Chapter 12 : The Ace of Clubs
God stayed with me for about three or four months. Then, like most love affairs, He faded away and other ‘ways-to-get-out-of-prep’ took His place. In fact, there were all sorts of things you could do to keep yourself occupied. And I did most of them. Anything to get out of that awful prep, where I might get thrown onto the hedge or beaten by a bastard.
So after I’d opted for the Udds and Christianity, I opted for the Lapidary Club where I learnt to shine and make cabuchon cuts on semi-precious stones. On Sundays, a group of boys would go out on expeditions with a master in a Land Rover to areas where there was rose quartz and gold tigerseye and blue tigerseye and all sorts of agates. They’d collect these stones and bring them back to the school for the Lapidary Club on a Thursday. In the Lapidary Club, we would break the stones with a hammer to see if there was an agate inside. If there was, we would cut it on a diamond saw. Now think! Here was a bunch of 13- to 16-year-olds allowed to play with diamond saws! Wearing our goggles, we’d cut a potato size out of the agate, and then we’d trim it with the diamond saw until we had an egg-shaped thing. Then we’d strap our piece of rock to a grinding-wheel, and we’d bend its edges on a white dop stick and grind it into a cabochon, as though we’d cut an egg in half. And then we’d have it mounted. Yes, Thursday nights were absolute gems.
* * * *
If Thursday night was Lapidary Club, Wednesday night was Music Club, where we’d listen to music with John Emery. He was our bug-eyed English teacher, who was also our cadet master. The records were mainly classical music, which wasn’t really my bag. Yet I’d happily listen to Bach or Bizet or Beethoven if it meant getting out of prep.
But the Music Club on a Wednesday wasn’t half as much fun as the Printing Club on a Tuesday, where we had an old, foot-operated Heidelberg press, as well as a proper compressed-air-driven Heidelberg. At the Printing Club we printed the programmes for the rugby or cricket matches, as well as the School Magazine. In fact, everything in the school was printed by the Printing Club. My job was to type-set, and I’d sit for hours with a huge box of letters in front of me. It took me ages and ages to type-set anything. In fact, I don’t think I ever actually finished anything. I did get one side of a rugby programme out once, but that was all I managed in the whole time I was in the Printing Club – it was so painstakingly slow. The trouble was that I was never very good at clerical things. So I’d get my block and set it in front of me with all my type. Then I’d sit with a fiddly pair of tweezers going: ‘Small ‘P’. Full stop. Space. Capital ‘B’. Small ‘U’. Little ‘T’. Comma. Space…’ And then at 9 o’clock when club time was over, I’d put my block somewhere safe on a table with my name next to it — ‘Anderson’. Then off I’d go till the following Tuesday, when I’d go up to my block to continue the pains-taking process… But…
Where’s my block?
Not even there! Some guy has come along and just thought, ‘Whose is this half-finished thing? I can’t even tell what this is. Right, I need a block. I’ll use this one.’ And he’d taken all my letters out. Put all his letters in. Changed it all ... Twenty minutes later ... Got it printed. And there he’d go!
And that was my printing experience.
* * * *
I belonged to the Taxidermy Club too. Thursday – Lapidary Club. Wednesday – Music Club. Tuesday – Printing Club. Monday – Taxidermy. Any club to get out of prep and the prospect of the hawthorn hedge.
Taxidermy was where we learnt to stuff birds. Every single bird imaginable! And I chose to stuff a dove. A Namaqua dove, it was; from Namaqualand on the west coast of Namibia. A very fine dove. A beautiful dove. But because of its fineness, it was also fine-skinned. Often you find that the finer a person is, the finer their skin is. And a dove…certainly a Namaqua dove – Well, put it this way: no one, not even a top taxidermist, tackles a Namaqua dove – and certainly not on their first go at Taxidermy! Everybody else in the club was tackling Butcher birds, finches and ducks. Big things with thick skins. But I decided to tackle a Namaqua dove!
Every weekend, the head of Taxidermy would say to those boys who lived out on farms, be they Dawson or Stephens or Van de Merwe, ‘Listen, if you’re going out shooting on Sunday, can you get us some birds?’
‘Yeah, sure, sir. Anything you like, sir.’
So off they’d go on a Sunday morning and – Bang! Bang! Those farmers’ lads really would shoot anything. And they’d shoot them with ‘dust’ in their 4:10s, which was very fine, like pepper. When you put dust in a shot-gun and you shot a bird, it would kill the bird out right, but make very little damage to its skin. And it wasn’t just birds: those boys might even shoot a buck or a rabbit or a weasel. Whatever it was, they would bring it back and it was all laid out on the Monday evening ready to be stuffed by the members of the Taxidermy Club. And I chose a Namaqua dove.
‘What have you got there?’ the other boys asked.
‘A Namaqua dove,’ I replied.
‘Are you mad? A Namaqua dove? No one’s ever stuffed a Namaqua dove and lived to tell the tale.’
‘Well, I’m going to stuff this one…!’ I replied. And so I did.
The first task is to skin the bird, so that you can take the whole body out. You’re not taking the feathers off: you’re removing the skin which contains the feathers. So you peel the skin (with feathers attached) all the way up to the bird’s head, making sure you leave its skull in place. All the skinning process is meticulously done with a scalpel and a pair of tweezers, gently pushing the skin away from the bird’s body. You roll the skin up its legs and when you get to the bird’s knees, you cut them off with a pair of what look like toe-nail clippers. You carefully work the skin up to its neck and you peel it all the way up to its head. When you get up to the back part of its skull, you cut a triangle-shape in the back of its head with your scalpel. And that’s the skinning done.
The next task is to extract the brains and tongue, because they rot. So with your tiny tweezers, you pull the bird’s tongue out and you scoop out the brains with and little sort of picks. Once you’ve pulled all the brains out, you then stuff cotton wool soaked in Borax through the triangle shape in the back of the head into the space where its brains were and also into its beak where its tongue was. And then, this task complete, you pull the skin back over its skull, and you start to make a body for the bird.
To make the body, you measure the bird’s original body with calipers. Then you cut a piece of wire of the correct length, you wrap a lump of cotton wool or coir padding (the sort for stuffing chairs) around the middle of the wire, and you bind the stuffing with cotton. You make the shape of the body by looking at the bird’s discarded carcass, and gradually moulding the cotton and the quoir round the piece of wire until you’ve got the right shape.
You then fit the cotton-and-wire body into the bird’s skin. You carefully push the tip of the wire frame out of the top of the bird’s skull, and then you part its head feathers and clip the piece of metal off, before gently combing the feathers back into place. Look at any stuffed bird and, if you run your hand across the top of its head, you’ll find a piece of wire sticking out of its skull! Another wire goes all the way up each leg into the body and in this way, the bird can literally stand on its own two feet.
Finally you make the wings by threading a thin wire into the top part of each wing, and attaching them to the body. You then sew the skin up round the body, and your stuffed bird is complete.
Well, I mean this whole process is an art! It can’t suddenly be learnt in a week! But of course, I wanted to do it in a week. So I just made my dove and jammed the wire frame up into the top of its head. By which time, my poor bird had very few feathers left on it. Added to which, it had one wing above its head, and one wing below its head. (Its head was almost bald.) As for its eyes… There are little bead eyes which you push into the eye sockets. My bird had one eye which was completely closed so you couldn’t see it, and one eye wide open. The beak was all twisted because I’d got angry with the head at some stage when I hadn’t been able to stuff it properly. So all in all, my poor Namaqua dove was simply rather awful!
I left the Taxidermy club after one go. But that go had lasted six months, as I tried to stuff one tiny bird. But quite frankly I’d do anything to get out of this awful thing called prep.
* * * *
Finally there was the Drama Club.
They were holding auditions for the Ben Travers farce, The Reluctant Heroes, and there was one part they simply couldn’t cast: Lieutenant Gloria Dennis. Very few 13- and 14-year olds wanted to dress up as girls. But me – I’d do anything to get out of prep. (You could say it was just a fluke I became an actor really: I could’ve ended up as a taxidermist.) Yes, it was me who found himself playing Lieutenant Gloria Dennis, whose character seems to spend the whole time in the play being affronted. Affront is what she does.
Mrs Cartwright helped me with the make-up and I had to go to Barbour’s Store to buy a suspender belt. All the female shop assistants at Barbour’s had been told that there was a 13-year-old schoolboy coming in to try on women’s underwear, but they weren’t to worry – it was all for a play. Not that I minded what they were thinking – I was being taken out for the day, so that was all that mattered. Anything to get away from school!
My performance in The Reluctant Heroes was received quite well. Some of the boys even whistled at me. Laurence Much also played a female, but he was a private, whereas I was a lieutenant. (I was the bit of posh.) I was rather bold in my performance, and I had a military cap with a wig sewn into it, so that they couldn’t see that I was a boy underneath. Apparently I made quite an attractive woman. Well, Bruce Watkins thought I did. He was in my House, and I think he rather fancied me. And when he saw my shoes…! Well, a very funny thing used to happen with a lot of guys who joined the Drama Club. They’d suddenly talk in high-pitched voices. I think that was where all the gay crowd went, the Drama Club. (Not that I’d have known it; I still had no idea there was any such thing as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’.)
Lieutenant Gloria Dennis was the only role I played in the Drama Club that year, though I went on to become something of a hit in Gilbert and Sullivan. Clearly I had an aptitude for musicals. Though little did I know that I would one day play Bill Sykes in London’s West End.
What with the Lapidary Club, the Music Club, the Printing Club, the Taxidermy Club and the Drama Club – I think I might have even joined the Herpetology Club at some point – it was jolly difficult to fit everything in. As a result, I was rarely seen at prep. I attended the first hour from 7pm till 8pm, but the next hour till 9pm was mine.
It goes without saying that my school work deteriorated. In fact, it rapidly hit the deck!