‘Tis the season to be jolly, and here at Downie Towers we are celebrating in the traditional way, with a merry 24-hour cacophony of coughing and sniffing. It’s a sound that has roused the Ghost of Winters Past, and to my surprise she looks very much like the diminutive form of a long-retired Headmistress.
There were many good things about my old school, but the School Hall was not one of them. It was designed to be impressive rather than practical, and like its much grander cousin the Albert Hall, it suffered from a terrible echo problem. The use of a microphone merely set the echoes bouncing around the walls from several competing sources, so that the noises had to be reassembled like a jigsaw before anyone could make out their meaning. To stand any chance of working out what the Head was saying, the other 600 people at morning assembly had to remain completely silent.
The problem was infinitely worse in winter, because it was the season of colds.
If you had a cold in the late 1960’s/early 70’s, you were faced with a choice. You could stay at home, where with luck from time to time your Mum would come clattering across the lino of your unheated bedroom with a cup of Disprin, a bowl of steaming menthol mixture, and a towel. You would then be expected to sit above the bowl with a towel over your head, inhale the fumes, and Clear Those Tubes.
Alternatively, you could arm yourself with your own Disprin, stagger into school and spend the day wandering from one warm classroom to another in the company of your friends. The menthol mixture had to be left at home, but a similar effect could be achieved by consuming Fisherman’s Friends (a lozenge so powerful it can only safely be eaten when the tastebuds are dulled by cold) and sitting in a room whose radiators were brightly festooned with the damp socks and gloves of students hoping to get them dry before getting them wet again on the way home.
Of course this had a dire effect on Morning Assembly, where one echoing cough could undo all the efforts of the Head and her microphone. Every gathering was therefore prefaced with the words, ‘If you want to cough, cough now!’ The Head would stand and wait until the resulting explosion of sound had died away before attempting to improve our hearts and minds and tell us about the exploits of the First Hockey XI or the lunchtime practice arranged for the Senior Choir Third Altos.
Despite this tactic there remained patches of ignorance throughout the hall, caused by the stifled convulsions of girls trying to control throats that had begun to tickle outside the allocated time. People who needed to know things often left assembly comparing interpretations of what they thought they had just heard.
On reflection, it’s hardly surprising that Whole School Assembly is pretty much a thing of the past. Many schools now contain thousands of pupils and I’m told it’s possible to spend several years in one without ever finding out what the Head Teacher looks like. Perhaps we are the healthier for it, although the current industrial scale of consumption of Lemsip and tissues at Downie Towers suggests not.
Dear reader, through a festive haze of Hall’s Mentholyptus, I wish you a very merry Christmas, and a happy and healthy New Year.
If you want to cough, cough now.