Volume 1 – chapter 12 Part 2
I have mentioned that each year the Education Board held an examination for children reaching the age of eleven years. When my turn came to take this test I did not realise just how important it was to my future; not that it would have made any difference to my chances of passing. This occasion was yet another instance when major events take place in the life of a child, and they remain blissfully ignorant of their importance.
There was to be no higher education for me, but in 1944, my second year at Queen Street, I had begun to realise that how well I did at school was going to matter in the future. In addition to my awareness I also developed a strong desire to prove myself, and to earn the respect of both my teachers and my fellow students. With this new motivation I began to pay attention and to apply myself, and very quickly began to rise in the class standings. By the end of this second year I was top of my class, and what is more I was no longer in the low achievers class 2B2. Earlier in the year I had been upgraded to 2b1 and felt very proud of myself. Having discovered that the top three or four boys in each class would be promoted to a higher grade the following year, it had become my goal to be one of those that earned this promotion each time we sat the annual tests. This all sounds very impressive, but I would remind the reader that the standard of learning was very low indeed. Even so for the first time in my short life I was moving forward, little realising how limited the movement was.
How to fit in was another thing that I was learning, though I was not consciously aware that I was doing it. Not every boy was my enemy any more, I was getting on well with many of them, in fact, there were a few I called my friends. One in particular was a boy named Ernie Washington, who looked much like me, having blue eyes and fair hair, and more importantly, we had many opinions in common. He was sharp as a tack, and we both derived much pleasure from the company of the other. Both Ernie and I got on well with most of the teachers, though that did not always keep us out of trouble.
There was the day for instance when one teacher was demonstrating his talents by thinking up novel ways of making a punishment interesting or entertaining. He decided to beat a particular boy by striking his bottom with a large blackboard ruler. Making him bend over to draw his trousers tight, he struck him with the ruler, on which he had written in thick chalk the letters OXO. Finding the result not to his satisfaction the teacher repeated the process a number of times striking a little harder each time. After a number of strokes he commented that the bottom under attack must now be well marked with stripes, much like a mint humbug. He remarked to the class: “I wonder how you could tell the difference?” Like a flash came the reply from my pal Ernie: “Suck it and see?” The teacher smiled seeing the humour in this quick riposte, but he was not about to let a mere boy get the better of him, and he called Ernie out saying that his determination to get more intimately involved had earned him a taste of the same.
The teacher mentioned above was Mr. Bertie Challinor, a large man who always wore a tweed jacket and smoked a pipe. It was said he had been a pilot in the RFC in the First World War, and that he had some breathing difficulties, resulting from the effects of gas. In spite of his willingness to apply physical punishment to the boys, he was quite well liked, by most of us. The atmosphere in his class usually being friendly and relaxed; he was yet another of the old and undemanding class of teacher we had at the time. Now I come to think of it, we feared him so little that one boy became bold enough to steal his cane, which is why, maybe, he had resorted to using his blackboard ruler as a rod of chastisement. Taking Bertie’s cane proved to be a bad idea, because it resulted in the application of another form of punishment we found was much more painful. He took to walking around the class with his hand in his jacket pocket; in it he held his pipe. With his middle finger inserted in the bowl, he was ready to strike and often did so without any apparent provocation. If at any time he decided that punishment was called for, he would pull his pipe from the pocket, and give the offender a sharp wrap on the head with it. This form of admonishment was very painful I can assure you, and I can attest to this from personal experience.
Corporal punishment was the norm when I was a school boy, and though we did not like it, everyone accepted it. It never occurred to us that some day it might become an unacceptable form of discipline. Although teachers punished us we rarely held it against them. On one occasion I received four strokes on the hands from my revered headmasters feared bamboo cane, but never once wavered in my admiration and respect for him. In fact my opinions of him may have been enhanced by his action. At the time he had gravely explained to me that although I was a House Captain, and a boy for whom he held a high regard, he was obliged to treat me in exactly the same way as any other boy, found guilty of a similar offence. I did not try to excuse my actions, but took the punishment readily, and with almost a feeling of pride. It is possible that I went up in Mr. Garton’s estimations by not pleading my case, because without doubt he would have learned the circumstances of my offence.
The details of the incident, which led to my punishment, were as follows. During one afternoon break, I had been in the playground and in the midst of the noisy throng I had come across a large boy bullying a small boy. The small boy was a cheerful young lad that we had nicknamed ‘Snowy’ White; he had white hair of course, and usually kept out of trouble by using his speed and agility. His attacker was a big pimply lad named Ray Bradbury, who for no other reason than he was bored, or maybe because he enjoyed hurting smaller boys, had Snowy’s arm twisted up his back. Normally I would have ignored the usual school yard scuffling and good natured combat, but this time I could see that there was nothing good natured about it. Snowy was crying out in pain, and his face showed that he was in some distress. This was not acceptable and I told Bradbury so in no uncertain terms ordering him to let the smaller boy go. Snowy was one of my ‘Wedgwood’ boys, and apart from anything else, I felt an obligation to defend him. On the other hand, Bradbury was not in my house, and so had not had any dealings with me before. He might have heard something of my reputation, but being slightly bigger and heavier than I, he decided that he would oppose me.
My father had taught me to box, he had also taught me that if you have to fight, hit hard and attack with aggression. The secret of success was not to give your opponent a chance, and by this time I had gained some experience and knew what to do. Quick as a flash I grabbed Bradbury by the ear and twisted hard, this made him let go of young Snowy. When he did so I moved in fast and hit him with a hard left jab and right hook, and down he went in a heap. You can never leave a situation like this unfinished, a clear result was necessary, so I ordered the bully boy to stand up and apologise. He climbed to his feet, but apology was not immediately forthcoming, so I moved in again hitting him hard on the nose. With his nose bleeding and feeling sorry for himself Bradbury began to cry and to say he was sorry. By this time a crowd of boys had gathered, and this attracted the yard master who arrived on the scene.
There was a strict ban on fighting in the schoolyard, and though I viewed my actions as supporting school discipline, I knew I had broken the rules, which meant trouble. Although my explanation was viewed with some sympathy by the teacher on duty, when he looked at the sorry state of my opponent, he considered it his duty to report the details to the headmaster. Mr. Garton in his turn must have decided that Bradbury had been punished enough, and regardless of his behaviour, no further action would be taken against him. I am sure that the teachers approved of my motives, once they were aware of them, but I had been seen using violence on school premises, and such behaviour could not be condoned. It could be argued that what I should have done is report this case of bullying, and let those in authority take appropriate action. Maybe today that would have worked, but at the time of which I write most would have agreed that what I did was the only way to deal with it. After the event it would have been too late to do anything, and no one would have tried, of that I’m sure. The yardmaster would not have thanked me for adding to his problems, and the boys would have seen me as a snitch, a tell tale. No, I had a duty to do, and I did it in the way I knew would be most effective.
Describing these past events today there is an air of unreality about it, and many who might read it would find it hard to credit that we behaved in such a manner. Think however of similar scenes, described by Dickens, or scenes described in ‘Tom Browns Schooldays. In comparison my words become more real and believable, though it could be said that I compare fact with fiction. Though I would respond to such suggestions by asking the question, ‘who would doubt what I describe when the narrative is based on real experience.’ When I look back it becomes clear that the methods used by the school were designed to use the boys themselves. The leaders chosen to take control were given the power to discipline the other boys. House Captains, Prefects, Team Leaders, all played their part, like NCOs and Junior Officers in the army. In some instances physical methods were used by the boys, methods which would have been impossible for teachers. Undoubtedly a blind eye was turned on many such occasions.
Remembering my days at Queen Street brings to mind a picture of a boy who was finally adjusting to the life he had, fitting in which was the only way to survive. Without being aware of the process, I was becoming part of it all, accepted as someone with a right to be there. Of course it never occurred to me that this niche I had was far from an ideal one, that sort of thinking comes from parents. In war time most people develop a ‘Live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself.’ attitude, only a few far sighted individuals plan for what might follow. Having become a part of the system I began to develop a desire to do well, but not because it was important to my future. If the truth be known, I wanted to look good to those around me, I was learning that one had to earn the respect of others, and superiority was never recognised without a demonstration of proof that you had a right to it. Then there was that spirit of competition that is part of us, driving us to prove ‘I can do anything better than you.’ Pride is such a powerful driving force, and it is enhanced when a person feels a conviction that there are forces within us that cannot be denied.
With this growing desire to do well at school, I ended my third and fourth years with an ever-improving reputation. I was good at sports with football, running, high jump, and wrestling particular favourites. I was recognised by teachers and pupils alike as someone worthy of respect, what more could a boy ask for. There seemed little doubt that when I moved up to the final grade, I would have accomplished that ultimate goal a place in the ‘A’ class. The fact that I did not gain this accolade has always remained one of the greatest disappointments of my life.
At the end of 1947 I had believed that the top four places in my class, 4B1, would be promoted to 5A for the following year. When the results were announced I found to my delight that I had come second, and so departed for the holidays as happy as I could be. On my return to school I joined my old class where we would be informed which classroom we were to go to, and which teacher would guide us to our final destination. - I believe it was in 1947 that the Department of Education changed the name of local schools run by councils and other such authorities to ‘Secondary Modern’ and at the same time raised the school leaving age to 15 years and 3 months. This meant that I would leave school in July 1948. - The proud moment to which I had looked forward for so long had arrived, and then the names of those to be upgraded were called out. I sat in a state of shock as the four fortunate boys gathered their bits and pieces and departed.
In my day we were taught to accept the decisions of those set above us without question, and under normal circumstance I would have been the last to raise a query. On this occasion it was too much to bear, and I found myself standing by the teachers’ desk almost without knowing how I got there. I do not remember my actual words, but the question was why had I been left out of the four promotions? With an air of apology the teacher explained that whoever made the decisions on such matters, had ruled that I was inadequate in one vital subject, and that was mathematics. The superior teaching on this subject would benefit some other boy, but on me it would be wasted.
When I left school I had a little general knowledge, and that was about all. I could read, but not spell, write but without any understanding of English grammar, and in arithmetic I could add, divide, multiply, and subtract, but did not know the multiplication tables. One skill I did learn afterwards and that was finding ways to an answer the slow and indirect way. Whatever I have needed to know since I left school I have taught myself; it was on the job training, with a vengeance.
Did I enjoy anything at school? Yes, all those things I appeared to be good at, such as sports. In most of the academic subjects I achieved better results than most of my class mates, so I left school with the impression that I was a very sharp fellow. I did not realise how abysmally low our standards had been; it was a classic case of: ‘In the land of the blind, a one eyed man is king.’ what a revelation it was when I joined the world of people with excellent vision. It is hard to believe now how deluded I became, but on reflection it was understandable. I had become a big fish in a little pond, and often enjoyed the flattery that came my way.
Once a year the senior boys took part in a school play, the most talented being given parts. Drama was another subject in which I shone, so I usually had a part in this prestigious event. In my last year we produced a murder mystery entitled ‘The Scarlet Thread.’ and I was given the leading role of ‘Butters’ the murderer. Our performance was pronounced a huge success, so much so that we were asked to repeat our performance for the Youth Club, which used our school a couple of evenings a week. I still get a warm glow when I recall that evening, and the enthusiastic applause I received when I ended the play with the final dramatic lines, which I can still remember: “Twas a ghost ye saw this night, the ghost of Jacob Forge, who was hung, (dramatic pause,) hung by a scarlet thread.” There I stood all of 14 years old, dressed in my father’s old raincoat, and a trilby, convinced I was putting Laurence Olivia to shame. Confessing that the man who had been hung for a murder that I had committed had been an innocent man, it was a dramatic moment and I made the most of it as any actor would.
There were other plays as well, I remember one called ‘Eldorado’ which was about a man who spends years, and every penny he possessed, to develop a new variety of potato. In the final scene he enters the kitchen of his house, where he had left the precious potatoes on the table, only to find to his dismay, (and to the great amusement of the audience,) that his wife had peeled them and put them to boil for his dinner.
Entertaining the teenagers of the youth club was not my only experience of the club, I had attended its’ sessions regularly, though not really old enough to be a member. The objective of these clubs was to give teenagers something to do and to keep them off the streets. With this in mind there were a number of classes run for those that were interested, and one was a boxing class. A Mr Davies ran this class and he could be found a couple of evenings a week putting his few volunteers through their paces. When I discovered this activity I offered myself as a willing trainee, and after showing what I could do, he decided I would be worth the effort.
The city council had provided some equipment, and with only two or three other candidates, I found it ideal to go and spend the evening working up a sweat doing all those things you see boxers doing at the cinema. With very few prospects around, Mr Davies often gave me his individual attention, probably seeing in me the only keen volunteer he had. This situation worked to my advantage because he knew his stuff, having been the City Police Heavy Weight Champion for a number of years. I learned to use my feet and to score points with a long straight left hand, which later on resulted in me becoming capable of handing out the punishment without taking much in return.
I had all the thoughts a young boy would have while I was being put through my paces. I would show the world what I could do, and I would make myself a hero. The class in which we trained had a wall of glass windows, and I could look out and see most of the teenagers that attended the club, jiving and jitterbugging in the school hall. To the sound of the big bands of the day, including the famous Glenn Miller, playing ‘In the Mood’ and ‘American Patrol’ the local youth indulged in their decadent preferences. While I did the hard stuff, preparing myself to take on all comers, I looked out at them with a feeling of considerable superiority. It is something to smile about now, but at the time I was quite serious about it. Taking myself seriously has always been an inherent part of my character I suppose you could say.
The highlight of my time at the youth club came when the City organised a series of boxing matches with clubs from other cities. Young though I was Mr Davies decided I was good enough to face an opponent, and on the night I entered the ring erected in the main hall to face a young man from Birmingham. With the thought in mind that my Dad had earned glory doing this, I was determined to emulate him and show I was a son to be proud of. Not that he ever knew about it, because another thing that did not earn his approval was boasting. When I could have told him, I never did, but I might have just forgotten all about it after a while. For the record, I won my bout on points by being careful and keeping myself out of trouble. I could have gone for the big punch but was not prepared to take the risk, so I scored often and kept my guard up. Afterwards of course I felt as bold as brass and thought to myself “That was a piece of cake.” I really am quite good at this.
When I left school is it any wonder that I imagined a promising future stretching before me. I had played many parts, I was a star in the making, and at school they didn’t know the half of it. I had music at my fingertips, and was even showing some skill at the sport played by toffs, tennis. How clever I thought I was, and how soon I would find out how ignorant.
My impressions of the teachers we had at Queens Street do not appear flattering, and I suppose from most boys perspective this would be a predictable view. Looking back now I begin to realise that maybe such a critical stance is not a fair one. Events, that were soon forgotten, come back to me now, and they offer a more sympathetic picture.
Bertie Challinor for example sometimes invited one or two of his pupils to visit him at the weekend; I was one that was invited and I found it an interesting day out. He lived at Meir a suburb a mile or two on the other side of Longton, and to us city kids the green fields and the absence of factory chimneys made it almost a rural setting. What made the location even more interesting was the fact that his semi-detached house backed onto the local aerodrome, and it was quite a novelty to be able to look out of his back windows and see small planes, though there were not many of them, and they were not yet very active. At the time of this visit I was about 12 or 13 years old, which would have dated it about 1945 or 1946. The war had ended, though there seemed to be very little change in conditions. Rationing continued for several years, though it was gradually relaxed as goods became more readily available. Maintaining his usual relaxed sort of discipline, Mr. Challinor soon had us doing various chores around the house, including peeling potatoes and preparing the dinner. I suppose it was very good of him to feed three or four hungry boys, but at the same time it occurs to me that perhaps he thought it was worth it, when he had all his household chores done while he sat and read his newspaper. He appeared to be living alone, and we never discovered whether there was or ever had been a Mrs. Challinor.
Another teacher who went out of his way to improve our lives was Mr. Betley. What he did for other boys I don’t know, but on two occasions he invited me to spend time with him. In my second year I went to his house which was also out past the Meir aerodrome on the road to Blythe Bridge. One of my visits was made on a warm summer day; he decided to take me out into the country in his Austin 12 car. Petrol was in short supply, but he must have had enough to drive a few miles to a farm where he was made welcome. He spent a few hours at the farmhouse while I wandered the fields and had a swim in the nearby river. I shall always remember that day out in the country, how kind Mr. Betley was to me. It was not often that anyone had a chance to ride in a motorcar, or to use a telephone. This was a new experience for me, making a phone call for the very first time. I had to ask for the number I wanted, and then speak to the person at the other end of the line. I don’t remember what the call was about, but I am sure it was made for my benefit only. I cycled home in time for tea, feeling very happy with my ex-army small pack on my back, full of fat sticks of juicy rhubarb from Mr. Betley’s garden, and a giant mushroom the size of a small dinner plate that I had found in the fields out at the farm. I feasted on mushroom and a small slice of bacon the next morning, and it was delicious.
Sometime during the following year, which would have been about 1947, Mr. Betley, who was a scoutmaster, took me in his car to a large scout camp called Kibblestone. This camp was a couple of miles South of Stone, on the Stafford road. It had everything young boys could wish for, an obstacle course, a flying fox, open-air swimming pool, and loads of other things. There were campsites and cabins, one being a special one for King’s scouts. There was a viewing cabin with a large glass window looking out on a copse teaming with all sorts of birds, and squirrels, and other forms of wild life. It was another fine summers day, and we had it all to our selves, and I had another wonderful day out that I shall never forget. Why I was taken to see this camp I shall never know, but maybe the kind Mr. Betley thought it would inspire me to join the scouting movement? I never did. If he had offered these kindnesses today there would have been some who would have suspected his motives. Such thoughts did not occur back in 1947 and child abuse was not an issue at that time, certainly not one that I was aware of.
My time at school did not provide me with academic knowledge, but I was learning something of life. School was structured and organised, just as most places of employment proved to be. I had an important part to play in school life, and felt some regret when it ended. I also had my father who added a feeling of confidence as I rapidly approached the time when I would join the working world.
In July 1946 my second brother was born, Douglas was born at home in our council house at 93 Broad Street. It was only a two bed roomed house, so now we were full to overflowing, and it was time to move on. The council was building new houses on the edge of Blurton, which was a suburb close to the main road running from Longton to Trentham. We qualified and had enough influence to gain some priority, so within a few weeks we were able to move into a smart new three bed roomed semidetached house on the edge of the city. I was now two or three miles from School and used my bicycle to commute each day.
One day on my way home from school, I was passing a parked car, when a man in it suddenly swung his door wide. Being an older car the door opened to the rear, and I crashed into it ending up in the middle of the road. Fate smiled on me that day because a large red double-decker bus was close behind me at the time. When I looked up from the road, the radiator of the bus towered above me and the wheels were inches away. I was shaken but unscathed, and so was my bike, but the car door had sustained a good-sized dent. It had been a near thing, and I was clearly the injured party, so I was taken aback when the man in question launched a verbal attack on me. Demanding my name and address, he made it very clear that I would be held responsible for the damage.
On arriving home I reported the incident to my father, explaining that the man involved was some sort of salesman, who had a car full of boxes and packages. With his rear window obscured he had not been able to make sure the road was clear before opening his door. I also complained that I had seen a similar accident some weeks before, and that the car driver on that occasion had shown extreme concern for his error. He apologized profusely to the man on the bicycle and pressing several pounds into his hand he had pleaded that the matter be taken no further.
In my case I had been quite shaken up at the time, and being young and inexperienced had not asked for details from the other party involved. Having no means of pursuing the matter, the incident seemed to be closed. Some weeks later we moved back to Fenton; my mother was missing her older sister. Shortly afterwards an insurance investigator came knocking on our door to inform us that his company was demanding substantial payment for damage to their clients car. I was at school and my father was at work, and typically my mother refused to talk with this unwelcome visitor. She referred him to her husband at his place of work, the MEB (Midlands Electricity Board) accounts offices in Stoke.
I was never told anything about the outcome of this confrontation, but I believe my father made it clear that we were the offended party. Maybe he threatened to take legal action, claiming dangerous use of a motor vehicle, or something of that nature. For my part I was made aware of how beneficial it was to have a father to defend me. It made quite an impression experiencing the protection of a competent parent.
The return of teachers from the armed forces improved the quality of the school staff, but it was far too late to do me any good academically. I enjoyed other changes that made school a more enjoyable experience. There was Mr. Alan who had returned from the Navy, he loved music and made it his mission to improve our knowledge of the Classics. I cannot remember now what subjects he was supposed to be teaching us, but every day he would take the opportunity to play records on a portable gramophone.
Then there was Mr. Cooper, (Harry to his friends) who had returned from the Army. He was a smart military looking man with a moustache, but he was anything but stern and disciplined. His main aim in life was to take it easy, and do everything he could to relax. His classes were a positive joy for all of us; it was like going on holiday spending time with Harry Cooper.
One of the first things he did soon after his arrival was to organize a camping trip for anyone who wanted to go. With the help of some friends outside the school he arranged transport for about 25/30 boys, plus half a dozen of his acquaintances. About half were to return after a week, and the balance were to stay for a second week. The destination he chose was Benlech Bay on the North East coast of the Isle of Anglesey. It was a summer camp in 1947 if I remember correctly, and I can visualize the scene when we arrived. An advance party had already erected the tents, which were bell tents, probably ex-army. A field on the headland above the village had been selected, and it all looked very well organised from my perspective.
I was one of the lucky boys who could afford to stay for two weeks, though as it turned out we were not as lucky as we thought. What do I remember of that holiday? Not the memories you would have expected, like hot sunny days on the beach and swimming in the sea. I can recall feeling hungry all the time, and spending most of my pocket money on filled rolls at the village snack bar. With no organised activities we had to make our own amusement, and I spent more time talking to the locals than playing with the other boys in our party. I heard about the local millionaire who owned the nearby caravan camp and all the donkeys and horses one could hire for rides on the beach. The story was that this man had arrived in the village a couple of years before, without a penny to his name, but with an old donkey he had acquired on his travels. He was given permission to give donkey rides on the beach, and after a while he had a whole string of them, making money hand over fist. He continued to expand his activities and by the time we arrived he was a much discussed success story.
Another much-discussed local topic at the time was the outcome of a murder trial that had just been completed. Just along the coast was Red Wharf Bay, where a man had recently killed his wife. He was a mild mannered man with whom everyone who knew him sympathized. His wife was an unpleasant woman who had made his life a misery for years, when one day the worm turned. She was ironing some washing and as usual was abusing her inoffensive husband, who was standing on the other side of the ironing board. Putting down the iron she continued her tirade, and without thinking the poor man picked up the iron and struck his wife on the head. It proved to be a fatal blow, and the unfortunate fellow was charged with murder. The public, and apparently the jury at his trial, had such sympathy for the accused, that though they accepted he had committed the crime, they pleaded for clemency on his behalf. The judge agreed it seems for the accused was sentenced to only six months in jail, and having already served that period he was allowed to walk away a free man.
What strange memories I have of this holiday, I cannot bring to mind fun and good times, only local events and the little dramas that befell us. In the first couple of days one of the boys broke his plate; we had all taken the basic requirements needed to sustain ourselves. He was dispatched to the only shop in the village for a replacement, only to return in some dismay with the news that there was not a single piece of tableware to be had in the village or anywhere in the locality. Harry Cooper and his friends concluded that the effects of the war were still being felt in this remote corner of Wales. The upshot of this story was that one of the friends mentioned was in the Pottery business, and phoning home he arranged for a load of crockery to be sent out on the lorry that came to collect the boys returning after the first week. This consignment went no further than the local shop, which then sold it on for a very handsome profit.
A couple of days before our holiday ended the weather broke when a powerful storm swept in from the sea. In the early hours of the morning half of our tents which were in an exposed position up on the headland, were blown down and damaged. It was not worth the effort to move the camp to a more sheltered spot, so we were relocated in the village hall, where we slept on the floor like refugees. I can recall that I felt some smugness at the time because I for one was well equipped to deal with this life of uncertainty. My father had provided me with the camping gear that had seen him safely through his time in North Africa and Italy. The main item being a sponge rubber bed within a waterproof zip up bag, which had strong leather straps to tie it into a roll. It had a soft sponge pillow, and a large hold all at each end in which one could put all ones belongings. I was warm and dry when I slept, and when I had to move, all I had to do was roll it up, and be on my way.
To end this tale of holiday adventure I must mention how glad I was to be returning home to all the comforts it provided. This experience reminded me of my debt to my parents, and how much I took for granted my mother’s care and kindness, and the security that my father provided. With this in mind I took myself off to the village bakery, at the crack of dawn, and bought the first large jam tart that came out of the oven. It was the size of a large dinner plate, and was still burning hot. This was to be my gift to my family for providing me with a holiday and a home to which I could return. I had not thought how I would take care of it on the journey home, and found I had no other choice but to carry it in my hands. For several hours I sat among the tents and baggage in the back of a large lorry, trying to protect my lovely jam tart. I had set myself an impossible task, and inevitably I lost control of my prize as we sped around yet another sharp bend in the road. It was broken into pieces but being in a paper bag was still eatable, so I consoled myself with large mouthfuls of fresh jam tart, until it was all gone. When the truck dropped me, and my equipment, off at Victoria Place, a few hundred yards from my home, my mother was waiting to greet me. Her first question was: “Why is your face all sticky and covered in dirt?”
More often than not I was unaware of the lessons I was learning, though I made use of that learning without realising I was doing it. I learned something the day I had my last fight at school, a fight that should never have taken place, and one that I have always thought of with regret. There was a boy at school named Derrick Lane and though I didn’t know him very well, I was well disposed towards him. One thing in particular I liked about him was that he had pride; he had never bent the knee to anyone, including myself. At the other end of the spectrum was an obnoxious individual whose surname was Beresford, though his Christian name escapes me now. Beresford was ungainly, with a dark complexion, and an ugly face. In ordinary circumstances one would have felt some sympathy for him because he was also deformed, with what we used to call a ‘Charlie’ on his back. I can imagine some thinking of him as ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, and though he often gave offence, no one ever used physical force against him because of his disability. The problem was he had a personality to suit his appearance, he looked like an evil little dwarf, and he had qualities to match.
In retrospect it is obvious that Beresford hated both Derrick and me, though why it is impossible to say. Maybe his deformity had soured his soul and he hated anyone that was clean cut and had the attributes that he would have liked for himself? Whatever the reason, this nasty piece of work put in to operation a devious little plan to set Derrick and I against each other. I cannot remember what he said now, but he approached each of us telling us what the other had said. It was all highly insulting, and of a nature designed to offend the pride and bruise the ego. If for no other reason than our youthful reputation, we could not refuse the challenge. With more maturity and wisdom we would have talked not fought, but we were boys, and we did what boys did. The gauntlet was thrown down, and a fight was arranged in the field behind the school at the end of the day.
The news spread like wild fire, so that when we entered the field of battle we were accompanied by a mob of boys all eager to witness the forthcoming combat. The unwritten rules for fights arranged in this way were as follows:
If you were willing to lose face, you could back down and make humble apologies at any time before the action began. Once combat had begun one could not throw in the towel until blood had been drawn. If clear and obvious damage had been done to one or other of the combatants the fight could end with an admission of defeat. The action would be continuous and no excuses would be accepted as reason to stop or pause. I had some skill and experience in this form of dispute, and within seconds of commencing I knew that my opponent was no match for me. I confess that I felt some pleasure at the thought that I could take my time, avoid anything Derrick could throw at me, and set about teaching him a lesson.
In later years I found I could punch hard and knock an opponent down, but at this stage in my boxing experience I did not try for the KO as they say. Using mainly my straight left I began to damage this rather nice boy I was set against. I bruised his eye, split his lip, and made his nose bleed, and after some time I began to worry about the state he was getting in to. Derrick had on a nice new grey jumper with a red design on the collar, and the blood from his face was making a real mess of it. The problem was that he would not surrender; I even paused between punches to ask him if he had had enough, but his pride and stubbornness would not allow him to admit defeat.
There appeared to be no way out of our dilemma, and it looked very much as though the brave but hapless Derrick might suffer some serious injury if we did not stop soon. Our audience was mesmerised by the whole business and there was no one amongst them capable of halting this impending disaster. I am glad to relate that there was not a nightmare ending, we were saved by a kindly fate, or at least Derrick was saved. On the other side of the field not far away, were a marl hole and a brick works. The fight must have started about 4.30pm, and the work at the brick works must have ended at 5pm. One of the men who had been working within sight of us, having cleaned up and collected his work bag, he headed our way. It was not his usual route, but having seen the crowd of boys, and wondering about the activity and excitement, his curiosity had got the better of him and he decided to find out what was going on. This was a man who had probably seen his share of pub brawls, and hard knocks. However, when he stepped through the crowd and saw the state of Derricks face, he stopped the affair there and then.
Normally a man like the one I describe would have not considered it his business to interfere, especially when it was just two boys having a silly fight. It is certain that he saw it as far more serious than that; his sensible actions probably saving us from further, and serious consequences. I for one was glad that he put an end to it, and I am sure that poor Derrick felt the same way. When we discovered the cause of our dispute, we became friends and I expressed my regret for what had happened. I am sure that Derrick understood why it had occurred, and recognised that I would have had little choice but to respond to an apparent challenge; such was the code under which we lived.
Volume 1 – chapter 12 – Part 2