poor boy – in a rich kids’ country town
aching journey from my valleys home
greedy people – how they hate each other so
all end up in the same place – why – I don’t know
I’m long gone
out of this place
freezing in a barn on a winter Sunday afternoon
schoolboy band – gonna make the bigtime soon
we gave a show – they just talked the whole way through
no boppy twelve bar
gonna put your hate across for you
There was a lady – I wanted her so
she carried her reality in a dream along with her too – like me
and the jocks said can these two freaks
ever really get it on?
she left soon – I need to think
it caused her some pain
walking between classrooms on a dripping february day
Ma’s bought me my Les Paul – my head is full of fire
y’know it’s gonna be
like Johnny B. Goode
the poor boy’s gonna buy this town – spraycan all over
(c) 1979, 1993, 2010 Cameron Pyke, Small Symphonies.
This miserable song is about my schooldays. It was written within three years of me leaving school.
For the bleeding heart stuff I can make no apology. Raw as it is, it only hints at the damage, to me and to others.
I was a bright kid and I won a scholarship which gave me a place in what was, at the time, South Wales’ most prestigious state grammar school. The drawback was that the family lived in Aberdare and the school was in Cowbridge – some thirty five miles of dreary B roads away.
Cowbridge Grammar School had a Boarding House of about 50 boys, mostly culled from the best 11+ results across the region and I became one of these Boarders. In addition there was the normal intake of Dayboys from the surrounding area which brought the numbers up to about 500.
The Gothic school buildings and the quiet country town were, on the surface, charming.
South Wales at the time was class polarised. Streetwise kids from the Valleys nowadays know that they need education. In the home town of my childhood many people had no time for education whatsoever. There was no need for it – the coal mines would provide – and they did. Few miners may actually have enjoyed working in the pits. But the unions were strong and housing was cheap. One of my abiding memories of Aberdare in the 60s and 70s was the number of new cars parked on the streets.
Education was for the Bosses. This attitude even pervaded grammar schools. I remember discussion about a grammar school kid (one of two that I knew of on the street) about to take an O level in English: would he pass (they don’t give O levels to just anybody, see) and why bother anyway?
With the hardcore working class so contemptuous of education and middle class values I suppose it was only natural for an environment like Cowbridge to develop.
There always were middle class ghettos. But my overriding impression is that go-getting ambitious parents converged on Cowbridge and its precious Grammar School on a phenomenal scale – that the population of the town was unnaturally skewed towards the professional, academic and successful. I believe this influx was at its height in the late sixties – never more so than when the grammar school system was in its last gasps.
Cowbridge was a hothouse for the competitive, aggressive, greedy and just plain nasty. To this day I can’t get over how many obnoxious people all ended up in the same place.
And that’s just the town.
Let’s try a thought experiment in social engineering. Let’s gather together 50 children from pushy parents with high aspirations – parents who may have themselves grown up feeling suffocated by the working class fire blanket on individualism – people who had something to prove – and if they couldn’t, their children would. Let’s confine them to close quarters and shut the door on them. Let’s deprive them of normal contact with adults, especially parents. Let’s make sure that apart from schoolwork they are largely unoccupied. Let’s deprive them of all privacy. Let these 50 or so kids be exclusively male…male adolescents. One other thing…let them by and large police themselves.
You couldn’t make this up, could you?
During my time in the Boarding House of Cowbridge Grammar School I was witness to and sometimes victim of violence, bullying and mental cruelty on a persistent daily basis that the modern day professional – police officer, social worker, teacher – would find shocking and inexcusable. Many years later I discovered in myself the outrage that this experience warranted, a way of life that was not normal, lawful or acceptable in a civilised country.
Part of the problem was the code – the unwritten gangster law which forbids whistleblowing and grassing up. This was accepted by the staff. Perhaps they felt powerless to get to grips with what was going on daily right under their noses but I have since seen how serious, committed professionals work to subvert and break down the code. Rather, I think the same protocols that protected bullies amongst the boys also served to protect violent and abusive staff.
During my first week at Cowbridge Gammar School I was beaten up by a senior master for running in the wrong direction in a games lesson – struck to the ground and given repeated blows to the head. I was 11. What of it? Plenty of people saw it. Plenty of people had the same treatment. Other members of staff must have known what was going on. Nobody said anything. So I didn’t.
What did I learn at Cowbridge? I learnt to look the other way and stay out of harm’s way. I learned to keep my head down and get by. I learned to exist in fantasy because reality was intolerable. I was lobotomised of my enthusiasm, intelligence and energy. I believe I was seriously depressed and nobody noticed or cared.
Pastoral care was non existent. Nobody questioned how a kid with potential when he joined the school degenerated to an almost vegetative state. There were plenty of success stories to draw attention away from those who were quietly underachieving. With an intake frothing over with talent and ambition there was no need to focus on kids with problems. As long as the yearly quota of Oxford and Cambridge entrances was secured, the school could be seen to be delivering. Not that I ever wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge. I’d already had first hand experience of the kind of people who went there.
I am savagely angry about these seven years, even more because having been through all this I did not get the education I needed. Any education professional who had thought about it for a minute would have steered me in a creative arts direction. Instead I found myself in an academic cul de sac with no idea how I had got there or how I would break free. To this day I am ashamed of my A levels – not the grades – the choices. Don’t ask.
So why didn’t I leave? Due to a perverse twist of financial fate following the death of my father, it was actually cheaper for me to stay in Cowbridge as a Boarder than live at home and attend a local grammar school. I did not, until very recently, tell my mother about the way things really were in Cowbridge. Had she known at the time there would have been no question of me staying.
As I’ve already said, I wrote Long Gone within three years of leaving school. It may have been an attempt to put the past behind me. In fact, I have never been able to shake myself free of my schooldays. As I get older I realise the depth and extent of the blight. All the profound negativity, underachievement and lethargy that I wrestle with daily with can be traced back to those years.
Everyone has damage. Lots of people have it (had it) far, far worse. The truth is, I am as much haunted by things that happened to others as happened to myself. I was never sexually abused.
Self pity is not my thing. Indeed, if I had been a whole lot less stoical and bleated appropriately at the appropriate times, things might have been different.
I accept that I am responsible for my own life, that I am the master of my own destiny.
Education should empower me in that responsibility. Instead, my education has burdened me with despair and futility that drags at every effort to move on.
Nevertheless I have moved on and I am still moving on. It’s not over yet.