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Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Lookin’ fe’r a feet

New Month Old Post (from original post of 1st October 2014)    
 
Tasker Dunham gets beaten up
 
“You two lookin’ fe’r a feet?” said a coarse voice behind.* We pretended not to hear and kept walking.

We were making our way home by way of the back lanes so we could take off our school caps. The uniform was compulsory to and from school at all times: the striped tie, the blazer with the Viking badge, and the hideous cap – navy blue with four bright yellow triangles joined on top. Get caught without and it was an automatic Saturday morning detention. This applied just as much to sixth formers as to younger pupils, even those who stayed on an extra year to try for Oxbridge, and they could be nearly twenty! School caps looked even sillier on sixth formers than on us because nobody ever bought a new one, so they walked to and from school with tiny first-form caps perched on huge sixth-form heads.

But once out of sight beneath the high walls of the back lanes and cross streets, it was safe to put your cap in your pocket. The only danger was that the lanes were the haunt of Secondary Modern School boys who flaunted their toughness and maturity by smoking. They detested Grammar School boys in their showy uniforms, thinking them anything but tough and mature.

The voice behind was quiet for a time, so my friend Burling resumed talking about school. He was top of the ‘A’ stream and thought about little else. He was prattling on about surds and nineteenth century history: the square root of fifty and politicians William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. He could convince you it was fascinating, but from the way the disagreeable voice behind had pronounced fight as “feet”, I knew we were being followed by someone who thought surds were absurd, a pit was where you might get a job, and canning was what they did with peas and carrots in the factory down the Pontefract Road.

“You two lookin’ fe’r a feet?”

There were two modern school boys behind, smoking. One was the notorious Pete Jibson, who, despite being only a couple of years older than us, was one of those lads who by the age of fourteen could pass for twenty. He was heavily built, with thick greasy hair, dark stubble, a lined forehead and a perpetually malicious scowl. I had once seen him buying three Woodbines in the sweet shop where they split up packets to sell singly. He was definitely not someone you would want to fight. Better to lose face than teeth. But Burling lacked any sense of self-preservation. He never went out enough.

“I said you two lookin’ fe’r a feet?” repeated Jibson.

“Why?” asked Burling, brightly. “Have you lost one?”

It was not at all a sensible thing say. Jibson pushed forward, picked up Burling by the lapels of his blazer and rammed him backwards, hard against the wall.

“Four-eyed grammar school twat,” he growled, Woodbine still in mouth. He let Burling go and turned to walk away with his accomplice, smirking.

“Charming!” I whispered as they left, but a bit too loudly, and Jibson turned back to give me the treatment.

“What was that, you bastard? What did you say?”

“I didn’t say owt,” I protested in anxious, conciliatory, wide-eyed innocence. “I didn’t say owt.” I didn’t want to sound too posh.

Jibson let me go and turned again to leave. I was just about to give a sigh of relief when Burling, like the idiot he was, piped up, “He said you two were charming.”

“Right!” said Jibson menacingly. There was a sudden flash, a heavy thump under my chin, and I staggered backwards to the ground. As I struggled to get up I could see Burling being smashed against the wall again. When Jibson had made his point he flicked the smouldering stub of his Woodbine at my head, and swaggered off.

We waited until they were well ahead before continuing home. Burling had a few scrapes and scratches, and I suffered no worse than damaged pride and a bruised chin. We took the main roads home for the next few weeks, and kept our caps on.  

Jibson left school soon afterwards and gave us no more bother. I heard he went to work at the local concrete factory making reinforced panels: dangerous, corrosive and life-shortening work. His mate did a bit better. I saw him again about a year later – at our house! He was with the local firm of decorators whistling and joking as they painted our outside woodwork. I don’t think he noticed me. I crept in quietly from school each day and made myself scarce until they had gone home. I imagined him laughing as he told the others about roughing us up. 
 
As for Burling, he went to Oxford University to read politics, philosophy and economics, and became an economist at the Bank of England. 


*In Northern England, you sometimes hear “fight” pronounced “feet” (cf “Y’aw’reet?” meaning “Are you all right?”). Also, “for” is often pronounced “fe” with a short ‘e’ and an added ‘r’ when followed by a vowel, and “aught” (anything) as “owt”.

30 comments:

  1. Phew. You were lucky to escape with just bruising. These days it would probably be more likely to end in a stabbing.

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    1. What a terrifying thought. I never knew any schoolchildren to carry knives in the 1960s, except perhaps scouts. Only gangsters like the Kray brothers would have had them.

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  2. In the long run, you came out the best in that fight.

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    1. I guess so. I ended up in a middle-class job, although it was a bit touch and go for a while.

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  3. That was the way Steve talked. He knew "proper" English, too (he taught it, after all), but he was a Yorkshire lad from a succesion of miners and that's how he talked.

    Two things came to mind while I was reading this:
    1) When does one say pupil and when student? In German, students (Studenten) are at uni, while pupils (Schüler) are at school. Same in English?
    2) How tribal we as a species have always been. Even in the same town or village, someone from the "wrong" street or school or family would be treated like second class human. Is it any wonder there is always one war or other going on on the planet?

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    1. Bernstein's elaborated and restricted codes?
      Only those at university were called students then. Everyone below that was a pupil. But like with other kinds of grade inflation, sixth formers and then all secondary school children became 'students', and these days you sometimes even hear 5 year old children at primary school called students. It sounds absolutely ridiculous to me.
      I might write more about the system of selective secondary education we had here. It was social engineering and split up friends and even families.

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  4. This took me right back to my school days! I went to a small private girls' school and in my uniform was fair game for both secondary and grammar school pupils. What a burden that uniform was, three different hats for starters, navy winter hat, summer straw and a bright blue beret. Only the beret was small enough to cram in a satchel, the other two had large brims that rendered me highly visible. There was even an optional white cotton Christopher Robin sun hat for wearing in the school garden. I had the burden of wearing the things and my parents the burden of paying for them. In the lower sixth I rebelled and applied for a scholarship to art school, leaving school a year early. (Where I wore exactly what I wanted and never a hat.)
    Glad you didn't get your teeth knocked out Tasker!

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    1. Wow! Do you still have it and can you still get into it?
      Yours was the kind of thing Grammar Schools were attempting to emulate. Why were they in such bright gaudy colours? In researching this piece I found letters in the press from Grammar School pupils all over the country complaining about the strict uniform restrictions which lasted in most places well into the sixties. I was told that until about 1960s, children of single parent families were not offered Grammar School places because it was not thought they would be able to afford the uniform.
      We were fortunate to get a new headmaster when I was about 15. One of the first things he did was to abolish the boys' caps and girls' berets, and, a year or so later, sixth formers were allowed to wear plain grey suits for the boys and similar with skirts for the girls. So I never had to wear a cap aged 17 and 18.

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  5. Pete 3 Woodbines Jibson.
    I wonder if his lungs survived the stour of the concrete plant?

    Often I wonder about the tough guys in my own Glasgow comprehensive.
    They left school at 15 for work, skilled or unskilled.
    Many must have passed away, smoking, poor diet, bad luck.
    I persist in the rational belief I will see them again on the other side.

    Jibson would have been in his element in Iceland.



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    1. My dad knew a lot of people through his work, and over the years from about 1945 to 1985 kept a list of those he knew who had died. It's a sobering list. More than half died around the age of 50. Working class life in the post war period was not long by today's standards.

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    2. It is terrible to think of workers in adverse conditions whether in a concrete factory or in a building with blue asbestos.
      Stress confirmed them as heavy smokers, leading to many premature deaths.

      I remember seeing two young workers on a tenement roof without any safety harness.
      My father said: *The poor lads don't know any better, one slip and they will fall to their deaths. I blame their gaffer, he has a duty of care, and he's putting their lives at risk.*

      We need the unions back for manual and office workers as well as in the retail and trades.

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  6. Well that was frightening! I guess we all grew up with some kind of bullies around. I'm glad you came out of that with no serious injuries!

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    1. I think we learned how to keep away from them and not antagonise them, but the really nasty ones looked for people to bully.

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  7. Fists were the only weapon in the world those working class boys had against their social superiors. Not right, but yes, well...

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    1. At least it was only fists and nothing more damaging. The Grammar School / Modern School selection created the unequal system. There are a lot of arguments against it.

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  8. Looking at our high school year book several years ago, I was astounded at the number of men and women in my class who had died. Too much stupid living.

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    1. See my comment to Haggerty above. Age expectation had increased a lot since WWII.

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  9. I thought Jibson had grown up to change his name to Putin.

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    1. Probably not. I doubt anyone gets to Putin's position without at least a degree of intelligence.

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  10. Which school did you attend that had a Viking badge? the cap sounds a bit silly with the yellow triangles. I don't think there was ever any true school rivalry where I grew up. There was teasing between the public school kids and the Catholic school kids, then later when the tech school was built there was teasing between the regular high school kids and the tech school which focused more on trades learning than academic. But never any violence.

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    1. It was a Viking ship badge. Caps like that were common amongst British schoolboys in the days when everyone wore a hat outside. My junior school had exactly the same but red. Violence perhaps was not as common as light antagonism.

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  11. My all girls grammar school had a summer and winter uniform with emerald berets that had to be worn. The first thing you did was to pull off the twisty topknot. BUT the sixth form had boaters and I loved them. Getting the rim level and it really made for good deportment. Much later my husband used it for Maurice Chevalier impersonations.

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    1. I didn't keep my uniform. There are few examples of it still around from that school. Everyone just wanted to do away with it.

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  12. If I had been Jibson, I would have given the pair of you a sound thrashing and unexpected emergency visits to the dentist's. While walloping you I'd have cackled, "What use are your factorials now Humphrey?"

    Well-written Tasker! Truly evocative.

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    1. I remember you writing that you went to a posh school in Hull for a while and can imagine there were similar issues.

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  13. Ha, Tasker - that was a bad experience for you and your friend!
    (I am proud that I understood "feet" right without an explanation).
    The Durch book "Vlo en Stiekel" by Pieter Koolwijk (English version: "Flea and Spikey") is a wonderful book for children in the same awful situation - with humour and empathy it gives courage and grit.

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    1. Books like that sound very helpful. Bullying is much more openly talked about and things done about it now because it is understood how damaging it can be to some children. In the fifties and sixties most on the receiving end felt inadequate and kept quiet about it.

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  14. Burling was a fine friend wasn't he? The sort you don't want along in a fight.

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    1. I'm not sure he usually encountered such nastiness so probably didn't appreciate the dangers. I wouldn't have been much good, either.

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