Sunday, 5 December 2010

Clifford Hanley's grammar school boys

Amazing what leads on education books Ross McKibbin provides, considering his Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51 (Oxford: 1998) is on such a broad theme. Perhaps the most enjoyable has been, from 1960 (found it in a 1989 edition), Clifford Hanley’s The Taste of Too Much. (Years ago I’d read his Dancing in the Streets, about a Glasgow childhood.)

The writing in this book too is sharp and lively. The education interest is the depiction of the Scottish equivalent of a mixed grammar school, it culture and the conversation of its pupils. The dialogue is great throughout, especially that of the main character, Peter Haddow. Delicious also is the large hilarious rough family next door, the Dougans.

Some of the best repartee is between Peter and his teachers. Thus the PE teacher (nickname Kong) has them jumping over a horse. He picks on a flabby, unfit boy, Rule, who fails to get over or even seriously attempt it:

'Do you know why you can't do it, Rule? Funk. That's all. Funk. And what is the cure for funking a jump?' He looked round the class for support as they surrounded him, and if it was a pity that his eye had stopped at Haddow, well, even Haddow had enough wits to know the answer to that question.

'Give it up and do something else, sir,' Peter said gravely.

'Did I ask for your opinion, Haddow?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Well, I don't think much of it. Your wits are wool-gathering.' Peter hugged himself in joy at the phrase, and continued to stand with a slightly hurt, puzzled expression.

Peter and friends talk on the way home.

'You're a nut case, Haddow,' Davie said.

'Une veritable tête valise,' Peter agreed.

'What do you have to go and get Kong's back up for? "Give it up and try something else." You're just asking him...'

Here’s another piece, this time with the English teacher:

During one of his majestic strolls round the English class, Gutty Greer rested his bulk on Peter's desk.

'Now is the arum winter of our mm thingummyjig, eh, Haddow?'

'Yes, sir, definitely.'

'Shades of the hum prison-house begin to close around the mm growing whatsitsname, eh?'

'I thought it was the other way round, sir,' Peter said with excessive respect.

'You have a rare mm talent for being insolent, Haddow, without saying anything the court could pin to you. Did you mm know that?'

'I do my best, sir.'

'Rare talent, my boy. Nourish it, nourish it.' Peter looked round to see if Tom Arthur was going into his black seethe, but even Arthur's secretly fostered hate for him seemed to have withered away in the aimless purgatory that fell on the class between sitting the Highers and waiting for the results. Gutty was clearly bored himself. He made no move to shift from Peter's desk.

'You're more black a visaged than usual, Haddow,' he mused. 'Don't worry, you'll mm get your English.' Peter nodded without excitement.

‘What is it, then? The law's hum delays? The pangs of mhm despised love?'

'Ah, yes.' Peter heaved a theatrical sigh, and Gutty brightened up.

'Bliss is it in that dawn to be alive, boy, but to be mm young is um . . .'


'Serves you right, boy, nobody asked you to be young.'

'I know. I was thinking of striding over the moors with unseeing eyes, would you recommend that, sir?'

'Plenty of good um precedents, Haddow. Dying young is widely recommended too.'

'Yes, it's certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished, sir,' Peter agreed. Gutty grunted, heaved himself off the desk, cuffed Peter lightly on the back of the head and ambled down the aisle.

This reminds me vividly of the way us cocky lads talked at Bradford (Boys) Grammar School. Was there the equivalent in girls’ schools? can’t recall there being from any novels.

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