A few readers seem to have enjoyed my recent ramblings about what it was like growing up in the Mourne country of County Down in the fifties and sixties. They wondered if I had any more tales about how the world was back then.
Now I have to confess I rarely visit Kilkeel town nowadays. The folk I skylarked and grew up with back then have largely passed on to a happier place, or have scattered to every corner of the world. My computer helps me keep in touch with a few and, as recounted in the first of these little pieces a week or so back, my old school friend John and I met up recently and have since kept in touch by e-mail.
They say that distance lends enchantment and that one’s memory plays tricks as we draw closer to the Zimmer frame age. To paraphrase old Bill Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, who had a pithy word for nearly everything, most of us finish up sans just about everything—hair, teeth, eyesight, energy and all the other things we took for granted when we were younger. I suppose the modern way of expressing it is “Life’s a bitch—and then you die!”
All that apart, Kilkeel was a happy little town and most of my memories of it are pleasant ones. Apart from a few fortunate folk, nobody seemed to be overburdened with a great deal of money, no matter how hard they worked, Yet there were more smiles than tears and, for the most part, people seemed to manage fairly, even if luxuries came few and far between.
My primary (grade) schoolmaster was an austere Dubliner who rejoiced in the name Harley Lyle Sleith. He ruled his little domain with the proverbial rod of iron. More accurately, his rod was a whippy bamboo cane which made our hands burn when he administered corporal punishment. I once got four of the best for doing something I shouldn’t when he stepped out of the classroom for a minute.
A fellow student, who suffered the same treatment, retaliated by hurling a knife at the master and it stuck, quivering in the blackboard, a scant six inches from his head. We didn’t see that particular pupil again.
Yes, our schoolmaster wasn’t noted for taking too many prisoners. I recall him once catching out his own son Dermot in telling a little white lie. He administered a fearful dressing down in front of the entire class, added four of the best for good measure, and made the poor lad sit on a stool in the corner for the rest of the day, a large placard strung around his neck bearing the legend “I am a liar and not to be trusted.”
I like to think that, over the six or so years I was there, Mr Sleith and I developed a sort of understanding, at first a trifle grudging on both our parts. There were probably two reasons for this. First, English was my favourite subject and I think he secretly appreciated that. It began when I was kept in after school for an hour’s detention and told to write an essay on whatever subject I fancied.
Cheekily enough, I penned a little piece on the futility and failings of a system of education which could incarcerate a student indoors in a stuffy classroom on a roasting hot day when he should have been outside playing cricket with his mates in God’s clear fresh air.
I thought I had gone too far as I sat waiting while he read my literary effort. Instead he fixed me with his intimidating ten-second stare before saying “Cut along to your practice then. You’ll still have time for an hour or so before tea.”
Was there a twinkle in his eye as he spoke? I could never be sure, but as coach and leading umpire of the town’s cricket club, he adored the game, and afterwards seemed to devote a great deal of extra time to improving my batting and bowling.
A few years later, when I played my first game for the club’s first eleven, I managed to take four wickets for two runs. As he gave my fourth victim out LBW (leg before wicket) he whispered for my ear alone “Fleming, that was a dreadful ball.”
“Really,” I said, a touch cheekily. “Must have been pretty straight though, or surely you wouldn’t have given him out.”
I was treated to the famous and well-remembered ten-second stare, but I’d finished primary school the previous year, had just captured my fourth victim in my first serious cricket match and, to paraphrase Clark Gable’s immortal line in Gone with the Wind.
“Quite frankly, my dear Mr Sleith, I don’t give a damn.”