In the margins of my recent shock-horror revelation that I have begun an exercise programme, I had a splendid conversation with one of my oldest friends, Steven F. For some inexplicable reason, he was always called Fred at school. I will continue with that convention for the purpose of this little tale.
Fred and I have known each other since we were 8 or 9 and we were pupils at the same schools and in a lot of the same classes right up until our A levels. During our conversation, we revisited the almost forgotten episode of “The Stink Bombs on the Bus” an event that happened about 45 years ago. This was undoubtedly, one of the lowest and most shameful points (amongst many shameful and low points…) of my rather chequered school career. On the basis that it is often said that it is better to talk about these things rather than to hold them in, I would like to share the details of this sorry tale and the conversation with Fred with my friends. Names have been mostly changed to protect the various actors,
Me: Got a few aching muscles now after the training session, but feeling very good overall. As Tommy Carr, our tyrannical Welsh sports master at school used to say in his proper Valleys accent – “Remember boys, no pain, no gain”. And he was right. Shame it’s taken me 45 years to see it….
Fred: Mr Carr tyrannical? I think you might have been a bit luckier than you realised at the time!
Me: I can remember him getting in my face once after I’d “forgotten” my games kit for the 10th time that term and saying “You really hate me don’t you Lewis?” I’m ashamed to admit that I lied through my teeth and replied “No sir, actually I quite like you.” Well that set him off, and he then proceeded to leather my large backside with a stained old off-white dap (pumps for my northern friends and training shoe for everybody else) as we say in South Wales that he kept specifically for that purpose.
Of course that wasn’t the only time I got whacked at school – I fully recognise that I was not the easiest of pupils sometimes…. One particular exploit which resulted in the evacuation of a Red and White double-decker school bus, the rapid deployment of a replacement vehicle and quite a severe caning for me from the Deputy Head still causes me to pause occasionally and think “Did I really do that??”
In all honesty, I don’t think the various thrashings I received at the hands of a variety of teachers did me any lasting harm because I deserved all of them and I was fully prepared to face the music. That said, times have changed for the better and it is absolutely right that teachers and parents are no longer allowed to beat children. But getting back to Mr Carr, I think it fair to say that I probably had a different kind of relationship with him than you did!
Fred: I suppose so. I did actually start to like games when I was about 14, so I suppose I have probably suppressed most of what happened before that.
Me: I vividly remember my first games lesson in September 1970. We gathered in the gym and we had to choose a sport for our first winter term at the school. Tommy Carr said (and his words remain etched into my memory): “Well boys, you’ve got two choices, you can play rugby or you can play rugby. What’s it going to be then?”
Fred: Yes that sounds about right. You weren’t alone in hating Rugby back then though. My first bad memory actually goes back further to St John’s when someone decided to play a mean trick by nominating me to play for one of the school teams. When I queried it, after letting me stew for a bit, they said it’s OK, I was only the number 16 so in fact I would be a linesman. After an all too brief training (I never quite could sort out which way to point the flag), I found it quite hard even to keep up with the play. I set off running up the side of the pitch and suddenly the whistle blows and they awarded a line-out. I said what was that for, and they said I had been waving the flag in whichever direction it was. I hadn’t really been waving the flag at all, just flailing in my efforts to run as fast as I could. Anyway, they never picked me again, thank goodness.
Me: Ah, St Johns on the Hill or the “Dump on the Tump” as I used to call it. The headmaster was an unusual character as I remember and I’ve done my best to forget my undistinguished sojourn there.
Fred: Are you willing to reveal what you did on the bus?
Me: “The Stink Bombs on the Bus” episode was not one of my finer moments, I’m afraid. It happened one Monday in September after a Saturday expedition to the joke shop on Christmas Steps in Bristol when I was about eleven or twelve I think. I’d purchased several phials of a very noxious fluid called Stinko. Each was equivalent to about 10 normal stink bombs. My intention was to resell them at a profit in school.
On the double decker bus going to school on Monday morning, I happened to sit upstairs next to someone who could only be described as a serially naughty lad and an unremitting recidivist. Without naming names, do you remember Roger Reece? I told him about the Stinko I had bought in Bristol and we agreed on a price. He handed over the readies and I gave him a couple of tubes of the malodourous fluid.
Then Reecy did something unexpected as I should have foreseen. He walked to the back of the bus where the stairs were. The bus conductor (those were the days eh?) used to stand downstairs right at the back of the bus by the door. He took the top off a tube of Stinko and said “I wonder what would happen if I tip this all over the shelf right at the back.” And then he proceeded to do exactly that and then opened the second tube and did the same with that one! I was a bit stunned by this, like a deer in the headlights, and I knew in that instant as my life flashed before me, that this was a bad day which would only get worse.
I retreated quickly to the front of the bus and hid. The Stinko fluid, remember we are talking of the equivalent of 20 stink bombs here, dripped down onto the poor old bus conductor and the double decker quickly filled with the intense smell of a thousand farts. To cut a long story short, the bus had to be evacuated in Chepstow bus station and taken out of service for a hose-down and a deep clean. The poor old bus conductor was taken away for decontamination and to be measured-up for the new uniform he needed. I’ll bet he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near his wife for weeks. Other than suffering from slight shock, he was fine I understand, and fortunately went on to make a swift recovery.
Eventually, a replacement bus rolled into the bus station. We were herded on to it and driven up to school, arriving well over an hour late. At this stage, apart from the other kids on the bus, nobody in any kind of authority had a clue who was responsible for the dastardly deed that had been committed. The odour-free replacement bus rocked-up in the school yard and there was a grim looking reception committee waiting for us; consisting of the Head Mrs Hurt, the Deputy Head Mr Papadopoulis, and a couple of heavies from the PE department to keep us under control. I suppose we’d call it “kettling” these days? Probably, Tommy Carr was there, cos that was exactly the kind of activity he relished as a PE teacher, but I couldn’t swear to it in all honesty.
We were lined up outside Mrs Hurt’s office and were told, in terms that left no room at all for any doubt, that unless the miscreants owned up, everybody on the bus would be on permanent detention for rest of their lives. The precise question asked of us was “Who was the idiot that had brought the stink bombs onto the bus?” At that point, I knew my goose was well and truly cooked, my chickens had come home to roost etc., and that I was going to have a really, really, poor day…
It’s hard to overstate the peer pressure exerted by the other 60 odd kids on the bus who were looking at a lifetime of detention unless I owned up. They knew exactly who the perpetrators were. Realising, that my case was hopeless and that no amount of charm or bullshit was going to get me off this time, I straightened my back, pushed out my chest, sucked in my stomach (to the extent that was possible in those days) and owned up to the crime, to the palpable relief of all the other kids, except Reecy. To his credit, thinking that it would be unfair for me to take the rap all on my own, he “fessed” up too.
We then got one of the most comprehensive, wide ranging and intensive bollockings it has ever been my privilege to receive. Punishments were meted out and mine was four of the best with some community service (permanent rubbish collection duty as I remember) thrown in for good measure. This was complicated a bit by the fact that Mrs Burt taught English to the top set in my year. I was a bit of a favourite of hers and also one of the better students in the class at the time. That didn’t last long though… Anyway, unable to bring herself to thrash one of her favourite pupils, she delegated that task to the Deputy Head, Mr Papadopoulis.
He shared none of her qualms in that respect. The deputy head didn’t use a cane, but a bit of 2 by 2 which he applied to my rear end with what can only be described as considerable enthusiasm. I can remember, taking my punishment like a man without so much as a whimper and then striding purposefully into the boys’ toilets, sitting down and flushing repeatedly to cool down my throbbing posterior.
And that in short, Fred, is the sorry story of stink bomb on the bus. I still think of this unfortunate episode from time to time, tinged as it must be with some regrets of course, and then chuckle and wish I’d struck a better deal for the Stinko with Reecy. But, hey, life is too short to dwell on the “What ifs and what might have beens” don’t you think?