Porridge and Bananas
The best part about breakfast is where I eat it – in a room, not much more than a box-room, which has been many things in its nearly 200-year life but is presently our kitchen. A coal-burning range defies the frigid draughts of winter and welcomes me into a snug cocoon. The worst part is what I must soon eat: a bubbling, plopping mass, seething in its pot on the range.
Porridge, my mother says, will see you through a winter day. She pours a bowlful of it for me and reaches for the treacle tin. ‘Let’s make some London Streets,’ she says encouragingly, dripping it, weaving the drips. ‘Around Piccadilly Circus we go! Here’s the mall!’ I’d like to scrape the sweet stuff from the bland morass beneath it, but having made the city mum nukes it with the spoon. ‘Now eat up,’ she says. ‘It’s a big day today.’
It’s 11+ Exam day, a life-changing day for every school kid in 1950s Britain. Pass this exam and the grammar school beckons, fail and I stay at the Secondary Modern where there’s more of the secondary than the modern. What we will have in common is a canteen dinner for 9 pence. A waste bucket is provided for the truly inedible, but when we’re supervised by the notorious Jones (aka Ebbw) this doesn’t include the girdles of yellow fat around some servings of meat. The very thought of swallowing this makes me feel sick and I’ve perfected a strategy of deception: cut it off the meat and appear to eat it, but in fact moments later disgorge it into a handkerchief under the pretext of blowing my nose. I was thrown out of the canteen once, not because this ruse had been revealed, but because I announced my discovery of a nest of caterpillars inside a tomato to everyone within earshot, which sadly included Ebbw.
But today my mother gives me an extra tight hug at the door as I leave for school. ‘You’re good at essays, Bob. Just show them you are!’ Her breakfast has fortified me against the cold rain sweeping the streets on my long upward trudge to school but she knows in her heart of hearts that it won’t fortify me against what the education committee has planned for the afternoon: the ‘intelligence test’ and ‘arithmetic’. If fish is brain food I’ll need a whole trawler-load of it to pass these dreaded papers.
There are three topics we can choose to write an essay on and one of them is food. It is something that at least half the class has never had enough of. Perhaps the author of this subject title thinks that malnourishment alone will drive them to literary brilliance on the day. Ben Richards, fat and from a farming family, should write expansively on this, his favourite pastime. Ben wears warm, expensive clothes and has a pocketful of sweets to buy-off the schoolyard bullies. He’s often driven to school in a motorcar! He’s never had the boils and impetigo, which bloom on the skin of most of his classmates, but still has to line up with the rest of us for the head lice checks. We queue for these around a corner from the examination chair with the nurse behind it, comb at the ready. This perfunctory nod to privacy is undone by the directive to those hosting livestock in their hair to wait in the nearby cloakroom. Those with the dreaded ringworm have no hope of confidentiality. They come to school wearing caps over their shaven skulls, which are quickly wrenched off (the caps that is) and thrown from one to another in the mob milling joyfully around them.
The classroom clock signals 9 a.m. and the invigilator prompts us to begin. Nibs are dipped into inkwells and pens are put to paper. Their scratching is all that can be heard. The world has invented a nuclear bomb but not yet the biro pen. A few boys do not start. In the distant future we will remember them as disadvantaged, handicapped or challenged in some way. One of them, Petrol we call him because he stinks, who wears another classmate’s cast-off shoes, gazes into space, perhaps dreaming of the errand bike which will surely be his or work in the fish factory the odour of which will subsume even his.
I pick Messing About in Boats as my topic. I know it will be the best essay, but it won’t see me part the Red Sea and become a grammar school boy. If I had chosen food then my first thoughts would have been war time ones with my mother promising us children a treat. She produces a grossly overripe banana, peels its flaccid skin back from a wet, darkening core and cuts this into a small piece for each of us. Nothing will ever again taste so delicious.
A week or so later the results are out. On the Monday morning before the bell goes we stage a great battle in the schoolyard, the grammar school boys versus the rest. They are probably on average taller and heavier than us but heavily outnumbered. They are invited into one small classroom and we are directed into a much bigger one. After a while, Ebbw comes in and gives us a long, contemptuous look. ‘The hewers of wood and the carriers of water,’ he says, ‘and it’s my lot to try to teach you something.’
After several years as a sea-going Radio Officer (when he was advised never to insult the ship’s cook) Bob Morris worked in television broadcasting before moving to New Zealand in the early 1970s. After retirement from teaching he attended writing classes at Whitireia New Zealand. Liver and bacon is a favourite meal of his.