My last post on the school caused quite an interest and I thank those who commented.
Today I am taken back to the game seasons that we enjoyed. Modern children may not experience the simple pleasures that we had and I suppose necessity was definitely the mother of invention. At various time throughout the school year there were quite definite ‘seasons’ for games that we could play on the tarmac playground. The lack of space didn’t seem to be a problem and in the warmer months cricket was played with wickets chalked on the caretaker’s house or the back wall near the toilet blocks. The slope added to the local challenge. Winter would see soccer as the main boys’ sport, but the girls seemed occupied with a variety of games such as skipping, hop scotch, cat’s cradle and handstands against the walls. The thought of skull fractures didn’t seem to worry anyone at that time. Nowadays health and safety would have put an end to it.
On frosty days we made ice slides and with the polishing of many feet on the ice these could be whipped up to high speed slides that allowed trains of children to hurtle down the ice and often ended in pile ups. We would start these from the moment we arrived at school and, if we were lucky, they would still be there at morning break time for us to continue. Adult concern sometimes led to ashes being spread to prevent further use and accidents. The killjoys! I have a recollection of being able to slide from the top of the yard all the way down to the far wall near the ‘bogs’. The ecstasy of balancing, rugged up in scarf and hat, running pell-mell and then gliding, arms akimbo, has stayed with me all my life. Those boys and girls who could show their prowess had real kudos and the younger children would watch, idolise and aim to achieve such greatness. Even some of the teachers seemed to watch on with admiration and occasionally the young staff even had a go.
Sliding on the ice and general soccer and playing could destroy shoes in next to no time.My mother always bought me Tuff Shoes as they came with a six months no quibble guarantee. Due to the way I played on the tarmac they never lasted above five or six weeks and each time a hole appeared we went back and got a new pair. This went on for several years before they decided that they would only exchange them once. I also remember having soaking wet feet in winter due to the holes and the pipes in the classrooms were a smelly, steaming array of socks, gloves and scarves. We learned quickly the dangers of putting frozen hands on the pipes as ‘chilblains’, agonizing stimulation of the nerves, would result. I never had good circulation and my brothers and I have hands that seize up in cold weather.
I do remember one specific morning when the playground was covered in thick snow. This was fairly uncommon, but on this occasion snow men were made and two forts, with ice walls, as bases. Snow balls were created , stored and all hell was let loose for short bursts. No one was safe and some of the snowballs became ice and really hurt if you were hit in the face. The ice melted a bit with all the heavy foot traffic, but enough remained for us to continue at the break and was still there at lunch. One or two unwary children were struck in the face and there were some bloody mouths and tear soaked faces. The wise learned to keep an eye in the back of the head. It was glorious!
Spring would arrive ‘eventually’ and so did ‘whip ‘n’ top’ season. For the uninitiated, a ‘whip ‘n’ top’ consisted of a usually green wooden stick with a leather thong, the whip, and a wooden pinecone shaped grooved top with a metal point. You would wrap the thong around the top and then holding the top loosely tug the whip back. This sent the top spinning and the knack was to keep the top spinning, with repeated whips. It was a definite skill and some became masters. I was a player, but not a leader in this. ‘Whip ‘n’ tops’ could only be purchased during the season and the sweet shop directly across the zebra crossing outside school had a supply. When the season was on, you had to get in early to avoid disappointment, as demand could become huge. I suppose scores of children whipping away at the tops was probably quite a sight and also quite a danger, but we all survived.
There were also two other major seasons. In the Autumn we had Conkers! Conkers, the seeds of the Horse Chestnut tree were beautiful, tactile nuts. At this time children went on expeditions to gather their stash for the season. Some had the old faithful trees that they returned to each year, whilst others sought pastures new for richer pickings. I tended to return to old sites, but early plundering could have decimated my usual harvest and a bike ride further afield became a necessity. When fully ripe the nuts would fall from their green, mine-like spiky cases. They would just lie scattered beneath the large spreading trees, shiny, brown, like polished eggs of wood. However, such occasions were rare as someone would have already gathered the booty. On these occasions, drastic action was called for and sticks would be thrown up at the conkers that could be seen still in the trees. When we were successful we would dart in and prise open the shell, examine the creamy white velvet soft inside and discover whether we had a ‘beauty’ or not. I would experience the same excitement and anticipation as a Japanese pearl diver would as they opened the oyster shell to see if a pearl hid inside. Often my satchel would be full of the shiny, tactile harvest and I would cycle home with joy, pride and contentment.
Conkers is a very English pastime. A hole would be bored through the conker and a shoelace threated through, aglet first. A knot would then be tied and you were ready. Two children would present with their conkers to challenge each other to a duel to the death. One would suspend his or her conker and the other would position themselves to have a ‘shot’ at it. This meant winding the lace or string around your finger, holding the conker and flicking it at the other. If you hit you had another go. This would continue until you missed. At this point the opponent took their turn. The object was to knock your opponent’s conker off their string or break it in two. In fact there was the same chance of winning either holding your conker up or being the shooter, but you never could tell. Sometimes bits would fly off, but as long as some remained on the lace you were still in the game.
Now anyone who was a ‘conkerer’, would know that there were not quite legal ways to skew things in your favour. The obvious one was choice of conker. Size may not matter in many things, but it did in the conker world. Mass meant longevity and a well proportioned conker could live to fight may battles before succumbing. Other tactics, whispered behind hands in the corner of the yard or classroom, involved soaking them in vinegar, drying them out or baking them. I have tried all of the above and some, that I am sworn to secrecy about, but I can’t say that any really make much of a difference.
The games often resulted in bruised hands and knuckles and numerous accusations of cheating. In those days you sorted out your own problems and teachers rarely intervened. I wish it had been so during my tenure as a headmaster, but alas not to be!
The other major ‘season’ was marbles and it was possible to have more than one marble season in some years. The marble craze helped supplement the local shops and there was a great run on marbles. Winners from previous years would have tins full that they had won off luckless children the previous years, whilst the novices sported small amounts of pristine marbles with crystal clear glass outers. During the season, large numbers of small groups of children could be found huddled at their favourite spots in the yard. A hollow was used and the object was to win all of the marbles by striking opponents into the hollow. The rules were complex and there were a range of calls and tactics, that I can no longer remember, but to the winner the spoils and you knew to avoid anyone with a large tin of marbles, as their skill was proven. Different size, and coloured marbles had different names and value, but that has slipped my mind over the years. Someone may still own the wisdom and law of the ancient game, as played at Harehills C. P. School and be prepared to re-enlighten us geriatric practitioners.
Minor games were played at times such as ‘Jacks’, but again I don’t have the same memories of this. What has come to me whilst I write this is something that nowadays would be outlawed, but was particularly popular with the boys. There were two sorts of cards collected. Probably these were different years, but there were American Civil War Cards and Mars Attacks Cards. The American Civil War ones were first I think and came with facsimile US dollars of the time. They even got on the news as some people thought they were authentic. The cards came with bubble gum and they were truly the most violent and gruesome things I have ever seen. Impaling, bayonetting was graphically shown in pictures and children would collect great packs of them and swap them. Parents didn’t seem concerned in any way and at the time cowboy films were all the rage and we always played cowboys and Indians and scalped any captives. Maybe they were right, parents that is, as we didn’t grow up scalping and impaling. The second set of cards showed the invasion of Martians and again the pictures were chilling with their ferocity and violence. I guess that some things have improved since then and I won’t dwell on them any more.
Last night something someone mentioned reminded me of the Harehills C.P. School song. I still remember the tune and we used to sing it at assemblies. The school motto was ‘Aim High’ and below is my recollection of the first verse. I hope it brings back fond memories.
Amidst the busy streets of Leeds
For years a school has stood
A symbol of the children’s needs
Rejoicing in their golden deeds
A power for doing good
So let us sing our song on high
Look up Harehills
Harehills aim high!
(Harehills C.P. School Song)