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  • Keith Johnstone

MOSTLY BIOGRAPHICAL - BEFORE COLLEGE

Updated: Oct 9

I REALISE THAT SOME OF THESE STORIES MAY SEEM UNBELIEVABLE, AND YET THEY HAPPENED AND HAPPENED IN THE WAY I HAVE DESCIBED..



EARLY MEMORY (THE UNIVERSE)

I had become old enough to pull myself onto the edge of the bath and hang with my head and shoulders upside down inside it. I could just touch the bottom of the white smoothness with my longest fingers and I was surprised that it seemed higher than the floor. I liked the feel of the cool metal on my tummy so I stayed there, pretending that my head was the right way up and that the interior of the bath was the sky.

I imagined the sun floating inside of the sky, giving light. Then I had a wonderfully obvious flash of insight! Because if it was day when the sun was inside the sky, it would be night when it moved outside of the sky and shone in through tiny holes that we call the stars. This also explained how it moved from the sunset to dawn without anyone seeing it!

I fell back onto the bathroom floor and lay there, amazed that my mind could transform the universe. I had changed from a small animal into an amateur cosmologist.

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EARLY MEMORY (FAMILY)

I have not the least idea why I was trying to vomit, and threatening do ‘Number two’ right there on the stair carpet.

Dad took over (from Mum) and ran upstairs, dangling me from the back of my trousers. He carried me into the bathroom where he wrenched my trousers down, stood me with my chin dangling over the lavatory and pushed a suppository into me (asserting ownership of my behind).

I met suppositories again when I was a constipated adult, and I was surprised by how small they were. The one pushed into my bum had felt the size of a large turd.

My own son never threatened to vomit or excrete as a way to control us, but perhaps we never drove him to such desperation.

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DISAPPEARING CHILD

I had been made to stand in the corner. This was unpleasant. A grandfather clock was beside me so I climbed into it. (The 'works' must have been removed or the metal would have clanged.) I could see everything through the glass door and everyone could have seen me if they'd had the concept of ‘a child in a clock’.

It was soothing to be in that vertical coffin so I stood there for a long time. It became quite noisy in the room (it's not good to lose a four year old) but I didn’t connect the rising panic with my disappearance. People had run to my father's shop and were searching the streets.

Eventually I climbed out and faced the corner again. Miss Veysey noticed me and clutched me as if I might slip back into a different universe. The hunt was called off.

I thought that I might be punished for climbing into the clock so I insisted stubbornly that I’d been facing the corner the whole time.

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NONSENSE

1940. At age seven I was evacuated to my mother’s parents who lived in Glastonbury. I spent a wonderful three months running around on the famous Tor and spending day after day in the ruins of the Abbey (I would have been a perfect target for pederasts but I suppose they were all in the army).

September came and I was enrolled in St John’s school (immediately behind St John’s church) where even little children were caned.

Our books were open at The Cat Sat On The Mat and we took turns reading a sentence aloud. This must have been at the very beginning of the school year because as soon as the teacher realised that I could read at the level of a twelve year old she let me sit beside the book cupboard and read its tedious books (simplified versions of Martin Rattler etc.)

Ahead of me, and across the gangway, a boy was secretly reading The Dandy, a comic that had far more interesting words than ‘cat’ and ‘mat'. It was under the top of his desk so he had to lean back to read it. This made him conspicuous and the teacher soon dragged him out and made him hold out his hand to receive the cane. Even to my seven year old self this seemed ridiculous.

That boy was so passionate about reading that he’d smuggled a comic into school, but now it had been confiscated and he was back in his place, sobbing. Do we want him to associate reading with pain? Is he supposed to hate reading? Would we rather that he didn't read if he reads comics? (All boys read comics!) This was the first time that I thought seriously about education,

Let me digress a little. I was sent to Miss Veysey's ‘Dame School’ in Brixham when I was three-and-a-half (only in the mornings but three hours lasts for eight hours when you are a tiny child). I can still remember that my desk - a plain wooden table - smelt of tomato, but wasn’t edible.

On Saturday there was no school, but Miss Veysey appeared in my father’s shop. I remembered this vividly because I was frightened.

“How did you teach him to read?”

My parents said that I memorised pages in books and only pretended to read them.

“Is there a newspaper?”

They handed me the Daily Mail (huge to me at the size it was before it became a tabloid) and I read a column on the right hand side.

General amazement. They thought that I had learned to read by magic!

I have no memory of being asked to explain, but the answer was simple. I had deciphered very easy comics called Chick’s Own. They showed characters who were doing interesting things and who were talking to each other, so I wanted to know what they were saying. Often I could guess, and if I asked someone to ‘translate’, the knowledge went into my brain instantly and forever.

The boy at St John's school, Glastonbury, who had been caned had been learning to read from comics just as I had, but the teacher disliked, comics (comics were ‘stupid’ and they made fun of teachers!) She was insisting that he should read ‘the cat sat on the mat’ which couldn't possibly have interested him, nor the rest of the class. ‘The cat shat on Pat,’ might have been more fun, and more memorable, but this was education and education was meant to be serious. (It occurs to me now that these seven year olds had begun school at age five. Why weren't they well past the 'cat sat on the mat' stage? Was it because the school had transformed reading into a drudgery?

Teaching bored children equals teacher burn-out. Children love words that can be made exciting. A doctor was ‘talking down’ as he prepared to listen to our two-year-old’s heart and was astonished to be told firmly that the word for ‘listening thing’ was ‘stethoscope’.

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INTELLIGENT

1940. I was evacuated to Glastonbury. I hated school, and was frightened all the time in this one. and yet I was the bright child. I understood this when the teacher introduced the concept of fractions.

She drew a circle on the black board and said that it was a delicious cake. Then she drew three lines from the edge to the centre. Two lines that were close together indicated a thin slice, and the one that was further away from the first two indicated a wider slice. The narrow slice was a tenth of the cake, and the wide slice was a thirty fifth of the cake. Which slice would we choose?

Boys were shouting and waving for the wider slice.

“Who would want to have the other slice?”

I waved and shouted, “Me! Me!”

She gave me an extraordinary look. She turned her body to face me more directly, and stared in total incomprehension. At that moment I understood that she considered me intelligent. I think I had ’derailed’ her thoughts a little, because she continued without asking me why I wanted the smaller slice. If she had, I would have said that I wanted the fifty-five per cent slice-

From then on I noticed that things were simpler for me than they were for the other boys but I was still frightened and confused. I tried to ‘fit in’ but I was often baffled. For example, after a ‘crayoning’ lesson every child’s drawing was pinned on the wall except mine. Had I crayoned the sky green, or drawn ‘Paul Klee’ trees sideways up the sides?

One day I was called out in front of class and given a book. I was surviving by doing what the other children were doing but no one else was being given a book. When the class ended I tried to give it back and was told to ‘take it home’.

I did, and my Gran explained that it was mine, that it was a prize for doing the best work, but why was it given to me, for whom everything was easy, rather than to a boy who had struggled and sweated and ‘done his very best’? (Luis Bunuel, the film director, as a child used to make deliberate mistakes in exams because of the same logic.)

It was the only book in the house.

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MYSTERY

When I was aged nine my teacher at St John's school had at last dragged me out in front of the class to be caned. There were two of us - perhaps we had been whispering together. She caned the other boy's hand and he howled and waved it about and blew on it, and ran back weeping to his place. I held out mine, expecting the same, but felt almost nothing.

This puzzled me for years until I was caned by Mr Claud Digby Thorton Owen. Then I realised that in Glastonbury, where I was the best student, my teacher hadn’t wanted to hurt me, so she had just given me a light tap with the cane, whereas in Totnes Grammar School, the fearsome swipes I received from white-faced, grinning, bulging eyed Mr Owen were an attempt to hurt me as much as possible.

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BEING A WRITER

The grown-ups, mostly fishermen, would say: “Your schooldays are the happiest days of your life,” which threw me into despair. Then they’d say: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” (which confused me, since I wanted to continue playing with my toys all my life).

They saw work as a punishment (which the Bible said it was). Working on the boats was far more dangerous than working in a coal mine, and it was wet and bitterly cold and there were many injuries.

My Dad hated being a pharmacist. Harry Sherriff, (who had to start the ovens at five in the morning) hated being a baker. Billy Tailor who was a night watchman at the garage next door didn’t complain – but I had no ambition to be a night watchman. I met only two adults who seemed to really enjoy their work: one was a soldier who did research on explosives, and the other was chief engineer on the Queen Mary, but how did I get jobs like that, even if I wanted them?

Two of the grown-ups didn’t have to work; one was Sir Harold Clayton who lived in a large house with a curving driveway about a mile up New Road – I had delivered medicines there – and the other was Mr Southwold who was a writer and lived in a small house called ‘Sea Mist’ at the end of Berry Head Road.

I couldn’t be an aristocrat unless my Dad was an aristocrat (so that was out), but

I loved writing! Being a writer would rescue me from ever having to work! (Writing was a form of play!) From then on, when the grown-ups said, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I said: “I’m going to be a writer!” This disconcerted them and made them leave me alone.

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TOTNES

Miss Veysey took me to Totnes. We travelled by ‘bus, but my memories begin as we were descending the long hill to the river where house after house had the same front gate that looked like a sunset (or sunrise) with the spokes radiating out as the sun’s rays. ‘They must be friendly neighbours to have agreed on that,’ I thought.

Memory kicks in again when we were walking past a cinema (since burnt down). We stopped to look at a large house that was set back a little. The façade - except for the dark windows - was entirely covered in ivy. I’d never seen such a thing, and as the dark leaves were shaken by the wind it seemed rather sinister, An archway at the side gave a view through brick pillars to a school playground where boys were in rapid motion. Stilt-walkers were using the pillars to help themselves balance as they learned their skill.

“We’re a little early,” said Miss Veysey, “so we’ll walk up the hill a little.”

We walked to an archway that had a room with a window above it, and above that a large clock. It had been one of the town gates, but the massive doors were long gone. Our pavement became very narrow as it passed under this arch, and yet an eighteen-inch high river-smoothed boulder was set into the ground against a house wall. A sign told us that this obstacle was the actual stone that Brutus of Troy had stepped on when he landed from the River Dart and declaimed:

Here I stand and here I rest,

I think I’ll call this town Totnes!

Or similar words.

If he had set foot on that stone when landing from the River Dart then the river must have been a mile wide! And what language was he speaking? (On Google 'street-view', the ‘Brutus stone’ seems to have disappeared, except for a piece that is flush with the pavement where it's no longer an obstruction.)

My next memory is of being inside that ivy-covered house where a big man - Mr Owen, Headmaster of Totnes Grammar School - was evaluating me. He did not exude warmth, and seemed ‘insecure’ – eager to impress Miss Veysey. He gave me a letter from the Board of Education to read. I stumbled over the words ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’, and he explained that many boys would not even have attempted such words, but that by managing to read them I had shown my intelligence. Even though he was praising me, I noticed that he was trying to show Miss Veysey that he knew more than she did.

As we left, the playground seemed empty.

For two years in the Preparatory School – that was what the interview had been about - I looked forwards to being at the Grammar School and learning to walk on stilts, but even though I was there for seven long years I never saw any stilts, let alone boys walking on them.

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CATASTROPHE

1944-45. When I entered the Grammar School I changed instantaneously from the bright child to the useless child. I was made to repeat a year, and was eventually transferred from the ‘A’ stream to the ‘B stream, where we had classes in 'nature-study', religion, carpentry and gardening - but I was hopeless at anything that the school valued.

I was the best at art, and the best pianist, and I'd won a short story competition in which boys five years older had competed – but the Headmaster, Mr C. D. T. Owen, attached little importance to such things. He had embarrassed me on the first day by shaking my hand and introducing me to the school as 'one of our future scholars', but now he behaved as if I was failing as a way of mocking him. He tried to get me transferred to a school for 'simpler' boys, but I was determined to survive. I became the 'donkey that whipped itself' and managed to scrape into the sixth form.

I'd been a couple of years at Totnes Grammar when, after the daily religious service (during which boys of other beliefs had to wait outside) he announced that ‘Johnstone has come top in a math exam but has stolen the position from the boy who deserves it’. Was he hoping that I'd be pelted with hymn books, or be beaten-up in the playground? Nothing came of it, but it was dishonourable of him to ease his frustration by making the entire school believe that I had cheated.

A young teacher had wanted to see if we were understanding mathematics, rather than just learning to apply 'tricks', so he had given us an exam in which every question was a problem in logic. This wasn't very intelligent of him since no knowledge of maths was required at all. The other boys looked confused but I enjoyed solving these problems. The Headmaster must have fumed as he went through my exam paper with the teacher in the hope that I really had cheated – but who would I have cheated from? He knew my IQ (I only knew that it must have been high), so why shouldn’t I have got a hundred per cent in an exam based on logic?

There was one other time when Mr Owen maligned me in Morning Assembly, ‘Johnstone should be up in London organising the dock strike,’ he said. Perhaps it was because I had become secretary of the Communist Party in a mock election. He had banned it, only to see it bob-up again as the United People's Party.

Totnes Grammar School taught me that I was lazy, I believed this until I was a professor and 'auditing' a course in German. I worked hard, and did all the exercises. I was a model pupil, except that I learned nothing!

So something was wrong, but I wasn't lazy.

(All my life I've concealed my inability to learn by repetition, hiding it even from myself. I learn instantaneously, or not at all. For example, I'm on the International Theatresports mailing list, but I only remember one line from the thousands that they've sent me, and it's from at least a year ago. It was said to be a quote from Einstein: "If you teach a fish to climb a tree you'll think it's stupid."

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'PULLING OFF SCABS'

The only teacher at the 'prep' school was Mrs Williams, and the only homework that she demanded was that we write a short story each week. I always wrote twenty or thirty pages with pleasure, trying to keep up with the characters. She always gave me twenty out of twenty, but she never read them – which makes sense when the other boys would only write a reluctant paragraph or so. All I remember of those stories is that an important character was often a tall thin clown, I kept them, but when I left home my mother threw them out ‘with my other rubbish’.

After I entered the Grammar School I was never asked to write a short story again; writing was for business letters. I would have been depressed if I had realized this. I still wrote for my own pleasure, but writing stories had become very difficult. Now that I was the ‘useless child each word had to be perfect. I rewrote and rewrote and was seldom satisfied. I produced about one story a year! And it would be just a couple of pages, or less. And these stories were strange – in my opinion not like stories written by a normal boy. Having revised each of them a hundred times I can still remember them.

One was about a boy who caused a great confusion in Heaven because he should have achieved amazing things, but hadn’t. It had been a bureaucratic error: an aged alcoholic of the same name (who hadn’t achieved anything) was living in the next street. So they took him and sent the boy back.

Another was about a hospital ward that was smashed to pieces when an earthquake destroyed the hospital. The walls opened up reveal the fields and woods and skies and the Northern Lights, and stars that seemed to be whizzing past – but suddenly the hospital was intact; the routine in the ward continued just as before. The only change was that old Mrs Harding in the third bed along to the right had died unnoticed in her sleep.

There was one about a man with two heads, one good and one evil. As the evil head was crossing a railway line, the good head froze the body until a train destroyed them.

The Hero of one story burned the most beautiful temple in the world to the ground just because it was so beautiful, and was destroyed himself in some version of the Osiris myth – I’m a bit vague about the last part. (Mishima wrote a novel on the same theme a decade later.)

Some appeared in the School Magazine but one was censored by Mr Howerd. It was about a series of terrible disasters and the way that the Priests explained each in a way that increased their power.

When I became a useless student, the writing of stories - which had been like ‘trying to keep up with the river’ - became like the painful pulling off of scabs (an image that occurred to me at the time). I wonder why?

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UNKNOWN WOMAN

I was called to the Headmaster’s office where a woman who was not introduced to me, and who showed no sign of liking me, asked me personal questions. We sat by the window while Mr Owen and the school secretary skulked against the far wall.

She must have been an educational psychologist, tasked with finding out why this intelligent boy was bottom of whatever class he was placed in – but if so, why allow spectators? And why was she only interested in my family? Why not test my memory? Why not investigate my intelligence to see if I still retained any?

I had no idea why I had suddenly become useless, but I tried to help. I said that everything was horrible at school and at home, that the only time I could feel any peace was when I was alone, and that the best place to be alone was out on the cliffs, by myself, in a storm! Then I wept, and was furious to be weeping in front of my enemy, the totally alien, Mr Owen. That was the end of anything lucid being extracted from me.

I wonder what her report was like? Mine would have said: ‘be alone with me. Don’t trap me between you and the window. Walk down to the river with me. Discuss the problem with me. Joke with me. Be my friend. Share a milk-shake with me!’

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MORE ABOUT THE CALAMITY

I was the best student, and then, at age ten-and-a-half, I was the worst student. I struggled to succeed, and failed utterly. It was as if an evil shimmering mist surrounded me when I attempted any academic work, In my long life I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone else. (I've heard about the shimmering mist, but not dropping from a hundred to zero). Had I damaged my brain during the summer holidays? I don’t remember having an illness, or a head injury, or my situation changing at home (and puberty happened several years later).

My fall from the cliff of academic achievement showed itself on my first and second day at Totnes Grammar school. Miss Byfield, a teacher so repugnant that I could hardy bear to look at her, had an explanation. She said:

“You must have cheated your way through the two years at the 'prep' school.”

I could have said: “So why am I honest now?” But I was more concerned for the reputation of Mrs Williams who had taught me for those two years.

(Miss Byfield must have been attractive because she married the young teacher who used to stride about rattling the coins in his trouser pockets.).

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THE LEG OF A FLY

A glass-fronted cupboard was full of microscopes. I wanted to use one of these machines that make the invisible visible, but I was told, ‘quite impossible.’

I looked at them wistfully each time that we had a class in that room, until one day, after the lunch break, a microscope was set out for each of us, and beside each was a ‘slide’ that contained the leg of a housefly. I joked that the teacher had spent the lunchtime chasing flies and pulling their legs off, but as sets of 'prepared' slides seem to be of more interesting things, perhaps he really had.

I was telling this story recently among friends in Canada when my ex-wife exclaimed: “But we had to draw the leg of a fly!” She is British and younger than me, so perhaps for generations, each child of a certain age has had to draw the leg of a fly as seen through a microscope - about the most boring object that could have been chosen. Look at such a slide and you can see a fly’s leg: look at it through the microscope and you see the leg many times larger, but without more detail. Even worse, the exoskeleton prevents any view of the interior.

We had fifty minutes to draw this leg as seen through our microscopes, something that took about thirty seconds. My guess is that some higher authority chose the leg of a fly because it was a fairly standardised object to draw and that would be easy to mark. I managed to sneak looks at a human hair, a pin, a button, a coin, and a piece of dust, but they weren’t much fun either. The microscopes were put away, never to be used by us in another class.

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BOOKS

I emerged from a daydream and realised that my teacher had been insulting a religious group. This was an abuse of his authority so I decided to see for myself. I was too inexperienced to think of looking up Theosophists in the phone book – I’d hardly ever used a phone – but after several false starts I discovered a group in Torquay (their bronze plaque was exactly opposite the shop where I bought my piano music). There were about fifteen older ladies, plus a few husbands in knitted cardigans (I was thirteen years old so anyone over thirty-five seemed ancient).

They reacted to my battered copy of the Bhagavad-Gita as if I’d stolen it.

“Why do you have this?”

“To read on the ‘bus.”

“But where did you get it?”

“I bought it in a tobacconist’s shop.”

“But why?”

“I liked the red and gold cover.”

( I used to read anything that caught my eye: cereal boxes, editorials, books for girls)

”Where are you from?”

“Brixham.”

“Did your parents send you?”

“They’ve never heard of you.”

“So why are you here?”

I didn’t want to say that my teacher thought they were idiots, so my good angel supplied a suitable answer:

”I...er...I had a dream about this place.”

No hymns were sung. No animals were sacrificed. There was just a fifty-minute lecture by a plump lady who kept insisting that we were all Gods. She invited questions, but I was too shy to ask, ‘so why do I have toothache?’

Tea and cake were served in a smaller room where two book-shelves were crammed with Hindu scriptures, novels by Rabindranath Tagore, and other eastern exotica. I had already read the thirty non-fiction books in our local librarys, so I signed out A Search In Secret India, Dr. Paul Brunton’s account of his quest for a spiritual teacher. When he found one he was told to ask himself, ‘who am I?’ I thought he could have done that just as well if he’d stayed at home, but the question haunted me (as I suppose that it haunts any introspective person. ‘Know thyself’ was carved over the entrance to the oracle at Delphi).

Each Sunday I wolfed their free cake (free to me) and signed out a different book. Without those books, and without Freud’s insistence that we are ignorant of our own motives, I might have accepted the ‘voice in my head’ as the ‘real me’.

If the books on Theosophy had been more appetising I might have learned about Krishnamurti, the boy that the society had groomed to be the new Jesus, but who rejected them. They must have hoped that the gods had sent me as his replacement.

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CROSS COUNTRY

It was announced that there was to be a cross-country race and that all boys were expected to take part. Whose idea was that? I suspected the new Phys Ed teacher.

To me it was an imposition, but some boys were training for it. Well, good for them, but the actual race was compulsory. This was before my bad heart absolved me from such activities.

We started, some hundreds of us, from a field on the Bridgetown side of the river, facing up stream. I remember lots of white running shorts, but what was I wearing? Probably my everyday clothes. The course followed a country road northwards (this was before a new bridge allowed a major road to cut through to the Paignton road), but the marked trail soon took us through a hedge and uphill through fields. Less enthusiastic boys, like myself, had begun walking by then, or were sprawling on the grass – taking it easy. Eventually the trail left the hill and crossed the country road and headed back. Good Lord! Boys were wading through a ten foot wide, waist deep, earth-coloured stream before they could get back to the start where hot showers and warm towels and fresh clothing would be waiting. (Was that true about 'warm towels' etc? No, of course not.)

I, and who ever I was with, baulked, and we wandered off to find a bridge. Whoever had devised the course had probably done the same because the brown water concealed coils of barbed wire and the top of what may have been a gas stove. I don’t know how many boys were injured, but some were. For all I know there may have been a shuttle of cars rushing them off for tetanus shots

While I was at the school there was never another such a race. The gym teacher who was super fit and talented soon moved on. I despised him because he wanted – like all his ilk - to work with the athletes, rather than with the wretched, bent and twisted, non-athletes who really needed his help.

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WEIRD

1946-7? A boy at school told me that after being bent over the back of a low armchair, and having the seat of his trousers smoothed, he saw the headmaster, Mr Claud Digby Thornton Owen, run around a small mahogany table before administering each stroke of the cane. I didn’t believe him, but when I was caned I saw that it was true.

All my adult life I've dragged a small but heavy mahogany table to the rooms of the women who I pay to cane me, and who often live several flights up...No! No! I'm joking!...Almost any small table will do.

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PHELPS

I had enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Mr Phelps asked to borrow it so I lent it to him.

Next day I entered the playground – probably returning from the toilets since the area was empty except for Mr Phelps who was steaming towards me. He seemed energised and angry.

“It’s a disgusting book by a disgusting man,” he said, shouted, proclaimed, roared, announced with intensity: “And I have burned it!”

He then gave me a copy of Wilde’s book of essays called Intentions which I’ve never read (although I might have done if I’d received it in some other way). He stormed off before I could ask him why Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour.

It was an interesting lesson for me. I’d never imagined that literature could excite such passion. I bought another copy and read it, looking for what I’d missed, but at age thirteen. and in the censored world of 1946, I couldn’t find anything objectionable (but of course I didn’t have images in my mind of Oscar romping in feather beds with his working class youths).

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THE INSEMINATION TEN

Dartington Hall was an Arts and Agricultural centre where men with beards swam naked in the River Dart and no doubt did worse things (Rabindranath Tagore might have been one them since the centre had been inspired by him).

Teachers had warned us to avoid this wicked place, and yet one morning a sign-up list was pinned on the school notice board next to an invitation to visit its artificial insemination centre. This was at a time when the local girls tried to avoid pregnancy by sticking postage stamps over their navels, or by ‘doing it’ standing-up, so I signed the list, hoping for more accurate information.

By mid-morning - when the invitation was hastily removed - there were ten signatures.

Three weeks later the ‘insemination ten’ were marched to the Hall, not to see pigs being impregnated, but – without explanation - to an exhibition of hand-made agricultural implements. These were much as you might expect, but five large books showing African masks and sculpture lay on a bench.

I spent twenty minutes leafing through them, not just because of the exuberant genitalia, but because they expressed an uncensored attitude to life (this was at a time when Nigeria had rejected a consignment of six hundred British dolls because they were smooth between the legs).

It’s difficult for people to understand how oppressed we were in the nineteen forties, but twenty minutes exposure to art of the Dobu and the Fang and the Gabon was like twenty minutes escape from a dark prison.

Then we were taken on a tour of this beautiful place that our teachers had told us to avoid. So many interesting artists had worked or studied there, Michael Chekov, Rudolph Laban, Bernard Leach, Imogen Holst (she was in charge of music all the time that I was at school less than two miles away), etcetera - the influence of the 'Hall' was extraordinary (elsewhere) and yet my school had rejected any contact apart from that invitation pinned on the school notice board by some new and inexperienced secretary.

It was our only educational visit anywhere (except for two that I arranged), I would have made use of that wonderful place but my home was fifteen miles away.

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NO SEX-ED?

Harper’s Index (Harper’s Magazine, March 2010) said that eighteen per cent of American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine still believed that ‘standing up during sex’ was an effective form of contraception.

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CUDDLES IN CLASS

In physics lessons the Reverend Smee would huddle beside Gerald Bennett and hug him and turn bright red. I had almost zero information about homosexuality, but I felt that something was not quite right about this.

‘Why Gerald Bennett?’ I wondered. He was a quite a short boy for his age, quite athletic, but the only exceptional thing about him was his very white skin and very red cheeks.

‘Why not me?’ I thought. It was yet another confirmation that I was repulsive.

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A PERFECT CRIME

I had acquired several ‘detentions’ – this meant sitting motionless at the front of the school hall while a teacher sat at a raised table, probably marking books (the school knew nothing of meditation).

The punishment book was kept on this table so I checked to see how many detentions I had received – seven! Far more than I had realised. That meant sitting in silence, half an hour at a time. for three and a half hours.

It should have been a huge book, like the book of spells in Walt Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice, but it was a school exercise book (there was no sense of style in Totnes school at that time). Seven detentions were too many, so I slid the book down the back of my trousers. An accumulation of so many detentions might have been remembered, so I sat waiting for the teacher. (The thief would hardly be expected to sit in detention if he had removed the evidence that required him to be there.)

The teacher tried to behave normally. He glanced around to see where the missing book might be. He moved to the wall and glanced down surreptitiously to see if some evil person had dropped it into the space between the platform and the wall. Then he asked our names and seemed to write them down.

When we were dismissed, I asked if I could sit a little longer as I was ‘thinking’, but I was sent out with the others – perhaps so that he could search for the book.

I tore it into tiny pieces and flushed them away. Some bits of the red cover still floated, but I needed to use the toilet anyway and that got rid of them. I was happy for myself and for the other boys with multiple detentions.

I expected the Headmaster to storm and rage and issue punishments for the entire school until the thief was handed over, but the missing punishment book was never mentioned. Mr Owen did not burst into my classroom, interrupting a lesson to finger me as the culprit. There was no investigation. The theft might never have happened. Even now I can't understand why!

They should have replaced the missing punishment book with a with a gigantic one that took two boys to carry! But maybe not (because a thief could still remove individual pages). Perhaps from then on the punishment book was carried too-and-fro from the staff-room. I wouldn’t know. I never received another detention.

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Mr PHELPS' CHANCE AT FAME

One drizzling lunchtime I returned to the classroom and began to read a book of essays. One was about a Chinaman burning his house down to roast a pig which may have been amusing when it was written. I was sitting with my feet on the seat of my desk and with my bum on the desk behind me. Perhaps I was unconsciously saying ‘this is not a punishment: I’m here by my own choice.

Mr Phelps came through and skidded to a halt, astonished to see a boy reading a school book for pleasure. “Every now and again we get a boy here like you,” he said.

I should have told him that the Headmaster was trying to get me transferred to a school for less intelligent boys, but I wasn’t quick-witted enough.

One day he called me out of class and asked me if I’d really written a short essay in my English exercise book – or had I copied it? When it became clear that it was my own work he wept and said he wanted to be known as my English teacher.

I read the paragraphs again and couldn’t see anything that was out of the ordinary. I kept the book, of course, because of Mr Phelps’ reaction, but I can’t check on it now because my mother threw it out.

Anyway we can add Mr Gilbert Phelps to the list of people whose hopes I disappointed.

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MR BASIL GUY

1945? I think Mr Guy must have been a soldier in the 1914-1918 ‘trench’ war, and that the horror had damaged him. He seemed to have no joy in him.

He caught me doodling a dog in his class (sounds disgusting!). Doodling has always helped me listen, and I still find it difficult to function in meetings unless I'm drawing.

As a punishment he demanded that I bring six drawings of dogs to his next lesson. (Perhaps he thought that they took a long time to draw.)

I drew six splendid dogs on high quality art-paper and wondered what his response would be. At first he was confused because he had forgotten the punishment, and then, when he remembered, he clearly had no idea how to respond. He put the page on the desk, and stared at it, and pondered while I stood, waiting. After a long, long pause, his eyes suddenly brightened (the only time I saw them do so). He took a black pencil – a laundry marker – and rapidly scribbled a large ‘tick’ in the centre of each dog.

His face resumed its usual blankness as he handed me the ruined page. I didn’t mind. I could draw six dogs at any time, but his solution made me wonder about his personal history, not even the tiniest bit of which he ever shared with us.

I threw the page away, but if I’d kept it I could have submitted it to the yearly art exhibition: ‘Dogs by Keith, Ticks by Mr Guy’.

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SNAKES

About eight stairs down from the assembly hall, a door led into a classroom on the far wall of which stood a row of tall ‘show cases’. These glass-fronted (and glass-sided) cases constituted the ‘school museum’ and contained various items, none of which I remember – except the bottled snakes. They were in the show case nearest the window where there was room for a desk which was two feet further away from the teacher than any other. This was my desk, where it was easier to be alone with my thoughts.

Was anyone responsible for this ‘school museum? Did anyone ever look in at the items? The rows of desks went right back to within three inches of the glass so it wasn’t ‘visitor friendly’. I imagine that it had been the project of some teacher a hundred years earlier, funded perhaps out of his own pocket, and that when he retired no one else had any interest in it.

On one side of my desk was the sky (to see the playground I had to stand up). On the other side - two feet away – was the side of a showcase, behind which were bottled snakes (the bottles were large jars). Someone should have photographed them because in my entire life I’ve never seen such a thing. The jars had been improperly sealed. Year by year, perhaps since Edwardian times, or earlier, the alcohol that preserved them had evaporated until just half remained. Below the surface the bodies of the snakes were plump and fish-like, but above the surface their necks and heads were bones (being held together, I guessed, by the ligaments).

I used to imagine alcoholic teachers creeping in after dark to sip the alcohol, although even after six months the surface never seemed to get any lower. It was a horror show! Snakes, that had been observed to struggle fresh and gleaming from their old skins, and had therefore become – for the Ancients – a symbol of eternal life, were exhibited at Totnes school as half-rotted corpses, handed down, in my mind, from previous generations as a symbol for the education that was being smeared on to us.

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"NOT OUR JOB!"

Each sixth former had to take a turn at reading the ‘lesson’ aloud during Morning Assembly (even though this was a State school, not a religious school). I wanted to read Jeremiah 13-16 about the prophet who was told to bury his underpants (I think it would have 'gone over' rather well, but I was ordered to read a dubious story about God dividing the Red Sea so that the Jews could escape from the Egyptians. Of course, when I was standing on the platform beside Mr Owen, with the Bible in my hands, I could have switched to the underwear story, but the repercussions were incalculable.

I didn’t notice any reaction from the boys to my reading, but there was some badly suppressed sniggering among the teachers. When assembly ended Mr Phelps pulled me aside – still visibly amused - and said:

“You have to get some speech therapy, Johnstone.”

Dear God! Was my my voice funny as well as the rest of me! (This was terrible news for a shy teen-ager!)

“Where do I get it?”

“I have no idea.”

He absolved himself (and the school) from any responsibility. What mattered were our grades, not our physical condition or our 'fitness for life'.

“Ah, Quasimodo, you need some hump therapy.”

“Where do I get it?”

“I’ve no idea.”

Our teachers saw us as vessels that they had to fill with learning – not as creatures to help become passionate about learning, not as fellow human beings that they should help to function better. They were interested in our grades but not in us. I remember sitting in detention and fuming inwardly because the school wasn’t teaching us social skills. I was pining for a good drama training, but I didn't know it.

An example of such indifference emerged during a LifeGame. We were interviewing a seventeen-year-old who told us that one of her class mates, had begun to behave strangely; suddenly he was ‘into’ swastikas and guns.

His friends were afraid of him, so they expressed their fears to a friendly teacher who thanked them and said ‘It’s really important that we are told about such things’. Next day this friendly teacher sought them out:

“There’s no problem,” he said: “We've looked into it. His grades are very good.”

Almost unbelievable, and yet that was word for word how it was told to us.

My parents had never heard of speech therapy, and were no more aware of faults in my voice than I was. Their friends had praised my voice, probably because I spoke gently and correctly and was seldom raucous.

My need for 'speech therapy' was one reason for becoming a teacher. I was said to be a ‘natural teacher’, and I was certainly better at explaining things to my much younger sister than my parents were. I was physically awkward, agonisingly shy, uncomfortable in my body, and now with ‘a funny voice’ - and the time when I would have to earn my own living was fast approaching. If I trained as a teacher I would be taught how to move well, and stand well, and how to develop a commanding voice.

My ‘self-presentation’ could be ignored at the Grammar School ('not our job!') but not when I was being trained as a teacher.

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THE GIFT OF LANGUAGE

Dario Fo entertained audiences by demonstrating the different ways that he’d seen people walk and use their bodies. He said he had no idea why, but I think that he must have known (because it's so obvious).

In other species the baby animals become standard big animals. because if they functioned abnormally they would either be too clumsy to avoid being eaten, or too awkward to catch their prey. But cats would not move like cats, donkeys would not move like donkeys, and bears would not move like bears it they could give advice or receive advice.

Kittens grow up to move and stretch and leap and stalk and purr like cats without instruction, but imagine that adult cats could tell kittens how to move and how to present themselves: 'pick those paws up! Tail up! Stomach in! Chest out! Ears on ‘alert’! Stiffen those whiskers!' Kittens that obeyed such advice would become cats that bumped into the furniture.

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THE SYSTEM

I was eighteen, or perhaps nineteen (because I’d been held back a year). The last exam was over and we had three more days before we left school, never to return. At last our teachers could teach whatever they wanted to teach.

I arrived on the first of these days, eager to see what our teachers were really like, but we were told that the exams were over so there was no need to teach us: “so amuse yourselves!”

I was shocked, and doubly shocked to find that after seven years of expensive education my classmates preferred kicking a ball about, or bouncing one against the wall of the ‘fives’ court, or playing cards, or finding safe places to share a cigarette - anything rather than study! I can understand that happening for a couple of hours, but it continued for the entire three days. I understood Mr Phelps' delight when he had found me in the empty classroom reading a book of essays.

So the education system existed just to get us through exams - it had no interest in knowledge for the sake of knowledge! And for that the system had made us dislike failure instead of seeing failure as essential for learning, and it ignored the need for learning to be fun - fun meant 'wasting time' (just as spontaneity meant 'bad-behaviour!'). Learning had become work, so of course our teachers chose to sit in the staff room smoking cigarettes and reading the papers and drinking coffee - anything rather than have to teach us. School had tortured us instead of thrilling us. I asked an American expert of pneumatic structures about his schooling. He said: 'I should have sued the bastards!' Someone else - I forget who it was - described his school as 'hour after hour of organised boredom.' When I said to my son's teachers, 'I just want him to be eager to come to school in the morning, and to be a little sad at having to leave in the evening,' they looked at me as if I was insane.

How can we explain the ocean of 'light entertainment’ (that is designed never to teach us anything useful) except as a revulsion against education? Learning has been made stressful! Why else would we pay entertainers to waste our time with elaborate nothings? Life is short!

Students who are not eager to learn have been damaged. Instead of assuming that they were born that way, conscientious teachers should see it as a chance to heal the school-inflicted wounds. It’s difficult to destroy the curiosity of an ape, but Totnes Grammar School regularly achieved it. Let's hope that most of the students were eventually able to heal themselves. (I seem to remember that Einstein took only a year to revive his interest in physics after passing his exams).

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THREE GOOD DAYS

The exams were complete and for our last three days at Totnes Grammar School we could do whatever we liked.

“Could I use a microscope, Sir.”

“Of course.”

I had assumed that microscopes were too delicate for unsupervised boys to handle, and yet permission had been given so casually, and the cupboard wasn’t even locked.

What to look at? I remembered a tiny pool in the overgrown ‘school garden’. I ran there with no expectations. The water looked clean, but I put a drop of it on a 'watch glass' and looked at it through the microscope.

I don’t know how to convey the shock, amazement, alarm, even terror of seeing the life in that drop of water. These days we’ve seen so much, but this was before television had reached us. All I had seen were pictures in books, and magazines, and a documentary on Otto Lilienthal at a cinema show for children in Andover (and of course entertainment movies at the Electric cinema), but now I was seeing a world that was beyond my dreams.

I signalled to a boy to come and look. We spent three days together, and if possible, he was even more enthusiastic than I was (perhaps he became a biologist).

We were seeing a brilliantly lit, transparent world, of life and death, where circular creatures spun like wheels as a way to survive in this world where monsters attacked each other, and swallowed each other, and struggled to stay alive even when swallowed. Every drop of clear water contained a dozen Ben Hurs. It was like watching gladiatorial games on another planet.

Instead of sneaking up on flies and pulling their legs off, our teacher could have sent a boy out to fetch water from the little pond - and thrilled us! But that wasn’t what the syllabus demanded. And sadly, he would have robbed us of our amazement by telling us what to expect . And how would he have marked us?

Those were my three happiest days at school.

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LAST CONTACT

“And what will you make of your life now that you’re about to shake our dust from your sandals?” smirked Mr Claud Digby Thornton-Owen, MA. who during my time at ‘his’ school had caned me with the full strength of his arm.

I stared at the small circular table that he ran around between delivering each stroke of the cane, and said: “I rather thought I might teach.”

He leapt up from behind his desk, totally energised, and backed into a bookshelf. He gripped his right arm and roared: “You’re not the right type, Johnstone! Not the right type at all!”

I wasn’t qualified to enter a University, but teacher-training colleges had lower admission standards (having been ordered to replace the teachers who had been wasted in the war).

“I’ve heard that Dartington Hall runs a teacher-training course that specialises in Art, Music and Drama.”

“They’d never take a boy like you,“ he snapped: “Quite impossible! No point in applying. Don’t waste your time!”

It was his final act of vengeance (or a desperate attempt to protect the teaching profession). I’d played the first movement of the Schumann piano concerto at an end-of-school-year concert (accompanied by Mr Crute), and I was better at art than any other student, so I’d have been perfect for them; unfortunately I believed him and enrolled at a college that was rampant with Welsh rugby players, but where the admirable Anthony Stirling was my Art tutor, and Clifford Sealy (from Port of Spain) became my closest friend.

Ten years later when I was teaching at the Hall (and sleeping in a room once occupied by Michael Chekhov) I was woken by a thunderclap. Lightning kept jerking the room into existence, and it occurred to me that the books on African Art that I had seen on my first visit to the Hall had been nothing to do with the exhibition of hand-made agricultural implements. Perhaps they had been taken out from the library by one of the young women who were curating the exhibition.

I pulled my trousers on over my pyjamas, crept downstairs at four in the morning, and lifted the wooden latch soundlessly. The books were on one of the lower shelves to the left - perhaps they’re still there (hardly anyone had ever signed them out). I studied them until dawn and felt that some sort of circle had been completed.

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