School Camp in the springtime was supposed to be wonderful fun. For me, at the tender age of eleven, it represented a dream about to come true. A week away from the city, in the depths of Surrey! An open-air life by an old medieval Mill House, in a field of tents, with camp fires, sing-a-longs and midnight pranks!
But all good things have their downsides. In my case, it was the Palliasse. In case you don’t know, a palliasse (which was pronounced by the teachers as “Pally-Ass”) is a straw-filled canvas bag used as a mattress. It made me sneeze.
My sneeze is off the Richter Scale. It has been likened to the noise that might be made by a herd of erotically aroused bull elephants experiencing a sudden and unexpected mass circumcision. None of the boys in my tent could sleep with that, nor could the boys in the fourteen other tents, and most important, neither could the occupants of the Prefects Tent (occupied by eighteen-year-old hugely muscular sadists).
So I was evicted. That was fairly typical of many of my early experiences of life as a First-Former in a Grammar School run on the lines of a Public School, but with serious pretensions of being a Military Academy. So what would you do, shivering on the edge of the field in the cold night air, where you had been left by an angry mob?
Yes, there I was, in the moonlight, by the side of the camping field, freezing, forgotten and forlorn, a mere slip of a lad, with only a deep and burning hatred of muscular eighteen-year-old sadists to keep me warm in the cold night air.
What to do? I couldn’t sneak back to my tent – the dreaded Palliasse would betray my return by inducing a renewed bout of repetitive sneezing. But the old Mill House -inhabited by our teachers (no tents for them) - was not far away, by the stream on the far side of the neighbouring field. So I hit upon a cunning plan.
I made a bee-line for the Mill House, pausing only for a slight detour to the Barn. There was straw in the Barn, and holding my breath, I grabbed a handful and put it in my pocket. No sneezes. So far, so good, and I resumed my bee-line to the Mill House.
A slight digression – over the years up to age of eleven an important component of my self-taught repertoire of personal survival techniques was a BESEECHING SMILE – akin to the one used by Puss in Boots in the film SHREK. My smile was bewitching, a glorious blend of innocence, bewilderment, and supplication. It could melt the heart of Attila the Hun. (Note: the smile only worked on adults – not on eighteen-year-old sadists).
I arrived outside the door of the Mill House, took the straw from my pocket, held it up to my nose, sniffed in, and promptly started sneezing - and sneezing, and sneezing, and sneezing. Sure enough, the commotion attracted the attention of the teachers. As they opened the door, I greeted them with THE SMILE (punctuated by more sneezes).
To cut a long story short, it worked! I spent the rest of the School Camp safely tucked up in bed at night in the Mill House. That was my introduction to hay fever and the delights of NOT living under canvas.