David’s Bookshelf – Issue One – Cup of Tea Tales
- David’s Bookshelf – Issue One
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Lifetime of Global Successes, Disasters and Wonders! Space the Final Frontier.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Hetchell Woods (Bardsey) and Crags – A Special Piece of God’s Own Country or County! One of my Favourite Places to Visit.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The Wonderful Yorkshire Dales. Trollers Gill, a Place with a Mysterious Legend and the Hell Hole where I Diced with Death.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Labs and all Manner of Magic, Misery and Mayhem. What Must have been the Worst job for a New Teacher, Chemistry with Boys with only one Aim, to Make Your Life Hell!
Childhood is an interesting period and often we think that we have no memories of those early years, but I think with the right prodding, the memories pour back from out of the dim recesses. One of those recently prompted memories takes me back to primary school. I attended Harehills County Primary School from the age of seven years. The school is no longer there and structurally it probably shouldn’t have been used when I attended.
It was not my first school. I had attended Stainbeck Preparatory School from the age of four, but the headmistress and owner suddenly died and the school closed. Harehills was my local, but my mother wasn’t too sure how good it was. I started the same day as the new headmaster did in 1961, I remember. He had the famous name of Harold Wilson and he was in a bit of a flux when we arrived for my interview with him. Schools were streamed by ability then, and there were five streamed classes. Mr. Wilson seemed very friendly and a bit unprepared. He asked my mother about me and she claimed I was very bright. This was to give me the best chance of being in one of the top classes. I was asked a few questions, and the headmaster asked me to read for him. The only book he could find at the time was the Bible, and he handed it to me, showed me the verse and off I went. I didn’t think anything of it, but the end result was that I was put in the top class for the time being. My mother was delighted and afterwards I heard her saying to my father that she almost said I was average to not sound conceited.
The school was of the traditional infant/primary structure and it was very old then. It was on two levels and the primary school had a central hall and was surrounded by classrooms. There were two entrances, and they were quite separate schools. I started the primary school and had to climb up the stairs. There was a very basic external toilet block and a small tarmac yard for lunch and playtimes. The whole of the time I attended, we never had any functions where parents could be there, as there were concerns about the structure of the hall. It was thought the additional weight of adults and chairs could cause the hall floor to collapse. Whatever the concerns, no one ever did anything to fix the problem, though on one occasion when I was in Mr Kelly’s Year 4A class we had to go into the hall with another few classes and jump up and down whilst, I suppose, engineers checked the movement. I am not sure such an approach would be allowed nowadays.
There was no facility for lunches in the school and so at lunchtime, the entire school lined up and was escorted in our hundreds to a hall beneath a local church on the other side of the main road. There was a crossing and the logistics of moving all the school safely to and from the hall was well managed and I don’t believe we ever lost anyone. The meals were not usually too appetizing. Meat, two vegetables followed by pudding, was the usual fare. It was plain and nutritious and so shortly after World War 2, it was a wonderful introduction. Some children got free school meals, but most of us brought our money in on a Monday morning. It was half a crown, I think, at first, sixpence a day. As I remember, the dinner ladies were one of two extremes: either weasel thin, or plump and well rounded. Dinner ladies’ arms tended to be noticed as we lined up to have the meals dolloped on our plates. If it was something you liked, you loitered, hoping for a bit more. If it was something you loathed, you would say ‘no thank you’ as you passed along the line. Kindly ladies might let you get away with it, but others took absolutely no notice. That was the total level of choice. My favourite desserts were jam roly-poly with custard and spotted dick, again with custard. Sometimes, it was chocolate steamed pudding, and that occasionally had chocolate custard. At other times, pink custard was on offer. Some children liked the skin off the custard, but I was not one of those. Unfortunately, there was often rice pudding, semolina or the very worst, sago pudding, known as frogspawn.
Years of such puddings probably added to the hardening of my arteries that I have spent the last forty years trying to control with running, diet, and medication. But on the whole, I loved the dinners. I was tricked once. I was led to believe that the option was chips and boiled potato with a hint of parsley, but after having a large serving of chips, I discovered they were parsnips in disguise and I was forced to eat them. You didn’t dare not eat everything. Each plate was inspected, and unless you could make yourself sick or die in the hall, there was no alternative but to eat the plate clean. “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful!”
The return journey allowed us the rest of lunchtime to play in the small, overcrowded yard. Soccer, cricket and the many other games crisscrossed the yard and somehow our focus sufficed to avoid major collisions, but there was always the chance of being hit by a stray ball from another game.
The day started with a whole school assembly and then we were off to our lessons. Morning break was preceded by the delivery of the class milk. Each child had a glass bottle of milk, a third of a pint, introduced to keep rickets and other conditions at bay. I loved the cream off the milk, but in summer, occasionally when we had a hot day, the milk would be turning. If you were good in class, you might be a milk monitor and you would head off early to collect the milk bottles in crates. It was a two-person job and as we had between thirty-five to forty children in the class, it took the same two to return the empties.
The school was a place I loved. The floors were bare wooden floorboards which were very rough after years of wear. For assemblies, we sat on the floor and had to take care to avoid splinters. I believe it was on a Wednesday, or Thursday, when we had radio assemblies. This was just for part of the school and we sat around a large radio and they played a programme. In the assembly there would be a biblical story and we listened to Daniel and the Lion’s Den, The Fiery Furnace, the Good Samaritan, Noah’s Ark and other stories, and there would be the Lord’s Prayer, and maybe an Aesop’s Fable or other story. I used to look forward to them.
Even the Year 1 classroom was very formal. The first desks we had were cast iron, paired desks, with built-in bench seats. You could not move the seats to fit different children sizes and due to the weight of each pair of desks, the classrooms could not be rearranged. At the back of the hall were rows of bookcases fixed to the wall, and that was the library. It was there that I found the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was just by chance. I liked the name and discovered a world of magic that has stayed with me ever since. I do remember a book I chose before. I think it was called The Load of Unicorn and was not about the mythical beast, but was a historical novel about printing and the Load of Unicorn was paper.
The school was on a slope, so there was an additional room underneath the Infant’s School section, across from the toilet block, and this room was used as the gymnasium. We had to strip down to underwear in the classroom and head down to the gym. As we got older, we used to do vaulting on the horse or the box. It was very military as we lined up, ran in, vaulted and, if Mr. Kelly was on song, he would support you as you flew over and, if not, you had a hard landing on the thin green rubber mat.
Time flew past like the vaulters, and the forward rolls, headstands, handstands were probably very character building. Some were talented, some of us scraped by, and some suffered the ignominy of failure being reinforced on every occasion. Was it character building? I guess we’ll never know, but I know I loved it!
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 times 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 chief boys’ sport, but the girls seemed occupied with a variety of games such as skipping, hopscotch, cat’s cradle and handstands against the walls. The thought of skull fractures didn’t seem to worry anyone. Nowadays, health and safety would have put an end to it.
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 times 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 might 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 threaded 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 the 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 many 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 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 them. Winners from previous years would have tins full they had won off luckless children the year before, 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 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. One thing I remember clearly is the School Song. We used to sing this in assemblies, and it was supposed to help inspire us to try our best. I don’t know if it worked, but the tune and the first verse have stuck with me for fifty-six years.
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)