Kids would use nursery rhymes to tease another child who was a bit odd, like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ for a tubby boy. But our school used this as a way of teaching. Repeating something as a group was an easy way of learning, sometimes it was with a song, or with an old nursery rhyme. Once you learned them you never forgot them. But unknown to us some of these rhymes had some gruesome origins. Ring-a-ring-roses was all about the ‘Black Death’ but we used to sing it with such gusto. Ignorance really can be bliss.
Although I never liked school, I have to say that repeating something over and over again in this way, must have worked. I still remember all my tables, and find myself repeating them to remind me. In our class we got as far as decimals, but as we left school at fourteen, we never had the joy of learning square roots or— heaven forfend—algebra.
‘Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but names will never hurt me’. was another rhyme that we would sing if we were being called names, or whenever anyone was being teased. This was not always true though. Children soon learned that they can really hurt someone without touching them. Simply by using a word or misusing some one’s name.
This happened a lot when Italy joined the Germans to fight against the Allies. My Italian mates with their strange sounding names were called all sorts of things. It soon faded out and the name calling went back to teasing someone who was very tall or very skinny, or even just having to wear glasses.
The same thing happened to a wealthy man who lived up St Anne’s Hill, he had a very German name, Schlesinger. He was often booed when he was seen driving his big American car through Chertsey. Some of the jeering was for his name and some was for the fact that he could get petrol to run such a big car. It turned out that he was as English as anyone and had served in the British armed forces in the first world war. He must have been so angry about this.
Luckily my family were known as The Waglins, a very English sort of name, which my mother was quite happy about. God knows what we would have been called if anyone knew that our real surname was Luz Weguelin, an old German name pronounced, ‘Lutz Vegelin
Apart from nursery rhymes, another way of making a point was with an old saying. Mr Thomas, a teacher in the seniors, was always quoting something, one he was fond of was ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. Me and most of my mates failed miserably on both counts. We were not alone of course; the council house kids were all in the same boat, we considered it was a bit sissy to be so clean and smart.
We really must have smelled a bit though, but this had one big advantage. Being so aromatic, we were never asked to be the milk monitor. This sort of thing was left to tidy boys like my friend Alex, come to think of it, he was the ink monitor as well—in fact, if there was a monitor for the monitors, he would be the one.
Some of kids found it hard to grasp the basics of education. This was when I and a few of my friends realised that school was a place where we did not want to be. Playing truant was much more to our liking. Playing Truant, as it says, really was like playing a game. It all started in earnest with the arrival of the evacuees from London. It would never have been possible to do it before then, even if we were brave enough to do so. Chertsey had a very keen school board man—as we knew him. If a child did not answer when the register was called in the morning, he would be on his bike with the list of homes to visit. This was quite a deterrent, a visit from him was a serious affair, it could even result in a summons for my mum. The first thing she would know about it would be when he knocked at the door with a clipboard in his hand.
The war changed everything; the classrooms were overflowing with the new kids from London. They were streets ahead of us in how to be naughty—street wise you might say. One of their tricks was skipping school and we quickly found this very exciting. The school board man, who I think was a retired Army officer, soon found there were not enough hours in the day to check on every child. We took full advantage of this, and we would stay as far away from the school as possible. The perfect place was St Anne’s Hill, it was a long way from school, and he would have to cycle up the hill. The place was full of kids doing the same thing.
When I think about the many hours that I spent up the ‘Hill’, with a good number of other children, and obviously completely unsupervised, it is wonder that we all did this unscathed. Of course, we would be found out sooner or later but during the war there more urgent things for the grown-ups to worry about.