As a child in the 1970s I went to a small Church of England Primary school in the rural Essex village of Colne Engaine. Situated at the edge of the village the school looked over fields and woods in three directions, in all seasons the slightly undulating expanse of countryside formed a familiar backdrop to a happy childhood.
Our classroom was a Portakabin on the other side of the playground from the main building, it was unbearably hot in summer and brutally cold in winter when the wind and snow blew horizontally off the fields.
In our last year at the school our teacher was Mr Atkins, the school headmaster.
Mr Atkins seemed only to have a few interests in life.
The first was the Second World War. Lessons would frequently be interrupted by him pulling out WW2 aircraft spotter charts, or by mapping the battle of Arnhem on the blackboard, cleverly using the different aspects of the battle in an educational manner.
Although in his 50s at the time he never showed any bigotry when talking about Germany and always admired its engineering prowess. He also maintained a serious argument that the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was a far superior aircraft the Spitfire, which he described as, ‘A girls plane’.
The second was Yugoslavia. Every summer he would drive to Yugoslavia with his wife, all the way across Europe and the Alps in a yellow Citroen 2CV. If it broke down he’d fix it himself with whatever came to hand, back when men were men and cars were simple. He loved Yugoslavia and spoke of it with great fondness on a weekly basis, he must have been heartbroken as he watched the country implode during the nineties.
The third was music. On Friday afternoons if we weren’t sitting outside in the sunshine listening to the story of Operation Market Garden we’d sing christian songs as Mr Atkins played along on his bizarrely small Spanish guitar.
Friday mornings would also be given over to guitar lessons for anyone who wanted to turn up. I played the guitar at the time and also the Euphonium in a brass band, and whilst I wasn’t that academic Mr Atkins always pushed my interest in music. This was before parents, Ofsted and league tables ruined childhood by forcing all kids to aspire to corporate boredom.
The fourth and last interest was the Parachute Regiment, which was also his benchmark for scholarly discipline and hard work.
You don’t want to go outside in the cold? Well the Paras probably didn’t want to jump out of a warm plane into a hail of Nazi lead but they did it didn’t they? The Paras work in all weather, so does my 2CV and so will you.
The mocking would continue with a series of hilarious voices that would accompany Basil Faulty style bodily animations.
(Pathetic weedy accent) I don’t fancy the jump today Sarge, I think I’ll stay in the plane and do some knitting if it’s all the same with you.
He would pull a Swiss Army Penknife from the inside pocket of his tweed jacket as a solution to almost any problem.
His Swiss Army knife was the original basic red model with nothing but a blade and a corkscrew. Rumour had it that Mr Atkins had used the pocket knife to kill an SS Officer during an attack on a machine gun position in northern France, this story was embellished further by serial lair Christopher Morris who maintained that the corkscrew had come in handy to gouge the eyes out before the savage throat slitting took place.
Over thirty years later, there’s no way that I’m going to doubt the legitimacy of this story, it’s the stuff of childhood dreams and to think it may never have happened would cast doubt over the validity of my entire life.