Back to School!

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It looks so threatening, that uncompromising late summer notice in the windows of school outfitters and stationers, even to those who left school forty years ago. Can the headmaster really have the power to haul us back, even now? I don’t doubt it, not if he really desired it. How remote and terrifying he was; each one a little Hitler, the monster pike in his own small pond. And each taught his staff his repertoire of cruel tricks: twisted ears, deftly thrown blackboard rubbers (mounted on very hard wooden blocks), pulled hair and burning sarcasm. Do you remember all those poor souls who wet themselves or threw up over their desks because they daren’t leave the room without permission? An increasingly desperate raised hand cruelly ignored. Maybe it was you? Not waving but drowning. And yet overall I loved the drama and Grand Guignol of my schooldays, the extremes of emotions that blew up and over like thunderstorms. Each day was a terrific adventure, you can say that all right.

Because I started boarding at school from the age of eight, the stomach-churning smell of the new term is also the odour of a particular trunk into which my life was regularly packed for ten years. It was already old when I first knew it, bound in moss green canvas and stuck all over with expired railway labels. It closed with a massive clasp which always reminded me of the lock which decapitates the child in The Juniper Tree, that Grimm classic of dysfunctional families and cannibal cookery. The interior of the trunk was upholstered in cream linen, with a removable tray that held a second layer. All was equipped with buckled straps for tidy packing and full of the smell of naphthalene moth balls looking like peppermint creams strung on violet silk threads. It was also redolent of old faded tissue paper, shoe leather, dry cleaning and tinder-dry canvas. Above all there was that remarkable scent of new clothes, a mixture of bleached cotton, detergent and a slightly metallic tang especially noticeable in the “dark suit for Sunday wear” and the itchy-scratchy navy football shorts made of a curious fabric which I have never seen nor felt since 1968. Whether wet or dry they smelled intensely of coarse damp wool: were they maybe the final expression of serge?

The ritual of the trunk’s being brought out and set up in the spare bedroom like a Moloch to be filled was a grim reminder of the sands of time running out. It was like that gaudily tricked out skeleton in the painted coffin which we are told graced the top table at Egyptian banquets, dispersing the scent of mortality amongst the spicy kyphi oils and fragrance of blue lotus. The Black Monday of the Return raced towards us despite prayers for the school to burn down or the outbreak of plague. My grandfather referred us to his favourite novel, F W Anstey’s Vice Versa, and a passage which I am always pleased to recall today:

‘…we cannot escape school by simply growing up, and…even for those who contrive this, and make a long holiday of their lives, there comes a time when the days are grudgingly counted to a blacker Monday than ever made a school-boy’s heart quake within him.’

Would you not love to see that thought set up upon a toy easel in the windows of Ryman and WH Smith? O! the blanched faces!

Then there was the ceremony of the caking of the plimsolls, this performed with a thick white solution which dried to a high gloss that later cracked and peeled. It reminded me of the fuller’s earth which the Romans applied to their gleaming togas: “candida” = shining white. This stuff smelled good, slightly addictive indeed, and no doubt it was harmful by today’s exacting standards of health and safety. You dabbed it on by degrees with a tiny sponge on a little stick – it was grainy, viscous and gave off an odour of chalk, nail varnish and wet rubber. Like every other item the plimsolls had also to be “clearly marked with pupil’s name”. To my intense mortification and anxiety my grandmother neatly Indian inked my name and school number across the uppers of my first pair: in fact, this set a trend. My shoes were never stolen and no teacher could find a reason to object.

Everything else was supposed to be identified with a Cash’s name tape. These were ordered as required from the local haberdashery and rarely arrived in time: another occasion for terror and panic. They were available in every colour and script. We had ours in red and they were stitched by hand onto every item including the “two dozen large white handkerchiefs” by our grandmother (my mother couldn’t and wouldn’t sew) or by ourselves. Like Edward VIII and his brothers we were all taught to sew and knit, skills which have come in very handy ever since. But even the hasty replacement of a shirt button for work still takes me back to that bedroom, full of late August sunshine, littered with paper and fabrics impregnated with the smell of Doom.

Image from: mymumdom.com

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