Maurice Upperton

14 May

I arrived at Cuddington County Primary School, Worcester Park, aged six or seven and was dropped into Mrs Thorburn’s Class. New faces, little tables; feeling alone. Class 3, elder brother put in class 5.

Three weeks’ later promotion to Mr Upperton’s class 4. Mrs T had spotted something in me. Times table dynamism, no doubt. Astute woman – severe but astute. Mr U didn’t want a 35th or 36th member of the class when the uncompromising Head, Miss Iris Smith forced me upon him. He pouted like a spoiled child. A spare desk had to be found. I was placed in an alcove, separate. Not only was I new and a year young but now, also, in a recess. I felt odd. I was an inconvenience. Mr U was odd too.

Later, in class 7, our 11+ year, he was my teacher again. I have a stronger recall of this time. 1961. Mr U was a formal, suited man – usually brown or green tweed – quite dapper as befitted this neat little, pinched specimen. Half moon glasses over which he peered, perched on his nose precariously – his forefinger regularly prodded the specs back up to the safety of the bridge so he could relax into his piercing study of the individual under scrutiny. A decade earlier it would have been a pince-nez below his slicked Hitleresque hair. A strong but squeaky voive, a fob-watch running from lapel to top pocket (or on smarter days a waistcoat chain), a shiny dome and thinning hair, mirror-polished brogues which squeaked, not unlike his voice – are amongst many  impressions I retain of a man I didn’t like much.

He much preferred girls- their hard work, their general lack of interest in sport or being naughty, their desire to please. They fussed tirelessly over wickerwork and lino cuts, cried when they got the 15times tables wrong and pleaded for more sessions of country dancing. Boys he found tiresome. We didn’t have much time for him either – save for that lingering fear that smart, pinched, stern, controlled, neat, small men-with-strident-voices, can engender.

But. But…he could tell or read a story like no other. Most afternoons saw me tripping home in a glow of Huck Finn’s tribulations, Gladys Aylward’s heroics, Just William’s impishness and so much more. Uppity’s squeaky hectoring voice metamorphosed into a child’s aural delight as he navigated his way through the narratives: accents, gender and age-related diction, a brilliance of drama and timing, breath-holding and release – the story-teller’s power crackled across the classroom as we lay our heads. Occasionally I would be moved to glance up, intuitively knowing that it was the time to meet that extra grimace of expression, the edge of meaning that a facial contortion can give. Uppity rarely failed to satisfy.

For all his buttoned-up suits Maurice Upperton opened up new worlds each afternoon. Forty years later I met him at a past-pupils’ function. He was in his 90s. He didn’t remember me. His voice still squeaked. I still didn’t like him but his Huck Finn voice remains so strong in my ear.

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2 Responses to “Maurice Upperton”

  1. Melanie August 20, 2014 at 8:38 am #

    Astonished and pleased to find your recollections of Mr Upperton. I was one of the girls who wanted to please and loved country dancing in Class 6 in 1965. I wish my memory was as detailed as yours so I am stealing from you to help me write a story inspired by that time. Thanks, Melanie

    • Paul Guthrie April 23, 2016 at 9:58 am #

      My memory was jogged by reading your response, Melanie. I adored Mr Upperton who I had for Class 6 and 7 (1966-8). I do not remember any gender bias although he did like several girls whom I also liked! He often handed out notes on local history which I have kept. We had a great day out to Box Hill when I fell into the River Mole. Also he took us to the Bluebell Railway. Mr U. cast me as the black boy in Tom Sawyer. A make-up lady came to black my face for the play. I remember Class 3 with Mrs Thorburn, a really fine, no-nonsense teacher. I remember the assembly when Miss Smith told us that Mrs Thorburn died (as did Mr Wiseman who taught Class 4. Remember his tweed jacket with leather elbow patches?). A brain tumour. Around 1965 I was walking with my mother along Salisbury Rd from the park. I looked up and saw her pruning roses in her garden. She gave me a big smile. We moved to Pinner in 1968 and I was heartbroken to leave Worcester Park. Many happy memories of the school and Cuddington Avenue. So sorry I missed the past-pupils function. Hope there’ll be another.

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