Playwright and songwriter John Bartlett re-tells a darkly comic anecdote his grandmother recounted to him about her school days in late Victorian Portsmouth.
“With moi hand on meself what ‘ave oi ‘ere?
This is moi sweaty-boxer moi souvenir
That’s what they told me when oi went to school!”
When my Nana was a little girl back in the 1890s, no older than six or seven, her grandfather sat her on his knee and asked who her schoolteacher was. Her childish innocence meant she didn’t pick up on irony, deceit, insincerity or any other adult foible. When she replied, he said to her, ‘Well, you tell your teacher who your grandfather is!’
The next day, dressed like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Nana walked, as she always did, satchel over shoulder to her school in Cottage Grove, Southsea. The school building had an air of authority and purpose about it. To prevent young minds wandering the windows were high up in the wall so that even the tallest child could not see out. The bell went and the children formed into long lines according to their various classes. The cheerful babble of the children faded and woe betide any child that spoke from now on. Line by line they entered the building and were once more trapped indoors for the day.
When the initial hubbub – the hanging up of coats, the finding of one’s seat and the calling of the register – had subsided, Nana plucked up the courage to do her grandfather’s bidding. Timidly raising her hand, she said ‘Please Miss!’
‘Yes Kathleen?’ the teacher responded, not unkindly.
‘My grandfather says that I am to tell you his name.’
‘Oh really?’ the teacher said, again not unkindly, ‘Come over here and tell me.’
Nana did as she was asked, but upon hearing the name, the teacher’s response was as shocking and unexpected as it was immediate. The woman instantly flew into a rage and started shouting and gesticulating. Her voice rose like a sudden squall at sea. She pointed and shook her fist at Nana who, frightened and perplexed, had no idea what had provoked her to become so agitated. ‘How dare you, you wicked girl!’ she screamed ‘Go and stand in the corner and don’t you dare look round until I tell you!’
In equal measures, terrified at the enormity of her crime and confused by this reaction, Nana quickly did as she was told and there she remained all day, face to the wall. Eventually when it was home time, the teacher relented and told her she could leave. Nana collected her things and with head bowed and walked sorrowfully home.
Her grandfather, with a mischievous glint in his eye, was there to greet her. ‘Well?’ he asked ‘What did she say?’
Tearfully, Nana told him everything, how Miss for no apparent reason, had become exceedingly angry. How she had to stand in the corner, all day, with her face to the wall and the malevolent look from her teacher when she was told she could leave. Nana had been cruelly duped and her sense of fairness had been tried; surely her grandpa would explain all and make amends? Not a bit of it. The corners of his mouth turned upwards and gradually grew into a grin, until a chuckle and then a guffaw came. He rocked from side to side, tears running down his face. Nana was just as perplexed at this behaviour as she was about her teacher’s reaction.
When she was older, it transpired that many years before he had been engaged to be married to the schoolteacher. On the appointed day, there was a bride but no groom at the church. He had jilted her.
I think my great-great-great grandfather has a lot to answer for and he is probably where I get my own twisted sense of humour. I would, as the old saying goes, laugh to see a pudding crawl.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.