I sometimes think I didn’t go to a proper school. The building in which we were incarcerated was built just after the war, and the authorities were in a hurry to fill it with staff, so although our teachers did their best, some of them were perhaps not of the highest order.
I picture a shell shocked, demobbed, ex-soldier called Billy, barefoot and in rags, dragging his war-torn body along mud-lined roads, stumbling through the tyre grooves and stubble of freshly cut corn fields to approach farmers who seem somehow regal as they sit atop their tractors, surveying their land. Billy begs for work, food and a barn to sleep in, only to be told that the harvest is over. Eventually he finds his way to that small, backwater town in rural Devon. Exhausted, sweating and half-starved he drags himself into a shop, where the odour of last night’s cabbage drifts unpleasantly from a back room. With breaking voice, Billy humbly requests a glass of water. The drink revives him a little. He asks the shopkeeper if there is any employment to be had around these parts. The shopkeeper looks momentarily doubtful, but then a smile cracks his face and he says:
“Yer, Can you read ‘n’ write? ‘Cuz my missus was sayin’ the other day about ‘ow they’m needin’ teachers up at that there school they built.”
After being given directions to the school at the top of the hill the other end of town, Billy finds his way there and collapses at the steps, where he is soon discovered and carried in to the headmaster by a teacher who is leaving the building to carry on his regular job of cleaning the streets.
The headmaster learns that before the war Billy worked behind the counter of a hardware shop, so he must be able to add up. By the end of the day the soldier is fed, washed and teaching maths to a class of thirty-eight fourteen year olds.
The following week another de-mobbed soldier staggers into town, stuttering and scared, leaping into the air and then shrinking within himself at every unexpected sound. He, too, needs a job.
He used to work in a factory where beautiful pottery was produced, and his job was to paint pink rosebuds onto dishes, piling them up as each one was completed. The next stage in the process was to paint the leaves. This operation was carried out by the man to the left of him. How fortunate that there was an opening in the school for an Art teacher.
I accept that my imagery is fanciful, but I expect you get the idea. There are a lot of gaps in my education, because some of the teachers were uncertain about what they were meant to be teaching, or else they didn’t know how to go about it.
So, on the subject of Shakespeare – we didn’t “do” Shakespeare at school. We managed Salinger, which I enjoyed, and that smaller portion of Tolkien, which I didn’t, because, seeing my immature self as a mature, serious thinker, I considered it frivolous. At home, we had The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and both of my parents often quoted from it. My habit with books was generally to begin at the beginning, and work through to the end. The weight of the book, combined with the language, put me off, although I did like the three witches in Macbeth, because, like most adolescents I had a fascination for the macabre.
I have since seen several of his plays performed, my favourite being The Taming of the Shrew, but I have to shamefully admit I have never read any Shakespeare except the occasional sonnet, and even then I’ve been guilty of having a rather cynical attitude towards him. Today I was going to humorously paraphrase a piece from Romeo and Juliet. I chose the famous bit that begins “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”
Once I started reading I couldn’t stop. I’ve heard it many times before, but never listened. It’s beautiful!
This is a disaster! There was no disrespect intended, and yet I can’t bring myself to make fun of it.
©Jane Paterson Basil