My sad, silly old mate Dave Sapsted once wrote, “Bealing grew up in the part of Kent which everyone else calls South London”. Well he was half right—which is 50% more than he usually is. I was born in the London Borough of Bexley but went to school in Dartford, which was and still is in Kent. Not so much the Garden of England, more the Allotment. Apart from the Warbler, England fast bowler, Graham Dilley, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, I’m the only thing of note which has come out of this rather unremarkable town. If you do want to come out of it it’ll cost you 30 bob to use the Dartford Tunnel, and you wouldn’t wanna do that cos it’ll take you into Essex. For 59 quid you can hop on the Eurostar at the nearby and romantically-named Ebbsfleet Inernational Railway Station and lose yourself in Paris or Brussels. Or you can do what most Dartfordians do instead and lose yourself in Bluewater shopping centre (and if you can get out of there alive without spending 59 quid you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din). All once-remembered links to Chaucer’s Pilgrims or Watt Tyler‘s Peasants have been washed away by that massive lump of concrete hell, sitting in a disused chalk quarry a couple of miles east. “Oh you come from Dartford? Where Bluewater is?” Yes, I do. Fuck off.
Shunning the obvious delights of Dartford, some years ago I made my way 10 miles up the A2 to the last bastion of civilization left in SE London: Blackheath. Civilization, however, is suspended on Friday and Saturday eves as the Eltham Nazis take over the village bars and restaurants, and we now have a black maria which circles the small one-way system in almost perpetual motion, picking-up the knuckle-draggers as it goes. We do get 5 days of relative peace and calm, where you can get a pint and a curry and have a more-than-decent chance of making it home with as many limbs as you came out with. But I do hear often from friends “Oh, Blackheath! Lovely down there, isn’t it?” It’s lovely in the way that Basra is lovelier than Baghdad.
Anyway, back to Baghdad…er Dartford. I always keep half an eye on Dartford— my kids live there for starters, as does The Incumbent, and there are still a few of the lads who never made it over the wire, so I return there every-so-often. But like a favourite testicle after too long in the bath, it has shrunken and shrivelled over the years since I was a schoolboy more than 25 years ago. The streets are shorter, the shops smaller, pubs grubbier and girls uglier (present Mrs B aside, you understand). The town planners seem to have been influenced by Jackson Pollock or Magnus Pyke, the semi-deserted streets (Bluewater sucks the life out of the town on weekends) are the domain of small herds of herberts in hoods, grazing on MaccyDs in forests of triffid traffic signs. It’s an all-too familiar story if you know towns like Barnet, Orpington, St Albans or any of a number dotted around the M25 corridor.
As a young man I used to ply my medium-pacers for Wilmington CC, a village team just up the road. Wilmington was a leafy little dingly-dell, away from the bustle of the Dartford ‘metrolopis’, with a couple of proper boozers, a local park with a decent cricket square (complete with licensed pavilion), a couple of schools and lots of tree-lined lanes where on a clear night you could witness fleets of Escort Mark I’s bouncing up and down to the rhythm of young couples at it. Nowadays those same lanes are the natural habitat for middle-aged men taking themselves on long, lonely strolls in the hope of meeting other middle-aged men on long, lonely strolls in the hope that they can have some fun together.
Wilmington made a news-item this week. Not for it’s cottage industry, nor for the cricket team’s tight match vrs local rivals Swanley but because of the antics of the headmistress of the local school. At Wilmington Enterprise College the head mistress, Belinda Langley-Bliss (I kid you not) sent 61 pupils home from lessons in one day. Go back and read that again. IN ONE DAY.
Now what, you may well ask, happened on that day? A mass riot? Did the upper-sixth set fire to the science block? Were the school leopard and the caretaker’s water cannon set loose on a noisy session of the Chess Club ? Nope. apparently 46 were sent home for wearing trainers or ‘extreme fashions’ and a further 15 for not having the correct equipment. Sounds like a Daily Mail report, doesn’t it? Sadly this story is true. According to the PA report: “Pupils were also required to arrive at college each day with a pencil case containing a calculator, two pens, two pencils, a planner, a ruler, eraser and notebook to prevent time being wasted in lessons.” The Incumbent tell me that one of her friend’s son was sent home for not having a pencil sharpener. Yup.
You know what I’d do? instead of sending the kids away, I’d get the parents IN. Pin them down and ask them why little Jordan or Wayne have turned up without the required uniform? See if you can help in an installment-plan for a pencil sharpener. Failing that, baseball bats and bricks usually do the trick. Tell you what you DON’T do is give the kids the day off. How many kids do you know would think that a punishment? I’d have turned up with no trousers if I thought I’d have been sent away again (tried that at The Telegraph once—didn’t work). In an ever-depressed economy, where your average school-leaver’s chances of getting a job are dwindling away, why not help parents kit-out the kids in an acceptable manner, with what kit and clothing is readily affordable to non-working families? And if it’s just the case of little Johnny cocking-a-snoop at the school rules and dress like he’s going clubbing, then scare the bejeezus out of him. A bollocking from the old man usually focussed my mind. Ms Langley-Bliss has taken the option of filling up the street corners and KFCs of her local town with teenagers who think they’ve won the lottery. Others will be sitting at home in bits on the sofa because they forgot to take a pencil to school, waiting for dad to come home and rip into them. Is that how to encourage decent 14 year olds? Dartford is depressing enough. It doesn’t need arse-head strategies like this, Miss Bliss.