathomable or terrifying. We understood in those days that our position in the hierarchy at school was at the bottom. As such, our opinions and wishes counted for nothing. The teaching staff were permitted an almost totalitarian degree of latitude in the exercise of their power. How they used it was random and unpredictable. It was a bit like being educated in a mine field.
I remember a teacher of elevated rank who loomed in our minds like Godzilla without the cuddly side to him. He wasn’t quite deputy head, but must have been orbiting close to it. In those days teachers used to conduct themselves with all of the abrupt un-accountability of the actor Geoffrey Chater in Lindsay Anderson’s film “IF”. In the film there’s a scene where he marches up and down slowly in a class, lashing out arbitrarily at boys’ heads, while reciting some text to them.
Godzilla was known to his face as “Mister Brough” (pronounced “Bruff”). To us he was known alternatively as just “Rough” – behind his back of course. I can’t be sure if the way his name was amended by us was the result of the then typical London urchins’ attitude, or whether it was simply a play on “Brough by name and rough by nature”. He had a tendency to strike boys at the least provocation, so that may have accounted for it.
Sometimes Mr Brough used to manifest among us like a coalescing spirit at a Victorian séance. If a teacher wasn’t present in our class, it would always be a cauldron of deafening noise. Inexplicably, there would come a moment when it would be as if someone had turned the noise down, subtly to begin with, and then more briskly until what remained was the most appalling chasm of silence. Mister Brough would be standing in the doorway looking at us with a horrifying blank stare from his goat-like eyes. After about half a minute of absolute quiet, with him remaining as still as Death Valley, he’d say with casual implied menace “There’s a slipper in the bottom drawer of that desk for any boy who feels like making any more noise.” Then he’d turn away silently like a Dalek, close the door, and depart back to what we imagined was his crypt.
What weighed in Mr Brough’s favour in the league table of terror was that he was completely predictable, like an atom bomb. We understood this after an occasion on which he’d warned us about noise. For reasons lost to me now, a couple of minutes after his warning the noise levels in our class had returned to the oil-rig din he’d threatened us over. The next thing we knew was that he came into the room like a wrecking ball, crashing the door aside and heading straight for the teacher’s desk without saying a word. He pulled the desk drawer open with a bang, took out the dread “slipper”, and then grabbed the first boy he could reach. He bent him over without any preliminaries, and walloped him soundly three times in a Gatling-gun sort of rhythm. After that he released his dazed victim, threw the slipper back into the drawer, banged it shut with a theatrical flourish, and left. That’s how legends are born. Today it’s how lawsuits against the local education authority begin. Overall, I’m not sure he wasn’t right. I’m influenced in this opinion by the story that follows.
There was a teacher who used to take us for Chemistry. He was a poor, mild, amiable man called Dr Garner. I say “poor” because his basic amiability towards us was his undoing. He’d left the chemical industry from a senior position, and the rumour was he’d done so because of a question of “ethics”. He was foremost, a man of principle and conscience. Unfortunately neither of those qualities prepared him for life as a teacher in a modern comprehensive school for boys. Once it had been understood by us he was a mild man, he was treated with contempt. It must have been like taking a class filled with the sort of monkeys that swarm over cars in wildlife parks, snapping off the aerials. They do whatever they like, sometimes aggressively.
The noise levels in Dr Garner’s classes were so high it was impossible to get any work done. I can’t remember learning a single thing relating to Chemistry while he was there (which fortunately was not long). What I did learn more generally was that whenever he lost control of us, he would stalk about the room desperately, waving a three foot long ruler and calling out “Boys! Boys! Please!” It never did him any good. Eventually he always had to capitulate and leave the room – presumably to start the ritual that would invoke Mr Brough’s latest materialisation. Whenever this occurred it triggered a similar phenomenon to the one I’ve described previously. The noise levels would begin to drop as soon as Mr Brough appeared.
In Dr Garner’s class, Mr Brough didn’t have a slipper he could press into service. Being a fundamentally decent man, Dr Garner didn’t hold with such things. Instead Mr Brough would allow the noise levels to reduce gradually as his presence became known, and use that time to select some random targets. Then he’d speak in chilling one or two-word sentences:
“That boy” point of the finger.
“That boy” point of the finger.
“That boy” point of the finger.
Then a pause.
“My office. Now.”
As the victims filed out Dr Garner would be looking at the floor as if he expected them to be shot in the playground. The actual punishment was for them to be “slippered”, savagely and repeatedly, away from prying eyes.
There was something of Mr Brough’s terrifying magic that could even rub off on other teachers. I remember an occasion when he’d told us to wait in a corridor for someone else to take us to a change of class. We were larking about, as boys of that age will. Another teacher arrived and asked what we thought we were doing there. Someone volunteered we’d been told to wait. The teacher asked who had told us to wait, and one of my classmates called out, slightly irreverently, “Brough”. The teacher bellowed like a sky-rending crack of overhead thunder “MISTER Brough!” It was so loud I think the windows reverberated. I certainly felt something jump in my chest. Can it have been like that in Hitler’s bunker once things took a turn for the worse? It felt to me like a very similar sort of regime. It’s worrying that these are supposed to have been the happiest days of my life. Whoever thinks so evidently didn’t go to the same school I did.