Posts for ‘View from the Teapot’

Goons

In the summer of 1951 I went to stay for a few days with the Wilkinsons. They were old friends of my parents and had been our neighbours too before we moved to London. They had three children: a boy and a girl about the same age as my older sisters and Murray, who was my age. Murray and I used to play together when we were quite small and I can remember one occasion when we decided to go carol singing. As it was some time in June or July, our efforts to gather funds by this method were not that successful. Responses from the houses we visited varied between puzzlement and tolerant amusement (does that add up to bemusement?).

I am not sure if Murray was the leader in the carols but he was in a number of other things. One was his enthusiasm for the Goon Show.

The first Goon Show, billed as Crazy People, broadcast on 28th May 1951.  Murray’s family must have been onto it quickly because he introduced me to it in July or August of that year, about two thirds of the way through the first series.  I was an instant fan.  The Goons drew me into a crazy world that was the obverse of the crazy world I was living in.  This was a world in which I could laugh.  It was built on the wild imagination of Spike Milligan, the protean acting talents of Milligan and Peter Sellers, and the manic energy that these two generated with Welsh tenor Harry Secombe.  The humour was anarchic and surreal but it was also curiously complicit.  You didn’t laugh at it or even with it.  You were there in the middle of it.  You were part of the joke. 

Radio is sound.  Silence is its enemy.  To the Goons, however, silence was anticipation and expectation.  One of the running (pun intended) gags: the sound of heavy boots pounding a pavement at about 20% faster than their normal speed, a pause of maybe two seconds, a resounding splash and, instantly, the high-pitched voice of Little Jim (Sellers) ‘He’s fallen in the water!’.  Often the silence would go on for longer and the anticipation would draw half-suppressed laughter from the radio audience or giggles from the cast (usually Secombe).  No other medium could be exploited in quite this way to draw you into it.  No other medium could hold you with, well, nothing.

When the Goon Shows were redone for television using puppets in the 1960s, they didn’t work.  One of the complaints about them is a standard response to the visual representation of characters from radio or fiction – they look different from the way I imagined them.  There are two ways to interpret this response.  One is that each of us creates our own fully rounded visual image of the character and it contradicts the image presented to us.  The other is that we don’t actually have fully rounded images at all, but pictures that are rudimentary, non-specific, flexible, and open.  The image in the new medium is not wrong but too concrete, too particular.  For me and, I would guess, for many others the second is the case.  I did not imagine Bluebottle as some small, skinny human wearing a wolf cub’s uniform, who I could have faithfully drawn if I had had the skill.  He was a voice, not disembodied because to be disembodied you must live in an embodied world.  Bluebottle lived in a world of sound.  When he got blown up in an explosion and cried, as he inevitably did, ‘You dirty, rotten swine!  You have deaded me!’, I didn’t need to picture blackened flesh or scattered limbs.  I didn’t have to picture anything at all.  On the contrary, if I had been offered a picture, it would have changed the reality and made it less than what it was.  The sonic world of the Goons was a medium in which the impossible could be made real and madness let loose.  Madness, of course, is a manifestation of the absurd.  It has a comic and a tragic face.  To hold that madness, to live in its grip, even for a little while, is to live without explanation or meaning. I have a suspicion that that is what we all must do in the end.

Cricket

Willow Crescent was an abandoned street not far from the edge of the Swain House estate near Five Lane Ends to the north of Bradford. At that time, it had just two semi-detached houses. Ours was the second. Outside our front gate, across the road, was a waste land of scrubby grass and beyond that a stone wall backed by trees. To the left the view was broader and bleaker. The wasteland stretched away until it merged with what might have been part of the Yorkshire Moors – rolling grassland, intersected by the rough black lines of dry stone walls that seemed to stretch away forever beneath a grey sky. The roadway stopped at our house but if you went a little further and fossicked about it the grass you could find bits of crumbing asphalt and the old kerbstones that marked the rest of the intended layout. Willow Crescent was a failed venture.

Bradford was a grey city. Most of the buildings, including the houses were made of grey stone. The air turned to thick, grey smog in winter and even in the summer time you had to bring the washing in as soon as it rained or else it would be covered in grey blotches.

Of course, I was depressed. Not only had I just lost my father but four years in London had turned me into a southern, middle-class milksop, unprepared for the working-class north. On my first day at Swain House County Primary School, I sat next to a snotty-nosed little girl who bestowed on me all the essential English swear words and then proceeded to explain them to me when I asked her what she was talking about. At least, I think that was what she was doing. Her heavy West Yorkshire accent was almost a foreign tongue. Shortly afterwards two boys were caned in front of the class, a stroke each across the palm of the hand by our teacher, Mr Dewhurst. I had never before witnessed such a thing and it filled me with terror.

I hated that class. For the first time ever, I was scared to go to school – not because I was threatened personally but simply because the atmosphere was so unthinking and brutal. I dealt with it by keeping my head down and behaving myself. My school report for July 1951 was unremarkable, although Mr Dewhurst gave me ‘Good’ for Scripture and noted alongside my C for Written English: ‘writes a good story’ and ‘uses punctuation marks very well’.

Happily, the school year ended after a few weeks and the long summer holiday came as a relief. That was the summer we went to the Isle of Wight and I fell in love for the first time. Back home I played cricket with a few of the neighbourhood kids on the wasteland outside our house. We had four stumps, a bat and a pitted compound ball and we paced the pitch out for ourselves. Most of our strokes consisted of hoiks to the leg side but I remember one occasion when Julian, one of the two boys who lived next door to us, connected with a shot the flew high and far to the off. I was fielding over there and I turned to chase. For a moment, I thought the ball was going to go over the wall into the next property where all the trees were but it fell just short. I ran to retrieve it.

I had never been that close to the wall before this. I knew it marked the edge of the grounds of  a big house that we could see as we walked up Wrose Road but I hadn’t paid much attention.  The wall was about was about four foot high and I could just see over the top. Beyond was a park-like area with beautiful trees just touched by the first signs of autumn. Fifty or so yards away, half obscured by the foliage was a cricket pitch, properly mown and laid out, with a game in progress. The players were wearing white, the batsman had real pads. One of them was wearing a cap in the colours of some club or school, maroon and orange circles. As I watched, the batsman received a ball and cut it stylishly backward of square.

‘Shot!’ someone said as he took off for the run.

I didn’t get chance to see any more. The players in my game were calling for the ball. Julian was was waving his arms triumphantly, claiming he’d scored a six.

A few weeks later, I went back to the wall for another look. I was by myself and felt an unprompted surge of curiosity about the cricket players. There was no one there, nothing to be seen except the trees and the close-cropped grass. I quickly turned away. I don’t think I ever looked over the wall again.

A Dream

Yesterday, I spent some time going through old photographs. Among the dozens of pictures of my daughter at two or three years old I found some shots I had taken in 1986 out at Paekakariki at the old railway yards. There were huge rusted cogs and axles, unidentifiable tanks and boilers, carriages and tenders. Old machinery interested me around that time and railway engines, especially those that ran on stream, have always fascinated me.  Over the last few days, too, I have been working on a piece that recalls a movie that I saw when I was eight years old about a train. In fact, my reason for going through the photographs was to find a picture of me at about that age.

wheels Boiler BigCogs-Small

Last night I had a dream, which seems to connect these images to the business of writing about my own past.  

I was in an old part of a city, a yard or the space where a factory had been pulled down and the rubble cleared away. I was messing around with a piece of machinery. It had a small, rusty boiler – the red surface dotted with big rivet heads like blisters – and a long thin pipe, kinked into a couple of right angles. I wasn’t trying to fix this thing; I just wanted to figure out how it worked. I unscrewed or twisted the end of the pipe. There was a gurgle and, suddenly, a jet of liquid shot out into my face. I flinched aside and the liquid kept on going, spraying right across the yard like a fire hose and splattering against a wall. My face was dripping and the right shoulder of my shirt was soaked through. I was scared for a moment that the liquid might be corrosive but there was no burning. The people with me managed to turn off the flow but they were worried about what I had done.

Then a young man arrived. He looked like Dan Carter and he worked for the corporation that owned the machine. I knew I was wrong to have fiddled with it and I was worried I would have to pay for breaking it. The young man wasn’t bothered about damage to the machine, however. It was only the escaped liquid that mattered. I told him that it did not seem to have done me any harm. Suddenly, I realised I was speaking with a Yorkshire accent.

The young man pointed to an area of ground behind me – flat but covered with rough grass. He told me there were plans to build a church there but now there was a problem. Maybe the liquid was dangerous. How could they build a church on what might be contaminated ground?

Makes perfect sense. Right?

Mot Juste

Last evening we went to the launch of Fiona Kidman’s new collection of poems, Where the Left Hand Rests (on the table, apparently). The French ambassador did the honours in beautifully accented English, reminiscent, as my friend Eric pointed out, of Inspector Clouseau. It was a nice occasion with a big crowd of family and friends and a fair number of pelicans in attendance. We were also celebrating Fiona’s seventieth birthday. Good on you, Fiona.

Afterwards, Barbara and I got talking to Louise Wrightson and mentioned this blemoir. Louise liked the word. She thought it sounded like a cross between a blemish and a pinot noir. We decided that maybe I had at last discovered the means by which I was going to make my stain on the world.

The Notch

My mother lied to get me into Auckland Grammar School. She was determined I should go to what she thought was the best state school in the city and no zoning regulations were going to stand in her way. She told the man at the Education Board that, although we were currently renting in Pt Chevalier, she was looking to buy a house in Epsom. Anyone who had an inkling of our finances would have known this was a blatant lie. The school itself didn’t care, of course. It had no problem bending the rules to accommodate new pupils with good academic or sporting records. My mother didn’t know this, however. She had a good Methodist conscience and worried about what she had done.

Grammar was familiar territory, very like the school I had gone to in England – a rigid hierarchy of streamed classes finely grained through the mechanism of examinations. There were two significant differences, though. The first was that we had to wear shorts – an ignominy for a thirteen-year-old who regarded long trousers as the first step into manhood. The second was corporal punishment.

In my old school the headmaster alone used the cane and then only for the most serious misbehaviour. Rumours of a caning circulated with hushed tones accompanied by puzzled speculation as to what crime could have merited such severity. At Grammar, every master had a cane – a switch of bamboo about a centimetre thick and a little over a metre long. Some had several. Beatings weren’t frequent but, in a school of a thousand boys, there were probably a few each day.

You had to bend over with your hands on your knees or on a desk. The noise of the stroke was something between a whistle and a whoosh before it landed with a thwack and a searing pain across your backside. One stroke was the standard punishment.

The best teachers never needed to resort to it. For others it was an aid to instruction. My fifth form French master, a South-African by the name of van Sambeek, gave us ten vocabulary items to learn every week. If a boy got more than two wrong in the Monday test, he received a stroke of the cane. I have to say the system worked. Seventeen years later, in a foreign country for the first time, dealing with a sick child and a doctor who had no English, I managed to dredge up the French word for mumps from somewhere in the buried store that van Sambeek had inculcated.

There was a mystique about being caned. Other boys treated you with mingled pity and awe. It was standard practice to cut a notch in your leather belt for every beating you received. Some boys had belts with many notches. Others managed to get through school without a single one. I had two on mine. Both were gained in the fourth form (year 10 in modern parlance), at an age when I suffered from the idiocy characteristic of fourteen-year old boys. The first was a mere nick, a trivial matter that arose from a few of us fooling around in assembly. The second was more dramatic.

Our English master that year was a man called Macrae. He was a good enough teacher – he taught us about similes, for example, a lesson that resulted in a riot of self-indulgence in my own writing – but he believed strongly in the rod. On one occasion, our class was taken by a visiting student teacher, a young man who was either inept or inexperienced or utterly without charisma. He failed to command the class’s attention. My friend Bob Nottage and I were sitting together in the back row and began fooling around, making wise-cracks to each other. Macrae was on the far side of the room observing the lesson. We were too stupid to realise he would notice.

He was furious, trembling with rage. He took us both off to a disused classroom and gave us two each. Unfortunately, by choice or chance, I was first and he broke the cane on me. My second stroke and Bob’s two were delivered with a shortened instrument and, consequently, with less force. I had two fine bruises across my backside, one of which went all the way round to the right hand edge of my pelvis. I cut an especially big notch in my belt for that one and, of course, I bragged a little, with due modesty.

These days such treatment would be outrageous, in legal terms a common assault. Did it do me any psychological harm? I don’t think so. On the other hand, it didn’t do me much good either. Bob and I never fooled around in Macrae’s class again but we did plenty of fooling in other places. 

I found it hard to judge the school while I was there. After I left and became immersed in the pinko-liberal politics of university in the early sixties, I turned against it, big time. It seemed archaic, a barbaric institution, a pillar of the establishment that I despised and a symbol of The System, which incorporated everything that was wrong with my parents’ generation. When my own sons came to secondary school age, my wife and I decided against Wellington College – the local equivalent of Grammar – and opted for the co-ed, non-hierarchical Wellington High School instead. Neither of them liked it all that much.

These days my attitude has mellowed. I think a good education has little to do with methodologies and institutional cultures. Our fascination with research and technologies has blinded us to what matters most. Learning depends first and foremost on giving students the right context and opportunity. Beyond this there is, perhaps, only one thing that makes a significant difference – good teachers.