A letter from John Roe [Heath 1943–?]

Stung by the description of me as ‘Gone To Earth’ — at least nobody has suggested that I have ‘Gone To The Other Place’ — I write to establish my credentials, to coin a phrase. Incidentally, since credentials are involved, I wish to establish my paternity of the Mackley nickname ‘The Egg,’ which came from a long and supposedly satirical opus The Egg Sagas. Its cast also included Gulliver (a thinly disguised Tishy) and Uncle Eric; but The Egg, a vague but mystic figure, was the star, the evil genius.

The Egg was celebrated, in real life and the Sagas, for his meandering diction and excessive use of the particle ‘Er.’ He usually presided over meetings of the Favorites and at one of these was led to take part in the game of ‘One Minute, Please,’ whereby you have to speak for one minute without repeating yourself or getting off the point; and you get extra marks if you hit on the round’s password. But, if you then repeat this password, you lose marks heavily.

Very unkindly, we gave The Egg his subject with the concealed password ‘Er.’ Naturally, he got it almost at once, but then confounded us by getting through without repeating his favourite syllable.

Larry Gain was a great one for recognisable catch-phrases, too, and I was taken aback not to find in the deserved tribute to him no mention of his favourite expression, or explosion, Bless my boots! which he tended to shout gleefully, slapping his ample thigh the while, somewhat in the manner of a pantomime Principal Boy. His method of helping us remember spondees, or whatever those feet are called, was the line:

Down in a deep dark dell sat an old cow munching a beanstalk.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember any Latin verse at all, or indeed any other hexameters, but Larry’s line lives on.

Has anyone mentioned Mr Hewson, with his strong-lens glasses and trundly gait, and his pet kettle? Was it because he was a science master that he was saddled with the task of making the Common Room tea? Perhaps it was his access to those gas rings and Bunsen burners which lived in that out-house a short walk from the main building, and thus the Common Room.1

Dr Fleet, who, as it has been said, was moved (rather against his will) from the Juniors to the Seniors, was a nice, bumbling, active little man, whom I remember most in the Juniors dealing with ‘Nature Study’ where, for example, we all collected different grasses — a more ecologically benign activity than dead butterflies — or learnt poems like I remember, I remember... and Amy Elizabeth Ermintrude Annie' (who went to the country to visit her granny): — no, that must have been the English lesson, which he took as well. Dr Fleet’s great friend, incongruously enough, was ‘Bill’ Charlton, the stout rolling-gait Geordie (VERY Geordie). Bill’s heavy dialect phrases cropped up regularly in the column, ‘The Heathen in his blindness wants to know.’

I am never sure whether these people really were larger than life, or whether it was the way we looked at them. Or maybe it was the act they consciously put on — with Larry there was certainly an element of that (colleagues in the staff room could have shed light on this). Larry adored P.G. Wodehouse and, in that no-boys-land of end-of-term, he would sit on the desk and read extracts from his favourite, laughing loudly and delightedly after particularly apt phrases. The art of making people enjoy literature, of course, is to make it perfectly obvious that you are enjoying it yourself; this also puts the pupil who can’t see the joke at a disadvantage. Larry would also attend rugby matches, in the role of cheer-leader, and would shout his favourite phrase, Like the wind! to those uncertainly clutching a ball on the wing — as on the occasion when I, thus inspired, and without my glasses, ran full tilt into the goal post, which happened to be in my way.

I think no-one has mentioned Mr Atkins, known as Tommy to the staff and Clem to the boys, which points up a generation gap, and a shared lack of imagination: he was often, in his History lessons, glumly resentful of us, but I think his mood was more dependent on his wife, about whom he once said, They say that a woman’s work is never done: I think it’s never started. Clem shouted very loudly when he was cross, but his eyes (very blue) remained curiously cold at such times, so that one didn’t know whether to believe in his anger or not.

And then there was Mr Littlefair, a gentle soul, who had to cope with Gornall in our class who used to break wind very skilfully and loudly and then turn round proudly and excitedly to the rest of us, while Archie pretended he hadn’t noticed. (What else could he have done?)

Anyone who has gone on to do teaching looks back on these memories with nostalgia and enjoyment (of the rabble) and a special kind of sympathy (for the staff).

Happy Days! (To coin a phrase.)

John Roe

First appeared in Newsletter dated

1 Editor’s note: Yes, and there was no water supply in the Common Room.