Inspired by the following Decamot items:
fireworks; evangelist; snooker; cutting edge; Heather; safe haven; basket; grinder; apartment block; silk blouse
Form 4 X was lined up, backs against the wall bars in the gym, awaiting instructions from Peter Ross, their new PE teacher. Ross had only joined Hessle Grove this term. He was still feeling his way but was determined to make an instant impression on his new charges. On these occasions, teachers are just as nervous as their pupils. It is so important to set the right tone from the beginning. He knew you only get one chance to make a first impression, a maxim which applied equally to those being taught.
Half way along this assembled motley crew of thirty disparate talents stood Simon Jones, an inherently shy boy with a toothy grin under a mass of slightly unruly curly hair, feeling apprehensive but managing to hide it.
He stood out because he was at least three inches taller than his nearest classmate, although boys of this age could spurt in growth over a summer holiday and be almost unrecognisable when they returned for the first day of a new school year. The boy to his left was Michael Andrews, whose father was something in the City and, next to him, Willie Williams, an undersized overweight bundle of energy who couldn’t stand still to save his life. His parents had a successful hotel in Cobham which they were about to sell to Charles Forte.
To Simon Jones’ right was Martin Matthews, a handsome upright character exuding confidence, with lush swept back dark hair modelled on early Elvis Presley who he was succeeding in emulating, down to competent three chord strumming on a newly acquired electric guitar; a present from his father. Martin’s parents were divorced but devoted to their son who lacked for nothing; spoilt rotten by them both in a game of competitive parenting.
Form 4 X were all new to each other this being their second year at Hessle Grove. As with most grammar schools at that time, the first year was taken up assessing each individual pupil’s academic potential. Based on these early results, students were allocated a second-year form deemed appropriate to their future academic needs.
Competition was thought essential in all subjects; if your peers were your intellectual equals, the theory went, you would automatically raise your own game to match your classmates. Nobody would choose to come second.
Thus, Form 4 X was expected to fly through to the sixth form then on to university without a struggle, 4 being a reference to the fact that pupils in this specialist form were expected to complete their GCSE curriculum in four rather than the normal five years, X being shorthand for express.
Physical exercise in the form of football, cricket, athletics and PE was thought to be an anathema to such an academically gifted group of future scientists, engineers, doctors, journalists, diplomats and politicians.
Peter Ross on the other hand was dedicated to fitness; a veritable evangelist for exercise of all kinds but especially basketball which was a minority sport in the UK at the time but which he had coached to international standards at Millfield in Somerset, before securing his latest post at Hessle Grove. He would never accept that you can’t make a silk blouse out of a sow’s ear; defeat was not an option for him although a glance down the serried ranks of Form 4 X specimens might easily have undermined his core belief.
“Good morning boys! Stand at ease!” He declared in a broad West Country dialect.
There was an audible out take of breath as Form 4 X prepared itself for the sermon to follow.
“My name is Peter Ross and I will be taking you for PE this term. As you can hear from my accent I’m not from these parts but we all share a common goal do we not? I am going to improve your life chances by getting you as fit as it is possible to be. Why? Because a healthy body feeds a healthy mind. I understand that you are the academic elite at Hessle Grove, but I want to turn you into world beaters at sport……
As Ross was speaking his voice, which was imbued with undeniably yokel overtones, caused Martin Matthews’ mind to wander into a popular ditty of the time “Oh Coates comes up from Somerset, where the cider apples grow!” He was pretty sure he knew the chord structure as he accompanied himself on his imaginary guitar. Apparently oblivious to Matthews’ silent musical detour, Ross continued in full flow …. “And we will be starting this morning with an introduction to a sport which ticks all the boxes of mind over matter …. Basketball! Has anybody ever played before?”
The silence which followed was deafening.
“It requires personal discipline extreme fitness and maximum tactical awareness – think of it as high level competitive Chess but played at lightning speed.”
Simon Jones pricked up his ears. The only cerebral sport he had tried was snooker which had tested his knowledge of angles. He could play a half decent game of draughts so why not give Basketball a chance, especially if it could introduce him to Chess at the same time?
Willie Williams, who was down to do classics at Cambridge like his mother before him, was also taken by Ross’s analogy with Chess and thought his parents would approve of him nourishing his brain cells whilst scoring the odd basket or two.
Peter Ross was now coming to the point of this first session.
“In a moment I will introduce you to a couple of manoeuvres which are crucial to master if you are to reach international standards of performance. My objective is to select a group of you to specialise in Basketball for the next four years during which period we will become national schools’ champions and some of you will be selected to play for England. By the 5th November - fireworks night – I should be in a position to name the 15-man squad that I will personally coach going forward.”
Once again, Matthews found his mind in meander mode. If Ross found himself short of numbers, he mused, he could always name Guy Fawkes as a substitute …. but he was quickly brought to heel by the sound of his own name.
“A basic pass should go chest to chest at speed using both your hands in the delivery – Matthews get ready to catch the ball and immediately return it to me in identical fashion i.e. as quickly as you can at speed. OK?”
Matthews caught the ball although it took the wind out of his chest; he didn’t actually drop it, but it took him several seconds to recover his composure before returning it to Ross as requested; not in a straight line as directed but more like a limp wristed lob over an invisible net in tennis.
“The return looked more like an ailing parabola, but I can confirm that I did receive it Matthews” said Ross with a smile on his face “The problem we would have in a competitive environment is that the opposition would have seen it coming ten minutes ago and intercepted. Still it was cheaper than sending them a telegram”
Half of Form 4 X thought this highly amusing, but the other half was terrified of what might be their fate when it was their turn to receive a pass from their new fitness czar whose physical persona was strangely at odds with his carrot crunching vocal delivery which seemed to be reaching them after passing through an apple grinder.
They didn’t have long to wait as Ross moved rapidly down the line from left to right pushing passes at ferocious speed and waiting patiently for a variety of returns of which Simon Jones was easily the most impressive.
“Well done Jones – you are a natural!” he said, “but don’t assume your height will give you an automatic advantage; you will need to develop speed of thought if you really want to make the grade.”
Simon Jones was quietly confident that he would make the team and rather hoped that Willie Williams, Michael Andrews and Martin Matthews would do likewise as he was rather warming to their different personalities.
Willie Williams was in fact the last to receive a pass from Peter Ross who made the act of chest to chest passes look effortless. Whether he misjudged Williams’ height, or the receiver was too keen to impress, is hard to say, but Willie leapt up to catch the ball and was in mid air when the ball hit him a glancing blow on his shoulder sending him spinning backwards where he banged his head on the wall bars knocking himself out in the process.
Peter Ross was mortified but immediately went into a well-rehearsed emergency routine calling for calm all round and space to allow Williams to breath. He checked his pulse and was mightily relieved when he mumbled his first words … “What the fuck happened?” an expression rarely heard in leafy Surrey at that time and never from an aspiring classics scholar.
Heather Williams, Willie’s mother, who was visiting Professor of English Literature at Kings College Oxford, would have been appalled to think her son capable of such vulgar language but she never found out.
Half of Form 4 X had never heard the expletive actually uttered whilst the other half, including Messrs Jones, Matthews and Andrews, thought they had but were mightily relieved to think Willie was going to survive to fight another day.
Martin Matthews found himself working the expression into a lyric supported by a simple three chord structure. Nobody was more relieved than Peter Ross who, feeling rather guilty at having inflicted actual bodily harm on a student in his care, albeit accidentally, duly included Willie in his final selection despite him being too short and overweight; disadvantages which he promptly overcame through boundless energy that was infectious.
Two years later in the showers after a particularly gruelling session on the basketball court, Martin asked Simon, Michael and Willie if they fancied forming a rock band as he was getting bored with practising on his own.
“As it happens, I play classical saxophone but where would we practise?” asked Michael Andrews, who knew his parents would not appreciate his taking up valuable homework time with a frivolous leisure pursuit. “We will need a safe haven otherwise my Dad will go spare”
“Safe Haven?” chipped in Simon Jones, already looking at the marketing potential, “That sounds a great name for the band!”
“Are we all in then?” said Martin Matthews, suddenly energised by the enthusiasm being shown by his colleagues
“Only if I can play drums!” said Willie Williams with his usual infectious laugh
“Done!” said Martin “Leave me to sort out the venue but our first rehearsal is next Monday night and weekly thereafter OK?”
Eve Tower was an apartment block put up by Martin Matthews’ father when he moved into property development in the mid-seventies. It featured a basement originally designed as an underground car park but where he was more than happy to create a special sound proof rehearsal room in which he also installed the latest cutting-edge recording equipment including a state of the art mixing desk courtesy of Martin’s mother Joan, who didn’t want to appear lacking when it came to bestowing filial gifts on her son to match those of her estranged spouse. Speculation as to the identity of the eponymous venue was rife among band members.
This then was the unlikely gestation of Sheep Shearers Anonymous (subsequently shortened to SSA for marketing purposes) the massive Supergroup phenomenon of the early eighties. The first gig they played was the Hessle Grove Old Boys Association Annual Ball when their opening number was a classic three chord rock ‘n roll number called
“Flocking all Over the World” which Simon Jones penned as an amusing little tribute to Peter Ross who hadn’t spotted that the band’s name was also an affectionate nod in his direction.
SSA went on to pioneer stadium rock but without Simon Jones who quickly realised that his mastery of the descant recorder was ill suited to the SSA genre. When the other band members heard him sing, they suggested he might prefer a role as their manager, an offer he accepted with alacrity.