When I am writing about something that I remember from my childhood, I can rarely put a date to it. If there is one thing that I can be sure of though, it was my first day at school. Maybe not the exact date but I do know that it was the start of the Easter term in nineteen-thirty-seven.
I am five years old and much to the relief of my mother, I am at last speaking properly. I can’t remember speaking any differently, but I have been told that I had my own language until just a few months before I started school..
I think everyone remembers their first day at school, it is such an event. I am standing with a group of mothers and their children at the gate waiting to be taken into the school. I am holding hands with Barbara Walden, we run from the school gate weaving in and out of the trees that lined the fence between the allotments and the school, our mothers calling for us to behave. For some reason I remember these trees, they were funny looking, I now realise they had been severely pruned, as are most of the trees that line the streets of Chertsey even to this day.
I was so excited, but poor Barbara, as soon as we went through the door, she started screaming for her mother. Miss Payne, a rather plump young woman with bright ginger hair, she took both our hands and the tearful Barbara calmed down like magic. I sat next to Barbara for most of the time that I was at school.
At first, I loved it, the storytelling and the games were lovely, but when the lessons started, I couldn’t understand what was happening, and I was too afraid to ask in case I got into trouble. The reason for this was that a lot of the children could read before they started school, but I and some of my mates were completely in the dark and were being left well behind.
I also saw that these same children—usually from the top of the town, were always picked to answer a question. I often knew the answers, but my raised hand never seemed to be noticed. I soon stopped trying, and that was my attitude for the rest of my time at Stepgate’s. I was not a good student, in fact, today I would probably be excluded for being disruptive.
I can understand that a child with nice manners and who was clean and neatly dressed is more appealing to a teacher than someone like me and my mates, who, it must be said could be a bit smelly. Children from the best part of town were easily identified by their clothes, and in particular their shoes, the boys always seem to wear brown shoes, highly polished—so highly polished were they, that they had orange highlights on the toes. They also had clothes that were worn according to the season, such as gloves and balaclavas in the winter and so on. Apart from a couple of council house kids, the rest of us seemed to wear the same stuff regardless of the weather, with maybe an extra heavy jersey when it was cold, we rarely had an overcoat or a mackintosh.
A standard ‘uniform’ for the boys in my part of Chertsey was short grey flannel trousers—usually a couple of sizes too big, so that we would grow into them rather than out of them. A shirt, a green or brown jersey with a small collar—and no under clothes! In the summer the jersey would be left off. There would be a wide variety of footwear, a child with a father at home would have leather boots, their soles covered with hobnails—they would last for years. We had plimsoles in the summer, and boots in the winter—very poor quality, and no hobnails, they hardly lasted through one winter let alone two. The trousers were not much better, they had holes in them within a week or two, boys always seemed to have holes in something or other, socks or shoes and the elbows of our jersey’s. It was all that tree climbing I suppose. The jersey that we wore in the winter would also serve as our hanky, you could always tell if a boy was left or righthanded by how glazed one of his sleeves were. Some boys must have been ambidextrous.
We brought all our clothes from a ‘Tally’ man, he would come round every Saturday for some money—if he was lucky—it was quite often a game of hide and seek, he used to creep round to the back door, ducking under the kitchen window to surprise us. I think he had the same trouble with all his customers, it never seemed to bother him, I suppose he would just add a shilling or two to the account, mum would never know, I don’t think she was ever in credit. It was just the way of living in our neck of the woods.
My school days were certainly not ‘The best days of your life’, I just couldn’t get the hang of it, but learning to read was a complete surprise to me. I used to just look at the pictures in our comics and without being aware of it, I started to read. Of course, it wasn’t like that at all, but that’s how I remember it. I was looking through one of Don’s comic’s—he liked ‘The Hotspur’ because it had proper written stories as well as the normal comic strips. One of these written stories was called, ‘The man in an iron mask’. I really wanted to read it and found that I was able to. From that moment I started reading anything that was written down. It must have been irritating for my mother because she once told me to stop reading the Shredded Wheat packet at breakfast. I read that the cereal was made in Welwyn Garden City, and that was where the ‘The Green Line Coaches’ that were parked outside of the Carpenters Arms would finish after going through London. She didn’t seem very interested though, so I started reading quietly until she said.
“Alan, stop it, I can still see your lips moving “.