Friday, March 09, 2007

Blog For Whoever

It's funny how the most unlikely things can remind you of something else. I was watching the video for Give It To Me by Timbaland (featuring Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake) this morning when I suddenly realised how much it reminded me of the clip for Love Wars by The Beautiful South. The way that Timbaland tapped his thigh in time to the rhythm whilst travelling on a tour bus was reminiscent of Dave Stead seemingly playing the drums on Paul Heaton's head (also on a tour bus) in the latter. It's a rare video, but you can see it around two minutes into this documentary (which in turn reminds me that they don't make "doccos" (to quote Professor Tulloch) like they used to - if you get hooked, you can also watch part one and part three).

Anyway, as I sat there with a weird mental image of a Timbaland/Dave Hemingway hybrid flashing through my brain (they both nod their head in a very similar manner), it made me realise how much I miss the band. Like a child who suddenly acknowledges that his dog is dead and they'll never play "catch the stick" together again, it dawned on me that The Beautiful South are no more.

Growing up, the band were my second favourite musical obsession (after Quo, of course). I was a fan from the moment that I heard Song For Whoever on the Smash Hits Party '89 double-cassette compilation. However, it wasn't until 1994 and the release of Good As Gold (Stupid As Mud) from the Miaow album that I truly became a completist. Any band who can ride bicycles up a hill accompanied by an elephant (and still carry on singing) is fine by me.

I just missed them on their tiny '94 tour that called at Newport Centre (something I still regret to this day), but I played Miaow constantly and it is still one of my favourite albums. It was the first CD I ever owned that contained swearing ("we'll fuck them off over there" in Hidden Jukebox) and I truly felt as if I was growing up. Such small pleasures.

Within weeks, I had written off to the address on the packaging with a request for more information. I almost collapsed when I received a hand-written postcard from bass player Sean Welch thanking me for my support. We subsequently exchanged further letters, and he even sorted me out with a signed picture (which still has pride of place in a frame next to a signed Girls Aloud calendar) and a "Northern Scum" T-Shirt (which my mother would never allow me to wear in public "in case it offended somebody").

Like Jim Davidson and his Emerson, Lake & Palmer obsession, I wouldn't shut up about The Beautiful South. As with my love of Quo, I was mocked mercilessly by school friends who didn't see the fascination. But I didn't care, I knew that I was on to something good (and even managed to have the last laugh when those same people were singing along to Rotterdam in the sixth form common room years later).

Over time, I collected the band's previous albums in reverse order. I remember tracking down 0898 on a day trip to York and spent the entire journey home listening to it repeatedly on a Walkman. Choke was picked up in an HMV sale and LP gave me her mother's copy of Welcome To The Beautiful South in return for a ticket to see them at the Cardiff Arena in 1995 (but then we had a huge falling-out over something stupid and M ended up coming with me instead - he was the only other person who shared my passion for the band).

It seemed that we were jinxed whenever we went to see them in concert though. The first time was spoilt by sound problems (support band The Lightning Seeds had to leave the stage after two songs) plus there was a bomb scare in the encore. I was never entirely sure why anybody would choose to terrorise a Beautiful South gig in Cardiff, but there you go. I was particularly annoyed because it meant that they couldn't play Woman In The Wall, my favourite song, but I suppose it's acceptable given the circumstances. Eighteen months later, the band returned to Cardiff but this time without Jacqueline Abbott (who I had a major crush on at the time) who was feeling unwell. But at least they played Woman In The Wall.

Then it happened. The sort of thing you hope for when you're a fan of a small band, but at the same time feel resentment when it does. Carry On Up The Charts: The Greatest Hits was released and The Beautiful South were suddenly huge. Clearly a lot of people were closet fans, because the ones who mocked me at school were now sharing my obsession and finally, for once, I was a fan of a "cool" band. Of course, this meant that I had to go one better than everybody else. When The Beautiful South announced two huge summer stadium concerts in 1997, I travelled all the way to Huddersfield with M to see them headline at the McAlpine Stadium. Not only that, but we queued outside the venue from 6am on a Saturday morning to ensure that we were down at the front.

This time there were no problems. Not only did The Beautiful South put on an impeccable show, I also got to see Teenage Fanclub and a whole host of other bands. John Power from Cast waved at me, Bridget from Angelica smiled in my direction (or it could have been a grimace) and The Lightning Seeds (with backing vocals from the 25,000-strong crowd) did a rare performance of Three Lions (at a time when it hadn't been milked to death). It didn't get much better than least I didn't think so.

In 1999, The Beautiful South were still big enough appear second on the bill beneath REM at the Glastonbury Festival. It was here that M, L and myself saw one of their best ever performances. The timing was perfect - the sun was setting, we were relaxing at the back of the main field (just next to that famous solitary tree), the band did a greatest hits setlist and we sang along to every word.

Maybe it's because they could never top that, but I never felt the same level of passion for The Beautiful South after that night. Yes, I admit it. I neglected them towards the end of their life. I bought all the albums, of course, but I never gave them the same level of attention as I had in the past. I stopped going to see them live and I would listen to new albums once or twice before putting them on the shelf. I suppose you could say that I took them for granted. I had the attitude that they would always be around and I could get back into them later. I didn't take much notice when they announced their split last year, but it has now hit me that a great band has been lost. A group who never really cared if they were cool or not and seemed more like a group of friends having fun than a professional musical outfit. But maybe that's what made them so good.

Thankfully I have my memories - and a great soundtrack to accompany them.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Baggy Trousers: Memories Of Stanwell School: 1991-1998

It's amazing how an artexed ceiling can get you thinking about your life.

Waiting for L to come to bed last night - don't worry, it's not that kind of blog - one of the swirls above my head reminded me of my A-Level Welsh Oral examiner. I only met the man once, over a decade ago, but the memories soon came flooding back. During the exam, as I sat there chatting away to him, I couldn't help but notice that his flies were undone. Desperately trying to think of a way to let him know in Welsh - my two female classmates were next up, after all - I accidentally stumbled over a basic sentence about the weather. If it wasn't for his bloody trousers, I'm certain I would have achieved that A grade.

Well, once I start thinking about old times, there's no stopping me. Soon I was having vivid memories of my Stanwell school days. It was as if Paul McKenna had entered the room and regressed me. Which is much better than if he had entered the room and undressed me. Some people pay hundreds of pounds for a session like that. Regression, I mean, not undressing. That probably costs more. It depends on the kind of mood Mr. McKenna's in, I suppose.

Anyway, it made me realise that I always intended to get those stories written down and, seeing as I've spilled the beans on nearly ever other aspect of my life, now is as good a time as any to get my school days out in the open.

It's a long story, you may want to prepare a flask of tea and have a family bag of Revels on standby, but hopefully it's one worth hearing.

Let's start with Mrs. H, my favourite teacher. Generally she was a quiet mild-mannered woman, but if you got on her wrong side she'd let you know about it. I only managed it once - and it took six years to do so - and even when she did scream at me, she immediately apologised by tilting her head to one side and saying "oh, G, how could I be annoyed with you?"

I'm that kind of person, you see.

Anyway, Mrs. H was my Welsh teacher from the start of Year Seven until the end of my A-Levels. She was also my Head of Year for most of my time at school. It was in this role that she enjoyed her greatest moment.

I don't know about your old school, but my afternoon assemblies were generally pretty moribund. The usual daily announcements, a bit of singing and - if we were really lucky - a visit from one of those youth theatre groups, a community police officer or PH, the evangelist/artist who spread the word of God with a packet of brush-tipped felt pens and an A3 sketch-pad balanced precariously between two stools.

One particular afternoon, our Headmaster was on a training course and the diabetic R.E. teacher had run off to the canteen for an emergency jam doughnut. With nobody else on hand, Mrs. H was roped in at the last minute to get the job done. She wasn't going to miss out on her chance to shine and gave the performance of a lifetime.

Picture the scene: It's Thursday afternoon, the day before Comic Relief 1993 (the year of the tomato, I believe) and two-hundred teenagers are sat impatiently on a hard wooden floor. Suddenly, Mrs. H comes running down the aisle brandishing a ghetto blaster, a cardboard box and a cassette copy of Michael Jackson's Dangerous album.

"I won't be a minute," she assured us.

She was a bit longer than that, but teachers and school electrical equipment never mix well. Soon enough, she had placed the box down, put the tape in, pressed Play and then returned back up the aisle and out of the assembly hall.

For a few seconds we all sat in confused silence. Then the opening bars of Heal The World began and Mrs. H re-entered the hall, slowly this time, and walked solemnly down to the front. I've never been sure if she misjudged the short distance, or if it was all part of the plan, but for the remaining six minutes of the song she stood silently in front of us, slowly nodding her head in time to the music and sometimes mouthing along to the particularly thought-provoking lyrics.

As the song faded, Mrs. H paused for thought. The moment was tarnished slightly when she forgot to press Stop and Black Or White began to play. She dealt with it professionally though, by tilting her head to one side and saying "oooh, what am I like?!"

Then it was back down to the serious business.

"That was a song by Mr. Michael Jackson, a man who loves Africa," she explained. "If Mr. Jackson was here with you today," she continued, "he would tell you about all the ways in which you can love Africa."

There was a bit of sniggering from the audience, but most of us sat there in the hope that this was all going somewhere.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson is not here with us today..."

Somebody at the back shouted "BOOO!" loudly.

"...yes, yes, it's a shame I know...but the point is, although Mr. Jackson is not here with us today, I am here to paraphrase the things that I am sure he would say."

This was going to be interesting.

"If you were listening carefully to the lyrics of that beautiful song, you will have realised that there are many things, big or small, that we can do to help Africa. Can anybody give me an example?"

No volunteers were forthcoming. Mrs. H offered to play the song again, but one of the other teachers at the back of the hall started tapping their watch furiously.

"Nobody? Well let me show you this..."

At this point, she reached for the box beside her. As she picked it up, a toothbrush and a trial-size tin of Lynx Oriental body spray fell out.

"Oh dear," she cried, tilting her head to one side and desperately trying to stop anything else from spilling out as the deodorant noisily rolled up the aisle.

"In this box, I have many examples of the things that we could send to Africa. Just think, if each of us made up a similar box we could all, as Mr. Jackson so eloquently pointed out, 'heal the world'."

Mrs. H then began talking us through each item: the toothbrush and body spray, a reporter's notebook, a pack of twelve Crayola crayons, a five-piece geometry set, three pairs of socks, a copy of Fast Forward magazine, a Whoopee cushion and a tin of Tesco peaches. It was like the conveyor belt on The Generation Game.

By now, some pupils were turning purple in their attempts to stop themselves laughing. Tears were rolling down some faces and the sound of gasping could be heard from others. But Mrs. H had saved the best for last. Reaching into the box, she triumphantly held up the final item.

"Something that we all take for granted - a sponge!"

The hall erupted in laughter. Mrs. H stared back, confused. To be honest, anything would have made us laugh at that point, but the fact that she had also pronounced it "spon-ge" instead of the usual "spun-ge" was enough to send a couple of hundred teenagers into hysterics.

"Yes, well I hope I've made my point," she said quietly, still confused.

A few people began a slow hand clap. Then a few more, and a few more again. Soon, wild applause filled the room. Some of the more rowdy pupils began whistling and chanting "Mrs. H! Mrs. H! Mrs. H!"

Suddenly, a huge smile lit up her face.

"Oh thank you, thank you so much, diolch yn fawr iawn, in fact!"

She then turned to the ghetto blaster, pressed Rewind and Play at the same time and filled the hall with the ear-piercing screech of cassette tape. She then pressed Play and walked triumphantly out of the hall, accompanied once again by Heal The World. The next day, we were informed that our entire year group had been given an hour's detention for the disrespect shown to Mrs. H. But we didn't care, we were honoured to have been present at the world's best, and most confusing, school assembly.

Mrs. H wasn't the only memorable member of the Welsh department though. Her place in school legend was secured with the infamous assembly and, later, the time when her husband appeared in the Public Opinion section of the South Wales Echo saying that he liked nothing more than "a good hump" (he was discussing speeding restrictions in Cardiff), but she did have an equally memorable colleague.

Mrs. S had originally arrived at the school as a supply teacher. She made her mark on day one.

"'Scuse me, miss!" shouted LP, "I ain't got no pen!"

"What did you say?" screached Mrs. S, like a cross between Eric Cartman from South Park and Skeletor from He-Man.

"I said I ain't got no pen!"

"Damn it, say it properly girl!"

"I. Ain't. Got. No. Pen. Miss" replied LP, sarcastically.

"That's it!" screamed Mrs. S. "I ain't got no pen, I ain't got no book, I ain't got no bag. Well I ain't got no patience with you! Now, GET OUT OF MY CLASSROOM!"

Nobody ever crossed her again.

In 1996, I did my compulsory work experience at school. It's not that I wanted to be a teacher, just that my first two choices were unavailable. The Raymond Revue Bar was deemed unacceptable for a sixteen year old, and Red Dragon FM had already filled their quota of teenage tea-makers. I admitted defeat and stayed at the school. I was placed in the Welsh department under Mrs. S' supervision. On the first day I was so scared, but she turned out to be absolutely lovely and even tried to give me the old black & white television from the staff room as a gift. I politely declined the offer, although I did take the opportunity to catch up on Shortland Street one afternoon. The reception was terrible, but at least I got my fix of New Zealand-based drama.

Years later, long after I had left school, I was on my way to the Glastonbury Festival and bumped into Mrs. S at Cardiff Central station. She was rushing in the opposite direction to catch a different train, but she did briefly say a surprised "hello." In fact, as she hurried off, I'm sure I heard her say "I ain't got no time", but I can't be sure of that...

Imagine if you will, or indeed if you can, a cross between Cassandra from Only Fools And Horses and Fred Elliot from Coronation Street. If you can manage that, you've got a pretty good picture of Mrs. D, my first form tutor and also my French and English teacher. So proud of her Northern heritage, she even spoke French with a Lancashire accent. Her most used expression was "Ou est La Rochelle? I say, Ou est La Rochelle?"

Mrs. D was a great English teacher and really brought books and poetry to life. She was obsessed with the author Danny Abse. I wouldn't say she was an Abse stalker, but she did manage to get him to come to the school to give a chat about his work. At the end of the Question & Answer session - I think I asked him something about his family's law practice, for some reason - Mrs. D took him to one side and said, "here y'are Danny lad, 'ave a drink on me!"

In Year Nine, we were studying a book called Across The Barricades about the troubles in Northern Ireland. Originally, Mrs. D had asked the Irish school librarian, Mrs. LO, to say a few words. Unfortunately, she had an accent more irritating than Nadine from Girls Aloud and was more interested in asking for "silence in the library", or for us to "sit down in the library", or indeed, anything to do with being "in the library."

However, as luck would have it, Mrs. D's husband was from Belfast, so she arranged for him to come in and give a first-hand perspective on the stories in the book. He was a real man's man, a cross between the sailor from the TinTin cartoons and Jim McDonald from Coronation Street. Strange then, that when he arrived at the school gates, she sent one of the boys from the class to meet him with a bouquet of flowers.

Once he got settled into his seat, he began telling a story about his younger years.

"I was sat in the pub, when I heard a huge explosion. I thought a massive fuck-you bomb had come through the window..."

"Patrick!" shouted Mrs. D. "I told you not to use language like that in front of the children!"

"I'm sorry," he replied meekly. "I just got carried away."

It was never quite the same after that, and we were left in no doubt about who wore the trousers in that house.

Mrs. D wasn't the only Northerner at the school. There was Mr. J the woodwork teacher, who looked like one of the Chuckle Brothers. He also had an assistant called Mr. R who looked like Geoff from Byker Grove and was apparently a roadie for The Who in the seventies. However, the cream of the Northern crop was Mr. B, one of the deputy heads.

I didn't have much to do with Mr. B until I reached Sixth Form. In 1997, HTV Wales came to the school to do an unfairly damning report. It caused a huge local fuss, mainly because Mr. B had a bit of a Cook Report moment during the programme and held up a huge piece of white board to hide his face, all the time shouting "who are ya? who are ya?" over and over again.

After the programme was aired, because of my interest in Journalism, I was approached by Mr. B and the Media Studies teacher, to make my own documentary in response to ITV.

Even if I do say so myself, it was a bloody good piece of amateur production. I hired PD as a camera man and we went around the school interviewing teachers and pupils. We called it Dead End Street, inspired by the Kinks song, and it ended with a shot of me outside the school gates saying "dead end street? I don't think so!", just like that bit in The Jam's Smithers-Jones or Macauley Culkin in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. It never made it to television, but I did earn myself some fans. Most notably, a few girls from a couple of years below who insisted on following me home and trying to force themselves into my house. My mother was having none of it, and I finally realised how Rick Astley must have felt after he released Ain't Too Proud To Beg.

I thought that would be the end of my dealings with Mr. B, but I had one more encounter with him on the night of my eighteenth birthday. A group of us went to the Cefn Mably pub when I finished work at Redlands News - I needed to drown my sorrows after the whole "Cool At 18" debacle. Anyway, it was all high spirited and we got chatting to a local man called J who was originally from South Africa. He looked like Lou Carpenter from Neighbours, but sounded like Du Plessis from Wild At Heart. During the course of the conversation, we told him that we were from the local school.

"Oh man," he shouted. "I've been trying to get my son in that school for years."

With perfect timing, a bunch of teachers from our school came into the pub. They had been playing football and were planning on a quiet drink. Unfortunately, one of my friends muttered something along the lines of "oh no, it's Mr. B."

J didn't miss a trick.

"Hey man, you know these guys?" he asked.

"Yes," said I, "they're our teachers."

Without a moment's hesitation, he marched over to their table.

"Hey guys, my name is J and I have a son. I'd like him to go to your school."

One of the teachers tried to explain that this was not the place to talk about it. J was undeterred and continued to do his best to win their attention. After many awkward minutes, he stood up and started hammering on their table. "I always tell my son about the importance of getting your fucking piece of paper. You guys are going to stop him getting his FUCKING PIECE OF PAPER!"

We decided it was probably a good time to leave. That wasn't the end of it though. Next morning, we were summoned to Mr. B's office and, although he took it all quite well, we were told that it might be a good idea to choose a different pub in future, and to not mix with unpredictable South African men. It's a piece of advice that I've kept on board ever since.

Picture a man with the build of Herman Munster and a frown line on his forehead like Mr. Worry from the Mr. Men. I'd like to introduce to you Mr. P, the Biology teacher. He only taught me for the final six weeks of GCSE Science, but he more than made his impression.

Many teachers use a variety of different methods to keep classes under control. I'm no expert, but I think that a catchy little phrase would surely have to be up there as one of the more practical, and indeed friendly, ways to exert your authority. Mr. P certainly thought so. His three word catchphrase was dropped in casually at first, but as classes became more and more rowdy towards exam time, he had no option but to crack it out at least once a day: "Cut the sillies!"

Hearing that phrase today takes me right back to Mr. P's classroom. For some reason, a lesson on igneous rocks springs to mind, or "Ig-neee-ous" as Mr. P had a habit of saying. AM was being a bit of a disruptive git that morning, even more so than usual. Mr. P walked over to his desk and quietly asked him to desist. AM just looked at Mr. P and squeezed his forehead with two fingers, so as to create a fake frown line. It was really quite effective.

"Now, my boy!" said Mr.P, sternly. He liked calling people "my boy", even if they were girls.

"I like a challenge, and you my boy, are a challenge. Now CUT THE SILLIES!"

It would have been hard to take anybody else seriously, but Mr. P showed that he was a force to be reckoned with that day.

The female equivalent of Mr. P was, coincidentally, Ms. P. She was a tall, slim, stern-looking woman who was a deputy head for most of the week, but did a bit of JP-ing, for want of a better explanation, down at the local magistrate's court on a Friday. Needless to say, she scared me to death.

The first time we met, I made the schoolboy error of calling her "Miss P."

"Go out of the door and come back in, boy!" she boomed. "It's MIZZ, not MISS!"

I never made that mistake again.

At one point, there was a rumour going around that Ms. P had walked in on Mr. H (the non-diabetic R.E. teacher) can I put this?...pleasuring himself. Apparently, she took one look at him and shouted, "put it AWAY, Mr. H! PUT. IT. AWAY!"

To this day, I'm not entirely sure how I summoned the courage, but during a school trip to Granada Studios, I asked her if it was true. What can I say? She seemed to soften towards me when I showed off my expert knowledge of the residents of Coronation Street, and I saw an opportunity that couldn't be missed.

"A lady never comments, boy! Never!"

If this was The Bill and I was Sergeant Smithy (and let's just say that L would like that very much), I'd be taking her "no comment" as an admission of guilt. On the day in question though, I took no further action. Mainly because I was distracted by a Reg Holdsworth T-shirt and an ornamental version of Alf's Corner Shop.

Now, this may come as a surprise to you, but I'm no sportsman. Unfortunately, taking P.E. was insisted upon, so I had the pleasure of weekly contact with Mr. S, the games teacher.

A short man, he made up for his lack of height with some lightning speed. There's a scene at the end of The Blues Brothers when the army and a SWAT team are storming the Richard J. Daley Plaza and all you can hear is the sound of them chanting: "Hut, Hut, Hut." Mr S. was a bit like that. Sometimes, if I was in a particularly boring Physics lesson, I would gaze out of the classroom window and watch the action out on the sports field. Mr. S would be there, whizzing around the pitch as fast as his little legs would carry him, almost always wearing a tiny pair of khaki shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "BASKETBALL IS LIFE, THE REST IS JUST DETAILS."

Usually, he'd be shouting out random surnames in that chummy way that only P.E and Drama teachers can get away with: "Pass the ball, Woody!" or "Play it long, Gouldy!" or "For God's sake Lewis, you pecker-head, you're going the wrong way!" One day, as I watched all this going on, a sound came into my head. A cross between the clickety-clack rhythm of an old King George V steam train and the musical skills of Scatman John. Something along the lines of "skiddly bip, skiddly bip, skiddly bip." It was perfect, like Benny Hill on acid. From that moment on, it became Mr. S' personal soundtrack. In my head, at least.

I put up with games lessons for a couple of years, but by the time I was fourteen I'd had enough. Unfortunately, Mr. S was no pushover. I couldn't just go up to him and say, "sir, I've forgotten my kit" because he'd just turn around and say "I don't bloody care, you can play in your pants" or "no problem, you'll be on the skins team this week" (and when you're a chubby young thing, you really don't want to be on the skins team).

There was no way he could make me participate if I had a note though, so every Sunday evening I would go through the medical dictionary that my mother got free with the Today newspaper and choose a random, temporary ailment that could be used as a handy excuse on Monday morning. Of course, it would also have to miraculously clear up by the same afternoon. I'd then get my mother in a good mood - usually just after the big tearful reunion between a woman and her Australian half-brother on Surprise Surprise - and she'd do the honours with her signature.

Toothache, a sprained ankle, pneumonia - I had it all. I think I even got away with period pain once. Mr. S must have known what I was up to - he was probably taking bets on next week's illness in the staff room - but sure enough, he had no choice in the matter and I was permitted to stay in my uniform, carry the balls out on to the field and stand on the touchline, where I usually entertained myself by doing really over-the-top commentaries about the on-field action. Much to his annoyance.

However, Mr. S' finest moment was off the sports field. Three years into my stretch at school, they decided that two high-rise towers and a few dozen Portakabins were not the most inspiring environments for learning. Their solution was to demolish the whole school and start again from scratch. Obviously, this was a big job. So, while they erected the fancy new buildings, we were forced into temporary on-site accomodation.

During this time, our assemblies were held in a youth centre situated on school-owned land. Singing At The Name Of Jesus while the Street Fighter II machines flashed away in the background was quite an experience. Mrs. C had to pump that piano peddle for all she was worth, just to make herself heard over the sound of Ken and Ryu beating each other up. They were characters in the game, I hasten to add, not boys in my year.

Anyway, as winter approached and the sports field became muddier, pupils were starting to make dirty footprints all over the youth centre floor. Soon, the manager began to complain. Usually in cases such as this, a senior member of staff would be called upon to lecture us on the importance of respecting other people's property. It says a lot about Mr. S' standing in the school community that he - a humble P.E. teacher - was chosen to give the speech. To be fair, he did dabble in a bit of Geography teaching whenever one of the department was off sick, but this was a big deal. Mrs. H even gave him an introduction, as if he was a guest on Wogan or something.

So we're all sat cross-legged on the floor, the smell of sweat and wet mud is in the air and there's a sticky mess near the stage area - it's possibly a spilt can of Shandy Bass, but it could be a Top Deck Lager & Lime. Soon, the unmistakable sound is heard from the back entrance - "skiddly bip, skiddly bip, skiddly bip" - but faster this time. Mr. S is a man on a mission. He's even changed his T-shirt. This time, tennis is life and there's a big yellow ball on the back to prove it. Without any fussing around, he gets straight down to business.

"I've received some complaints from SL that some of you boys - not mentioning any names Woody, Gouldy, Lewis you pecker-head - are coming straight to assembly from the field without wiping your bloody feet!"

Mrs. H winced. Swearing was a pet hate and I hadn't seen her look like that since I lent her my copy of The Beautiful South's Miaow containing an uncensored version of Hidden Jukebox. Undeterred, Mr. S continued.

"So, I'm telling you all now, I will not tolerate shitty shoes in this building anymore!"

"Oh! Mr. S!" cried Mrs H, clearly in distress.

"I'm sorry Mrs. H," he replied. "But this has to be said. There will be no more SHITTY SHOES in here from now on!"

"Oh! Please, Mr. S! Nobody wants this!"

"Mrs. H, shitty shoes are a serious matter and I've had enough!"

Mrs. H couldn't take any more. Bringing the assembly to an abrupt end, she escorted Mr. S from the building. He continued mumbling about "shitty shoes", but he was soon drowned out by Mrs. C playing an impromptu, over-zealous version of Onward Christian Soldiers. His speech did the trick though, there were no further dirty protests in the youth centre from that moment on.

Sports-wise, that was the end of my association with the P.E. department. Unless you count pretending to die when Mr. G fired the starting pistol at Sports Day, or when I persuaded PL to do his impression of Mr. K, a student teacher with no sense of humour who marched straight over to us and said, "Oi, fatties, you make fun of me and I'll make fun of you."

It wasn't the end of memorable assemblies, though. Before the new school buildings were officially opened, we had one final session in the youth centre. It was led by Mr. L, one of the deputy heads and a History teacher - a short, chubby man with a lisp who liked nothing more than a good chat. He reminded me of Benny The Ball from Top Cat. On this particular afternoon, he came strolling down to the front of the room with a big grin on his face and an even bigger pair of scissors in his hand.

"Good afternoon, clath" he said.

See, I told you he had a lisp.

"Thith afternoon, I would like to teach you about the importanth of thaying thank you."

Are you following so far? Good.

"Now, everytime I thay thank you, I'm going to cut off a pieth of my tie."

There was a reason for this at the time, but for the life of me I can't remember it at all. But basically, if you don't say thank you, you're likely to end up with a really big tie. Or something like that.

"In Thpain, they thay 'Muchoth Grathiath'" he continued, and snipped an inch off his tie.

"In Waleth, we thay 'Diolch.'"

Off went another inch.

"In Italy, they thay 'Grat-thi"

Soon, he was down to his final inch. It was surely over, wasn't it?

"In Jamaica, they thay...ha,ha,ha....'Grat-thi Mon'"

He stood there looking pleased with himself, wearing nothing more than a knot. Well, a shirt and trousers too, obviously. That would just be wrong, otherwise.

"Tho you thee, make thure you alwayth thay thank you."

Then he walked off, leaving Mrs. L - a large woman who once had a boy suspended because he opened both double doors for her as she came down the corridor - to pick up the pieces of his tie. As she did so, she made a noise not unlike Muttley in Wacky Races. Something along the lines of "shnuffle, muffle, muffle." I got the impression that he did that particular assembly a lot.

Mr. L was typical of the History department. Mr. TH was like a cross between John Major and Mr. Bean, although I suppose there's not a lot of difference between the two really. He made us watch the final series of Blackadder at least once a term and detested the phrase "joy ride" because he had witnessed a car accident near his home and, as he told us on many an occasion, "it's no joy when your head is rolling down the road on a ride of its own." It didn't stop people winding him up by singing Roxette's Joy Ride though. Of course, I never stooped that low. I just found his number in the phone book one Saturday night, rang him up and played Radiohead's Creep down the line. Next History lesson, he took five minutes to complain about the "idiots in the world" who "take pleasure in abusing the luxury of telecommunications."

I sat next to TR in History and we would usually end up making each other laugh by doing impressions of various teachers. Mr. TH noticed our laughter and asked me to read a Siegfried Sassoon war poem out loud as punishment. The piece in question began with the line, "does it matter if you lose a leg?" For some reason, I decided to recite it in my best Mr. P voice. TR couldn't contain his laughter any longer and blurted out a giggle that set the rest of the class off. Mr. TH slammed down his book and shouted "the loss of legs, or indeed any limb, is no laughing matter!"

In an effort to make amends, TR and I offered to help him pack up his classroom when the school was demolished. He accepted our help and sent us off to find "one or two boxes." I take any mission seriously, so we headed off to the local Spar, Post Office and even Redlands News. We must have collected around twenty boxes in total and took great pleasure in stacking them up to the ceiling. Mr. TH entered the classroom, took one look at our work and shouted, "I don't want all these! I want them OUT!" Unfortunately for him, we had a lesson to attend so made a swift exit.

Mrs. LL was much more easy-going. During our first ever History lesson in Year Seven, she introduced herself by saying, "I'm Mrs. LL and I love the Tudor Period because there's lot's of juicy sex - but don't tell Mr. TH I said that!" Bearing in mind that she was in her sixties and a softly-spoken Welsh woman, this candid confession came as a bit of a shock to our eleven-year-old minds.

I regard it as both a blessing and a curse to have come into contact with so many unique personalites at a young age, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. I learnt more about people-watching and life's characters during my time at school than anything else, but had it not been for those valuable lessons, I wonder how else I would have coped with the Eghosas of the world later in life. For that I am grateful, although I'm not sure that's the lasting lesson they wanted me to take away after six years of school.

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