(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – February 2021)
This is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents in this post are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The attitudes and events represented in this post do not reflect the author’s own views, but are a reflection of some of the historical social mores of the 1970s.
Saying farewell to the golden summer of ’76 and the God Awful School, my Dad – being Head of History in one of Birmingham’s grammar schools – pulled some academic strings to secure an interview for me at one of the same to enter the Sixth Form. I was disappointed as I found the appeal of a Sixth Form College, where I could wear jeans and smoke, far more alluring.
And so it came to pass, one bright September morning, I found myself sitting on a straight backed chair in a Head Mistress’s office; arms folded across my denim jacket with smiley badges and an Indian cotton bandana tied around my long hair. A portrait of the Head Mistress stared at me from behind a large oak desk. There was no escape. As I nonchalantly chewed a stick of gum, it struck me that the oak pannelled walls lent the occasion an air of authority and reverence which the 1950s Secondary Modern had singularly lacked. I fiddled nervously with a string of Love Beads on my wrist in an effort to avoid eye contact contact with the portrait, which felt unnerving. The deep turn-ups on my jeans hid a pair of white cowgirl boots with Cuban heels, which I dug into the polished, parquet floor as I tried to feign interest. Mother sat at my side in her mink stole with a determined smile. The Head Mistress, Miss Millicent, bore down at me through her horn-rimmed glasses.
“We do not allow are gels to wear denhem trousers here.”
I could only focus on the gold pendant watch which hung from her academic gown and her stout, heavily perfumed bosom. This was a whole new ball game.
The formalities completed, I entered the ‘Sick’ Form in what was affectionately known as the ‘Brothel on the Hill’ in September 1976. Miss Millicent had a slight speech impediment, which, in those far-off pre-politically correct days of the 1970s, caused great mirth amongst the ‘gels’, who would wait for it in assembly:
“The Sick Form will congregate in the fwayaye after Retheption.”
A ripple of giggles passed through the hall like a Mexican wave. There was a very grave matter:
“It hath come to my attenthion, that there is deficathion on the Eatht Wing Lavatory walls. Those who are rethponthible know who they are. Ath no-one hath come forward, I shall have no recourth but to call an exthrodinary athembly at four o’clock.”
The school duly assembled at four o’clock. Nobody owned up and we sat in silent ‘detenthion’ for half an hour. It was rumoured that Edith Smyth in the Lower Fourth was the culprit. Edith Smyth – with her rosy cheeks and pigtails!
It was at ‘The Brothel on the Hill’ that I began to tread the boards. Playing the legendary Music Hall star of the Edwardian era, Marie Lloyd in ‘Oh! What a Lovely War,’
I was showered with ten pence pieces as I belted out, ’I’ll Make a Man Out of Every One of You!’ to the assembled Boys’ School next door, with whom the ‘gels’ collaborated. (They not only collaborated on certain creative projects, but also in the study bays in the sixth form block, where a ‘lookout’ was posted.)
Amongst the cast was a very bright, talented and amusing young lad who went on to become a famous fiction crime writer. He wrote a review of the play in the school magazine, showcasing his obvious skills as a writer and complimenting my ‘verve’. The smell of the greasepaint and roar of the crowd lit a fuse and I set my heart on becoming an actress.
It was at “The Brothel on the Hill” that I made friends with Rachel Sadler, whose blonde Farrah Fawcett flicks and wedge sandals I found most impressive; especially considering that our uniforms were measured periodically by Miss Millicant with a ruler through those horn-rims:
“Two inches above or below the knee gels – two inches!”
Emboldened by Rachel’s bravado, I sneaked into school one hot day in a pair of peep-toe cork sandals. The Games Mistress — a statuesque Scottish blonde with ruddy cheeks — hauled me up in the corridor bellowing:
“Scarboro — where are your tights? The school would be a very smelly place indeed if all the gels went about without tights!”
“But surely the school would be even smellier in this heat if all the girls did wear their tights?” I protested.
I begged Rachel – the netball captain and Head of Warwick House – not to include me in the inter-house match; but as Deputy Head of Warwick I had no choice. I hated netball and knew I would let the side down. With her ‘flicks’ sprayed into position, Rachel was formidable on court — one of those sporty, outdoor types. I was lousy. Within the first two minutes of play, I knocked Rachel to the ground whereupon she scraped all the skin off both knees. She was stretchered off and I was sent off. The Games Mistress stopped play with her whistle and demanded an explanation from me,
“I told you not to make me play!”
And lastly it was here that I fell asleep in A Level History, sprawled across my desk under Miss Spinks’ nose during a lecture on James the First. She left me alone until the end of the lesson, when she asked me to summarise to the class, the effects of ‘The Great Contract of 1610’ on the Commons. I sat up and yawned.
Friday morning assemblies were refreshing. They were entirely devoted to ‘singing’ (I say this loosely) and the ‘gels’ were allowed to choose three songs from a limited repertoire. This included the ‘School Song’ , ‘Morning Has Broken’ as well as my particular favourite, “The Lavender Cowboy”, which went like this:
“He was only a Lavender Cowboy,
With only three hairs on his chest
And he rode on a filly called Daffadowndilly
The prettiest horse in the West.”
(Harold Hersey 1923)
Our Music teacher, Miss Petal, took charge of these assemblies with great flourish. A physically slight woman of indeterminate years, jewelled glasses on a chain and an Iron Lady hairstyle, she had devoted her life to the school. She would appear Stage Right and strike a dramatic chord on the piano. She had our full attention. Clasping two castanets, she crossed the stage in towering heels as she led the school with her thin, strained soprano voice in “The Lavender Cowboy”. Having finished the song, Miss Petal would disappear off stage behind a heavy velvet curtain and re-emerge Stage Left, pretending to ‘haul’ a heavy rope over her shoulder as she bent forward almost to the floor (a feat in itself in those heels).
As she ‘hauled’ she sang ‘The Volga Boatsong’; throwing her voice into a sudden and surprising deep baritone:
“Yo Heave Ho!
Yo Heave Ho!”
Three hundred girls held their collective breath; fighting fits of giggles as Miss Petal brandished her castanets with a ‘click, click, clack’.
“Come along girls, Yo Heave Ho!”
The Upper ‘Sick’ Form were in hysterics in our privileged seats in the balcony; trying hard to stifle grunts as we slid to the floor helpless with laughter. Miss Millicent shot us a glance from her carved podiam.
I looked forward to Friday mornings and Gave Thanks for Miss Petal in the closing prayer.
I managed to come out of ‘The Brothel on the Hill’ with two E’s in A Level History and English. Mum was thrilled that I had at least completed a rudimentary education. Dad still maintained that I would make a great nurse.
As the other girls collected their A Level certificates from Miss Millicent with a pat on the back and a “Well done gels!” as they headed for Oxbridge, I set my sights on the theatre – not too difficult a task for a drama queen.
(Copyright: Andrea Burn March 12th 2021)