YOU may not believe that not only was there a
time when meadow, grove and stream, the earth and every common sight, to
me did seem apparelled in celestial light, but also that I had ambitions
to become a teacher.
In my visionary gleam, the school, an ancient, ivy-covered
enclave of enlightenment, would resemble those in boys’ magazines from
the 1920s to the 1950s, its pupils the human equivalents of the best of
breed winners at Crufts, its teachers either barking mad, as
discipline-insisting as Prussian Guard NCOs or, like myself, quiet,
purposeful and academically impeccable.
As in vacant or in pensive mood, I would pace the quadrangle,
wearing gown and mortar board headgear; boys would doff their caps
respectfully and receive my curt but kindly nod. In the school chapel,
the choir would sing battle hymns of the empire and in the bat-haunted
eyrie of the headmaster’s room, the few malcontents and ne’er-do-wells
who flouted the rules of civilised academic behaviour would get condign
punishment of a stern but just nature.
Alas, it was not to be. The lure of journalistic lucre was too
The vision briefly flickered the other night when I watched
BBC2’s Scotland on Film, in which ancient Scots recounted their
schooldays, and images were shown of children sitting to attention
without any suggestions that their teachers might be knocked insensible
in the surge and thunder of the class struggle.
These were the times of the Lochgelly tawse when its use felled
classroom indiscipline as if by mace. The programme’s participants
revealed, mainly in jocular fashion, as ones who had been to Hell and
back and were none the worse for their experience, how some of their
mentors would, for a particularly heinous offence, such as cheek or dumb
insolence, get the culprit to place one hand on top of another so that
the belt’s short, sharp shock would be intensified. I got the
double-handed treatment for a re-fusal to remain conscious during
Scottish education made me realise that school days, dear old
golden rule days, often meant that the rule was used to clip you across
the head to remind you of the date of the impeachment of Warren Hastings
and that, for other scholastic misdemeanours, there were not just the
belt and backhand but also the shake, slap and push that could come to
Schools, from experiences of my ducking and weaving peer group,
were places of flailing tawses, flying pieces of chalk and, in secondary
schools, the occasional science jotter or Bunsen burner fired across
pupils’ bows as a warning to heave-to and concentrate their reluctant
minds on, say, Lavoisier’s gaseous, even nauseous experiments.
There were teachers who used the belt with the subtlety of a
steam hammer and others, like my superbly-sculpted, female art teacher
with delicate skin tones, who could unroll it onto the open palm with
the accuracy of a chameleon’s tongue.
And the teachers themselves? Sometimes grim, gaunt and even
ghoulish, the men often in austere suits as tightly-wrapped as rolled
umbrellas and the women, diffusing an air suggestive of Lysol, clad in
garb, battleship-grey or tints of autumnal mellow fruitfulness, with
both sexes given to outburst like, "Larking about, Morris? I will not
have larking in the classroom. Go to the headmaster and ask him to beat
you within an inch of your life - and remember to say ‘please’."
It was excellent preparation for Army conscripts, like myself,
who thought military life a disciplined stroll compared with scholastic
Generally, my teachers were dedicated, often highly-talented and
humorous, who strove to drill education into the resisting permafrost of
pupils’ intellects. When they occasionally used the belt, I have to
admit, grudgingly, that it worked; discipline being instantly restored
and the class allowed to concentrate on their tasks.
It was these teachers I admired. "The members," wrote the author,
Ian Hay, "of the most responsible, the least advertised, the worst paid
and the most richly-rewarded profession in the world."
In my scholastic days, corporal punishment was often too freely
delivered and an atmosphere of fear could overcome enthusiasm for
learning. Nowadays, it is teachers who fear aggression - from pupils and
I am glad I saw what might have been the celestial light and
chose journalism; in Britain it’s safer.