Memories of Michael Jennings

I now live in Hampshire but returned to Maypole a couple of years before it was demolished. (I was a pupil in the late 1960's) I've written a short book about the trip, and here is an excerpt:

The redevelopment of Bexley Mental home loomed. We could see new housing being erected at speed, low cost, and with every available corner being cut to impress the latest generation of first-time homeowners. It was here that one Hiram Maxim financed and participated in what is claimed to be the first ever aeroplane flight. The year was 1894; a full nine years before the Wright brothers. Why that fact is not generally known outside of Bexley baffles me.

At the school all children had gone home and we considered it safe for a grown man to be loitering with intent to reminisce. The big gates that exposed the playground and the 1900’s building to the main road were still open as teachers gathered themselves and their classrooms into shape before departing for home.I pointed the camera and clicked hurriedly from the pavement at a mural painted wall on the far side of the playground; an oft repainted map of Kent that I’d first lent a hand to as a ten year old.

I passed along the perimeter wall upon the other side of which the sometimes banned pushing game of Squash Tomato was enacted. A simple breaktime pleasure, the origins of which could only be male, involved five or more pupils. Once a session had started numbers could easily swell into tens, all pushing each other bawling the chant: “Squash tomato, one, two, three” against one of the uprights in the wall. Inevitably, the boy sandwiched in the upright would be squeezed out to rejoin the shovers at the back, until one of the dinner ladies arbitrarily decided it was getting out of hand. Crushed rib cages, broken limbs and suffocation were, on reflection all possible, but I, as a small, somewhat frail boy, participated enthusiastically in this contact sport where movement was imperceptible, and along with others failed to see any danger, suffering none of these life-threatening problems.

As a mixed class we played kiss chase in the playground occasionally, and the feeling of shy naughtiness derived from the prospect of being kissed always outweighed the desire to offer. I stole a plastic ring from my sisters jewel box and presented it to Carole Waugh as a gift during a pause in the game. I have no recollection of what I, or she said, but I felt then what I would feel now at such a sentimental act: embarrassed. Terrible that I stole though.

Inevitably, other boisterous events of my five years at the primary school remain with me, such as the time I and a few other children were detailed P.E. monitors at the end of a gym period. This I can recall perceiving as a proud and sort-after responsibility within the class, and yet I think everyone had a turn at staying behind after the lesson to roll up green landing mats, gather coloured plastic playing balls, dismantle the jumping horse, and tidy it all away in the shed adjoining the hall. Usually this would be under the direction of the Gym teacher, but for some reason on this particular day, she was not present. Fuelled no doubt by the adrenalin of the previous workout we, upon realising the significance of being alone, ran amuck, climbing up the wall bars, swinging on the ropes, using all the vocal effects a-la-Tarzan normally stifled in the lesson. We treated the medicine balls* with disdain and subjected the plastic net balls to the sort of primeval behaviour they were never intended for, all over the room. This conduct being directly opposite to the instruction we’d hitherto been taught.

Shattering the noise with an arriving silence she was back in the hall glaring, and as every child halted as if to say nothing untoward was happening, still swinging ropes and bouncing coloured balls not subject to guilt gave us away. I, who during the melee thought it hilarious to have stuffed two plastic balls down my jumper and parade around in what I considered to be a passable female manner, stood unusually pert, unable to fold my arms around exaggerated breasts.

The punishment metered out for such a crime was clearly commensurate as I remember no more about the incident, whereas punishment I do recall for not eating all one’s school dinner was proportionately draconian. I am a little surprised that I managed to miss out on an eating disorder subsequent to that time as, for reasons that can only be guessed at, I failed to eat in a way others had ordained was “enough”. So I’d still be sat there long after my friends had vacated for the playground at a table for six, crying into the half-eaten cold meat and two veg with an exasperated teacher standing over me decrying that I could not leave; “until you have finished”. Occasionally, before events had reached this unfortunate stage, friends Trevor Walker or Peter Graves would consume parts of my dinner while I dreamed of ways to beat the system. Like John Mills in “The Great Escape” I explored the possibility of squirreling portions into small plastic bags and then placing them in my pockets for distribution through holes in the trouser linings onto the playground later, whilst whistling the whistle of the innocent. Though even at that age I could see flaws in the sketchy plan. Sometimes, relief came from a kindly dinner lady who, having been given the force-feeding responsibility after the teacher had left for their own lunch, could appreciate that an impasse had been reached, and offering a few words of comfort would let me go, dazed into the consequences.

Goodness knows why, upon leaving the school in 1968 Miss Clark, the short, old and outwardly hard headmistress presented to me my “St David” house badge with the words, written on an attached piece of card in her best calligraphic handwriting, “Courage In Spite Of Difficulty”. To this day I’m perplexed at these words in the context of my years at the school, but hey-ho one must accept any awards within the spirit they are given, and I believe the spirit was generous.

*I’m still unaware to this day why a “Medicine Ball” is called that or what its sporting purpose was. I don’t ever recall doing anything with such a heavy object except putting it away and getting it out!

Michael Jennings website

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