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Steve Lamb - The best thing ...

(December 03, 2014)

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.


Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)

In this story, Steve tells us of a recent chance encounter ...


"... the best thing that happened to me in school"

Lying down, patiently giving blood on a Saturday morning, you do not expect to be transported back 40 years. But my daydreaming had been interrupted by a cheerful greeting.

"Hello Sir. We were talking about you last night in the rugby club. Do you remember our train trip to London? It was the best thing that happened to me in school, well that and our performance of Oliver." I could just see the shadow of a talented and outgoing schoolgirl behind the smiling, middle-aged nurse manager. All of a sudden, there I was in my twenties again.

Teaching English in a small, south Wales, valleys town in 1976 was not difficult, because the community instinctively valued culture. I don't know what it was about the mining industry that helped to foster the arts, but in the vicinity of the school there were two well used libraries, two active drama groups, a silver band and a number of choirs for men, women and children; separately and together. Standards were high, and the reputations of some of these groups extended across Wales, the UK and, in the case of one children's choir, Europe. Nevertheless, I was trying to get a third year class to enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was failing. At best, these 13 year olds were indifferent; on a bad day even rebellious. Some of the girls enjoyed the love play between Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. Shifting affections were things they seemed to understand. However, nobody had any time for the fairies, and the slapstick comedy of the 'Mechanicals' did not come alive off the page. I had thought there was something for everybody in the story. I was wrong.

Talking to a member of one of the town's drama groups, I shared my disappointment and she had the answer before I finished moaning. She remembered going to Stratford as a schoolgirl and seeing Julius Caesar, and being transported to a lifelong love of drama generally, and Shakespeare especially.

"It was all an adventure," she said. "We went from the greyness of the valley, with the pit wheels turning and the coke ovens belching smoke, to the green world of Warwickshire, and the Tudor buildings of Stratford. We had a picnic by the river and went into the grandest building I had ever seen to watch the play. I remember it as if it was last week. I laughed and I cried. I'd read the play in class and I had no idea there was any comedy at all and that the characters could mean so much to me. Take them to Stratford. You can go by train. We went from Porth." Her eyes were dreamy as she disappeared for a moment into lost youth.

I rang the Royal Shakespeare Company the next day, from the secretary's office in school. Yes, they were presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream that autumn, but not in Stratford. Their London base was the Aldwych Theatre and there were schools' packages available for midweek matinees. Their education officer would send me a number of options, but it was clear that it was astonishing value. I rang British Rail, and again I was in luck. For the month of November there was a special offer for London visits, designed for theatre matinees or museum excursions for schools. The travel warrant included all bus, train and tube needs as necessary, and again was exceptional value. It all worked out perfectly. The headmaster thought the idea was a good one, but he was not able to release any other member of staff to go with me and suggested some school prefects would be keen to help out.

The plan worked well. We set out on a bright, November day from the bus stop in front of the grammar school building. Thirty-one third formers (Year nine, these days - Ed) in green or black blazers, three prefects at the rear of the crocodile … and a young teacher, with a knot in his stomach, showing a bundle of papers to the conductor – the first of very many times that the papers were brandished in the course of that day. Down to Cardiff we swept, on a tide of chatter and then across the road behind the bus station to Cardiff Central. Some of the children had never been to Cardiff and stopped to look up in awe. It was then that I realised how big a day this was going to be for many.

Station staff were expecting us, and one of them ushered us through the barrier and up to platform two. Our train was due in fifteen minutes. Silence fell, as the children waited like patients before an operation. Eventually, they bustled into the compartments reserved for us and unpacked their reserves. Parents had sent them off to London with enough food for a military campaign. They had to work out what to save for our picnic alongside the Thames and what would still be in good shape for the journey home.

"Will London be busy, sir?"
"What if I don't like the play?"
"Will there be toilets?"
"What happens if we get lost?"
"What time will we get there?"
"I'm missing double maths. Yeah!"

"I'm missing Welsh; miss is not happy with you, sir."

Happy children are the best company and their lively minds jumped around as they unselfconsciously shared the stories of their lives: their love for their close communities; the impact of working underground on the health of relations, particularly grandfathers; their holidays in Barry and Porthcawl; their innocent openness. Laughter accompanied us into Paddington, and onto the District Line to Westminster. The tube, quiet in the late morning, was treated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Houses of Parliament did what they were supposed to do … representing a power they did not quite understand, but could definitely feel. We found benches in Victoria Tower Gardens, by the monument to the burghers of Calais. We faced the river, and relaxed with our sandwiches. It was a crisp November day. The sky was blue and London was smiling at us. The children smiled back and their lilting voices carried in the still air.

I had worked out the route to the Aldwych with the geography teacher in school. We marched in a tight line of pairs past Downing Street and the Cenotaph. The base of the memorial was carpeted in wreaths of poppies from the previous weekend’s commemorations. The soldiers on guard at the army headquarters caused all eyes on our parade to veer left. Trafalgar Square was the next attraction and by now jaws were permanently dropped and faces were wide with wonder. I saw this world as if for the first time through the eyes and minds of my third formers. We caught our breath in the Strand before turning into Aldwych and spotting the theatre opposite the BBC building. I was pleased to see the Aldwych tube station so close to the theatre, because that would be our route back to Paddington after the play.

We settled into our seats with complimentary programmes and soon the lights went down and the play started. Patrick Stewart was Oberon, now an actor with success on stage, television and film behind him. This was before Star Trek had another generation, but he was already a towering presence. His fairies were muscular and there was nothing silly about their involvement in the story. They fought and won or lost like young men in local-derby rugby games. The comedy of the play was wonderful. It was like watching Morecombe and Wise jousting with Benny Hill. The lovers' story, orchestrated by mischief maker Puck, worked brilliantly and our section of the audience was spellbound.

Miraculously, the play was over in what seemed like record time. The children were on their feet clapping, but we already needed to rush to the tube and get across London to meet our train. This was where my planning didn't exactly go wrong, but I certainly hadn't thought enough about the London rush hour and autumn darkness. We came out of the theatre and, in the street lights, we were faced by pavements of rushing commuters heading home. Our calm day changed in a moment. We were bundled by careless crowds, flotsam on a troubled sea, and our neat double line was fractured as we headed for the tube. The prefects were brilliant, helping me to shoo green and black school blazers down the escalators until we thought we had a full complement. On the tube we were spread across two carriages and I relentlessly counted blazers, convinced I had lost pupils to the city.

The Circle line spewed us out at Paddington. It was no better there. I imagined bereft parents waiting in vain at Cardiff Central Station, and a teaching career going down the drain. Crowds swirled like dangerous currents in a maelstrom. But somehow, we reached our platform and to our reserved seats. Nobody spoke for twenty minutes. Then, the leftovers from the picnic reappeared and the analysis began. Voices overlapped, as a competition to find the very best thing about the day went on.

"Do you want a sausage roll, sir? You're very quiet," said Lucy, who one day, would be the nurse manager of the Blood Transfusion Centre next to our local hospital.

Steve Lamb, December 2014

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:
          The punishment, September 2014
          The interview, June 2014

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