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After Primary School came high school, or The Comprehensive School as
we called it, and a new set of friends with a new set of interests.
primary school my focal interest in friendship was football - and for
much of the time I took it for granted that my first job would be
working for a few years as a professional footballer, before becoming a
doctor-scientist and doing Nobel prizewinning research.
retrospect, it seems clear that while I was good enough to get into the
school eleven a side team - which placed me in about the top two thirds
of the class - I was not picked for the six a side team - which meant I
was not in the top one third. The basis for a professional career
was... lacking. But the time, I simply felt this as an injustice and a
failure to appreciate my specific skills.
at The Comprehensive School, it soon became clear that change was
desirable. Football (i.e. Association Football or Soccer) was not taken
seriously by the teachers (who handed over the selection for the school
team to one of the pupils, who came from a different Primary School and
picked all his friends); and Rugby was what we supposed to be keen on.
many of the boys played football all through breaks and lunch times,
using a stone instead of a ball. Consequently I wore holes in the toes
of my brand new school shoes in a very short time - and was told by my
mother to stop.
But I was keen to stop anyway, since
football caused fights, and I had already been in three fights in the
space of the first month. I 'won' two (by popular acclaim) but would
certainly have lost the third if it had not been stopped by the end of
lunch break. With a kid from the Children’s Home I had met my match -
and I can still recall the shock and awe I felt when he landed a punch
on my jaw: it was so heavy.
I got out with a swollen eye and a thick lip and decided that enough was enough, and to make some new friends.
And so began The Airfix Years.
first two and a half years at The Comprehensive were focused on the
hobby of making plastic models, mostly of aircraft - and of talking,
reading and playing about aircraft. It was a long and avid 'craze' - one
of the earliest of many crazes, which spilled-over into my adult
I was never good at making the kits. At
first I did not bother with instructions, but put together the
interesting looking items in what seemed like a reasonable order.
Later I graduated to following the
instructions - but was always reluctant to make a choice between
optional weapons. If cannon, rockets and bombs were provided as options
(to represent different uses of a WWII aircraft at different phases of
the war) then I would naturally want them all - and since sufficient
mountings were not provided, I simply cemented them here and there,
wherever there was space.
I was never keen on painting the
models, since that delayed construction. Each colour of paint would
sometimes require separate application, and many pieces needed to be
done before assembly. Much better to make the things, then paint the
completed model as best could be managed.
or decals, were again usually provided in several versions - but as the
model was unpainted or inadequately painted, I felt it looked best if
all the transfers - maybe three sets of them - were applied in order to
cover as much of the surface as possible.
the result must have been a mess, to an objective eye - but my eye was
not objective; and the completed model served the purpose of stimulating the
imagination both during construction and afterwards in a kind of
Neee-Yow play with chugga-chugga sounds for machine guns, chung-chung
for cannon, and a sort of Whump inside the mouth and bursting out from
closed lips to indicate bomb explosions.
reading was initially focused on the innumerable Biggles books, which
described the adventures of an unageing pilot who fought in fighter
planes in both the 1914-18 (Sopwith Camel) and 1939-45 (Spitfire) wars -
and between the wars flew around the world having adventures.
I moved onto non-fiction and memoirs of pilots (Douglas Bader, Ginger
Lacey, 'Cats Eyes' Cunningham in his night fighter), and accounts of
particular campaigns such as the Dambusters and my absolute favourite:
633 Squadron by Paul Brickhill, about the Mosquito bombing raid on a
Heavy Water factory - which I once listed as the best book ever written.
is hard to recall how all this was integrated into our socializing and
play - but the key to the era was messing-about and having-a-laugh.
this stage I had nothing whatsoever to do with girls - although there
was always one or two of them I 'fancied' secretly, thought about with
yearning, and kept an eye on.
In many respects the early
years at high school were a return to childhood after a kind of early
and transient pseudo-maturity in the last couple of years of Primary
School when there had been a lot of semi-formalized 'snogging' - which
is what we called kissing on the lips, mouths closed, eyes closed -
rather like in Tom Sawyer.
The snogging mostly took
place in kissing games at parties - the most popular was Postman's
Knock. I can't remember what happened, but it was a semi-random way of
getting boys and girls to kiss but preventing them from choosing each
Anyway, all this stopped at High School - and I
was generally much happier and cheerier once I had found a congenial
group of boys among whom I could be silly.
To be called silly was, in fact, regarded by us as a compliment.
whole thing was based - so far as I was concerned - upon an ability and
a tendency to laugh unrestrainedly and uncontrollably.
suppose my disciplinary record at school was actually not very good, in
the sense that I can remember having detentions quite often, being sent
to the Headmaster and the deputy Headmaster etc. Literally all of
these punishments were for laughing.
We would whip
each other into such a frenzy of laughing - usually by picking on some
small incident, some very small incident of almost inconceivable
triviality, and repeating it with exaggeration, in a funny voice, or
with fantastic elaborations - until we were all literally rolling around
gasping for breath and unable to speak.
I can recall
being told off for kicking a piece of wood around the playground - this
piece of wood had been broken off the arm of a slatted seat - but not by
us: we just found it. The 'humour' of the situation was that the
teacher had accused us of 'kicking wood around' and 'Wood' was the
surname of a boy in our class - and so that was it...
we were lined up and told to be silent, in an area outside the official
playground and near to the Staff Room and school offices.
we stood, not talking, various of us would make deniable 'noises'
(without moving mouth, without change of facial expression) - such as
sighs or peeps or, whatever - but this kept us all in a suppressed state
near the edge of hysteria.
Then the ancient Deputy Headmaster -
nicknamed Gobber, because he spat when talking - lumbered out to give us
a telling off; and something about the way he lumbered broke the dam
for me and I launched into such an hysterical outburst that I was unable
to speak, unable to answer his questions; and in short disgraced
All I can remember is looking up to find the
Deputy standing right in front of me, asking why I was laughing - which
was, of course, the one thing I could not tell him - and anyway by that
point I could not say anything. It was taking all my best efforts to
Nothing bad happened to me -
indeed I think the teachers were remarkably tolerant; since there is not
much more annoying than a bunch of boys laughing uncontrollably at
inappropriate times - especially when they are laughing at you.
But that was life. Everything was grist to the mill of making a joke - and it is amazing how many I remember.
was a special status, a kudos, for the skills involved in having a
laugh. For example sound-effects. Boys who could make funny or realistic
noises, or enact little scenarios, were popular.
boy became an instant success in the space of a lunch break for doing
an impression of a man being lifted up by a crane with a hook through
his nose; he just went from group to group demonstrating this
First the hook was made with a thumb,
and the crane was indicated by whirring sound and robot-like movements
of the arm; then there was some palaver of engaging the hook into the
nostril; and the great thing was when the hook started going upwards,
apparently dragging the distressed man onto his toes, hauled by the
This chap soon after became my best friend - so it goes to show how important these things were.
a lower level of skill, another boy was 'famous' for barking-out the
work BOC! in situations where we were supposed to be silent.
word Boc came from a drama lesson, where it had been used as the sound
made by an axe felling a tree. We thought this was amusing, and were
looking for some way of using the word.
came when everybody was sitting at desks, heads-down and supposed to be
writing, in the school library; when someone (it may have been 'Wood')
shouted BOC! - very short and sharp; without making any movement or
change of expression.
Presumably, the librarian (an
extremely tall, skinny, bald American) looked up to observe a motionless
sea of bowed heads and no indication whatsoever of who had made the
sound, nor even where it came from. Understandably, but unwisely, he
demanded "Who shouted Boc?" and that was it, chaos ensued - and the
business of shouting Boc! became a craze, guaranteed to provoke a
mini-riot of hysteria.
So, the main
thing in life during the Airfix Years was these incidents, which could
then be recounted again and again - elaborated, extended in fantastic
This was life - until at the age of thirteen
over the pace of just a few months; something changed inside me, almost
palpably - and simultaneously new vistas opened-out with The Lord of the