Aah, summer is here and with it comes the season of the school trip. Happy memories of stomach-churning rides on stuffy coaches, lurching along the roads, bound for Chessington Zoo (as it was in those days). Once there, we instantly overcame our nausea and threw ourselves whole heartedly onto the Ghost Train and the Waltzer via giving the animals a cursory glance.
A couple of hours later we would be made to sit in the shade somewhere and eat our packed lunches – I don’t ever remember having an insulated lunchbox or an ice pack – such luxury! It was just a plastic carrier bag – generally consisting of warm, squashed ham sandwiches, some Bourbons or Custard Creams (they were better when they were warm because it made it easier to separate the two halves and lick the filling...) and an emetically sweet fizzy drink. Approximately thirty seconds after wolfing this lot down, we would be back on the Waltzer, taking bets on who would be the first to spew. (That’s a great word isn’t it? Nobody says ‘spew’ any more.)
Then it was time to leave, clutching our tacky souvenirs, bags of sweets and the last remnants of candy floss still meekly clinging on to the stick. Have you noticed how candy floss comes in nice, clean plastic bags these days? Probably some daft Health & Safety rule aimed at preventing stick warfare amongst the under tens.
The coach seemed to have been hermetically sealed all day and was a) roasting and b) stinking – a sickly odour made up of sweat (from the driver who had been kipping in it), fag smoke (driver again), the squashed banana that Kevin had left down the side of the seat and the egg and cress sandwiches that the class thicko had forgotten to take with them, resulting in much tears and snot and ensuring that the hard-pressed teachers had to share their lunch with the culprit. This repellent aroma was generally enhanced by the first child to vomit copiously when we were a mere 10 minutes away from Chessington and still had a long time to go before we reached home. The teachers would give each other meaningful looks whilst half-heartedly comforting the puker and mopping up as best they could with a wholly inadequate supply of hard Izal toilet paper. The rest of us would hold our noses and shriek and generally make it as much of a drama as possible until the teacher finally snapped. When the coach got stuck on the A road home (not on the motorway – there were NEVER traffic jams on motorways when I was a kid), the parents just stood around outside school, enjoying a chat and a cigarette until the coach eventually showed. Happy Days!
Compare and contrast, if you will, the above with today’s school trips. Nowadays they fall into two categories – the day trip and the residential. The day trip requires all parents to fill out a form listing allergies and medical conditions (real and imagined) and to give their written permission for their little darling to take part, whilst confirming that they have apprised themselves and their offspring of the need to behave at all times, adhere to the school rules and listen to the trip leaders. Once these forms have been collected in (after a series of dire warnings to those who are late) the teachers then write up a risk assessment in which they have to dream up every single little thing that could possibly go wrong, rate it as a potential risk and write down precisely what steps they have taken to swerve said disaster. Comprehensive First Aid kits have to be carried which are stocked and re-stocked and checked and re-checked to standards that would make your average OCD sufferer feel right at home. Sheets of medical information on any child who needs it are amassed containing the lists of allergies supplied by mummy. Every child is given the teacher’s mobile number which they then use for prank calls for months afterwards. When the coach is delayed in rush hour traffic on the way home, each parent gets a call from a child which they can’t hear because of the level of noise and music in the background. They take comfort from the fact that Joshua is clearly still alive, whilst being no wiser as to his ETA. Mummy tries texting Josh, but gets no reply as J is too busy kneeling up on the back seat of the coach making lewd finger gestures at the driver behind who eventually loses patience and flips him the bird, whereupon Josh informs the teacher that “the guy in the car behind is like, a paedo, innit?”
Residential trips are worse – a nightmare of Abercrombie and Jack Wills one-upmanship, designed to drive the average mother to an early grave. Actually, make that an early, pauper’s grave.
But by far the worst experience any mother can ever have is the Foreign Exchange Trip.
TS had no truck with any of this nonsense and flatly refused to have anything to do with residential trips. “Oh, are you sure?” I crooned, whilst silently offering thanks heavenward. TD was, by contrast, immediately up for it, thus proving my theory that whatever child 1 likes, child 2 instantly dislikes and vice versa. Her exchange trip took place with a German school – shock horror – it was a MIXED school, so that meant that someone had to volunteer to house BOYS! TD put herself down for either sex on the grounds that, if she could cope with an older brother, she should have no problem with a nervous German lad. Several of her friends did likewise. A couple of weeks before arrival, we were told who we were to have staying with us for four days. Yes, she got a boy and his name was....(no sniggering please), erm, Fritz. How we howled! Even her teacher was unable to keep a straight face. They began emailing each other and struck terror into TD’s heart as F’s emails arrived in perfect English – Gah! She had only been studying German for a year – she would be shamed! No need to worry. When Fritz arrived it became apparent (from the lovely letter his parents sent to us, in perfect English) that he had been having a little help. His command of our mother tongue was so basic as to be non-existent and we quickly had to rely on shrugs and hand gestures. So that was Crime Number 1. As the coach pulled up outside TD’s school, hysterical teenage girls could be heard yelling “mine’s FIT! Is yours FIT?” So Crime Number 2 was that the poor lad was not “fit” by any stretch of the imagination. Crime number 3 was ours. At the time the poor boy was billeted upon us, we were in the middle of a kitchen extension (and general shoring up of Crap Cottage) and had literally no kitchen, just a couple of electric rings in the living room and a microwave. To this day I am not sure that he understood what was going on as we picked our way through the building site every morning on our way to the car.
All we needed was to find an unexploded WW2 bomb in the foundations and that would have finished it all off nicely!