Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The school day that went with a bang

If I’d wanted to announce my arrival at my new school any more spectacularly, I’d have had some difficulty.

There I was, nearly 17 and having flunked most of my ‘O’ levels. The exams were taken a couple of months before the family moved from just outside Manchester, which had been our home for eight years, to Lancaster, somewhat further north.

My father, clearly so pissed off with the lack of academic achievement that would allow him to boast about my prowess, mentioned this to our family doctor, who in turn suggested that my exam performance had quite probably been hindered by the impending move after the longest period of stability in my life to that point.

Fortunately, this argument seemed to placate my parents. And the school that I had been intended to enter in order to do my ‘A’ levels took me on anyway – on the proviso that I did my fifth year and my ‘O’ levels all over again.

So I started at LGGS. And somehow – although for the life of me I can’t imagine how – found myself getting attached quite quickly to a circle of girls from various years, all of whom were linked by varying degrees of the sort of eccentricity that teachers at my previous school had so nervously reported to my parents as present in me.

And then, for some reason or other, in my third week at the school, I accepted a dare.

You used to be able to buy little twists of paper that had some powder in them, which would make a very pleasing ‘bang’ when dropped forcefully.

One day, early in the morning, I took three of these things and, using Blu-tac, attached them underneath the pedals of the grand piano in the school hall. Then I let events unfold.

Miss Owen, our headmistress, cut an imposing figure. Tall and rather large, she had permed white hair, wore thick-rimmed spectacles, had a booming voice and absolutely no taste in clothes whatsoever. A familiar ensemble consisted of a dress in wide stripes of pink and purple, with a red cardigan on top. And always, always a string of double pearls. Her geometry lessons were generally considered to be ‘character building’. Fortunately – or perhaps not – I escaped ever having my character subject to such an exercise in construction.

Biggo had a loyal deputy called Mrs Rigby, who was tiny and ran around the school in ‘badger boots' (black footwear with a white stripe down the middle). Riggers (or ‘Rigour Mortis’ as she was also known), usually wore an academic gown, which floated out, Batman-like, as she stalked the corridors hunting for girls whose shoes had heels that were more than the prescribed height.

She had a ruler for that purpose, and when fashion created heels that were deceptively curved, she changed it for a flexible ruler. You didn’t get much past Riggers – who was also renowned for wearing hats to speech day that looked like upturned jelly moulds or unexploded nuclear bombs.

Then there was Mr McKee, the music teacher – and obligatory eccentric conductor of the school choir and orchestra. He and Biggo were arch enemies – although to be fair, pretty much every teacher in the school was an enemy of Biggo: if she achieved nothing else, she united the girls and staff against her. Noel was just rather more obviously so an enemy and everyone knew it.

One of the most dismally flunked of my ‘O’ levels had been in music, but at that point, it was the one course that I absolutely did not want to repeat, having been constantly vilified by my previous teacher for what I later realised were her failings: I’d barely been taught half the course – which Noel went on to do in his spare time, helping me catch up and get my qualification. But that's another story. However, Biggo – possibly thinking that Noel could do with a particularly reluctant student – insisted I retake music.

One of Noel’s particular ways of irritating our esteemed head was to be rather clever with his selection of music to be played as we exited the hall after morning assembly. On one occasion, for instance, he crept behind his curtain and set the record player to blast out the can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Biggo’s expression was one of horror when her girls gave in to the irresistible urge to grab skirts and kick their legs into the air.

On the day of my dare, Noel was seated at his piano, waiting to play the hymn, as Biggo marched from her office, up the stairs and onto the stage.

“We will now sing,” she intoned, before a single ‘bang’ interrupted her.

She looked around, unable to work out what had happened. In the gallery, one teacher turned to another and said (rather optimistically, I thought): “Someone’s shot Miss Owen!”

Biggo waited and then tried again.

“We will now sing hymn number …”


We did manage to get through assembly. Just.

A few days later, as I was carrying a record player from a classroom to the storeroom for Noel, he turned on me.

“You put snaps on my piano,” he growled. One of those who had dared me had, it appeared, squealed under pressure.

“Yes,” I said simply. Which considerably appeased Noel, who sniffed and said, with a modicum of respect: “Well, at least you’ve got the guts to admit it,” before informing me that, after assembly the following day, I was to join him for a visit to Biggo. It seemed that in the absence of any other culprit, he was in Biggo’s firing line.

The next day, somewhat nervously, I waited silently outside her office for my interview. When the little traffic lights outside eventually turned to green, Noel opened the dark door, ushered me in and, with the words “here’s our explosives expert,” left.

The thing was, if I’d been nervous, that comment left me struggling not to guffaw. I stared at the floor desperately fighting the urge to giggle. Biggo took that for embarrassment – or downright shame.

“I assume that this is the sort of thing that went on in your previous school,” she boomed from behind her desk. Oh if only she’d known – I’d never done anything remotely like that in my life before.

“So I’ll put this on your school record and we shall leave it there.”

I fled gratefully, hoping that it would all die down, and thinking I’d got off really rather lightly.

But in the coming weeks, the story did the rounds of the city. Biggo was a legend – and any such event took on legendary status too. Eventually – inevitably – it found it’s way to my father, who related it over dinner one evening to the full family. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, it turned out that that was one of a very limited number of occasions on which he was actually proud of me.

Break the rules and cause a stir in the city and, apparently, you’re in favour. Perhaps it was one of the few times when I reminded him of how he’d like to see himself?

There are many more stories from my days at LGGS, which were really remarkably like one of those old school books for girls, penned by Angela Brazil or Enid Blyton. But for the time being, suffice it to say that Noel became a good friend, that those eccentric girls became The Rat Pack and that that was far from the last of my encounters with the legendary Biggo.

1 comment:

  1. Another ex-LGGS girl here...and here is a long ago photo of the wonderful Mr McKee :)