School-days: sewage, sex, sport and school dinners
When I was young, it was normal to have single-sex schools. That suited me very well. Boys were loud, rude and dirty. Apart from which, their mothers favoured them, and that made them pushy and arrogant. I dare say we were jealous of our brothers, but why should they get extra helpings of pudding? What did they do that we didn’t? We girls were the labourers in the home. We were the good children.
But some senior girls let our school down – the rotters! They were thirteen and should have known better. However, I’m pleased to say the miscreants came from posh homes. They never had anything to do with us lesser mortals, and so we were not dragged into their criminal activity.
We had been given the privilege of touring the new local sewage and waste disposal works. The sewage was very pongy but it was interesting to see what was floating on top – certain rubber objects that were often found in alleys and in the park. Boys would blow them up like balloons. Why would people put balloons down the lavatory? The liquid in the final tank was supposed to be fresh water, and the man said they used it for their tea. As far as I was concerned, it already looked like tea.
We viewed the latest means of recovering scrap metal, had a peek in the fiery furnace and watched them bundling waste paper for recycling. The naughty girls found a package of private letters written by a soldier to his wife and were in fits of giggles as they passed them around for their buddies to read. ‘When I come home, you know what’ became words of awe, wonder, thrills and tremendous excitement. The girls were going around telling others that the wife now had a baby – apparently from doing ‘You know what’.
But what had the married couple actually done? The girls obviously knew something I didn’t and I found that irksome. We outcasts heard that the girls were in big trouble – the wife in question came to school and demanded action or the police would be called in. It was a case of “He-he!” as far as I cared.
As we were expected to leave school at fourteen, we were to begin lessons about sex. What excitement! We were to be introduced to the mysteries of our very existence and that gave us a tremendous feeling of awe.
We gathered in the biology classroom with its long benches and stools, its wall pictures and never-used equipment; its cabinets and raised platform for the teacher’s demonstration bench. Compared with the rest of the tatty school, it was a grandiose place of learning. There could be no more fitting stage for the demise of our ignorance and the birth of new knowledge.
Textbooks were given out. We were given the page number. A little embarrassed, but decidedly curious, in silence we turned the pages. What did we find? The life cycle of the single-celled animal!
What a let-down. The biology teacher did not get away with it though. A few pages away we found something very interesting – pictures of frogs mating. So that was how “it” was done!
But if our school was shy about sex, our dog wasn’t. Every time she was on heat, she did a lot of humping with her bedding and anything else that happened to be handy. Mother would worry about her. Poor dog; was she being denied release of natural instincts? Should Jenny be allowed to have puppies? Of course, we girls thought puppies would be a very good idea. A large brown and white spaniel-type dog was sniffing around the house at the time. Mother decided he would make a decent mate for Jenny. We opened the side entrance gate to let him in. He didn’t oblige. Mother went out and dragged him in! He was introduced to Jenny in the garden and we went inside to let them get on with it. After a while, Jenny started howling. Why howl when she got what she wanted? Mother was now worried that Jenny was being hurt and went out to rescue her. But the deed was over and the borrowed dog was trotting off home. A few days later, my mother saw the borrowed dog with its owner. She told the lady that her dog had got at our dog.
“Really? I would be very interested if she has puppies. He’s a very old dog.”
Jenny had a beautiful litter. They were all like their dad. Now, was that how babies came to be born? But that did not explain all the touching and kissing business that humans engaged in. Or did it?
Today, I see kids going to school labouring with huge bags on their backs. At my girls’ school, I had nothing to take except ingredients on cookery days. Our education was simple: English, arithmetic, geography, history, biology, art, domestic science, sewing, religion and physical education. All textbooks were kept at school and all work was done at school. We had longer hours but life in those days was uncomplicated, in spite of rationing, certain restrictions, and the occasional bomb and air-raid siren.
For a year we had a whole day for learning domestic skills. There was no book learning. It was entirely practical. Half the day, we washed dirty clothes, and ironed with flat irons heated on the range; only the teacher used the one electric iron, which was plugged into the ceiling light. Washing was by hand or by boiling. We rinsed, wrung, rinsed with dolly-blue, wrung, rinsed with starched water, then finally wrung and put to dry on a pulley airer. Dirty clothes were soaked, cuffs and collars scrubbed, and if you accidentally took to school a grubby handkerchief in your washing bag, it had to be given disgusting treatment. Salt-water helps loosen green mucus and it’s just not nice before lunch!
We cooked simple dishes. Being wartime, there could be nothing fancy. And with nothing wasted, it was a wonderful foundation for good housekeeping: economical cakes and pastries, nutritious stews and pies. To make our Christmas cake we had to substitute soya for almonds, dates for sultanas, and a mix of condensed milk for icing. It was that good, my brother ate half the cake as soon as I got it home – greedy boy! Sometimes there would be little else than vegetables in the meat and potato pie, but they always looked great with their scalloped edging. And what did it matter if I accidentally used ginger instead of pepper? They were days of making do, pulling together, no complaints and getting on with it.
We had blackberries from the hedgerows, windfall apples from neighbours’ trees, cabbages from the allotment, and eggs from our own few hens. My brothers got the double-yoked ones, of course. Occasionally, we had a small share of a pig kept in someone’s backyard. Sweets were rationed but we were all the better for it. Mother made our own jam with the sugar ration and she pickled eggs, preserved fruit, preserved the grease from the Christmas goose for our poorly chests in winter, riddled the coal dust to help our fuel ration, and did many other things to keep the home fires burning.
Unfortunately our fires seldom fitted the picture that propaganda merchants liked to get around. Coal rationing made life difficult. There was no central heating. We had no electric fires, and power supplies were uncertain anyway. The kitchen range needed coal for heating water as well as for warmth. Gas pressure was low and would often fall even lower when a cake was in the oven. Our coats hung on the back of the kitchen door – not just as a place to keep them, but to get them dry. Mother would often go down to the coal wharf near the station to beg the coalman to bring us some fuel. It was very rare to have a fire in a room other than the kitchen.
One winter we joined with a number of other desperate people, digging through the wharf’s waste heaps to sift out fragments of coal. When a policeman arrived, a stream of women and kids with baskets, mothers with prams and pushchairs with babies sitting on top of nutty-slack, would rush from the site. The policeman would wave his arms and issue threats but no arrests were ever made. It was from cold damp homes that we left for school. School was warm and dry and a good place to be.
Clothes were on coupons. No worry about designer labels in those days; all our clothes bore the utility label. We had been taught at school to make do and mend. So I darned, stitched and patched, unpicked and made new. Everything was a challenge. No worry over what and how much to buy. Bread was brown or white, bacon was lean or fatty, butter was butter and marge was marge. You were allowed your ration and when you shopped, you handed over your ration book and asked for butter, lard, marge, cheese, and sugar. You bought your meat ration and queued for offal and fish. We were taught how to make the most out of what we had, and encouraged to swallow our daily spoonful of free cod liver oil and malt. We never went without and were seldom hungry. When bread was in short supply, our domestic science teacher told us that potatoes were better for us. When the potato crop failed, bread was the healthier food. Our parents and teachers taught us to adapt to circumstances and be satisfied with what we got.
During the long years of food rationing, Mother usually only allowed us to have either marge or jam, but not both, on our bread. Blackcurrant puree became a delicious substitute for jam, and we had it on bread and sometimes on puddings. Some poorer people sold their clothes and sweet coupons; there were always people ready to buy them. In times of emergency, such as a flood, food parcels arrived from the USA. Occasionally, Yanks would hand out goodies and nylons for either favours or out of friendship. Everyone became familiar with SPAM and different ways of using it. We ate other tinned food, but it could only be purchased using your coupon allowance. Tinned salmon and tinned fruit were especially prized and saved for special occasions. We queued for hours for sausage rolls, pastries and bread, which for most of the time were free of coupons. When soya flour became a good substitute for just about everything, my mother made us sweets and we ate ourselves sick.
The introduction of school milk was great. Before little bottles arrived, it was served to us in beakers. We had it in the large art room. You went through the door, picked up your beaker, drank your milk while you were walking round the room and then went straight out, having put down your empty container. Milk in little bottles was wonderful. When not heated up by the hot radiators, we had ice to crunch.
Then came school dinners. Fantastic! For one shilling (5p) we had a plateful of dinner and a pudding with custard. You were not allowed to leave anything on your plate but that was all right most of the time. However, being a greedy girl, I went back for seconds of a peas and beans mix. They still had some left over. After another helping, I threw up in the lavatory! All that food was so very new to me, and how awful to see it going to waste down the pan!
School discipline was strict but you knew where you were and what you could get away with – nothing! Take a day off and the school-board man would be calling on your parents. Be cheeky and it would be a visit to the horrid headmistress. Pass a book forward or talk at the wrong time and the result was a whack on the hand from Miss Crosby. Stammer on your reading and receive a caustic comment from Miss Smith: “No wonder you failed your eleven-plus oral exam, Gladys. You can do better than that.”
A few teachers were warm and friendly and had more creative methods of teaching. School plays and concerts were organised, whereupon my friend and I were daft enough to put on our little acts. When asked to create a natural aquarium in the biology room, we were an hour late getting to another teacher’s boring lesson. Our biology teacher was a gem and we would do anything for her. But it isn’t what she taught that I remember her for, it is the witness she gave about her baptism. She told us how she went down into the water and came up a changed person. Angels came into it somewhere and the look on her face was quite something. She glowed.
Having failed the eleven plus oral (not surprising when I told them I wanted to be a dancer or an artist) I later passed the test for pupils in their fourteenth year to go to the Nottingham Secondary Art School. It was a two-year course; half the day spent on regular subjects and half doing nothing but art and craft. There were only thirty pupils to a class instead of forty-three or more. I blossomed!
I had a grant for a black blazer and badge, two shirts, a grey jumper and a tie. I bought a second-hand grey skirt for five shillings but it fell to my ankles when the zip broke. To save money, my disabled dad thonged together a grey leather satchel. It was a lovely bit of craftsmanship but everyone else had the usual tan leather ones. Because the uppers of my shoes were worn, my dad stitched on little patches. I felt the shame of poverty terribly, especially when, instead of the uniform navy gabardine, I had only a second-hand pea-green coat to wear. In the playground I stood out like a huge parrot. Needless to say, I wore my blazer throughout most of the two winters.
I had other essential items throughout my schooling: a vest to keep me warm and to give tenuous support to my growing breasts; and that inevitable bastion of defence – our navy-blue bloomers. Unfortunately, they tended to bulge the skirts of the yellow dresses we were allowed to wear in summer. Of course, elastic had a habit of perishing, or breaking free of the stitching, and could let you down badly. Sometimes you had to rely on the leg elastic to spare your blushes. Thankfully, skirts were at mid-calf length! Gym knickers were useful for PE and it was handy to have their secret pocket. With classes of boys at the art school, perhaps they were essential. The girls’ lavatory was on a half-landing and the boys had a habit of hanging around the bottom of the staircase. I guess, seeing a bare knee between sock and knickers must have been a very erotic experience, or they would not have risked being caught where they were not allowed. Girls today have got it wrong – too much on display is not necessarily alluring, but what is hidden can send boys wild! I should mention that the headmaster was a bit of a tyrant. He dragged two boys out of their classroom for whistling at my friend and me when we had taken in their crate of milk at playtime, and gave them a good caning for their disgraceful behaviour.
But boys will be boys. Some of them joined the photography club and made the most of the darkroom, or so a friend, who was a member, told me. Since I saw my friend in the arboretum, sitting in a shelter with a boy’s hand inside her blazer, I did not find it hard to believe. What did they do in the dark? Frankly, at that time, I thought touching was abhorrent – only allowed by tarts – and I could not understand why she allowed it.
The only time the boys officially mixed with the girls was during the last term of the two-year course. Since it was a two-classroom school with no hall – the other year’s two classes would be at the Art College – they joined us for dancing lessons in the YMCA gymnasium. What a lark!
Some of the boys may have acted macho to impress the girls in the playground but when it came to exposing their inadequacies in front of a whole class of girls they were all scared rabbits. They bunched up together one side of the hall while we girls were at the other. Of course, it has to be said that we had had a bit of practice. But it was not a good thing for us girls to dance together. Both my friend and I were well endowed in the upper regions; we couldn’t stop giggling as we constantly bumped our assets.
Being awkward with the dance movements was embarrassing for the boys, but being pressed up to us girls is what the they dreaded most. The teacher was without mercy. When the boys refused to choose a partner, she would grab a lad by the wrist, drag him across the floor, and slap him against a girl, chest to breast! Fearful of the same treatment, the rest of the boys would immediately speed across the room to find a partner.
“You can’t dance at a distance. Hold your partner close up,” she would bellow, frustrated by the boys’ obstinacy.
Of course, they did no such thing. Whatever they might have got up to in the arboretum, in that dance lesson they fought shy of close contact. So the teacher went around slapping the couples together. The boys’ hormones inevitably played tricks with their anatomy. Needless to say, we had some very hot and flushed young men in that dancing class.
I can’t say we were thrilled at dancing with coy stiff-limbed boys. They seemed to have a habit of practising football tackles in the middle of a quickstep.
But, I have to admit that dancing with the boys was preferable to playing hockey with the girls. One girl in particular had a reputation for knocking out the front teeth of her opponents with her hockey stick. Apparently she never fouled; it was the others who got in the way! She would carve a path through the opposition like a hot knife through butter. Scaredy-cat girls like me just ran out of her way and hoped she would trip up on her own hockey stick. I can see that girl now: reddish long fuzzy hair, a wild look on her face, a strong athletic build and a bombastic talker who seldom had a nice thing to say about anyone – well, at least, not about me! But I must admit I was useless at hockey. When I did get the ball passed to me I always managed to hit it straight to the opposition.
I was hopeless at swimming too. When practising a roll at the side of the bath to get us used to our head being under water, I would inevitably end up like a duck – head down, bottom up – and have to be pulled out. The teacher got used to receiving my not-well-this-week notes, and either thought I had a major period problem or accepted I was a serious risk to her teaching career.
At my previous school I was part of the netball team – that is, when the regulars failed to turn up. I must have been the only shooter that never scored a goal in a match. At least, I was keen. I practised shooting at my friend’s house. We found an old bent iron ring discarded from a netball post. My dad put it back into shape and my friend and I, between us, fixed it to a drainpipe in the courtyard of their big house. I don’t think leather balls were available in wartime – we could not have afforded one if they were. Plastic ones did not exist. So I made a ball out of oilcloth table covering. It was a trial and error method of making a pattern. Eventually, about eight segments roughly made up the spherical shape. I stitched it together on our ancient Singer, stuffed it with kapok, hand-stitched the gap, and we had the perfect ball to practice our shooting technique. Perfect, that is, to ensure remarkable accuracy in the courtyard with no opposition, and just the job to make sure I would never score in matches! The weight, shape and feel of the ball were all just too different. Of course there is a simpler reason for not scoring. I was useless!
I was no better at athletics. Fancying myself as a high jumper, I nearly injured my back. Entering for the hurdles, I did not even reach the finishing line. I managed to knock down every hurdle, bruise my legs and fall flat on my face. Try running and I always came last. But, one thing I was terrific at was the three-legged race. Unfortunately it was not a school event, but in local community competitions my friend and I won every time. It was not because we were good runners, but because we spent hours practising on their large lawn. It was a lesson in coordinating our movements, especially as we were a little and large couple.
I may not have been the athletic type, but I did well in all academic and creative subjects. Of course, lessons were totally different to today’s approach to learning. No computers, no televisions, and although most people had a wireless, it was not something we had in schools. It was mostly chalk and talk with the occasional visit. On one occasion we were taken to see Henry V at a city cinema but I was so bored I dropped off to sleep!
Our art classes were fantastic: lettering, nature drawing, memory and imagination, weaving, fabric printing, dress design, dress decoration, pattern cutting, dressmaking and others. We were a privileged few and proud to have been chosen. I guess being happy at school and rightly placed – perhaps a lesson for today’s education system – ensured we all worked hard. I shone in every subject.
Towards the end of the final year, the whole school of one hundred and twenty pupils went on a visit to London. We caught an early morning train and set off on what for me was a great adventure. I had never been so far away from home. But, although we had a very interesting time in the great city, what was most memorable was what happened on the way home.
Unfortunately, our group, along with two others, missed the train. This was more of a devastating blow for our nice teacher than it was for us. She was the one the head was most furious with. I can see him now, pacing the platform with wrath distorting his face into an ugly grimace. If he had had his cane with him I’m sure he would have whacked the lot of us. Buses that were meeting the train had to be rescheduled to allow for our late arrival. A lot of telephoning had to be done to change the arrangements. The majority of parents could not be contacted because few people had telephones in those days and there was considerable concern about pupils getting home very late.
By the time the train steamed into Nottingham station and we boarded our buses to take us home it was very late indeed. I was very tired but some of the pupils were being very lively; a lot of kissing was going on and a bit more besides. This in spite of having a responsible adult in charge of us. A student teacher nicknamed Mr Inkwell, who had helped supervise the groups of schoolchildren, was on the bus to make sure we got to our individual bus stops safely. We girls, now fifteen, thought he was fantastic. I sat there tired and dreamy, thinking about this gorgeous guy who was sitting up on the top deck.
I was also wondering why girls were coming down the stairs and going back up with one or two others. At first I thought it was just the lads getting a bit of what they wanted, but it soon became obvious what the main attraction for that evening was. Each time students left the bus, it was Inkwell’s job to make sure they did so safely. He came down the stairs and before reaching the bus stop, girls were giving him a final kiss before parting. They were nearly all at it. I was feeling quite jealous but I was much too shy to do anything about it. I never knew if the headmaster found out but we didn’t see Inkwell again!
I was never a popular girl at our art school. I was far too shy to make many friends and no other girls came from my area of Beeston. I had a lovely friend called Olive, but she left early when her family moved. I also had a friend called Mary. She was the one I danced with at school – you might say that we were bosom friends! Mary had a very close boyfriend called Pinter whose hormones were well developed, and who had a friend called Jake. It was inevitable that the four of us would occasionally meet up in the arboretum during our lunch breaks.
One lunchtime, the know-it-all Pinter was giving us the benefit of his knowledge concerning fighting and self-defence. He asked me to stand up so he could demonstrate a point. Gullible as usual, I obliged. He took my arm and twisted it round my back, causing me to howl in pain, and then cry like a baby as he held on to it. In absolute fury, Jake jumped on him and started to beat him up.
Swinging his fists, my hero yelled, “Leave her alone, you swine!”
It was the first time I had seen Jake in action – any action. I was very impressed and my opinion of him went up a few notches. It was a rotten thing that Pinter had done and I couldn’t understand why Mary went out with him. The fact that she was grinning throughout the whole episode probably meant that she enjoyed the excitement he engendered.
As you might expect from a sensual person like Pinter, he was always ready to tell dirty stories and raunchy jokes. I laughed along with the others, mainly because I didn’t want to show my ignorance. For in truth, being ignorant about sexual matters, I was not aware of the significance of most dirty jokes.
Every time Pinter saw a male with his hands in his pockets, he would laugh and say that he was playing pocket billiards. I twigged the possibility of a willie being used like a billiard cue, although the only male genital organs I had seen were those of babies, a young boy’s pencil-like object, and a man’s rubbery hose-pipe thingy (he was peeing up our house wall at the time). But billiards needed balls as well. Was Pinter saying that certain males went around with balls in their pockets to get their willies excited? Better to laugh than ask questions and become the fall guy for his jokes. I would be the laughing stock of the whole school.
Children can be so cruel. A few months earlier, I’d had a chair pulled away from under me when I was about to sit down. It had happened one wet lunchtime when the room was full of boys as well as girls. I fell badly and it was an incredibly painful and humiliating experience. The prefect told the boy off but the room was already full of shouts of glee and laughter.
In many ways I was a romantic young lady. With the cinema providing the main entertainment in the nineteen-forties, I saw a lot of films and I had my heartthrobs just like other girls did. In those days, actors in films were only allowed to kiss; touching and any other sexual activity was absolutely forbidden.
But eye contact and kissing was enough to stir the young female heart. I would fantasise about such things. Since I had nothing to put in my diary, I once wrote that I was not sure of my love for Jake. Of course, someone at school grabbed my diary and read out the only words in the book. It was lunchtime and Jake was in the classroom. I was mortified. Nearly everyone was laughing but he was looking very pleased with himself. Poor lad, what sort of message did it give him? No way did I love him.
Before the end of our two years, Jake raised the courage to give me a kiss. Pinter, who was doing very nicely with Mary, had been trying to get him to do it for ages. In a way, I wanted him to kiss me because he was a nice boy – even if he was stiff and awkward. But I have to confess that his pimples put me off. His face was a little bristly too, because shaving would have made his pus-filled spots worse.
We were in the arboretum when he finally summoned up enough courage. Pinter was having a sloppy session with Mary to show him the way. Not that Jake required showing but he certainly needed encouraging.
“Come on, Jake, it’s now or never. She’s standing waiting. Do you want me to show you how?”
Pinter grabbed hold of me, but Jake yelled, “No! You leave her alone.“
“Do you mind if I kiss you, Gladys?” he asked nervously.
I felt like saying, “Get on with it!” Instead I whispered, “No, I don’t mind.”
I closed my eyes and waited. He didn’t put his arms around me. He just came close up and bent his head to reach me. I felt the touch of his lips on mine, along with a slight brushing of the short bristles of his chin and upper lip. I knew the horrid pus-filled spots were close to my flesh but I tried not to be repulsed by them. And that was it. After we left school, we never met again.
To be continued…
When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in RED BOXES by Gladys Hobson
Published by Magpies Nest Publishing