Back to School
I set off from Southport on a cycle ride into the past.
My destination is my junior school, about ten miles south in Formby.
This will be my first time back for fifty years.
The cycle-path runs alongside the coast road. It would be comfortably wide enough for two bikes had the marram grass not overgrown the path. Vehicles roar past on the road to my right. Out here, perched up on a bike in the open, you can hear and feel the murderous potential of the motor car. Cycling, at times, can be fraught and noisy. Beyond the road, miles of large sand dunes run parallel to the coast, anchored against westerly gales by grass and gorse. It’s a pleasant ride but spoiled somewhat by the constant stream of vehicles.
Finally, we come to a cycle-path interchange, a mini version of Spaghetti Junction - Noodle Crossing perhaps? Whatever it’s called, I turn right into the woods where I’m immediately among magnificent, tall pine trees riding on a firm gravel path. There’s a slight crunch from my tyres but the sound is absorbed by the trees and their carpet of needles. It’s peaceful in here and there’s that wonderful, fresh smell of pine woods.
I’m transported back five decades. I used to walk and run through these woods when I was released from the boarding school where I was incarcerated all those years ago. I was there between the ages of ten and thirteen, away from home for the first time. Pretty daunting really.
I remember my very first hours at school, pretty much in despair after Mum and Dad had dropped me off. The school put a film on and I sat in the gloom not knowing a soul. Then one lad came up and tapped me on the shoulder. He realized I wasn’t who he was expecting. He said, ‘Oh. Sorry,’ and left me in my bubble. What was the film? No idea.
I learned some things in those early years but lost plenty too. I had to ‘toughen up’ because my Mum wasn’t there to hold my hand or tend a graze. From this point on, nobody held my hand. My makeshift mother, a buxom, dyed-blonde matron, with a loud voice and bandy-legged gait, showed little sympathy and less tenderness. She would sing a silly song that took the piss out of my name. One of us found it amusing. The only really positive thing I can recall is making sporting friends. I was fortunate that cricket, football and rugby came pretty naturally, also music. I certainly wasn't the best, but at least I was good enough to join in. I would have been a very lonely lad if I’d just to rely on the academic side alone. It doesn’t help when you’re thick!
I lost contact with my mates back home, friendships dissolved because of my disjointed progress through early teenage years. Friendships I would never properly regain. When I did return home on school holidays I could feel my young friends gradually drifting away. Eventually our paths diverged to such a degree that we were different people. In effect, we became estranged in a common home town. It was a disjointed, peculiar feeling. My biggest regret was that they had stayed at home had each other for ever, while I bounced about on the periphery. My early friends are now acquaintances at best.
Actually, it’s the school’s ghost I’ve come to find. I almost said, ‘come and pay homage to’, but that’s not really right, I have mixed memories. It closed in 1992, some say amid whispers of impropriety - one person I spoke to referred to ‘handling’ - but I don’t really know. All I do know is that the former sports fields are now a modern housing estate. Well, modern twenty-five years ago.
I cycle round familiar-looking roads but my memory has failed me. Remember I’ve not been back for most of a lifetime. There’s one large house on a corner that may have been the main school building. Though I listen hard I can’t hear the echoes of children. I wave down a jogger, a very stylish, slim young lady listening to something through ear pods via her gold telephone. If she’s alarmed to be stopped by a green blob in a helmet, she doesn’t show it and presents me with a pristine set of pearly white teeth.
I point down the road and ask if the large building on the corner used to be a school. Looking perplexed she said she’d no idea, despite the fact she lives next door.
‘Thanks anyway,’ I say pleasantly, thinking to myself, unobservant git.
I cycle on cursing her lack of interest in my quest.
Then I happen upon two middle-aged (to be polite) ladies who tell me the school was actually one block over, on the road to the south. We chat for a little while, talking, as older people tend to do, about how good things used to be. I thank them and apologize in absentia to the lady with the gold phone. I understand that Formby (and it's satellite, Freshfield) has been invaded by professional footballers. The footballer’s wife is probably calling her husband on the training ground telling him what a dodgy neighbourhood they’ve landed in, suggesting they engage security guards to keep porky, middle-aged riff-raff out of the vicinity.
The main school building has been demolished, in its place a modern five-bedder called, ‘The Old School House’. It’s owned by a chap blowing leaves down the road with a noisy machine. He had even less idea than Mrs Goldphone but points down the street to a man mowing his lawn. ‘My son,’ he says, ‘he knows what’s what.’
I think the man with the mower was called Jack. He’s an ex-firefighter. Turns out he built his house on the site of the school swimming pool, twenty-five years ago. ‘Had a bugger of a job getting the thing out,’ he told me, ‘built with layer after layer of concrete and brick.’
Anyhow, he obviously managed to finally destroy the open-air pool in which I’d been forced to ‘skinny-dip’ (that’s swim with nothing on). On regular occasions I was marched down from the dormitory in my dressing gown to swim a few naked lengths in the late evening. Not just me, we all suffered. The freezing water (and air temperature) seemed to do wonders for the bruises we’d developed after beating the hell out of one another in the boxing ring. A couple of times a week, a fearsome P.T. instructor, a former army man with few teeth, called Bentham, tied rudimentary gloves on us and told us to beat the shit out of our friends. Ideal training for fledgling bankers or lawyers. Bit barbaric I suppose, but we knew nothing else. And I suspect that if we refused to box we got caned. And yes, the cane, for me at least, was another regular treat.
They say that violence breeds violence, but strangely enough I have never thumped anyone in the intervening fifty years. Probably because I always lost at school and ended up in a heap! Perversely being made to fight taught me not to fight because I kept losing! I was a little lad and not very brave. Or proficient.
The ghosts of other teachers drift by, Benson, Foster (music), Forster (science – phooey), Clegg, Glass, Pyatt (bag dancing), Hilditch, Jones x 2 (spotty and glamour), Kelway. Then there’s Mrs Wham singing her silly song. They drift away, for the last time probably, towards the woods and the coast.
As I talk to Jack, a chap burbles past in a racing green Morgan sports car, the raise of a finger from the walnut wheel his only greeting as he eases away, quite possibly heading in the direction of Formby Golf Club.
Round the corner, the road leads to the former playing fields and I talk to another resident of similar age to me. He at least had some affinity with the old place as he used to come from a nearby school and play sports as our opposition. In fact, he speaks quite nostalgically of his youth and seems comfortable with his lot. The twenty-plus-year-old estate where he lives has matured nicely into ‘fairly wealthy suburbia’. It neatly and immoderately glosses over previous goings on. Actually, it’s probably because this chap’s house is built on the cricket field, scene of happy memories, that he’s cheerful and I feel upbeat in his company. I see a football on his lawn and smile to myself.
Just further up the road is the house of my former cricket master at school, Noel Hilditch. He lived in a rendered, quasi-semi, defiantly untroubled among much larger properties, close to where the school cricket nets used to be. I suppose the wealthy incomers need gardeners and the like to tend their acres, so this may be where they live. They do look rather like worker’s houses on a country estate. My teacher was a man I held in awe actually. A big man, strong but patient as he taught me how to play all the cricket strokes. He threw balls down and encouraged me for what seemed like hours till I had grasped the technique. I learned fifty years later that he had been accused of racism against foreign students so one of my school cornerstones had taken a lethal hammer blow.
That nasty little nugget reminds me of the 'curse of the bully'. Shamed to say, I joined in. I wasn't the instigator, I didn't have the wit or capacity to start something, but I did join in. To feel part of the 'gang' I suppose. I remember the names of three lads whose lives we must have made miserable. One was Jewish, another weak and asthmatic and the third, a lad who would readily rise to a bait and end up in a rage. Easy targets.
I was bullied at my next school, mocked and taunted for not being the brightest pin in the box. I hated the guy who led that, still do perhaps. I even looked him up on the web recently, in secret of course. That in itself is indicative of how long these things stay with you. He looks old and overweight, and I wonder if he's aware of what he did. It's an interesting conundrum, who is the less secure in later life, the bully or the bullied. For me it's the bully. I will forever have the shame of joining in the bullying. As a victim I am free to forgive my tormentor, the porky, old misery.
Notwithstanding the disappearance of the school, the whole area is basically unrecognizable. It’s been chintzed up by electric gates and Italian sports cars (and a Morgan). Though I’m not a lover of bling, this new blanket is doing its best to smother the past. It’s the absolute antithesis of the days I knew, which were hard and dark at times. But after all that, the thing that peers through the mist is me and my mates on the sports fields. The thrill of a goal or a catch or a try and the smiles of my teammates. Yeah, that was a bit of magic. Those memories are with me still, and thankfully, dominant. It may not come across like that, but I'm having to come to terms with the crap to allow the good bits to flourish.
Just down the way is Formby Beach. I vaguely seem to remember a lad from school dying in the dunes. Or was it his brother. He’d dug a shelter in the sand and suffocated after it collapsed. Not sure he wasn’t called Baker. Dear me. The beach car park is pay-as-you-go nowadays. For cars that is. Me and the bike take a little sandy side road and clamber up onto the dunes.
Overlooking the seashore of my youth I break out my rations. My packed lunch (or meals on wheels) is a sandwich in the sand dunes. It’s made with carbohydrate-free bread, lavishly buttered and filled with tongue with a delicious smear of mint sauce (a childhood treat).
I’m on top of a sand dune eating a tongue and mint sandwich accompanied by a bag of porky puffs - you can’t say that every day!
With a metaphorical sigh, I begin the return trip to Southport and I know that behind me, diminishing, is something resolved. By the time I get back to my car I’ve cycled twenty miles. But it’s much further than that. Far more than just a bike ride. Henceforth, I’ll look on from afar but will probably never return.
The car park was an empty bitumen veldt when I arrived early this morning. It's now stuffed with children, adults, bicycles, dogs, prams, buses and litter flying all over the place.
I've been back fifty years. Time to go home. Fifty miles and a lifetime away.