Discipline! Discipline! Discipline!
That was Mr Geoffrey Bates’ motto. He was a former Guards officer and he ran Highfield Secondary Modern School in Blackpool like army training camp, barking orders at everyone who came within his radar. No walking on the grass! No hanging around the quadrangle! No running down the corridors! No standing around with hands in pockets! No talking! No whispering! No breathing!
All the kids in the school called him Master Bates, behind his back, of course.
The British Army had been his life and he therefore actively encouraged all school leavers to make it theirs. “Think of it, son,” he would tell them, “The travel, the adventure, the camaraderie . . . the discipline!”
The school covered an area of about a quarter of a mile and consisted of several older buildings connected to each other by a series of more modern glass and steel structures. If the whole complex were to be viewed from above it would probably have resembled a monstrous, badly constructed spider’s web. At its centre was the assembly hall, where each morning Mr Bates would conduct assembly in his usual brusque manner.
He was mid-way through his morning oration when he was interrupted by a shrill, moaning wail that emanated from the back of the assembly hall. This was closely followed by what sounded like a large sack of potatoes being dropped from a great height onto the highly polished parquet floor.
Mr Bates ran his fingers down his regimental tie, straightened his jacket, placed his hands on his hips and said, in a slow and deliberate voice, "Will someone please pick Patterson up, take him outside and give him some air.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “And bring a mop back with you"
Four of us picked Martin up by his arms and legs and carried him out of the assembly hall, where we dumped him unceremoniously by the double doors, like a victim of the bubonic plague.
“Bloody softy,” said John Etherington.
Martin Patterson was the school fainter - he found it difficult to stand up for long periods at a time, at which point his mind would go blank, he’d fall asleep on his feet, have a nightmare and then faint.
There was always a fight to decide who would carry him outside as it meant missing the rest of assembly and the hymn that followed, which was invariably Onward Christian Soldiers or Jerusalem, two of Mr Bates’ favourites. The rest of the staff, seated behind the Mr Bates on the raised platform would only pretend to sing, mumbling their way through the words whilst attempting to keep time with the tinkling, out-of-tune piano. Mr Bates, on the other hand, sang with gusto, his chest moving in and out like a huge set of bellows, his mouth opening and closing like a giant fish starved of oxygen. The assembled children in the large hall would stand and snigger at him, or sing the wrong words (usually rude), watching with embarrassment as the he bellowed out the hymn like a demented amateur opera singer on speed.
With almost radar-like precision Mr Bates always seemed able to pinpoint the boys who changed even one syllable of his beloved hymns, and the guilty parties would be instructed to wait outside his office after assembly. Once there they would be marched in one by one and given five strokes of the cane across their left palms (or right palms if they happened to be left handed).
"Say thank you, boy," Mr Bates would say, after administering his punishment.
"Thank you," the boy would reply.
"Thank you what?"
"Thank you, sir."
Martin Patterson never got the cane on account of his delicate constitution (and the intervention of his mother) and so consequently he only ever got a tepid telling off if he ever stepped out of line.
After assembly, one morning our form teacher, Mr Crane, strode into the classroom, narrowed his eyes and placed his hands on the red leatherette of his desk. "Mr Bates," he said, "wants one of you lot to look after Patterson while everyone else is in assembly."
"I'll look after him, sir!" I cried, thrusting my hand high up into the air. "I'm his best friend."
I was lying, of course. Martin Patterson wasn’t my best friend at all. I didn't even like him and, as Mr Crane graciously accepted my gallant and apparently unselfish offer, I could see Martin visibly shaking.
I could have handled the enormously responsible job of looking after Martin in two ways. The first way would have been to actively and diligently monitor him and make mental notes of anything unusual about his behaviour so that I could report them to Mr Crane upon his return from the assembly hall. Alternatively, I could have utilised my position of power over Martin by spending my assembly-free time constructively and mercilessly abusing him.
I unhesitatingly opted for the second of my two choices.
I called him names like Mong and Spaz-brain and did flamboyant impressions of his regular and embarrassing fainting fits. "Hey, Spaz-brain,” I’d say, "who's this?" Then I would moan loudly and crash to the floor, and all Martin could do was sit at his desk in abject misery, trying unconvincingly to make it look like he was laughing along with me and my cruel antics.
All good things eventually come to an end, and my reign of mental torture ended abruptly one morning when I misjudged one of my falls and cracked my head open on the corner of a desk, knocking myself out into the bargain. Until this point Martin hadn’t breathed a single word to any of the teachers about how I’d been treating him while they were mumbling to the words of Onward Christian Soldiers. But, as I was being rushed to Victoria hospital to have the back of my head shaved and stitched, Martin spilled the beans.
He told the Mr Bates everything.
I was kept in hospital overnight for observation and when I returned to school the following day I was expecting to receive a good deal of sympathy for my unfortunate accident.
But instead, I had to say, "Thank you, sir," to Mr Bates.