A Short Story: In Youth is Pleasure
It was on Empire Day, I remember, that I realised Miss Davies’ face reminded me of a loganberry.
It was not so much that it was the colour and the shape of a loganberry, nor that it was creased and segmented into countless purple drupes. As I looked up at her that day, I noticed that her long chin was covered in fine silver down which gave it the same musty look as the loganberries which my father grew on the allotment which helped to eke out our frugal budget.
That was a long time ago, in the year when Miss Davies was my class mistress at the cheerless council school which seemed to be built entirely of dark green tiles and chocolate-stained wood, and where the smell of old books and varnish was almost as intimidatory as the cane. Miss Davies was a faded spinster, who clung with a patient obstinacy to the symbols of her sobriety—to her long, plain clothes and her mirror-shined, sensible shoes. Almost certainly she is now dead and I have no wish to be unkind to her memory, for of the race of teachers which inhabited that school she was one of the gentler and more sensitive.
Some of those teachers were little short of vicious in the physical and psychological extremes to which they subjected their pupils. One of them often punched us in the back or the chest. And more than once I sat in hot misery as another of them mocked one of the children for his ragged clothes or his broken shoes.
We never hit back. That school was not in what they called a Depressed Area, but many of our fathers were chronically unemployed. Perhaps some of our parents’ docile apathy had seeped into us. Miss Davies seemed to sense our plight—she was careful not to notice a pair of patched trousers and I am sure she felt for us when on Monday morning it was time to pay for the third of a pint of milk we drank each day. Children whose fathers were unemployed got the milk for nothing, and some of us endured tortures of embarrassment as we stayed in our seats while the others lined up with their money.
I for one appreciated her kindness. But children are children. It was a loganberry Miss Davies reminded me of, as she smiled down that Empire Day at the Union Jack which lay on my desk. She must have realised that it was a pitifully cheap thing, but she also probably divined what it had meant to buy it.
It was the custom at that school to hold a parade in the playground each Empire Day, and for this we were encouraged to bring a flag. The local shops saw their opportunity; I had bought mine for a halfpenny at the local cut price drapers. It was made of the shoddiest cloth, roughly coloured, stiffened with dressing and tacked onto a short stick.
I had wrung that halfpenny from my mother, who was then absorbed by the conjuring trick of feeding and clothing several children on a dole of seventeen and sixpence a week. It could not have been easy for her to part with the money. Perhaps she gave it to me so that I should not feel out of things at school. But 1 fear there may have been other reasons. For although she often did not know where the next meal was coming from, my mother had unbounded pride in the British Empire.
So I got the Union Jack, and I carried it proudly to school, and I took it with me when we spilled out into the black asphalt playground for the morning break. But mine was not the only flag. There were bigger and better ones, and one boy in particular had what seemed an enormous Union Jack.
He began swishing it backwards and forwards in the air, until the other children became gripped by a strange frenzy and went roaring around the playground in a long line, hooting and waving, with the big flag at the front. Years later I recognised the hysteria which caused Simon to be beaten to death in Lord Of The Flies; at the time I only knew that I was uneasy at those frantic children. I pressed my shoulder against the rough brick wall and nervously gripped my cheap little flag.
When, later in the morning, the teachers marshalled us into the parade, some of them admired the big flag, so that the boy who carried it smiled and flushed with pleasure. I held mine tremblingly aloft, and they herded us into the assembly hall for the headmaster to rant at us on the virtues of patriotism and the glorious oppressions of the British Empire.
That headmaster was perfectly suited to the staff he controlled, outdoing them all in pomposity, sourness and cruelty. I am sure that the bitterness of his speech was intended to spoil our half holiday. I went home still clutching my Union Jack, properly browbeaten and reflecting upon what I had been told of the great profit gathering enterprise which had splashed so vast an area of pink across the map and which had, in truth, built so many vast fortunes on such an enormous burden of suppression.
There were other celebrations in that school. One of my earlier memories is of the party on the Silver Jubilee of George V. This happened to fall on my birthday and I can remember wondering why they were serving us lemonade and buns, and trying to convince myself that it was nothing to do with me.
Then there was the annual dirge of Armistice Day, when we were drawn up, just before eleven o’clock, in the gloomy hall to take another dose of our headmaster’s hypocrisy. He had survived the Great War and was watching with sterile bitterness as Europe moved inexorably towards 1939. He had nothing of hope or of valour to offer us—only a grating curse upon us, upon Europe, upon the world and the human race.
The staff ushered us back to the classrooms, the chill November afternoon closed in and it was almost dark when we went home. If the woman next door had been generous, there might be some stale seed cake for tea.
It is easy for an adult to be over protective to children and to under-estimate their resilience. My gorge rises when I remember that school, what it imposed upon its pupils and the pernicious nonsense on which it fed us. How many of us survived, in the sense that we have not become race-maniacs, or religious neurotics, or apathetic zombies ?
The bitter fact is that when those teachers were so enthusiastically organising their cheap little parades of cowed children we were all—staff and pupils alike—suffering under capitalism at its oppressive worst. The male teachers were composed of some who had come through the Great War and those who were to be called up in 1939/45. The world was still spinning up and down in slump, when a politician could claim that the problem would be solved when the unemployment figures got down to one million.
The great crash, with its cuts in dole and in teachers’ pay was still a recent memory. The staff clung desperately to the gossamer threads of their employment which kept them out of the Labour Exchange. They could afford to wear a suit every day, to take a holiday; the headmaster even ran a very small car. But theirs was an insecure, degraded existence. They too were caught up in something which they detested but did not understand. They had little to thank capitalism for.
The teachers could do nothing about some of the propaganda they put over. They had to give us our Scripture lessons; they had to dish out the official, fatuous version of history (even supposing that any of them were aware of any other). But it is harder to excuse them for the glee with which they organised the patriotic demonstrations. It is hard to excuse the teacher who regularly, before the class, saluted a portrait of the King and Queen. It is difficult to excuse the admiration of the boys’ big Union Jack.
For why should an unemployed man, or his children, have saluted the flag? Why should a man who had come through the trenches, and lived to see the politicians promises exposed, be proud of his nationality? Did we not, in our penury, have everything in common with the families of the unemployed in America, or Germany, or France? Was there not something wrong with a social system which created places like that school, with its defenceless children and its warped, frightened, bullying teachers ?
These questions are unanswered now, and they were unanswered that Empire Day as I looked up at Miss Davies. There was deep suffering in the land but the king was on his throne, the pound was worth a pound and the Tories were in with a comfortable majority.
There was no foretelling, then, that the wounds inflicted inside and outside that school might take seed, and one day blossom into a consciousness that we can build a world where children are not oppressed, nor pilloried, nor misled but are allowed to be children while they learn to grow up into co-operative, creative human beings.