You may have noticed the odd reference scattered about these pages to the city that lies just across the M6 from where I live here in the sub-tropical micro-climate and exotic playground to the stars that is Crewe. Did I say stars? Oh yes indeedy! Indiana Jones and that skinny woman came here on a canal boat last year (they got off it at night and stayed in posh hotels), as does David Suchet, to buy marmalade in Church Minshull (that's Herkooll Pr Pr Prurot, Mum). That Peter Kay came to The Limelight last year as well - in the crowd! And for all the rock and roll types that come to The Limelight, there are plenty of gentlemen down West Street wearing their trousers tucked into their socks and accompanied by hungry Staffordshire Bull Terriers who are just waiting to furnish your every medicinal need.
place. Stoke on Trent. A strange place. A place now oddly devoid of identity. More commonly known as "The Potteries" it can't even decide whether it's the five
towns renamed by famous local scribbler, Arnold Bennett or the six
towns according to the council website. I must add here that neither Bennett nor the Council includes the metropolitan area known as Talke Pits as one of the relevant towns. I know this will disappoint a sometime future relative but he will have to learn to face facts. Back to Stoke. It's a place that used to do things but it's finding it difficult to trade on past glories. It still makes loads of plates but for how long? (Minor furore caused there last year when the company revamping Trentham Gardens
decided to source all their crockery from Korea or somewhere because it was cheaper). It also used to mine lots of coal until Maggie shut the pits down. It was the birthplace of our most illustrious footballer, Sir Stanley Matthews. Now it's famous as the birthplace of Robbie Williams. Everybody forgets that such varied luminaries as croaky voiced denizen of those "100 best" shows on channel 5, Nick Hancock; silky haired axeman Slash out of Guns and Roses; wart model Lemmy; chocolate eating Anthea Turner and Captain Smith wot sunk the Titanic were also born there. It's so desperate to become somewhere again that it's even stolen Junction 16 of the M6 from Crewe on the Radio 2 traffic reports. It's already got Junction 15, how many accident blackspots does it need? It's 10 miles from 16, Crewe's only 6. Give us it back, Grade, or I won't pay my licence fee.
In the years immediately before I moved up here I knew Stoke as being near Alton Towers and as such, much too far away to bother about. In earlier life it had a few more sinister connotations. In 1972 I started at secondary school. Within a week I'd experienced things that would stay with me for life.
We had a history teacher. I don't know whether he's still alive so I'll skirt around his name but suffice to say he shared one with our most famous Field Marshal so we called him Monty. That'll do. It's a curious fact that of the myths and legends about secondary school life that had crept out before us meek little pipey voiced toddlers had joined the roll, most concerned razor blades in carbolic and "soap money" (extortion with menaces). None were at all concerned with the reputations of the teachers. We were lambs to the slaughter.
Quite frankly, I don't know where to start. Brooding menace is as good a place as any. Brando as Colonel Kurtz had him bang on, even down to the voice. I didn't even know Brando was a pupil of Ashford Grammar School; maybe he was there when Bob
"I'll have a P please, Bob" Holness
was there and that Bushey Thicket, who we imagined had been there since the conquest, had introduced him to Stanislavski after one of his lessons on wanking (Snrkklllff. Bushey said wanking fff ff ff. Sshh!).
Monty held court from the front left-hand corner of Room F7 on the first floor. It never changed. The only time he was ever seen out of that room was at assembly. I don't think he was ever given playground duty or indeed anything active; I certainly don't think Kenny Hall (oh how original we were with our nicknames - rhymes with Kenny Ball, yeah?), the deputy head and singularly the biggest wet flannel ever and in charge of such things, would have even dared apportion any part of a duty roster to him. F7, from the very first lesson, would have to be known as "The Temple of Piety and Learning". In it, all thinking would be banned. If you so much as uttered the dread "Sir, I think..." that's as far as you got before "You're not here to think, BOY, you're here to work, learn, know, obey and remember!" was bellowed at dangerous volume straight back in your face.
Many teachers have their own little idiosyncracies; Monty was
idiosyncracy. He was beyond eccentric. Every word in his lessons was dictated. Colour of inks was not open to debate and margins had to be exactly one inch wide. Not 15/16ths or 27 mm, one good old imperial inch and drawn in pencil. Every indentation and underline (in red) was ordered verbally. Every now and then books would be checked for continuity and any kind of departure would be punished. Depending on his mood, this could take the form of a simple admonishment and even approach humour; repeated errors would vex him greatly and the boys sitting in G4 were well used to seeing exercise books fluttering into the rose bushes outside their windows.
He had three pet hates: long hair, Manchester United and the village of Hamstreet, 6 miles out of Ashford on the edge of Romney Marsh which he insisted was populated entirely by flat-earthers and people afraid of mirrors. He would even include it in his dictations: "Following the battle, William advanced on London, making sure to give Hamstreet a wide berth." Nobody is quite sure why he hated it with such venom, it was only a small place after all. Didn't even have a proper church. I should know, I lived nearby and I'd been to primary school there. What's more, I had longish hair and sported a Manchester United badge (this was Kent, after all). I should have been cannon fodder and to this day I don't know how I survived without a scratch. I think I became a big girly swot as a means of self-preservation and it must have worked.
He was capable of humour. He once had 3B in fits by repeatedly trying to get Patrick to say the word "Phillistines". Patrick had a giggling fit and it became infectious, causing him to crack up for months after on the command "Phillistines, Bingham". Why Pad cracked is a mystery I'll never solve as he sadly passed away a few years after we left school.
What really marked him out was his sheer brutality. In one of our first lessons with him this was illustrated graphically when he called Nick to the front. Nick was a year older than us as he'd under-achieved the previous year and been held back. This irked Monty. Nick had transgressed in a very minor way but wasn't afraid of answering back although he wasn't a typical disruptive. Asking him to hold his hand out, palm down, Monty produced his Ronson and lit it. Under Nick's hand; 6 inches under. The IRA internees in the H blocks were rioting for less. This was genuine torture and disgustingly, we were enthralled. As the years wore on, I think we were secretly waiting for him to accidentally kill a boy just to see how the school would react. We thought he'd succeeded when, according to legend as I didn't actually see who it was although I was there in "Greg" (what else?) Lake's German class, Tom Barret crashed into the roses outside G4. He hadn't run there, this was gravitational. It turned out that the boy had actually been leaning against a window when it opened. It wasn't even F7, it was the library next door but the deed had finally been done and Monty was now hurling children through the window. Tom, I hasten to add, had the same geographical disadvantages as I as we lived in the same road and had attended the same primary school. All compelling grounds for a test flight.
He had one passion, Stoke City FC. We're not sure why but he was in deep. Sadly, Stoke had won their one major honour, the League Cup, in the spring before we joined the school so we never saw Monty genuinely excited. Watching the results on the teleprinter each Saturday was a must for all history pupils. A good one didn't guarantee leniency the following Monday, you just hoped it would.
This passion even extended to his choice of weapons for corporal punishment. This was the 70's and teachers were still allowed to murder anyone they chose to with near impunity. The poor unfortunate would be called to the front of the class where on arrival, Monty would produce a running shoe, complete with spikes and thump it into the lid of the nearest desk, thereby eliciting a strangled and tearful whimper from the victim; Monty was a master at building suspense. The lad would be asked to bend over in front of the blackboard at which point, knowing he was now out of the victim's line of sight, he would open a drawer in his desk and fetch out a plimsol (sneaker, Jed) and grin to the expectant crowd. Making sure he grabbed the running spike in view of the boy he would raise his arm and then, mid-waft, exchange shoes, bringing the soft-soled plimsol down onto the poor sod's rear in a cloud of chalk dust. For this particular punishment there was only one stroke but depending on the severity of the offence, this could be a tap or the full throttled swipe that would send matey's head into the wall. Either way, the result was the same; a mixture of relief from the boy that he wouldn't have to go to Mrs Fud to get plasters affixed to his expected set of wounds and hilarity from the class as he became aware that he was now wearing the legend "Stoke" across his arse. There was a certain amount of kudos attached, not least because to have received a Stoking, everyone knew that there had been that terrible moment when both the victim and crowd never quite knew whether Monty's inner psychopath would triumph.
There were endless stories of his scant regard for the changing attitudes and indeed, laws, regarding corporal punishment. I met up with a friend and classmate a couple of years ago, who is also a history teacher, who had heard that eventually he just had to go around 1989, for his own sake more than anything, as his fondness for bouncing young heads across desk tops was marking him out as too much of a dinosaur and leaving him and the school increasingly open to prosecution or him a victim of a reprisal. Why it had taken so long, nobody is quite sure. Never was a master so feared and revered. He's the sole reason why many of Ashford's 40, 50 and 60 year-olds have no knowledge of any British history after the end of feudalism.
And an irrational fear of North Staffordshire's largest conurbation.