Smells Like Cheap Spirits
Having been a big blonde fish in the small pond that was Foster’s Primary, it was quite a shock when I rocked up for my first day at the imposing Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School, aka Chis ‘n’ Sid, or “Chis ‘n’ Sad” as it was sneeringly labelled by the local rival school pupils.
Standing head and shoulders above every other eleven year old didn’t preclude me from being picked on; within days I was blubbing into the foyer payphone to my mum, having had a swarm of older kids buzzing round my solitary seat in the dinner hall, swiping my lunch from under my nose and devouring it in seconds as I protested weakly.
My family had earlier nicknamed me Olive Oyl (remember Popeye’s love interest?), albeit a blonde-haired version, due to my trademark slicked-back low ponytail, long gangly limbs and lanky, awkward gait; despite my best efforts I struggled to blend into the sea of uncertain babyfaced pre-teens whose eyes were level with my washboard chest.
I didn’t know a single soul in this seemingly huge, intimidating school, and consequently was overcome with loneliness. My starchy new uniform felt alien, it’s newness making it stiff and itchy: oversized lurid purple blazer (“you’ll grow into it!”), unflattering grey A-line skirt, lilac shirt, box-fresh black shoes….all regulation down to the elasticated purse belt and grey granny knickers. I may as well have had “newbie” written on my forehead in black marker.
Despite my fears, I soon formed tentative friendships with a gaggle of kind-faced girls and we slowly settled in, customising the ugly garb as best we could: rolling the waistband of the school-shop skirt up a few inches here, untucking our shirts a bit there, scrunching down white knee-high socks around skinny ankles. Although all the pupils were united in our collective dislike of the uniform, the vastly differing personalities beneath the ensemble started to show and various cliques began to form: The Cool Kids, Boffins, Geeks, Inbetweeners and Goths.
Unlike at primary school, it quickly became apparent that showing any hint of intelligence was not a good thing, at least not in the eyes of the Cool Kids, who gained credibility by being as disruptive as possible, much to the blood vessel-popping frustration of some of the teachers. To be labelled a “Boffin” was the most scathing of insults.
The roll-call of teachers’ names read like characters from a Roald Dahl* novel: Mr Clarence Trotz, Mr Forsdick, Mss Rust and Crust the PE teachers, Mr Pitts, Tony Tipping (nicknamed Angel Delight as he was a schoolgirl’s dream topping). Miss Naylor (nail-her?), the voluptuous young English teacher who’d make the testosterone-pumped teen boys drool.
Then there was Mr Jenkins, the red-faced French teacher who was partial to a tipple so constantly wore dark sunglasses, even in winter. He’d secure the boys to the desks by their ties and kick our rucksacks out of the gangway as he paced up and down reciting ‘topic vocab’ from the overhead projector, sometimes opening a first-floor window to casually sling out a bag that crossed his path. One boy in my class took umbrage to this, so cunningly placed a few bricks in his rucksack and left it in the walkway. We all held our breath as he took a swing at that bag…
The teachers with a sense of humour but an iron fist were generally the most successful. It was a battle of wills; they knew that any sign of weakness on their part would quickly result in chaos. Some resorted to aggression to restore order – throwing board rubbers at pupils’ heads (Mr Franklin, History) was effective, slamming down books on tables…less so. Mr “Angry” Anderson the English teacher kept a water-filled Jif lemon bottle in his drawer, squirting it in people’s ears if they played up, which was quite innovative, I thought.
‘Orrible Mr Horrobin the PE/Rugby teacher frequently terrorised us as we passed his turf of the Games block, appearing like a troll from under a bridge, firing off orders machine-gun style “Get off the grass!” “tuck in your shirts!” “bags off shoulders!” – the consequence for repeat offenders being mind-numbing plimsole-whitening detentions.
The German teachers had a management style all of their own: Herr Fischer’s risqué remarks and lingering glances simply stunned us into silence; Mr Ashby’s Spam obsession (the cheap meat variety, not junk emails) and classroom sheepdog trials were just plain random. The only German I remember him teaching me was “Is the sausage married?” “No, he’s Die Wurst” (divorced). Groan.
Mr Sennett was our headmaster, a wizened old vulture, half-moon glasses perched atop hook nose. We nicknamed him Senex, the Latin word for “old man”. (Well, we were grammar school kids; even our jokes were intellectual). The thick-skinned velociraptor would stride around, teeth bared, muttering “Guttersnipes!” under his breath, his chosen descriptor for his most unruly charges. He was offset by the kindly Mr Lightwood, his top-heavy deputy, who I remember as rotund and jolly, like a friendly robin red-breast.
There were daily dramas to be punished: boys fighting in the playground, girls smoking in the toilets, metal spatulas heated in bunsen burners then held on the backs of necks during chemistry experiments, water-filled balloon bombs in summer, half-dissected organs tossed at squeamish, squealing girls in Biology.
Like today’s anti-terror police, the teachers had the exhausting task of constantly trying to foil fresh and inventive attacks whilst simultaneously attempting to educate us. If this was how grammar school kids behaved, I can only imagine what was going on down the road at the comprehensives: Hurstmere for boys and Blackfen for girls.
Two things every secondary school pupil had in common were raging hormones and dubious Eighties fashion sense. By ’89 we were teenagers, sporting Savile-worthy shellsuits and poodle-like perms. My wardrobe was a lairy mix of Naf Naf, Ton Sur Ton, Nike Air Max, Kickers, Wallabees, bellbottom flares, leggings and Benetton sweatshirts, accessorized with red Rimmel lipstick, a gold belcher chain, a keeper ring and gold hoop earrings. Even Mr T would have balked at that weighty jewellery combo. When I say gold, I may actually mean gold-coloured. It’s a wonder my ears didn’t turn green and drop off in protest. The boys didn’t fare much better, with long hair tied in a ponytail being the style of choice in neighbouring schools (ours had a strict ‘no hair below the collar’ rule), and ‘curtains’ for Chis and Sid boys, or those simply preferring a less effeminate ‘do’. It’s a miracle anyone got a snog, ever.
The theme tune to my early teenage years was anything by Bros. I was a bona fide Brosette, right down to the Grolsch bottle tops on my shoes: Matt Goss was my God and I would bow down before his poster on my wall. I also loved Madonna, Kylie, Salt N Pepa, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, En Vogue, Technotronic, Soul To Soul and Nirvana, as well as my parents’ Beatles and Motown classics.
I would lie on my bed listening to the Top 40 on the radio or a mixtape I’d made myself, with toothpaste smeared on my pubescent pimples reading More magazine, Smash Hits or Mizz, or poring over a Judy Blume novel such as “Forever,” which read like a self-help manual for angst-ridden teens. Then I’d pour my innermost thoughts into my diaries, until my younger sister got her mitts on them and read them aloud Jackanory-style to my horrified mother.
As I got older, being the tallest amongst my pals had it’s advantages: I could saunter into the off-license dangling a spare set of ‘borrowed’ car keys from my finger and casually emerge minutes later laden with booty.
Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I kept getting selected for the cross-country team and swimming gala, the mere mention of either causing me to break out in a cold sweat, not least because we had the most unflattering PE kit imaginable. It had clearly been designed by a nun for maximum sex-hormone suppression: a white aertex (so far, so standard), but the Bridget Jones-style purple knickers with circulation-stopping elastic around the thighs were unforgiving to say the least. Add thick knee-high purple hockey socks and voila! The look was complete. The only reason I was so good at running was my theory that the faster I moved the harder it would be for anyone to actually focus on that horrendously unbecoming attire. Sloshing through muddy bog, legs mottled like roadmaps from the cold, I’d grit my teeth and vow to run more slowly in future.
Then there were the overseas school trips: first to Boulogne in France where we stayed in a grotty hostel munching horsemeat burgers, then later to the Black Forest in Germany where the teachers foolishly allowed us kids to buy cheap alcohol at the supermarket and everyone got completely trollied on the last night, resulting in an emergency doctor being called to treat the resulting casualties and the frazzled teachers vowing never to run another trip. It wasn’t just the pupils causing scandals though, quite the reverse, with one married music teacher having a torrid affair with a teenage pupil, another allegedly being caught getting frisky al fresco (and rumour had it, al-desko) with another man.
Am I painting a murky picture of my school days? Maybe. But despite all the angst and drama, drinking and detentions, there was plenty of studying too. That part just isn’t such fun to recount.
Like ugly ducklings to swans, we finally emerged from incarceration seven years later clutching a plethora of top-grade GCSE and A-level certificates.
Feeling euphoric at our new-found freedom, we stepped across the threshold of the dimly-lit school foyer and out into the big wide world, blinking in the sunlight, ready to begin our adult lives…
*Roald himself was a Bexley boy, who worked with the brilliant illustrator Quentin Blake, a former pupil at our school who remarked that he took inspiration from his teachers 😉