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A Beacon in the darkness…

In a previous post I explored some of the less cheerful experiences I had at school, but as I spend more and more time perusing the new Facebook page set up to celebrate life and memories from my old home town of Crowborough, the more the fun times I spent in that sprawling comprehensive in the heart of Sussex come flooding back.

I began life at Beacon school a little late.
Not very late, only about five minutes I think, but that was enough for me to enter the (to me at least) enormous and bewildering campus when everyone else had already been sheparded away into classes or, in the case of first years like me, to the main hall for registration.

As I hurried around the corner of the concrete and glass edifice of the Tower Block I collided with what at first sight appeared to be a bamboo tweed giant, who looked down her nose at me from about eight feet up and said in an imperious voice; “Walk, don’t run. You should be in assembly, boy” and proceeded to give me directions.
I stammered my thanks and hurried away. Walking, not running.
I later discovered I had just met Miss Vokins, but as she and I had very little to do with each other for the following six years, we shall leave her there and enter my first year at Beacon.

When I finally caught up with my classmates I found I’d been allocated a tutor group that was located in a prefab behind the main hall, bordered on two sides by sports fields and well away from the gaze of all but the nosiest of teachers.
It was a science classroom.

Our tutor was of the young trendy type, with the boundless enthusiasm of the recent training college graduate, as yet untarnished by the cynicism produced by having to deal with the likes of us day in, day out.
His name was Mr Sharratt and he was very good entertainment indeed.

For a start, there was a good story about his time at training school which went something along the lines of;
Due to a previous injury to nerves in part of one hand, he had no feeling in a couple of fingers and had once inadvertently set fire to his own hand as he held a test tube over a flame without due care and attention while giving a chemistry lecture.
And he could be persuaded to do pretty much anything in science class.

Like the time we convinced him it was a good idea to see what the result would be when a lump of highly reactive sodium metal, roughly four times the recommended size, was dropped from some six inches above the surface of a glass tank full of water.
The result was that the lump sank to the bottom, stuck there like an angry, fizzing limpet for a few seconds and then, with a loud explosion of gas that threatened to crack the tank, shot to the surface and went careering back and forth across the surface of the water, almost reaching escape velocity and filling the whole room with possibly lethal fumes, causing the lab to be evacuated.

Or the time we did the “Custard powder bomb” experiment, whereby a lit candle is placed in a custard powder tin, the lid replaced and a small quantity of custard powder is puffed into the sealed tin via a pipe, the resultant combustion being just enough to blow the lid off.
However, if you get your teacher to really pack that pipe with custard powder, and you can also talk him into placing four candles in the tin, then what you have is a massive explosion that propels the lid off the tin so hard that it embeds itself in the ceiling.

And I’m sure you’ve all tried the water rocket experiment at some point, the one that demonstrates how water can’t be compressed (or something) and involves pumping air into a plastic washing-up liquid bottle half-full of water, ideally launching it a few feet along the lab bench into the sink.
Except when we did it, the top of the bottle had somehow become jammed in very hard indeed and by the time enough pressure had been accumulated to launch the bottle rocket, it shot the entire length of the room and smashed the toughened wired glass window of the fire exit.

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And scientific experiments weren’t restricted to the classroom either.
There was a bit of a fad for “recreational explosives” shall we say, the sort made from vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and a small plastic pop bottle, or small handfuls of potassium permanganate, smuggled out of chemistry lessons and mixed with gelatin in a meat paste jar.
(DON’T try this at home, kids)
Many a desk mysteriously had the bottom blown out of it by amateur chemists honing their demolition skills.
We really were rather ingenious, I’m sure our teachers would have been secretly proud that we’d been paying such close attention.
Although minor furniture damage paled into insignificance with the furore surrounding the theft from the chemical store of a whole bottle of the aforementioned highly reactive sodium.

The entire year, maybe even the whole school, were given a stern talking to in hastily arranged assemblies with mass detentions threatened if nobody owned up.
That was until the missing hazardous material was allegedly discovered in the attic of a school master’s house, where it had been hidden by his son in collusion with a co-conspirator.

Oops. Awkward.

It wasn’t until later on in my time at Beacon however, that the most notorious event of my time there occurred.
That was the scandalous, almost surreal experience of The Beacon Riots.

I have no idea now, if I’m perfectly honest, what kicked it all off, although I suspect it had something to do with several policemen chasing a couple of glue sniffing skinheads across the playground in the middle of a school day not long before, or the fact that there was an especially large contingent of that particular tribe at Beacon back then, with the added bonus that a teacher had been seen enthusiastically putting the boot in after the fleeing glue sniffer had been subdued beneath a heap of struggling coppers.

Whatever the cause, the result was a thrilling explosion of chaos and anarchy amongst the pupils, some of whom locked themselves in The Pens – fenced-in tennis courts bordering the playground – in solidarity with….something or other, and anyway, yeah, like, fuck the system.
Other rebel fighters laid siege to the sixth form block, the inhabitants of which retaliated with water bombs, intellectual abuse and Chaucer quotes (possibly).
But most exciting of all, whilst staff foot soldiers were attempting to enforce some sort of order on proceedings with loud-hailers and middle class self-importance, several high ranking officers – housemasters and above – were chased, yes chased by a small mob of the ringleaders into the main office, where they barricaded themselves for the duration of hostilities.

It seems amazing, now that I think back, that there wasn’t more of a backlash from that day of iconoclastic chaos, but from what I remember (and I’m open to correction from anyone else with a better memory) very few sanctions were imposed on the student body in general and only the instigators of the revolution were executed expelled or suspended.

My own particular contribution to the fight against the powers that be was more restricted to being a general smartass, something which regularly got me detention, visits to infuriated house masters’ offices, report cards that said things like, “will do very well if only he’d stop talking and listen for a change”, and uncannily well-aimed blackboard erasers flung my way.
Having said all that, some of the staff obviously saw something in me worth saving and the likes of the fabulous Jeff Lee, English and drama teacher extraordinaire and invaluable mentor during my teenage thespian days; Dick Kempson, another English teacher who also acted as our chaperone and driver when our briefly-famous theatre group performed at the Edinburgh Fringe; and Mr Watson, the French teacher responsible for me still being able to get by in basic conversations whenever I visit France (quite apart from being a bloody good shot with a blackboard rubber or piece of chalk), all of them made those days in class that much more bearable.

Funnily enough, one of the memories that most amuses me doesn’t involve classes, other pupils, or even any intention on my part to cause mischief, just an unfortunate accident of technology:
In the lazy summer limbo period between finishing studying and taking exams, we were allowed a certain amount of freedom to persue non-academic interests in and around the school (I spent some of this time producing a mini drama festival) and one of the duties I took on was helping out in the audio/visual control room, which amongst other things recorded and broadcast the educational TV programmes used in lessons.

There were four video recorders in the room, three that were used to transmit and one purely for recording. There was also a small library of movies on tape, including Nicholas Roeg’s ’70s psychedelic sci-fi masterpiece, The Man Who Fell To Earth.
One day when I had nothing better to do, I thought I’d watch David Bowie louche-ing it up as the titular alien, but the spare machine was recording a programme at the time so I elected to use one of the two currently unused broadcast machines instead. I mean, what harm could it possibly do, right?
I was still comfortably engrossed in the action when the phone loudly interrupted my viewing pleasure;
– Hello, A/V room.
{slightly panicky female voice} Hello! Um, I’m supposed to have booked a programme about dinosaurs, why are there naked people covered in slime on my television?
– I’m sorry, there must be a problem with the recording, I’ll sort it out immediately.
– I should think so too, honestly!

Needless to say, my job as budding TV producer ended there and then.

It is possibly rather self-indulgent of me to think anyone will be interested in reading the nostalgic reminiscences of a non-descript teenager’s days in a perfectly ordinary comprehensive school, but I’ve enjoyed reliving them and sometimes it’s good to write just for yourself for a change.

But if as a result of reading this, you find yourself revisiting memories of school with some affection for the days we were so keen to escape at the time, then I shall consider my job here done.

Wait for it.

Ok, you can go.

Walk, don’t run…

[This post is dedicated to all ex-pupils of Beacon, especially those in the Crowborough Memories Facebook group. Thank you for all the good times]

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2014 in Blogging, Films, Humour, Personal anecdote

 

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Nostalgia is our business, and business is good…

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was pretty seriously addicted to Facebook.
But, as with anything new, the novelty soon wears off and other things take over our attention.
With me it was mainly this, my blog, along with all the attendant administrative and promotional duties, following and reading other blogs (and if I’ve neglected your blog this week I apologise, but this post should go some way to explaining why that is) and commenting on them.

As I mentioned in this post, I went to a very large comprehensive school, Crowborough Beacon in East Sussex, between ’77 and ’83 and I didn’t exactly have the “best days of my life” for a sizeable chunk of my stay there.
At least that’s what my memories would have me believe.

The trouble with bad experiences is that they tend to block out the good times associated with that period in your life and, despite having perfectly good recall, it is always difficult to get a treacherous subconscious to bring all the good stuff back to the surface.

Before I took the plunge and opened a Facebook account about three years ago, I could probably count on one hand the number of people from my school days who I still regularly saw or had any meaningful contact with on a day-to-day basis. But nostalgia is a strangely powerful force and simply seeing the names of people (trapped in that time-bubble of memory as their teenage selves) who once played such a constant part in our lives, has a mysterious effect on the synaptic bargain bin to which we consign the things that we consider to be past their remember-by-date.

Whether it’s a best friend who we lost contact with when they moved away, a secret, unrequited crush on a teacher, (a more common occurrence amongst girls than boys apparently) or simply a name or face from a long-forgotten past, it seems as if our brains are primed to pounce on the slightest excuse to reboot the good old days.
And looking back, with all the clarity that 20/20 hindsight bestows upon us, they do actually appear to have been pretty good after all.

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Crowborough Beacon school, the old alma mater.

Last week I was idly scrolling through my Fb newsfeed during lunchbreak at work, when I received a notification saying I’d been added to a group page called Memories of Crowborough/Rotherfield.
Now, I’m not usually one for joining Facebook groups, they tend to be rather cliquey, self referential affairs that exclude whole sections of the online community they purport to encourage, but this one was a different thing altogether.

When I was at school, and in the years that followed, there was a larger than life, loud and frankly outrageous character called Barry Aldis, the type of bloke who you could hear holding court at the centre of a group of like-minded tearaways long before you encountered him in one of the many tribal strongholds of the school playground or saw him in a smokey corner of pub somewhere, someone who was not in my immediate circle of nerdy friends and yet always on my personal radar as a permanent fixture of Crowborough life.
I couldn’t honestly say we were friends back then, the vicissitudes of teenage allegiances being what they were meant that, as a weedy drama geek, I didn’t qualify as a member of the cool set, the tough guys, the skinheads or the heartthrob club, and Barry was a skinhead, making him off limits as a prospective mate.
But as we get older and the tribes that define us at school disperse, the peer pressures that made such friendships unlikely disappear and we are able to see others from a different perspective.

Having returned to visit friends and family in Sussex periodically after moving to Devon 16 years ago (and since we have chatted online), we have reconnected and when I met up with him at the funeral of a close mutual friend a while back, it was obvious that he had become a well thought of and respected member of our generation’s social group, not least because he runs popular disco nights in Crowborough and organised a very successful Beacon school reunion in 2009.

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Barry “Phat Baz” Aldis today, form an orderly queue ladies

I don’t personally know the administrator of the new group page, but suffice to say, Baz has already stamped his irascible personality on it and it is already becoming clear that the former pupils of our old seat of learning defer to him in matters relating to any future social gathering of the clans.
In the short time that it’s been running, over 1000 ex-Beaconites have subscribed to the page and one status update in particular summed up everyone’s response to it;

“Is there any truth in the rumour that ex Beacon pupils have become the least productive members of the workforce since this group was set up because they now spend their entire day checking for updates?”

Well I wouldn’t be at all surprised, because the pull of the past is very strong once you get sucked into the vortex of memories and it appears that there is much enthusiasm for another reunion.
In fact the hunger for nostalgia is such that, within two days of joining the group, I started to see posts promising “the world’s biggest school reunion”, involving somewhat ambitious plans to stage a full blown festival on the town green, to feature alumni from right across the school’s history and live music from all five decades since.
Fortunately it wasn’t long before Big Baz stepped in to point out the incredible logistical problems this would entail, (having organised the last get together, he is only too familiar with the stresses and strains such an undertaking would involve) let alone the expenses that would be incurred in having the event policed, the council licenses required, public liability insurance and all the other bureaucratic bullshit that modern life demands in these situations.

So, after sanity once again prevailed and it was generally accepted that collective over enthusiasm may have got the better of us, it has been decided that there shall be a reunion for anyone who attended Beacon between 1970 and 1989, provisionally located in the school itself, on September 6th.

I’m looking forward to it already.

Finally, on a more sombre note, I would like to register my sadness and disbelief that so many of our classmates and teachers have been taken from us in the intervening years.
Whether they were lost to illness, car and motorcycle accidents, or in a few tragic cases, foul play, it was truly shocking to watch as the memorial thread on the page grow longer and longer.
I may not have known them all personally, but as in any school, the connections you make with friends and acquaintances means you are familiar with a lot more people than you realise, until it’s too late.

It became clear, as we were all reconnecting with our mutual pasts, that everyone felt the same and it didn’t take long before a tentative plan to initiate some kind of memorial was hatched.
Be it an online roll of honour or a physical book of remembrance to be placed in the school itself, we shall remember them as part of, yes, some of the best days of our lives.

As a fitting tribute to all those who cannot join us to reminisce, we’ll play out with a tune Baz apparently picked to honour them at the last reunion. They will remain in our memories, Forever Young.

Alphaville – Forever Young ~Official Video: http://youtu.be/t1TcDHrkQYg

 

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