Memories with a sting in the tail

4th February 2005 at 00:00
I Remember Bare Bottoms and Stinging Nettles

By Susan K Moore

Fillongley Publications. pound;13.50 inc pp from The Old Granary, Fillongley, Coventry CV7 8PB

The School by the Lane

By Steven Harris

Lewarne Publishing pound;4.99 plus pound;2 pp.

from St Winefride's RC Primary, Church Road, Manor Park, London E12 6HB.

Tel: 020 8478 0510

Heirs and Rebels: Aldenham school 1973-1998

By Roger Payne

pound;10.50 from the author at Lansdowne House, 25 Grange Road, Bushey, Herts WD 23

On February 4, 1918, a new head arrived at Astley school, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire. By February 21 she was complaining to the school managers about the toilets ("offices" in the delicate language of the time).

Throughout that momentous year and into the next, the condition of the toilets vied with news of the war for space in the school logbook.

"11th November. Eight children taken to Nuneaton to hear signing of the Armistice proclaimed by town crier."

"15th November. School doctor inspected offices."

"7th March. HMI called. Shown the offices."

For a more graphic insight into exactly what the "offices" were like, we have the reminiscences of Kenneth Marshall, a pupil at Astley in the 1920s.

"We boys used to go behind the girls' toilets and open the doors and drag the buckets out when the girls were using them. Sometimes we poked stinging nettles and stung their bare bottoms."

Compiled over 20 years from documents, photographs, sketches and personal reminiscences, Susan Moore's delightful book deals with a group of nine schools in the north Warwickshire countryside. Beautifully produced, with lots of photographs, facsimile documents and (a nice touch) contemporary children's drawings, all in colour where appropriate, it succeeds wonderfully in allowing the people of the area - teachers, pupils, heads, caretakers - to speak to us.

One of the schools, Shawbury industrial school, took bad lads from Birmingham who had been sentenced by the courts, and taught them a trade in disciplined, caring and purposeful surroundings. It had a far higher success rate than any other means of dealing with them - so, of course, it was closed down in 1980 to save money. That theme of penny-pinching and economy cuts resonates through the years. "The managers have secured the cheaper services of a young person from Coventry. My work is therefore at an end," writes the mistress of Corley school in 1893.

In very different surroundings, St Winefride's RC primary, Steven Harris's School by the Lane, is surrounded by housing in what is now the London borough of Newham. This author, too, gives us lots of logbook excerpts and personal memories in an account that starts with the school's opening in 1909. The early part tells a once-familiar tale: hop picking; children without boots; overcrowded rooms; choral concerts.

Then comes the Blitz.

Incendiary bombs on the roof were just for starters. On Sunday May 11, 1941, a large bomb scored a direct hit that destroyed several rooms (a photograph shows the chaos of timber, broken roofs and collapsed walls).

The school soldiered on. "It would appear that only one day was missed, the school being partially operative one day after the blast." There was, though, as the author explains, "great inconvenience".

Still, as the logbook records on VE Day: "We have much to thank God for, as not one of our children has lost his life through raids, though many have lost their homes."

Heirs and Rebels, which is about Aldenham, a public school near Watford, is unusual in that it covers the school's history over a narrow, and recent, band of time: 1973 to 1998. This includes most of the author Roger Payne's service as a teacher at the school and covers a time of great change in society at large and education in particular.

This approach has enabled the author to interview many people with close knowledge of the school, and he's done this meticulously, and as systematically as you would expect, given that the work was done for his higher degree thesis at King's College London.

Each of these histories works well in its own terms. For the general reader, it becomes clear what's essential. First, a sense of real contact with the people whose memories are used, something Moore gives us by telling us as much as he can about them, and providing a photograph where possible. Then, a willingness to let tragedy and crisis sit alongside humour and sunny days, as Harris does. Photographs are essential. Even group pictures have an impact as you find yourselves studying face after face, smiling or looking quizzically from the lost past. Lastly, can we always have some maps? Location, and surroundings that change over time cry out for them. Moore and Harris have endpaper maps, but we long for more.

There's a lesson here, too, for the keepers of school logbooks, to make sure they preserve those details that future generations will long to know: what's for dinner, which songs are sung at the concert. And, of course, the state of the toilets.

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