I had not noticed them before but driving north on I-5 coming into Seattle from the the south the other day they became a rhythmic  mantra. It was the information sign boards advising not just the temporary speed limit you must obey but the additional warning, ‘heavy traffic merging’. Almost superfluous warnings as anyone with eyes could see the sluggish flow of vehicles doing just that as we crawled along. And almost without warning this song came into my head. Combining not just the craziness of Seattle traffic but a similar ailment in American politics.

Heavy Traffic Merging from the Right

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
They could have gone another way
The jokers causing my delay
As heavy traffic merging from the right

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
Flying along at seventy nine
Suddenly you see that sign
Heavy traffic merging from the right

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
When I need to be there soon
Must I run into these loons?
Heavy traffic merging from the right

Neo fascist voices from the right
Neo fascist voices from the right
It will pass you may say
But I’m afraid they’re here to stay
And we’ll wake up in a darker night

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
They could vote another way
But they’re hell bent to make you pay
Like heavy traffic merging from the right.

A friend recently posted a blog episode that spoke of the wisdom of mothers and the wonders of small village primary schools in 1950’s England. His Mother seems to have been determined to get him educated and the small school he attended cooperated. Since he and I are of the same age, bar a few months, and from the same county in England, the educational system we came face to face with for thirteen years was also the same. However, that system was still in its infancy following the revolutionary Butler Education Act of 1944, and the philosophy of the county education authority found itself expressed in as many ways as there were locations.

His post caused me to reflect on my own experiences going into that system and to wonder how much has changed. It would be foolish to pretend that little has changed and even more foolish to suppose that many things did not need changing. They did. But changes good and bad, need or not, are not why I am writing. It is to remind myself of what I went through. Not that it was particularly arduous or fraught with disaster but worth reliving in writing for a while.

I was barely five when I first walked to the far end of my street, turned left up a short hill bordering a cemetery, turned right at the crest to cross a high bridge over a railway line, a line that went to London and everyday carried the fabled Golden Arrow to and from Paris, and trudged through smelly cabbage, Brussels sprouts and sugar beet fields, all of which separated the small prefabricated house in which I and my parents lived from the Kevington Primary School.

Prefab

Typical Post War Prefab

Standing alone surrounded by those fields there was a huge difference in the scale of the building to the prefabs of Barnfield Road.

Kevington Manor

Kevington Manor

While the school building was a fine Palladian style villa dating from the 18th century now adapted to an educational function the contents were not so well ordered, and reading more recent accounts of the school it seems to have deteriorated badly until 2008 when it was sold to a private party. The school had only been in operation a few years under Headmistress G.M. Roope when I entered in 1951. Although the school stood surrounded by agriculture and bordered the beginnings of North West Kentish countryside, the intake was mostly suburban from the light industrial villages of St. Mary Cray and St. Paul’s Cray. They were what my mother would call “those rough children from Hearns Rise!”  In 1951 many of the children were barely toilet trained and stenchy accidents were common.  Teaching seemed to occur between outbreaks of crying and clean up.

In a less malodorous but excretory incident I was caught spitting profusely one day in a contest with George Jeffries (?) and being sent to Ms. Roope siting in her very lovely office overlooking a sweeping lawn we were invited to each fill a jam jar with spittle or vow not to ever again spit. Obviously we took the vow and spat privately from then on.

There was a school lunch program. I suppose the ladies responsible did their best with post war rationing still in force, but I could not bring myself to eat much of it and would often arrive home famished. I can even now summon the almost rancid flavor of what was announced as mincemeat. Gristly, grey and lukewarm, it defied me. I ate the carrots and a white substance which may or may not have been mashed potatoes. I suppose I was not hungry enough to overcome my distaste.

Like many schools after the war there were ‘temporary’ schoolroom huts attached to the main building. The ‘baby boom’ had apparently caught the authorities unawares and huts of various designs were hastily erected. The word temporary being a euphemistic term for hopefully not permanent. Indeed the prefab in which I and my parents lived was one of about twenty or thirty in one road of ‘temporary’ accommodations scheduled to last only a ten or so years before more being torn down for ‘proper’ houses. 156,000 were built as a solution to the appalling housing shortage in London and surrounding areas after the Second World War. They often lasted thirty, forty or more years. There are less than dozen in South London still inhabited after seventy years. The school huts lasted as long if not longer and were a feature of so many schools well into the twenty first century.

In tests applied to all the children I was found to be somehow above average and despite my very young age got ‘bumped’ a whole year, and found myself in a class with kids some of whom were nearly two years older than me and a lot bigger. I can still remember some of the test questions. Simple problem solving, spelling, basic arithmetic. It all seemed so straightforward. I did not understand what the fuss was about and was not too sure I wanted to be with ‘big’ kids.

Nevertheless I stayed at Kevington until the summer of 1955 when my Father found a new job and we had to move. I was devastated. I had my ‘gang’ of friends who ran wild in the neighborhood and the woods and the rubbish tip. The woods, scrublands really, with a disused sandpit where stag-beetles roamed. The municipal rubbish tip was where many interesting items could be found if one dared climb the smoldering mountains of trash.

We moved ten miles south to Riverhead. A village attached to Sevenoaks. The  town of Sevenoaks was very old and had grown up around Knole House, a palace built by an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 15th century, and around Sevenoaks School. A school started by a poor orphan who had made money for other orphans but by the time moved there had become a rather upmarket ‘Public School’. The town itself had become a dormitory town feeding workers to London every day by rail.Amherst School Riverhead 1

The Riverhead Primary School was a much more modest building than Kevington. It had been built as a school in red brick, and of course it had a ‘temporary’ hut on the east side of the tarmac playground. It also had two air raid shelters and a vegetable garden that bordered the church cemetery. Renewable life nudging the unrenewable as it were. In the photo the building to the left of the school was a blacksmith or farrier. The owner did re-shoe horses but probably made more money from the decorative wrought ironwork he made.

On the exterior chimney breast of the building could be seen the coat of arms of Lord Jeffrey Amherst. The same Lord Amherst who helped General Wolf defeat the French in Canada, and was said to have encouraged the genocide of Native Americans using smallpox tainted blankets offered as gifts. I did not learn this last piece until much later in life.

The School Headmaster was a certain Mr. Godly. I loathed him on sight. Stern and unbending he seemed the sort of person who should not be allowed near small children and impressionable minds. He seemed to take no pleasure in his work. Thankfully he never taught me. I was taught by young recently graduated from a Teachers’ College Ron Acott. He was the complete antithesis to his boss. He truly loved his work and cared deeply about children.

For I don’t actually know how long, maybe six months I was in a class that Ron taught that comprised two years. There were only about fifteen or twenty of us in one half of a large room that could be divided by a folding partition. It doubled as the assembly room. When the older children left and moved on to secondary schools there were even less of us, despite the baby boom, and we moved to a small upstairs classroom. Then began some of the best times of my childhood.  I don’t think I was precocious but I was certainly head and shoulders above everyone in that room except my friend Christopher Armitage and my first childhood sweetheart, who cared less than naught for me, June Henwood. Ron was a creative teacher and his students responded.

It was announced that Mr. Godly was going to retire, and in our childish minds we rejoiced. I certainly did. He was the only man who has ever made me piss in my pants. One morning I was intent on solving some problem in arithmetic that Ron had set us. Mr. Godly made a surprise visit and as custom demanded the class rose from its seats. I was so intent on my work I was slow to do so and was hit sharply on the head for my impertinence. I was utterly dumbfounded and pissed myself. Mr. Godly, a man most ungodly and unsuited to his work. As I remarked, a man who should never have been allowed near children. He got a television as a gift from the village for his service.

He was replaced by a man who with Ron Acott put Riverhead Primary firmly on the map as a progressive school, Mr. Crowest. Under Crowest I think Ron Acott blossomed and along with the school helped many children get a better education than was thought possible before. I certainly did.

But I must have peaked early. In the late spring of 1957 I sat and took the infamous eleven-plus examination. In a class ridden society this test added an extra academic discriminator to those already in place based on birth and accent. Thanks to the Butler Act a child at the age of eleven who ‘passed’ this test would attend a ‘grammar school’ where ‘smarter’ children went. Failing the test a child would attend a ‘secondary modern school’. Pass and Fail were not the words used by the education authority. The exam was supposed merely to separate the academically inclined from the rest.

In many towns the ‘secondary modern schools’ were to be avoided. Parents would try to pull all kinds of strings to help their children ‘pass’. Nobody wanted their child to end up with ‘the rest’. The grammar schools were a mixture of new schools built just for the purpose of educating those who ‘passed’, and older establishments that may have been fee paying until the 1944. The tension felt by parents naturally trickled down to their children and we spoke of pass and fail.

I took the test and to everyone’s amazement did not pass. I did not utterly fail and there seemed to be wiggle room. It was in this ‘room’ that Ron Acott and I suspect the village vicar persuaded the vaunted Sevenoaks School to interview me independently for a place. And so one afternoon I took the bus to the town, and walked the half mile to the school where I was faced with a panel of about five adults. I was terrified. They asked questions, and the one I remember, and likely the one which got me turned down was, “what does this painting mean to you?” It was an abstract. Perhaps a print of Jean Miro or Picasso. It meant nothing to me. I was after all not quite eleven years old.

I am not sure how I felt except confused. For so long I had been told how clever I was and how I would certainly sail through these tests and interviews. My friends Christopher and June had ‘passed’. Even my Cousin Maureen had done so. I know now that I do not do well in written examinations, and have proven it to myself time and again.

But the ‘wiggle room’ had not closed its doors and once again the vicar and Ron Acott persuaded a grammar school in far Tunbridge Wells to take me. It was the Skinners’ Company School for Boys. skinners-photoMore about this interesting school another time. But it was there that I went every day from September 1957 to December 1964 taking two buses on the way. And I found that even though I had not ‘passed’ the stupid exam I was at least as smart, likely even smarter than half the boys I met here. It was I am sure thanks to Ron Acott; who was an old boy of the school; and the need for the school to get as many ‘bums on benches’ as possible and take the cash the county authority would pay for them to be there.

So string pulling placed me in a school of which much has been written, and which I alternately loathed and liked, and it was the end of my elementary education and the beginning of something entirely different.

**********

More about Prefabs at these links;

http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/05/war-prefabs-and-an-unlikely-friendship-between-opposing-soldiers

http://www.prefabmuseum.uk/

More about the Skinners School at this link:

http://www.skinners-school.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

Vernal Equinox

March 20, 2016

Spring arrived early here in the Pacific NW. Climate change undeniably, unless you care to pick and choose which parts of science you accept. Here is a short poem, Vernal Equinox, reflecting the scene from the valley floor.