Wartime lessons in myopia

The late Robert Westall celebrates childhood and family life in the North East through his children's novels, and in a collection of autobiographical writing published next month. An extract from The Making of Me outlines Westall's secrets of survival as a fat, shortsighted schoolboy, while Elaine Williams previews an exhibition that traces his fiction back to its source

Until I was 10, I was rather thin: tallish but slight. And I had inherited much of my mother's looks. For the only time in my life I could have been called nice-looking. Then the war came. To my mother, war meant U-boats and near starvation. She often recalled 1917, when the U-boats nearly brought Britain to her knees and my mother queued all day for a piece of suet at the butcher's shop only to be turned away empty-handed as she reached the head of the queue and the suet ran out.

It became my mother's major war effort to see that my father and I didn't starve. She would often deprive herself, saying she wasn't really hungry and would have only a piece of bread and butter. My father, who was only eight stone and built like a whippet, and who could breathe in and display every rib in his body, simply burnt off his extra share of the food into energy for the war effort.

I got fat. From being a slender 10-year-old in 1939, by 1941, when I reached Tynemouth Grammar School, I was positively elephantine. I was so fat that they weighed me and gave my mother extra clothing coupons. The first day at grammar school, as I walked in with the rest, a loud but anonymous voice called out in amazement, "Look at that fat slug!". The first morning in the classroom the newly appointed form captain gave the class his opinion that my father must have had amazing sexual prowess to have engendered anything as colossal as me. It was, of course, that ruthless time of pre-adolescence when one can be crucified daily for something as trivial as an overlong nose or a pair of sticking-out ears. It also meant that I was utterly and totally useless at sport. Getting changed was a twice-weekly horror. It was observed that I was so fat that I had near-female breasts, which only got another laugh from most of the form, though the ferociously oversexed and sadistic Jackie Wilson actually attempted to make sexual advances while we were lying one hot summer afternoon waiting to bat in a cricket match.

Although I was not at all pugnacious at that time, enough was enough, and I managed to land him a well-placed kick that was also a comment on what I thought of his sexuality, and that at least settled that.

But if I didn't do something quickly I was certainly heading for the bottom of the pecking order, and the role of form buffoon. I think I dimly realised that, boys being simple souls, everyone in the form had to be famous for something, whether the champion footballer like Jack Porterfield, or the champion farter like Kenny Russell. And you were only allowed to be famous for one thing. So if I didn't want to be famous for being fat, I'd better get famous for something else. I would be famous for being brilliant.

I worked at it like hell. My hand was always first up with the answer, and the answer was always right. To my pleasant surprise, it was as easy in the grammar school as it had been in the primary school. After the first exams I was top of the class. Being a swot was not the anathema then that it is now: equal admiration was given by boys to those who were bright and those who were good at games. And I had the wisdom to share my answers with those who wanted them.

Jack Porterfield, form captain, best at football, best at fighting, was far from best at schoolwork. But he longed for academic distinction, as I longed for his footballing prowess. His hand was always up: his answers frequently so wrong he got the belly laugh from the class. There was obviously room for profitable trade between us. I picked the seat next to his, and slipped him the proper answers.

It extended outside the classroom; there, too, he was the leader of the pack. But a pack leader needs more than authority; he needs a string of bright ideas to keep the pack amused. I supplied the ideas. He was duly grateful. The next time the odious Jackie Wilson tried bullying me Jack gave him a bloody nose. The pack found another candidate for bullying, a thin, rather effeminate boy called Walter Matthews. And later, a rather hysterical boy called Smith, who went berserk and actually foamed at the mouth if provoked enough: like being jammed halfway through a sash window three storeys up and left all lunchtime; or being hauled 30 feet up the caretaker's ash chute by the hook for the ash buckets, slipped through the back of his thin leather belt. All of us got caned for that, but caning in company simply promotes solidarity. I can't say I felt any contrition for either Matthews or Smith. We weren't sadistic; we simply made Matthews weep because his weeping was possible, and we made Smith foam as if he was a natural phenomenon, like the boiling mud geysers of Iceland. It staved off the boredom of wet lunch hours. The few boys who spoke up against it were disliked as insufferable prigs, Methodist ministers from the cradle, intent on crushing all the joy out of life. We simply ignored them, and made them cease to exist: we liked Matthews and Smith much better.

So I settled comfortably into my place round Jack Porterfield's throne.

Until disaster struck again from the direction of my changing body. One day the teacher wrote some questions on the blackboard, and I simply couldn't see to read them. Overnight, the whole world had become a curious blur.

I don't think I was ever afraid of going blind. Perhaps because it happened so swiftly, and then got no worse. Or perhaps because I was far more afraid of something else: the spectre of being a Specky-Four-Eyes. It must be hard now to realize just how horrible this spectre was, now that men do make passes at girls who wear glasses. In those days, all the spectacles were round, with wire rims, and they made you look like an owl.

They carried the coarse horror of false teeth or an artificial limb. They were snatched from your face and thrown round the class twice a day, and frequently broken. This was another means of reducing a boy to tears or to foaming at the mouth.

To be a fat boy with glasses: that, I knew, was a handicap greater than even I could ever recover from. Nobody must ever know: never, never, never.

I would genuinely rather have died. And so I sat in the middle of a class, trying desperately to find the answers, trying equally desperately to find the questions.

A quick and overloud request for help to Jack Porterfield: the stupid fool couldn't make out what I wanted. The result was a public telling-off from the teacher for trying to cheat. A second attempt brought the threat of the cane. And all around the class were busy scribbling answers which, if they were wrong, were at least relevant to the questions.

Then it occurred to me that the teacher sat just in front of the blackboard. If I got to the teacher, I got to the questions. So out I went, a thing unheard of.

"Please, sir, I can't make out that word!"

I point at random to any word. He gives me a funny look. The word is quite clearly "and".

"No, sir, not that word, that word."

"The word is 'Jenkin's', boy. What were the causes of the War of Jenkin's Ear?"

Allah be praised, I have question four. I have also memorised questions one to three, in the correct order. At three feet, I can read the questions quite clearly. I get back to my desk and dash off the correct answers. But that leaves questions five to seven. Inspiration is coming back.

"Please, sir, may I leave the room?"

Again I swoop in, perilously close to the teacher's desk and the blackboard. "Well, don't stand there gawping at me, boy. Go, if you must."

By the time I go, I have memorized questions five to seven. I run to the toilets, do a feeble pee to respect the truth, run back, and finish my answers just in time as the bell goes.

It was never to be quite so hard to deceive the class and the staff again.

My marks at the end of that term were a little down; I sank to third instead of top. My report speaks of work falling off, the word "disappointing" occurs once or twice. And the staff told my parents I had got rather "fussy" and asked dire questions about the state of my bladder.

But of course that played right into my mother's hands, and they got told all about her, and my, weak kidneys. After that, I got leave to go to the toilet whenever I felt the need. The class did not mock my kidneys: schoolboys have no interest in kidneys, which are invisible.

The following term, I was back at the top. I had adjusted to my blurred world, and was quite happy in it. There were no doctors to spare to give schoolboys annual medical check-ups: they were all in the Forces. In a state of profound myopia I passed my School Certificate and Higher School Certificate with flying colours, played rugby, soccer and tennis, took out my first girlfriend, wept at the fall of Singapore and rejoiced at the victory of El Alamein. Thank God my reading sight was perfect, and the blackboard gave way to dictated notes as chalk became short like everything else. It remained my secret alone for six years.

From The Making of Me: A writer's childhood by Robert Westall, published by Catnip Books. )Lindy McKinnel and the Estate of Robert Westall 2006. TES readers can order The Making of Me for pound;6.99 inc pp (usual price Pounds 7.99). Call 01256 302699 and quote reference L26

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