Ask old pupils of West Buckland to talk about the effect of Government changes on secondary education during their time at the school, and they may hesitate. But show them an old pair of mud-caked plimsoles, or a disembodied luggage label, or a dog-eared school calendar with an ink-stained Year 8 timetable at the back, and stand by for the voluble recall.
What you are getting is the personal point of view. A historian sees it from another angle. Recreating the big things is not difficult. The documents are there; all he has to do is read them. What he has problems with are the tiny things. That is because they are preserved not in bound copies or official compilations, but in the memory files of individual pupils.
All the historian does is to record something which he has chosen to spend some time searching for. The separate pupil hasn`t researched those things; he has lived them, and nobody gave him any choice about it. The historian is concerned with balance sheets and minutes of governors` meetings. The old pupil knows something different. Balance sheets and governors` minutes about blocked drains are not evocative to him; mud-caked plimsoles and grubby Year 8 timetables are.
The historian tries to re-create the whole machine; all the pupil can talk about is the nuts and bolts. So his version of the past will be scrappy, piecemeal, unbalanced. But at least it will be vivid, because, as I said, he lived it. In the same way, ask a front-line fusilier who survived the Battle of the Somme to describe it, and you will get a bloody, though memorable, picture. But apart from the few dozen square yards immediately around him, he won`t have had a clue as to what was going on.
We are talking about two different things – personal memory, and ‘official’ recall. Official recall – the province of the historian – is timeless. You can write about anything, no matter how long ago it took place. Personal recall is finite, for obvious reasons of biology.
That`s why we wonder about the early days.
What did a school uniform look like in, say, the 1870`s? If you look at a school photograph taken in 1874 (the earliest one we have), they were wearing pretty well anything. In fact, the question about school uniform can not really be asked, because there wasn`t one, not as we understand the term. Well, not that we know of. Certainly not from the evidence of that photo. And no school prospectus from the 19th century (we have very few) mentions obligatory dress. Just look again at that 1874 photo: the variety of headdress alone raises the eyebrows. There is nobody left to explain.
Think of the tiny, tiny things that went to make up a boy`s day (only boys then), which have not been recorded. What did an 1863 vest look like? What did 1886 woollen socks feel like? How often were the boys required to change their underclothes? (Before ‘Bio’ and ‘Non-Bio’ detergents and spin-dryers, what were the conditions in the school laundry?)
Unfortunately, we have no old pupil surviving from those days, so we shall never know what it was like – not really like. No doubt some school archivist from a future century will wonder, ‘What did it feel like to wear a pair of jeans?’ Does any modern diarist bother to record it? Of course not; it is so routine. Like saying ‘I drank a cup of tea this morning’.)
Consider things even more basic than that. Hot water? We know that they didn`t get central heating in the dormitories until the 1970`s, never mind the 1870`s. Luckily, we do have a fair number of survivors who will tell you – without being asked – all about breaking the ice in the wash-basins in the dormitories. Understandably, the memories are vivid about that.
Or again, what did the inside of the school smell like? Perhaps fresher than you may expect, because nearly all the toilets were outside. How often were they cleaned, either in or out? How often were showers available? School prospectuses proudly trumpeted the central heating in the classrooms, but were a little reticent about regular hot water in the bathrooms. A boy with a particular penchant for hygiene could ask for a cold bath – by special permission. Comforting.
It could be that the strongest scents emanated not from the toilets or the bathrooms but from the kitchens. Again, no menus have survived, so the historian has to rely on personal recall. Just what are we to make of one old boy`s reminiscence (to me) of school meals: ‘In my memory, school dinners were universally grey.’ How would that have compared with the Minister of Education`s latest white paper on school catering?
It`s the individuals, not the Government, who provide the immortal stories. I heard an old boy talking about his first meal at West Buckland, back in the 1930`s. He had come for an interview or an exam or something. Before he was to appear, the school kindly gave him a meal in the Karslake. It was a bit ‘grey’, as that ex-pupil described above, but he nobly slogged through it. Unfortunately, he met his match in a final mouthful of stewed meat, which just would not break up. Time was getting on, and he was getting desperate. He happened to be sitting at a table at the side of the Karslake, and his bench backed on to a radiator.
So, after glancing around him to make sure nobody was looking, he leaned back and stuffed it behind, before legging it to his rendezvous. How long did it stay there, one wonders?
Which provides the better picture – the official account or the personal memory? Well, of course, we need both. But there is surely little doubt that while the one provides the full black-and-white truth, the other provides the colour.