[© Ralph Gee, November, 2001]
Wenching and boozing apart, we were influenced by the outside as we matured, sometimes crazily - but invariably well-mannered (with an exception or two).
Clothes and fashion
An absolute non-contender. While writing these notes I need constantly to remind myself on the differences between the post-war world of half a century ago, and today. With clothing rationed, there were no teen-age fashions, let alone an awareness of the meaning of the concept. Boys went from short to long trousers as their scrota (has it a plural?) dropped. We dressed as adults, and not then a market force, no-one paid attention to adolescents, and we took all that for granted. Besides that, the change of life was quickly followed by National Service, with special clothing freely provided - and when many had to shave for the first time.
At Red Hill those with other homes were expected to return from holidays with new clothes, but provision came also from the communal pool in the Linen Cupboard, until as a Benchmember you had your own room and the facility to care for your own gear. (Well, keep it off the floor at least). That was why Moff was ever in hand-wringing distraction over fabric-threatening crazes. Haircuts were a contractual venture under the firm hands of (Mr) Genn from the village, an activity known as genning, being genned, gennification or having a genn - resulting in a basin-cut, and the closest thing to a uniform we ever had. He collected all our hair in sacks for his prize-winning roses, and for his allotment beside what is now a sign-posted National Heritage Wealden Walk. A passing Red Hill boy once politely quipped as he passed Genn's Sutton Valence cottage as he was cutting his hedge:
"No. This is for real. I practice on you".
Cycling started for each as an individual craze restricted to a close locality, like up the Back Drive and down the Front, and the occasional foray into Sutton Valence. Eventually common sense and muscles matured, and bicycles gained a perspective for fantastic geographical freedom and profound economic contribution. It took some 20 minutes to walk briskly to SV across fields and allotments (now that Wealden Walk above), but about five on bike. Headcorn was 20 minutes walk to the B2078, with a long wait for the Maidstone-Hastings bus, or at least another 15 minutes walk. Maidstone was either ten minutes walk to the Friday Street hill-top for a 20-minute run on a very rural 12a from Grafty Green, or a further walk to Sutton Valence or Vanguard Corner for the 12 from Hastings, 30 miles away. Maidstone, our Mecca, therefore meant nearly two hours outside the intention. Until Shaw bought a Jaguar Mk VII and sold his pre-war 18/85 Wolseley to PD, the only petrol engine at the school was Helen's Rudge motorbike, and both of them lived 3 miles away. Ted Brown had yet to get his motor-plough, and that had to be pushed. There was no need for a car park. Public transport to other than Maidstone was an expedition, needing Shaw's permission for money from one's private account. In due course I could get to Maidstone in 15 minutes, with no expense beyond keeping my bike in full health, and on such spending Shaw was always forthcoming, providing it was not just a box of bits that was once a Claude Butler. A bike also allowed literary licence with passes. Garnett and I declared few of our long trips, or our passes would have been refused, with intentions of London, Brighton or Dover causing great cluckings. Unknown to the staff, that is where we went. I wonder what we would have done with the Channel Tunnel approaches passing through Hollingbourne? Particularly had Margaret Thatcher's plan to have it solely as a road link survived.
The freedom of the bicycle overcame the constraints of East Sutton's isolation, and the secret was maintenance to the point of obsession. Garnett and I allowed no fault likely to strand us 50 miles away, and there were few repairs we could not handle on the road - although we were caught out once, with the police ringing up the school to identify two unlikely idiots. Cycling was essential for loco-spotting, very limited without it. The three Maidstone stations (East; West and Barracks) were for all-electric services, without a puff of steam or clanking piston between there and Stewart's Lane, south of Victoria. Our best places were Headcorn and the Charing Cross line, for the Bulleid Pacifics, Schools, King Arthurs, and the KESR of the late Colonel Stevens; Ashford and Brighton for workshops, and an intriguing shed at Tonbridge holding some motive power oddities.
Sleepy little weatherboarded stations on each side of Headcorn, like Pluckley, Smarden and Staplehurst were well worth a casual run on a summer day, and then sitting in the sun waiting for the trains to come by. For fun, there was the easy challenge of racing the Kent & East Sussex O1 to Tenterden, which could probably be done without a bike as the rambling line crossed the straight B2078 several times, with a lengthy stop at each. My first cycle foray for what is now called gricing was with Phillip Coutanche. We rode to Tonbridge and took our bikes to Brighton in the guard's van, without paying, to see the aborted original Leader undergo its first trial. Very few ever saw that thing, and it became rapidly lost to posterity, probably by the next day. It was a steam engine, disguised as a diesel, with firebox and boiler offset in the middle, and driving cabs at each end. The poor fireman heaved coal inside an oven, without help or contact with the driver, unless he rushed up and down a sweatbox corridor. The design was intended for a locomotive capable of working in both directions without turn-tables, and the only sensible guess to be made on Bulleid's design logic is that he was sure that oil would never replace coal. Within a year or so the first express passenger diesel-electrics were running on the Midland region (nos. 10000 & 10001), suggesting a limited future for firemen. For the Leader to work it would have wanted two drivers, three firemen, shower, changing room, and a working roster incorporating convalescence. I learned all that by bike.
Bernard Smith ("Twit") collected Whitbread's miniature tin pub signs, available only at the pub of the sign. He covered Kent and Sussex for them, hammering himself around on a fixed-wheel bike. He asked me to go with him to a pub between Ashford and Canterbury, and we set off on a beautiful Saturday, falsely giving Lenham on our passes. We found the pub and got the sign, and Twit spotted a football poster for a match that afternoon between Dover and Gillingham, in the Kent Senior Cup. He also collected football programmes, and since Gillingham had applied for election to Division III(South) of the Football League, he saw a collector's piece in the offing. We weren't going to the match, just to Dover for a 1½d programme - a reasonable motive for an 80-mile round trip. He got the programme, and as we left Dover intending to be back in East Sutton by 5-30, the skies opened, and so much so we couldn't move. The English Channel was airborne. Twit got worried. He was Staff waiter and not having swapped for cover, faced the penalty of losing the job, and its 2/6d a week. Economics outweighing comfort, we headed back through terrible weather, with no protection at all. Easing at Ashford, after Lenham it was obvious that the weather left behind at 9am had held at East Sutton all day. We reported back in time for his waiter work, but Moff wanted to know why we were so wet, forcing the Dover itinerary out of us. She gated us for a fortnight. Twit, with his sign and programme now carrying added-value, was ecstatic. I was not. He eventually completed his pub signs, that went into three series, the later ones in cardboard. If he still has them, they are worth a great deal of money, and much sought after. Twit got them all by bike.
The cognoscenti knew no bounds. Some thought nothing of Brighton (120 miles return); London (90), or around Kent (120 miles). I , alone, rode without a break to Nottingham (180 miles) and back a fortnight later, to show the Notts Education Department that I no longer needed to be met at London Victoria to be escorted home. Aged 17, and having done the rail journey three times a year for six years, I felt such an attitude of in loco parentis ludicrous when within a month or so I would be expected to cover the world within National Service. It was my way of proving to my home local authority that their years of expenditure on Red Hill had been effective, and that I was now ready for the cruel world. In the same year Alan Garnett, Tony Chapman and I did 1000 miles in three weeks cycle-camping to Land's End and back - on less than £90 between us. (Shaw took back what we had not spent!). We also invented (Jack Horner, David Fisher) a form of cyclo-cross long before it became a formal national sport. In our version we dropped two dots on an OS map, joined them in a straight line, and set out to stick to it, come what may. Cleaning bikes after was very onerous, and more so in November.
The cycling aristocracy supervised mass runs of all abilities, but as a mother-hen chasing wayward chicks, this was exhausting. I took a dozen juniors to Bodiam Castle, quite near on the map and 40 miles the round-trip in fact, but my mileage was nearer 80 in rushing from one end of a stretched string to the other; showing off by climbing hills, but going back down to push the trudgers up; checking the headstrong and collecting strays, some having left the main road; and belting ahead to check any problems and returning to advise. The outing had a pleasant interval. We stopped beyond Cranbrook to fill water-bottles, and the farmer's wife responded with great trays of home-made cakes, from an apparently unsuccessful village fête. We cleared them, and appreciating us as troughs she suggested we all attend the following year. However, as we continued, I noticed many oscillating knees hitting bulging shirts.
Alan Garnett had not been available for the Bodiam run, and I refused to do it again without another sheep-dog. He agreed to join me to take nine lambs to Battle Abbey or Robertsbridge, and as normal, we planned it in meticulous detail, ensuring all machines fully road-worthy and the expedition properly victualled. We hit our first puncture less than two miles from school, and by the time we were two miles the other side of Headcorn had picked up three more. After the last repair we were well adrift, and the sky turning black. We sheltered and ate our sandwiches in a thunderstorm, finally giving in and turning back, to be in time for dinner. Colin Hart (the cook) did not see our achieved ambitions the same way. If we were to have dinner, he wanted his sandwiches back, so a squabble ensued. Peter Searle threw a tantrum and slammed the Back Door off its hinges. I do not know why. He was not even one of our party. He was always looking for an opportunity to lose his paddy with that door, and what sounded like a food riot was sufficient reason. As odd-job man, it became my task to put it back.
Before, during and since Red Hill I have petrified myself with cowardice, reasoning that some venture is better left to others. A fair portion of the male population has faced the same dilemma, although less nowadays than hitherto. Although vulnerable to political correction, I repeat "male", referring to those situations directly threatening life that women avoid, or delegate to men. Every adolescent boy should hold his own life to ransom at least once, in an activity he subsequently forces himself to command. This apparent stupidity should not be imposed, but partaken. Furthermore, it ought not be a public display, but a personal challenge - even a private secret for the rest of life. Mine follows, and should not be tried at home.
A passion hotly pursued (to coin a phrase) by the highly practised was pacing, requiring great nerve and skill, even on roads far less crowded than today. It required a slowing lorry or coach to tuck in behind as it accelerated, to be drawn along in relative comfort in the centre of the vortex. The most exciting and difficult paces were coaches, with flat backs down to the road, and high-class vortices. Speeds near 60 mph were reached, and it was extremely exhiliarating - more so when two rode closely abreast with white knuckles touching and pedals threatening to clash. This was the chicken run, the loser being the first to drop away. All very Illegal, but the police could only catch offenders by stopping the vehicle and risking fatality, although the danger was not the sudden braking of the pace - even when a driver tried to shake you off. That was anticipated by brake-lights and controlled by powerful fingers applying good cycle brakes. The secret of pacing lay in skilled use of brakes, toe-straps and steering: slowing to avoid a speeding tyre touching the vehicle; accelerating to stop being hit by the whorl of the airflow if you fell back, and guiding to keep within the encapsulating vortex when on a curve. The greatest peril was bad road surfaces, with unseen pot-holes flashing under highly stressed tyres, at speeds well beyond the design concepts of the bicycle - a prominent challenge when crossing the tarmac boundaries recording the relative parsimony of Kent and Sussex. The latter authority was no friend of the pacing cyclist, wondering at the fatigue factor of his slender front wheel with trim racing tubes, at a mile a minute. Another reason why Alan and I kept our machines in the best of order. Other risks were unrelieved by mechanical efficiency. Bricks trapped between paired lorry back wheels, held by lateral tyre-walls swollen by the heat of speed, flew past when released by a slowing down. A common hazard was an insecure load, closely observed by Bernard Smith when his bike was crushed by an enormous bag of beans while pacing down Langley Hill. More infuriating than directly perilous was the empty lorry with a back littered with dust or lime. You wiped your eyes, snorted, spat out a lungful and dropped away from such antisocial travellers. There was also the gamble we ignored: the ability of a following driver to handle the madness in front of him, but we only tucked into free spaces, sprinting powerfully to reach vortices. Thereafter, any car coming up behind would be overtaking, probably about to signal our presence to our driver and trigger a shake-off. All-in-all, pacing was a highly dangerous pastime, worth a place in the Olympic Games. Garnett and I were its Gold Medallists.
A change from the preceding excitement. We had a Dance Room, so why not? In fact it had that name long before our Square and Scottish Country interests of 1951, but just who had previously danced what and when with whom was never revealed. The prime movers of its revival may have been Bob and Janet Payne, but they were Quakers, so I'm not sure. My contemporaries will remember Bob's ever-present hoe-down shirt, so the connection is excusable. (To those after me, the Dance Room became the Library). While some villages today complain about the loss of village halls, others hardly knew where theirs were. The wooden hut at Sutton Valence, hidden in the woods below the castle ruins, was one such, and where we enthusiastically do-si-doed our knowledge, altruistically of course, to the village girls. John Martin's virile oil painting of our clumping around was sold by the Cooling Galleries in 1954.
A substantial part of most lives in 1950, when half the nation's population went to the pictures every week. That statistic did not apply to Red Hill. Relatively cheap as the cinema was, it still made a big hole in the private account held by Shaw - separate from the log of pocket money kept by Morley Gayton. Most of my film-going was in holiday periods in Nottingham, catching up on years of production in one fortnight. The cinema is where I spent the money my father gave me to get out of the way. That is a good example of why holidays at home were silly.
Maidstone had three cinemas: Granada (with carpets); Ritz/ABC (rugs); and a forgotten bare-floored flea-pit just past the chip-shop on the Sittingbourne road. We went when we could afford to tap our private accounts, but they were seven miles away, with the last bus back on the bright side of the crepiscule. My average was not above twice a term, although in later years it probably increased, with girls to fumble in the dark. Internal competition came from a hired projector with time-lapse films of blossoming petals and silent comedy classics (without an accompanying pianist); and a wonderful electric-powered charcoal-lit sputtering Victorian Epidiascope with its own chimney and an astronomer's lens. Found by Shaw on Maidstone market, it had boxes of slides of dinosaurs, the Danube, St.Paul's, St. Petersburg - and a serependity of views from the Sugar Loaf Mountain to sugar beet farms. Worth a fortune today, we probably wrecked it, but it may not have survived our conversion from 50 volts DC to 240 AC. Such is progress.
Fireworks and Bonfire Night - and Hallowe'en
Noting Hallowe'en and November the Fifth as falling one week from the other may seem trivial, but Red Hill stumbled on a slice of ancient folklore. That we should perpetuate one particular political event after four centuries is odd, with its allusion to the torture and unpleasant death of a Catholic under constitutional circumstances so alien to modern Parliamentary democracy. There are better historical events for bonfires, the defeat of the Spanish Armada being very appropriate as that is how it was celebrated at the time, but that is the wrong time of year. Autumn probably always ended with burning foliage and agricultural dross, and this coincidentally subsumed a ritual function, supporting the Guy Fawkes propaganda. It was our treatment of All Hallows, with a formal party, that first set that seed in my mind. For that we swathed the Dining Room in greenery, and when over it was substance for the Bonfire exactly one week later. It was so natural that its beginnings lay in time immemorial, from an age before the Romans came to Rye. This was reflected in villages south of us, like Headcorn, and into Sussex, which had great bonfires on the nearest Saturday night to November 5th. I don't remember Sutton Valence with a similar one, in spite of its superior setting overlooking the Weald, and a ruined castle to boot - but on that Saturday, if clear, we could see fires on the South Downs, towards the famous one at Lewes.
In 1952 I cycled to the Headcorn event, after Paul Pollak had insisted I be back by 9.30. At the fire I lost my gloves, and it was so cold I crashed returning on the lonely back lane, knocking myself out for a substantial time. I recovered, straightened out the bike, and it was 10.30 when I got back. Pollak was waiting for me at the Main Gate, and fined me 1d per minute (5/-), for "breaking his trust". That was in spite of the blood frozen to my face from a bad cut below the eye. He could be so bloody pompous at times! No other staff member would have bothered with the most senior Benchmember out on his own, but Paul lived by his wrist-watch and believed that all others should - whether we had one or not. He must have saved Sharpe's a fortune recycling all the parings off the toffees.
Our internal bonfire, always in the Gangplace on the Fifth itself, was supported by Shaw's own fireworks display and our humble purchases through the Tuck Shop (a frequently-robbed cupboard built in off the Main Stairs), but some came from home, illegally through the post. Owen Brittain's friend in Feltham knew someone who worked in a fireworks factory, and his arsenal of bangers was soon revealed as the first cousin of dynamite, containing Tartan Thunderers and Hampden Roarers for blowing English monarchs from the Scottish throne. He lit them on the earth-filled barrel in the centre of the front circle, clapped a 7-pound jam-tin over, and stood back. The tins rose nearly 100 feet, coming down half-way to hemispheres, but a few rusted vestiges may still be on the roof. The barrel started to fall apart the following week. Around 1950/51, the hyperactive brand caused a national scandal, with sales banned, and new fireworks controls once "deregulated" by Michael Heseltine - about to be again "put in place", by Michael Heseltine. Fireworks are also extravagant transients. Outside Lewes, obviously still doubtful about the Pope, accompanying bonfires are now a rare tradition, not being sources of profit. Properly sited and built, they cause no damage or hurt; are communal; purge the environment; keep celebrations warm; provide the facility for cooking potatoes, chestnuts and human effigies; smell nice; and last all night. Today's beggars of "A penny for the Guy", with rag dolls, have never built a bonfire - let alone seen one. Red Hill's Guy was made by devoted artists, with skill and enthusiasm - and still serviceable components and clothing only missed when too late. It was not unusual to hear Moff's Bonfire Night observation: "So that's where it went!" It had to be a magnificent product, to be seen on a bonfire twenty feet high. In 1952 we pre-empted the celebrations by burning down the Old Art Room, on a Trafalgar Day night so clear that one brigade came from Tenterden. Within a fortnight they were back, attracted like moths to a bonfire stacked so high that Shaw lay down planning rules for the future.
Perhaps Sutton Valence rejected a public village fire in favour of that at its public school, then famous only for educating the Olympic athlete, Sidney Wooderson. Of lesser vintage than that honoured within the names of the Southern Railway Class V 4-4-0 locomotives, apart from Tonbridge, was probably the only public school so close to the rails regularly carrying them. Once John Newey infiltrated and found a lonely junior with a pricey box of fireworks from Mummy. He took over, intending complete sequestration, but somehow blew the lot up, leaving Mummy's Boy wailing his loss over the adjacent allotments.
Then unknown in the English schoolchild calendar, a note on our approach to Hallowe'en may be appropriate, although more coverage is below, under Parties. We had two major ones in the Dining Room each year, with games and skilfully performed sketches, often with portable prepared scenery. One ended the Spring Term, at Easter; and the other on October 31st, , when the panels were so totally obscured in greenery that the room was a rustic grotto. This was the stuff for the Bonfire following exactly one week later.
This pathetically posing group above, probably 1953, acted and danced on the Terrace the appropriate Witches' Scene from Macbeth; around a cauldron of active fireworks ignited by Vic Leggett's designed mechanism. I am on the far right - Vic is third from the left. The masks were wire frames covered with papier maché, and appeared in London's West End - at our 1954 art exhibition in the Cooling Galleries. The photo was taken at the bottom of the Steep Drive, just where a house was built later.
April Fools' Day
A festival in it's own right, but with rules. Had it not been, we'd have created it in honour of Saint Otto. Shaw loved practical jokes - played on others. There were to be none before midnight nor holding after noon, else fines were steep, if caught. I was the author of many abominations, but the best was not mine. Every year there was an original wag to whom hiding the Main Stairs mats was the funniest thing since last year, when a wag had hidden the Main Stairs mats. (High intelligence manifests itself in peculiar ways). It drove Moff berserk, the joker's motive, and one year she gave firm notice in the Court that tiresome repetition would affect the appearance of breakfast. Naturally the mats disappeared, and the Back Stairs Landing cupboard moved across Moff's door to prevent the breakfast threat. She by-passed that by yelling at Bill Dunkerley (the cook) from her window, who verified the mats gone, and received the order "No breakfast until found". Trapped in her room, she led the campaign through Bill, who wanted breakfast out of the way. After diligent searching for two hours, the whole school was on the edge of rebellion, convinced the villain was hiding in the woods. Repeated roll-calls definitively identified many culprits, with all manner of mutilation in store for them. At 9am we struck back. No attending lessons (from 9-30) without being fed. Shaw arrived in the middle of the Mexican Stand-Off, bellowing confusion all round, pushing it completely out of hand. As the trivial stupidity cumulated into a classic, many wished they were the culprit, and go down in history. After just ten minutes, Shaw's temper reached critical mass, and Moff pleaded for the cupboard to be moved so she could take charge of the declining situation, and keep Shaw quiet. When her door opened, she was holding the mats: "Put these back, and we'll all get some peace". They remained in place every year thereafter.
Another year a traditional joke-shop jape cost someone 2/6, the cost of a very realistic juicy-looking rubber spider, put in a milk jug. Brian Abley saw it in his mug, swallowed it, and acted a burp saying "I love spiders. Bags I the next one". It was not seen again.
A perennial victimisation used the facing doors at the top of the East Attic stairs, Ray Exton's and mine. The door-knobs were directly opposite and only three feet apart - tempting any owner of a four-foot rope. Escape through our dormer windows only exchanged prisons, and Ray's was just a slight carelessness away from the Square Yard flagstones three floors below. Cross-roof to PD's North Attic was likely to be fruitless as his doorknob would be tied to the banisters. My permanent solution was to turn the knob-shaft round, and replace the one little retaining bolt with a metal rod. When roped in, I removed the rod, turned the knob and pulled. That opened the door, dropping the outer knob and rope to the floor. I could then retie the rope to the leg of my bed, directly by the door-post, leaving Ray as he was, and steal another's joke without suspicion.
My two best were in the maturity of my last year. Every year Shaw forewarned about Fools' Day "tiresomeness", citing a great jape of the historic past when David Davies had broken into his study and framed Barbara Bradbury's oil-painting of him in a lavatory seat. Alan Garnett and I felt it time to relive this golden fable, and we did it, entering The Study by the Main Stairs door. After noon we obeyed tradition, and confessed, expecting great mirth. He fined us for "social irresponsibility unbecoming Senior Benchmembers", giving us sealed chits to take to Gayton. Perhaps he expected us to lose them, but we obeyed, and were put down 10/- each! On our appeal, the Court asked Shaw why he had taken such an attitude, having initiated the idea. He said we had destructively removed the lavatory seat, but Davies had used his own. He must have waited years to crack that joke, so he agreed to the fine reduced to 2/6d. He once more recalls the wheeze in Maladjusted boys (1963), but not the Gee/Garnett 1953 revival.
My other seems impossible, but it came from a unique opportunity from Strevens' messy fountain pen. Adding to one of his perpetual lost property notices, he squirted a bladder of ink over the class time-table. Holland made him rewrite it, and as Strevens' handwriting looked like mine, an idea formed. I asked Phyllis (school secretary) for a blank time-sheet and re-penned Strevens' scrawly effort, but with the morning of April 1st conflicting with itself. I had two classes in the same room, and teachers in an empty one. I swapped the schedules less than half-hour before the 9-30 first class-bell, at which I put myself in the right place and awaited the hilarious results, including tears and tantrums from some boys fined for being late. Half the boys and staff knew where they should be, but the rest relied on checking the time-table. Paul, rumbling me, went all Pollaky and meticulous, and at 11.30 I had to report to him immediately, or else. He could not be found. At five past twelve he materialised and tapped me on the shoulder: "Your time-table's still up. It's gone noon. I'm putting you down 5/-". The Court rejected my appeal because I had broken the noon immunity. 1953 was an expensive Fools' Day for me: 15/- in all before appeals, or fifteen weeks pocket money!
We read everything, anywhere, except Arthur Mee's pathetically patronising Childrens' Newspaper. The circulating comics no-one had ever bought carried dates from before the war, and finished as shin-pads or shit-paper; although we devoured the first superlative Eagle, by food parcel, out of Strevens's mum. The best shin-pads were Readers' Digest, London Opinion, and Men Only, since they survived our hacking to revert to reading matter until the next match. The commonest shit-paper was the Kent Messenger, doubtless a Shavian response to what it said about him. Our library newspapers were the Times; News of the World (!), and the then weekly Illustrated London News. The library book-stock was poor despite my attempts to get Shaw to buy more and Mrs Dandridge's constant gifts. Her heart was in the right place, but her sets of Charles Dickens remained pristine. I suspect they came from Sun Engraving, the Watford printing works employing Mr Dandridge. Things improved once I was out of the way, when the library moved into the old Dance Room, and a boy ambitiously classified it by Dewey. I did, however, force one improvement that was to become an institution for at least 40 years.
Before 1951 our County Library service was three hampers each term, of fiction, non-fiction and children's books. The selection was done at Springfields (County Library HQ) by staff more used to filling boxes for village primary schools. The children's books were well below the demands of boys over 11, with IQs averaging over 130; the non-fiction pushed out to get dates on otherwise empty labels, while the best fiction was always plundered early by MoF and Betty Pollak. I even suspected that Betty offered 'assistance' at Springfields to fill the hampers, where voluntary help was welcomed, and without that we probably would not have got one adult book. After three years of this I used my position as Library Committee chairman to protest to Shaw, who led me directly to his Jaguar, drove to Maidstone, and thrust me into the office of Miss F.R.E. Davies, the County Librarian. There had been no appointment, and I was left alone with her to explain how I got there and why. Knowing Shaw, she listened, and within one month we had the County's brand-new navy-blue Mobile Library on the Front Circle, complete with the prancing horse, from which we could fill our own hampers.
This termly adventure, with all diving into the same literary wealth available to the rest of Kent's ratepayers, led me to be a professional librarian - because in 1953 I went back to Miss Davies for careers advice, and she told me to go for it. I was never in a position to argue against the existence of exclusive children's rooms, but in every public branch library I ran, children could use my adult sections, without fines, providing they brought the books back on time. When parents protested, I just told the children not to take the books home, but read them in the library or in the adjacent park. With the Internet promising a completely different future, children's libraries are doomed. I will not weep. Children's publishing is one thing - children's libraries another. I never liked them - with their patronising, censorship and silly doll's house furniture. 12-year old children turn from public libraries because they don't like sharing with children. Providing they behave, there is nothing wrong with children exploring adult literature. What does not interest them will be left alone, while their interests should be encouraged. Segregation of juvenilia is as logical as separate libraries for boys and girls. Apart from that, why exclude adults from the delights of children's books produced long after they were children, or from that last Biggles or Worrals they grew up past? As I said, we read everything.
The annual outing was to coastal spots like Margate, Dover, Littlestone, Hastings and Fairlight Glen. One town-free favourite was Camber Sands (click here to see picture), with nothing but sand, reeds, sea, an occasionally open ice-cream stall, and a wooden hut of old penny-in-the-slot machines for when it rained. The one-armed bandit machines were, aptly for nearby Rye, up the creek, paying out at random, wherever the barrels stopped. They also responded to a good thump, bringing immediate ejection - a severe punishment at Camber in the rain. Garnett and I went by bike, racing and pacing the coach out; and with the bikes on board for the return. Every year the coach was the same little Bedford, its protruding bonnet bouncing on arthritic springs like an Austin Seven, climbing hills so humanely that whole families of hedgehogs could cross before it, and tumbling down them like a brick. It never once broke down, and deserves to be a beautifully painted collector's piece somewhere.
There were some "educational" trips: Tilmanstone Colliery; Sharpe's Toffee factory; the Kent Messenger newspaper; Aylesford Priory, and the neolithic Kits Coty house - but not very many. We could have done with far more. They were mainly for boys remaining at school the entire summer, and it was a bonus if the trips coincided for others. Although the summer holiday was six weeks, those who went home were allowed only a fortnight away. Thus the school was still a hive of activity through the six weeks, with at least 75% present. This very important difference with the Red Hill of later years, and accounts for many of the crazes as we tried to fill the lesson-free days.
Parties and performances
Easter and Hallowe'en functions were organised under a Master of Ceremonies. Boys submitted their names for sketches they wished to perform, and formal games were interposed into a published schedule - some of which I still have in their lino-cut covers. All was timed to the minute in a way alien to Red Hill life, but extremely popular, and open to all connected with the school. So the children of the Browns; Freeds; Hollands; McIlroys; Pollaks; Shaws; Streets; Et Ceteras, and local farmers, were invited to highlights of the East Sutton calendar. I contributed monologues of Albert and Runcorn Ferry, one I remember word perfect today - although they required a Lancashire accent not easy to one from the more civilized side of the Pennines. How I first developed the courage to do it, I'll never know, because I did not take easily to self-imposed public performances. Eventually I wrote my own monologues, all totally forgotten, but they gave me better confidence than the works of others. Perhaps I was more concerned with the acceptability of my invention, than the performance of it - or possibly I felt my words better than my deeds. It was something to see boys, once so uncommunicative and introverted, develop dramatic flare, and that included me.
Shaw once had silly games, relying on public humiliation, an agony for the newest boys and embarrassing before visitors. His favourites were of the forfeiture variety with blindfold victims, that lost their point after repetition: In Lord Nelson's funeral, the victim handled a hard-boiled woodpigeon's egg in cod liver oil, told it was Horatio's eye; before fitting his finger in a hole in an orange, as the socket. Good wholesome pointless stuff. "Flossie" Foster really wet his knickers on that one. His other great guffaw was The flying blackboard, where the victim, having waited outside, came in and stood on a blackboard held by four of the strongest-looking boys, and had his hands put on Shaw's head. Shaw then gradually bent his knees while the board was wobbled, reassurances uttered and control "advice" passed to the "lifters". ("For God's sake, Smith, don't drop it!"). We supported by squeals of wonder and warning, until the victim was told to jump off, to an expected four-foot drop. To great jollity and mirth he launched himself into dangerous space. However there was always one know-all who got a genuine lift, and Tom Molloy's surprise broke his arm. Moff refused to speak to Shaw for a week, and that game ended for ever. A third Shavian game, less belittling and more intelligent, was where an object was written on a blackboard and the innocent player gave a speech of thanks for it, expounding how he expected to enjoy it. Until the Social Committee somehow never got round to scheduling his unmissed contribution, he got his slot like everyone else, and that was that. An extension of party cabarets came, through Bob Payne, with the Midget Theatre marionettes, covered elsewhere - and the parties grew in sophistication.
Ours was a political world, but not in the external party conflicts. Any self-sufficient group is a political creature if every member has daily opportunity to contribute, and the freedom to be maladjusted, or insouciant. As a community we were philosophically communards; and as a social group, socialists. We were reactionaries, but not internally. In general we made our fraternal bed, and lay on it. Although our life style belied it, we were very conservative, for when we changed things, it was only slightly. Children will abandon long-standing stupidity overnight, but will not pursue change for its own sake. In my seven years, the total changes were minimal. I saw none of the upheavals brought about the 1963 extensions or the death of Otto Shaw about ten years later.
With party politics, apart from Bloom's Balkan-Sobranied theories from the hot-bed of the then socialist London School of Economics, the only strident views were those of Shaw as he personally campaigned successfully as a Labour councillor for Maidstone borough and Kent County Council, and less so as MP for Maidstone (1945, 1950) and Thanet (1951). He recruited us, and although not all were convinced by the cause, we enjoyed the fun. We were more advanced than mere posters of letter-box literature, although we did streets of that, since we followed up with door-step canvassing - and not in pairs like Jehovah's Witnesses. We also sabotaged the rival Conservatives by defacing or removing their posters, and heckling at their meetings. We also heckled at his so he could show off. All the sound stuff of political conflict of the past, but the only parish support I can remember Shaw getting came from Ted Brown, the handyman/gardener, and Robin Wyles, the Sutton Valence policeman. In the 1950 election Robin threatened to arrest Conservative supporters he caught defacing our posters, while he was out defacing theirs. Outside opponents of Shaw, like the editor of the Kent Messenger, tried to argue that he used his position as headmaster to influence his charges, but that paper also liked to refer to him as a "land-owning farmer". Tories always love to attack socialists when they are not the traditional cloth-capped whippet-owning red-flagged trades unionist coal miners as much as they do when they are. I learned very early that Tories always win, even when they lose.
In retrospect I sense that Morley's history tuition had political overtones, because he concentrated on the evolution of our social surroundings, thus planting seeds I later nurtured myself - but my later views were not consistently matched by my contemporaries. Thus he cannot be accused of brain-washing, particularly as he was a traditional News Chronicle reading Liberal, of the Lloyd George sort. Since our GCE period was 1786 or so to 1914, straight from the pages of Carter and Mears, there was no conflict.
The rink was over the Maidstone Corn Exchange. Not very good, I came out battered, bruised and covered in graphite from the skate lubrication. The girls who went there were worth the effort.
A transient competition centred on Woolworth's, when the average cost of any item was less than a shilling, with much of the 10-for-1½d variety, and little at more than 5/-. As many items as possible were swiped and audited on the bridge by the bus station, points awarded on value with a difficulty bonus. John Newey was the regular champion, while John Martin never stole anything but was twice marched to the office, giving us a diversion. He should have sued for defamation. Keeping the plunder was forbidden, so most of it ended up in the Medway river below the bridge.
We had no luxurious pool in our Gangplace, although we tried to do something with the pond before Moff put a stop to it. The smell was of rottenness, methane and whatever lay in the black ooze. I can smell it today. Since our construction in the woods was not to be repeated, there were two alternatives, both needing supervision by staff or senior Benchmembers. One was Maidstone Baths (not popular) and the other a confluence of the River Beult (pronounced belt), near the railway, on the Staplehurst side of Headcorn. Here it was only about twenty feet wide, but surprisingly deep between shallow shelves. Under my supervision John Spiers got into trouble, and Bragg got him out, tearing open a foot on a broken bottle. As Spiers gurgled his lungs free, and Bragg's blood flowed far too freely, I rushed over two fields to the road for help. A farmer passing in a Landrover charged the gates down to get to Spiers and Bragg, and took them both to Maidstone Hospital. I had one hell of a job explaining their absences when I got back, but after much furious temper from Shaw, I actually got commended - but the Beult trips were stopped. The particular staff on duty who had agreed my supervision assumed I could swim, but the problem was caused by broken glass.
Outside speakers had to know their subject, and how to put it across, or they had a rough ride. The average Red Hill boy, stuck with something he didn't like, would feel no requirement to stay if he had something better to do. Outsiders were rare, but memorable (except Alan Bush). Once Shaw called us together to meet Boris Karloff. It was a clone. In fact it was Sir John Pratt, his brother, then UK ambassador in Washington - who had no trouble keeping us transfixed. We imagined his life in the world's embassies, ducking and weaving from the garlic, crosses and sharpened fence stakes thrust at him. I have no idea what he talked about, but it was not his brother.
Other external speakers were Mr Guntrip, Maidstone's antiquarian bookseller; and Sir Richard Acland, a socialist aristocrat who owned half of Devon. Shaw's personal friends included Mervyn Peake and Graham Sutherland; and I pleaded, without success, for these to be coerced to talk to us. At the time Sutherland was very busy painting the powerful portrait of Winston Churchill hastily destroyed by Lady Churchill. If you have access to a run of the Illustrated London News that includes the report on that gift from Parliament, you will find what may be the only copy of it. Why didn't the silly woman return it to the artist?
Shaw was his own favourite external lecturer, and his talks on antiquarian books aroused my interest in what librarians call historical bibliography, fostering excellent results in later professional exams, in a subject not intended for Finals level students working in municipal public libraries. I always went to that talk, tolerating his feeble joke about fore-edge painting, because he illustrated it with great rarities from his own collection. An adjunct to this was his marvellous collection of political prints of Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson occupying most of the Main Stairs walls. I studied them frequently, knowing all by heart and where each hung, although much of the scrawled dialogue in the drawings defeated interpretation. My favourite was not there, but behind the door in his Millfield House downstairs lavatory, with the bottomless Pitt declaiming in Parliament: "If there is a fundamental deficiency, why call for paper?" Wonderful to grow up with, they unnerved at first sight, with the famous shitting in cauldrons and monarchs farting polemics.
Gillray makes Spitting image something fluffy from Walt Disney. We had never seen such before, and learned our history from them, particularly those not then reprinted in books. To me Canning, Castlereagh, Pitt, Fox, Buonaparte and George III were artists' characters in this scatological display rather than once real people. Astonishingly, they were never vandalised, and most would fetch the highest prices today. When I see one reproduced, I am standing on that handsome staircase, with the sunlight streaming through the diamonds in the centre oriel windows.
Wireless and television's incunabula days
Those born a decade after me took for granted the record-player, those later the cassette player, and later still the Walkman and CD player. Somewhere we had one wind-up gramophone, a needle or two, and fewer records. In the early 50s television was a curiosity with a sort of cult following. Possibly the first set south of Maidstone was PD's, who tolerated a nightly audience of six, on a floor that creaked badly with three holding their breaths. The only channel began transmitting at 7-30pm, from Alexander Palace, heralded by a potter's wheel or turning windmill - as stimulating as listening to drying paint. Then a shot up the Ally Pally aerial, and one of those silly little tum-ti-tum tunes that stay unidentified for life. We watched in the dark, squinting through a large magnifying glass at a twinkling monochrome picture, that fuzzed in sympathy with the wind-blown branches of the Release-O tree, or jumped when a door slammed two floors below. Broadcasting finished at 10pm, after which strong freaky French signals amused us until the called-in BBC engineers finally admitted their existence when six of us graphically described a live programme from the Paris Folies Bergères. Not even we could have such matching fantasies.
The TV procedure was a chit to PD, requesting what you wanted to see the following week. You couldn't book an entire evening, and the FA Cup Finals (the Amateur one as well then) needed a special approach. The set at the gable window end of the North Attic was turned to face the stairs, and the chairs from there to the cubby door to Shaw's study. From there the 9" screen was a light flickering at the end of a tunnel, so those at the front had to relay the game to those at the back - just as it then was at Wembley. That's how I saw Blackpool steal the Cup from Bolton in 1953. The first programme I saw was on the evening the set was installed, and it sticks with me: Christopher Fry's The lady's not for burning. I read all he wrote after that, so television has its points. How many much younger than me can remember the first TV programme they saw? If you were born into a house with it, it saw you first. Its rarity in 1950 was such that it was really wireless with pictures.
We were wireless mad, mainly from loudspeakers relaying from the receiver in the office, and who can forget Dick Barton. Riders of the range, Big Bill Campbell's Rocky Mountain rhythm, Journey into space, Take it from here, and, of course, The Goon show? The hallowed time was 5pm on Saturday, with Sports report after Imperial echoes by a brass band. Then we took the piss out of Nobby Clarke whenever Port Vale lost - which was every week. Then, as now, Torquay United were always bottom of the Third Division - for some odd reason supported by Brian Pearson, from Orpington. Whatever doldrums our teams were in, we were not fickle with our loyalties, and I can remember more boys from the teams they supported than I can their faces.
Apart from the somewhat feeble activities covered in the section on teaching, our music came largely from Housewives' choice, Forces' favourites, and the broadcast proms. On the popular side, youth was not then an overt market and even coffee-bar skiffle was yet to come. There was little between The Teddy bears' picnic and Ted Heath, except Guy Mitchell, Nat King Cole and Winifred Attwell. Out main thing was Radio Luxembourg, with Jack Jackson and Horace Bachelor (famed for being from Keynsham, Bristol), supplemented by whatever 78s had been lifted from Woolworth's. Unfortunately the only gramophone, Vic Leggett's, was very unreliable. My memories of what got us going includes: Walkin' my baby back home (always shouted at me by Brian Reeves because of its opening line); There's a pawnshop on the corner (in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania); and On top of Old Smokey, and my fondest triggers of the time are Frankie Laine and the Sauter Finegan Orchestra. Not together, of course; but more's the pity.
Sadly, music was not a strong part of Red Hill ambience in the 1950s. There was a technical reason. Wireless sets, not yet radios, were not personal possessions until about 1952 when portables using relatively small 12-volt batteries were available. Some hobbyists, including me, built crystal and two-valve receivers; with earphones, fifty feet of ½" lightning conductor as aerial and all the moss on the Linen Cupboard roof as earth - and if we picked up one garbled voice speaking Latvian for five minutes we felt like Marconi. Not much music there.
Staff skivvies had access to good sets, as I with Leonard Bloom, who sprouted pomp and circumstance if other than "good music", like a symphony concert from Moscow, polluted his GEC. He bridled if I left it tuned to the Home Service or the Light Programme. He liked only two composers: Shosta and Kovich. The first live concert I ever heard was when he took me to the new Festival Hall for the first performance of (what else?) the Shostakovich Ninth, and my limited musical knowledge came from the reviews near the crossword in his New Statesman & Nation.
With the 1963 extensions, functional space, Ministry grants, a music teacher, and a Music Committee - things naturally changed, but ten years too late for me. Before then, but after I left, and about when skiffle prompted anyone with a tea-chest, broom handle and a length of string to start a band, Bill Baxendale set up one, and practised jazz for months for a public gig in Maidstone. All was perfect on the night, but no-one turned up, not even from Red Hill. He told me that tale to console me for his last memory of me at school. I had captained the football team for an away match against Sutton Valence Reserves, and no-one turned up - not even the Sutton Valence third team. There was another reason for the apparent unimportance of music. It was over Shaw's head. I never heard him once express any interest at any level, not even for Count John McCormack - unless you can count his penchant for a dirty ditty, to the tune of I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls, about tickling his grandfather's balls with a feather. I think he was tone deaf. It is good that in his 1963 book Maladjusted boys, he paid tribute to this later part played by music, and I am surprised it took him so long to think of it. However, there is a small clue to his delay, when he refers to the high cost of musical instruments.