Friday, 13 June 2014

Lucky Philospher - Ritualistic groups games and food in Primary School


Todays instalment of


At playtimes in primary school, we would gather in large mixed groups to perform ritualistic singing and chanting games such as Oranges and Lemons, or the Farmer's in his Den.

I used to get a strange and excited feeling from engaging in these, because they seemed incomprehensible yet significant. Why was the farmer in a den? Why did the Farmer song end with patting a bone? Why did Oranges and Lemons end with someone having their head chopped off?

One factors was the frisson of playing with "the girls" en masse - of having an excuse to play with girls. There was a strange thrill from dancing hand in hand, or being the farmer then choosing a 'wife' in the Farmer's in his Den.

The whole thing was bizarre - almost as if we kids had-to perform these things for a forgotten reason: it was our special job in a way that did not apply to the normal free-for-all games or the chasing-and-catching games (like Up-and-Down or British Bulldogs). Certainly, they left behind a special satisfaction when completed.

Some scholars have suggested that these games are garbled pagan or magical religious residues - this may not be true, but certainly it felt like that.


Many of the most significant childhood experiences were up on The Hill in The Woods. We would wander and explore here - and what was remarkable was how often we came across something new. One time it was some donkeys grazing - who were friendly enough to accepts being patted. Another time it was a strange rock that looked like a toad.

Once we found an iron crucifix about eight or ten feet high - a beautifully wrought statue buried among the young trees of a recent forest plantation and with its head looking down on the village below.

The next time we looked for it, it could not be found - and then later again, it could. The path seemed to come and go.


But life was not all good at Primary School, and the main source of suffering was school dinners and school milk.

Food in England of the mid-1960s was still in the era of World War II and rationing. There was a minimalist approach to quality, which - over the years - had been corrupted into a sub-minimalist approach. School nutrition was about as bad as it was possible to be outwith a situation of active and prolonged siege.

The school milk was supposed to provide as essential dietary supplement for a population near subsistence level during the Great Depression - and in the actual context of a prosperous middle class commuter village in Somerset, this meant that the only way to get children to drink the milk was to make it compulsory.

Having provided the milk - in 1/3 pint bottle - the authorities regarded the task as having been done; and from that point onwards the milk was treated as if it was any other commodity like sandbags or bricks. The concept of a 'cold chain' was unknown.

In other words milk was transported to the school in open-backed vans, and left outside exposed to the elements until we drank it, mid-morning.

This meant that in winter the milk was frozen solid, with the silver metal top pushed off and a column of translucent white ice extending and inch or two from the neck. Before drinking it, the milk had to be thawed next to hot pipes or a radiator. It wasn't very nice.

Even less nice was the milk in summer - which had often been kept for several hours (maybe days?) at about 22 degrees Celsius, or even 28 or more, if it happened to have been standing in the sun. The cream had separated into such a thick yellow plug that often the milk would not pour-out until a hole had been excavated into it with a cardboard straw; and to say it was rancid is putting it mildly - itand the texture was forbidding: lurid blobs of sour cream floating in a thin, yoghurty slop.

Summer milk was almost visibly seething with bacteria and tasted so vile that it would linger for hours.


Then there was school lunch.

There were three problems with school lunch: bad quality ingredients, bad cooking, and bad handling. (Other than that, it was fine...)

The ingredients were appalling - when I read about starving people eating leather I have an inkling of what it was like. It was not just a matter of poor quality meat - it was that mostly the stuff wasn't meat at all but sawn-off bone-ends. We called it gristle, and assumed it was a tough kind of meat - but it wasn't - it was the cartilaginous part of bone: un-chewable, indigestible, of zero nutritional value.

This would have been bad enough, but the education authority paid some old women called 'dinner ladies' to hang about the food hall, and try to force us to eat this inedible substance.

As for cooking - the cabbage provides the best example - not least because cabbage was dished-up with most meals. When I was given properly cooked cabbage some years later, I literally did not recognize it. What we had resembled a dilute solution of semi-composted grass - but tasted a lot worse.

This cabbage had been boiled until it lost all texture and substance, then it was boiled some more until it lost all belief in itself as cabbage - then it was boiled some more until it began to degrade into its primary atomic particles. Then it was sent to my school.


But this stage took a long time - a looong time.

The dinners had been cooked several hours earlier, we were told four or five hours, on the other side of Bristol; and brought fifteen or twenty miles in the back of a slow van - in a tepid state - to be re-heated, and to wait another hour or two before being consumed.

I expect most people have observed the skin which forms on the top of ersatz custard made from powder? After a few hours of the above treatment, the skin is the custard - or most of it. And the small proportion of liquid which remains was made with water instead of milk - and so lacks both texture and taste.

All that can be said in favour of this 'custard' was that it was not actively offensive, and was probably not dangerous to health (because, since it contained no milk, it could not really go-off).

The combination of poor ingredients, poor cooking, and poor handing meant that nothing whatsoever about the school dinners was enjoyable - and quite a lot of it was simply unsuitable for human consumption.

Once you had accepted that home cooked breakfast (substantial and delicious: cereal and milk, bacon or sausage and egg with fried bread and a cup of tea) would have to last all day until you got home in the evening, then the main problem was trying to avoid as much of the school dinner as possible - by eating the minimum amount of the least toxic items and rearranging the unconsumable residue to as to look as small as possible.

So school milk and school dinners were hazards to be negotiated, rather than pleasures to be anticipated; and the substance provided under the rubric of 'food' were not merely low or lacking in nutritional value, but an active threat to human survival.



Anonymous said...

Once we found an iron crucifix about eight or ten feet high - a beautifully wrought statue buried among the young trees of a recent forest plantation and with its head looking down on the village below.

The next time we looked for it, it could not be found - and then later again, it could. The path seemed to come and go.

I really liked this passage

I read your childhood memories with a lot of interest . I grew up in a stalinist type of state and my memories are made of novocaine-less school dentistry and May 1st parades.

Keeo writing please

Adam G. said...

I like this.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

In America, the farmer is in "the dell," and there is no patting of a bone.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - These variants exist in England too, but what I did was - of course - correct.