Sunday, 20 April 2014

Bandits of Cheetham Hill

Class at Temple school, Cheetham
 There is a Greenhill never far away in my imagination. It was the the cinema on Cheetham Hill Road where on Saturday nights with ice cream we lapped up the exploits of Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd. If you’d wanted to know what had been showing that week at the Greenhill, the Temple or the Cheetham Hill Odeon, you need only have looked into our junior school playground.

Older boys might affect a John Wayne swagger, or strut like Jimmy Cagney. For us, what mattered was content. But we followed certain conventions. Handkerchiefs fluttering from behind schoolcaps made them the kepis of the French Foreign Legion. Raincoats buttoned at the neck but thrown over the shoulders of a running figure meant the Caped Crusader, Superman, was in town; although if the kids thus attired were essaying some nifty fencing, they’d seen the Count of Monte Christo. Jackets buttoned back-to-front however were supposed to mean the Three Musketeers. If the ghost of Black Frenchman Alexandre Dumas is around, that’s two sets of spiritual royalties we owe.

The film that made the deepest impression on me was none of these. I’ve never heard it talked about, nor seen it on TV. Only recently have I managed to reassure myself by discovering it mentioned, under a different title, in a film reference work. It was a black-and-white B-feature called Bandit General which I saw one winter weeknight, sitting with my Mum. It opened inauspiciously, to the eyes of a restless nine year old, with someone on nightshift in a glassworks, blowing a glass bubble. What a swiz, I grumbled, the title had bespoken a gunplaying Western and here was a boring documentary! But with a sharp bang, the bubble burst. Suddenly we were outside the town, where an army of Mexicans in sombreros, bandolier-clad, rifles at the ready, advanced to the rap of side drums and the light of flaming torches. This was more like it!

It turned out to be unlike any film I’d seen before, or many that I’ve seen since. After taking the town, and carousing with the locals, the rebels set up a tribunal before which in the morning’s bright sunlight they summoned the mayor, rich landowners and state officials to answer charges of oppressing the poor. What happened in the end, I forget. There are limits to what a peasant army can achieve, and this lot had done well enough getting past Hays Office, the British Board of Film Censors, and the commercial distributors.

‘Schooldays are your happiest days’, we were repeatedly assured by parents.
If we had believed them, we’d have dreaded what adulthood must bring. A classroom of youngsters bent over their desks, scratching away with cheap school pens dipped in blue-black Stygean corporation ink. trying to learn handwriting. Along the stone-floored, tile-walled corridor can be heard a steel-tipped tread.  Above the glass partition gleams the top of his shiny bald head: our headmaster Mr Driver,  js paying a visit. Fearing to make a smudge or blot, my shaky, perspiring. hand does just that as he stands over me.  Stammering apologies. I'm hauled out before the class and ordered to put out my hand for the strap. After the stroke. from a black leather tause with three flailing tails,  an extra touch.

'Your hand is wet', he complains, ‘you’ve got it on my strap, I'll wipe it on your jacket.' Some kids giggle, others just gawp.  I'm wearing a new light-grey flannel windcheater my parents bought me, first day I've worn it to school and proud with it. Driver wipes his strap on my shoulder and chest, beaming with pleasure at his little joke

In the playground afterwards a kid called Laurence looks around cautiously before whispering his dark discovery: ‘Driver is an antisemit’. (He mispronounces it as the first syllables of antisemitism). He starts explaining that it‘s ‘a Jewish word meaning...’ ‘Oh, you mean a Yidenfeint’ I shrug.

Actually, our headmaster was quite liberal in his prejudices, having a broad range of targets. The school’s catchment area ranged from working-class Hightown through to some of the more prosperous parts of Prestwich. A friend sent to Driver’s study on an errand one morning had to wait while the head was examining parents’ notes excusing their children’s absences from school. One note, perhaps scrawled hurriedly by a busy working mum between giving the kids breakfast and running for her bus to work, was a little grubby compared to the nicely-written note on quality white paper which Driver held up. ‘Look at this, Miss Butler,’ he smirked to his deputy. ‘You can always tell the difference between a Hightown child and a Prestwich child!’ My friend thinks the Hightown child and the Prestwich child were still there. Mr Driver and Miss Butler both lived in the leafier part of Prestwieh.

Another morning, as children were filing into the hall for assembly, Driver focused his angry glare at one who, fresh from a frosty schoolyard, had - horror of horrors - forgotten to remove his headgear. No mere schoolcap this, mind, but an impressive Continental-looking helmet with earflaps that fastened under his chin. "Take yer hat off, Rudi’, our educator roared, ‘Yer look like a flipping refugee!’

A few of the more sycophantic children may have tittered to show appreciation of the headmaster’s witty sally. Among the big boys on the back row, glances were exchanged, teeth gritted, fists clenched at sides. Rudi wasn’t a special mate of ours, or anything. But he was a refugee. At least, his parents were. We had some idea of what that meant. So, we presumed, did Driver.

Health and sickness are the joker in history’s pack. The Black Death brought conditions for the peasants’ revolt, and sped the downfall of feudalism in England. A spell in hospital for sinus treatment postponed my entry to the files of radical terrorism. Feeling against the headmaster and particular teachers had been seething, and it was the season of madcap mischief and hooligan incendiarism leading up to Bonfire Night. On my first day back at school I was confronted by a reproachful Geoffrey Solomons.'We needed you,’ he said.‘We had a plan. We were all going to run down the corridor, and chuck bangers into Driver’s study and the staff room before we ran out of school. We wanted you to lead the charge!’

Touched by the honour my classmates had wished to bestow, I apologised, regretting the missed opportunity for glory. Had Rebbe Dora, my cheder teacher been right, telling my mother I was ‘a born leader’? (‘Sure she didn’t say “folorn bleeder”?’ was my Dad’s comment.) Or maybe Miss Huddlestone at school, who’d amiably asked my parents whether they’d thought of having me certified? (This puzzled me for some time. I knew people got certificates for good things, my cousin had just got his swimming certificate, and I didn’t think Miss Huddlestone liked me.)

A kid called Stanley Greenberg became the hero of our school, although he hadn’t been there long. One week, he wasn’t around. Word spread through the playground of his remarkable act of lone defiance. Ordered to Driver’s study for some misdemeanour, and told to put out his hand for the strap, Stan said with simple eloquence: ‘Fuck off, Driver!’, and walked out of school. What happened to him, or where he is now I’ve no idea. I hope he prospered, and wish him happiness, for the joy he brought us.

As we neared our last year, over which that all-important eleven-plus loomed, we witnessed another side to Mr Driver. Strolling into the classroom in casual mode, he would cheerfully raise the issue of social differences, by conducting a little survey How many of you have televisions at home?' ‘How many of your parent own a motor car?  'Now, hands up all those children who don’t have television or a motor car'; and up would go his hand with ours. We smiled. Some kids laughed; maybe they didn’t believe him.

1 thought it was an untypically nice gesture from our headmaster,  to identify with the less affluent among us. My friend Dave shook his head at my naivety. ‘Don’t you see?", he enlightened me. ‘Driver asks these questions to find out whose parents have got money Then when they're asking about little Johnny's progress, he can suggest they might like to help their child by paying for some private coaching.’ Such cynicism in one so young! Dave became a teacher.

Years later, when Patels and Mohammeds were replacing Cohens and Levys on the school honours board, Mr Driver’s retirement was reported. Distance lends enchantment, they say, and social mobility can play tricks with some people’s memories. A local Jewish paper gave this ‘well-loved figure’s retirement front-page prominence, an ambitious sub even working ‘Goodbye Mr Chips!’ into the headline. Full of praise and nostalgia, former pupils and parents had reportedly showered our old tormentor with gifts. ‘I know what I’d like to have given the old git!’ said my friend Barry, before downing his pint.

He was a quiet studious type - even grown-ups called him ‘the shtiller’ -seldom in fights or trouble except through my influence. He has a good job now, and has almost paid his mortgage.

I confessed how long after leaving I’d dreamt of going back to our old school, and beating up our headmaster in front of the pupils; or maybe going round to Driver’s house and smashing the place up. ‘Let’s go and do it now!’ said Barry, with enthusiasm. With some difficulty, and not without reluctance, I managed to persuade him that it wasn’t such a good idea.

We did have our little intifada at school however. One morning, Mr Driver announced that Ministry inspectors were coming, and would be in our school for a month. ‘And if any of you  misbehave while they' re here, you’ll wish you’d never been born!’

During the month the inspectors were there, however, we soon realised nobody was getting the strap.

We began to push back the borders of what was pennissible, picking and choosing where we sat, and what we ate at school dinners. Kids gave 'cheek' and variously 'misbehaved'. Some lessons even became enjoyable, so that besides talking among ourselves and practising our repartee on teachers, in between fencing with rulers, we actually learned something.

On the first morning after the inspectors had gone back to London,  monitors were sent to each classroom. 'Will the following boys report to Mr Driver’s study...’ As the monitor was leaving, passing Barry’s desk, he let out a yelp of pain. Left off the list, Barry had thumped him in the ribs. ‘Right!’ said the teacher, ‘You can go too!’ Barry’s honour was satisfied.

Outside the headmaster’s study, stretching along the corridor and around the corner, the growing queue for punishment had a festive air. Kids were talking, laughing, calling to new arrivals, waving to friends, and larking about. A teacher popped out of the staff room to call for quiet, with little success. We knew what we were there for, and we didn’t give a damn.

As for me, I was quiet for a moment. Quietly exultant. The times I’d had to stand in the corner facing the classroom wall, or wait in the corridor outside the headmaster’s office, had trained my imagination. Now, staring out of the window across our playground and over the grey slate rooftops of Cheetham, I could hear the rattle of approaching drums, see the columns of marching men, with rifles, bandoliers, and sombreros. The Mexicans, my Mexicans, were marching down Cheetham Hill Road!

First published in Casablanca magazine   Issue 3, February 1993