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The High School Years

I probably still hold the record for detention in a single term.

Editor’s note:  This is the second of 2 memories provided by this contributor.  You can read the story of the first ten years of his childhood  in the memory entitled, “A Small Splutter of Memories”.

I also played cricket and somehow developed into a demon fast-bowler causing my election to class captain (there was no school cricket competition) and also causing the other kids to face my bowling from a stance two yards from the leg-stump with bats held out horizontally like fishermen’s rods. They were desperate to get out and I was happy to oblige.

His father’s zealous enthusiasm eventually reaped dividends for Don, not just as a British Lions rugby player, but also as wicket keeper for Tynemouth Cricket club. I admired that but I would have been embarrassed by any such public demonstrations from my own father. I had different aspects of life firmly in separate compartments from an early age.

While I had many friends, my early ‘bread and butter’ mate was Ali Minto, who had lived across the road in Grey Street and moved to the new housing estate just before we did. We attended all schools together and played sport together. Ali was also addicted to cricket-watching and loved score keeping. For Tynemouth’s home matches we would perch for hours on the toilet roof in adjacent Harbottle’s Field which vantage spot gave us a free view of the matches, while Ali meticulously recorded every ball and every run on his score card.

At age twelve I connected with my first girlfriend, who lived in Coburg Street just across from my older cousin Roy (the hen-murderer). Although I knew nothing of it then, this probably produced my first opportunity to observe karmic law in motion. On Saturday evenings Evelyn babysat her toddler brother and because Roy was apparently such a local bastion of respectability my status as his cousin entitled me to enough parental trust to ‘keep Evelyn company’. This was a huge service to me and sufficient to redeem Roy in my eyes, cancelling out his hideous crime in our Grey Street back yard. Had I known it, the philosophy of karma would have presented a satisfying balance.

However, Roy’s legendary respectability was about to be further elevated by his pursuit of a pilot’s license. He left school in the sixth year (aged seventeen or eighteen) in anticipation of a flying career and he was prematurely awarded a prefect’s badge in an assembly hall ceremony with a spray of praise and acclaim by Pop Smedley. Roy, it seemed, was on the verge of becoming one of Britain’s youngest qualified pilots. It’s only my later experiences in India that prod the idea of karma-interventions when his aspirations sadly collapsed on a final eyesight evaluation.

My own life was now proceeding in four sections. There was constant sport and play with a growing group of friends around the estate, including soccer and cricket on the turf strip alongside the Coast Road and on fields at Heaton Terrace and Norham Road. Alternatively there were game get-togethers with schoolmates. There were regular dates with Evelyn and there was time at home (meals and late evenings only, unless weather dictated otherwise).

Home was actually very relaxed, with a dog, cat and budgie to satisfy my non-human affinities and a small rented black and white television as the focus of our communal lounging about. I was never averse to lounging about but the great outdoors held many attractions. I loved sport, movies and spending time with Evelyn.

To Mam duty was probably too demanding and regrettably we took her for granted with little obvious appreciation as she laboured to keep us all fed and presentable in a clean, comfortable environment. She belatedly acquired a vacuum cleaner and it was much later still that she was blessed with a labour-devouring washing machine, finally releasing her from the tyranny of posser-pounding. The rented television was never upgraded and she never graduated to the luxury-level of a fridge or phone. (To this day I feel scorn for kids apparently wallowing in superfluous gadgets and possessions.)

From my perspective back then life was full and satisfying – except for a growing disenchantment with schoolwork and classrooms. I won’t attempt to analyse it. I just wanted to spend my time in ways that I enjoyed. I applied simple criteria to schoolwork. Will studying this prove really useful to me? Will I enjoy it? For example, I never really cared where tea-plantations thrived if tea remained available in the local shops. I was always confident of handling the supermarket budget without the use of algebra. I didn’t ponder the mysteries of electricity if the lights and telly worked without any input from me. I was never going to be a handy-man. (In adult life I still passed into instant-coma when a car bonnet was opened and I could usually avoid that since so many others seemed mysteriously enraptured by engines.)

At King Edward Boys School, based upon annual exams, I was usually in the top four of about a hundred boys each year. At the High School my interest just drained away. I fell in with a few other drifters and played truant. A lot!! I did more wagging than a labrador’s tail. I also became resistant to authority. For a period I probably trespassed onto arrogant brat territory. (Much later in life I wrote a novel largely based upon the High School period. It produced serious interest by some mainstream publishers including Penguin Books but wasn’t finally taken up, mainly because I didn’t have an established marketable name.

I became very ‘anti-authority’ and developed an urge for baiting prefects. I probably still hold the record for detentions in a single term. I was a rebel-without a cause before James Dean made it trendy.

Along the way, our lovable mutt Monty ended his free-roaming days by straying on to the Coast Road. I was given the grim news by a friend but Monty was beyond repair when I arrived. I paced in deep agitation waiting for the RSPCA van. They took his broken body, but my broken heart stayed with me.

Later, I fell into the same folly. It was the school’s swimming gala day at Tynemouth Pool and three of us were crossing the turf toward the Coast Road bus stop when the bus appeared in the distance. As the fastest runner I raced ahead intent on holding the bus for the others. There was no barrier back then and I was too focussed to be cautious. The car was already braking as I plunged onto the road. It threw me in a long arc for about twenty yards and then stopped before reaching me again. A policeman was in the vicinity and arrived as I struggled groggily to my feet, spluttering apologies and exonerating the shocked driver. I wanted to go on, but the policeman escorted me home where I commandeered the toilet and threw up before gradually recovering. Mam firmly resisted my pleas to resume my trip to the gala ignoring my dark mutterings about parental-injustice. Initially, I probably felt more foolish than hurt, but adolescent fantasy soon brushed my recall with appropriate bravado. Bruises were badges-of-honour in the schoolyard.

‘Wor Dad’ was now just ‘Da’. He smoked full strength unfiltered Capstan cigarettes, at least twenty a day. He was generally easy-going and lived by the prevalent domestic code: men went to work and women ‘kept house’. He was only prone to be cranky when wallpaper changing came around, but he approached it with the perfectionism (and sensitivity) of a supreme artist. At least twice he had to be pulled unconscious from the underground gas-leaks he was trying to plug. On Fridays he always handed mam his unopened pay packet, from which she returned his allocated spending money. He
treated Friday night trips to Brough Park greyhound races as sacrosanct and I took to tagging along since I already had a taste for gambling. He was a good Dad. He never raised his hand and he was an unsung hero.

Mam was the home builder, preserver, toiler and soul-centre, definitely deserving of the collective appreciation so rarely articulated. I only hope she knew. Joan was a great asset too, a bright, bubbly, attractive little girl who won hearts without trying.

Derek had shown good skill at drawing and had even received qualified praise from the local council in the form of a note advising: ‘This boy has talent. He should be encouraged to draw – but not in our rent book’. At age fifteen he left Linskill School to pursue girls and life as an able seaman in the Merchant Navy creating a little welcome space around the gas fire for the rest of us. (I was still waiting for winter to be abolished.)

My truancy continued unabated, slightly camouflaged by a system permitting me to register as present (fixed registration-classroom) before simply walking off the school premises and also helped by evolving indifference by teachers as I entrenched myself in avoidance techniques. I refused to be confined or indoctrinated and from ‘normal’ perspective I probably adhered strictly to the ‘How-Not-To-Do-It’ manual. Yet I wasn’t a ‘bad’ kid. I hated injustice, supported ‘under-dogs’ and loved animals. Perhaps something of an enigma, if I were to think about it.

A disaster befell Derek at age seventeen. He was given the job of securing his ship by hawser rope to the dock. Something went wrong and his right hand fingers were severed. (He lost three and the fourth was hanging off but later re-attached at the hospital.)

There was an element of neglect involved and he was subsequently awarded compensation of £3,000, but the claims-court decreed that the money be held in Government bonds until he reached twenty-one. At the time the bond market was in steady decline. A Parliamentary protest through local member Dame Irene Ward was brushed aside. Derek eventually cashed in the bonds for only £2,000 a third of his modest compensation effectively eliminated by an obviously stupid system. Derek gradually put his life back together, regardless.

The nasty accident caused me to ponder my own cavalier approach to life. I was in my final year at school (since I had no interest in extending my ‘formal education’). It occurred to me that I should make an effort to justify myself so I committed myself to a month of serious swotting before the ‘mock’ O-Level exams, and again before the actual O-Level exams. This proved sufficient to secure a respectable number of O-Levels and also relieved me of the guilt I probably deserved.

The end-of-year (prize-giving) ceremony was held at the Tynemouth Plaza building. Pop Smedley spoke emotionally about opportunities and responsibilities looming for the school leavers. Afterward, on a clear, star-spangled night post-carding Tynemouth, a group of us walked along the beach intoxicated with the sense of freedom as we crossed the invisible border into ‘adulthood’ (as we perceived it).

I knew, of course that I’d have to get a job and start paying ‘board’. But I was also aware that the sinister spectre of National Service at eighteen would be lurking in the wings.

I was ready to swim with the tide.

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