It was the beginning of the “Swinging Sixties”, seeming like a long time ago in decades but actually all gone in a blink of an eye. It was also a full two years before the anti-authoritarianism revolution of weird fashion in Carnaby Street; before embarrassing problems for the Tory government caused by a call-girl scandal; three years before The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, satire and Peter Cook, and That Was the Week that Was with David Frost. We were still listening to the likes of Perry Como, Elvis, Pat Boone and Billy Fury … It was two years before a man on the moon and the assassination of President Kennedy, and World War II was only 15 years ended. We weren’t bothered by that then, our minds too busy with avoiding being placed in lower academic classes at school and making sure our school uniforms were in order.
At Perth Academy we all had to do the “subject” Woodwork and Metalwork, two hours a week, god knows why, because we had already been classified by the Eleven-Plus exams (at 11 years of age national exams to stream you into the “right” level school). God forbid that we would have been sent to anything other than the Academy or Grammar School, where we were deemed fit to do two languages, a kind of reward for or mark of being born with above average intelligence or maybe just being able to read and write well enough to do a national weeding-out exam. We were surely pleased not to have to go to Perth High School, the Secondary Modern of the day, or the horrors of horrors the “Techy” or Technical School, where we would probably have had to hammer away at wood and metal for 20 hours a week.
So we attended the Academy not the Technical School, where maybe the pupils there, in turn, had to do two hours a week of some arty-farty subject, feeling the same way about it as we did in being forced to do some “tradey” stuff. It didn’t seem fair to us, destined as we hoped for and really did manage to achieve lives of medicine, civil engineering, business, government and politics, architecture, law, nursing, teaching, art, writing, translating, international opera singing and grave digging.
Anyway, our Woodwork and Metalwork teacher’s name was incredibly Mr Ironsides (His real name … not even I could make that up!). We called him “Tinribs” behind his back, and one day he was telling us about a special strong glue we needed to use on the small boxes or some other useless thing we were making. Tinribs had a bit of a lisp or soft palate, producing a funny way of speaking:
“A’right then boysh, let me tell you about thish glue; it’sh very shtrong, it hash great adheshive powersh …”
He was holding up a plastic bottle of the glue, it was about half full. He was extolling the superior sticking power of the glue, saying:
“You know ladsh, thish ish the shame glue they ushed on Donald Campbell’sh Bluebird to build it afore he shet the worrl’ record.”
Up chirps young James – in less than six years he would be a first-year medical student – all bright and black-curly haired, his hand raised to ask something, a sensible question one would expect because Tinribsh was pretty strict and brooked no tomfoolery, especially since we were in a risk situation, a place full of “awfy dangeroush” machinery and toolsh. Tinribs didn’t like to be interrupted, and looked out of shorts (sic) as he shed (sic),
“Yesh, what ish it, boy?”
Twelve-year-old James replied, wearing a serious look, “That’s the glue they used on the Bluebird, is it … sur?”
“Yesh, the shelfshame, lad.”
“Well, as you say, it must be very good indeed … .”
“What’sh your point, boy? Get it out!”
“Well, they didn’t use very much of it, did they? … Er, sir.”
This last politeness was added sort of as an afterthought, and possibly simply added to Tinribs’s serious affrontedness. He didn’t know whether to fart or go blind, couldn’t tell or take a joke. If he’d looked disgruntled at being interrupted he was now thunderous. He put down the botttle of glue and picked up a substantial chunk of four-by-two, then set upon James with a fair amount of energy. We all turned to witness the clownish antics of teacher chasing pupil leaping away down past the workbenches, Tinribs shouting:
“I’m shick and tired of yoush boysh taking the pish out of me and my glue … I’ll teach you to make fun of woodwork … come back here!”
James was heard to say, “You’ll no fung catch me!”
I am sure that the group of boys, to a lad, thought that teaching us to make fun of woodwork would be just fine. Tinribsh andJamesh had a couple of standoffs separated by benches of saws, chisels, hammers and other tools, all potential weapons, James successfully eluding a serious physical drubbing because Tinribs decided he had better get back to the class and the lesson on hand. So he gave up, and James returned to his place.
Things calmed down and we moved on to using the famous glue on our wee wooden boxes.
I swear though to this day that I could see Tinribs show a faint vestige of a smile on his pudgy face, more purple than usual, but still a slight uncreasing of the lips there, as if appreciating the joke and recognising a good story he would recount to his woody metalwork mates over a glass. I think that he taught at the Technical School, too, and I have often wondered if he preferred the adept pupils there admiring his expertise and glue, compared to the kind of academic brainies who made smartarshe (sic) comments.
It took only a few more years for the Eleven-plus to become history, at least in Scotland, the reason being that it was elitist, encouraging class difference by weighting the questions towards children from middle-class homes – not every home in Scotland gave their children the ability to understand questions about servants, gardens, classical composers or fancy-named furnishings. If this led to fairer testing for all, then fair enough I would say. However, it probably also limited woodwork experience at Academies, producing classic quips from swotty egg-heads, destined to become medical specialists, preventing them giving cheek to their teachers.
I have often thought back to this event, recalling how close James came to becoming seriously unstuck.