In 1953, our family moved to the village of Wroxham, seven miles north of Norwich in the Broadland area of Norfolk, due to my father’s work. It was the year of the coronation, and at school we all made cardboard coronation coaches, and were given a commemorative mug. It was also the year of the east coast floods, and my parents would drive us to seaside villages where we would view devastated houses in which lives had been lost.
Aged eight, I was still with the little children, and now in Mrs. Shreeve’s class at Wroxham County Primary School. We recited simple poems, sang simple songs, learnt to spell, and write longer words. I was the new boy in class, and wanted to impress those who had been there forever. It was playtime, and as they gathered round to assess what a boy from the back of beyond was like, I gazed at them intensely and said loudly, “Bugger!”
Some gasped, and there followed a profound silence as they stared at me incredulously. Clearly they realised that I was no little pipsqueak from the middle of nowhere, but a man of words to be reckoned with. And to emphasise my relative sophistication, I looked them in the eye and repeated, “Bugger”. Tom Watson pointed at me and said accusingly, “You said bugger. He said bugger. The new boy said bugger.” A teacher, attracted by the silence and pointing finger, came over to see what was happening. “The new boy said ‘bugger’”, volunteered a freckle-faced lad, as if I had committed an unforgivable sin. “So did Tom”, added another. “He said bugger three times.” “New boy, and Tom. Come with me,” said the teacher, and we traipsed off in the direction of the headmaster’s study. “So, you have been swearing in the playground, have you?”, said Mr. Mattocks, making it a statement rather than a question.
“He said it first,” said Tom. “Children who swear here get the cane,” said the headmaster, reaching up to a shelf and grasping a bamboo rod. Hold out your hands. One stroke apiece, and apart from the shock that it happened at all, largely symbolic and almost a joke. But not at age eight, and no doubt a warning to all who heard about it.
And then the contrast, the unexpected, the almost unthinkable, and from a teacher. It happened a few years later at the grammar school where a new French master arrived. He was different, relaxed and jocular. Mr. Robbins (nickname Marty, after the contemporary pop singer of that name) was known to have several children, when news circulated that his wife had given birth to yet another. At the end of a lesson, he enquired, “Any questions?”, whereupon the boldest of the bold asked nothing concerning cross-Channel verbs, nouns or adjectives, but, “What are you going to call your new child, sir?” Without hesitation, Sir replied, “Little bugger. Same as the others. Class dismissed.”
Conkers, marbles, cigarette cards, paper aeroplanes – everything had its season in the primary school playground. A conker is the seed of the horse chestnut tree, and appeared in autumn. Suspended on string threaded through a hole in the conker, we would take turns to strike each other’s conker until one shattered. After the first victory, it was a oner, and after the second a two-er, and so on. There was no neutral authentication, and those boasting a twenty-er or thirty-er were held in awe by the gullible, and suspicion by the majority. Conkers were sometimes heated in the oven, or soaked in brine overnight; everyone had their method of strengthening their weapon. Marbles was a springtime game, usually played by throwing or rolling one’s marble in an attempt to hit the opponent’s. Cigarette cards (thrown with the intention of landing on, and thereby attaining, ones opponent’s) was another springtime activity; and then some lad would make a paper aeroplane, and within days, the air would be full of them. But in less than a week we became bored with aeroplanes, and it was back to tag, or the next craze.
And the sun kept shining down.