Thursday, February 28, 2019


 Another scene from my "scenes from a very English boyhood ."


            Funny. Strange. On my tour of the school I completely forgot one of its main features: the assembly hall. I also forget what we called it. It may have had a name, like Pevenesey, our games and homework room, but if so that name has slipped my memory. Perhaps one day, should a Windlesham boy or a Windelsham girl happen on this narrative, he or she will be kind enough to find some way to remind me.
            The hall was located, if I remember correctly, immediately above the swimming pool, and was therefore about the same size. Again unless memory plays tricks, it had one huge window, looking out over the school’s playing fields. It was there that we were summoned for the kind of gathering where general announcements are made, or for other school ceremonies than those that took place in the chapel. It was there that Mr. Roger gave his memorable talk about El Alamein, recalled in an earlier scene. And it was there we were treated to a very occasional movie. In those days, watching a movie involved a measure of patience for the changing of reels and rethreading of the film through the brackets of the projector. The soundtrack was accompanied, sometimes obscured, by the spinning of those big reels and the noisy passage of celluloid through the unclad machinery. And the powerful light made a constantly flickering cone between its source and the wobbly improvised screen. Perhaps in the spirit of patriotism, they most often showed us films about the heroism of British soldiers and seamen; the one that comes to mind, so may years later, was about a dangerous submarine mission in the Atlantic, “We Dive at Dawn.” John Mills, the epitome of the intrepid, stiff-upper-lip military man, played the part of the captain, grimly intent on his personal sense of duty and discipline for his crew. We boys in the audience cheered lustily when his torpedoes hit their target and another German ship was sunk.
            We also did school plays. Gilbert and Sullivan was a favorite. One year we did "The Mikado", with Nanky Poo, Pooh Bah, Pish-Tush and the Lord High Executioner (“a personage of noble rank and title”), not to mention those “three little girls from school are we/filled to the brim with girlish glee.” I’m quite sure that what seemed like innocent fun in those unenlightened days would today be condemned for its undoubted, unabashed indulgence of sexist and racist stereotypes. Still, with so much else forgotten, I’m amazed to recall whole passages of G&S verbatim. The doggerel makes many of them easy to remember: “To sit in solemn silence/in the deep dark dock/of a pestilential prison/with a life-long lock/awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock/from a cheap and chippy chopper/on a big black block.” How could anyone forget that outrageously absurd alliteration?
            We did “H.M.S. Pinafore” one other year. Still a Junior, I was given the part of Tom Tucker, the Midshiptmite, amongst a cast of Seniors playing characters like Ralph Rackstraw, Dick Deadeye, and the Commander of the Pinafore. My part, admittedly, was a small one. My big moment was to receive from the bounteous Buttercup ("dear little Buttercup, poor little Buttercup, sweet little Buttercup I!") a stick of “rock”—a traditional English seaside candy treat—in the disappointing form of a dowel wrapped in a sheet of pink blotting paper from Mr. Grocer's cabinet. I also learned a useful lesson that has served me well: to walk downstairs, especially down a narrow stairway from the poop deck on a rocking boat, don't go toes forward. Slant your feet sideways as you step down. Useful knowledge, I swear, when age makes staircases a challenge!
            Ah, but my most challenging role on the Windlesham stage was one that caused me the most horrible embarrassment among my peers. By this time, I was a Senior, perhaps eleven years old. It was Miss Anthea, the youngest of the Maldens, I believe, who managed to sweet-talk me into agreeing to appear in the Junior production of “Snow White.” The Juniors, of course, could play the seven dwarfs and sing their songs—“Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go” and “Whistle while you work”—but they needed someone physically larger than themselves to play the lead role. I was chosen. They dressed me up in a Snow White costume and I had to sing the Snow White songs: “I’m wishing/for the one I love/to find me/today”…  The only compensation for this abject humiliation was Miss Andrea’s gentle touch as she applied make-up to my round, freckled face and rouge to my cheeks. 
             My mother, at least, was very proud. She included the hand-drawn program in her family album where it remains, for all I know, to this day.

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