13 August, 2011

"The school is closed, the childen gone, but the ghost of the teacher lingers on....."

Well, I survived the day - yesterday, I mean! Hopefully, I will get through today.
One of the envelopes that
came through my letter box
Don’t worry, so far as I am aware I am not in mortal danger - at least no more than I usually am as a sixty six year old with a chronic heart condition. No, I'm very well and  looking forward to this afternoon’s football match.  It’s just that there are a couple of days each year when I fear that should I collapse, fall and break my leg or do some similar injury to myself then I would lie there all day quite unnoticed, untended and uncared for. Yesterday was one such day. Today will be another. Let me explain.

Yesterday the world was good. The sun shone (although it was a bit humid), the cleaning up was done and my wife and I are looking forward to a few days with the grandchildren at our favourite hotel by the sea in Devon. Alright, so England is in the midst of riots, our city centres are in flames, introspection and self-flagellation courses through the national psyche and scream at us from our newspapers; our courts are working overtime handing out punitive sentences to youngsters for their part in the riots and our politicians, it seems, have the answers to everything - or so they would have us believe. Our banks are close to collapse, and the government stumbles from one crisis to another. But these are small irritations! Life is good - or at least it was until yesterday!!!!!

It all took a downward spiral, however, just before lunch yesterday. The postman came and I picked up the mail and, as expected, there was my copy of this week’s New Statesman - the political magazine which sustains me through the weekend and beyond and which my wife blames for my non-communication as I devour it! But then, my heart sank as I recognised another envelope. I immediately tried to hide it beneath the New Statesman but to no avail, my wife had already spotted it and I knew that whatever else might happen during the next day or two the whole world would stop, I could lay on the floor unattended for hours, the meals would remain uncooked, riots might lay waste our village, the four horsemen of the apocalypse could ride through our lounge at will……but the lovely Patricia would be quite oblivious to all this - and to the rest of civilisation as we know it!
The other - which ensured that
my wife would become oblivious to
the rest of the world! 

Her “old girls'” magazine had arrived!

Pat attended a girl’s grammar school in London through her teenage years - the Mary Datchelor Girls’ School in Camberwell. It was a very highly regarded school and although now closed still has a vibrant Old Girls’ Club - of which Pat is a member. The Club has been in place since 1889 - soon after the school was first established and funded by the London Clothworkers’ Company.  A couple of times a year the Old Girls’ Club publish a newsletter with the latest news of ex-pupils and staff. Many of the “old girls” are now indeed very much “old girls” since the school’s history goes back a century or more. Many of the ex-pupils have achieved positions of standing in the professions, business, politics and academia but others have lead more ordinary lives as housewives, teachers, librarians and the like - and each edition of the magazine is filled with their latest news - family news, professional news, reminiscences and the like. And when the magazine pops through our letter box I know what to expect; the work of the house will stop, my dear wife will sit and devour it for hour after hour. There will be the occasional “Oh…..I remember her” or “I used to be good friends with her” or "She was always a bit odd!" or “Don’t people seem to have exciting lives when compared with ours……… “ It’s not insignificant (and perhaps a sign of things to come!) that Pat and I have reached the age where she will occasionally read out, with a sigh, that one of her school peers has died - the grim reaper is popping his head over the distant  horizon!
Read all about it - all the "old girls"
strutting their stuff!

Old girls from Mary Datchelor permeate the national fabric and pop up when you least expect them. They have quietly forged links and tentacles that spread like spiders' webs throughout society at all its levels. I firmly believe that wherever you are or whatever you are doing you will not be more than ten feet away from an ex-Datchelor girl or someone who knows an ex-Datchelor girl! If some future dictator or evil Rupert Murdoch like character wishes to influence and monitor the goings on in every household in the country then he could do far worse that harness the Datchelor Old Girl network - their eyes and ears are everywhere!

For example, a few months ago Pat’s choir had a concert evening up here in Nottinghamshire. Pat was singing and before the concert she and I were selling tickets and programmes on the door. A lady came in who we vaguely knew - she was the wife of a man who I had taught with and known well for some forty years here in Nottingham. We chatted and during the conversation it transpired that she too was an ex-Mary Datchelor girl - quite unknown to us or her for all those years! Pat and she had travelled across London together to Camberwell on the bus each day! This wouldn’t have been so surprising had we still lived in the area of the old school but the fact that we are hundreds of miles away is some considerable coincidence!
Datchelor Prize Day 1961 - Pat tells me
she is on this photo somewhere

And last year Pat and I attended the ruby wedding celebrations of one of her old Datchelor school friends. This was 150 miles away from our home and many miles away from the school. There were over 400 guests there. As we sat down to enjoy our lunch I suddenly realised that the guy sitting at the side of me was a chap who I had been supporting and assessing as a trainee teacher here in Nottingham only the year before! He was, astoundingly, a mutual friend of my wife's Datchelor friend. The Datchelor network is everywhere! Not only is the world a small place but with Datchelor's help it is getting smaller! And if you are reading this in the USA - or any other nation on the face of the earth - don't feel safe. A quick glance at the Old Girls' magazine will quickly confirm to you that there are Datchelor networks permeating your far flung society too - Old Girls lurk behind every tree, peep from behind every door and listen at every letter box as they  exercise their hidden powers and monitor your every movement!
The school - now
expensive apartments 

Occasionally they have re-unions. If Pat attends one of these - usually with her particular friend, Susan,  who has been a friend since their days at the school - then I, together with Kevin, Sue's husband, know that the only sensible thing for us two men to do is to disappear down to the pub. There is absolutely no point in staying around the house. When Pat and Susan return home we will be forced to listen to the post re-union chat. “Did you see that dress she was wearing?”, “She’s put on weight!”, “Fancy, her being divorced!”, “Well, that explains why she was such a nightmare at school”…………..The post re-union dissection of fashion, appearance, lifestyle and the rest goes on for hours and excludes Kevin and myself. Any comments that we might make are met with a look of disdain indicating that we, mere men, could not possibly understand this female analysis - we are far better off in the pub. A few beers, perhaps even a pub meal (for no meals will be available at home!) is a far better option!
Old girls gather under
the entrance sign

And two more "old girls" -
in more ways than one! Pat and
her friend of over 50 years, Sue (Elkins as was).
When these two get together
Sue's husband and I go to
 the pub! 
Despite my light hearted disparaging comments, however,  I have to confess that although the world of Mary Datchelor is something from which I am excluded because I am a man and because I never experienced the school, I do harbour a slight envy. Although I don't know the school and, of course, was never a pupil I feel part of it - it has been so much part of our lives for over 40 years. I feel almost an honorary pupil. I can reel off the names of members of staff, I can describe the much hated hockey lessons in huge detail, I can give you a potted history of the various head mistresses or the many high flying girls who went through the school. I can tell you all about the glories of a Datchelor Latin lesson or can recite the Datchelor lunch menu at will (school dinners, like hockey, left a lasting impression on my wife!!!). I'm sure that there are many husbands of ex-Datchelor girls, like me, up and down the land who feel the same way and are equally knowledgeable! My own school days came and went - I have many memories, the vast majority of them very happy ones - but having left school the episode is a closed book. Through modern technology - Facebook and the like I have the occasional link with an old friend but these are very tenuous. Perhaps to a degree men are different - we are not such social animals - and may not retain those long social links  that women do? But the fact that there is a formal structure - the Old Girls’ Club - to ensure that links are retained means that although the school is no longer there in a sense it still lives.
Once a classroom, now an
executive apartment 

Today, the old school buildings have, I understand, been converted into modern high class apartments. I think they have retained the old main entrance with the school’s name which is a nice touch and reminds people of the school’s place in the history of the area and the country’s educational heritage and I wonder if, through those  stylish flats and apartments, there still lingers the ghosts of all the girls and teachers who populated the building for so many years. It reminds me of one of my favourite poems that I often used to read to children when I was in the classroom and which was always enjoyed by the class:

The Ghost Teacher
The school is closed, the children gone,
But the ghost of a teacher lingers on.
As the daylight fades, as the daytime ends,
As the night draws in and the dark descends,
She stands in the class room, as clear as glass,
And calls the names of her absent class.

The school is shut, the children grown,
But the ghost of the teacher all alone,
Puts the date on the board and moves about
(As the night draws in and the stars come out)
Between desks -A glow in the gloom-
And calls for quite in the silent room.

 The school is a ruin, the children fled,
But the ghost of the teacher, long time dead,
As the moon comes up and the first owls glide,
Puts on her coat and steps outside.
In the moonlit playground, shadow free,
She stands on duty with a cup of tea.

The school is forgotten -the children forget-
But the ghost of a teacher, lingers yet.
As the night creeps up to the edge of day,
She tidies the Plasticine away;
Counts the scissors - a shimmer of glass-
And says, "Off you go!" to her absent class.

She utters the words that no one hears.
Picks up her bag...

Allan Ahlberg

I’m no expert on poetry - but I like it. And I can’t believe that all the people who passed through my wife’s school (or indeed any other school) did not leave some kind of spiritual imprint. All the hopes and fears, the laughs and the tears, the aspirations and ambitions, the friendships made and the dreams dashed or fulfilled - they must have left an impression. And perhaps that is why the Old Girls’ Club magazine means so much to my wife and why she devours it and becomes engrossed to the exclusion of all else - it is bringing back all those dreams, ambitions, friendships, fears, tears and laughs. Perhaps its arrival signals a time to look back and reflect and take stock of what life is and what it might have been - a thing that we all do, I'm sure, in our different ways.
Pat Green (as was) -
Mary Datchelor girl

And Pat Beale as now is - in
Dubrovnik half a century after
the picture on the left! 
But ghosts apart, there is another dimension. It is surely good not to forget our past, our heritage, where we have come from, what has influenced us. Nye Bevan the great Welsh Labour politician of the last century often walked the hills above his Ebbw Vale constituency and when the mist came down it was easy to become lost. His solution was to look back towards where he thought the town lay and even on the darkest, mistiest day he could still see the glow of the steel furnaces shining through the mist. This  gave him a reference point as to where he was and where he should go next. As a result he  famously often said “You need to get your bearings and it’s only by looking back at where you have come from that you can get a sense of where you are, and from that you can know where you should go next”. How right he was.

So when the magazine dropped through our letter box yesterday I knew that was what my wife would be doing for the next day or so - she would be looking back, getting her bearings, reliving her past, looking forward to where she is going and all within the context of her heritage and what Mary Datchelor gave to her all those years ago. And for all of us, that is  perhaps an important bit of being human - the ability and need to reflect, draw strength from our heritage and beliefs and face the future.

So, I decided that I might as well get stuck into my New Statesman - after all that comes every week, the OG magazine only comes a couple of times a year. The lovely Patricia deserves her bit of remembering, nostalgia, catching up and reflection to remind her of who she is and what she is about. To be on the safe side, however, I have made provision for the next couple of days. I will ensure that I don't do anything vaguely dangerous (such as DIY). If I do I might  fall or cut myself - and then I will surely lie unattended and uncared for until the OG magazine has been devoured and dissected. I will also be meticulous in ensuring that I take my heart medication regularly - to miss a pill would be rash, indeed, for whilst my lovely wife is otherwise engaged she will not remind me. Nor would she even notice the paramedics as they bundled me into the back of the ambulance! And, finally,  I have made sure that we have a lot of bread and cheese in so that I can make the odd sandwich to sustain me whilst the cook and the cooker are out of action!

We are having a very quiet weekend as we both devour our respective magazines!


  1. Hi - I was writing to a new Club Member and telling her how to join the Mary Datchelor Facebook page - and came across you! How delightful! I heard a similar story recently of two ladies who used to work in the NHS waiting at a bus stop to take them to a meeting at a local hospital and, as they chatted, discovered they both went to Datchelor. We are everywhere!

  2. I read this after following a link from the Mary Datchelor page on Facebook. I am sure my husband would wholeheartedly agree with you - as he is deserted once the Old Girls Club magazine drops through the letterbox! He has visited the school once many years ago at one of the OG club meetings where family were welcomed so at least he can picture the place that I have so many fond memories of. We live in Scotland now and unfortunately the Old Girls up here are far too widely spread out to make regional meetings viable.

  3. What a lovely article, I too am an old MDGS member. Loved the poem too... thanks for sharing,
    Jane x

  4. Yay! Enjoyed this blog! Try googling for images of Mary Datchelor - and the lovely Pat appears - my class mate! Saw Beryl recently Pat (at Daphne's)- glad you and Sue are fine!
    Love Maggie (Squitty) Locke

  5. How lovely to read this. I was in the same class as Pat - it was good to see her again at the Club's 125th Anniversary celebrations 2014. Love, Elisabeth (Sweeting)

    1. Many thanks. Pat sends her love and best wishes.