The first day at Grammar School arrived and clad in our new Rawcliffes uniforms, red and black stripey blazers unmarked, unspoiled by school dinners and ink wells, we alighted from the bus on the opposite side of the road and perused the welcoming committee of second formers who awaited us at the gate.
It was an unwritten rule at Leeds Modern Grammer School (think Tom Browns Schooldays without the enlightened attitude to bullying) that the new first year boys were at the mercy of the second years for the first day of the autumn term, call it a sort of softening up process, a throw back to the days of fagging and toasting young boys against an open fire in the prefects dorm, the masters turned a blind eye to the ancient practice of turning over the new starters, after all, it had happened to the second formers last year and they were now perfectly poised to exact a sweet revenge.
Fortunately I had arrived on the bus with two friends and we knew what awaited us as we’d had a tip off from my mother who’s friend Mrs Brown had a son Nigel in the fourth year – he’d sent word not to wear our school caps, ever, the black and red striped school cap so beloved of mothers all over north Leeds would be the first target of the second years – our caps were safely tucked away inside our backpacks.
Incidently Mrs Browns son Nigel had a rather unfortunate nickname – innocent in 1968 but now very much a no-no, for in 1968 inside every childs paint box was a colour described as “nigger brown” which is about as good a nickname for someone called “Nigel Brown” as you’ll ever get – to those of tender years sitting there with gasping mouths, this is all true.
We crossed the road in tight formation and ran the barrage of pushing, thumping, shoving, tripping and jeering and when we’d emerged at the other side we were accosted by a shriveling, weedy little kid who danced in front of us and demanded to see our pen licences.
Despite being a year older than us he was, wore short trousers (mummys boy) and his voice hadn’t yet broken, any one of us could have flattened him but with the second form lined up two paces behind us watching, it was perhaps not the most advisable action.
“Pen licence, pen licence” he shrilled, holding his hand out in front of our noses, we scurried on, he danced in front of us, “Pen licences are a shilling, you have to buy one off me”, how on earth he expected this pathetic scam to work on three kids who just weeks earlier had passed their 11 plus I don’t know, he’d have been far better employed trying his sales pitch on the thick kids who had failed and were even now having their heads kicked in by the much rougher bullies at Moor Grange Secondary Modern School just down the road.
Suddenly another scammer danced into view back peddling in front of us as we picked up the pace,
“Pen licence, pen licence, sixpence”
“Oy, they’re my customers”
“Get stuffed Jenkins or I’ll flatten you”
“Thats not fair I saw them first”
“Piss off Jenkins, I mean it, I’m having these”
“They were buying one off me, anyway pen licences are a shilling”
“Mine are sixpence”
“Well thats not right, we agreed…”
…and we left the pair of them there at the gate, arguing as to the true market price for a pen licence whilst their “customers” beat a hasty retreat to the far end of the ancient main building where lay the lower school yard.
As we turned the corner into the lower school yard an amazing sight greeted us for there in the yard were over a hundred first years, like ourselves, but in various disheveled states some with bloody faces already, the air thick with school caps spinning through the air as the same number of second formers had their fun, snatching caps from heads and throwing them, spinning up onto the roof of the toilet block, those foolhardy new boys who put up a fight were pounced upon by the mobs like a pack of hungry lions on a broken legged antelope
When all of the caps had been liberated from young heads and stacked three deep upon the toilet block roof they started on those who carried satchels – quite rightly too in my opinion, my mum had threatened to buy me a satchel but on the advice of “Nigger” Brown I’d been given a couple of quid to go to the Army surplus store and buy a haversack instead.
Just as it seemed that an actual first year boy would soon be sent spinning up onto the toilet block roof to join the caps and satchels a voice boomed out across the yard and within a single breath silence filled the air apart from one small boy who sobbed quietly in the corner, almost naked, his cap, satchel, blazer and short trousers now hanging off the drainpipe on top of the toilet block.
A tall and imposing figure clad in a long black gown and an actual real mortar board hat stood at the top of a flight of stone stairs, with one click of his fingers the second years all formed themselves into four lines of thirty, another click and they trooped silently into the lower school entrance, their fun over, first year baiting now in close season…