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By Terry Buchanan


The Montréal Review, July 2011






At the end of the war I left my infants school, Leigh Beck on Canvey Island, and we moved back to London. My new school was to be my father's old one, Star Lane in Canning Town. My only memory of there is brief; following in my father's footsteps, my very first boxing bout, which I won by a knockout within five seconds with the help of a swivel blackboard. I was then moved on to a primary school nearer to our new home, a house shared with another family of strangers, in Forest Gate.

Park Lane School in West Ham was the place from where they influenced the rest of your life, the eleven plus examinations and rumours in the playground were rife.

"My brother said they put your head down the loo pan and pull the chain".

"Mine said, they shove you into a hole under the stairs and when you try to get out they bash you with their satchels".

They were describing the initiation for new pupils at the Secondary Modern and the Grammar schools.

When the exam results were announced it looked like I was destined for a satchel bashing, I had passed the scholarship for the grammar school.

Stratford County Grammar School was, before 1945, the West Ham Municipal Central Secondary School. Partly destroyed by bombing in 1941 some of the classrooms were prefabricated but the main school block was typical of the Victorian era.

That first morning of arrival I went in through the back gate, having prepared my appearance to be as inconspicuous as possible. I stuck to the playground wall like glue, edging my way to a place as far away from the screams and shouts as I could find.

Not so much a case of survival of the fittest but preservation of the devious.

The playground bell rang and I joined the line up.

I had always been a bombed site kid with a worn out seat to my short pants, and other scruffs like me had devised similar strategies to evade capture by the satchel wielders.

The more academic pupils had suffered the indignity of being battered and bruised, as yet they were not labelled with the future terminology of nerd and geek.

Grammar school lesson number one was well learnt, subterfuge has its educational rewards.

The first impression of the teachers surprised me, some of them wore their academic uniform of black gown and mortar board. Crikey, I thought, what is this cockney kid doing amongst all these toffs, as I scanned the inmates trying to find a Billy Bunter or Flashman. My trepidation was soon eased when I discovered that we were all in the same boat; working class children eager to learn after spending our early formative years in the shadow of a war. After the frugal environment of a primary school I could hardly believe my eyes as we were taken on an induction tour of our new school.

It was like a palace of education, enticingly furnished with all the equipment that an inquisitive working class child could only dream of. The single item of any value that I then owned was a bright red Raleigh bicycle with drop handlebars and a solid leather Brooks racing saddle. It was bought with a loan from Mr Dovey, the tallyman, as a reward for passing the scholarship. The bike on which I had learnt to ride was a full sized monster with solid rubber tyres and cow-horn handlebars, my dad had bought it for ten shillings from one of his mates.

Our school tour took us through room after room in ever increasing eye opening wonderment. Rows of beautiful brass and black laquer microscopes set upon teak workbenches in the biology laboratory.

Shelves, filled with etched glass bottles of highly toxic and incredibly corrosive acids, lined each workstation in the chemistry laboratory.

I had previously produced a most acceptable stink bomb from a fifteen bob chemistry set.

The woodwork room was packed tight with lathes drills and razor sharp implements, each one intended to enable young boys to re-fashion a tree into something far less useful.

The cookery kitchen, unfortunately only for use by the girls, had rows of cookers and appeared to be better stocked with culinary requirements than Lyons Corner House.

The art studio had an easel for each student and the technical drawing room had professional drawing boards arranged in a square formation, ideal for fights with paper pellets and an elastic band.

And finally, the place that took my breath away was the school library, the poetic perfection of a purpose built edifice. I was an avid reader, a bookworm. 'The Riddle Of The Sands', and 'Lord Of The Flies', had been long overdrawn by me from the public library; which could not be compared to this polished oak refuge filled with the comforting perfume of well read books.

I was soon to learn that even a school like this would have its negative aspects and they were to be us, the pupils.

We were all street wise and war weary, many of us devoid of discipline that came from war separated families. Some were so uncontrollable that they could dissolve a teacher into tears within five minutes of his or her entering the classroom, nothing in that to be proud of but everything to be ashamed of.

We had all been conditioned and traumatised by a war during our formative years. If we behaved badly it was because of the fear and uncertainty felt by our parents, self discipline was difficult to control when your fate was being directed by others. But, it was not recognised as something that had to be treated by psychological intervention, the remedy was dispensed as a thwack from the bamboo cane across the open palm.

I had visited 'The Boys Own Exhibition' where, for the purpose of obtaining a press photograph, I had been asked if I would like to be introduced to the young Prince of Jordan.

The resulting photograph appeared in the national press the following day. Feeling chuffed with myself I was unaware of the retribution yet to come. On the next day back at school I was given a suitable chastening by my classmates for having the audacity to have worn my school uniform on a Saturday. Standing out from the crowd was not encouraged and the present day worship of celebrity would have been frowned upon.

Lessons varied in their degree of interest. Chemistry of course was initially top of the list for this stink-bomb expert. You could identify the experimentalists from their blazers, interestingly peppered with tiny holes from fizzingly corrosive acid concoctions.

Mercury was always a favourite. Health and safety never reared its protective head in this scholastic establishment. You were encouraged to pour mercury on to the bench and prod it with a glass tube to see how it reacted. Any elusive bits that you were not able to get back into the bottle you were advised to flush them down the sink. This was a very important protective measure, we were advised that mercury dissolves gold and that any bits left to roam might disintegrate the cleaner's wedding ring.

Music, not one of my better adventures. Even during my short attachment to the local church choir I was advised to mime some of the passages, my breaking voice was more akin to squeaky chalk on a blackboard.

Unfortunately the break was permanent. Looking back on it I would love to have had a musical ability, to have been a rock star, earned millions and lived a life of debauchery, but, it was not to be.

We were not yet into the era of coffee bar singers and rock and roll was light years away.

Every music lesson was centred on a single piece of music, 'Boots Saddles To Horse And Away', and I was semi-quavered into a toneless boredom.

Then, a redeeming factor emerged, the music mistress fell in love. The subject of her amour was another teacher. He would arrive at the start of a lesson and they would disappear for ages behind the closed door of the music store cupboard, "Looking for a piece of sheet music".

Nearing the end of our time at school, miss, blinded by admiration allowed him his day, unknowingly a day of reckoning.

Standing in front of the class, with miss on the piano, he was going to show us how to sing.

One full blast of lung power, on a high note, and his false teeth shot out into the lap of a girl in the front row. We dissolved into fits of screams and laughter... Crawling about on his hands and knees he eventually retrieved his choppers and left.

We never saw him again.

Love was lost and miss retuned us to the punishment of 'boots and saddles'.

At the age of fourteen the boys had been allowed to change from shorts into long trousers. Nearing the end of our school days, pride in appearance began to emerge, as we were allowed to discard the school uniform.

Detachable starched shirt collars, slim-jim ties and winkle picker shoes, encased within a man's suit.

Single breasted three button, with only the centre button fastened and made to measure for eighteen guineas; more than two weeks wages for my dad.

We were suited and ready to enter the working world and an unpredictable future.

But at least we knew our grammer, oops, sorry, grammar. Tom Brown couldn't have asked for anything better in his schooldays.



The decade immediately after the war was strangely non-judgmental in regard to its youth. Children had a great sense of the new freedom but they respected the law on the streets, knowing that a patrolling policeman was never far away, even in the back streets.

Air rifles and air pistols (slug guns) were commonplace for target shooting and an age limit for their purchase had not yet been defined.

Many boys carried a sheath knife with a six inches long blade and if you were a Boy Scout it was part of the uniform. These knives were used to cut branches for making spears, catapaults, and bows and arrows for their adventurous games. I never heard of one being used as a weapon or to cause another person injury. War children knew the effects of aggression; they had seen it in the newsreels. The American cowboy films had also produced a familiarity with guns: you pointed them and shouted 'bang'.

Real guns were a common sight in the more obscure corners of the school playground. These guns were displayed, and compared with pride, together with the stories of how a boy's father had claimed this souvenir of war. Most were handed in to police stations at the first gun amnesty, but it would easy to assume that some are still secreted away more than sixty years after the event.


I walked to school on that first morning. Sharply pressed and shiny polished, jacket, tie, cap; all emblazoned with the identity and motto of my new school, 'Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense'.

Out of sight, at the end of Clova Road, I began some of that Mal Y Pense, a devious process of disguise by dishevelment.

The cap was drop kicked on to damp grass then flicked against a rusty gate. The tie was knotted to look more like a lasso that a symbol of higher education. Sliding along a brick wall produced the texture of age on a brand new jacket. Halfway along the route I was fortunate enough to find a pile of manure, freshly evacuated by the baker's horse. A few kicks and it removed my cherry blossom boot polish quicker than sandpaper. With the contents of my satchel stuffed into the pockets of my short trousers I formed the perfect silhouette of an 'old lag'. Prepared for the day ahead as if I had been doing it for years.


Athletics, games, and swimming were favoured activities at our school and at least one pupil excelled to Olympic level. Football was my favourite sport but it was a gladiatorial test of endurance, if you completed the match without wounds then you were too soft for the first eleven. The reason being, the football pitches were within the site of Beckton Gasworks and they were surfaced with crushed coke, a waste product from the huge vertical furnaces. A tour of the gasworks was one of the school's educational field trips, with not a blade of grass to be seen. Stratford Grammar School footballers were easily recognised by the pieces of coke embedded in their knees or forehead. More character building, we thought, than those posh public school kids who just kicked a ball up against a wall and had plasters applied by the motherly hands of a matron. With us you either liked it or lumped it.


Star Lane School in Canning Town, had been my father's old school where he had been taught to box. Now, at the age of seven, it was my turn to learn the noble art of fisticuffs.

I was matched against a boy who was obviously raring for a fight. . . just like the boy in the film 'Great Expectations' who challenges Pip to 'put em up'.

My opponent rushed at me, fists flaying wildly, his only punch caught me full in the chest and sent me flying backwards into the base of a swivel over blackboard. As I hit the base of it, the top swung over, hit him on the head, and knocked him out.

Everyone gathered anxiously around him whilst I was left to try and extricate my dangling legs, trapped in the jaws of a blackboard. The other boy recovered well but the contest was over. When my dad asked me how I had done in my first boxing match I told him that I had knocked the other boy out. Gone are the days when tiny boys could tell tall tales.

Text and drawings © Terry Buchanan.


Terry Buchanan studied photography at the South-East-Essex Technical College. He was a Senior Photographer with Army Public Relations in Cyprus in the 1950's. His book Photographing Historic Buildings was on the reading lists for building conservation courses at universities in the USA and Canada and was a best seller. You can see his art and photography at: http://www.axisweb.org/seCVPG.aspx?ARTISTID=6196


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