Nowadays, even country kids are tougher, more cynical; the innocent joys of the village primary are history. Or are they? Here, a writer gets some surprises from a 12-year-old at the Yorkshire school he went to over 30 years ago. Overleaf, some recollections of childhoods past

Blake Morrison
Saturday 14 September 1996 23:02

At first glance, Daniel Procter's bedroom looks pretty much what you'd expect. There are posters of Andy Cole and the fixture list for the football season. There are photos of the England rugby team and a gleaming red Ferrari. There's a globe on the window sill, with a switch to illuminate it. There's a model tank, and a heap of lolly sticks. There aren't many books I can see, but then 12-year-olds like Daniel are said not to read much any more. What did I think I'd find? The Famous Five?

There is no computer in Daniel's bedroom, but his big brother Thomas has one in his, an Amiga, and there's also a Gameboy around somewhere. Daniel's favourite computer games are football games; then what he calls beat-'em-up games, like Mortal Kombat 2, with special moves; then shooting games, like Better Archery. He doesn't have a television in his bedroom yet, but he might when he's older, like Thomas. He doesn't mind because there's one downstairs he can watch. Saturday, he says, is the best night for television.

A few minutes ago, Daniel came home in his school uniform. Now he's wearing blue socks, Bermuda shorts and a red T-shirt that says BLOGGS/JOE BLOGGS across the chest. His trainers are downstairs, by the back door, ready and waiting for when we're done talking and he can get out on his bicycle.

But I'm lingering in his bedroom, which - now I come to look at it more closely - seems rather less stereotypical. That model tank, for instance: Daniel made it himself, not from an Airfix kit, but at school, in a Design and Technology class. And those lolly sticks aren't just scattered at random, but form the roof of another model he made, of a house. There are other things Daniel has made here: clay pots, an ugly mug, and a wooden balancing toy. He's more animated talking about them than he is pointing out the sports posters - which are, on examination, oddly dated: the football fixture list is for the 1993-94 season, and that England rugby team goes back to 1991.

I ask Daniel if he reads much. Yes, he says. What sort of thing? At the moment he's reading Robert Louis Stevenson - Treasure Island and Kidnapped. He used to read Roald Dahl - oh, and all the Famous Five books, when he was younger. Do I know them? he asks. They're by Enid Blyton.

Daniel looks eager to be off outside. He can't show me his chicken run, he says, because it's a bit of a way off, in a small croft, but we could look at his greenhouse, which is right outside. His greenhouse? Yes, when he was seven he was given a growing kit, from Toymaster: sunflower seeds, pea seeds, lettuce seeds. It gave him a taste for horticulture: seeing things shoot up like that, from nothing. So for his 10th birthday, he asked for a greenhouse. That bed of potatoes, where his mother's roses used to be, is also his. You've got to be careful to earth potatoes, he tells me - that means building the earth up over them, because otherwise, if they get above ground, they go green and poisonous. As for the chickens, he incubated them in the house, kept them for a week after they'd hatched under a lamp, then once they'd got a few feathers moved them outside. He feeds them each morning before going to school: he lifts the little hatch and they run out and sometimes jump up on him for bread. Then he collects the dozen or so eggs the hens have laid.

I ask if he gets a weekly comic. No. But he did use to get Poultry World.

No childhood is typical. Daniel Procter's is less typical than most, because he lives on a farm. Situated on a hillside close to the Pennine Way, the farm has 90 acres, though half of these are let out, and Daniel's father, Howard, since downsizing a few years ago, no longer has a dairy herd, either. The nearest town, half a mile down a track, is a small Lancashire mill-town, Earby. But strictly speaking - Daniel's parents had to argue the point with the local education authority - the Procter farm is just inside Yorkshire. Because of this Daniel, like his brothers Thomas and Ben, was able to go to the village primary school in nearby Thornton-in- Craven. Now he goes to the grammar school in Skipton, six miles away. It, too, is in Yorkshire. The Procters feel white rose loyalties, not red.

I have a particular interest in Daniel, because I grew up in the same place, went to the same schools, negotiated the same rift between counties. My parents were doctors, not farmers, and our house, though a little aloof from the village, was not set in such splendid isolation as his farm. But I walked the same paths, literally - and even had one or two of the same teachers.

Looking at Daniel's upbringing, and comparing it with mine, I wanted to understand some of the obvious ways in which childhood has changed - and some of the less obvious ways in which it hasn't. In particular I wanted to test the theory that today's kids, wherever and however raised, grow up much faster than we did - are rougher, edgier, more knowing and derisive. The case has been argued many times over the last few years, usually with reference to the killing of James Bulger and often with a new thesis about who or what's to blame: single mothers, absent fathers, the Pill, the Sixties, the education system, the decline of church-going, the loss of moral authority.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, the film critic David Denby pointed to a different but no less familiar culprit: the influence of television, computers, peer groups and pop culture. Consumed by "a sense that nothing matters", except instant gratification, the average child, Denby says, "is rude and surly and sees everything in terms of winning or losing or popularity and becomes insanely interested in clothes and seems far, far from courage and selfhood". Though Denby is talking about children in the United States, any parent in Britain would understand what he is describing. Yet there's little in the manner of Daniel, or of his brothers, to suggest that Armageddon is at hand: they're bright, responsive, friendly, talkative - even, by all accounts, when not having to put on a show for a stranger like me. When I ask Daniel about his television habits, he says that his favourite soaps are Coronation Street and EastEnders: otherwise game shows like Take Your Pick, and Casualty, and films, if there's a good one on - something like Ghostbusters II, the Indiana Jones films, The Addams Family. Nothing too different here from the diet of Emergency Ward 10 and Z Cars which I consumed at Daniel's age.

Does he borrow videos? Occasionally. Or see videos at friends' houses? Yes, he saw one at Laurence Edmonson's when he slept over there, which he has now done five times. Has he ever seen a 15-certificate film? He seems a bit vague. I explain (or remind him about) 12s and 15s and 18s and PGs. "Yes, I think we're seeing one at school at the moment. It's called Macbeth, and we're reading the play by William Shakespeare. That's the only one."

For Daniel the world of play means Amiga, Nintendo, GameBoy, Robocop. In my day, it was Dinky toys, Meccano, Scalextric, Subbuteo and Hornby train sets. A generation or two earlier and it might have been spinning tops, wooden hoops and trolleys knocked together from old pram wheels and orange boxes. It's hard to see that much has been lost. In terms of the intellectual stimulus, something may even have been gained.

When I attended Thornton-in-Craven primary school, between 1956 and 1962, I was in a class of 18 pupils. The class was the whole school; there were just three in my year. There was one large room, and one teacher, and though the 11-year-olds performed some tasks that the five-year-olds didn't, or couldn't, there were also long stretches of the day when we all had to muck in together: for storytime, for milktime, for dinner, for games (no football allowed), for educational broadcasts (on radio when I started, but later came a television) and for craftwork. Most of the craftwork seemed to be with raffia, and we were always told to "make sure every last wisp is tidied away".

Miss Todd, our teacher until her retirement, was strict. She taught us to read by learning words inscribed on little oblong bits of wood - CAT, DOG, COW, DISH, CAKE. She taught us to write with sticks of chalk on slates, and later, when we were bigger, with nibs dipped in a jar of ink. She read us the Famous Five, and Dr Dolittle and the pushme-pullyu, and Beatrix Potter. (One of Potter's stories had a Mr Tod, who was a fox, and when I looked at Miss Todd's long nose and whiskery chin I thought of her as his sister.) Even to us then, the school seemed more like something from the 1850s than the 1950s. Other village schools were closing or merging. We assumed ours would, in time.

But the school has stayed, and isn't spectacularly different. When Thomas started, in 1984, there were "21 of us, and just two teachers". With an increased demand for places, and the erection of a Portakabin classroom, the numbers have now risen to 72 - with three full-time teachers, two dinner ladies, a secretary, and three non-teaching assistants, including Daniel's mother, Lynda. These days, the pupils are split into three different classes, or age-groups. The school has four computers, and its games activities are enterprisingly diverse: basketball, netball, football, cricket, rounders. But there are still nature-study outings up Cam Lane. Hopscotch squares are still marked out on the playground, and the girls use them, when they're not skipping with a rope. There's still "tig", or catch. Above all, the school still has an intimate, rooted, communal village ethos.

It is easy to be sentimental about that ethos. Villages can be spiteful places; village schools, too. I remember the teacher who succeeded Miss Todd sitting us on the floor one day, after some misdemeanour, and telling us how she'd taught children in deprived urban areas who were much nicer and better behaved than we were. In truth, our misdemeanours were very mild: the worst we did was steal the school doorknob, which was loose, and which we hid in the ivy. But there was a lot of petty feuding and malicious "leaving out" - in such a small school, to be spurned by two or three children one's own age meant virtual isolation.

The Procter brothers seem to have had a better time of it than I did: more activities, more stimulus, but the same advantageous teacher-pupil ratio. Daniel remembers doing science from an early age - "Mrs Butter did that test with us where you put yeast in a bottle and get a balloon to rise." He remembers doing rubbings with leaves and tree bark. The school dinners don't seem to have improved much. There's lasagne, flapjack and fruit, which we didn't have, but also semolina, mushy peas, lumpy custard and shepherd's pie, which we did. On some days, says Daniel, the food is "really gross".

There are still rules: no sweets; no running in the corridor; no shouting or whistling in class; no playing on the grass in winter; no throwing snowballs. "Just common sense, really," says Daniel. He didn't experience much bullying: there was one boy who arrived from another school, and tried it on, but everyone regarded him as thick. It was he who did the worst thing Daniel can remember - stuck pins with Blu-Tack on the door- handle of a teacher's car.

Cars are perhaps the main difference between Daniel's experience of school and mine. Then, everyone walked to school; these days even children from within the village are brought by car. Partly it's convenience: parents can drop them on the way to work. Partly it's the danger: cars, wagons and buses thunder through the village, and there's no pedestrian crossing. Pupils are offered a cycling proficiency course, but the risks of an accident are too great for them to be allowed to cycle alone to school.

There's also the fear - not supported by statistics, but deeply ingrained in most parents now, no matter how small their community - of the strangers who might intercept, molest, abduct or murder any unchaperoned child. Even Lynda Procter feels this up on her farm. "When the boys used to be brought back by local authority transport from school, I'd always meet them at the bottom gate - even though it's just a shortish walk through our fields. If they're going anywhere, down to the park or even out in the fields here, I always lay the law down, to fix a time they'll be back. You're always aware of the risk, even here, even though they're boys. We don't go over the top, or spell it out. But they are aware of it. Now if they see anyone strange walking about they come and tell me."

The message certainly seems to have got through to Daniel, for all his cheerful innocence. And it's more than a matter of wearing a helmet when he cycles down to town and back. The other week he went down to the park, and saw a group of teenagers there he didn't know. They had punk hairstyles, and didn't look very friendly, so he cleared off quickly, in case there was trouble. His parents can trust him not to talk to strangers, he says. He's not daft.

This time last year, Daniel began going to Ermysted's Grammar School in Skipton. In my day you got to Ermysted's (or, if you were a girl, to the High School) by passing your 11-plus. Of the three of us who took the 11-plus from Thornton, Stephen and I passed and Jeffrey failed (going to the secondary modern in Barnoldswick instead). Before the exam we worked and played together and were unaware of having different abilities. Afterwards, things were never the same: hard for Jeffrey not to resent us; hard for us not to patronise and pity him.

Though Jeffrey, through his hard work, later ended up at the grammar school, I'd seen close-up how divisive the 11-plus can be.Two years later, when my sister failed the 11-plus, I saw it even closer to home. My parents didn't like the secondary modem, and, since they could afford it, decided to send her to boarding school in the Lake District, failing to persuade me to go to boarding school, too. She was miserable, and felt punished for her failure. Blaming the 11-plus for this, not my parents, I looked forward to the arrival of the comprehensive system. It, I felt sure, would put an end to the old divisiveness.

I was wrong. In north Yorkshire, the 11-plus system is still around, if much reduced and under a different name. These days, all pupils in their last year at primary school take tests in verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and those in a "border-zone" take further tests in English and maths. According to how they do, they're sent to the boys' grammar or girls' high school: to South Craven school, in Crosshills; or to Aireville, in Skipton.

This is how it is in many areas of the country, particularly rural ones. The selection process is at least as rigorous as it was 30 years ago. The test system itself isn't as stark and inhumane as it once was. No one talks of "pass" and "fail" any more, but of finding the appropriate educational environment. There's an element of continuous assessment. There are teachers' reports and recommendations. There's a procedure for appeals. But there are still winners and losers. And Daniel's family has been divided much as mine was: he and Thomas go to Ermysted's; Ben, the middle brother, to Aireville.

It caused a lot of heartache and soul-searching for the boys' parents. But even if Ben had gone to Ermysted's, he wouldn't have been part of one big happy family. The streaming I'd assumed would also disappear is still around, again under a different name: Daniel's first-year results mean that he will go into the top stream, "the Latin form", just as Thomas did. Ermysted's ranks high in the league tables, and even those not in the Latin form do well at GCSE. It offers state school students the kind of traditional grammar school education that middle-class parents in London now find only in the private sector, at a price.

To my eyes, Ermysted's has changed remarkably little in 26 years. There's a splendid new sports hall, and the 100 or so boarders have gone, creating more space. But the temporary classrooms (the "hen huts") have survived, the ancient canteen and labs are unaltered, there are the same cracks in the corridor floor and (I swear) the same sliding bolts missing from certain lavatory doors. The termly Chronicles do not, it's true, carry reports of the potholing club's activities suffering disruption because of foot and mouth disease, and (with several women now on the staff) wouldn't think the arrival of a female maths teacher worthy of special note. But in other respects, little seems to have altered.

It's a big school, and to Daniel and Thomas, coming here from Thornton, it was (as for me, before them) both scary and exhilarating. It's less formal now, but not that much. Most teachers still expect to be called "Sir", and many call boys by their surnames. Inevitably, both Daniel and Thomas have the same nickname, used by teachers and boys alike: "Procky" or "Proc".

Listening to Daniel's anecdotes, it's as if we might be contemporaries, not a generation apart. Still going on, all of it: the blackboards and bunsen burners; the football at breaktime: the chemistry teacher giving instruction in how to make a stink bomb ("you could smell it right down the corridor"); art and design teachers who're "really daft and let you be cheeky".

Daniel has seen fights in the playground, but nothing serious: "If there's a little scrap, no one takes any notice. If there's a big bashing-up, with blood, and everyone standing round in a ring, the teachers break it up." Pellet-flicking is commonplace; flick-knives are not. There are detentions for boys who misbehave or fail to do their work, and he's dimly aware there are occasional suspensions, too - mostly of under-achieving fifth formers who're bored and ready to leave. Smoking, he knows, goes on behind the sheds. And some boys occasionally attempt to subvert the dress code (grey or white shirts, grey trousers, blazer, tie in house colours), with boots, for example, rather than shoes. At his age, I tell him, I was made to wear short trousers and a cap. Not any more, he laughs.

Daniel is enthusiastic about big school. He's had fun there so far. He's good at art, and design and technology, and Latin, which he is already fluent in the defence of: "People say there's no point in studying Latin. But it helps you with your English - for instance, you can work out that a word like 'dormant' must mean asleep if you can remember the Latin. I expect it's going to help me with my French, too, which I'm starting next year." Daniel knows that if he puts the effort in at Ermysted's, he'll get on OK. Work hard and play hard: that's the message he seems to have learnt. My Fifties father would have been proud of him. His own father is proud of him, too.

Daniel is still only 12: plenty of time, a cynic would say, to grow out of it, to become cruddy and nihilistic and know-all - just imagine what he'll be like at 16. It's a fair point. So I decide to talk to Daniel's brother, Thomas, who is 16.

By rights he should be slumped in his room, smoking dope and playing loud music. But I disturb him while he's outside, up a ladder, painting a windowsill. It's not for show. He's the practical one, he says, and his dad, who has back and knee problems, needs the help. He's helped round the place since he was little: learnt to drive a tractor at 12, and knows how to worm sheep ("It's not that difficult, just a matter of shoving a syringe down their gob - but you've still got to hold them"). Like Daniel, he enjoys working with his hands. If he can solve a problem, rather than, say, his parents having to call a plumber in, that's very satisfying.

Thomas doesn't get pocket money, and doesn't think he should: it's wrong, children and teenagers having handouts; the arrangement in his house is that if you really want something (a motorbike aside), and help enough about the place, you'll be bought it. He has more financial independence now, anyway, because he works in a bookshop every Saturday, which is "a social event really", a chance to meet people.

Soon, when he's 17 and passes his driving test, he'll be freer still. He does sometimes feel a bit isolated, on the farm, with none of his friends living close by. But with a car it'll be easier for them to go out together.

I ask Thomas about girlfriends: he is after all genial, talkative and highly presentable - with his contact lenses and sideburns, he no longer looks the early-teenage swot I've seen in photographs about the house. Girls? He's not shy about replying, but there's not much activity to report, yet: "I have a sort of girlfriend, called Tilly, who I met through my aunt. Tilly lives in Bournemouth. We get on really well, like brother and sister. She feels the same as me, that if you go to a single-sex school you don't get the confidence to talk to the opposite sex. The High School in Skipton is very close to our school, but there's not that much intermingling. And for GCSEs we had to work hard. And I can't ever imagine saying 'Sod the work.' But when I get the car ... " Which is his way of saying, apropos sex, that he hasn't, so far.

Thomas, as all this suggests, is studious as well as practical. He has just taken and passed 10 GCSEs, will take five A-levels in two years' time, and was recently accepted as a member of Mensa. Art and design are his strong points. But he quite likes sport, rugby aside, and especially likes cycling. He doesn't drink in pubs yet (can't, officially), but will have a glass of wine at home, with his parents. The only videos he has are Forrest Gump and Dead Poets Society. On television he likes comedy, and most things American, including (of course) The X Files, but "can't be doing with anything Australian". In music, he again likes most things except heavy metal - Celine Dion, Tina Arena, Louise, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins definitely. He doesn't read that many books, but he can get hold of things fairly easily - whether it's Jane Eyre or the latest X Files spin-off - thanks to his Saturday job. The other week he went down to Stratford-upon-Avon with his dad, to see Lord of the Flies. They do that once a year.

How interested is he in clothes? More than he used to be. In the last year or so he has started to buy his own: "I prefer casual things. If I can see something with a designer label I can afford, I'd buy it, but I don't care that much." He isn't much into politics, though if he'd had a vote in the last election he would probably not have voted Labour "because they wanted to abolish grammar schools". As a child he went to Sunday school. As a teenager, he doesn't go to a youth club: nor to church, which would mean getting up early - "I know that's a bit of a sad excuse, but it's the only day I get for a lie-in."

What about drugs? He doesn't take them himself, but he knows boys who do. You don't get many drugs at his school, though, so he says. And his account of those who do take drugs suggests nothing more excessive than went on locally when I was his age, the era of pot and purple hearts.

It all seems a bit innocent, much like it used to be. It's only when I ask Thomas what his ambitions are and he replies "I'd like to earn lots of money, obviously" that I feel the Eighties open up between us: it wouldn't have been an obvious ambition to me at his age, in 1967, when wanting to earn money was thought rather crass and conventional. He adds: "That means working hard. And once I start working, I'd like a good job, a house and a wife - though probably not a housewife: I wouldn't be compatible with someone who just stayed at home. And kids. That's all in the future, though."

Does he feel hopeful about the future generally? "With technology as it is, things can only get better. There's not much one person can do on his own, but I'd like to see a better standard of life for people in less developed countries. And I think that will happen, in time, because most of us now are aware of the problem of Third World countries. You've got to be an optimist. Around here, most people aren't cynical - and I only know round here."

Thomas "only knowing round here" has advantages, it's clear: a sense of belonging, a clear set of values, no pining for a half-glimpsed magic somewhere else; not a trace of cruddiness or anomie. But Lynda Procter is aware that her sons' circumscribed upbringing may also have its drawbacks: too much isolation, or insulation. "I feel quite proud that they seem to be decent and well-balanced lads. But I worry that they're not aware how things are in the big world. How well will they cope when they're subjected to its rigours? Would it be better if they were more streetwise? When I think what I was doing at Thomas's age ..."

Lynda, I take it, was doing what everyone is vaguely expected to at 16: discovering the opposite sex, trying out an intoxicant or two, and generally getting up to no good. (In Howard's case, rebellion meant going off to India, with a backpack and the complete Shakespeare; he was back within nine months, reconciled to taking over his father's farm.) Now, as Lynda admits, not quite believing it, she has become an icon of stability, whose constant presence the boys rather take for granted. "I suppose I'm old- fashioned, because I want to be there when they come home from school. We do try to have a family meal every day, without television on, no matter how cross with each other or silent the boys sometimes are. Parents in full-time work can't do this, I know. Their lives are more stressful. You see them at weekends, dragging their kids around the shops, the kids getting on their nerves, and them screaming and slapping them. I feel we're in a lucky position - all the land and space we have. But it's also partly a choice. We worked hard when we were first married - there was very little leisure time. Now quality of life seems more important than making money."

In some ways, the Procter family model, like the posters in Daniel's room, does seem a throwback to an earlier era. It's circumscribed, too, and very untravelled. For instance, Daniel has been to London only once, "when I was small", and scarcely more often to Manchester. Because of the farm, the family can take only a few days off at a time. When they do get away, they prefer to go to a hotel in Scarborough rather than on a foreign package.

But this isn't some mad attempt to turn the clock back. The farmhouse is old, and without central heating, but it's not a hillbilly hermitage. Most of the normal kids' things are here - television, toys, computers, bikes, stereos, videos, CDs. There's no Victorian punishment regime (Howard tries to be strict, Lynda considers herself a soft touch, and they have the usual marital spats about inconsistency). Nor, despite the fact that the farm has been in the family for four generations, is there pressure on the boys to follow their father. Howard hopes they'll keep the farmhouse on, to live in. But he likes the idea of their going to university, which he never had the chance to; he thinks, if they do, they'll have too many qualifications to be interested in farming.

"Well, I'm interested," Daniel protests. And he is, no doubt of it: how many other 12-year-olds would take Poultry World in preference to the Beano? When I ask Daniel to tell me the first thing he would do if he were made Prime Minister, he pauses, finding the question hard, but then says, with some decisiveness: "If there's some spare land, a big green area, with good soil, I'd keep it like it is, and not build on it." Daniel doesn't like cities or congestion. Nor does Thomas. What they want for everyone is what they have themselves: space.

It's difficult to know what general lessons are to be drawn from the case of three farming boys - white, healthy, modestly well-off, their parents still together - living half a mile from the nearest road. Their mother would be the first to admit they're not typical. In fact, they're almost too good to be true.

Yet as I leave them on a hot day - the two younger boys, in shorts and wellies, on their bikes; Thomas, older and more watchful - they seem real enough. And I don't feel as if I'm waving goodbye to the 1950s. It's just that they've found a better way of living in the 1990s than most of us - where the gadgetry of childhood is at our service, rather than our being its slaves; where parents have time for children, and children for parents; where there's a proper respect for things that grow, whether people or plants or animals. If that makes the Procters an odd lot, then the world needs more oddness in it. !

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments