Is there any reason why I must eat all my dinner? Why am I having school dinners anyway? The house is five minutes’ walk from school. Here am I, kept in just because I won’t eat pudding. Food comes in metal containers from some witches’ cauldron in Penrith. ‘Irish’ stew is tolerable if you leave the gristle on the side, and I like winter salad and pease pudding. I like salty stuff more than sweet. My babyish response to ‘what do you want to eat?’ always was ‘fish else eggs’. Definitely not sweets.
At the top of the ‘awful’ list are tapioca, semolina and rice pudding. Different sized lumps of rubbery snot in grey slime with a tiny gobbet of red jam that tastes of nothing. I refuse, day after day, week after week, kept in until the bell goes. These become happy times when I’m tall enough to reach the books on the shelf. Into my own little world I go.
The infant class was run by Mrs Green. Or maybe Miss. What’s the point of pretending to be a tree with branches waving in the autumn wind? Or to be an animal coming out of hibernation? Music and movement. Music and resentment. When I started at school, the Headmistress was Miss Taylor. The seniors said she had a cat-o-nine-tails, and used it. She took the over 11s—this was before the days of universal secondary education, and if you didn’t pass the 11-plus for the Grammar School, you stayed at the village school for two more years, out you go. She retired a year or two later. After a few years she returned to the village. The poor woman didn’t stay long. Instead of beating naughtiness out, the cat-o-nine-tails drove rage into former pupils, now her neighbours.
For most of my time at Langwathby school, up by the railway station. Trains steamed past to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Thames-Clyde and Thames-Forth expresses. I was in Miss Metcalfe’s class. It was a shock to discover that she lived in the neighbouring village. I assumed that schoolteachers lived in specially exalted Emerald cities, and certainly not in a farmhouse in Great Salkeld with mum and dad. Every autumn she would tell us about her summer holidays, one in particular by ferry to Bremerhaven and Bremen so we heard about the Hanseatic league.
The school was bursting because of the baby boom, and with the post-war lack of money, Cumberland Education Committee (motto on the front of exercise books: Perfero) rented the Methodist Sunday School as a classroom. Assembly was held in the main school. On most days Headmistress Miss Bean, who became Mrs Byers, said a prayer that entranced this boy in short pants: ‘defend us in the same’, ‘fall into … neither run into’, ‘ordered by thy governance … always that is righteous’. Here was beauty, etched thenceforth on his psyche. The awakenings of delight. He’d never heard language like it before.
After assembly our lot trooped the 50 yards or so down the hill and across the road to chapel. Miss Winifred Metcalfe had a lot of us to look after, and managed by having two or three blackboards at the front, the different age ranges sat behind them as appropriate. On Mondays we had Rhythm and Melody or Singing Together alternate weeks on the radio ‘with Mr William Appleby’. ‘The harp that once through Tara’s halls’ made a wistful impression. ‘Wi a hundred pipers’ was good because it mentioned Carlisle. Our metropolis was famous, never mind that it was only because the wicked Scots laid it waste time after time. No wonder Hadrian built his wall. PT was occasional, thankfully. Humiliation time for fat Stanley, always the last to be picked, though I did quite like playing with ‘the apparatus’.
Nature walks were sporadic and always the same. Crocodile down the Culgaith road, turn right after Stratheden down to the river, then I can’t remember much more. Me and my best friend (as I would have said) John lived in houses with land that went down to the river, so maybe that was nowt special. Anyway, I couldn’t see that well—something that wasn’t noticed till I was about eight. On holiday in Gourock, I was unable to see things that it was felt I ought to be able to see. Ships to be precise. So maybe my lack of recollections about nature walks can be put down to not seeing things.
Thursday afternoon was handicraft—it had to be endured. Raffia, newspaper and glue, felt shapes – aaaargh. I liked printing and drawing with Miss Metcalfe’s Flo-Master pen, and the smell of the ink. Friday afternoons was story time. Winnie read to us novels by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Wind in the Willows, and the deeply subversive The Children who lived in a barn. I liked stories about people, but didn’t care for Sutcliff’s battles and standards and legions. I think we were supposed to like it because the Roman Wall was near. With Fell Farm Holiday and Fell Farm Christmas it became apparent that some children did exciting things on their own, and The Family from One End Street opened a new world: the warmth of a big family in a small house.
Winnie was a good teacher. She had standards. She sometimes lost her temper with the 10 and 11-year old bags of hormones. But she was loved. In the 1960s she married and moved to Penrith. The last time I saw her was a few months before she died. I was still at school I think. The hormones got to her again, I fear: a relatively late first pregnancy ‘provoked’ aggressive breast cancer. I could have gone to her funeral, but didn’t. I wish I had.