Many people feel a nostalgia for schooldays, for friends known since kindergarten. There are school reunions, old school ties, framed photographs of children in uniform on doting grandmothers’ walls. The oldest pictures, Lucozade-coloured with age, show school hats: berets, Panamas, a topper if you’d been to Eton.
Spare a thought for those of us who were brought up in service families! Many attended a school for such a brief time there was no time – or money – for a new uniform. You were an outcast in your navy blue while everyone else sported bottle green. I went to fifteen different schools between the age of five and sixteen and it added a great deal to my life experiences whilst encompassing a far broader curriculum than a single school could ever offer. On the down side there was no chance of making, or nurturing, new friends. Service life produces children who are self-reliant, somewhat solitary. A good grounding for a writer!
The first interesting school I remember was aged seven. Wewere sailing on a troopship, the Dunera. which was transporting the Scottish regiment, the Black Watch from Glasgow to Korea as part of the peace-keeping force, and we were being dropped off at Singapore. The first day at sea, before we reached the Bay of Biscay and the horrors of non-stop vomiting, I was sitting on deck in the sunshine, nose buried in Enid Blyton’s Ring ‘o’ Bells Mystery. I loved Enid Blyton with a passion, devoured all I could find and was totally engrossed in this one which my father had bought me for the journey. He was more than a little disgruntled to discover I’d finished it in a day and a half and told me I’d have to keep reading it as there was nothing else available. However, I digress. My reading was cruelly interrupted by an officious woman herding children before her for lessons. Lessons? It appeared we had to go to school for six hours a day for the next four weeks. The ship might founder, there might be flying fish off the starboard side, but nothing could interrupt classes.
School in Singapore was wonderful. We started at 7.30 and finished at 1.30 to avoid the heat of the afternoon. Our transport there was referred to as a gharry, but it was a lorry painted air force blue into which we had to clamber before sitting on bench seats and holding on to a rope to avoid being thrown out when we crashed through the craters in the roads. In the playground we caught snails and centipedes, while in the classrooms geckoes (lizards) ran across the ceilings, dodging the overhead fans, before dropping on the unwary.
After a number of years in England we flew out to Cyprus, a beautiful country in which to be educated. Very early morning starts again owing to the high temperatures but now I was older there were trips to Kykko Monastery, Famagusta, theruins at Salamis. When the threat of Turkish invasion grew, wherever we travelled we had to be in an armed convoy, escorted by UN troops from Canada and Finland in their sky-blue berets. As a teenager I was hugely susceptible to the attraction of a man in uniform, something which has stayed with me to the present day!
But the best school of them all was when, in my fifties I taught English in the slums of Kolkata where I squatted on the ground, in the dirt, with the children who lived on the streets. Their eager little faces, happy smiles, desperation to learn were heart-breaking at times but it remains the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done. I could write a book about it. I did write a book about it. Two, in fact, Outcast, on offer today at 99p/99c: