In memory of Simon Ferrari, Maypole C.P. 1955 – 1961?
Let me take you back to a time long before the personal computer, when the Austin/Morris Mini was a gleam in Alex Issigonis’ eye, when television screens were 12 inches diagonally (and in someone else’s house!) when no one but their own nearest and dearest knew or cared about John Lennon and Macca. I’m talking 1956. The year I first pitched up at the Maypole C.P.School on Dartford Heath’s dusty fringe.
Mum, Dad and me had arrived in Summerhouse Drive the previous year, going upmarket from our semi in Barnehurst. There were a lot more trees in Bexley. The top of the road was still an unmade rutted track although some of the houses, like ours, had already been there for more than twenty years. The designs for the new Joydens Wood estate were making their way through the Council’s planning committees. The 50’s housing boom would begin among the greenery with enterprising self-build projects for those with the D.I.Y skills of TV’s Barry Bucknell. At the end of our long back garden The North Kent Sun Club kept prying eyes away from its naturist activities by hanging curtains in the trees. Our car was a 1930 Riley with running boards and no heating. With a tear in his eye Dad passed it on to a bloke with a shed on Bexley station drive for a fiver or so. Petrol cost just three and threepence a gallon then. Work out the price per litre, compare it with what you pay at the pump now, and weep with him.
My mum reckoned the walk to school at three-quarters of a mile. Since I baulked at the first school dinner I tried (did I have good taste, or was I just a fussy eater?) she found herself doing the trip four times a day. Down leafy Summerhouse Drive, along Tile Kiln Lane at the back of the Mental Hospital, turning right at the hexagonal toll house into Baldwyns Park where Hiram Maxim allegedly once tried to get an airplane airborne with the aid of a set of rails. Then right at the T-junction by Mr. Henderson’s shop and up the hill past St. Barnabas’ white clapboard church into the little hamlet opposite the hospital gates on the corner of the Heath. A lady fell under the 401 bus there one day. Was it accident or design? In that neighbourhood you could never be quite sure. Despite the fact that many of the unshaven, sad old men seemed to emerge from the gates with their trousers undone, the hospital inmates caused no difficulties to us children. Or maybe no one ever saw fit to enlighten me about the bad things that did go on. These days the close juxtaposition of the two institutions would result in lurid newspaper stories and a public enquiry.
Later on, when Mum had started running her small nursery school, presumably to stop herself going bonkers while Dad was away each day earning the family’s money in W.1, the walk to school by myself became a bit of a trial. I was small, fair-haired, timid, physically weak, and fair game. If a Maypole brown and gold cap was going to get thrown over a wall, it was obviously going to be mine. And I was naturally going to take it to heart, whereas the kid who threw it wasn’t going to give a damn. Very gradually and painfully, I began to acquire something approaching self-confidence. It still rankles that the very first time I took matters into my own hand, landing a very satisfying crunching blow on a tormentor’s nose, his mum complained to my mum. The incident occurred just by the scrubby mound outside the school gates where there’d been a World War 2 air-raid shelter. I can’t remember what occasioned the assault, but it drew more blood than I’d reckoned on. Some of the time after that, he and I were mates, but he was better at football than me.
In my last year or two at the school I would persuade someone to go the long way home via the Heath and the allotments opposite Henderson’s. In my head this was transgressive behaviour. I had a gnawing fear that either a teacher or my parents would learn of it and punish me. Oh yes, I was a wimp, all right, give or take the occasional unexpected right jab. It’s interesting to look at the rest of one’s life, and see how patterns of behaviour persist and recur…
The school’s perimeter was bounded by a high orange-red brick wall. There was a gate which led onto the older boys’ playground. If you were in Class 4 it was there you played ‘British Bulldog’at morning break. Ball games weren’t generally allowed: too many windows. The older girls had their own play-space too, on the far side of the two mobile classrooms which sat on the Heath side of the playground. The main school buildings formed an ‘L’ shape. Two of the classrooms had a partition which could be slid aside to make a small school hall. In the angle of the ‘L’, a corridor ran through to the infant classrooms at the back where their school assembly was conducted, and where lunch was served. A verandah ran along the length of the ‘L’ offering shade from the wind and rain. The caretaker was a rough and ready ‘heart of gold’ sort of bloke – was his name Mr. Stockford? - with the kind of deeply weathered skin you rarely see now. When you look at images of such folk on old photographs, say on a working narrow boat, you think maybe it’s a trick of the light or the method by which the photo was taken, but not so. He looked that way because of decades of grimy work in the open air, every day, all weathers.
The tarmac surface of the school’s playground and I became well acquainted. I don’t know whether I fell over more than most children, but my knees were permanently scabbed and scarred by regular contact between it and me. One craze of the times was to contrive ‘races’ between ‘Dinky Toy’ or ‘Corgi Toy’ models of Grand Prix racing cars. Stirling Moss, and then Jim Clark and Graham Hill were the driver-heroes of the day, and we pushed our replica Ferraris, BRMs and Lotuses down the slope of the playground as far as we could with them at the imaginary controls. My wheels were never well-enough oiled to win. Nor were my conkers somehow ever sufficiently hardened in the oven to last more than the first couple of contacts in that autumn competition. Although he never went to the Maypole, the late Tony Brise, who was Graham Hill’s young and successful Formula 1 protégé was a classmate at Eltham College. We never knew that he was already a karting champion while he was at school. To me he was just the kid who had asthma far worse than I did.
The school did very poorly for P.E. and games. There was no dedicated teacher of the subject that I remember, and apart from token physical jerks in the playground and the very occasional game of rounders in our last year or two, there was little to make us ‘wind of change’ kids fit. Once a week during winter we would troop off to the Crayford side of the Heath to play desultory games on the pitches over there, divided into A,B,C and D teams. There was little in the way of coaching, and no incentive to improve. The school football team seemed to play one or two matches a year versus Oakfield Lane or Wentworth. When I was in Class 3 we beat Oakfield courtesy of a scrappy goal from Simon Ferrari. Subsequently when we’d both gone to Eltham, he and I became friendly and I then discovered he was no better at football than me. But at the Maypole I languished unconsidered on the D team’s right wing, chasing the ball as hard as my asthma would allow. I was cricket mad, but there was nowhere safe to play within reach, and no one else seemed to share my passion for the game. They did try to teach us to swim, from time to time putting us on a coach to Rowhill School in Hextable where there was a pool. The route took us through the narrow confines of Puddledock Lane. We looked forward to the journey because there was always the chance of the bus getting stuck or forcing perilous reverses from oncoming cars and trucks. I now know that the dense chlorination of the pools of that era would only have exacerbated my wheezing. I never learned to swim satisfactorily, although I think I once came third in picking the brick off the floor of the swimming pool at the annual ‘swimming gala’. I think I’ve never really been given the credit I deserve for that.
Was there actually any maypole dancing? I don’t remember any, although ‘country dancing’ was a regular feature of summer activities. Some things haven’t changed in primary schools. The peace of our back garden in Northampton was disturbed at the end of the summer term 2012 by a much amplified though elderly record player churning out the same crackly tunes that accompanied our doh-c-doh’ing in 1960. One summer there was a fete on the Heath where we danced and then so did an adult group to show us how it ought to be done. Purists would have been grossly offended. The dancers were women, and I chiefly remember the event for the shocking glimpses of stocking-top it afforded as skirts flew and flounced to ‘Red River Valley’ and the Cumberland Square Eight.
The headmistress of the Maypole school in my day was Mrs.Chambers. Under her leadership the Maypole was a relatively enlightened place. There were rumours that someone had once been given ‘the slipper’, but no definite evidence to that effect. People did have their legs smacked for really outlandish acts of insubordination, but not me (how smug is that?), and actually I think it was a reasonably rare occurrence. After all we were mostly very nice middle-class children. Mrs Chambers was evidently an Anglican (I remember her saying she would have liked an altar in the room where assembly was held, which as a Baptist boy I found rather shocking), and I now suspect her of being somewhat shy. She didn’t herself take any lessons and I don’t remember a conversation with her personally, although we probably swapped a few words before I left for ‘big school’. The only other thing I know about her was that she lived close to Leyton Cross.
The infant teachers I remember with mixed emotions. There was one against whom I still hold a grudge. She thought she heard me talking in class and wouldn’t believe me when I pleaded that she was mistaken. My injured innocence only raised Miss Sant to new heights of ire. On the other hand Miss Loten, Karen Loten, I think, had a beautiful face and a beguilingly soft Northern Irish accent.I was very taken. Likewise with Miss Tillyard, my form-teacher in Class 2,who was a thoroughly modern miss, short permed hair, pretty and slim, with tight skirts in the 1959 style to a little below the knee. My friend Rosemary said she thought they were ‘cruel’. Simon later confessed to dark and intimate fantasies about her.
Once out of the infants, we were passed into the kindly hands of Mrs Hunt in Class 1, where I began to flourish academically for the first time. Then came Miss Tillyard in Class 2 (parodied by my dad as Miss Tiltyard –well, there is one by Eltham Palace!) Then a succession of very good male teachers in Classes 3 and 4 – this was a primary school with no less than three men, so by contemporary standards how lucky were we! First lovely and amusing Mr. Beresford, who was the deputy head-teacher, then the rather austere and somewhat younger Mr. Hembury after Mr. Beresford had been snapped up to be the Head of another school, and finally the avuncular and cultured Mr Rawlings who looked after us through our 11+ exams and out the other side into the world of the swingin’ sixties.
The music in the school was in the excellent hands firstly of Mrs Cridge (abundant with glasses, red lipstick, and dark pageboy hair) and then Mr. Tagell. Concerts were long, as primary school concerts often are. There was a lot of singing and much recorder playing, and I got the chance to have proper piano lessons and even to try my hand at the fiddle in what must have been an excruciating-sounding school band. Thank heavens my hands at last started to work with a degree of independence on the keyboard, and after an uncertain start one of the directions of my life was set. I never could get to grips with the violin: it always felt uncomfortable and unnatural. Rosemary and I played recorder duets at the Crayford Music Festival even after we’d left the Maypole. Corelli, I think. The adjudicator said nice things.
But one of the worst emotional experiences of my life occurred in a Maypole concert. Playing a simple Beethoven Ecossaise, I looked down at my hands, lost my place in the music, and stopped. I was devastated. It’s left me to this day with a bad relationship between my memory and the music I play. Even if I know something inside out (I was going to say ‘like the back of my hand’) I need the music and lyrics in front of me. Mr Tagell may not have been the best piano teacher, but he was a great encourager. Once in Class 4 he took four of us in his Austin A40 all the way (!) to Maidstone for a County Music Festival. We’ve lost a measure of trust and opportunity between children and adults over fifty years.
I know they tried to get us to develop an artistic sense: I remember charcoal drawing a tulip with the fiery Miss Pepper (was that really her name?). However it’s one of the things that now amazes me: nowhere in either of my schools did anyone really fire my interest in the visual. Art education was invariably unimaginative. What a paradox and what a pity! One of the teachers left the comment on one of my reports ‘Messy, but improving!’ It inhibited me for years. Likewise I don’t remember drama of any sort beyond the tableaux of a nativity play. Presumably whereas there was talent amongst the teaching staff musically (even Mr. Rawlings tried us out on some music appreciation in Class 4), there was no thespian enthusiasm.
I had no trouble with the maths and English of the 11+ exam, but the spatial (‘intelligence’!) tests floored me, and it took some coaxing and coaching by my parents to get me through. Once we’d survived this ordeal, the rest of the final year was spent engaged in project work. It was a golden time, exploring the world in a more relaxed way: I still have some of what we did then. Quite a few of us, both boys and girls, were lucky enough to pass the 11+. Most followed Mick Jagger’s footsteps to the Dartford schools, though I think Jimmy Crawford went to Chislehurst and Sidcup, and I opted for the blue and gold of Eltham. Before we left we even went on a proper day’s outing to Portsmouth by train, a sign of the changing nature of Britain It was a treat born of a new prosperity, a forerunner of today’s school expeditions which almost routinely take pupils on exotic language exchanges and sports tours to Australia and Argentina.
Dartford Heath was a wonderful place. It split the catchment area. Some children like Rosemary came from its far side near Dartford. Others of us lived at the Bexley end. Particularly before it was divided and diminished by the A2 dual carriageway and its feeder roads, it was a space sufficiently large that one could never get satisfactorily lost whilst it always retained its air of intrigue. There were winding paths, and hills and holes formed by the remains of WW2 military camps. It was a great place to ride a bike, albeit at the risk of frequent punctures. I used to escape there until late in my teens, trying to forget the sadness of my mother’s long illness. One Saturday afternoon I remember lying on my back on the thick grass between the gorse watching aircraft fly overhead on their way to the Biggin Hill Air Show, the sky filled with a procession of Canberras and V-bombers, Spitfires and Tiger Moths.
It’s important to say what there wasn’t at the Maypole. There were no graffiti, were there? Nor were there any ‘Cider with Rosie’ experiences, at least not that I remember or will admit to. I don’t even recall any bad language. It came as a real shock to encounter rude words at Eltham – the ‘School for the Sons of Missionaries’. And there were no confrontations between staff and pupils of the sort that became all too familiar when I joined the teaching profession for a while in the late seventies.
I don’t know that I exactly relished my time at the Maypole School: as a small boy I was too frightened by my first encounters with the world for that. But I now think with enormous affection about that time, my teachers and all those with whom I shared classrooms. I must have spent a great deal of time observing the people around me and learning about life from them: they remain a significant part of me now. They crop up unexpectedly in dreams from time to time, and doubtless form the basis of characters in my writing too. They probably won’t remember me, most of them. I’ve doubtless forgotten some of them too, for which I apologise.
The girls: whose strength of character, kindness and academic competition made good role models for later, more grown-up relationships.
Rosemary, Nina, Marilyn, Monique, June, Christine, Susan, Mary, Carol, Carole, Rosamund, Wendy…
The boys: whose interests and obsessions sparked my own, and whose physicality gradually hardened me to the demands of adult life.
Steve C., Jimmy, Steve E, Robert, Murray, David, Paul, Nicholas, Peter, Richard, Simon, Keith, Graham, Christopher, Anthony, Malcolm B., Malcolm C., Peter, Ian, Vernon, John E.,John W., Adrian…
Our house in Summerhouse Drive has gone now. So has the Sun Club. So has the school. The landscape has changed. But what seems more remarkable and comforting is what remains.
Vince Cross September 2012
Copyright Vince Cross