Nicky Ellis ploughed the field beside our school. Up and down he went, with horse and plough, like an hypnotic shuttle in a loom. You could watch him all day if you had the time, or if you were tall enough to see out of the school windows, or if the Board of Works architects in bygone days, had thought of making the windows low enough for small children to see some of the wonders of God’s creation. But the wonders of God’s creation were not factored into the education of small children. Only the teacher could watch Nicky Ellis, ploughing and sowing, harvesting and gathering in, during school hours. He was hypnotised by the repetitive process. He raised his hand in salute, every time Nicky came to the end of a furrow and turned the horse near the classroom window. He drifted into a reverie, perhaps a reverie of the time he decided to devote himself to education, to cast forth the seed of learning upon fertile young minds. Perhaps he was half asleep. Early afternoon is the danger time for drowsiness. Arís, he would say to whoever was reading aloud. Arís. Again.
You could stare at the back of his head, silhouetted against the bright window, until the image was burnt onto your retina. You could take that image, red and green, and blink, bouncing him all around the classroom. KAPOW, ZAP,WALLOP, TAKE THAT! all accompanied by flashing lights. Persistence of vision, primitive photography, moving, action-packed pictures . Arís. Arís. Sometimes the reader stumbled, because of the muffled sniggering around him. Arís. It could take twenty minutes or even longer, on a drowsy afternoon, until Nicky’s rhythm took him away to one side, out of line with the window. This was though, a time for comics. They slid out from under desks, to be read furtively until the teacher’s torpor receded and normal service resumed. Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Tim Holt and others, blazed away at outlaws and rustlers. Their guns said Blam! Blam! not Bang! Roy was definitely the best dressed of all the Western heroes. His horse, Trigger, can still be seen in the Roy Rogers museum, as sagacious an animal as could be imagined. I tried saying Blam! in games of cowboys and Indians in the Ballier, but it didn’t convince anyone. ‘I’m out of range.’ ‘You missed.’
I had a Batman comic annual, on shiny paper, with full colour. It came, of course, from America. I have no idea how I got it. The boy beside me wanted it. He hungered for it. It was beautiful. Batman wore a purple costume, with a hood and fake ears (?) He wore a cape, not really practical for climbing buildings and swinging on ropes. He wore swimming trunks and a mask, as all superheroes do. He had a partner called Robin, the Boy Wonder, similarly attired. What was going on there? My classmate offered me all sorts of inducements to give him the comic– even his glasses. He was very short sighted. I contemplated a supreme act of generosity and magnanimity… but I didn’t part with it. It was probably the outstanding bit of colour in the dark and dreary Forties. Now it’s too late and I regret not giving it to him. I would have got credit in Heaven, but I couldn’t have deprived him of his glasses. Batman made it to television and film. Television stations were inundated with complaints when they covered the return of Apollo 13. Batman was postponed. The Apollo 13 men didn’t wear masks, so they couldn’t possibly have been heroes.I’m a bit embarrassed that I admired Batman when I was eleven years old. Robin was an irritating twerp. I believe he has been terminated.
I’m not embarrassed about The Wizard and Adventure. They gave exactly what the covers promised. There were footballers from humble backgrounds, who astonished the Snobs and the Toffs. Snobs and Toffs are the natural enemies of boys. I learned about John L. Sullivan, Alf Tupper, R.A.F. heroes of the Battle of Britain, Rockfist Rogan being the greatest of them all. A fist of rock is the best weapon for dealing with swarthy foreigners, even when flying fighter planes. Look at that brave chap on the cover of The Wizard, taking on a jihad-load of foreigners. Eh, quite topical actually. That must be a plucky British chap clinging onto the speeding super-car, driven, no doubt by a dastardly foreigner. I followed the career of the world’s greatest athlete, W.W. Wilson who lived in a cave on Ex or Dartmoor. He was 150 years old, miraculously preserved by an ascetic diet, supplemented by herbs and lichens. He was taught by an older hermit, who had witnessed the execution of Charles I. The hermit was about 250 years old. Wilson wore an old-fashioned, one-piece running costume, (back in fashion again.) He ran in his bare feet. He broke the four minute mile by about thirty seconds, before Roger Bannister had laced up his running shoes. Spoilsports would say that he was on drugs.
I Googled The Beano, by way of research. It appears that Denis the Menace has been civilised and rendered politically correct, since I followed his escapades, surreptitiously under the desk. He is friends with Walter the Softy. Walter has a girl-friend, so everything is okay there too. Nobody gets caned or walloped with a slipper. Those savages in the Bash Street school have adopted the highest standards of good manners and civility towards their teacher. I had a jumper like Smiffy’s. I don’t know if the teacher carries a cane or wears a mortar-board anymore. I always thought the mortar-board looked daft. Desperate Dan of The Dandy, by the way, has gone vegetarian and carries a water-pistol. Standards have indeed fallen. I don’t know what kids are coming to at all at all.
That was Nicky Ellis’s field. There are two new schools there now, a community centre, a tennis court and various sports pitches. Nobody plants spuds or leeks there. Cabbages and turnips no longer takes it by turns, to fill the furrows. You never see a horse at work there. If you need to mask the smell of a clandestine cigarette, you won’t be able to pluck a carrot or scallion on your way past. Nicky grew them all in the warm, fine soil of lower Skerries. He was deserving of a salute.
To be fair, I too fell asleep in class on a sultry May afternoon. I dozed off, while sitting at my table. I was actually talking at the time. Eh…I was the teacher. A new standard in boringness. Arís agus arís eile. What would the Bash Street Kids have done?