I was born a dozen years after the end of World War Two, but I grew up hearing the distant reverberations of bombs crashing through roofs and tearing up streets. Sometimes at night I could even hear the ghostly footsteps of mothers and children sprinting for safety in church basements. Even my nickname––Doodle-Bug–– was from the war.
Doodle-Bug was the nickname given to the Nazi V1 flying bombs, around 700 of which landed in and around my hometown. I actually quite liked the name. I was a ginger, I had a ginger’s explosive temperament and, for a long time I thought that was why I’d been given the name. I had a tendency to explode like a bomb. I couldn’t think of any other reason. I couldn’t fly, I wasn’t pencil-shaped––in fact I was more eraser-shaped, and I certainly wasn’t a Nazi, even though I had once given a Hitler salute to a Policeman at a League soccer game.
One evening I was in the car with my mother. She said, “Talk to me. You’ve got to learn to make conversation otherwise you’ll never get anywhere in life.”
I said, “My nickname is Doodle-Bug.”
She said bitterly, “That’s because you doodle all the time!”
My conversation plans dived out of the car window and rolled to the kerb like a secret agent escaping from an enemy henchman.
It was true. I did doodle all the time. The school offered no art lessons and I didn’t go to Saturday art classes like some kids, but I drew relentlessly. I used to get a comic once a week, and my pro forma art teacher was the comic’s chief artist, Leo Baxendale. My favorite strip was ‘the Bash Street Kids,’ which detailed the battles between the kids and their school teacher.
I think this was how the doodling began to get out of control. One of the eponymous Bash Street Kids (Plug perhaps) had his text book propped upright on the desk, hiding his hands while he drew a cartoon of the teacher.
To my 13 year-old mind, this seemed the perfect way to survive Double Latin on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. I tried propping up my text book. It balanced perfectly on the slanted desk. I tore a page from my ‘rough book,’ as if I was going to take notes, then trying to make myself as small as possible, I crouched like an escaped prisoner of war behind First Steps in Latin and doodled.
Major Forrest, the Latin teacher, was a pacing teacher. During morning class he’d march up and down the aisle between the desks as if he was inspecting his company, but by 3 o’clock when Double Latin started he’d slowed down to a point where he’d teach from a sitting position at the front of the class. I made sure that my paper was always outside of his sight lines.
At first I was certain I’d be caught and sent to the headmaster, so I played safe. I drew a Roman Legionary, then if I was caught I could always say that I was drawing Mark Antony or one of the Second Triumvirate. I might not avoid punishment entirely, but I might at least avoid being caned. Being caned wasn’t painful, but I just felt bad for the headmaster having to do it. He never said, “this is going to hurt me more than you,” but I know that it did.
Almost before I’d finished the drawing, my neighbor, Patrick, slid the paper off my desk. “Brilliant,” he said. He then passed it off to his neighbor.
I think more than anything that my classmates were thrilled to bits to have something to look at for a few moments other than lists of Latin comparative adjectives.
I was emboldened. My next Roman Legionary had Major Forrest’s face, or at least that was my plan. “Why’s he look so old?” said Patrick.
“It’s Major Forrest,” I said.
Patrick laughed, and showed the drawing to his neighbor, Mark. Mark took a pencil and wrote ‘Major Forrest’ in neat caps above the legionary. Patrick took the paper back, erased Mark’s writing, and replaced it with the word ‘Flabby.’ Major Forrest had jowls a little like one of those frilled lizards that live in the deserts of Australia, so his nickname was ‘Flabby.’
I plunged into my new role as class cartoonist. I added secondary characters. I added captions. I added speech bubbles. Before long the tribulations of Centurion Flabby were expanding into little plots and themes.
I should have paid attention to the classes though. If I had I would have known about hubris. I was developing more hubris than you could shake an iron-age javelin at. I began adding naked ladies.
I’d never seen an actual naked lady, but I’d seen them in my friend, Martin’s, father’s collection of playboys. I wasn’t nearly as good at drawing them as I was at drawing centurions, but I did my best.
One afternoon, I spent almost the entire 90 minute lesson on one doodle. I drew Centurion Flabby in pajamas––I assumed Roman centurions wore pajamas, but I might have been mistaken. He was standing next to a bed, and the other side of the bed was the school secretary, Vicki, wearing a see-through nightie. I chose to give her the nightie so I could reveal some of the more significant details while hiding the ones I had no idea how to draw.
I captioned it, ‘Flabby’s Nightcap.” I didn’t really need a caption as by this point I could do a passable likeness of Major Forrest.
“Thank god!” said Patrick, when I’d finished. “About bloody time.” He took it from my desk, and it made its way around the room.
The next day was an inter-school cricket match. I was the scorer, so I went with the team on the bus. It was a long game, and ran until about 6 o’clock. Some of the team were dropped off on the way back to school. Others were picked up by their parents when the bus got back.
I had to drop off the score book in person to the headmaster, and I ended up in the classroom on my own while I waited for him to come in. The room had been cleaned, but there was a half sheet of paper on the window sill. I wandered over to take a look. As I got closer a cricket ball formed in my stomach, and began to roll around. It was my drawing of Major Forrest and the school secretary. It looked as though it had been crumpled then smoothed out.
My inner cricket ball doubled, then tripled like a pregnant amoeba. How? Why? Who?
The headmaster’s Oxford shoes clumped on the floor boards just outside the door.
I grabbed the paper. I was going to throw it in the trash, but the trash bin was empty. I stuffed it into my jacket pocket, then took it out. My mother always checked my pockets when I got home to make sure I hadn’t been eating sweets.
I thought about the conjuror’s trick where you pretend to rip up a piece of paper, but really just hide it between your fingers, but even crumpled up the paper was far too big.
Finally I squashed it in between two floorboards just as the headmaster came in. I pretended I was tying my laces.
“Thank you so much,” said the head, his red face split by a broad and kindly smile. “I really appreciate what you’re doing?”
Did he know? Maybe. Did he tell my father? Perhaps. Did my mother know? Probably not, otherwise she would have baked me into a toad-in-the-hole.
I’ve never figure out any answers. I wish I still had the drawing. It was probably the best piece of art from my childhood.
A curious postscript. The next term the school introduced a once-a-week art lesson for the first time in its history. It was taught by the school secretary, Vicki. I still give thanks to whatever Roman god or goddess was looking down on me that day in Double Latin. My likeness of Major Forrest was accurate enough that anybody would recognized him, but my likeness of Vicki was so dismal that nobody would have guessed it was her in a million years.
Or at least I truly hope so.