Friday, February 10th 2017
A comment left on a post of mine that mentioned a school I once attended (see Nostalgia in Brighton) prompted memories of my school days. One of these in particular often pops into my thoughts for some strange reason and it is as follows.
For my primary education, I went to a school that was about ten minutes’ walk from home. It was a good school. I liked going there and I learned a lot, both in academic subjects and about life in general. This was in the days when pupils were still provided with milk at school. It was delivered in crates early in the day and at the morning break, each child was handed a bottle. At my school we even had straws for drinking the milk!
Then came a hard winter. It was one of the coldest and bleakest winters the country had known since records began. The problems it caused were exacerbated by coal shortages and as coal was still used more or less everywhere to heat buildings, many businesses and other organizations ran out of fuel and had to close their premises until the weather, and the coal supplies, took a turn for the better.
Our school was one of the establishments that closed, giving us pupils an unexpected extra holiday. Even though the school was closed, the supply of school milk continued and we went every morning to the school canteen, which was a separate building from the classrooms, to claim our ration.
There was snow on the ground and it was very, very cold. We were all dressed up in coats, scarves, gloves and hats. On the day in question, I entered the canteen as usual and proceeded through the crowd of school children towards the table where the bottles of milk were waiting. This time, though, I found myself confronted by the school caretaker.
“Where’s your cap?” he asked, somewhat aggressively.
Though I understood the words, the question seemed so strange that I thought I had misheard and I asked him to repeat it.
“Where’s your cap?”
Again, the remark puzzled me and again I asked him to repeat it.
“Where’s your cap?” he asked for the third time.
“Er, on my head”, I replied hesitantly.
“Yes,” he said, like one who has scored a point. “Take it off.”
In the modern age when people are free, as never before, to wear what they like, where and when they like, it is hard to remember that there was a time – within the living memory of some of us – when gentlemen were supposed to remove their hats on entering a building and that not to do so was considered a social faux pas. The caretaker may seem officious and overbearing to modern minds but in those days, many people would have agreed with him. Rules were rules and the rules required men and boys to take off their hats indoors, even when conditions indoors were as cold as they were outside.
What you learn in childhood is apt to stay with you for the rest of your life even though times and customs change and the adult mind acquires a more independent outlook. Though I no longer feel it necessary to take off my hat every time I enter a premises, yet the caretaker still lurks in a hidden corner of my mind and ever and anon pops up to enquire where my hat is.
For the most part, I ignore him, but there is one situation in which he always wins. When out exploring, we often visit churches for their aesthetic and historic interest. I do not believe there is a tetchy god looking down on me who requires me to bare my head on entering the church but I nonetheless do so. I would find it hard – maybe impossible – not to. Even when I visit the Tradescant Garden Museum which is an old, though decommissioned and once abandoned church, I have to dare myself not to remove my hat.
I tell myself that I remove my hat in church merely as a courtesy to my hosts, just as I remove my shoes when entering a mosque or wipe my feet on the doormat before entering a friend’s house, and that I could, were I so minded, keep it on. If I am honest, though, I think that it is the caretaker, or the childhood conditioning of which he has become the symbol, that still lurks in some secret corner of my mind and jumps out raising an admonitory finger when conditions provoke him.