Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Annexe

Cartwright, Mackey, 'Chalkie' White, Pearson, 'Bummer' Bob Staddon and other teachers (whose names I stand little chance of remembering) would always do their best to impress the same notion onto all of us Hele's School boys: that the years we spent in their classrooms would be the happiest of our lives.

Of course, as rebellious urchins with snot-stained blazer sleeves, scuffed shoes and heads full of mischief, we would never accept such a fanciful notion. And, a few heart-warming episodes aside, I still don't. I think the best years came later. But I have a certain fondness for these formative times - and I still recall some of the more enjoyable details as well as the moral lessons I learned way back then.

The first two years of 'big school' were spent on a semi-derelict former POW camp on the edge of the city of Exeter. I was in form 22B in 1976, aged 12. It evolved into 32B after a year. Our first home-base was a once-portable temporary wood cabin in a square of grass between the more permanent 1940s brick blocks on the old military barracks. All of these huts surrounded in a typically random arrangement (to confuse would-be Luftwaffe pattern bombers) a large quad, where we would run around, play football or terrorise each other with tales of invading fourth or fifth form bullies.

At lunchtimes and breaks, a few pence could be made through a rudimentary shove ha'penny game, up against the wall of the block where Cartwright took woodwork. And once a week or so, all these pennies could be blown at the Tuck Shop, or Chalkie White's stamp auctions.

We had a school hall which abutted onto a canteen where paper dinner tokens pinched off a roll like bus tickets were exchanged for meals on small plastic plates, laid out on semi-hexagonal, yellow formica-topped tables. We had a metalwork room that smelled of oil and allegedly had a wild mouse in residence, and there were a couple of science blocks where we frequently ran amok with stolen chemicals. Away from the main drag was a music room where inappropriate records with naughty words were brought in to spin on the cumbersome school gramophone whenever Chalkie couldn't be arsed to try to teach us anything.

We behaved horrendously around our science teacher, Mr Urry, who drove a three-wheeler car and had not even the slenderest inkling of how to control us. Poor sod. And we were constantly reminded by one particular teacher - I don't remember his name but can picture him now, plain as day - that there were kids in Papua New Guinea who would 'cut off their right hands' (his words) for a chance of the sort of education which we were permanently so flippant about. Well, whoopee doo...

I remember my first (and last) after-school detention, but I don't remember what it was for. I remember getting into HUGE trouble for stealing exercise books and other bits and pieces, and I remember the alternating piping hot/ice cold showers in the grit-covered games block next to the quad.

Once I'd left, I never expected to ever have cause to return. But for shits and giggles I went back to the annexe a few years ago and took a cautionary look around. The site, under development according to a large wooden sign, was fenced off from the roadside but I was able to crawl through a gap in the hedge, a 40-something intruder with no plausible alibi if I were to be nicked by security. The whole place was protected by guard dogs, according to the warning sign, but once through the hedge I could see or hear none. And I could see or hear nothing particularly worth protecting, either.

All the brick-block buildings had already been torn down to their foundations. Grass and even a few young trees were growing in tufts through wide chasms in the long-abandoned concrete floor of what had been the school hall. With a little effort, I was able to work out my old routes from science block to English class... past the pathway where I was (quite justifiably) given a bloodied nose in front of a gaggle of 20 or so baying boys by Paul Hooper in 1976. I'd called him a 'turd'. Sorry Paul.

I found deep track marks where 22B's home classroom had once stood, and recalled setting off a load of fireworks there (brought back from family hols in Sweden). I walked up and down steps to a maths block that I'd last walked up and down 30 or so years before - with the obvious difference that these now went nowhere. And I identified the path to the gateway towards the main road, which led to Top Field, down Wood Water Lane and to my home - where in the 1970s my dad would have been waiting in his armchair, having finished his super-early shift delivering bread, to hear my adventures or misadventures of the day.

I also found part of the floor of the shower block with broken water pipes still sticking out of the drains like a mini ground zero; a perverse shrine to bad, bad rugby matches on turf which seemed to always be intercut with razor-sharp granules of sand. Not good on the knees. I picked up a piece of floor tiling and twisted it between my fingers, letting boyhood feelings, memories and ghostly voices slip through the decades towards me. I stood in the quad and had a good look around, feeling guilty and a little angry with myself for getting so nostalgic and almost tearful. "They're just the remains of buildings," I sort of reassured myself. "What am I thinking? That this place should be kept as a permanent memorial to my youth, just in case I one day want to have another look around? Ha."

I put the tile fragment on the dashboard of my car and drove away. The annexe has since been completely remodelled into housing blocks and bears zero resemblance to its past life. I caught it just before it completely lost its shape. In time, the souvenir shard of tile that I took back with me to London disappeared somewhere too - as all keepsakes must, eventually. It's time to say goodbye to the old Annexe. Goodbye.


  1. Super memories from 22B (the best form of all) the Papua New Guinea teacher was Farrell which he informed us meant "pig farmer in Papua New Guinea, hence he was known as Papuan New Guinea pig. Good memories.

  2. I was in 22b from '83. My year was the last year to do two full years at the barracks..I also remember teachers mentioned. Also Mad Man Davey plus Space chicken aka Mr Livsey the great Mr Dudding aka Dr Who and finally Mr freaky deaky Deacon