I was reading Carol Ann Duffy’s 1993 ‘Mean Time’ poetry collection today and found that a lot of the poems spoke to my own experiences of growing up. Carol Ann Duffy and I are of an age. Like me, was raised a Catholic, although she was in Glasgow and I was on Merseyside, where she later made her home. I love how clearly she sees and how fearlessly she writes. It’s a great, if rather a gloomy collection.
The poem that brought back the most vivid memories to me was ‘Welltread’, her poem about a headmaster. Here it is:
‘Welltread’ by Carol Ann Duffy
Welltread was Head and the Head’s face was a fist. Yes, I’ve got him. Spelling and Punishment. A big brass bell dumb on his desk till only he shook it, and children ran shrieking in the locked yard. Mr Welltread. Sir. He meant well. They all did then. The loud, inarticulate dads, the mothers who spat on hankies and rubbed you away. But Welltread looked like a gangster. Welltread stalked the forms, collecting thruppenny bits in a soft black hat. We prayed for Aberfan, vaguely reprieved. My socks dissolved, two grey pools at my ankles, at the shock of my name called out. The memory brings me to my feet as a foul would. The wrong child for a trite crime. And all I could say was No. Welltread straightened my hand as though he could read the future there, then hurt himself more than he hurt me. There was no cause for complaint. There was the burn of a cane in my palm, still smouldering.
My headmaster in Infants School had the ‘big brass bell‘ to control us and would turn up at random intervals to give us tests on spelling and our Times Tables that felt like a ritual for publicly identifying the weak and the afraid.
The ‘Mr. Welltread. Sir.‘ summons up that whole regime of standing for the feared authority figure who demanded an obeisance.
And the ‘mothers who spat on hankies and rubbed you away.‘ The hankies part happened all the time but it’s the ‘rubbed you away‘ part that resonates.
Then we get to the caning. Corporal punishment meted out immediately with no appeal, no redress, ‘no cause for complaint’ is something I remember well.
It’s the last two words of the poem ‘still smouldering.’ that I thought about the most. I looked online to see what other people thought and I was surprised to find that the ‘smouldering‘ is sometimes read as an abiding shame at having been caned. I don’t see it that way. I know that smouldering. It’s not shame. It’s anger.
That anger took me back to memories of my own school days. Not the part when I was almost grown up and knew how to defend myself from teachers who mistook authority for power. The part before then, when I was twelve and barely awake and school was a ritual, like Mass, that I attended every week but never thought of as real.
I wasn’t the kind of boy male teachers liked. It wasn’t how I looked, although that didn’t help: overweight, sink-washed, too-long hair falling in lank, hormone-soaked locks over my forehead to my black plastic NHS specs. It wasn’t even because I was often away in my head, bored and disconnected. It was because I failed to demonstrate deference.
My lack of deference wasn’t defiance. I wasn’t spoiling for a fight, that came later. I just didn’t see these men as anything more than furniture in my life. I can see now why they hated that but back then I didn’t even notice their reaction most of the time.
But what they hated most, what prompted them to violence, was my laugh. lt was an unpleasant, nails-scraping-the-blackboard laugh. A high-pitched, uncontrolled thing that spoke of hysteria rather than joy. I know now that it was a laugh of embarrassment and despair but the male teachers seemed to hear it as a jackal’s laugh, a disrespectful challenge.
I had good, kind, clever teachers and I remember them fondly. I also had some men who were as trapped in that school as I was. The one Carol Ann Duffy summoned up for me today, the one who literally made the most impression on me, was a florid, redheaded Welshman, who taught geography and brutality. The first he achieved by transcribing his notes onto a blackboard so we could copy them into our books. The second was delivered via his cane, which he called Rufus. He was the only teacher who kept a cane in his classroom. Others might throw chalk or hit with a ruler but no one else had a weapon of choice. A weapon with a name.
It wasn’t the classic cane of the comic books, long and thin and vicious. It was made of bamboo and, like the man himself, was thick and hollow.
We all knew Rufus. We all knew our teacher was not quite right. We all knew none of that could be changed. There was ‘no cause for complaint’.
It was my laugh that brought me to Rufus. I no longer remember exactly what made me laugh. It was something to do with what the teacher had written on the board, a phrasing of his that struck me as absurd perhaps, or perhaps he had (yet again) spelt peninsula with the second n missing. Whatever it was, I laughed that high annoying laugh, not really expecting to be heard except by myself, but he heard me and decided to make a performance of it.
He stood in front of my desk, cane in hand, demanding to know what I found so funny. I knew I was in trouble and not just because no answer I gave him would be acceptable but because he was making me afraid and that pushed me over into truly hysterical laughter, well beyond my ability to control.
He shouted at me to stand up. I did. He shouted at me to stop laughing. I couldn’t. He slapped Rufus on my desk and told me to stop laughing or take the consequences. My laughter increased. He shouted at me to come to the front of the class and hold out my hand.
The whole class was looking at me now. Everyone, including me, knew that the teacher had lost control of himself and I should stop laughing. I couldn’t do it.
I knew what was coming next, or I thought I did. I’d been caned regularly in Infants School for lateness, a habit which followed me the rest of my life and which caning did nothing to change. While those canings hadn’t taught me to be punctual, they had taught me that most teachers did not really want to inflict pain, they just wanted my attention. They hit hard enough to sting but they didn’t put their weight into it.
I held out my hand, palm up, still laughing in a desperate way and he took the first blow. He didn’t hold back. This wasn’t about getting attention. It was about anger, perhaps even hate.
It hurt. I wanted to put my hand under my arm. To ask him to stop. My laugh had become quieter, more like crying, but still enough like a laugh to keep him enraged.
He hit me again. The whole class seemed to wince. He and they paused and looked at me. I saw something in his eyes that I couldn’t name but didn’t like and decided not to even try to stop laughing.
The third and hardest stroke went wrong. He missed my palm and hit my fingers a glancing blow. The pain was immense but even through it my focus was on what happened next. In the follow-through of his indisciplined blow, the tip of the teacher’s cane had hit the edge of his desk and Rufus cracked.
Finally, I was able to stop laughing and shove my hand into my armpit.
When the teacher looked up from the cracked bamboo in his hand, I thought for a moment he would punch me. I didn’t duck or plead. It wasn’t bravery, just powerlessness. He walked out of the class, taking his broken cane with him.
There were no consequences. His action sank into our memories like a stone falling into a muddy pond. It rested in the silt but it wasn’t ours to move. I made no complaint. He made no apology. Rufus was never replaced. The only thing that remains is my anger, ‘still smouldering’.
I’m told schools aren’t like that any more. I wonder whether the kids who are given ‘Welltread’ to read in their Sixth Form English Lit classes have any idea what Carol Ann Duffy is talking about or if ‘Welltread’ is as arcane to them as ‘Paradise Lost’ was to me?