London Childhood Revisited

As part of the great Aesthetic Mission, K-man and I are pretending that we have enough money for Fired Earth border tiles, and Farrow & Ball paint for our bathroom.  The unfriendly local DIY megacorp stocks only a limited selection of Farrow & Ball paint, and of course they don’t have the colours we want.  I don’t work Wednesday afternoons now, so I headed across town to the Farrow & Ball showroom where an unfeasibly posh person enthusiastically sold me two tiny sample-pots of paint for an exorbitant sum of money.

It so happens that the showroom is across the road from one of the five schools I attended as a child.  The area has become gentrified, with upmarket restaurants and home decor showrooms aplenty.   The school buildings are very attractive, tucked behind an impressive church across from Regent’s Park.  Charles Dickens lived around the corner.   Established in the 1700s, the school is genteel, classy, and respectable.  It’s now some kind of specialist artsy shining light institution, having its own website and Wikipedia entry boasting that it is ranked 24th of all secondary schools in the country BETTER THAN it screams MANY PRIVATE SCHOOLS.   It looks great.   To the objective observer’s eye, the school is a remarkable success story.

The building to the right is the side of the church, and the sandy building in the background is the school.

Or maybe it was always like that, and when I was there I was too busy trying to stay alive to notice.

To me, it was a malevolent Hogwarts, complete with ‘houses’, (I was in Dickens House), mystery staircases, and vermin: an inner-city hole of bullying and violence and bad teaching.  If you didn’t have the right trainers you would be mercilessly mocked and ostracised.   If you could read, you were placed in the top sets.  If you couldn’t read but English was technically your first language, you were placed in the top sets.  My younger self repeatedly claimed illness to avoid a day in my own personal hell, melodramatically moaning of a stomach-ache or other potentially-fatal condition.  It rarely worked.

The second school building, where most of the lessons were.

The main building: administration offices, and some classrooms.

The headteacher, whose name I have forgotten, was terrifying.  He had proudly graduated from Oxford and every Monday morning after all 600 girls had traipsed into the church next door for full-school church assembly would don his academic cape, rendering him an uncanny likeness to the Demon Headmaster.  He would swoosh down the church’s central aisle beaming glares of hatred at pupils, and ordering unkempt girls to pull themselves together or get out.   His sole purpose in life was the intimidation of others.

Looking back, I can see why this was his purpose: it was the only way.  The school was, to all intents and purposes, an inner-city comprehensive.  Let me tell you, some bad shit goes down in inner-city comprehensives.   In the two and a half years I was there a girl had her hair set on fire in the toilets (after which incident, smoke alarms were installed); another girl had three hoop earrings wrenched out of her ears and had to be despatched to hospital for multiple stitches; and there was all-out gang warfare with another school necessitating instructions to travel home in groups, or out of uniform for safety reasons (the police were stationed outside the gates for several days).

Those are just the incidents memorable enough that I retain them 20 years later: there were too-numerous-to-count fights in hallways, pushing and shoving, or psychological bullying.  There was a constant undercurrent of tension which could bubble up at any moment.  That school taught me certain self-preservation measures, among them the peculiar skill of being able to spot when a fight is about two minutes away.  I can still do that, to the amazement of others: from a hundred feet away, in a crowd, I can tell you who is about to truly get thumped and who is just having a josh with some mates.  I can talk street if I need to.  I don’t want to.

I didn’t have many friends at the school, and I am not in touch with the few that I did have.

As an adult I toured the area with a mixture of fascination and dread.  Some of it was eerily familiar, and it all seemed much smaller and much more insignificant.

This is the newsagent where we used to get sweets at lunchtime.

Owing to a number of thefts, and probably some basic healthy fear, the owner (a tiny Indian woman) would only permit two girls in her shop at a time: a disorderly pile of girls would wait impatiently outside, blocking the doorway and yelling to those inside to fucken ‘urry UP.

This is the church.  Quite grand really, isn’t it?

This is the entrance to Regent’s Park to where, on particularly painful days, classes would troop in order to partake of some physical torture education.  The school itself has almost no outside space.

Symbolically it was absolutely throwing down rain, and I decided to go home.  I realised I was standing at the exact stop where I used to stand to catch the bus home, watching as open-topped buses drove past full of tourists who had just been to Madame Tussaud’s or the Planetarium.  I shuddered as I realised it was 3.25pm: exactly the time of day I caught the bus home.  Fortunately, it is school holidays, or I would have been confronted by a sea of uniformed girls, and that would have been a shade too freaky.

I always say to those who claim that school days are the best days of your lives that they obviously didn’t go to the schools I went to.  It is not possible for me to muster up misty-eyed reminiscences about this place.  All I can do is thank lard it is over.


4 Responses to “London Childhood Revisited”

  1. 1 Jenn @ Juggling Life August 27, 2010 at 1:50 am

    It definitely looks fairly innocent from the outside–all school like you’re describing would, in the U.S., look like that type of school on the outside as well.

  2. 2 Mrs. G. August 27, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    God, what a harrowing description. So un-American in that so much has remained unchanged. That school would be an antique’s shop by now.

  3. 3 Rachel W August 31, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Seems like an episode of Grange Hill meets Bad Girls meets Waterloo Road. People who say they loved their school days are talking bollocks in my opinion (and I went to a fairly nice laid back Kiwi one).

  4. 4 Jonathan September 4, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Fantastic post! I often talk to old friends about going for a night out where I used to live – to see how the town has changed… your post has reminded me that I really do need to do it!

    Love the description of the headmaster. Wonder how different he was away from school ?

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