Those people that end up returning to their old schools on programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? always trot out the cliché that “it’s a lot smaller than I remember.”
Some parts of Paisley Primary School, where I attended 1970-1975, are a lot bigger than I remember. There’s certainly more space outside, more green, I think the two-storey building that housed the classroom that was home to most of my addled memories (including that time David Holland pooed himself in class) met the bulldozer a while back.
The office, where I sat after flying headfirst into an uncompromising radiator prior to dripping blood all over the then head’s rather beautiful beige Rover P6 en-route to Hull Royal Infirmary still appears to be in the same place. There’s a familiar looking Victorian-era corridor that has echoes of my former footsteps.
The kids are about the same size as I was. Thinner, maybe. The undersized furniture too. The place is a lot cleaner. There’s no sign of the bottles of milk that Thatcher snatched just after my time there and, as a result, there’s no residual sour stench hanging in the air. There’s a thoroughly modern whiff around this Newington ward, west Hull primary. It’s mostly the same but different. Fresher. The staff are super lovely, the pupils the epitome of attentive and well-behaved. Just the odd remnant that is as confusing now as it was then. The separate but never used for their intended purpose different entrances for Boys and Girls. “What was it like in your day?” Like this, really. Only with more dangerous, head-splitting methods of heating the room. Boys and girls all went through the same door. More running around the place, despite the staff telling me otherwise. Less order. A different coloured uniform. No, no, we didn’t use the separate entrances.
A member of staff reminded the gathered Year 5s that it was the Victorians that liked to segregate the sexes at the point of entry. Dave is not a Victorian.
I was invited in by a pal who teaches there after I let slip that I was a former student. I was to talk about my career as a writer, part of a series of visits by former pupils talking about the world of work. They had, in advance, been prepped on who and what I was. “I hope you’ve not learned any of the bad bits,” I sent flying over their heads.
I tend not to look back. The last time I was anywhere near this place was, I think, in 1976, when I went to a St John’s First Aid class, and managed, before the class, to get my foot caught underneath a gate that used to hang at the end of the street, and had to receive treatment and a lifelong love of irony from St John’s. Clearly if I go anywhere near Paisley Street I have an accident and I can’t say the thought hadn’t entered my head that I might leave this visit in the back of an ambulance.
Anyway, what a lovely bunch. “What inspired you?” “This place.” It was true. Weekly trips from school to Anlaby Road’s Carnegie Library were the highlight of the week, then reading in class, writing, sharing stories, telling stories out loud, doing funny voices, sharing my favourite Edward Lear, encouraging teachers the likes of which I never really encountered again. Watching Mark Howard bite those teachers every other day. Being rubbish at sports (although I only remember us doing bean bag relay races and nothing else). My flights of fancy supported, my creativity nurtured, my career in the choir cut short because of my fits of giggling.
“I was one of those kids whose head was never out of a book. And that was never wrong. And then I knew I wanted to be a writer. What about you lot?” There were a lot of readers in the room. A lot of budding writers. A lot of stories to tell and voices to nurture. I was among friends, albeit short friends in extremely red jumpers (I later christened a Year 6 group I was providing with writing tips The Red Army).
Quite what they made of me I may never know, but I had a blast. They’re writing some words and I’m selecting some winners.
The head took me on a tour. Here is a school, like every Hull school, in a tough area, with a high proportion of students entitled to Free School Meals and big class sizes the norm but where, thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated staff, a beautiful learning environment has been created. It was good back in the day but it feels much more conducive to receiving a good education right here right now. That’s a magnificent effort in the current climate. The head also told me, proudly, that the school has recently been successful in securing a sizable amount of money to purchase some new books. So the readers will have plenty to read, and the budding writers will take those first steps, and their words will make a difference in the future.
I left the school and went to see my mother, now ensconced in a residential care home. We each ate a Breakaway, another 1970s throwback, to go with our instant cappuccinos. “I’ve just been back to school,” I told her. “Paisley? Oh, lovely. You liked it there. Was it a lot smaller than you remember?” Sort of the same, really, but its heart was bigger. A lot bigger.