I called at a petrol station this morning on the way into the university in order to fill up the tank of my car. As is often the case at this particular venue, which serves as a small supermarket as well as selling fuel, there were groups of children, mainly teenagers calling on their way to school to purchase sweets and other essentials to see them through the day. As I was waiting in the queue to pay my bill I overheard a conversation between two lads, each I would say around ten years old, that went something like this.
Boy 1: “I’m not looking forward to today.”
Boy 2: “You never want to go to school.”
Boy 1: “Yeah but today’s worse.”
Boy 2: “Why’s that then?”
Boy 1: “’cause last night my mam rang Mr Jones (his teacher can we assume) to tell him I pinched Freddie’s maths homework book.”
Boy 2: “You didn’t, did you?”
Boy 1: “Yeah, well it didn’t really matter, ‘cause Freddy weren’t going to do it anyway!”
Boy 2: “Blimey, you’re really in it now.”
Boy 1: “Yeah, grassed up by my own mam. What’s all that about? I dunno why we have to go to school anyway, it aren’t doing me any good after all.”
Now, I have to confess that at first this conversation made me smile. Though I suppose as a teacher I should have taken a very dim view of the boy’s attitude. I imagined conversations of this nature taking place in countries right across the world and all down through history. But it also made me think about the ways in which our expectations of school are shaped and the incentives that make us attend or the fears that send us there full of foreboding.
I may have been more sensitive to this conversation today having received an email from an old school friend who reminded me that 2014 is the anniversary of the birth of a fine poet whose work we had both once celebrated through a series of readings that we organised for friends. For a boy brought up in Gloucester and with an early appetite for reading it was inevitable that I would be introduced quite early to the works of the writer in question, Laurie Lee. This outstanding literary giant, of most dubious character and temperament (possibly part of what attracted me as a boy), is best known for his autobiographical novels, and in particular for Cider with Rosie which tells the tale of his childhood and youth. This novel is certainly amongst the finest of bucolic tales of childhood lived in a relatively poor farming community in England, and remains a favourite with children aged from 10 to 90 and beyond today. However, it would be wrong not to consider Lee’s poetry, which is often overlooked by those who know his novels, as amongst some of the best of its genre written in England early in the twentieth century.
I often use Cider with Rosie when teaching about childhood and schools. Some say this is simply because it sits well with my yokel accent; I suspect there may be an element of truth in this. However, the passages I tend to choose are those in chapter 3 titled Village School. They provide profound insights into the ways in which children view schools and teachers and the ways in which their attitudes towards learning are shaped. Overhearing the conversation at the petrol station reminded me of some of the dialogue in this chapter, so I thought that as a tribute to the 100th year of the birth of one of Gloucestershire’s finest sons I would reproduce one of these pieces here today. The scene is Laurie’s classroom in the village school in Slad village and here we can see that he and his classmates were far more inventive in getting out of school than those in the conversation above.
When lessons grew too tiresome, or too insoluble, we had our traditional ways of avoiding them.
“Please, miss, I got to stay ‘ome tomorrow, to ‘elp with the washing – the pigs – me dad’s sick.”
“I dunno miss; you never learned us that.”
“I ‘ad me book stole, miss. Carry Burdock pinched it.”
“Please, miss, I got a gurt ‘eadache.”
Sometimes these worked, sometimes they didn’t. But once, when some tests hung over our heads, a group of us boys evaded them entirely by stinging our hands with horseflies. The task took all day, but the results were spectacular – our hands swelled like elephant’s trunks.
“T’was a swarm, please, miss. They set on us. We run, but they stung us awful.”
I remember how we groaned, and that we couldn’t hold our pens, but I don’t remember the pain.
At other times, of course, we forged notes from our mothers, or made ourselves sick with berries, or claimed to be relations of the corpse at funerals (the churchyard lay only next door). It was easy to start wailing when the hearse passed by,
“It’s my aunty, miss, – it’s my cousin Wilf – can I go miss, please miss, can I?”
Many a lone coffin was followed to its grave by a straggle of long faced children, pinched, solemn, raggedly dressed, all strangers to the astonished bereaved.
I like to think that maybe one of the boys upon whose conversation I eavesdropped this morning in future years might be known as Northamptonshire’s Laurie Lee. Why not? I certainly perceive some similarities in his current approach to school. Though perhaps the conversation I overheard lacked something of Laurie’s imagination. For all of his mischief and jesting Laurie Lee clearly had a great affection for school and particularly for Miss Wardley, one of his early teachers. I am sure that there are many today who reading of the antics of Laurie and his school mates would express horror at the relative freedom and lack of structure apparent in much of his education. It clearly suited him and I believe contributed greatly to the creation of a master poet who continues to entertain and educate us 17 years after his death.
In the 1970’s as a student of literature I walked from home to Slad Village, a distance of more than 20 miles, just on the off chance that I might happen upon it’s most famous son. Sure enough, there, seated near the bar in the Woolpack public house was Laurie Lee. I supped a pint of beer and tried not to be too obvious as I watched him across the room. I really wanted to go and say hello and ask him questions about his childhood or his time fighting against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war, but courage failed me and I left that pub as meekly as I had entered and have never yet returned. I hope that someday I will revisit Slad and take another pint of ale in that bar. But I suspect that if I do I may rue a lost opportunity for a conversation with a boyhood hero.
Sadly, recordings of Laurie Lee reading from Cider with Rosie are not easily obtained. However, here below is an extract read by the actor Kenneth Branagh, with a vaguely passable Gloucestershire accent (do I really sound like that?). I hope you make the time to listen and enjoy.