372 Merryhills Primary School, part 4

Continuing the guided tour we come to the most important part of the school. Or at least the part that everybody remembers from their schooldays; the toilets.

Naturally I know nothing about the girls’ toilet; but of course I had seen nothing like the boys’ toilet before. Quite apart from being very cold in winter, occasionally freezing up, it also struck me as a very public place to go about a very private activity, so I went in there no more than was strictly necessary; apart from anything else, as long as I was in the Infants, I had to go into the intimidating Big Boys’ part of the school to get there.

There was one poor lad who went into the boys’ toilet even less than that, and I sat next to him for quite some time. He wasn’t in our class right from the start, and I don’t know when he appeared. His name was Goldfrap, and, unlike the present-day singer, he had only one P in his name. The other P usually happened some time in mid-afternoon. He would regularly ask to be excused immediately after giving up the struggle, which seemed a bit pointless; and while he was away the caretaker would be summoned. It may well be that in fact he just went to the cloakroom for a change of clothes. This made sitting next to him a less than pleasant experience. He seems to have disappeared at some stage, only to reappear in the third year of Grammar School denying he had ever been at Merryhills. I don’t think he finished Grammar School either.

I’ve mentioned the cloakroom twice so let’s move on there. This was of course the place where we hung up our coats and satchels; but it was a lot more than that. In wet weather it took on a distinctive smell as the wool and cotton of our coats dried out; present-day synthetics just don’t do that. We were expressly forbidden to play in there, perhaps for fear that someone would poke their eye on the coathooks. In fact, with all the coats hanging up, it was an excellent place for games of the hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo variety. Patrolling teachers regularly had to turn people out. For some it was also the Weeping Room in moments of distress, as you could hide your face among the coats.

If the school hall was where I think it was, then it must have been much smaller than I imagine it. We had morning assembly in there, sitting on the floor. On the stage, way above our heads, was a person (presumably Mr. Perry) and Miss Varley at the piano. There would be some kind of reading (probably from a children’s edition of the Bible), we would sing a hymn, and we said a prayer. I can remember one technological advance, when a gramophone entered the building, and a record, probably a snippet of classical music, was played, while the title (which of course meant very little to us) was displayed on a piece of card. It’s amazing, when you are a small child, how many things go completely over your head, and how little you are surprised at not understanding things.

More technology came later, with the arrival of a radio in the Hall. There was a schools’ broadcast called Music and Movement, which I think descended from the Callisthenics of an earlier generation (the sort of thing the Hitler Youth used to do!) There was music and we moved expressively about as it played, though I think we had very little guidance on what to do.

The Hall had other uses, of course; it was used for PE (then called Physical Training, or PT for short) during cold weather. Doubtless there were Parents’ Evenings. I can remember performing in one End of Term Concert though I’m not sure how many of these there were.

I shall say as little as possible about the Dinner Room. I hated school dinners and was always the last to finish, if I did indeed finish. Eventually my parents were prevailed upon to send me with sandwiches, which was better in every way.

Of the other rooms, I never saw inside Mr. Perry’s office. I only entered the Sick Bay once, when working with graph paper for the first time made me dizzy. On that occasion I had some hopes of being sent home, but they just left me in the room to recover, and I got bored and returned to the classroom.

To finish, I have to take you outside into the street. Those of us who lived nearby (as almost all of us did) used to walk to school, and from a surprisingly early age we did this by ourselves. We had to cross Enfield Road, but there was a crossing patrol. For many years this was a Mrs. Dye, who lived at the top of our road, at No. 30. Her husband was some kind of miscreant, details unknown, and eventually she sent him on his way; we were sorry about this as Bob Dye used to be in charge of the November 5th bonfire – but that’s another story. They had a son, Colin, a dull boy who was often off sick with asthma. He didn’t get to Grammar School either.

One time Mrs. Dye wasn’t there. This was because on one occasion, when afternoon break came, I decided I had had enough and was going home. No other reason than that, though I think I had convinced myself it was actually home time. When I got to Enfield Road there was nobody there. Nothing daunted I crossed the road by myself and continued on my way, causing great consternation when I turned up at home. Someone came round from the school to fetch me back but I was adamant that I wasn’t going back; and I didn’t. This I now think was my first panic attack; the second (of two) happened about 35 years later, which is not much of a history.

It was only around 1990 that I realised I was suffering from bouts of depression, and the more I have thought back through various incidents, the more I find that this has been with me since early childhood. In childhood there were fits of rage, unprovoked tearfulness, and a good deal else. Several small things in primary school gave me the impression of being watched. On one occasion I overheard someone I didn’t know talking to my parents about me. Put like this, it doesn’t sound like strong evidence, but when you are a small child you pick up “atmosphere” without really knowing what is happening. Whatever it was, I pressed on, getting favourable school reports each term, usually coming third or fourth in the class (yes, they ranked us even at that age) even though the same two others consistently outshone me, and eventually I got through the 11-plus exam wondering what all the fuss was about.

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