A return to school for Santa

Recent months sometimes seem a foreign country while yesteryear comes readily to mind, and the date of 4th December in the newspaper reminded me that it was the 62nd anniversary of my demob from National Service in the Army – Sad! The Army mantra, ‘Never volunteer’ stayed with me until 1963 when I began 12 super years in the Round Tables of Loughborough, Bridgend and Downend, experiences that led me into the spirit of the Rotary Club of Bedford.

When District Governor Mary Whitehead asked our Club to provide a Father Christmas for Sheerhatch School, a combination of the village schools in Cople and Willington, she was pushing at an open door as Fred Laming, a former Club member now enlivening a retirement complex in Suffolk, had started a very successful Rotakids group at the school.  With the guidance of Rotarians Chris Horler and Peter Walden and the enthusiastic encouragement of teachers and the other children, Rotakids have supported our Club causes including Polio Plus, Carers of Bedfordshire and Canine Partners, and taken part in our annual Charity Swimathon in aid of numerous good causes.

I was to be Father Christmas, and DG Mary provided the outfit, one from the Land of Amazonia and fit for purpose once I used wellington boots in place of the plastic leggings that looked like collapsing concertinas.  Wearing the wig brought total anonymity and the confidence that went with it.

At Cople site the password, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ released the magnetic clamps on the gates and Head Teacher Helen Ryan took me to each of the four senior classes where I gave my ‘Yo,Ho,Hos’ and complimented and thanked the children for their support of our good causes, finishing with ‘Three Cheers for Sheerhatch.’  One lad wearing a red football shirt from somewhere in Manchester collared me and asked which was my favourite football team and when I replied, ‘Bristol City’ and ‘Up the Robins’, his shrill and disbelieving cry of, ‘Bristol City???!!’ followed me to the door.

The three youngest classes, ‘Otters, Rabbits and Squirrels’ were all sitting cross-legged on the floor in Willington and greeted me with a carol.  This group was full of Believers and totally delightful, all enraptured to see Father Christmas, and receiving their presents with looks ranging from agog or dumbstruck, to the occasional chatterbox each with, as my mother would say, ‘The confidence of a butcher’s dog.’  Of course, we ended with ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.’

On reaching home, I saw the photograph and was aghast at what I saw.  My senior school was Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Bristol, a Bluecoat school where we boarders wore the full fig of moleskin breeches, knee length yellow stockings, and an ankle length blue cloak with gilt buttons to the waist and a jabot at the neck.  Sunday - best versions were for church parade and School Marshal, Bill Stenner, an ex-RSM from the Gloucestershire Regiment went through the ranks with a tweak here, a pull there, and a woeful sigh elsewhere, and the delivery of his final condemnation brought a cheer and we ambled off to church in town.

My dismay was caused by the fact that the photograph showed the belt buckle to be off-centre and I realised that the whirring sound I heard was Bill Stenner rotating in his grave while declaiming that final condemnation, ‘You look like a sack’a dung tied up ugly,’ - and I did.

Brian Hanling


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