No smoke without ire;Talkback

17th December 1999 at 00:00
David Thomas nominates his ex-head as Man of the Millennium.

I was amazed to see that Shakespeare has been named official Man of the Millennium in a BBC poll. My vote for the title goes to the second head I ever worked for. It was the early Sixties and I wore hipsters and wide collars at weekends.

We called him Jack - although that wasn't his real name - and he was the tyrant to end all tyrants. A headteacher was the last thing he looked like. He was short and round, with a craggy, square chin and eyes that narrowed as he spoke to you. A cigarette dangled permanently from his mouth - the ash on the end of it was allowed to grow longer and longer until it dropped to the floor somewhere in school. He looked like a ruddy-faced farmer down from the hills for weekly market.

He ruled the school with a fist of iron, a fiercesome glare and a peach of a temper. Woe betide the person who challenged him or his authority. Every decision was his and the symbol of his rule was the 10 sets of classroom keys.

Each morning you knocked on his door, waited for the word "enter", and were then ceremonially handed the keys for the day. Those in favour shared a brief pleasantry; those out of favour got a grim scowl. On the one occasion I entered the room before hearing the magic word, I was immediately reprimanded as the ash from his cigarette fell and plopped into the remains of his tea. I was cursed for that as well.

His absence of humour was legendary. Only once did I ever dare make a funny remark to him. The fact that it was about the keys made it even worse. One hapless teacher in the school continually forgot to hand in her keys. This poor woman was rendered helpless by the very sight of the man. All this was before the days of teacher rights, and there was nothing to stop him reducing any teacher to the level of a gibbering wreck.

"Bloody woman," he droned on to me one night. "Bloody woman. Forgets those keys every bloody night." I thought for a moment and, being the owner of a reasonable sense of humour, suggested that if the keys were fastened to a long piece of elastic pinned to his desk they would automatically return to his office as soon as we unlocked our rooms and let go of them.

"The only thing," I went on, not seeing the veins bulging on his forehead, "is that you'll have to duck when you see them flying through the door or you could get a nasty injury." Slowly, red-faced, he raised himself to his full 5ft 2in. Another plop of ash fell. His eyes narrowed and I noticed his knuckles turning white.

The words he was about to speak were cut off as his secretary spoke first. This was a strange relationship - she was more of a companion that a secretary. She was a lovely, gentle lady called Mildred and she probably saved my life and career.

"Jack . . . Jack," she said quietly from her chair. "Now don't lose your temper again. You know it doesn't do you any good." I shall never know what Jack was going to say to me, although I have often wondered.

While Mildred fussed around him, I fled.

He eventually retired as a protest against the local education authority's refusal to modernise the crumbling school. I suspect he was going to retire anyway but he chose to go in a blaze of ire and fury. He died some years ago but even today when I see a little pile of ash on a polished wooden floor I look around to see if he is there.

David Thomas lives in Leeds.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today