Thursday 4 October 2018

Memories Of St Edmund's

Note: This is an essay I wrote for the alumni association magazine of my old school, St Edmund's, which I attended from March 1976 to March 1986.


Apricot CRP!” Mr Lama shouted, the brass knob on the end of his stick flashing in the sunlight. “Get in line and stand straight!”

“Yes, sir,” Apricot CRP said, and got into line and tried to stand straight, trying not to blush.

How do I know that Apricot CRP was trying not to blush?

Because I was Apricot CRP.

Mr Lama, known to us as Drill Sir, had a way with names. I was Apricot because back in those days I was plump, and also because I was fair and had some of the reddest cheeks you saw outside a make-up advertisement. And as for the CRP, which stood for Central Reserve Police – well, for that, blame my parents and their obsession with having my hair cut as short as it could possibly get.

I was no good on the drill field. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t dodge, and though I could march and drill with the rest it was hardly an accomplishment anyone else couldn’t do. But that didn’t change the fact that I absolutely loved – loved, I tell you – drill period. Being out in the sun in the middle of school day, instead of class; that was heaven. It was heaven even though I was terrified of Mr Lama and his flat cap, of his pocket watch, and most of all his brass topped cane.

It was famous, that cane. I recall once Brother Gaffney, then the principal, told us to behave ourselves on the field or else Mr Lama would be there “and with his seasoned cane.” Oh, it was seasoned, all right; it was seasoned by giving us “benders”. That is, I suppose, not something that would be permitted today. Still, it did no harm to us; it might even have done some of us a power of good. And it most certainly did not prevent me from enjoying my time away from class, on First Field, doing drill.

No, I did not enjoy class. To this day I do not enjoy any form of regimented education, but back then I absolutely hated class. This was probably instilled in me in Class One, when I was thrown into the school without speaking or understanding a word of English (no kindergarten or nursery for me) and had to learn fast, or sink. I learned fast, but it left scars which remain to this day.

How did I cope? At first, I tried to become the class comedian. It is not a role that comes naturally to me, and all I did was make myself ridiculous and disliked (by teachers whom I myself intensely disliked). And then I just retreated from the scene; I kept to myself as much as possible, a retreat that continued for the rest of my school years. I still do not regret that one little bit. Spending the lunch period in the library was preferable to being picked on in First Field. It also gave me an education, more than the textbooks did.

I am afraid that if I were to go back over my memories of ten years in St Edmund’s, class and teachers would not occupy the good ones. I’d rather not write here about the things that still, so many years later, make me angry, and focus on the memories that I still smile over.

The first of those was undoubtedly Silly Billy, the janitor. I don’t at this distance in time recall his real name – Dila Ram, maybe – but he was an institution. There was the huge brass bell near the tuck shop that he used to ring four times daily, and the other one, the gong that he had to bang at the end of every period. I still recall watching him, from the class window, bring it over and hang it on a hook and then bang it with the padded gavel, and then take it back again.

Only many years later did it occur to me to marvel at the routine he had to maintain; among all his other jobs, precisely every 45 minutes he had to drop whatever he was doing, bring over the gong, bang it, take it back again, and then get back to his work. If I could meet him again now I would thank him and commend him for all he put up with from us, because of course everyone teased him mercilessly.

It was in Class Five that, in the mysterious manner of schoolboys, we all suddenly discovered the existence of sex. Even before that, whispers had been going around about the word “fuck”, which I did not understand at all except that it was something boys and girls did together. Somehow it got into my mind that it meant “marry”.

So, this happened. One time in Class Four we were doing some English lesson in the Radiant Reader (hey, remember the Radiant Reader? Does the series still exist?) I think it was a chapter from Heidi or some other 19th Century novel. In any case, there was this girl who met a boy in the course of the story, and had just started becoming friends with him at the end. So the teacher looked around and asked, “Right, now, can anyone tell me what the two of them might do next?”

I (proudly, raising hand): “I think they’ll fuck.”

I brought the house down, and I didn’t even know why.

Sometime in Class 6 or 7 we had this Anglo-Indian teacher called Mr Jones. He was probably in his mid to late twenties, but looked awfully old to us, of course, and he terrified all of us. He also had some decidedly strange ideas about evolution.

Once, he was attempting to teach an English lesson. It was a story of a dinosaur and a mammal arguing; the only thing I remember from the story is the term “Jehovah’s jejune juvenilia”, a bit of artsome alliterative authorship that deserved better than the story it was stuck in. But there was a mention of a “mastodon.” What was a mastodon?

This is how Jones explained it: “A mastodon was a dinosaur, with three horns, you know, one on its nose, and one on top of each eye. That’s what a rhinoceros is descended from.”

Over thirty years later, this remains my absolute favourite bit of confusion so entangled it can’t possibly be disentangled again. Where to start? Let’s see!

First, a mastodon was one of the two families of archaic elephant, the other being the mammoth.

Secondly, the creature he was talking about was one of the ceratopsian dinosaurs, probably Triceratops or possibly one of the other horned dinosaurs like Styracosaurus.

And, for heaven’s sake, no dinosaur gave rise to a damn rhinoceros! It’s just a case of evolving to fit the same ecological niche.

Even then I knew all this, most of us did; but do you think any of us would dare to contradict a teacher? Of course not!

There were a couple of other little episodes between Jones and me.

One time, Jones had asked us to write an essay as homework. The essay was to be on a chemistry diagram which was, for some unaccountable reason, in our English textbook. The experiment was a fairly straightforward one, something we were familiar with, so it wasn’t much of a job to write the essay, and I wrote it that night in my exercise book. Jones had told us to bring the essay two days later – and I’d have done that. Only, I forgot. Yes, I forgot to put the exercise book in my satchel.

I still remember that Jones was in a proper foul mood that day. “Woe betide anyone,” he declared on stepping into the classroom, and in exactly those words, woe betide anyone. “Woe betide anyone who hasn’t brought the essay with him.” As I said, we were all terrified of this guy. Anyway, he then glared around the room and said, “Stand up whoever hasn’t brought the essay.” A scattering of people actually stood, I not so brave as to be among them. Jones stared at them, and just when we were all expecting him to call down the fires of heaven on their heads, he just said, quietly, “OK, bring the essay next time.” Then he turned to the rest of us. “You,” and he was pointing right!!...”yes, you. Am I cockeyed or something? Come up here and read your essay.”

Now I may not be a quick thinker most of the time, but on this occasion I acted with commendable efficiency. I got out an exercise book from my bag at random, walked up to the front of the class, opened a page at random, and began “reading” the essay out loud (making it up as I went along, of course – remember that the experiment was nothing unknown to us). And I must say i did it rather well too. I was terrified that Jones would ask for the book at the end of it, but all he did was glare around at the class. “See,” he said. “That’s the way you should write an essay!”

And then the bell rang for the next period. You should have heard my sigh of relief.

This particular episode had a sequel. For Jones’ next class, of course, everyone made perfectly sure to bring their essays, and Jones took them for correction. He called me over to his desk. “Somehow,” he muttered, as he went over my effort with a red pen, “it doesn’t read quite as well on the page as when you read it out to the class...”

If he only knew.

Then there was the time Jones asked us to write a story as homework. The only criterion was that it should be about a crime; length, style and content were up to us. My own not particularly distinguished effort revolved around a pair of crooks, a male and a female, who used to break into people’s houses on false pretences and steal things. Finally they were arrested by a cop who caught them in the act of...

Now at this point I stopped.

You see, there was a fancy word I was trying to think of, a synonym for burglary. The problem was that the word had for the moment totally slipped my mind, and – try as I might – it was slipping further and further away. I didn’t possess a thesaurus (hell, I didn’t know what a thesaurus was), so I couldn’t open it and discover that the word I wanted was larceny. Another word finally came to mind, a nice word, whose meaning I wasn’t quite sure of, but which I thought was the right one (I’ll tell you in a minute which word it was). The cop caught them in the act of...

I put my pen on the paper to write the word and hesitated. After all, I wasn’t quite, one hundred per cent, sure. But still...

I thought and thought about it and finally chickened out, and wrote that the couple were arrested for burglary, and submitted the story, still wishing I had the moral courage to submit the word I’d wanted.

A day or so later I found a dictionary. I decided to confirm that I was right and the word was in fact a synonym for burglary. I opened it to the A’s, found the correct page, and ran my finger down the column of words until I found it. There it was, in bold type:


Then I remember Patricia Ann Beddoe, who remains a friend of mine to this day, 35 years later, when she is in her mid-80s and I am far from young. Mrs Beddoe with her red boots, her small mirrors and her elocution lessons. She was one of the only two teachers in my entire ten years of school I ever attempted to search for afterwards (the other, Mrs Bhattacharya from Class 2A, has unfortunately almost certainly long since departed from us into the world of shades). Mrs Beddoe, who I later found out rushed from the Air Force station in Upper Shillong to the school every morning, and sometimes again in the evening to Loreto Convent; if there was someone who genuinely loved teaching it was Mrs Beddoe.

I wish I could say the same for the others.

Then there was JP – “Jungle Pig” to us behind his back. His real name was John Prakash. Oh, JP; I owe the poor man a debt of gratitude he never could imagine. It happened this way.

In Class 8, JP was our class teacher. He was also the science teacher. And he was also incredibly reluctant to take us to the chemistry laboratory, which for the subject of science caused a few minor problems, as you can imagine. He waited until he could no longer put it off, and then, when marching us along the corridor towards the lab, would as likely as not find some pretext to shout “ABHOUT TURN and go back to class!” And if he lost his temper in class he would pick up the big – wait, no, not big, enormous – ruler used to draw diagrams on the blackboard, and, swinging it in both hands, try to physically chastise us with it.

This, as you can imagine, made him something of a cartoon figure to us. Sooner or later some of us with writing talent would have inevitably started satirising him; it happened to be Siddhartha Deb, who is now a journalist and author as far as I know. He wrote a poem starting “Our teacher is JP...” I don’t recall how it went, but it was pretty funny.

This poem was a hit among the class, and got me thinking of what I could do. So I wrote a poem also starting “Our teacher is JP” and which continued, as I recall (it was so many years ago, 1983, give me a break) thus:

“Our teacher is JP
JP or Jungle Pig is his name
He goes around snorting like a pig
And everyone teases him like it was a game.
Oh JP, poor JP, what did you do
When you chose the job you did
And joined this school as a teacher too!
Oh JP, you should have been a soldier
Serving in the Indian Army
You’d have been in the Bihari Regiment
And everyone would have thought you were barmy.
You’d have worn a helmet
In the very hottest weather
In the winter you’d have worn a cap
And in it you’d put a hen feather.”

And so it went for many more verses. Not exactly Nobel Literature Prize material, you’ll agree; but I was surprised to see that it was received rapturously by my classmates, and even enjoyed by Steve Beddoe (the aforementioned Patricia’s son, who was then a young monk). It was only then that I started writing more than homework essays. It was fairly juvenile stuff, of course, but without it I would not have been an author of several novels today.

It was all due to JP. Thank you, thank you.

The last two years of my time in St Edmund’s were miserable. The cause was a particular teacher; I won’t mention his name, but those who were in 9B and 10B in 1984 and 85 will know who I am talking about and know exactly how he made my life miserable. If it were today I would have gone to the principal and formally demanded to be transferred to Section A, but then we were unaware of student rights; we were discouraged from imagining that we had any rights. From these two years, I can only identify one real highlight.

It was the actor Victor Bannerjee’s visit to the school, his alma mater. It was, if I recall correctly, on 15th September 1985, the day on which, coincidentally, I broke the best fountain pen I have ever owned. I hardly knew who Victor Bannerjee even was; I had never watched any of his movies (I still have never watched any of his movies) and I had little interest in him. However, everyone else was certainly either most interested or acting most interested; all of a sudden everyone was planning to get the man’s autograph. (I did too; I still had it ten years later, but then lost it. This isn’t about that.)

The high point of the Great Visit was a kind of press conference at the Concert Hall, taken by us Class 10 pupils. Do you remember the Concert Hall, with its lines of desks, the stage at the far end, and the huge framed charts of a fly’s life cycle, et cetera, on the wall? Bannerjee, standing on the stage, lectured us on how he would give us benders if we even thought of acting instead of studying, and then asked for questions.   

I managed two.

The first: “In which of your movies did you give your best?”

Bannerjee: “In both of them.” (Nice, safe, boilerplate, meaningless answer, but it was an answer.)

Then right at the end, I had another question, and raised my hand.

Brother Noronha, principal : “Right, we have time for one more. Yes, what do you want to ask?”

I stood up, ready to ask my question, opened my mouth......and my brain froze. I absolutely couldn’t remember what I’d wanted to ask.

I waited...nothing happened.

I waited a little brain was still frozen. I tried to get my mouth working.

And this is what came out:

“Oh hell, I’ve forgotten my question!”

That was the high point of  everyone’s day.

I wish I could end this essay on a positive note, talking of how I look back with nostalgia to my St Edmund’s days. But it would be a lie. I’ll just add a few words to explain what I think of St Edmund’s:

I am not a parent. I will never be a parent. But, assuming I was a parent, would I have sent my children to study in St Edmund’s?

Not in a million years. 

There, I’m done now.