My Diary

I remember little about my first school. I don’t think it gave me much apart from a lifelong loathing for turnips. These were a frequent component of school dinners and came as a pinky-orange mess, along with mashed potatoes, some sort of meat and gravy, and a wet, green substance that might have been cabbage. My problem was that you were not allowed to have any pudding – soggy and sweet and doused in thin, pale custard – until you had eaten your first course. My lasting memory of Cottingham School is sitting with a plastic beaker of water in one hand and a fork in the other, eating turnip, sipping water to dilute the taste, and trying not to gag.

I don’t remember having anything else against the place but I can’t have been happy. I got into the habit of packing it in at morning playtime and going home. This involved a good mile walk – the length of Hallgate, down Eppleworth Road and along St Margaret’s Ave. My mother was not pleased to see me, given that she had a two mile walk to take me back again. She was good about it, though. She even took my behaviour as a kind of compliment. The reason I kept leaving school was, she decided, because I was bright; the lessons bored me. This might have been true. Another explanation was that I was feeling rejected. My father was away at his new job in London and I had a baby sister at home who was now the centre of my mother’s attention.

Whatever the case, that first year was not a success. When we finally followed my father down south and I began attending my new school in Barkingside, they found I couldn’t read. My mother was astonished. Reports from Cottingham had indicated I was doing well. I was surprised too. As far as I was concerned, reading consisted of turning the pages of a book while reciting a story. The pictures in the book were prompts as to which bit of the story came next. How was I expected to read these strange new books when no one had told me what the stories were?

I liked The Glade Primary School. It was only a few hundred yards from home but I don’t think I ever availed myself of the opportunity to leave early. My school report for the term ending 19/12/49 records that my behaviour was ‘Good’ and that my work had ‘shown some improvement’. Moreover, I scored 9 out of 10 for reading. Only my composition (18 out of 30) and my arithmetic problems (22 out of 40) let me down. I came 19th out of a class of 41, a safe place to be.

The mediocrity of my composition was largely down to a daily exercise called ‘My Diary’ in which we were supposed to record the events of our lives.  I found this an excruciating task, almost as loathsome as eating turnips.  Faced with the heading awkwardly scratched in blue black ink in my exercise book, I felt nothing but an awful blankness.  What did my life consist of?  Swimming at the pool with my sisters, playing with my clockwork train set, going down to the buddleia bush at the corner of our street to catch butterflies: couched in such terms these experiences meant nothing.  They were drained of all significance.  I was, of course, incapable of capturing what they really meant to me – the strange blue coldness of the water in the pool, my complete absorption in the construction of a railway, the wonder and the lust for possession I felt at the red admirals and the peacocks fluttering round the long drooping clusters of pale mauve flowers.  My Diary forced me to stop and look at myself from the outside and acknowledge the truly insignificant creature that I was.   

Eventually, I solved the problem by a simple expedient.  I started to invent things.  There was nothing fanciful about these phoney entries.  I was either too judicious or too unimaginative to come up with anything obviously untrue.  I wrote, for example, about how my goldfish had died, even though I had no goldfish.  I had seen a dead one somewhere, though, floating upside down in its tank.  From this point My Diary became tolerable, even in a perverse way enjoyable.   I knew that I was lying and that this was wrong but I was willing to risk either God’s or my teacher’s wrath in order to avoid the possibility of judgement.  Paradoxically I was risking one kind of exposure to avoid another.

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