Gaffer

Gaffer was the headmaster and took the top set at West Wycombe, about 15 of us, in a small room along the end of the front corridor.  That room has now been opened up to the back of the school and the playground, but I was amazed when I visited it (about ten years ago) to realize how small it was.  

   This section decsribes a piece of work we did for Gaffer which consisted of making a small book called 'Some Interesting Buildings in West Wycombe'  He dictated the text - or maybe wrote it on the board - and we copied it into our pages, and then he stamped some lino cuts into it to show the church on top of the hill, St Lawrence's, and other landmarks.


I can still remember the hard work we put into writing out that book while Gaffer wandered in and out of the desks, thrusting a stubby finger at every spidery scrawl and blob that appeared.  Neatness was everything.  We each had our own dip-in pen, our bottle of Indian ink and blotting paper, although we were under strict instructions only to use blotting paper for emergencies, and since emergencies were never likely to occur, Gaffer had every expectation of collecting the sheets up at the end, pure white and ready for use the following year.  And not only did we copy page after page, with bubbly borders all round as a margin, we painstakingly stitched them up afterwards with needle and thread, and covered them with cardboard covers and put colour washes on the inside front and back pages, so that when we opened the book the first thing that greeted us was a lovely marbled pattern of sky blue fading into orange. 

   Gaffer had some lino cuts of St Lawrence's church and the old clock face outside the village hall, and stamped them in for us, rolling his ink roller over the squares of lino and then pressing them down on the open pages which we held out to him. 

The strange thing is that that book has survived the years, and once in a blue moon I find myself picking it up and reading the opening lines:

 The church of St Lawrence is beautifully situated on a hill to the north of the village.  It has a peculiar ball upon the top which is a landmark for many miles.  This ball is large enough for thirteen people to get into.  It is reached by an ascent of 116 steps from the ground.  It is seven yards in diameter and is covered with gold leaf which glistens in the sun.

   And immediately my mind is cast back to that summer of 1954 when I was only eleven, bent over my paper and filling in the pencil draft, word after word, with a dip-in pen that sometimes flowed beautifully, and sometimes didn't flow at all, and always seemed to have a hidden black frog of ink under the nib, ready to spring onto the page. 

   The class was very quiet while we worked polishing off the final details, and Gaffer sat at his desk peacefully, wiping ink off his fingers too. 


   I found myself looking at him and wondering about him for the first time.  He had one of those faces that seemed to have been chipped out of a mountain crag, extremely ancient and weather-worn.  He had thick eyebrows with wild extravagant hairs, and however much he tried to hide them under his glasses, they never stayed down as they should, and they bristled on his forehead like eyries that I had seen in a picture in my Encyclopedias

   It was a fascinating face to watch.  There was never a moment when Gaffer's face didn't directly affect the lives and well-being of us children.  When his face was sunny, we looked up at him with awe, as we might have looked at Mount Everest, and he in turn gazed down at us with the kindliness of saints.  That afternoon his face seemed to have softened even more than usual.  He looked years younger.  Perhaps he wasn't such an old man after all, I thought, despite the ancient image he had conjured up in our minds at first.  He was more like somebody's father, I realized, an ordinary man with a brown walnutty jacket and leather-patched elbows, reeking of half a century of pipe tobacco, and the good thing about that afternoon was that I knew there was nothing about him to be frightened of anymore, anymore than I'd be frightened of an old bonfire which had settled down after a fierce opening blaze.  


Next  Go on a blind date