Saturday, July 28, 2007
After being discharged from hospital, I spent only a few days at home, in that cosy room of my baby sister’s, before being packed off to school where the summer term had already begun. It felt strange returning after so many different experiences, though I had missed little more than a term.
They didn’t know what to expect when I came back. Would I be able to play cricket, that was the main thing. I recall a senior boy bowling to me in the nets (that’s a practice area for bowling and batting). He said I had a lot of catching up to do and it was a kind of accusation. Though I did study books of technique by famous cricketers in the school library, my co-ordination was very poor and I was not temperamentally inclined towards team games in any case. I used my recent “accident” as an excuse to drift into a dream world, while the other boys plunged into soccer and cricket with gusto: formally every afternoon and informally in breaks between lessons and on summer evenings.
I invented a game I could play on my own. I made a little hole in the grass and tapped a tennis ball with a long stick till it fell in the hole. One or two boys wanted to join in and I let them. But then came Mr Sudell, our latest-arrived schoolmaster, and he said it was golf and we should learn to do it properly. He found a putter and golf-ball and showed us how it was done. Soon there was a large group playing this new game and I lost interest totally, a little resentful that my daydream game had been made social and official. I went on to invent other solitary games which I’ll tell you about another time.
I confess that my narrative has skipped three years, for Mr Sudell came to the school when I was ten. He was a retired senior master from Manchester Grammar School. He had trouble with his legs. One got gangrene and had to be amputated. Then the other one seemed to be going the same way. But he got around, sometimes with crutch and folded-up empty trouser, sometimes limping with his new prosthetic leg. He was a genial pipe-smoking man and he took a liking to me, despite my resentment at the hijacking of my game.
I was in the top class alongside boys older than me. There were only seven of us. Mr Sudell kept saying I was a “scholarship boy”. He championed my cause when no one else did. The headmaster had a down on me, for reasons I’ll explain another time, while my parents seemed hardly aware I existed. Mr Sudell was not only a teacher but a psychologist too. I was a delinquent rebel at that age, unwilling to be a “geek” and top of the class, so I would make mistakes deliberately and neglect my work absent-mindedly. He took me in hand with a mild spanking in front of the class at everything I got wrong, with his slipper. It wasn’t painful, merely embarrassing as no other boy had this treatment. So I started to try hard to avoid the public attention and then I discovered the joy of striving for perfection. I was also discovering a father-figure for the first time: a man in my life who cared about me.
One term---I had the benefit of his teaching for a year minus his absences for surgery---he brought a newly-published book, called something like Apollo’s Garden: a primer of ancient Greek completely unlike the old-fashioned schoolbooks. It was designed to be read for pleasure, with poems by Sappho and sensual line drawings copied from old urns. He used it to teach me the beginnings of Greek. I loved the feel of the language, so aesthetic and sensual compared with Latin, in which I had reached the stage of reading Virgil and a little Livy, having advanced through some of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Those were the days when it was customary to learn Latin at 8 before starting French at 9.
I really wanted that book! I loved to form the Greek letters, and pronounce them and read them. I loved the smell of the pages, the excitement of the sounds I was learning to make. So Mr Sudell proposed that I should write to my grandfather and request it for a Christmas present. I must have told Mr Sudell that my grandfather like him was a retired schoolmaster. This was the point where, comparing the two men, I realised my grandfather was too self-centred to understand me or even try to. Did he think of me as his daughter’s unfortunate bastard child, not worthy to inherit his coat of arms and his books?
I tried to explain to Mr Sudell but he stood over me knowing I was embarrassed by this desire so unusual in a boy of ten. It was on a Sunday afternoon when every boy had to write to his parents and the master on duty would check the letter before the boy could go and play: ostensibly to see if the letter was “long enough”. (“Dear Mother and Father. I hope you are well. Last Wednesday afternoon we played a cricket match against Vinehall. I was the scorer for our team. It was an away match. After the match they gave us a tea which included strawberries and cream, the strawberries were grown in their own fields . . . .”
So there was a kind of jokey feeling whilst I was writing the letter to my grandfather. I wrote “Mr Sudell says he will beat me if I don’t ask you for this book.”
The joke misfired. When Christmas came, I eagerly awaited the present. It was The Beano Annual, a childish comic book. I’m still hoping to track down that magical gateway to the Greek language.
Posted by Vincent at 4:02 pm