For about 34 years I have kept a commonplace book. It’s not a diary, not a place to record mundane reactions to the prosaic, but a kind of mental scrapbook where raw snippets of interest are jotted to be, perhaps, reworked later. When I was asked to contribute to the school’s history, I thought I would have a rich vein to mine.
I spent 11 years in the school, starting in 1976. I taught maths and computer studies, as it was then called. I was the rogue who drilled through the walls of the school one summer holiday to install a kilometre of coaxial cable to network the whole building at a time when IT teachers coveted their empires. Jack Cates, the school keeper, turned a blind eye or two as each day I arrived brandishing an 18-inch drill bit. And so we had a computer network based in the library, but linked to several other classrooms. My efforts were undermined by a talented student who wrote a BASIC program that mimicked the 480Z start-up screen and then issued witty but bogus error messages when you tried to log on. It fooled all of us for weeks.
But back to my archive. What was amazing was to realise that over the 11 years I worked there, the school appeared in my notes only half a dozen times. A student asked what Ethiopia had to do with Hitler because he had heard people say, “Heill Isolase!” I was reading Bertrand Russell one day when a student asked me what it was. I read him a short passage and his answer was, “Is that in English, sir?” The fire, which removed the roof of the old building and sent the maths department into a wandering exile for a year, happened during a half term holiday late in 1982. And then there was the whole school re-discovery week-end with Rod Usher and Douglas Hamblin. I’m sure it did some good.
But it’s not the events that count; it’s the people. I have not lived in Britain for 15 years and not worked in Balham for 20. And yet, on a recent visit, I met one of my personal tutees in a building society queue. One of my A level maths students was sitting in an Indian take-away when I went for my chana aloo and chapati. And another tutee was on the tills in the supermarket. The last of these was still as small and slight as she was at thirteen, but she reminded me that she is in her forties now.
But two characters in particular stir memories, Richard Simmons and Kathleen Collyer. The latter, always known as Mrs. Collyer, was the lady who did the staff refreshments. She used to line up the rolls – soft or hard, ham or cheese – on ranks of pale green plates on the staffroom bar. The hot water urn had to be filled and turned on at precisely 9:30 each morning. Failure to do so would receive Mrs. Collyer’s continued recrimination for about a month after her arrival at 10. So important was this “switching on” task that a member of the staff association committee was assigned each term with the job of checking that it had been done. Woe betide a slacker! A levels to invigilate? Half a mo, I have to dash and switch on the urn first.
Mrs. Collyer’s hard rolls were inedible unless you flattened them, an act which would cause most of the upper crust to disintegrate into a pale brown snowstorm of flakes, with an associated, if dull crunch. Fred Morley’s dog, which always accompanied him wherever he went, including into class, used to lick them off the carpet whilst his master waited for his tea. And Mrs. Collyer also greeted everyone by name, often wrongly, as they ordered, so we had staff members called Tingly, Hildebrick, Car, Candy and one day, I swear it, we had a Mr. Gonad.
And then came the frightful day of “the decision”. I can still remember the sense of trepidation that suffused through the members of the staff association when the words, “Action: Ask Mrs. Collyer if we can have salad in the rolls” were written into the minutes. Who would undertake such a mission? And would they survive? Well, we got the salad, but it took Mrs. Collyer years to get used to the idea. Her words, “Oh, so they want salad in their rolls now” became a catch phrase amongst the staff and was employed to refer to any obviously impossible task, of which in our school there were always many, or so it seemed. But she was always there and she always delivered.
And so to Richard Simmons, the Media Resources Officer whose centrally-located den was very much the hub of the school. He was a “guaranteed-to-break-the-ice-at-parties” “can-do” scuba-diving jazz musician who kept spirits up with his manner and wit. But one day his enthusiasm got the better of him and he accepted a bet that he could and would jump off the back of the Thames pleasure boat that the staff association had rented for the end of term do. Yes, he did it. The police were called. The pleasure boat did boring circles for an hour looking for him. The police launch ran aground off Barnes Reach and had to be towed off the bank. Frank Thorn, marooned on board, was embarrassed beyond recall and didn’t speak to any of the staff association committee for months.
But what happened to Richard? Well, he swam ashore and, resplendent in only socks and underpants, padded up the mud to a landfall in Hammersmith. It was a fair way back to Balham, where he had left the car and where, if lucky, he might be reunited with his clothes. In such a predicament, in socks and underpants, wet though and covered in mud, what might one do in Hammersmith, or Putney, for that matter, to avoid unwanted attention or even arrest? Answer – jog. Naked, wet and dirty? Just jog and the world will ignore you. Again Richard was ever present and gave his all to the school.
And I have hardly mentioned the students, the thousands of them that passed by in those eleven years. But I remember many of them clearly and when I meet them along Balham High Road I can still put a name to a face. I hope, as I do so, that I have contributed just a little, as an educator, to their well being, their memories, their jogging, their salad.
Author of “Mission”