The association between pre-pubescent schoolboy truancy and the consumption of school food has always been close, thus, while this anecdote may not be extraordinary, it surely has the force of multiple attestation behind it.
The size of the dining-room made a firm impression on me as I embarked on my educational Odyssey, kitted out in what seemed like the regulation Billings & Edmonds tweed jacket at the tender age of seven, nearly eight. Leaving aside the toxic qualities of the floor polish, what struck me most was the height of the ceiling which looked down upon a U-shaped configuration of tables and chairs, all equally well-polished and thrust to either side of the room.
Such regimentation allowed for regimented progress through the school. Fresh, young recruits started at the two tables nearest the entrance and zig-zagged their way forwards, towards the dizzy heights of the top table whose occupants enjoyed the advantages not only of the Headmaster’s conversation, but also, I suspected, of hot food.
One incident stands out in my mind when I was about two years into the West Downs system, thus still not quite immunised against the “taste” of the milk puddings that were served on Saturdays at lunch-time. It seemed that the happiness of the approaching weekend rested solely on whether I was allowed to leave the tapioca or semolina for the indulgence of the pigs who were certain to appreciate it more than me. I had advanced sufficiently up the line of tables to be under the jurisdiction of Commander Eddis who was not noted for his leniency when it came to leaving food, especially Saturdays’ puddings for which he had an incredible taste and, as is common in fanatical desire, could not comprehend my dislike. Desperate measures were needed one Saturday when a milk pudding with its attendant knob of jam had congealed beyond recognition. I had secured a seat next to the wall where my right leg brushed against a set of black, cast-iron pipes (for heating purposes, I think). Having negotiated the Scotch-eggs which would have provided more than adequate replacements for any ageing medicine-balls, I prepared myself for the contest between Boy and Matter, under the tenacious adjudication of Commander Eddis who was biased in favour of my opponent.
I delayed the confrontation as much as possible with a feeble attempt at mixing in the jam, but to hold back for too long would have secured the undivided attention of the referee who had at least fifteen combatants to oversee. Thus, having adopted an expression of sheer relish, even lust, I shovelled a large portion of the pink mixture onto my spoon (gnarled by a score of budding Uri Gellers), and processed it mouthwards.
However, I had assured myself that the contents of the spoon would never reach my mouth, still less my jacket pocket (an amateur’s trick), so, with split-second timing, I flicked the contents towards the iron pipes and went through the motions of chewing and swallowing.
The entire contents of my pudding found its way behind the pipes and I, undiscovered (until now), knew that it would be an enjoyable weekend.
P.S. I have visited West Downs on several occasions since its closure and have been saddened by the inevitable decline of so venerable an establishment, but have not yet summoned up the courage to inspect the scene of the crime.
“Wrist-Work” E.A.Wodehouse (WD Sept.’76—Dec.’81)