Going Back - October 2002
The Salvo Leicester Square reunion was on the 12th of October 2002 and I planned a visit to England so that I could meet a couple of the names which I only knew as a result of their e-mails. Getting on the train to go "up town", due to some serious emotional grief, I was ridiculously early.
Then, as the train pulled into Harrow-on-the-hill station and acting on impulse I decided to go and see what had happened to Salvo in the last twenty five years.
Firstly Wealdstone has changed enormously and it was only with an occasional glimpse of a vaguely recognised landmark that I knew I was on the right bus. I got off at the Police station and walked up the hill. When I got to the bus stop opposite the school I stood for ages, just looking at the old place, letting the memories flood back.
Let me explain something here, I hadn't slept for a few days, had jet-lag, a stinking hangover and felt like shyte. I'm not much of a macho-man and the previous middle-east TV news assignments had left their mark. My nerves were raw like I hadn't felt for years and I was aware that I was having difficulty keeping my emotions under control. I felt curiously detached, sort of knowing that there were things you had to do, but not understanding why. Otherwise I'd never have made that trip to Wealdstone.
I decided to wander into the grounds and take a couple of photos for the web site, and then continue on my journey. I got as far as the entrance to the hall and saw that the door was open. As I climbed the stairs it was strange and yet familiar, especially as I stood on the first floor landing at the entrance to countless assemblies and school plays. If you'd asked me what was above the doors to the hall and offered me a fortune, I couldn't have remembered, but there they were ... the shields of the various school houses, Francis, Becket, Campion and Gabriel above the four doors leading into the hall, which hasn't changed in thirty years. I walked in and saw that there was one difference though, a small canteen/bar at the rear of the hall, between the projection room and the stairs down to the gym. Inside two women were clearing up.
After a small discussion which involved me going through a list of teachers and pupils, then a bit of name dropping when one of them admitted that she'd fancied Paul Burk which resulted in me giving much praise for "Untorn Tickets" and "Father Frank". She then produced a bunch of keys and we went for a whistle-stop tour of the school.
I won't go, room for room, through the changes, but I took a few snaps as we passed down corridors, up stairs and into the various labs and workshops. It felt strange. I recognised the place but felt remote from the building. There were no warm recollections or floods of pleasant memories, rather a passing interest in how the place had changed, or remained the same.
After a while we were back in the hall and I climbed onto the stage and had a look in the wings where I'd spent evening after evening as part of the stage crew or as a budding thespian. I climbed up the ladder onto the gantry and looked up. The place had obviously been decorated a few years back except for one part of the ceiling right at the top of the stage area which, amongst others, still had my inscribed graffiti "Rob - Indians". I choked. That was one of my rites of passage. The only way to get anything on that part of the ceiling was to climb out of the safety of the gantry and hang from the lighting rig with one hand, writing with the other, suspended thirty feet above the stage. I suddenly remembered the fear of that moment, the desire to do something daring, physically challenging and dangerous. I wasn't a good sportsman or academic, would never score a winning goal or become a prefect, and was far from brave but twenty five years ago I'd stepped over the edge and made my mark and remember how I felt when I'd done it.
Over the years I've done a lot of things which frightened me and the day I wrote on that ceiling had long since disappeared from my memory but when I saw those chalk marks above the stage I remembered a fifteen year old feeling fear, hating every second but still doing something, not because of others, but for me alone.
So, my tour came to an end. Funnily enough it didn't remind me about how "wonderful" salvo was but bought back memories of insecurity, hatred of certain lessons, being scared of some teachers, worried about what my classmates were thinking and why it was so unfair that I was mister-frigging-average. I know that a lot of the pupils had it far worse than me, in fact, I had an "average" time there, but looking back, a lot of things went on which shouldn't have happened.
During my time at the school, I divided the teachers into three groups. Those I despised: Doc, [Bender] Jenkinson, Hooper and a few others. Those I thought of as tolerable (the majority) and those I respected, which was the smallest group of all, basically consisting of Bayross, Monty, Tufnell and Fr. Ray. One of them was possibly just around the corner...
Having left the school I was about to cross the road and continue onto the reunion when I turned left, walked up the hill, turned left again to where I suspected Colin Tufnell lived and stood outside a semi-detached house. I wanted to say something to C.F.T., tell him that he was "okay" and that he did a good job all those years ago but, well, what was the point? Before I had a chance to change my mind, I walked up the drive and knocked on the door. A really charming and pretty woman answered it and I quickly did my sums. I reckoned that Colin was, by now, a senile geriatric and although I'd heard he'd got married, assumed that this was a step-daughter or something. A very good looking one at that.
"Is, I mean, does a Mr. Colin Tufnell live here?" She looked closely. "I am, or rather I was, a pupil of his and was wondering if I could speak to him." She smiled and went inside. I could hear the sounds of decorating, then silence and a man in shorts and a work-coat came to the door.
Colin Tufnell hadn't aged a day. He looked at me and I felt completely devastated when he didn't recognise me. In my mind I was still a long-haired sixteen year old youth standing there, one of half a dozen who did A-level design, part of the in-crowd, one of his select group of stage crew and actors. Why didn't he recognise me?
He stood and looked at the crew-cut, balding, middle aged forty-something man who not only claimed to be one of the thousands of pupils who'd passed before him in the past thirty five years, but who was smiling like a demented retard. I'm sure he started to look around for a heavy object just in case the nutter on his doorstep turned violent.
The tiredness and emotional stress built up inside like a shaken can of Pepsi and I really had to keep from blurting out some inane comment and legging it.
I think that, at this point, Colin tried to send a meaningful glance to his wife that she should slowly move away and call the police. The memories came rushing back, Colin has aged well, he doesn't look a day over forty, apart from his curly hair now being grey and the addition of a Rolf Harris beard. The attractive lady, who I now realised, must be his wife, stood next to him and I don't think I've ever seen such a happy couple. At that moment I felt genuinely and deeply happy for him. I remember in the fifth form how we thought that he was a mummy's little soldier who would never get married and suddenly felt so guilty about having had those thoughts over a quarter of a century ago.
I blurbed and spluttered a few pathetic sentences about who I was and he, politely, nodded and said that he remembered me. I wanted to tell him that he was a good man. That he'd taught me how to use tools and equipment which, years later, I'd come to appreciate. That his metalwork lessons had helped me build a boat, wire a house, repair cars, bikes and various film equipment. That I still opened paint tins with a screwdriver, never a chisel. Knew the right way to use emery cloth and what a bradawl was for. I needed to tell him that I knew how, when my mum died, he fought to keep me in the sixth form (the other one who stood up for me was Monty, which I know, some ex-Salvatorians find surprising) and when I failed my design A level, he didn't "have a go" or even show his disappointment. His "stage crew" kept me occupied and the school plays stopped me from hanging around aimlessly in the evenings. He never used or abused his authority and now I could see how much he had loved his job, and his pupils.
But no, the words didn't come. Although I don't think I actually dribbled down my chin, what I said was pathetic and I'm sure he suspected drug and alcohol abuse had addled my feeble brain, but, gentleman that he is, he politely nodded and smiled.
We talked about some of the teachers, Bayross, now a governor, Monty who retired a bitter man at the way his school had changed and how it was a pity about how Father Ray died. I casually mentioned Jenkinson, since I'd sort of had an idea to visit him and maybe "clear up" a few issues about old times. In other words put the fear of Christ into him for what he did back then. Colin told me that he was dead and then continued ... "Not one of my favourite teachers ... ... ..."
I felt shocked. I realised then that all the teachers knew exactly what [Bender] Jenkinson was up to and Colin, a true gentleman, was probably the only one to react to it. As our conversation continued I also realised that it was only Colin's in-built sense of "right and wrong" which had stopped him punching Jenkinson's lights out without firm evidence. I understood, without Colin saying anything more, that if he'd had the slightest proof, he'd have struck that blow.
We exchanged a few pleasantries and talked about the website. It became obvious that he'd heard about some of the things on it and commented on what we'd written about him. "I know I had favourites," he said "but then all teachers do." Being one of the "in crowd" back in the seventies stage crew, I wasn't in a position to say much but I could see that Colin was aware of what was said on the site and accepted the criticism of him without claiming that we were just whinging about nothing. That honesty and open answer impressed me.
I mentioned that I'd been back onto the stage and onto the gantry and just started to say something about the graffiti when he interrupted. "It was decorated about ten years ago," he said, "but I made them leave one bit of the ceiling." "I saw that..." I started, "Yes, those marks could only be made by hanging from the rig," he continued, "Quite risky for teenagers. I think, for that reason alone they should remain." "My name's up there." I said "I know." said CFT and smiled.
We exchanged a few more pleasantries, talked about some other teachers and then I left. I realised then just how different some of the teachers were. Colin was made from a mould which has long since been broken. He has a sense of right and wrong which sets him apart and those five minutes on the doorstep made me respect the man even more.
This wasn't a "road to Damascus" moment for me, and the lack of sleep made it more poignant that it need have been but I think it showed me that the back-to-salvo website is important. Teachers such as Doc and Jenkinson need to be outed and shamed so that the good teachers, the Bayrosses and Tufnels of this world, can see that even children realise what's good and bad in a teacher.
That's the end of my sermon, I'm sorry if it's bored you but I thought it might interest some of you who wonder "what would it be like to go back...?" (Robin Lambert 71-78)
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