Sunday, 11 November 2012

Dinner at the Hamlet

Upstairs, Downstairs. Those of us in the first and second years of the Dulwich Hamlet Junior School in the late 1970s ate their dinner in the lower dining hall. Those higher up the school – I left after two years so never got there – would eat upstairs. After morning lessons, we would all hover in the school playground outside the dining hall. Over the entrance was a blackboard, listing each class, in the order they were due to go in for the meal. Every so often, a bell ringer would emerge from the doorway: one of the teachers, together with a pupil. While the teacher clanged the bell, the pupil would brandish a white card showing in black the class whose turn it was to enter. It was as though the bell was ringing out the name of the class: “1F,1F, 1F, 1F, 1F”. F stood for Francis, Mrs Francis, the name of my class teacher.

This was quite new. My two previous schools, both in Coventry, had been reassuring places at mealtimes. This was noisy, chaotic. Beyond the tables, at the opposite end of the hall from where we trooped in, was the kitchen, the long serving hatch and the dinner ladies. Memories of the first day are acute. One of the white-capped dinner ladies had purple hair. My mother was highly amused at me when I reported this to her agitatedly when she collected me from school that day. “What charming people you have at your school”, she told me, reassuringly. The next day it was a smiling woman with pointy black eyebrows who made me nervous: she seemed to be staring at me; I couldn’t take my eyes off her. But the dinner ladies gradually became friends. Particularly Ivy, “the pudding cook”: orange-haired; squat; a dry, bark-brown, powdery, wrinkled face with a lipstick smile. "There’s a dinner lady called Ivy at every school”, my father explained to me. Ivy signed her name elegantly in my autograph book on my last day at the school: “I. Smith”. She was the provider of Arctic Roll, of chocolate sponge and of my very favourite, jam sponge: a crispy top, a little jam underneath the sponge. I always refused custard. I also blenched one day at sickly rose hip syrup and, another time, a revolting thing called "Queen of Puddings", cold, slimy and flabby.

The food took some getting used to: day one introduced me to grey, heavy, strong-tasting, meaty lumps of beef burgers. I couldn’t get through mine and was reprimanded by Mr Holmes, the master in charge, but he permitted me to get away with it on that first day. I grew fond of the burgers over time and even of Mr Holmes. The thought of having male teachers for the first time had made me anxious before I joined the school. Dressed in a green suit, Mr Holmes was a tall, lean and scathing schoolmaster, with a slightly sinister, hungry grin and a voice that carried. “There is a boy here who is not allowed to eat flour”, he bellowed on that first day, and everyone fell silent. “Would he please go to the kitchen and discuss what he can eat with the kitchen staff”. The singled-out boy in question quickly obeyed his instructions.

Puddles of mince – soya mince – I could not eat. On another occasion, it was Miss Ware who was in charge in that lower dining hall. I had bizarrely and stupidly chosen “spam fritter”, something I had never tried before. The first mouthful, strange and foreign-tasting, was manageable. But I realised quickly that I could not eat much more. Our plates had to be inspected before we were allowed to return them to the kitchen hatch. Miss Ware was unimpressed with the amount still on my plate and told me to eat just the spam. “But it’s the spam I don’t like”, I told her, plaintively and truthfully. She took pity on me. “Well just eat the fritter then”, and I returned to the table, relieved and did as I had been told. Another teacher, Mrs Selvum-Holly, used an alternative, kindly, technique on pupils who had not emptied their plates.“Just three more spoonfuls”, she would cajole and it was not hard to obey, by making the spoonfuls particularly small. Rounds of mashed potato, crisped on top, which I soaked in vinegar, I remember as being edible, but I cannot remember what they were called.

Yet the thought of going without lunch, however foul the food, once filled me with raw misery. It happened on about my second day at the school. Every morning before assembly, Mrs Francis would collect each member of the class’s “dinner money”. But that day I had been given no such money by my mother and was alone in the class in not handing up my little brown envelope with its coins inside that were to pay for lunch. Nobody had noticed, seemingly, and nothing was said to me. I sat through assembly, in miserable fear, as the teacher read us a story about Simon and the Witch, generating gales of laughter from everyone except me. Back in the classroom, either I approached the teacher or she came up to me and I was told that my mother had already paid for a term’s school dinners by cheque. I felt a fool, but a relieved fool.

After we had finished eating lunch, we were not allowed to hang around and so “I’ll wait outside for you” became a familiar thing to say to the slower eater. I fantasised once that I would persuade everyone in the dining hall to wait outside for me; two lines would then grow along the school playground; and I would emerge and process all the way between the two lines (is there a word for such a concept?) to the end. Of course, I admitted to myself, there would be some who would not be there as comrades but as enemies, no doubt sticking out an unkind leg to make me fall. Now the word for that is gauntlet.

Once, I emerged from the dining hall to find not a procession but everyone rooted at various spots in the school playground, booing loudly. Knowing nothing about what was going on, I joined in. The reason emerged when, later, the Headmaster, Mr Dartnell, summoned the school to the assembly hall. Those who had started the jeers had been insulting visitors from another school and we were all admonished. By contrast, on another day, those of us who volunteered to clear litter from “Sainsbury’s Field” after a sports day, were rewarded with a can of drink: my first 7-Up.

At another assembly, there was an announcement from Mr Dartnell. It must have been winter of discontent time. The kitchen ladies were going on strike and we would all have to bring packed lunches. Cheers erupted. Mr Dartnell was indignant: “You have the best school dinners in the whole of South London”, he insisted. But we never saw him at lunch, except for once a year at the Christmas lunch when he crept into the dining hall and said a few words in hushed tones - “Ah...this is…er...our Christmas Dinner…” - ending in an invitation to us to raise a cheer for the dinner ladies.

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