Burnt Milk and Paranoia – Those Were The Days

(Someone said they found this painful to read – due to to content, not my ghastly punctuation and grammar – it is not meant to be. I have a lovely life now, and many have had far worse schooldays than me. )

“Show me a man who enjoyed his schooldays, and I’ll show you a bully and a bore”. – Robert Morley

“We should always look back on our own past with a sort of tender contempt” – Dennis Potter

I am in the town where I cried most of my tears. I got that out of the way in the eighties and don’t bother with them so much now. I don’t even use that emoticon with tears.
My memory makes me smell burnt milk.
It was one of my mother’s favourite towns. I’d normally call her when I was here, but I can’t anymore.

This is where I went to boarding school. This was the place of malignant homesickness.
Eric Morecambe was declared dead in the hospital 500 metres from the dormitory where I was sleeping in 1984.

Sometimes when I return, I test myself to see what happens when I walk where I used to walk.
It is a beautiful Autumn day, but I don’t think I noticed the seasons then as I was too scared.
Today, the school building are surrounded by young men with leaf blowers. Do they have an opinion of the schoolchildren inside these decorated Cotswold stone buildings. Do they think, “snotty, spoilt brats” or maybe they think nothing at all about them.

Inside one of those rooms, I was taught English by Eddie Butler, Welsh rugby player and now well-known for the poetry of his sporting broadcasts.
It was in that classroom that I was made aware of my vaguely sloppy R pronunciation. Already terrified of my surroundings, the constant hectoring reminder that my R was weak progressively numbed my bottom lip. How the other boys liked to ask me to say my name. How much they liked to repeat what they heard. This speech impediment was new to me, maybe a product of nerves. Eventually, after a couple of years, the feeling returned to my lower lip, and that was when they noticed I had oddly small thumbs. Once you’re a freak, you’re a freak.

I walk by the rugby posts. Never good at games. My greatest achievement on the sports field was being concussed when Andrew McAllister missed the hockey ball and struck my jaw instead.
Every Saturday, the athletic failures would have to line the touchlines and cheer for the school.

I walk along the pavement that led to breakfast. If you hadn’t checked in for breakfast by 7:30, you would be sent on a run. I would eat one piece of toast on whatever bench was left for the odd boys.
Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse opens with Dawn Weiner walking through the school lunch tables, looking for the ghetto table where the speccy and spotty can sit. In the cinema, others laughed, but my annoyingly efficient emotional recall saw no humour in this easily recalled, three times a day event.

I remember when there was some rabbit on the menu. It only seemed to be one rabbit, cut in half, its ribcage revealing an empty cavern where its guts used to be. The man who washed the plates wasn’t there one term. The rumour, confirmed by a local paper that no one had seen, was that he’d been flashing in the park.

Some of the boys did not take well to leaving the family home for this training camp for an army life, M&S management or Hedge fund management. One boy lost all is hair. Sanders would along the pavement, three steps forwards, then walk backwards for two steps, all the way to the dining hall. His parents’ decided boarding was not for him.

I joined the combined cadet force. I didn’t want to, but for some stupid reason, I thought my dad would be pleased if I did. I’m sure he would have been as happy, probably happier, if I’d volunteered to make stage sets. I was unable to match properly due to my inability to stop observing myself. I marched like a toy that would be thrown into the crusher by the conveyor belt toy tester.

My book memory comes back as I walk down the side street where my mum and dad parked the Ford Capri when they came to view the school. I found a copy of The Films of Boris Karloff (Citadel) in the high street WH Smith that day. I still have it, rebound with cracked sellotape. In the ensuing darker days, the darker films of Boris Karloff supplied the cracks that the light shone through.

Years later, all grown up in the language of the Daily Mail, but not in scanty swimwear, my friend Neil was surprised to hear I was a product of boarding school. I was relieved that I did not carry the embroidery of superiority that the process is meant to adorn you with.
When I was interviewed by the headmaster, to create the illusion they don’t let any riff raff in if they’ve got the money, he asked my what i liked reading. I said Douglas Adams. He had never heard of him and I explained the brilliance of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

The burnt milk smell is the memory of heating a cauldron of milk to make hot chocolate for the other 80 boys you should dormitories, showers and threatening behaviour with. I’d try to scratch the scorched milk from the metallic base with my bitten nails.
I now walk these streets without having to have a signed pass.

The secondhand bookshop where I bought two volumes of Diana Dors anecdotes now offers spa treatments and facials. The video rental store where I bought used copies of Billy Connolly Bites Yer Bum and Andrezj Zulawski’s Possession is a pharmacy. The newsagent where I bought Films and Filming imports chandeliers now.

It was on that road where Michael Caine waved at us schoolboys as he went off to film The Whistle Blower with Nigel Havers. We never saw Wendy Craig, but she filmed Butterflies here.
There are now plenty of boutique clothing stores with snappy names like Twig and many ways to have your hair redesigned by scientific sounding salons.

I browse the big charity bookshop and hear the happy and helpful woman talk about her aneurysm. A younger woman explains that her father is her psychotherapist, which she is finding a bit strange. I don’t buy any books by Freud.

I am glad that schooldays were not the best days of my life, I’m not sure I’d have made it to 47 if they were. Happiness is a bloodless revenge. The boys and girls (thankfully it is co-educational now) are all in classes as I skirt along the metal railing. I think about some of them who are experiencing the first term away from home, they might not know it now, but it will all be alright in the end.

the Latest Book Shambles stars Nick Offerman, top carpenter and star of Parks and Rec.

Dead Funny Encore, with stories by Stewart Lee, Alan Moore, Josie Long and many more, is out now.

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3 Responses to Burnt Milk and Paranoia – Those Were The Days

  1. John Dowie says:

    Brought tears to my jaded old eyes. Well done Robin

  2. ds says:

    It is a strange sort of spiritual damage some choose to do to their children, and call it “preparation for life”. The miracle is that some, like you, survive, and even prosper in spite of it all.

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