I’d like to tell you about the Reverend Gilbert, or Gobby Gilbert as we children referred to him, due to his predilection for spraying the front dozen rows with saliva during assemblies. Have a look at those jowls in the cricket team picture. He didn’t always soak the first years – only when he became passionate, which happened whenever he was talking about God or cricket, which was pretty much always so strike my assertion at the beginning of this sentence. A Church of England primary school has a communal act of worship every day so he talked about God at least once a day, but usually more than that.
I can only remember him not talking about God or cricket on two occasions. They were so special, I still know the science topics, 6 decades on. He talked about why birds can survive sitting on high voltage pylon cables and how we get energy from cold food. That apart, it was God and cricket and often as not, God with cricket! Those topics were synonymous for Gobby. You will want to know what sort of cricket topics he would kill a 45-minute science or religion lesson with. I remember some of them. Try this example.
‘Three cricket teams are in a tournament. One team has brilliant bowlers but average batters and fielders, the next brilliant batters but average fielders and bowlers and the third, brilliant fielders but average batters and bowlers. Who won the tournament?’
He then discussed the plusses and minuses of each team and explained why the fielders would win. I remember the argument, but won’t bore you here.
He praised me only once in four years. That was the day after I won the district swimming gala for the school. Had I lived in the posh part of Cheam, or my dad been a lawyer, doctor, teacher or man of the cloth, this praise would have been administered during assembly. As my dad was a working man, he took me to one side and quietly, almost with regret, said, ‘Well done La Pensée.’
But it wasn’t God, or cricket or his reluctance to acknowledge the achievement of the sons of an honest worker that made me detest him and leave the school a dyed in the wool atheist, it was Mr. G, the music teacher. He physically abused the boys, Gobby must have known and did – nothing! It was such a done deal at the school, that we didn’t even bother to tell our parents.
Mr. G was a sadist and beat the boys unmercifully about the head with his knuckles, sometimes until they saw stars. His favourite trick was to ask a music question to which we couldn’t know the answer and then beat us for our stupidity.
Eventually, it was my turn.
‘Come out here and play middle C, La Pensée!’
I had never had piano lessons, he had never shown me where middle C was, so he could be sure I wouldn’t know and he could administer a good hiding, just for fun.
Wrong Mr. G!
I stood in front of the piano and based on it being called middle C, I looked in the middle.
Now many men in the 50s, as a result of the war, were heavy smokers. It was almost a patriotic chore to have a lit fag drooling from your lips – watch any Robert Mitchum film from the decade. As a result, many men had a yellow forefinger on the right hand, and there, in the middle of the keyboard, was a yellow key, because Mr G used to beat the note with his nicotine finger, prior to beating the child for its stupidity, with his knuckles.
I went for it and hit the yellow key. His disappointment was obvious. He probably considered beating me anyway, but didn’t.
No other teacher hit the kids. Why did those men of the Church let him get away with it?
I have a theory. Please do not believe this is an excuse. Nowadays, G would have gone to prison for the way he hit under 11s and rightly so!
My theory is based on an experience I had with Mr. Eveleigh, who was, without doubt, one of the loveliest people I have ever met. He died a decade after I had left the school, of a heart attack, while refereeing a football match. Yes! He had a yellow forefinger, too. I watched mothers of past pupils weeping in the street, when his death became known.
There was a jumble sale to raise money for the school. I purchased a tortoise shell covered pad and silver propelling pencil, for my mother. It was a typical handbag accoutrement of the 30s. After the sale, we returned to the classroom and I was so proud of my purchase I took it to show Mr. Eveleigh. He was quiet for a moment, then said in a very low voice, ‘I’m glad you like it, boy. I put it in the sale. It belonged to my wife. She died in an air raid you know. I hope your mum likes it, too.’
This was at least 15 years after her death and he still had a lump in his throat. I know he never remarried.
Our secondary school religion teacher, Mr. Foster, had a severely disabled wife at home, because of the war. Who knows what Mr. G experienced? Was he in the Far East, a Japanese POW perhaps? Did he have such horrific experiences that the staff room figured, beating pupils was a small price for our generation to pay? We boys would have it better than any before us and probably after us, for a good few centuries.
Were they simply jealous, or furious and couldn’t forgive us the good life we would have, when theirs had been ruined by war, rationing, bereavement?
I remember a particular Gobby-Gilbert assembly to this day, and it perhaps reinforces my theory.
Gobby read from the Times of Thursday, 18 April 1957. I was 9.
‘Defence Policy approved – Conscription to end with 1939 class’.
He explained. Those born before 1940 would still be conscripted and we – lucky people, born 47/48 – wouldn’t have to serve.
He looked at us and knew we would be spared the worst 6 years of his life.
He clearly felt he had been dealt the crap hand.
The rumour went around Cheam, that Mr G went to prison for attacking his wife with a razor and hammer. I have no idea if that is true! Oddly, he had a sense of justice when he wasn’t teaching music. He revered Paul Robeson for his proud championing of black people and was a devotee of Billy Graham’s evangelism. It all didn’t add up.
Billy Graham’s fourth statement of belief is – ‘We believe all men everywhere are lost and face the judgement of God…..He will reward the righteous with eternal life in heaven and He will banish the unrighteous to everlasting punishment in hell.’
I know where you are right now, Mr G.