This picture ‘Scotland Forever’, showing the Scots Greys charging at Waterloo, hung on the wall of the classroom where my mother went to school.
This was in the twenties…the nineteen twenties…when things were not quite as child centred as they are at the present.
The child was there to learn to read, to write – neatly – and do ‘sums’, all of which would befit it for life. Girls would do needlework and cookery, boys would do woodwork and gardening and great emphasis was placed on the glories of the British Empire and the obligation to be patriotic.
Methods were somewhat elementary….when learning to read a number of words were chalked on the blackboard and each child was given a word which it must recognise when called to the front of the class. In mother’s case, her word was ‘burn’ and when she hesitated a little before pointing to it the teacher took both her hands and held them briefly over the red hot coke stove which heated the classroom, saying firmly, ‘burn’.
Later in school life the girls were shown how to run a household, though her mother’s comments on a whole afternoon spent washing, starching and ironing a shirt verged on the unprintable as in that time the redoubtable housewife, ‘dirty’ jobs being completed in the morning, could have ironed the shirts of a regiment and made a victoria sponge while the flat irons were heating on the hob.
Cookery was undertaken too….enlivened by the presence of girl called Sybil who came from a large family. When asked to bring an oven dish to make rhubarb pie she arrived with the smallest possessed by her mother…large enough to take the sticks of rhubarb whole.
Her finest moment came in the end of year examination where the task was to make bread…without a recipe, as they were supposed to have learned this by heart during the school year.
Sybil had measured and mixed, kneaded and proved and was quite happy as she placed her loaf tin in the oven of the cast iron stove.
Later, however, she whispered to her friends that things had taken a turn for the worse..She had slid aside the peephole on the oven to check progress and a ribbon of dough had emerge, oozing its way down the oven door, solidifying as it progressed.
Clearly she had overestimated the amount of yeast …what should she do?
The council of war decided on drastic action. They would remove the loaf tin, scrape off the excess and put it back in the oven in the hope that it would look fairly normal…
Which was fine until they opened the oven door and something the size of a large cushion plopped out…leaving a heavy burnt crust on all the internal surfaces of the oven.
Discovery was inevitable and the clean up took forever.
So that day they missed playtime where the girls would skip or play hopscotch while one group of boys would link arms and run round the playground singing
‘Are you ready for the fight?
We are the Romans’
To be met by another group of boys who would reply
‘Yes, we’re ready for the fight
We are the English soldiers’
After which a pell mell would ensue until broken up by the sound of the whistle for the end of playtime.
Patriotism was not left to the playground however.
Mother remembers the preparations for an Empire Day celebration for which the children were kitted out with broad brimmed hats in red, white and blue and were marshaled onto a slope in the gardens of the local charitable hospital which, despite being run by nuns, was pardoned for its catholicism by its care for veterans of the Great War.
The idea was that the coloured hats would make up an image of the Union Jack and the children were drilled into moving in groups in order to simulate the flag waving in the breeze to suitable patriotic music
Brigade of Guards, eat your heart out!
Patriotic music, in that time, seemed to consist of ‘God Save the King’ – George V – and ‘Rule Britannia’ accompanied by ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag’….though ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’ , nomatter how popular with the troops, was judged to be beyond the pale in polite society.
I suppose now that the globe is no longer coloured with the red of the British Empire patriotic fervour is somewhat diminished.
You do hear it at the last night of the Proms.. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ from Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches…known to us in my student days as ‘Land of Bullshit and Tories’..
Long gone are the days when the House of Commons would rise as one to sing ‘Britons strike home’ – the classic patriotic song before the popularity of ‘Rule Britannia’ – as it did when Pitt the Younger announced that his attempts to reach a peaceful solution with revolutionary France had failed and that war must inevitably continue.
Can you imagine for one moment the current time serving lackeys of finance rising to sing anything but ‘Happy days are here again’ when their expenses claims are paid?
As Great Britain becomes a minor player on the world stage…enter right in support of the U.S.A….patriotic fervour seems to have been relegated to the sporting arena.
Thus the Barmy Army mangling Blake’s wonderful ‘Jerusalem’ at the start of Test matches…
But should there be a competition for the best sporting anthem which reflects the Britain of today my vote goes to this…
‘Vindaloo’ by Fat Les.
Inclusive, happy and totally daft.