I have mentioned my Dad on a few previous occasions and I may also have mentioned the beret and cine camera and the fact that he was a local preacher. As if all that wasn’t enough, there were other idiosyncrasies that would plague me throughout my early life. School for me was a mixed bag. My inability to remember anything and hopeless lack of concentration may today have been termed, ‘dyslexia’. Back then though, it was called ‘dozy’, and slow progress was made in the classroom. Lunch however, was a highlight, and as one of the dinner ladies was my friend’s Mum, portions were big, especially chips, which from memory I had every day of the week. After this, I would meander my way down to the music block, where an indulgent and very supportive music teacher would let me mess about on a piano for the rest of lunch break.
The music block, I suppose, was a sort of haven, a place to hide from the harsh reality of school, but for me there was another reason to stay hidden; my Dad was the Head of Modern Languages. I would like to send a strong message to all teachers who might think it’s a good idea to send their children to the school in which they teach. IT ISN’T. Dad went a step further, and not only engineered it so that he taught me French, but also made sure he was my form teacher. It’s strange though, because with him being my Dad, I never really got a good objective eye-full as to what sort of a teacher he was. In the late seventies it was quite normal to hit a child, the cane was in full swing and my maths teacher found nothing problematic about using a Bunsen burner’s rubber tubing for his weapon of choice. And so, with all this in mind, I kept my head down and willed the bell to ring. Looking back, it was little wonder my concentration and ability to learn, suffered.
Being no stranger to the pulpit, my Dad was also regularly called upon to take assembly. This was perhaps the most uncomfortable and degrading experience of all. The whole school, assembled in front of the man I called Dad; As I tried to block out the taunts from behind me, I would daydream myself away to a far off place of anonymity. What I would have given for a different surname.
There were some advantages though. A ginger haired boy, who, to be fair was a bit of a loner, had come to school with a pretend bomb. It was just a crappy old box with a battery and some wires hanging out of it with the word BOMB written on the side in marker pen. Nobody thought it was funny and nobody paid any attention to him or the pretend device. At the end of the day, as I walked through the staff car park with a friend, homeward bound, I noticed it had been discarded in a nearby bin. Without thinking, we retrieved it and started to kick it around the car park, laughing at how pathetic an imitation of the real thing it was. We soon got bored and wandered off home. Without realising it though we had kicked it under the Headmaster’s car and now, in the shade and barely visible, it looked all the more authentic. I’m not sure how paranoid our Headmaster was, but spotting the device threw him into panic. Thinking logically, even if he was unpopular enough to get blown up outside school (and he was) surely the perpetrator would avoid writing the word BOMB, on the bomb. Nevertheless, he had the whole school evacuated, and summoned the police who in turn summoned a bomb disposal squad. Several hours later, with the area made safe and with ruined evening plans for several members of staff, the caretaker was finally given the go ahead to lock up the School. Back home, as I sat round the tea table with Mum and the Head of Modern Languages, we were all blissfully unaware of the mayhem that had been going on at school; until the next morning, that is. It turned out that a teacher had spotted our fake bomb kick-around from the staff room window and within minutes of registration, we were standing outside the Headmaster’s office. I have never seen a more red and swollen face on a grown man; uncomfortably reminiscent of the scene from ‘Kes’ in the Headmaster’s office (except we were all guilty) surely this was going to be my first taste of corporal punishment. The boy who made the bomb was, naturally, caned and very unfortunately, so was my friend. I was not. No explanation was given. As I juggled and struggled with the feelings of guilt and relief (for a moment or two) this incident only went to cement my firm belief that, teaching your offspring, should be banned. (I had toyed with the idea of sending a petition to number ten, but as my Dad was also ‘Mayor of Knaresborough’ at the time, and about to appear on ‘The Sunday Quiz’ hosted by Keith Macklin (Anglia TV) I decided to shelve the plan, thus avoiding further shame, that would inevitably rain down on my dysfunctional Father-Son relationship)
My Mum though, in her own way, helped smooth things along. She could see our pain (my three sisters had previously walked this difficult path) and without being obviously disloyal or taking sides, she would be there to offer some comfort. My Dad would often accuse her of settling for ‘peace at any price’ but this so called ‘peace’ was a welcome relief from his, very often, ‘Victorian’ approach. Take for example the School cross-country run. We lived just a short walk away from school as it happened and our house was conveniently en route. In those days we would be trusted to run three miles or so, out into the unsupervised countryside. Instead of crossing the bridge to the other side of the river, I would take a sharp left, and in no time at all would be letting myself into our house, where I would greeted by this;
“Hello love, I thought it might be you, have you time for a cup of tea and a biscuit ?”
The look on her face was priceless, a mixture of guilt and mischievousness, and there in the kitchen, while she robotically ironed my Dad’s shirts (with Dad, safely distracted at the coal face) I would enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit, and forget the troubles of school and the cross country run. The timing had to be good though. I would need to re-join the runners as they emerged from the other side of the river. With mud, fraudulently applied to my legs, from the garden, I would seamlessly slipstream myself back into the race, making sure I was out of breath and in no danger of winning. This was our secret, an unspoken bond of understanding, which despite the risks, she lovingly offered me.
As previously mentioned, my Dad was a lay preacher, and very often he would be required to preach at one of the many nearby rural village Chapels. This particular week it was Spofforth. We would all be required to attend. My Grandma and Granddad were also coming along, as they were visiting at the time, but didn’t need any encouragement to soak up some family pride from the altar. My Grandma was a very strict and starchy lady. She would always use my full name (she didn’t believe in any kind of shortening) and was quick to inform my Mum if something on the television was inappropriate for my young and impressionable eyes. I can clearly remember her rushing into the kitchen to summon help with censorship, as the ‘Benny Hill Show’ got underway. Granddad, on the other hand, was a comedian. A small man with one leg a good two inches shorter than the other (due to repetitive motorcycle accidents) He would always be seen with a stick, and would make it his duty to look for the funny side in everything; And he was much adored for it. As a younger man he had played piano for the silent movies. This improvisational role, required a high level of keyboard facility and indeed, he could pretty much play any tune you’d care to mention, by ear.
My Dad had asked him to play the organ at the service, something that carried potential worry, as he had been known to spice up well known tunes with a sprinkling of the ‘Les Dawson’ treatment. As we arrived it occurred to me that our family, quite literally, outnumbered the sparse and very elderly congregation. As the service began, nothing seemed untoward and eventually we got to the long boring bit they call the ‘Sermon’, where we could begin our daydreaming and my Mum could put the finishing touches to the next days shopping list (All in her head, you understand) But, out of the blue, I spotted my Granddads very small, pea-shaped, shiny head in the mirror above the organ. It was brown as a berry, due to regular Blackpool holidays, where he would toast himself for hours on end, sitting on a promenade bench. Within seconds I started to titter. Soon my sister had cottoned on and she too began to shake, and then my other sister, and then my Mum and even my Grandma too (unaware of what was funny, but that’s how it spreads) all as the sermon was being delivered by the righteous and stony-faced Preacher/Dad, Head of Modern Languages and Mayor. My Granddad, who by now had noticed in his mirror that something was making us laugh, also succumbed to it’s infectious nature, and before long, he and the whole pew our family had inhabited, was visibly shaking.
As the preacher noticed our irreverent behaviour, the schoolteacher in him triggered an audible reprimand,
“WILL YOU BE QUIET”
But it was too late, by now things were out of hand and Dad began to lose it too.
The three old age pensioners that made up the rest of the congregation were mercifully too old and infirm to care. And so, eventually, order was restored and we could go home to enjoy the most important part of any church service, lunch.
This incident, gave birth to the term ‘Pew Shaker’ which to my knowledge although not yet in the Oxford English Dictionary, when loosely translated means,
‘A public and involuntary attack of the giggles in a near silent room’
It often surprises me though, that despite some of the more unconventional elements of my parenting, how much I enjoyed these years growing up. More than that, how many foibles and characteristics of my parent’s (especially my Dad’s) I have inherited; a fact I am frequently reminded of, by my wife.