Morpheus on… Pompous Face-Saving

I recently saw a recording of Kenneth Williams’ one-man-show, in which he retold an episode which occurred when he was working for ENSA (Every Night Something Awful) in Malaya.

He and the chorus boys were rehearsing “We’re The Boys Of The Service” – when the Colonel stopped them and began ranting about how the whole thing was TOO CAMP.

He demanded they change the lyric to MEN of the service.

So of course, they then all sang, “We’re the MEN of the service…” – THREE TIMES more camply than before!

The punch-line of Ken’s story was that when the number finished, the Colonel harrumphed and said, “That was better.”

This reminded me of a similar incident, involving ANOTHER Ken – Kenneth G Armstrong, our manic depressive headmaster, at Copleston High. A boys school, boasting some 550 pupils.

Back in those days (the Sixties) most schools had a thing called “Morning Assembly” which consisted of a twenty minute “service” during which we would have to recite a couple of prayers, sing a hymn and endure a sermon – which in our case, was usually delivered by the afore-mentioned bi-polar headmaster.

After this routine, Ken would do “the notes” – which was a list of the “growing practises” in the school and a description of what would happen to any boy caught indulging in them.

Anyhoo, on this particular occasion, the hymn – it being close to Christmas – was “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”. Wilfred, the arts master, lifted the lid of the piano, played the introduction and we began to sing.

However, we had only reached the end of the first line when Ken shouted, “STOP!”

Wilfred paused, his hands in mid-air – and we slithered to a discordant halt.

“I heard that!” said Ken. “Some boys were singing ‘While shepherds WASHED their SOCKS!’ – You will start again and this time, if I hear ONE BOY singing ‘washed their socks’ I will CANE the ENTIRE SCHOOL!”

He then nodded at Wilfred, who replayed the intro and 550 boys – in unison – sang “While shepherds washed their socks by night…”

I watched Ken’s face go through several shades of purple and steam begin to emanate from his ears. But he remained quiet until the hymn finished.

Then, as we stood expectantly, he harrumphed and said, “That was better.”

But being in the Third Year, I was positioned right in the middle of the boys and the first time we had sung the piece, I had not heard ANY boy singing “washed their socks” – in fact, I had never HEARD of this particular “twisted lyric” – however, I certainly heard 550 boys sing it the SECOND time!

So Ken undoubtedly heard it too – but, like the Colonel, he had painted himself into a CORNER and had no option but to LAMELY pretend to MISHEAR it.

And like us, he knew he could NEVER have caned the entire school. The logistics alone, of whacking 550 boys, would have been beyond him. But that would have been NOTHING compared to what the newspapers would have done to him, had he carried out his threat.

“HEADMASTER CANES 550 BOYS FOR SINGING: WHILE SHEPHERDS WASHED THEIR SOCKS!” They would have had a field day – and he would have been looking for a new job the day after!

Footnote: my friend, Little Alfie, was in my class and generally remembers these things differently from I – so if you check the “comments” to this piece, you may find an ALTERNATIVE version of these events!


7 responses to this post.

  1. OK: blocks, box, cocks, clocks, crocks, docks, flocks, frocks, Glocs, hocks, Jocks, knocks, locks, mocks, pox, rocks, socks, stocks, shocks… Blimey! There aint ‘arf a lot to choose from.

    Anyway, who is to say that shepherds do not wash their socks during the hours of darkness? It is perfectly logical. The socks can dry on sticks before the fire. Bare feet can keep warm before the fire… But then the bloody angel of the Lord keeps coming down and disturbing the peace…

  2. Posted by Vincent on June 24, 2011 at 7:04 pm


  3. Posted by Alfie on July 3, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    OK. Since you ask….

    Firstly, Cy, I can’t think WHY we didn’t try singing “…washed their COCKS by night” – it would have annoyed him SO much more! Or, just possibly, he would have been relieved instead that we were taking an interest in personal hygiene!

    Vincent, my friend, I do (for once) recall it exactly as you do and seem to recall that I posted something about it in December ’09 while enjoying a visitation from the Swine ‘Flu Fairy! Ah, yes – here it is –

    The thing about dear old Ken was that he SO wanted us to be on a par with a Grammar school or even a minor Public School in academic achievements, manners and general greatness – but what he got was US!

    A collection of irreverent, punning, amateur bomb-making humourists! And then there were the B, C and D streams who didn’t even have THOSE dubious talents!

    I felt quite sorry for him.

    I was, however, reminded by typing the word “Fairy” earlier that I did NOT feel sorry for Ken’s sadistic git of a deputy, Mr Northway. He was a nasty piece of work who thought you needed a haircut if he could lift you out of your seat by the hair growing down to the front of your ears. Bloody well hurt that did!

    I don’t know who nicknamed him Fairy but for many years the back wall of the Girls School cycle sheds (along which ran a public footpath) bore the painted slogan “Fairy is a c**t” – without, it must be said, my polite asterisks!

    And his classic assembly announcement was the one about boys shoving objects (sports clothing, school caps, first years, that sort of thing) down the toilets.

    “Someone”, he added ponderously and with no thought of humour in his head, “even threw in a ruler for GOOD MEASURE”! Some were quicker at getting what he’d said there than others but eventually 550 boys nearly pissed themselves with laughter at his expense. He was furious but so many of the other teachers were laughing too that he had to pretend he meant it as a joke!


  4. Posted by Alfie on July 4, 2011 at 2:42 am

    ….and I forgot to add on the caning issue: I’m sure there would have been some who would have gone round for “seconds”! I wouldn’t be able to name any, but it would have been one circumstance when I WOULD have tolerated queue jumping!


  5. Posted by Anonymous on July 5, 2011 at 2:57 am

    I mind your comments about Mr Armstrong and Mr Northway …but who do you know who actually received a beating from them? I know someone probably did …just can’t think who!!
    Mayhap they were not as sadistic as we would like them to have been!!
    Any old how, memory plays tricks and I see these now as actually rather benign old school chaps.
    So now shoot me down. Dave in particular is very good in the what actually happened dept. I’d certainly trust his twist on things,
    Fond Regards… the late lamented Hank

  6. Posted by Vincent on July 5, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Great to HEAR from you, Hank old man!

    I can definitely say I once felt the swish of Northway’s cane! I recall there were three or four of us – and that one other was POTTER! But I do not recall the infraction that lead to it.

    I also recall queuing outside Ken’s room – and hearing him give an unfortunate boy a RIGHT thrashing. It sounded so bad that the secretary lead me out into the corridor, to spare me the experience!

    But luckily for me, Bipolar Ken had now “turned”. He began by saying,”Now, I’ve used this cane ONCE today – I’m sure you do not…” And thus my bottom retained its normal colour!

  7. Posted by Alfie on July 5, 2011 at 4:30 am

    Yes, good to hear from you again Hank! Must meet up again soon.

    I personally had no experience of caning by anybody – being lifted out of my seat by two tufts of hair was quite unpleasant enough to make me dislike Fairy though!

    I DID however, get sent to Ken’s office once as a result of a noisy fracas on the boundary of the cricket pitch during a School vs Staff match! I stood around outside for a while until the secretary spotted me and told me that Ken was out at a meeting and wouldn’t be back that day. So I quietly rejoined the crowd at the match and no-one said anything else about it!

    I think that we were a) too bright to get caught doing “growing practices” that merited that sort of punishment and b) more sadistic (well Potter was anyway) to each other than the teachers were to us.

    What were those “growing practices” anyway?


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