If you leave a Bunsen burner on for about ten minutes, then quickly put the rubber pipe over a water tap and turn it on full, you get a small explosion and a scalding stream of water to be directed at a boy called Harris. Similarly, if you attach crocodile clips to Harris’s jacket and then wire it up to a power source, it makes him jump about a lot. I loved physics lessons.
Snow in the playground. The tall caped figure of the headmaster appeared on a short outside staircase — a rare balcony appearance of a benign, reclusive demigod. One long-distance snowball among the flying hundreds, arcing higher than the rest, travelling through the air in slow time, apparently laser guided, is fixed in the memory of all who saw it.
I discovered that, in the school library, by removing one of the two front-supporting brackets beneath any bookshelf, the shelf would remain in precarious equilibrium until lightly touched, at which point the shelf and its entire contents would fall on to the head of the intending reader. I then made the mistake of sharing this discovery. So many people copied my ruse that, at an evening fundraiser in the library, a parent reached up for a biography and set off a Chernobyl-style chain reaction.
My friend Fleur and I used to put our desk lids up and giggle behind them until Sister Kevin screamed ‘Get out!’ and made one of us stand in the corridor. If the headmistress came to check who was in the corridor, I would hide in the boys’ cloakroom.
Having been banned from sports for breaking ‘bounds’ — dating a townie girl — Jerry Robinson and I fished in the lake all night, then deposited many live fish, as well as dead ones, in the Blair swimming pool just before the Lawrenceville contest. Both student bodies were jumping in with nets and the contest was called off. The school was put on bounds until the perpetrator came forward, but we never did and were never found out.
Aged 11, I showed an early flair for advertising. My Dungeons & Dragons-mad friend Paul and I decided to do a snack stall for the school fair, which we called The Adventurer’s Inn. I put up three A4 posters around the school. One said ‘SEX’ in big friendly bubble-writing, one said ‘TITS’ and one said ‘RAMPANT BOTTOMS’. In tiny letters underneath: ‘Has nothing to do with The Adventurer’s Inn’, ‘Are a species of bird’ and ‘is not an anagram of “carrots”’. They stayed up for about 15 minutes, which was enough. The headmaster congratulated me on my ingenuity and told me if I did it again I’d be expelled.
When I was 14, seven schoolfriends and I decided to visit nearby Newbury for a light drinking spree. I’ll defend single-sex boarding till the day I die; however it is also true that we’d been drinking like Russians since the age of 12. Off we went to what was then Gateways and bought seven full-size bottles of vodka. I was short for my age and looked eight. Even so: no ID? No problem. And because we drank fast, we managed to get a surprising amount down us before losing control of our minds and limbs.
After a little light harassment of some passers-by, the police arrived and arrested us for being drunk and disorderly. My sober best friend, Rebecca Layton, tried to hide me in the public toilets, for which I’ll always be grateful, but a young cop found us. Some went to hospital, others to the cells where we sang the ‘Magnificat’ in three parts through the night. The headline in the Sun the next morning was: ‘Toff kids, 14, nicked over vodka binge.’ It was a slow news day.
I was sent to a primary school for young ladies by mistake. We had straw hats in summer and felt hats in winter and engraved napkin rings all year round. On my first day at lunch — they probably called it luncheon, I wasn’t really listening — I licked the communal mashed potato spoon. They are probably still talking about it.
On my first day at King Edward VI Comprehensive in Totnes, aged 13, I appeared with a silver streak in the middle of my hair. This was in 1977 and I was a punk rocker. The headmaster hauled me out in front of a whole school assembly and told me to go home and wash it out. I told him I couldn’t do that because my sister had used hair dye. At a stroke, all the boys in the school thought I was a ‘poof’, while all the girls wanted to snog me. On balance, it was a good bargain.
Not far from my old school, Campbell College in Belfast, there was a girls’ establishment, Richmond Lodge. A chum of mine came up with a plot. It required timing. Girls would pour out at around 4 p.m. A lollipop man would be present. He had to be distracted. In achieving that, the ground was favourable. A bus stop and a phone box were both adjacent. The phone rang. One member of the conspiracy, standing innocently at the bus stop, answered it. He told the lollipop wielder that it was the Belfast Telegraph, who wanted to interview him. When he was safely in the box, two others nipped across the road in a car, equipped with a sturdy chain and padlocks to match. Within a couple of minutes, they had chained up the school gates before withdrawing, taking the bus-stop miscreant with them. Twenty minutes later, there was a scene of delightful confusion. Half a dozen mistresses’ cars and at least a hundred pupils were blocked in the drive. One might have thought that Campbell boys would have come under suspicion. But there were no enquiries.