- Contributed by
- Tony Robins
- Location of story:
- Bancroft's School, Woodford Wells, and New Cross Gate, London
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 January 2006
IT’S JUST my EYES SWEATING
OUR DAILY JOURNEYING between classes took us back and forth through the cloisters skirting part of the quadrangle and, each time, we passed the Honour Roll: the soberly worked polished boards listing Old Bancroftians killed in the Great War.
On Armistice Day, and again on Old Boys’ Day, these dead of twenty-five years past were remembered, as groups gathered around the modest memorial obelisk which stood in the quadrangle itself. Twenty-five years ago — a quarter of a century: to me, then, as remote as history. Occasionally I scanned the neatly printed columns, objectively, wondering if any names on the school’s current roll were duplicated there. They were simply names, though; disembodied, with no power to move.
Any Old Bancroftian who made news in the present war, however, did stir the emotions. Our best-known war hero was Lt. Col. Newman, leader of the Commando night raid at St. Nazaire, in March 1942. The naval base there was strongly defended, and bomber support for the commandos was abandoned because of bad weather. Their landing-craft were destroyed, and they received many casualties. Reports of this daring raid were an inspiration to a civilian public at home, longing for positive signs. Lt. Col. Newman gained the Victoria Cross for his leadership and valour, but he and the survivors of that desperate night spent the next three years as Prisoners of War.
From time to time, Old Boys in the services would visit Bancroft’s, and very fine they looked in their immaculate dress uniforms. They strolled like nobility around the grounds, and stood calmly on the forbidden green of the quadrangle, chatting at ease with their ex-masters. In all, over 800 Old Bancroftians served in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy during World War Two. And by V.J. Day, there were eighty more names for Bancroft’s Roll of Honour.
Whereas I knew of Lt. Col. Newman’s deeds, I actually knew Aircraftman Swinscoe. In my first year at Bancroft’s, Swinscoe played in the school’s 1st XV at Rugby and 1st XI at Cricket. He was one of the elite, one of the dashing young men whom we admired. Home on leave in Woodford in 1943, he was killed on the street during a daylight raid. He was eighteen years old. Swinscoe’s death stunned us all, and the irony of a serviceman’s being killed whilst home on leave bothered me. We learned that it had been a very small bomb, something called an anti-personnel bomb. I pondered this distinction between a bomb which was, and one which was not, “anti-personnel”; and did not understand it.
In London, it was likely that the eleventh day of the eleventh month — Armistice Day — would be a gloomy, lowering day, fitting the sombre task of remembering the war dead. Although Old Boys’ Day can not invariably have been fine and sunny, it is only superb weather that I remember on this red-letter day in July.
The match against the O.B.’s XI was a highlight on the cricket calendar. The groundsman would have the hallowed “table” perfectly groomed, and the outfield tidily trimmed. The sun shone and white-clad figures moved gracefully over the turf, while old boys gathered in animated groups or, standing alone, viewed their surrounds pensively. For our part, we lay back on the bank, appreciating the cricketers’ endeavours, or observing the visitors as they sauntered about the grounds.
In our day-room, later, we scoffed cakes and pastries as unobtrusively as possible. Mrs. Pepper, “Matron” to the world of Bancroft’s, scarcely had time to sip her tea between compliments. Rationing or no, these annual spreads of hers had become famous.
“You’ve done it again, Matron. Super sandwiches!”
“Oh, Matron, you’re spoiling us! How do you manage it, these days?” and, teacup poised, Mrs. Pepper’s gracious smile would acknowledge the praise.
A sprinkling of uniforms by chance on leave represented serving Old Bancroftians. Proud of their Corporals’ stripes, elegant in their Sam Brownes, they escorted their guests through the long afternoon. Uniformed or in civvies, most O.B.s brought companions. There were the older wives, veterans of numerous such days and swallowing their boredom; and the young wives and new girlfriends, brightly humouring their menfolk — these “Old Boys” — and aware that they, themselves, were on show.
Bomduck was an expert at cards, and at indoor board games. When playing Monopoly, for instance, Bomduck knew every rent for every property at every stage of building. He even understood the intricacies of mortgage.
On wintry weekends, we boarders played such games interminably. Or penny-football, or complex pencil-and-paper games with detailed and precise rules. “Battleships” was a popular war-game. On a large grid, each player (nation at war), shaded in squares for his fleet: a submarine warranted one square, a destroyer two, a cruiser three, a battleship four, and an aircraft-carrier five. In turn, we then dropped sticks of bombs or fired salvoes of shells by saying, for example, “A4, A5 and S17”, until one country’s fleet was sunk.
At roll-calls, Bomduck, my red-headed, knowledgeable friend, answered to the name of Sheldrake. A year my senior, he lived in Peckham, one of the minority of boarders who came from South London. Others in my year were Williams (Eggie, of the Blackheath sweetshop), and Goofy Reed, who lived high up in a warren of poky council flats off Queens Road. However angularly colt-like Goofy was as a junior, John Oliver Reed was brilliant academically as a young man.
Bomduck and I had arranged to meet during a break between terms in Rye Lane, where he would introduce me to the pleasures and pitfalls of fun-parlours, but a rash of air raids over several nights postponed this part of my education. When a distant siren penetrated my holiday slumbers, I was instantly awake. My feet swung to the floor and I sat, rigid with uncertainty, on the edge of the bed.
Downstairs was security: the breakfast-room, with its makeshift bed under the table, combustion stove banked down for the night, and my father’s timber reinforcements. The picture was appealing. Should I scurry down? No. Only if Dad called. Nevertheless, my mind descended in a trice, effortlessly negotiating stairs, landing, stairs, passageway, and the final stairs to comfort and safety.
Although insignificant when compared to London’s Blitz, or the saturation bombing which German cities were then suffering, these minor outbreaks of Luftwaffe activity were more than simply “nuisance” raids for the families in the suburbs affected.
One morning, after a particularly noisy night, I walked through the park and continued into a network of unfamiliar streets. My father, gritty-eyed from no sleep, but still keyed up after hectic hours at the A.R.P. post, had explained some of the earlier racket.
“A messy night. Hardly any time without the odd bomber somewhere around. Not many planes altogether, but never a clear break for the All Clear to sound. Couple of very rowdy spells, weren’t there? Don’t know what they were after, but Nunhead copped it. And near Mrs. Morris’s, too. I just hope they’re all right.”
People were busily boarding up windows, and others sweeping glass splinters into heaps, in Mrs. Morris’s street. Feeling like an intruder, I tried not to appear too curious as I passed them. Intent on their work, and preoccupied with their thoughts, they did not glance at me. Further on, debris littered the roadway — far too much for individual householders to tidy up. Dust and soot were in the air, and ahead an ugly, untidy gap — well away from Mrs. Morris’s —broke the grey uniformity of the terrace.
Two lorries were skewed across the road, and beyond them a little team of helmeted men laboured amid the rubble which, yesterday, was home to several families. Except for their activity, the scene was still. Their noise excepted, all was quiet. Who had lived here, and where were they now?
I felt unfairly advantaged, somehow guilty that I was all right, that my house was whole, and my family unharmed. I retreated. One high explosive had brought havoc to this street. One bomb from one stick from one bomber. I thought back to bomb-craters in the fields near Bampton, and how we had poked around for shrapnel in the clay there. And I shied away from the thought of what the men might find in the rubble. Skirting the affected roads, I took a roundabout way home.
A night or two later, in the small hours, I stood at the window of my sisters’ now vacant bedroom. Telegraph Hill rose appreciably from the Old Kent Road and, this room being on the top floor at the back of the house, it afforded a splendid panorama of London. As if from the gods in some grand theatre, I watched an air raid being played out, to the north. Gunfire rumbled, and the horizon flickered on a wide arc. Searchlights probed methodically, sometimes converging hurriedly, before resuming their routine sweeping.
Following the pattern of the past week’s raids, the staggered arrival times of relatively few bombers had kept London on alert for much of the night. Widely separated blobs of angry colour marked where incendiaries had done their work. The blobs pulsated as the fires flared up, came under control, and flared again. Swelling, shrinking, changing in intensity, smudged and imprecise, each of these darkly suffused patches held its attendant troupe of firefighters. They held me, too; mesmerised at the window.
One of the fires — left-stage, and apparently larger because of its closeness — we heard next morning was at Jones and Higgins, a large department store in Peckham. The plan to meet Bomduck in Rye Lane had been thwarted, but here was another reason to journey there; and just time before I must return to Bancroft’s.
A short tram ride along Queen’s Road was the junction with Rye Lane, a narrow, bustling thoroughfare, a favourite with shoppers. Drivers skilfully coaxed their red double-deckers along its length, negotiating stalls, milling bargain-seekers, and delivery vans.
Not today, though. Barricades blocked Rye Lane to traffic from where Jones and Higgins stood boldly at the intersection. I had half expected to find the store collapsed, forgetting how fire feeds on a building’s innards. No buses. No shoppers. No deliveries, today. Instead, Rye Lane was a congestion of fire vehicles and lorries, a confusion of firemen and A.R.P. workers, a mess of charred debris and spent, snaking hoses. I eased my way unobtrusively past firemen sorting gear, around rubble-strewn patches, and along gutters where water still ran.
Homeward, I sat back on the tram, tired. The holiday was finishing — a week of constantly interrupted nights. My thoughts were on the firemen, the previous night, in the hellish canyon of Rye Lane. Images blurred in my drowsiness, and my eyes jerked open as the tram lurched away from a stop. They lit on a torn poster, above:
“Coughs and sneezes spread diseases.
Trap the germs in your handkerchiefs.”
That rhyme didn’t sound right. Ministry of Health. Fire engines, this morning, but no ambulances. Nor the other day behind the park. Must have finished their work. There was that woman with the bandaged head, in the doorway. The classic wound. Staple of newsreels. Noble? Heroic? Nearly fatal.
News bulletins glossed over details of incidents on the Home Front. Incidents — that all-embracing, low-key word! When the bomber jettisoned its load harmlessly in the fields near Bampton, that was an “incident”. That daylight raid last January, when the playground was hit in Catford, and they say over thirty children were killed: that was an “incident”, too.
Long after clothing coupons had become an accepted part of the housewife’s lot, and she had become conditioned to “Make Do and Mend”, Bancroft’s relaxed its uniform requirements. Utility clothing narrowed lapels and eliminated turn-ups; it cut out the frivolous and unnecessary. The Women’s Land Army’s “Back to the Land” slogan had given cheap comedians “Backs to the Land” jokes, and now austerity fashions added “Single-breasted women” to their repertoires.
One morning in the quadrangle, Forsdike, a boarder in my year, found himself the unwilling centre of interest. He wore a pair of buckled brogues, boldly picked out in cream and tan. They contrasted gloriously with our customary black lace-ups. The group admired Forsdike’s non-conformity. It also sensed his discomfort, and interest quickly turned into teasing.
Forsdike, embarrassed already, snapped at the questioners and tried to get away. His fair skin was flushed.
“Ooh! He’s getting his temper up! What’s the matter, Forsdike?”
“Let me alone! I can’t help them, my mother said the school lets us wear them...”
“Mummy said! Mummy said!”
“Temper, temper! Hey, look! He’s crying — Forsdike’s crying!”
“I’m not! I’m not!” And then, lamely — and unforgettably — “It’s just my eyes sweating.”
Later that same term, Forsdike was rushed from the sick quarters one night to hospital. A monitor said that he had appendicitis. Next morning, the headmaster told a totally silent assembly that Forsdike would not be returning to Bancroft’s: he was dead.
On some, non-uniform clothing sat easily. They wore their brown corduroys proudly, almost challenging authority to comment. My mother had regularly despaired at the wear exhibited by my trousers, and I agreed to her purchasing a pair of corduroys for me. I was not, however, one of the bold ones. I had to steel myself to appear publicly in my brand-new, glossy cords.
“Come here, laddie.” After a pause, there came a drawled: “You. Yes, you, Robins. Come here.”
I had come into the dining-hall for breakfast, trying for anonymity behind a jostling group of boys. Just my luck: Houston was on duty! Often he entered after we were seated, his eyes to the floor, where his slippers scuffed morosely, but today he was already seated at the masters’ table.
Smothered giggles and surreptitious glances at my trousers accompanied my reluctant approach to his table. Houston sat back, looking alternately down at the corduroys, and up at my face. Each time he looked up, his hostile ginger eyebrows were arched in question, but I had nothing to say. I burned with embarrassment.
Eventually, after several “Well?”s, without response, he threw out: “But why GREEN? Eh, laddie? Where do you think you are? This isn’t an artists’ colony, this is Bancroft’s! Not Bohemia — Bancroft’s! Good Lord, GREEN!”
Houston’s teeth clamped back compulsively on his pipe, and he gazed at the high ceiling, shaking his head slowly in disbelief. I could only stand there, crestfallen. There had been an inevitability about the episode. My mother saw a bargain in Lewisham, and bought the green corduroy trousers. I protested. She brushed my protests aside, and packed the cords for the new term. Sure of the consequences, but seeing no alternative, I removed the startlingly green trousers from their hiding-place under the A.H.J.R. lid of my suitcase, and put them on.
Now the cough, always lurking, erupted. Purple-faced and coughing painfully, Houston waved me away. Breakfast over, I repacked the controversial garment — the sole item of my wardrobe ever to arrive home from Bancroft’s unsullied — and reverted to school uniform.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.