There exists within me a certain feel-good factor when I read of people’s wonderful memories on this (R&GL) website, recollections that are sublimely punctuated with personal trials and tribulations, joys and delights, to say nothing of the magnificent milestones so reached during full and inspiring lives.
I too have been fortunate to have enjoyed a multitude of experiences, each intertwined with love, despair and ultimately, success The net result being, on reflection, that my creator dealt me a pretty good hand… but it didn’t get off to the best start – by any stretch of the imagination.
The neighbourhood in which I was raised nestles pleasingly on the west side of Edinburgh, a relatively quite district situated close to the city’s main thoroughfare, known worldwide as Princes Street.
We occupied a two-bedroom ground floor tenement apartment on an avenue bereft of trees, in place of leafy conifers, stood tall eye-catching Victorian lampposts, standing as bright sentinels and each oozing indispensable floodlighting to pedestrian and motorist alike, essential additions to our locality, particularly during the bitterly cold, densely dark and smoggy nights, so prevalent between the months of October and April of that era.
Each landing of my tenement building was furnished with a toilet, this situated at the centre of each floor, none of the flats at that time came with their own WC, and therefore, as many as twelve people depended on this facility as the only means to address the call of nature.
During the long and bitter winter evenings of the fifties, my brother, sister and I used to bide our time before making a dash for the ‘loo’ – it was best to stand in the hallway and to wait and listen – the ideal moment to occupy a seat was following our next door neighbour’s nightly visitation to the latrines.
Mrs. Campbell was an uncharacteristically large woman for the times and she comfortably engulfed the entire seating arrangement within– subsequently, once she had addressed her own needs and had departed that tiny cubicle – that was the precise instant to jump-in. The warmth that radiated from that toilet seat following her each and every “appointment” was rapture beyond compare.
By the time I entered The Flora Stevenson Primary School in 1955, it had became apparent to most adult folk, those who had endured the austerity of the war years, that the nineteen-fifties were proving to be a boom time – an economic miracle. Yet, whatever architectural and fiscal advances were being realised on the outside, similar improvements were not being mirrored on the inside of many of the non fee-paying schools throughout Edinburgh.
“Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child” was the credo or common call of countless Scottish faculties – ultimately, this lead to abhorrent brutality being apportioned by many belt-wielding teachers to supposedly errant schoolchildren, specifically to those aged eight years and above, of which I was no exception.
At that time, the ‘tawse’ was universal throughout Scotland. (‘Tawse’ was the official term, but in conversation it was always referred to as ‘the belt’)
This draconian and reprehensible instrument of punishment was permitted under the then Code-of-Practice agreed between Scottish teachers’ unions and the Scottish Education Department.
Officially, there were nine recognised belts, depending on the comfort and grip; teachers would select what they considered to be the most appropriate appliance for them to inflict throbbing castigation on their infant charges, personal choice also being dictated by the length of belts on offer.
Female teachers’ invariably opted for shorter versions of these leather straps in order that their limited ‘swing-plane’, in comparison to male counterparts, would transport the most-telling of deliveries to the uncovered hands of the perceived guilty party – six lashes usually prevailed as the norm – Agony indeed.
No matter whom the recipient of such heinous measures– each pupil endured much more than what was then commonly referred to as “Tingle-of-the-Tawse”.
Punishment of this magnitude proved to be an extremely painful experience, both emotionally and physically, and on occasions, some strikes that landed on infant flesh, actually resulted in the laceration of the palms of numerous youngsters.
My own primary educationalist, one Richard Ferris, remained as the most infamous practitioner of beatings at the school, where other teachers placed their implements of torture in full view of their respective classes, either by hanging it on a hook next to the blackboard, or indeed, by laying it across the front of their own desk at the top of the classroom, Ferris always stowed his personal weapon atop of his left shoulder, covertly entrenched underneath a ubiquitous and well-worn Harris Tweed jacket.
This somewhat surreptitious measure to conceal his own personal tawse, always provided him with a painful element of surprise for any pupil who may have erred in a given task, or who may have simply spoken out-of-turn.