It was a poignant moment, hearing again that familiar playground chorus trilling out in the distance; the muffled banshie cry of a thousand school children carried on the wind over chimneys and rooftops, down alleyways and gardens. It turned back the clock and instantly triggered in my head tiny snatches of forgotten youth which hadn’t seen daylight for half a century or more. It is that old beguiling trick time and memory play whenever the past is revisited.
Yes, I’d come back to my roots; where childhood all began here amongst the close- knitted communities of West London. And to the primary school in Cranford, built just before the last war which, back in the 1960s, gave me and thousands of other youngsters the basic tools to life in the hope we’d shape a better future.
It could have been a lifetime ago I last stood in this very spot. Yet so easily yesterday. It is reassuring to see that time has not only smiled graciously upon the grand old lady, but also relieved her of a couple of unsightly carbuncles in the form of two Second World War air- raid shelters. For a generation of schoolchildren those grassed concrete bunkers held a curious fascination. In an age of international uncertainty they stood as a sober reminder of how precariously the world was poised yet again. Dormant giants with one eye fixed on the past, the other firmly on the future.
Fortunately, despite the conflicts in Korea, Suez, then later the Cuban Missile Crisis, the unthinkable never
happened. Somehow the world muddled through.
On a glorious blue sky day in July 1965 I remember basking in a moment of euphoria atop one of those grass embankments. A handful of us lads from 4B, kicking our heels at lunchtime, had been coerced into a game of Kiss Chase by some female classmates. Unlike Tag, Chainy or the terrifying British Bulldog — playtime pursuits that often entailed a torn shirt or grazed elbow — Kiss Chase was considered tame and sissy. Worse still, if caught, participants risked forfeiting their remaining breaktime standing outside the headmaster’s office, hands on head, facing the corridor wall. The embarrassment of recognition from passing teachers far outweighed the punishment of being confined inside an empty, echoing building whilst every pupil outside whooped it up in the playground. Nevertheless as the game involved girls — those angelic creatures who, for some bizarre reason lately, were beginning to grab our attention — we didn’t require much persuasion.
Amidst all the frantic tearing about and screaming that dinner time, I was cornered by one of 4B’s goddesses halfway up the grass embankment and in a fit of hysteria we crashed to the ground together, hot and breathless from exertion. As luck would have it, the instant our lips should have met, the lunchtime
whistle blew signalling the start of afternoon lessons. Timing can often be a fickle companion, and in our haste to get to registration I thought the moment was lost ... until she planted me a smacker! You never forget your first kiss. Likewise you never forget your first heartbreak.
A year earlier, in the April, I joined the canteen regulars for school dinners. Instinctively a homing pigeon at lunchtimes, that initial Monday midday, queuing in the push and shove, I felt like an imposter infiltrating some secret society. Once inside the canteen doors there was etiquette to observe, grace to “Amen” — not to mention a gauntlet of questioning to run from the curiously inquisitive as everybody plonked themselves down on tables of four. “Your mum got a job?” “Yes.” “Guessed as much now you’re having school dinners. Where’s she working?” “EMI offices, Hayes Town.” “Hey, my mum works there too! Say, after you with the water jug, Benny.”
The answer wasn’t a complete lie. Just a white one. She had worked at EMI. But the real truth cut deep. Too deep I felt to be the subject of idle curiosity.
By the start of the second week the novelty of a fresh face gracing the dinner table had fizzled out. I had become yesterday’s news, and never been more relieved. I had also been promoted to Register Monitor and proudly wore the honorary blue badge, though learning the ropes scuppered my chances of making first sitting. Not that it proved unfavourable: besides the canteen being less chaotic second time around the dinner ladies doled out bigger portions as they emptied the ovens and off- loaded any last- minute reserves.
I got to sharing tables with a former classmate; a seasoned Bstreamer who’d jumped a grade the previous term. Over shepherd’s pie and cabbage we swapped classroom gossip on everything from homework drudgery to sports day rivalry. Her company was infectious. The laughter intoxicating. Then amidst all our camaraderie she suddenly caught me off- guard by asking my reason for taking school dinners. The lie I prevaricated the
The author makes a return visit to his primary school in West London.