04 July 2023

We haven't been this far north for a number of years, at least 10 and possibly more. We stopped in various hotels not far from Inverary and had a lovely time. The first night we stayed in Loch Fyne...

yellow and greyMy First Day at St Mungo’s

September 1971

I remember so clearly my first day at St Mungo’s. For one thing, I was almost late for the first assembly of the year, and if it hadn’t been for the kindness of one staff member, I would have been. Mr Gentle, who quickly became my favourite teacher, had spotted me dawdling and daydreaming my way down the front drive and had offered me a lift down to the Hall in his old car. I had instantly felt at ease in his company and hoped that he would turn out to be one of my teachers.

I squeezed through the doors into the main hall and there in front of me squirmed a sea of blue blazers and school bags. There was no obvious place to go and so I retreated until I could press my back against the wall and simply look and look. The children ranged in size from the tiny to the huge, and I wondered if this might be the entire school population, gathered in one room. Children had roughly graded themselves by height, to meet in huddles of various sizes, where they chatted away happily as if they had all day. I saw not a single familiar face among them and felt I’d like nothing more than to turn around and go home.

Then I spotted the girl that Sir Julius had spoken to before lunch on interview day. I think she must have remembered me too, because she saw me looking and began to edge slowly my way. She looked a similar height to me and moved with the controlled, upright posture of one who trains regularly for a sport or some other very physical activity. She definitely had the calf muscles of a runner, I noted. The girl stopped in front of me, put down her bag and regarded me pleasantly, her head tilted slightly to one side. Her chocolate-brown eyes brimmed with curiosity and playfulness. A faint, enigmatic smile completed a face that in later years I felt sure would make her a popular choice at end-of-term discos. Her jet black hair was cut in a bob with a centre parting, and I guessed from her perfect face and pale brown skin that her family’s origins lay further to the east than most of the good old English yeoman stock I saw around me: florid, lived-in faces with their lumps and bumps and freckles and uneven teeth.

“My name’s Sam Smith,” I said. “Sam, to my friends.”

“I’m Polly. Polly Daniels. Have you come far?”

“No. I live just up the road. You?”

“We live near Birmingham. Dad and I stayed in a hotel last night.”

Behind me, a group of senior boys had become quite animated and one of them stepped backwards, nearly knocking me over. Then someone grabbed my arm. “Greetings, Sam and Pam; follow me!” The tubby lad who had shown me around on interview day turned and began pushing a path through the milling crowd until finally the three of us reached the corridor. “I’m gathering up the new scholarship students,” he wheezed, “which won’t take long since there are only three of you.”

He showed us into an empty classroom. “Wait here while I find the other one.” We put down our bags and sat on the edge of the platform at the front of the room.

“My dad says he never imagined he would ever have a daughter at a private school,” the girl said.

“Mine said something similar. What does your dad do?” I asked.

“He’s a car mechanic, foreman in a car factory. Mum’s a nurse. She worked at the General in Taunton until we moved. What about yours?”

“Fa-a-rmers,” I said in a sheep-like voice. She giggled and covered her mouth.

I was just about to launch into my full-blown country yokel act when our rescuer returned with another in tow. Although probably not far below the average height for his age, in the present company the boy appeared to be quite short. He had a young, very mobile and expressive face that never rested for long, and a smile of infinite cheekiness, topped off by an explosion of curly reddish-blonde hair.

A casual circle formed itself. “Introductions, then,” the large boy said.

 “You’re Paul,” I said to him, intending to impress.

“Wrong!” he returned. “I was christened Paul Hobson, but you’d better call me Hobbo or I’ll think you’re addressing someone else.”

“I’m Polly. Well, Polly Esther Daniels, actually. But Hobbo here seems to think I should be called Pam. You called me that a moment ago, didn’t you?”

“Well, it’s got to be, I’m afraid. Polly Esther? Oh dear me, no. What were your parents thinking of? If Hilary Fleet and her storm troopers ever get hold of that information, your life won’t be worth living, my dear. Therefore, the answer appears obvious; polyester, polythene, not much difference, it’s all plastic. Therefore, meet Polythene Pam. I rest my case.”

He bowed from the waist and extended an open hand towards Polly, who appeared to be more amused than annoyed. She shrugged good-naturedly. “OK, so be it. Hello, I’m Pam. Pleased to meet you all,” and she gave a little curtsy.

“Yeh, you should see Polythene Pam, she’s so good looking that she looks like a man,” I couldn’t help but hum under my breath. Abbey Road had hardly been off our record player in months.

The short boy cleared his throat. “I’m Jamie Jones,” he said, his voice a high-pitched singsong. “But everyone calls me JJ, even my folks.”

“A bit like me, then,” I said. “I’m Sam Smith and I’ve always been Sam Smith. Let’s stick with that.”

“Fine by me,” Hobbo said. He checked his watch. “Now the introductions are over it’s time to get your belongings down to the locker room. Quickly, though, or we’ll miss the start of assembly.”

Hobbo led the way. We traversed a maze of corridors that eventually led out into the main entrance hall, the one with the grand staircases that had impressed me so much on interview day. I paused and looked up at the high double doors that gave on to the formal garden at the front of the Hall. They were easily a dozen feet tall. Hobbo looked over his shoulder. “Trunks don’t come in that way,” he said. “Not unless you’re royalty. Let’s keep moving.”

Eventually we arrived outside the bursar’s office at the back of the Hall. I watched as Mrs Spencer emerged from the office and strode down a flight of marble steps and out into the courtyard. “Your stuff should be in here,” Hobbo announced and tried the handle of a door marked Lost Property. We found our trunks lined up under a large rack crammed with assorted piles of ties, jumpers and other school clothing. Mrs Spencer appeared in the doorway and quickly organised us into pairs so we could transfer the trunks to the locker room. Job done, Hobbo rested on my trunk and took a puff from an asthma inhaler. He glanced at his watch. “We’ll have to hurry. Assembly begins in five minutes.”

The assembly hall was almost full when we arrived. The older children sat on wooden chairs towards the back, while the younger ones sat in rows, cross-legged on the floor. “Next year, we’ll be on the chairs,” Hobbo hissed as we squeezed on to the end of a line – JJ first, followed by Hobbo, Pam and then me. I looked around; a rough estimate told me there were between two hundred and two hundred and fifty children here, and ranged from seven-year-olds at the front to sixteen-year-olds at the back. An atmosphere of hushed anticipation filled the room, like a concert hall shortly before the orchestra begin their performance.

Then from behind, I felt a hand pull at my hair, and not a gentle pull either, more like a tug. I turned to see a smirking, red-faced boy. He nudged his companion and they leered at one another. “Look Potts, it’s another scholarship freeloader. They’re positively overrunning the place like rats,” the hair puller said.

I was about to retaliate with a few well-chosen insults when a movement on my left made me glance round, to see a short, stocky boy sliding towards me on his bottom. We collided gently and he flashed a huge grin. “You’re one of the new ones,” he said. “Been doing a job for The Tadpole, haven’t I? Name’s Griff. Alan Griffiths for short.”

“Sam Smith – just call me Sam,” I said.

We shook fingertips briefly. I vaguely wondered how there could be tadpoles at this time of year and must have looked a bit puzzled, because he added “Miss Tadley’s our form tutor, but she’s known to one and all as The Tadpole. Not to her face, obviously. Teaches biology, see? That’s her coming on stage now.” I watched as a short, middle-aged woman with greying hair and very red lipstick, the living embodiment of the expression ‘nose in the air’, swept across the platform and took a seat on the far side. “I know what you’re thinking,” Griff hissed, “but her bark’s a lot worse than her bite.”

The chairs on the platform had begun to fill with adults, each dressed in a black gown trimmed with a coloured sash. I pondered the significance of the different colours; perhaps it denoted their seniority, or maybe it was simply personal choice. I made a mental note to find out. Next, a tall man, completely bald except for a pelmet of grey hair, strode on to the stage and sat down in the front row. Unlike most of the other men, who had dressed in what Dad would call their ‘Sunday best’, he wore a sports blazer under his gown, and running shoes. “That’s Blenkie – Mr Blenkinsop, head of the sports department,” the boy whispered. “He’s OK, really, and by common consent a very good trainer. He’s got me a trial with the county’s under-fifteens rugby squad.”

Then Mr Gentle appeared from behind the curtain. From the back of the hall, some spontaneous clapping started, which he ignored, and sat down next to Mr Blenkinsop. That was a good sign, because I had already made up my mind about Mr Gentle. They chatted amiably and chuckled from time to time. Last to appear, a rather portly man with round glasses and frizzy black hair entered almost at a jog and collapsed puffing into the chair on the other side of Mr Gentle. This, I learned later, was Mr Juniper. The three of them continued to share a joke as if they were sitting in the saloon bar of The Boat, seemingly oblivious to the attention being paid by the hundreds of eyes that had nothing much else to look at.

About twenty teachers had settled behind the Principal’s lectern and when Sir Julius finally appeared, the room had already fallen silent. He took his time and walked along the rows of teachers, saying a few words and shaking each of them by the hand. Then he took up his position at the lectern and placed his notes in front of him. For a long moment he did not speak, but instead smiled a friendly and welcoming smile as he surveyed the assembled multitude: an ocean of smart blue blazers with its wave crests of scrubbed and eager faces gazing expectantly upward.

“Welcome to a new term at St Mungo's, children,” he began, “and an especially warm greeting to our newcomers, whom I know you will all try hard to make feel welcome. No doubt you will have read our school motto while you have been waiting,” he continued, and gestured with his eyes to the wall above the stage. “Our philosophy at St Mungo's can be summed up in those six words: ‘trust; fairness; respect; duty; tolerance; kindness’. While you are here I hope you will learn exactly what those words can mean, should mean. Here, within these old walls, I believe that we have all the ingredients needed to create an ideal society, and that is what we strive to do. I hope that your experience of our small community will stay with you when you leave us to follow the rest of your life’s journey. So, remember the words of our school motto and keep them close as you learn and live with us at St Mungo's. It is going to be very much up to you, as individuals, to make the most of your time here. I hope you will try hard to do your best every day, and every minute of every day, to be everything you can be.”

The Principal continued speaking for another ten minutes, giving out notices about classroom changes, sporting fixtures and other school business. As Sir Julius worked his way through his notes, it finally sank in that truly, from today, I would be a part of this school – a St Mungoite, or was it a St Mungonian? Nobody would suddenly tap me on the shoulder and tell me that there had been some dreadful mistake, some terrible mix-up, and, very sorry, but here’s the bus fare back to Finlow.

With Miss Robinson hammering out the tune on the school piano we sang the hymn, chanted the Lord’s Prayer, and remained standing as the Principal and his staff left the stage. Then prefects from the senior school dismissed us, class by class. As our lines waited to file out, I saw ahead of us Miss Tadley, waiting to lead us off to our form room.

On my left, the boy who had pulled my hair stood to attention, plainly trying to catch Miss Tadley’s eye and so, as we shuffled forward, I made sure he did. Using all my weight, I crushed the boy’s toes under my heel. His suppressed roar of pain was enough to attract Miss Tadley’s attention. “Keith Miller, come out of the line and stand by me. For goodness sake, on your first day back and already you’re messing about. Malcolm Potts, were you involved?” Both boys glared at me and the hair puller opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again. Meanwhile, I had composed my features into a neutral mask – a trick that in times past had helped me wriggle out of many scrapes with the authorities. It worked well so long as nobody questioned me, for then, being hopeless at fibbing, the game would quickly be up.

Griff led the way along the corridors to our form room. When Hobbo caught up with us, he clapped me on the shoulder. “I say, well done young Sam. I saw the whole thing. Besting Keith Miller on your first morning. Impressive, eh Griff?”

“You don’t want to go making enemies of Miller and Potts, though, bach. Both nasty bits of work. Good rugby players, though. Not bad at football either. All three of us are in the junior first teams, see, so I know what they’re like. If I were you I’d keep out of their way for a day or two.”

Griff had been spot on. Over the next few days, the hair puller and his mate did their best to tease me, but lack of imagination meant they soon ran out of ideas, and when it became obvious that I wasn’t afraid of them they lost interest. The hidden pencil cases and ‘accidental’ spillages in the dinner hall quickly stopped as they moved on to easier victims, and JJ became the next in line for some tormenting. It appeared not every student at St Mungo's was fully committed to upholding the principles of the school motto.

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