School days stories / David Mitchell

In March, 1941, when I was 7 years old, Bill and I had to go away to boarding school at Bishop Cotton’s School in Simla. My mother took us on the first journey by train to Calcutta, an overnight stay in a hotel and then two days of trains up the Ganges valley to Delhi, Ambala and Kalka to ride finally for several hours up the ‘Kalka – Simla Express’. This was, of course, a light-hearted name for the mountain railway which climbed through endless hairpin bends, over 100 tunnels and beautiful forests of rhododendron and deodar to reach Simla at over 7,000 feet above sea level. We made this trip three more times for subsequent school years and it was always spectacular. The train used to make a stop half way up and people would get out and buy food. The upward trip was always in mid March and as we neared Simla there were often occasional banks of snow to be seen. Simla itself had a back-drop to the North of the high snow-clad peaks of the Himalaya.

My mother delivered us to the school for our first term and left after sad farewells. Bill was quite stoical about the whole thing, but I was absolutely distraught! For about three weeks I followed his footsteps like a lost puppy, longing for my mother, when suddenly the metaphorical skies cleared and I found my feet.

We first attended the Junior School which, as I recall, started with kindergarten and had four other grades called 1a, 1b, 2a and 2b. I was started in the kindergarten, I think because of a misunderstanding about my ability to read and write. My only memory from that class is of the way we had to greet the Headmaster’s 6 year old daughter when she arrived each day. Her name was Beatrice Sinker, nicknamed Beachie. We all had to chant in unison “Good morning, Beachie” as she walked in.

After quite a short time I was moved to 1a where the class teacher was a Miss Shilcock. I remember her as a rather gray woman, perhaps in her 40’s, though I don’t think I had much ability to judge age! Rumor had it that she wore no underwear, but no amount of standing at the foot of the stairs as she went up threw light on the story.

One of the things we spent a lot of time on was penmanship, using the old-fashioned copybook approach – a row of linked cursive a’s which we would take up to Miss Shilcock for approval. If she passed it you went on to do a row of b’s. I enjoyed this activity and my handwriting still shows the style I learned from her. I was moved up to 1b about half way through that first year and was from then on in the same class as Bill.

Kindergarten, 1a and 1b were housed on the ground floor of the same building as the dining room and the dormitories. 2 a and b were in the upper floor of a separate building whose ground floor housed a small auditorium. In between were some covered walkways and open unpaved areas which served as playgrounds. One of the favorite games was with string-driven spinning tops. Some of the boys were very skilled at tricks with these tops. A dry dirt bank at the back of the buildings was where we used to carve out roads and push around our Dinky Toy cars and trucks. We would also use the dirt almost like modeling clay to make buildings and other features. This mud was called ‘khakh’ which is the same word as the color khaki or mud-colored. One boy had a toy army truck made completely of lead! It was quite detailed and big and you could bend it to some extent. What a fit the government would have had today at the thought of all that lead, but we were all quite covetous of it.

Another popular game, apart from organized sports, was kite flying. Some boys came with bought kites but most of what we used we made ourselves. The design was simple with struts of light bamboo or perhaps balsa covered with tissue paper which was then painted with model airplane ‘dope’ to toughen and shrink the paper. There were almost constant up-currents from the bottom of the valley and we were able to get our kites tremendously high. It was almost a function of how fine and strong a twine you could get and how much you could manage on a spool.

Marbles were very popular, usually played on an area of hard, firm sand. We would mark a circle in the sand and put a number of marbles in the circle. You would then place your master marble (I don’t think we had a name for it) against the pad of your left middle finger, draw back your finger as far as possible with the other hand and release the finger and the marble with all the force you could muster in the direction of the circle. You won all you could knock out. We would ‘toss up’ for who went first. Since we rarely had any coins, tossing up involved getting a flat pebble, spitting on one side, spinning it in the air and calling “land or water” instead of “heads or tails”. As the stone was in the air we would make rather idiotic calls for the desired result – “water, water, be my daughter” or “land, land, beat the band”.

We mostly flew kites at the end of the playing field where we were almost directly at those up-currents. The same place was a favorite for trying to catch butterflies. Many of the larger and faster-flying species used to cross the playing fields from up the hill and fly low over the end of the field down into the valley. We would wait there and swish butterfly nets at them with limited success as they went by! The greatest catch was a ‘mappie’ or map butterfly, which looked quite like a road map with rather jagged edges. They were rare and very fast and elusive, so not many were caught. I don’t remember any boys having any skill at setting and storing what they caught, so I fear that this hobby was more destructive than scientific!

The school year was divided into three terms separated by two 10-day breaks. We were not allowed to go home during the 10-day holidays but parents or relatives could come to visit and take us out. In those days there was no air conditioning and ‘the plains’ became so hot and unhealthy that it was considered better for children to stay in the mountains. Because of the distance and the travel time my mother only came up to Simla once for a 10-day break. We went to a concert at which a buxom contralto sang a song called ‘Flamingo’. I think she gave me a dislike of fruity contraltos which has lasted to this day.

During these breaks we used to go to the movies and Simla had three move theatres – the Ritz, the Regal and the Rivoli. We tended to like the Rivoli which was probably a ‘flea-pit’, but which always showed exciting mysteries. The other two tended to show romances and such, the ones with the top Hollywood stars and slushy stories that left small boys bored to death. Anyway the Rivoli was the cheapest!

We played three major sports, soccer, cricket and hockey (field hockey in the USA, but in India there was no other hockey!). Each term featured one sport as the principle game, though we also had swimming, boxing, athletics, and gymnastics. I don’t remember being particularly good at any of them, though I may have been on my share of teams. I do remember being railroaded into boxing in my second year, 1942, and losing my one bout after an undisciplined whirlwind of fists. In 1943 I won three bouts to get into the final at my weight where I was beaten by a boy called Goswell. I’m not sure I ever really enjoyed boxing, but it seems I had some aptitude for it which had the important consequence that I didn’t usually get hurt.

The entrance to the junior school involved a sharp turn off the main road, going about 30 yards down the driveway to a hairpin bend and then another 30 yards to a gate set between two large stone pillars. At the hairpin bend was the sanatorium, the ‘San’. In the best of Victorian traditions, we had to have our insides purged at regular intervals. Each month we mustered at the San and were given a dose of senna which tasted absolutely disgusting and had a very rapid effect on the bowels. Immediately after taking it, we used to rush down the hill and through the gates to the bathrooms to sit until the first violent whoosh was over. On one occasion I began to lose my balance as I was tearing down the hill from the San and couldn’t stop myself from running into one of the gate posts. I got a huge bruise in the middle of my forehead.

Another of the activities sponsored by the school was boy scouts and, for the juniors, wolf cubs (cub scouts in the USA). We had at least two wolf cub packs which used to enter a local jamboree each year (‘Jamboree’ is for scouts and there may have been a different word for gatherings of cubs.). We learned about tying knots, lighting fires, tracking, camp cooking and many other activities of that type. Each time we met, we used to go through a ritual which had many elements drawn from Kipling’s Jungle Books. First we would squat in a circle with the two forefingers of each hand, formed into an upside-down V, pointing to the ground between our legs. We would chant together “I promise to do my best to do my duty to God and King; to keep the law of the wolf cub pack and to do a good turn to somebody every day”. We would then chant “Akela, we will do our best” and the pack leader would say “DYB, DYB, DYB.” The pack would respond “We will DOB, DOB, DOB, DOB.” DYB stood for “Do your best” and DOB stood for “Do our best”. I think that was the whole ceremony and then we would get up and start whatever activities were planned for that meeting.

One of our activities was something I have never heard of other cub packs doing. We learned several ‘dances’ again heavily based on Kipling. The only one I really remember was the dance of the python, Kaa’s Dance. It was simple, involving a sort of conga line, literally snaking around. I’m sure there was also a dance of the monkeys, the ‘banderlog’, but I have no idea what it consisted of.

When we went to the jamborees, we were always better equipped than the other packs and each of our members was always loaded with badges. We seemed to win most of the competitions for knot tying, pitching tents, lighting fires, making tripods to hang kettles on and so on and we always got back to school with loads of trophies. I can remember thinking that perhaps we had an advantage over the other packs, coming from the only British school in the area and almost certainly far the best financed. But we did work hard for our successes.

Two days after I wrote these last words, the BCS web site published a group photo of the wolf cubs with their trophies. Several faces were labeled “unknown” and I was immediately able to e-mail the webmaster and identify two of them – Bill and myself. A psychic might say there was ESP at work!

I think it was in 1942 that I had a role in a school play about pirates – I forget the name of the play. I only remember that the pirate captain’s name was Don Jose Bilbaino Bustamente y Corrosco of the good ship Boca del Dragon. Years later, when I learned Spanish, I learned how badly we mispronounced those names! The following year I was to have a lead role in another play called, I think, The Court Jester of which I remember nothing because half way through rehearsals we had a measles epidemic. I had quite a bad attack and remember darkened rooms, a very fuzzy head and the school matron tut-tutting over high readings on thermometers. There was a lot of fear of damaged eyesight in those days, so my convalescence was for two or three weeks in a darkened room.

Each Sunday we used to be marched down a narrow hillside path to the chapel at the senior school for Sunday service. The acoustics in the chapel were interesting, with a bit of echo which made the choir sound rather like singing in the shower – I mean that quite positively – I loved the sound to the extent that it gave me goose bumps. I recall in particular a short anthem the choir used to sing in the ante-chapel before processing in. It was “Lead me Lord, lead me in thy righteousness, make my way straight before thine eyes. For it is thou Lord, thou Lord only that makest me dwell in safety”. The choir also sang a setting of the Nunc Dimittis which I loved and once, perhaps at a concert, a setting of ‘Consider the lilies of the field’ which may have been by Handel and which still comes to me from time to time. The one love I still have for the Anglican service is the choral singing.

At weekends we used to go outside the immediate school grounds to explore and play. Mostly we would go down the ‘khud’, the steep terraced hillside below the playing fields. Sometimes we would find small patches of ripened corn-on-the-cob and we would light a fire and toast a few. We called the cob “bhutta”.

One of our destinations was a private estate called Brockhurst, about half a mile down the road that ran past above the school. It always seemed deserted, though I have no idea if it really was. It had a main drive and many pathways among what might once have been formally laid-out grounds. It was a perfect place to play Cowboys and Indians. On one occasion we found that a huge tree had fallen and two men were cutting it up. They had already taken off the upper branches leaving a main trunk about 15-20 feet long hanging out over the hillside, with the end about 8 feet above the ground. The men had a long saw. One stood on the trunk and the other below it and they were cutting it into planks about an inch wide. As the trunk was about 3 or 4 feet in diameter, it was slow work, but they went at it with a steady rhythm for as long as we were prepared to watch.

In 1943 a party of boys (I think it was actually the wolf cubs in uniform) were marched to Government House to join in on ‘lining the route’ for the departure of Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, who was giving way to Lord Wavell. We had to wait quite a while and then hold a salute as he drove by in a limousine. It was one of those ceremonial occasions that leave a clear picture in the mind.

In March 1944, Bill and I moved up to the senior school. I think we were in Curzon House. As we were not there very long I don’t have many recollections. It sticks in my mind that the toilets had no doors! The fact that this caught my attention so strongly suggests that the junior school’s toilets were more modest – though I don’t know why they should have been different! The school shop used to sell a variety of sweets and snacks and I once bought what I think was called a ‘puri’. It was a sort of wrap of unleavened bread filled with slightly spicy vegetables. It was delicious, but it went through me rather quickly.

In 1942 I took piano lessons for some weeks, the teacher being, possibly, Mrs. Priestley. (Bill and I met her again in Shrewsbury in 1949 or 1950). My reactions to these lessons were mixed. On the one hand I disliked the discipline imposed by the teacher, yet there was great satisfaction in being able to produce a tune! I got as far as taking an exam which earned me a certificate, but I must have given my mother a clear understanding that I wasn’t very happy with the process, because I was released from that discipline after about one term. A few years later I began to regret not having continued, but I had done enough to understand how to read music, for which I have always been grateful.

At the beginning of 1943, when Bill and I moved up to the top class in the junior school. We were told that there was a choice to make between learning French or Urdu. That being India and we being very practical, we both chose Urdu. It took a week or two for word of this to get to our parents and for the response to come back that we were to switch immediately to French. In those weeks, we had learned the Urdu alphabet and one or two of the characters. I can still recite something like the alphabet, though I would probably make several errors.

One year we had a piece of excitement for a few hours – a swarm of locusts which came up the valley, passed over the school and went on its way. For part of the time that it was passing over we were out of class and we rushed around with sticks, flailing at them with no visible impact on their numbers. They really were thick enough in the air as to slightly darken the sky for several hours.

Simla was filled with monkeys – langurs. They were potentially quite dangerous, but they rarely came anywhere near us, spending most of their time on the rooftops or in the trees. They were so much a part of the scene that we became hardly aware of them.

As the end of each school drew near there would be increasing excitement and boys would start to chanting the poem familiar to all young boarding school boys.

No more Latin, no more French, No more sitting on the hard school bench.
No more spiders in my bath Trying hard to make me laugh.
No more beetles in my tea Making googly eyes at me.
If the teacher interferes Knock him down and box his ears.

And there was probably more which I don’t remember. At BCS we also had a song, to a tune roughly based on ‘Riding down from Bangor’. We didn’t wait to be actually on the train but began to sing it weeks before school ended. It went:

Riding down from Simzee on a Simzee track,
After nine months’ mugging and eating puri tack.
See the train go puffing oh see the train go by.
Home sweet home is coming and home sweet home is nigh.

Then there were one or two more verses which I forget, and a final verse that went
When we’re nearing Kalka we hear the vendors shout “Pan, biri, cigarettes” and then we all jump out.

DAVID MITCHELL


The Wolf Club 1943, photo provided by Brian Moray.
Preparatory School Cubs with their Trophy in 1943.
Back row –   Brian Niblett,  Corbett, David Mitchell, Jimmy Collins.
Centre row –   Bill Mitchell ,  unknown, unknown, unknown, Kruschandl.
Front row –   Robert Reed, Simpson, Mr Cyril Murtough, Aldridge, Michael Wetherfield).
Cyril Murtough.

OCA EDITOR: The article above, by David Mitchell, was first published at the OCA website in May of 2006; to which Gay Niblett responded:

From: Niblett
Sent: Tuesday, May 30, 2006 2:56 PM
To: David Mitchell
Cc: webmaster
Subject: B.C.S. Prep School and School Days memories

Dear David

What a wonderful collection of memories you bring back – Thanks.

I gather you must live in the USA with references you make to the differences in names as known there.

I live in Mallorca , Spain and my brother Brian (Niblett II) lives in Wales . We were at BCS 1940-47 – at the Prep School 1940-42 Cotton House and Rivaz House in the ‘Big’ School.

By amazing coincidence I was up in Wilmslow ( Cheshire ) a month ago where I go from time to time, attending functions at my old Hockey Club – Alderley Edge – where I was Captain for 3 years. Whenever there, I visit none other than the Beachie Sinker, now Mrs King, who often with her sister Joy and brother Robin attends the Annual Old Cottonians Association (UK) lunch in London – always held on the last Saturday in June. My first memories of her are riding out from the Big School gates every morning on her ‘Cherry’ coloured pony, preceded by her sister Joy on a larger grey horse. We (I) would always find some excuse to be taking a walk in that direction each morning to ogle them! The walk was restricted according to the class you were in – higher, further – as the boundary of the school then went nearly up to the bridge. To think that was nearly 60 years ago !! She now has a young grandson whose father was at Sherwood College , Naini Tal and grandfather Richard Mountford has recently retired after 20 years plus as Headmaster there.

It was indeed Mrs Priestley who was the Music Teacher. Her husband, who played the violin, was the man who got together the School Choir, taking us through Handel’s Messiah – which we sang at Viceregal Lodge for the Viceroy and it was broadcast over the ALL INDIA RADIO! I remember having gone through all the rehearsals, having to listen to it on the wireless in hospital, where I was taken with pneumonia! My brother, whose name had been ‘volunteered’ for the choir, escaped joining the Choir and I found myself in. An ‘alto’ so not popular with you then or now!

Anyway, plenty more fun and incidents – though life was definitely make easier if you played Sport??

Please keep in contact – Peter Stringer is always happy to hear from OCs. I will send him a copy by fax of your letter and let ‘Beachie’ have a copy too. Neither are on the internet but via Vivek Bhasin who is a Member of the OCA(UK) Committee we can personally keep in touch.

With best wishes and the sincere hope that we can see you one day at our Reunion Lunch.

Yours ever
Gay Niblett
Chairman OCA(UK)

4 thoughts on “School days stories / David Mitchell

  1. Rear Admiral Dr Rakesh Chopra

    Excellent reading. Made me feel nostalgic. I think the time has come to compile these memories into a book. Any volunteers for this noble task?
    RAdm R Chopra

    Reply
  2. Rishav Bansal

    This is amazing. I was part of the Class of 2011 but it is so good to hear back from senior OC’s. I am in Boston these days and I really miss the BCS fun especially the boxing from every year.

    Reply

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