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
Little bits of Franz and Laurie
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
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
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."
was a hymn we sang in school.
things that live below the sky
Or move within the sea
Are creatures of the Lord most high
And brothers unto me
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
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.
back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead
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:
back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the draGONs are dead.
bits of Laurie. We ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on
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.
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
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
"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)
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