I am reminded of an event which figured largely in my memory. Of course it was the Perry-Gore Chalk Trap of 1950.
Mr. Perry-Gore taught MSI for Latin and English. He was a short rather round man of about 55 years with an equally round face and of an affable, if occasionally testy, disposition. He liked to dispense bonhomie but liked things about him to be just so.
I was not sufficiently aware in those days why it was that we rather enjoyed seeing him discomfited. As I have said he was aimiable. He was not to be disregarded for lack of control of us and he evidently knew his subjects. Looking back I suppose there was about him a certain fussiness and idea of his own consequence which did not quite match with our view. It was not that he set himself too high. It was rather that he saw himself differently and rather seriously. We liked, I recall, to tempt Mr. Kitchin, a young teacher and golfing blood into indiscretions as to how he and Mr. Severn used to tease him (Did they throw apples at his window?)
After the honeymoon period of a new term – say two weeks if a master is lucky – some of the tougher boys of our class began to get bored. They looked around for ways to relieve the tedium of our daily lessons.
They were the first to draw attention to the undue irritation evinced by Mr. Perry-Gore on his entry at the sight of a dirty blackboard. At first it was sufficient for them to propose that before each of his lessons we should ascertain that the remains of the previous lesson had been left on the board.
As however days draw towards the nadir of half-term (no going home in those days) the general feeling of the class was that something more was called for. Experiments were made and after much trial and error it became apparent that what really aggravated Mr. Perry Gore was to find a previous lesson inefficiently erased, with the blackboard a mass of white chalky blobs. From then on it became the rule for one boy (Aird perhaps?) to write something on the clean board and another one (could it have been Sykes or even Burrows?) to half-rub it out.
It never failed to get the Perry-Gore Goat and each lesson invariably got off to a display of P.G.’s irritation. Tetchiness would obscure affability.
It might be thought that this would have been enough. However throughout the history of man brave spirits have always come forward to push the possible a little bit further and so it was that the great Perry-Gore Chalk Trap was set.
The extraordinary thing was that this trap was not set up by a leader. It was, rather, a spontaneous effusion of the braver spirits with the willing participation of the rest of us.
Firstly the blackboard was a work of art. A few letters could just be seen. Here an x from the algebra lesson, here perhaps a vowel with a grave accent from an French lesson and over all the board a white blurr of various chalky cloud formations.
Due diligence having been paid to this someone produced a four wheel cart, a dinky toy, yellow and capacious. Another boy filled it with chalk. Now there was on the master’s desk a flat level at the top and then a slope down to the edge of the desk where Mr. Perry-Gore stood. Yet another boy (surely not Sykes) stuck a pencil in the sloping part of the desk thus raising the flap to be level of the flat bit. A further genius put the cart filled with chalk on the junction of the level and sloping parts of the desk – two wheels on the level and two wheels on the sloping part or what could have been the sloping part had the pencil not been so carefully placed.
As a final touch a further star of the planning department (surely not Burrows or even Savege?) placed the board cloth over the chalk cart hiding it completely.
We had only seconds to resume our desks and hold our breaths.
P.G. strutted in. He glared at the blackboard and puffed his cheeks. He glared at his desk. He glared at the pencil and seizing it ripped it out. The flap of his desk subsided and the chalk cart ever covered by the cloth, tipped up and sent a cascade – almost a week’s supply – of chalk on to the floor by way of P.G.’s trousers. There was absolute silence for a while. Eventually the miscreant was called upon to give himself up to the police. Unfortunately no one quite seemed to recollect how such a sad state of affairs could have come about.
Burrows, I think it was, very helpfully allowed that the cart was his but he had no idea how it could have got all that chalk in it. Indeed everyone was most keen to help but no one was clear and on those occasions a clear recollection of events is essential if the truth is to be got at.
I have to say that Mr. Perry-Gore, apart from showing impatience at our lack of clarity of memory and lucidity of explanation was insufficiently specific in his questions. He asked, “Who did this?” Well obviously that wasn’t coherent enough. No doubt Sykes would have been only too keen to step forward if the question had been, “Who put the pencil in the slope?” I can almost hear him muttering something about, “thinking it was yours, Sir, and putting it ready for you.” But poor old P.G. lost sight of these essentials and none of the boys felt quite that his questions asked for them to shoulder the burden of total responsibility.
I believe we were detained the next Wednesday afternoon break. Looking back it seems to me to have been worth every moment of it and I have as clear a recollection of the joy the occasion gave us all as the melodrama unfolded, as if it had been yesterday.
What a masterpiece of group leaderless planning it was! If any one reading this should likewise remember the great occasion may he write to me and tell how things have fared with him in the intervening 40 years. I shall trust that the criminal activity of the great Perry-Gore Chalk Trap of 1950 did not lead to a lifetime of wrong doing and an address care of Her Majesty.