We’ll meet again
“ALL RIGHT, you ’orrible little lot, let’s be ’aving you!” I shouted at the group of some 30 or so nine-year-olds, standing in a straggling semi-circle, clutching little suitcases and home-made gas masks, and wearing labels with their names on around their necks. They stared at me in silent wonder.
“My name’s Mr Jones,” I barked. “I want no back-chat and no messin’ around.” I glared at them over my horn-rimmed spectacles. “And don’t forget, it’s 1942, and there’s a war on.”
It was all part of a Second World War school exercise dreamed up by Daniel Reeves, at one time a member of the cast of Les Misérables, but now a resourceful young teacher at Moulsecoomb Primary School, where I am a governor. The children had dressed up in 1940s-style school dress, had made their own gas masks, filled their cases with some clothes and a packed lunch, and were then seen off with much hanky-waving by their parents and carers from Moulsecoomb Station.
They went one stop along the track, and were met by me, a nasty billeting officer, dressed in ’40s-style jacket and waistcoat, and hair slicked back with wet-look gel in place of Brylcreem.
The tie had caused me problems, partly because I could find only one (last used in a performance of Crown Matrimonial when I was a curate, some 20 years ago), and then I could hardly remember how to tie it. I wear a clerical collar for formal occasions, and, if informal, then open-neck or T-shirt. I looked in the mirror before I left, seeing myself some 20 years older, scarily like Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army. I did consider a marker-pen moustache, but decided that the danger of its remaining indelible for Sunday morning had better be avoided.
FALMER Station, where I met them, is the stop for Brighton and Sussex Universities, and Brighton and Hove Albion’s enormous new AMEX Stadium, but, as it was 1942, I told them that we were still out in the countryside, with post-war building schemes just a figment of their imagination.
As we walked across the concrete, I warned them about nettles, mud, and farm gates. They weren’t fooled.
“You’re Father John,” one said.
“Father John?” I said. “’Oo’s ’e when ’e’s at ’ome? I’m Mr Jones,” and glared again.
We marched them for ten minutes over to Falmer, an idyllic English country village, with pond, church, and village hall, on the edge of Brighton although, technically, still affiliated to Lewes.
The Priest-in-Charge of Falmer, Canon Andrew Robinson, met us, and, after a quick gas-mask practice (“Gas! Gas! Gas! Masks on!”), they filed into the church, where they sat, waiting to be picked by “locals” who would tell them where they would be billeted, and what their lives would be like as evacuee children for the next few years.
Achingly, some three or four children were left to sit in the pews, unchosen and unwanted.
I had managed to get a real evacuee, Ray Blackwood, later a formidable Mayor of Brighton, to talk to them about what it was like to be uprooted from home and in a strange place.
Then, the most moving piece of all. Kath, a member of one of our parish congregations and herself an evacuee, had written an account of her experience of being evacuated to a big house in Yorkshire, where she was so unhappy that she ran away and hid on the Yorkshire moors.
She tried to find kindness in a church, but after being told — twice — that she was in someone else’s seat, she lost her courage, left, and did not go back. She later tried the local chapel, and was met with warmth and acceptance, and eventually was re-billeted with the minister and his wife.
This heartfelt account, typed on an old typewriter and held together with a safety pin, and never heard before, anchored the exercise and gave it depth and reality. The children sat silent and absorbed.
The next day, they were still excited, and I was greeted in assembly with a chorus of “Good morning, Mr Jones.” They had written postcards home with an account of their lives to be, and a picture of the church drawn on the front, before lunch and train home.
All in all, it was an example of Moulsecoomb Primary School at its best.
WHEN people ask me what my parish is like, I often tell them about the school, and certain statistics that go with it.
The national average of Special Educational Needs (SEN) in the country is, I believe, about 20 per cent — that is, one child in five has educational needs that require special support and help, including those children who are specially gifted and talented.
Moulsecoomb Primary has 80 per cent SEN — that is, four children in five. This is because of the nature of the area from which they come, and the level of development with which they come to us.
We also are given challenging children from other schools, as we are known to be good for SEN. We have few extra resources for this, but carry on anyway, with initiatives such as Mr Reeves’s evacuation exercise — imaginative ideas, which really make a difference to the quality of the educational experience our children receive. We recently got a “School of the Year” award, and quite right, too.
I am very proud of being a governor there — even if it means I have to age 20 years, dress like my grandfather, and use dodgy hair-products. Clerical dignity at all times, I like to think.
The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.