Genesis To Revolutions

The Australian aboriginals, Bruce Chatwin informs us in his book Songlines, tell stories from the Dreamtime, a time of birth and awakening, a myth of creation, the origin of their race.
Perhaps we too, the English, have our own Dreamtime, a time from which stems all our ingrained awareness of what we believe ourselves to be. A golden age of eternal summer, warmth, fellowship and all the lost elements of our social infrastructure that we secretly pine for, while continuing along the slippery path to ruin and despair, unable to help ourselves, and unwilling to accept responsibility for the mess we have collectively made of our modern society.
There is a period in the history of our people, roughly definable as between the wars, to which we constantly hark back, both in our hearts and through the various mediums of film, print, and popular music. The advertising industry in particular, geared as it is to finding our most sensitive spots, offers us images of the inter-war years in which cloth-capped youngsters wheel delivery bikes up steep, cobbled, northern streets, happy families gather round Bakelite radios, and sentimental soldiers croon over their beer in railway buffets that echo to the beat of steam locomotives. The whole theme is nostalgically presented as the good old days, when you could leave your door unlocked, a pint of beer was tuppence-ha'penny and God still seemed to have every intention of saving the King. Nowhere in this picture do we see the destitution, hunger and misery that are so well documented elsewhere. If we are to accept - and who can doubt the authority of the Admen - that this is indeed the English Dreamtime, can we also assume that the native Australians have been similarly selective in their folk memories?
This Dreamtime of ours is summed up for me in the railway photographs of Ivo Peters, who spent his life at the lineside, but whose heart belonged to our own Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, the broken remnants of which straddle the two counties and provide for the people of the West Country not only a poignant reminder of the golden age of steam, shirehorses and Wills cigarettes, but also a visible songline that will lead them, if they only chose to follow, to the very heart of their own Cider Dreaming Time.

lI. Little bits of Franz and Laurie

I am an Englishman, a fact I am neither unduly proud, nor ashamed of, but one that I have grown comfortable with in the face of the overwhelming denials and condemnations of many born under the same flag. Questions arise, when travelling among the politically aware of other European countries and from Dutch Anarchists in particular, along the lines of "Ahh, you English! Why do you not take your soldiers from out of Ireland?" To which a chap can only answer to the effect that he has no soldiers of his own, but that if he did, they would most certainly be employed more usefully in doing his laundry, or some other menial task, than embroiling themselves in conflicts of such an emotive and controversial nature. It is the misfortune of our current generation to be tangled up in the last throes of a dying empire, and to be held responsible, like our German geschwestern, for the sins of our forefathers without having the necessary global clout to shrug off the accusations. One day it will happen to the Americans, just as it has happened to the Russians, and to countless other races down the ages, who were cock of the walk for their fifteen minutes before declining and falling into antiquity and ruin.

Our family name is Hatcher, a name that has apparently been in the West Country for centuries, which fact gives rise to two possible interpretations of the family's history.

Colin, who has delved into the past through a variety of different means, claims that we are descended from one Ghilbert De Haace, a knight of the Temple, who is recorded in a Templar census of 1123 as owning large estates in Essex. He cites our birthplace, Templecombe - sight of a former Templar lodge - as proof of this connection, along with a bewildering collection of coincidences and circumstantial evidence gleaned from books, archives and consultations with mediums. That someone, possibly the Essex man Ghilbert, brought the name to Somerset is evident in the many villages in the area that carry the suffix Hatch; Coney Hatch, Nunney Hatch and others, unless the phonetic resemblance is merely coincidental, and these settlements took their names as a result of proximity to gateways - or hatches - in the enclosed parklands. If this is the case, the name Hatcher could be no more illustrious than Smith, or Baker, indicating a professional connection, in this instance as a keeper of the royal gates.

Knights or gatekeepers? Bearers of arms or wearers of livery? This provides a dilemma, heightened by the contrast between, on the one hand my brother's kingly bearing, and on the other, my bow-legged, loping peasants gait.

My father, Ronald Arthur Charles Hatcher, grew up in Templecombe with his five older sisters, in a house conveniently next door to the maternity hospital. My German friends ask me why the British seem to choose so many names - Father's parents were christened respectively Herbert Edward Charles Hatcher and Violet Louisa Maud Carpenter, doubtless in deference to both family and prevailing royalty. To a forthright people, such dynastic concerns are merely confusing. My own siblings were variously named after sporting personalities, Enid Blyton characters, or my eldest sister's boyfriends. The odd family tribute crept in, but I don't believe there is a single royal amongst us. My parents, though scarcely republican, had few ambitions in this direction.
Herbert Edward Charles, known as Charlie to his peers and Grampfy Hatcher to his sprawling descendants, was an immensely tall, cheerful man, and much respected in the village. He was a railwayman for most of his life, initially in the C&W shops at Templecombe Upper, and latterly a porter. After retiring from the railway, he worked part-time on a local pheasant farm, which cheered us grandchildren no end. Our father, we were able to gleefully confide was a pheasant plucker's son.

Violet Louisa Maud Hatcher, nee Carpenter, a woman of unusual energy, seems to have set about the task of amassing descendants with considerable vigour, and notable success. Her six children all had children. These in turn went forth and multiplied, and their children in turn continue to come up with the goods. Unique among many, until her death at a venerable age she sat, not unlike the Queen Mother, at the centre of a vast web of family, with her cat - inevitably large, black, and contented - keeping one eye on the 2.30 at Newmarket and the other on the next generation. The railway came and has gone. The hospital closed and the village itself is changed beyond all recognition. Only the gnomes in Gran's garden were the same ones that so terrified my brother Colin nearly forty years ago.

Father loved the railway, applying himself with skill and dedication to all the tasks he was allotted. Starting in 1943, carrying heavy cans of grease through the blackout, he rose to become an engineman, working heavy freights and top link passenger trains over the difficult terrain of the Somerset & Dorset. When 'the runaway train came down the track,' we used to sing in school, 'she blew.' When the runaway train came down the track out of the Mendips, as was frequently the case, standard practice was not only to blow, but to hang on for dear life until the train was eventually brought to a halt half a mile or so past Evercreech Junction. On the footplate of a 7F, whose small driving wheels were ideally suited to climbing steep gradients, these unorthodox descents were hair-raising to a degree unimaginable in our modern age of fully fitted air and vacuum brakes.

Likewise the narrow bore tunnels on the way up out of Bath. As the heavy locomotive ground its way at walking pace into the burrow, the crew would wrap scarves round their faces and lie on the floor as the exhaust engulfed the entire train. These hazards, and others, were my father's daily lot, until circumstances caused him to leave the railway in 1958.

Father was a public-spirited man, and possessed a sense of honour which, shy of publicity, would break out in a spontaneous burst of generosity when need arose. He was a volunteer ambulance man with the red cross for many years, which gave rise to a dusty black telephone that lurked on the window sill and occasionally shrieked in summons to an emergency. Defying regulations from time to time, I would experimentally pick up the receiver and listen to the deep humming silence. Telephones were rare, unique instruments, otherwise, that lurked in red cubicles, steeped in urine, with buttons marked A and B. Another mystery from Father's public life was the itchy-looking black serge uniform that hung abandoned in a cupboard upstairs. This pertained to something referred to as 'Sivelldy-Fence,' about which I knew nothing, but which seems to have been some kind of cold war militia. Where they went, and what they did I can't imagine. The Civil Defence uniform - which included a black beret with a badge that looked like one of Monty's - vanished some time before I became fashion conscious and was able to claim it for my punk rock wardrobe.

Father was also a cricketer, a bowler of some guile who was able to rise to any occasion and deliver whatever was necessary to dismiss each errant batsman. Pace, spin, bodyline; all could be called on to order. His first two sons were named after cricketers - my brother after Colin Cowdrey, and myself after Gary Sobers. Some would have it that Gary Player, the golfer, gave me my name, but I know better and will have no truck with golf. Father had caps for the village teams of Templecombe and Castle Cary. That he both spent fifteen years working on a real railway, and played on the county ground at Taunton are achievements and experiences that I cannot hope to equal. That he also played his part in raising six unorthodox children is entirely due to the collaboration of one Jocelyn Marjory Hatcher, nee Howard. My mother.

My parents were married in 1955. A photograph taken at the time shows them at the window of the Atlantic Coast Express, embarking on honeymoon to Brighton, in which they look like a couple of movie stars. Mother is a young Judy Garland, while Father is something slick out of Pinewood or Ealing. Father went a-courting on his bicycle, riding the nine miles or so to Castle Cary to visit his fiancée and to drink with her father, Albert Howard, in the White Hart. He would stay over, sharing a bed with Albert, while the ladies would retire to the other bedroom to lie trembling as the report of each fresh cider-fuelled fart shattered the stillness of the night. A rapport seems to have been established between the two men, spanning the gulf between not only two villages, but also the rival railway companies whose lengthy pre-1948 shadows they both worked under.

Mother tells us warm hearted stories of growing up in wartime England. Of the cottage at the top of Woodcock Street where she lived with her mother, father, sister Norma and half-sister Beryl; of the picture house in the old town hall, where the family would send her as often as possible, pooling their change to get her out of the house and leave them more room around the fire. Mother was always willing, seeing 'Gone With The Wind' seven nights on the trot and still going back for more. When the village filled up with American soldiers in 1944, she purloined a lock of her elder sister's hair, which she sold to the big black sergeant, directing traffic across the nearby road junction, who kept it in his breast pocket to my mother's secret amusement, and the red-headed Norma's unwitting puzzlement, each time the soldier flashed her a smile.

Albert Howard, named for the Victorian prince consort, was so distinguished as to die for his country. Both Castle Cary and Templecombe received bomb hits during the war. Templecombe because of its strategic railway yards, and Castle Cary because some German pilot, confused and unable to find Bristol, decided to jettison his bomb load on the nearest important looking target and head for home as fast as possible. This proved to be Castle Cary station, which received direct hits upon its signalbox and upon the goods shed, where Albert should have been earning his daily bread. Legend has it that he was skiving at the time of the assault, telling dirty jokes to the porters at the other end of the yard, and was fortunate enough to witness his own demise from the shelter of a coal wagon at a safe distance.

The harsh realities of war must have taken even longer than the dictates of fashion to find its way into the tal des anhunglosen in which Somerset sits serene. When the aeroplane flew in low over the town centre, the excited children ran out into the streets to wave and cheer, unmindful of either the pilot's wicked intentions, or the curses of the ARP warden who shouted in vain for them to take cover beneath the nearest flight of stairs. On hearing the news of Albert's assumed death, my mother was so impressed that she rushed off to boast to her friends that her dad had been killed by the Germans.

Far from falling victim to Nazi depredations, Albert Howard survived into an eccentric old age, fortified by cider and the companionship of the White Hart's public bar. Serving as a stoker in the Navy during the first world war, he had gone on to become a cabinet maker, and then to drive a lorry for the Great Western Railway, distributing animal feed and other goods to the farms and factories in the area. During holidays, my mother would often accompany him on his rounds, watching with growing apprehension as he gratefully accepted the proffered jug of cider at each point of call. Towards mid-afternoon, fully refreshed and brimming with good will, he would sit his daughter between his knees and make her steer the lumbering behemoth, white knuckled and terrified, while he worked the pedals and roared with laughter. Mother never owned to her terror, not wishing to spoil her father's fun, neither did she subsequently make any attempt to learn to drive, but there was one aspect of her father's character that seems to have left its mark and was doubtless responsible for the pictures of Josef Stalin pinned in her desk alongside the Hollywood greats.

Albert, a man of many interesting parts - most of which I find myself in sympathy with - played the trombone, earned a lance corporal's stripe in the local Home Guard, but was known chiefly as a man of solid socialist principals. The still-feudal community of Castle Cary was shocked when it learned that 'Albie Howard threw that Avalon's Don out of his house with a piece of his mind.' Don was the owner of the Avalon furniture factory to which Albert was, that day, supposed to be delivering a lorryload of horsehair. Lunchtime arrived. Albert quite rightly drew stumps and knocked off for his dinner, leaving the hairy cargo waiting in the street outside. Don, who must have been the very image of a wicked Tory factory owner to my grandfather's way of thinking, burst into the cottage and wrathfully demanded to know why his delivery hadn't arrived.
"Get out of my house Don!" stormed Albert. "And don't you ever dare enter my door uninvited again! Your stuff's out in my lorry, and there it can 'bide 'til I've finished my dinner". Albert had no time for rank or privilege. Whether or not Don ever got his revenge I don't know, but in recent years the factory has closed, erasing the name Avalon from the hearts and minds of all but the most callow newcomers to the district, who labour under the illusion that Avalon is a mystic vale, and Glastonbury more than just a funny lump on the horizon. Mother, when questioned about Stalin's inscrutable presence - only discovered to the horror of teaching staff when she had left both school and desk behind - maintains that it was only his moustache that captured her interest. We can be thankful that other prominent whiskers on the contemporaneous political stage did not have a similar effect.

Albert Howard married Mabel Alice Sweet, known as Sis to her legion of brothers. Sis was a scullery maid at the vicarage until the cook dropped dead one day. Receiving promotion on the spot, the frightened ten year old, in awe of her new responsibilities, and the prospect of damnation for serving the vicar with undercooked vegetables, fled home in tears, only to have her ears boxed by her mother, who sent her back forthwith to discharge her duties.

My parents set up home, initially, in Templecombe, where they began to raise a family. First to arrive was Beverley Anne, named after an American tennis player who had had the good fortune to win the Wimbledon title that year. Beverley was an athlete at school, and inherited our parent's sense of justice. On becoming a prefect she shocked her peers by refusing to indulge herself in the traditional senior pastimes of blackmail and tormenting the meek and lowly. When Beverley left home at sixteen to become a nurse at Yeovil hospital, I was still too young to fully appreciate that we would all - theoretically - grow up one day, and her departure left a void which may well have been responsible for drawing my brother and I closer together.

This brother was Colin Ronald Hatcher, born, like his sister, at Templecombe maternity hospital. Colin was bald as a coot for his first two years, and possessed an unnaturally large head, which, to my mother's relief, the rest of his body caught up with in time. Colin was the close companion of my early years, and never tried to leave me out of anything, until an early maturity led him astray, and he discovered girls. We shared many common interests, birds and beasts, newts, and especially plastic military hardware, which littered our bedroom and whose Humbrol paintjobs bespattered everything in our path. The room we shared was almost entirely filled by our two huge double beds, which formed a padded dojo floor upon which we would wrestle, bounce, and play endless games of bedball. The ceiling was invisible beneath a hanging cloud of Airfix aeroplanes and the whole was as a shrine to the pointless fetishes of boyhood. One ritual would mark our nightly passage to bed. Before retiring we would have a competition to decide who should turn out the light and get into bed in the dark, risking the wrath of mummies, vampires and our old enemy, the Black Skeleton. Taking station either side of the toilet bowl, we would pass water, and whoever sustained either the longest or the most powerful jet, would win, and so be spared the ordeal of darkness. Colin, by pulling rank, inevitably dictated which of these categories was to decide the event, and always after we had finished, so I was never able to clinch victory and invariably ended up running the gauntlet. How or why I was spared, I do not know, but can only assume that fate has something more dreadful up its sleeve for me than those lurking demons. If this be so, I shall know where to turn, for my brother has guarded and protected me all my life, and I choose to believe that it is out of something more than the guilt he must feel after hurling me nightly into the jaws of the Black Skeleton and his gang.

By the time I turned up Father had left the railway, and the family had moved to Castle Cary, but I was born, unabridged and unappealing, in my grandmother's house in Templecombe, the proximity of which to the hospital provided my mother with a convenient private ward. Two events marked my passing into this world. Firstly my mother's waters broke with such surprising ferocity that the midwife was drenched and the chimney breast so badly soaked that it required repapering. Secondly, Beverley, who had set her heart on a baby sister (to be named Kimberley) was so moved by the news of my arrival that she wet herself with rage, and that was why the new world that I had carefully prepared to receive me, with such a liberal sprinkling from the bath of birth, instead of being fragrant with the sweet, comforting odour of the womb, was tainted with the scent of warm knickers, drying on the fireguard below.

Back in Castle Cary, Beverley avenged my birth by assuring me that the weather cock on the church steeple was imbued with supernatural powers, and that it thirsted for my blood. Mother never did trace the source of my nightmares, while Beverley was unjustly rewarded with two little sisters, the first of whom, Patricia Helen, was born in Yeovil hospital when I was four years old. Patsy, lacking my sophisticated pre-birth preparations, came into the world with a protruding belly button, over which Mother was obliged to tape a penny, until it had learned to stay in place. Named after Pat Smyth, the show jumper, Patsy has a photograph of herself chatting to Bruce Foxton, taken during a soundcheck at the Royal Bath and West showground, when the band she was in supported the Jam. Currently the mother of my godson, Patsy is the reason we must all scour charity shops and market stalls in search of early editions of Enid Blyton, whose works are her consuming passion.

There must have been a mix-up with identities, as Patsy failed to draw the horsey gene that her namesake requires. This went instead to Lucy-Ann - our own sweet Lucy - who in the same blunder was named after a character from the books of Patsy's literary guru. In matters of horsiness, Lucy was all that a little girl should be, riding, jumping, curry-combing, and following in Albert Howard's footsteps after the local hunt, although Albert always turned back at the end of the street once he'd filled his bucket with horse shit for his roses. Thereafter her interest in sugar and spice and all things nice ended. Somewhere along the line she learned to kick like a mule and curse like a trooper. Sent home from Ansford in disgrace one day for blackening the eye of an antagonist, while disputing this individual's right to inflict torture upon the lower orders, Lucy was in fear of our father's wrath - a seldom seen, but long taken for granted, figment of our childhood imagination.

"How did you hit this girl?" our father inquired.
"Like this," replied Lucy, her clenched fist describing an arc through the air.
"Well next time punch straight," he advised paternally. "You'll do more damage."

Last in our line comes Jeremy Howard Martin, in whom the tradition of multiple titles was revived thanks to Beverley, who was not content with merely scrawling her boyfriend's name on a toilet wall, but chose instead to enshrine it in sinful flesh. It could so easily have been worse, a fact for which Jeremy has learned to be grateful.

My younger brother and I have travelled far in the pursuit of trains, and one bright afternoon found us rattling across the Hungerford bridge in a 4-EPB unit, inbound for Charing Cross. The sun glinted on the water and struck motes from the towers and spires of London town. There, spread out seemingly at our feet, was the whole glorious pageant of the capital's history: the dome of St Paul's and the glass skyscrapers of the City mile; the bloody tower and the traitor's gate; Tower Bridge, looming over the wharves and stews of Southwark; and the majesty of the Thames itself, leading down in a silver stripe to that ancient seat of democracy, the houses of parliament, where noblest of all, tall and proud, stands the most famous and venerable of London's landmarks. The tower of Big Ben.

"Oh look," said Jeremy, "There's that clock."

There was a hymn we sang in school.

All things that live below the sky
Or move within the sea
Are creatures of the Lord most high
And brothers unto me

Actually, to me they weren't brothers at all. They were fair game, to be picked up, poked, molested, imprisoned in jamjars with nothing to eat but grass, and generally annoyed. I was the would-be friend and witless foe of all things that crept, crawled or swam, with a particular fondness for freshwater aquatica. Newts at one time meant more to me than railway engines, and I have personally overseen the failure to mature of more larvae of more species than have yet been officially recorded. First among my few successes were the omnipresent cabbage white butterflies, whose ill-favoured young were dubbed 'jobby caterpillars,' as a tribute to their incessant bowel movements. These ghastly creatures ran riot across the local brassica and boasted a hardihood that defied even the most terrible confinement.

A mile or so outside town lay the relics of Dimmer army camp, wherein a battalion of Green Howards had spent the war, blissfully unaware of Albert, the Red Howard, who occasionally stalked their perimeter in search of rabbits. Colin and I searched these ruins for more exotic fauna, in particular the large open cisterns in which all manner of creatures bred, and which were particularly noted for the quality of their newts. Many ingenious methods were devised for their further entrapment. Nets extended with chimney-rods to penetrate further into the depths; bridges were contrived and bottles hurled into the void to gather samples of silt from the tank's bottom, which were then hauled up and their contents examined under a microscope. While we busied ourselves in this scientific fashion, our fellows would be dismembering their prey with penknives. We would raise a disinterested eyebrow, mutter "Triturus Vulgaris" and return to our lofty pursuits.

Birds were Colin's chief interest and much blood and sweat was expended in pursuit of elusive breeds and unreachable nests. Many hours were spent attempting to trap starlings under a wire basket, for no good reason, and Big Chief I-Spy was kept abreast of the local wildfowl population - one moorhen and the village swans, when these weren't dying from the local youth's air gun pellets - with a constant stream of unanswered correspondence.

How golden are the days of our childhood? How easy is it, looking back at the long lost days of carefree youth, to forget what it was really like at the time, what it really meant to be a child:, tossed on an incomprehensible sea of other people's whims, and powerless to resist the forces which hurled you backwards and forwards between the opposing extremes of emotional experience; the twin houses of childhood; the yin and the yang; the dark and the light; holidays and school......

The long hazy days of the summer break would unroll in a dusty cloud of greens and browns, swallows and martins, and cool green weedy ponds. Relaxed and unhurried at first, the weeks would gather pace until the first nagging hints that autumn was drawing close would turn into the shadow of the guillotine, and grow larger, deeper and darker, until we would be called in one last time from the midge-spotted twilight to take a bath, "because you've got to go to school tomorrow." Thus it was that my childhood was divided into alternating little segments of Laurie Lee - the warm drowsy timelessness of rural England in mid August - and Franz Kafka - the village primary school, not bright enough for Cider with Rosie, nor dark enough for Peake or Poe. Neither good nor evil, but like the jumbled corridors of Kafka's disturbing imagination, merely long-winded and difficult to understand. I was never in my element at school. I wasn't a brilliant scholar, neither was I a dunce, but it was this very mediocrity that made of the whole experience a gigantic intermission, a place outside of time in which I had to sit and wait, yawning with boredom, or fidgeting with feverish itchiness, until all the sand had passed through the hourglass, until all petty obstacles had been surmounted, and all the pointless tasks carried out.
Little bits of Franz. Nothing and nowhere smells like school. A unique mixture of chalk, wax, sweat, pencils and naked fear. Walking, a free man, through school premises two decades later, the same smell evokes the same nameless dread of the unknown. Of sudden unexpected reprimands, unreasonable expectations and strange punishments from the omnipotent authorities, and the sly hidden cruelties that have to be tolerated, day to day, from the enemy within. No other smell can evoke such powerful dread, awaken such restless, unavenged memories, or such sickening relief in the knowledge that tomorrow and forever, I do not have to go to school.

Little bits of Laurie. In the rising of the sun, the running of the deer, and the playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

Little bits of Franz. Hymn practice on Friday mornings. For one hour every week, the top three classes at the village primary school would be obliged to remain behind after morning assembly and learn the hymns that were to be sung the following week. To the brash accompaniment of Mr Rice, bulldog-jowled, pounding the school piano in his inevitable crimson sleeveless cardigan, we would wheeze and groan our way through verse after verse of paen and praise, alternatively beseeching our Redeemer for further favours, or thanking the Maker for all his bounty. The boys, without exception, droned like hungover jackdaws, while the girls sang like angels. I still remember all those hymns, many of them triumphantly beautiful, others intolerably wretched. Thine arm o Lord in days of old was a stately dirge, Soldiers of Christ arise, and Stand up stand up for Jesus were stirring enough to strike a spark from even the dullest clod in class six, while In our work and in our play was just a tuneless sycophantic drone that I'm sure must have grated upon the ears of our patient Saviour nearly as much as it did on mine.

Anything too full of meekness and mildness filled me with revulsion, and references to some mysterious entity known as The Lamb disgusted me in particular. Having only the sketchiest knowledge of religious matters, the constant arrival of new characters in the hymnal only made things worse: the Lamb; the Holy Ghost; the Redeemer King; the Holy Virgin - to our uneducated minds, these names meant nothing. Many of the words we'd never even heard before, and thus on being required to sing All glory laud and honour to thee redeemer King. To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring, we could only wonder, as we articulated the required sounds, who on earth Hosanna was, and why he had a ring. 'Laud' we had no idea about whatsoever, but when In the beauty of the lilies Christ was borne across the sea, we were delighted to learn that it was With a glory in his bosom that transfigured you and me. 'Bosom' was a word we had vague notions about, and excited considerably more interest in our youthful breasts.

If we, as children, had any vested interest in the intervention of the 'guardian hand to protect us from anything, then it was from the ready wrath of Mr Rice, rather than the machinations of Beelzebub. As the senior member of staff, and a fixture of the school more permanent, it seemed, than the foundations themselves, he commanded a respect not unadjacent to terror from those who had the misfortune to fall foul of him. Though doubtless a fair man and a fine teacher, this was not apparent to any unruly brute caught talking in the back row, who would be swiftly and terribly sentenced to sing a halting embarrassed solo to the morbid, dumbstruck amusement of the rest of the choir. Mr Rice tackled the piano with gusto, and the fervour with which he hammered out the introduction to Hills of the North rejoice never failed to raise a secret smile.

One of the few opportunities to redress the balance came whenever we rehearsed When a knight won his spurs.

Though back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead

Mr Rice would rage at our pronunciation. "DraGONs", he would roar, "DraGONs - there is no such word as "DraGINs! DraGONs! DraGONs!" To which a hundred or so youthful throats would rejoin:

Though back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the draGONs are dead.

Little bits of Laurie. We ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on the land.

Little bits of Franz. Once a year we would be required to bring a tin of beans or a cauliflower to school for something called Harvest Festival. No one ever bothered to explain why - perhaps they assumed the church calendar had been mapped out in our hearts from birth. Perhaps they thought our parents would explain, or perhaps they didn't know themselves. We never bothered to ask why. We didn't care, having very little curiosity beyond the need to know how Batman and Robin would escape from their latest tribulations, or whether or not Captain Scarlet was going to snog Rhapsody Angel. As far as we were concerned, the farmers could take care of themselves. Likewise the fishermen, who, we were annually reminded, were at sea in something called 'peril,' which I imagined to be some kind of a boat.

Little bits of Franz, little bits of Laurie. Sometimes even little bits of Torquemada. The apparatus - that strange and terrible collection of fold-away gymnastic equipment, consisting of bars and benches upon which hapless children were stretched and hung, and then compelled to pack away after each tortured session. The very name belongs in the realm of gothic horror, along with the strappado and the oubliette. No dentist, coaxing an unwilling child into his chair, could conjure up such visions of trauma and torment as that word implies.

But it's a word that belongs exclusively to primary school. Apparatus for the over twelves become bars and beams, just as P.E. becomes games, and sums become mathematics. One day apparatus will become accepted as an Olympic sport. The Russians will cheat, Ireland will win the gold medal, and the Americans will be disqualified for putting it away incorrectly. Be that as it may, I survived both the apparatus and the beastly dufflecoat, seemingly fashioned from solid timbers, that I was occasionally forced to wear, and went on to my secondary education, full of on the one hand hope and excitement at the prospect of new surroundings, and on the other, dread at the thought of being dropped back in at the bottom of the pile. Terror stalked the future, but it was a terror that could be put aside for a few weeks. The summer holiday began again, and with it life was renewed, the corridors of Franz's castle temporarily left behind.

Sexey's grammar school, Bruton, a motley collection of buildings old and new, was founded before the ark by one Hugh Sexey, who should have had more sense than to have built his school on a road named Lusty Hill, a fact that was keen ammunition in the hands of our detractors, and once caused a ripple of amusement round the back benches when the House's attention was drawn to a party of its pupils in the visitor's gallery. Bruton, famous in folksong for the misfortunes of a farmer's daughter (now there's a surprise), consists of six schools, several old people's homes, a golf course, and a handful of tumble-down properties that house those neither on the threshold of life, nor yet in their dotage. Uncharitable though it may seem to apply the word 'dump' to a town of historic beauty, that boasts not only one of the most magnificent Anglican churches in East Somerset, but also a street named Plox, this was the impression one received from the school bus, as it made its way homeward via the spiralling one-way system that provided a daily grand tour of all the town's finest and most durable landmarks.

Bruton takes its name from the river Brue, which modest body of water has somehow carved a deep valley through the hills immediately to the North of Sexey's school, giving that establishment a fine view of the railway line that follows its course, and a cross-country route that would tax the efforts of the Royal Marines, blessed as it is with enough gradients, fords and tributary ditches to please the most bloody-minded games master. The Brue is probably the only thing ever to have made an impression on Bruton, apart from Hugh Sexey, whose alleged philanthropy and cash didn't run out on Lusty Hill, but spread its bounty about the town in a series of hospices and public works.

Sexey's was proud of its tradition, and cherished pretensions accordingly. Gowned masters stalked its precincts, and on special occasions even the odd mortarboard would pop up. One third of the pupils were boarders, who initially formed one of three houses, named East, West and Cliff. It only took about three hundred years for the powers that be to realise that the boarders of Cliff House, with nothing better to do of an evening than to transform themselves into athletic supermen, inevitably won all the inter-house sporting trophies, making a mockery of competition. Only after they had won the quaintly titled Bint Shield for the fortieth year running did reform take place. Of the boarders after-school activities, beyond pack-drill and the lash, I know nothing. They remained, on the whole, aloof, and the dark rumours of terrible rituals involving sheep's skulls and chocolate digestives were doubtless put about by those jealous of their sporting prowess. Of the long-contested Bint shield, I only know that it was presented in the dark ages by the Bint family, which has had sons in the boarding house as long as it has existed. My own family boasted a similar reputation at Castle Cary County Primary. On the morning of his last day there, brother Jeremy, youngest scion of the house of Hatcher, was named in school assembly and called to the fore. Expecting some dreadful exposure and dire punishment - "I was shitting myself," he later recalled - he trudged the length of the hall and waited for the axe to drop.

"For twenty-five years", the headmaster informed the breathless assembly, "there has been a Hatcher at this school. Today marks the passing of an era." Jeremy's sphincter relaxed, to thunderous applause.

To my satisfaction I am able to boast of a classical education, although only just, and precious little of it has stuck. For two years I laboured at Latin, in an ancient tiered classroom called The Classic's Room, under the Reverend Barker, a delightful man, as ready to discuss model railways or tell ghost stories as he was to enlarge upon the unfathomable mysteries of the ablative. I soon discovered that I had no gift for tongues, and the mysteries of a language that had no definite article, and in which one was expected to address a table in the vocative case - Table! O Table! - were too deep for me.

Older than the Reverend Barker himself, were the Latin textbooks. The approach to Latin was a title that lent itself readily to modification. Fully 80% of these scholarly tomes, having passed down from year to tear, class to class, and Bint to Bint, were now called The approach to Eating, victims of the listless biros of generations of bored pueri.

After two years spent establishing the fact that 'Sextus is a boy', I gave up Latin and took up Ancient History and German. German confounded me, and still does, but Ancient History got off to a flying start. First up were the Punic wars, and the absolute trashing of Hannibal and the Carthaginians by Scipio and his cohorts. "What ho! This is good stuff!" we told ourselves, and plunged gleefully into accounts of the Gracchus brothers and their murder and lynching at the hands of the mob. "Hurrah!" we cheered as Tiberias was dragged through the streets of Rome on a hook. Our bloodlust led us through the depredations of Marius and Sulla, with tales of proscription lists, slaves fed to the lamprey, and sinful vestals buried alive. Triumvirates and Caesars we lapped up, and all would have been well, and the O-level as good as in the bag if we hadn't, with two years of the course to go, come up against Cicero, which blasted pedant crushed our youthful spirits with his reams of oratory and caused our wrists to cramp with the weight of dictation. I lost interest and failed the O-level utterly.

For my first four years, Sexey's remained a boys school. Girls we saw on the bus each morning and evening, and in great swarms when we drooped them off at Sunny Hill, our sister establishment on the outskirts of Bruton. Sexey's went co-educational during my final year, and treated we nerds to the amusing spectacle of our more image-conscious peers endeavouring to impress the influx of eleven year olds with their sporting prowess.

In this all male environment you had to watch your step. Any behaviour that even hinted at homosexuality would be ruthlessly crushed, as I discovered during my first week. My fellow traveller from Castle Cary, and I, being friends of six years and finding ourselves washed up together on this alien shore, naturally stuck together, to the extent of linking arms in public - an act of subconscious fellowship that we would never have imagined could be construed as anything else, and I don't remember even being aware that we were doing it. This, we were quickly advised, would simply not do, and never touched each other again. Almost every form had its alleged 'Homo' who would be taunted and persecuted mercilessly, sometimes on the flimsiest of pretences. Until my brother subjected me to Tom Robinson playing Glad to be Gay on London Weekend Television during one of my treasured visits, I was much to the fore in this abuse. Thereafter I took to wearing a badge featuring two interlinked Virgoan symbols and the legend 'I am not heterosexual,' which confounded my enemies and caused me no end of amusement. No one ever questioned me about it, not even the headmaster, who by this time had lost all interest in my redemption. Wearing a badge was not against school regulations.

If badges were optional, then uniforms were not, and the all-black sexian livery hung on our motley frames like the draggled plumage of a bunch of sad crows, amongst whom the tweed-clad and begowned masters strode like pompous old herons, stooping occasionally to honk at the squabbling horde around their feet. I liked my uniform. The black went very well with the red and gold two-headed eagle on the breast pocket. I wore mine with skintight drainpipes, a waistcoat and spats. Cap and short trousers were permitted, but no one but the very daring would have risked such items - the school cap, which my brother wore with such dash, was absolutely revolting. More to my taste were the school football socks of red, black and gold, which I wear to this day, considering them more agreeable than the old school tie, which is unimaginative. Once a term we would have a 'mufti day', on which for a fee of 5p we were allowed to wear our own sad clothing, instead of uniforms. Before my fall into fashioaility I decided this was a counter-revolutionary sop, and remained in black while my colleagues paraded in a pathetic collection of flared jeans and tank-tops. Fat Bob, one of the better things that happened to me at Sexey's, amazed and enthralled us all, on one such occasion, by coming in a kilt, which derring-do earned him great plaudits from the deviants, but scorn from the bloods, who had traded in their individuality for an ability to dribble. Sometimes with a ball.

Previously I had worn a uniform during my brief spell in the Cubscouts, which pointless body I left in disgust, after missing Batman too many weeks on the trot to play stupid games. I wanted to track deer and light fires and was indignant at being treated like a kid. I also spent a year or so in the Army Cadets, having for many years, up until my total seduction by the railway, a desire to join the army. Being too small to hold a Lee Enfield, the barrel of which tickled my earlobe when held at attention, I was usually excused weapons training, but my map-reading, and general ability to approach field problems with common sense, enabled me to pass the part one examination at Yoxter barracks, and gain, at four feet eight and a half inches, the exalted rank of Senior Cadet. This meant that Staff Sergeant Whitchurch, who was my hero, would sometimes invite me to drill the squad, which in the informal atmosphere that prevailed among the other ranks of the Castle Cary platoon of the Somerset Light Infantry (ACF) went thus:

ME: "Squad! Fall in! Dress off from the right, from the right NUMBER!"
SQUAD: "Yerr fuck off tiddler, we're having a fag."

Little bits of Franz. The cubicles in the school toilets, where you could not sit without older boys peering over to jeer and flick cigarette butts at you. If nothing else, Sexey's taught me to control my bowel movements.

Little bits of Laurie. The Elm Field in summer. The crack of willow on leather to which we remained oblivious, strategically fielding on the boundary in order to keep an eye on the trains passing in the valley below.

Little bits of Franz and Laurie, fading now into indistinct shades of each other. Memories become jumbled into a flat sea of tranquillity, where only a few jagged black reefs show above the surface to mark unerasable slights, shame and humiliations. Torn from assembly one morning by a summons to the headmaster's office, I waited in the ante room in terror:

"I am not guilty," said K. "Its a misunderstanding. And if it comes to that, how can any man be called guilty?"

But I survived both The Trial and The Castle. I underwent my own metamorphosis, and in the end, without a backward glance, I walked out one midsummer morning.

TOP OF PAGE