CHELTENHAM is a pleasant town, quieter and more genteel, I feel, since it and I parted company back in 1969.
I like to think I created a bit of an impression there as a student of St Paul’s, but the bitter truth is probably that I passed like a ghost through its Regency splendour, one of a thousand jolly jokers on his rambunctious way to adulthood.
It does appear, however, that student pranks are less prevalent these days – certainly less spectacular.
My daughter, temporarily an Essex (University) girl at the turn of the millennium, can’t recall a single fiendish trick her to which her fellow students got up.
Yet colleague Pete, also an Essex University alumnus, recalls that barely a week passed in which some wag didn’t put food dye and Fairy Liquid in the fountain.
One time it was a dry ice machine which no doubt converted the fountain square into a scene from The Draughtsman’s Contract.
I suppose I have a long history of daredevilry and pranksterdom, though in it there’s little of which to be proud.
The first dare I recall, for instance, was attempting to electrocute my younger brother. I was probably 12, he was about seven.
One way a farmer measures out a lush green field for cattle is to set up an electric wire across the pasture. It’s charged by a car battery and therefore offers a modest but thoroughly shocking 12 volts.
The cows nudge it, get a buzz, and steer (woah, a pun) clear.
Every day the farmer moves the wire a few more yards, giving the animals a bit more grass on which to feed.
I’d challenge my brother to grab the wire.
The sensation is unpleasant but not life-threatening and my brother developed quite a liking for it. Which is perhaps odd. Anyway, it was my fault – and quite a relief when he didn’t progress to sticking things into sockets or climbing pylons.
At the time I was a pupil at Huddersfield New College and must now confess that though I knew about it before it happened, I had absolutely no involvement in the dropping of a Threepenny Demon into a custard jug in the dining hall in November 1961.
Custard jugs in those days were aluminium and shaped like tubby cannons.
A Threepenny Demon, as I recall, was a fat and potentially lethal firework with a five-second fuse and a kick like a Mexican mule that has just backed into a cactus.
The effect of the explosion, in a crowded dining hall, carried the contents of the jug up to the ceiling with such force it vanillaed the occupants of at least six nearby tables.
I was a safe 10 yards away, but I’ll never forget the pandemonium that erupted. Nobody admitted the crime, and several boys were caned.
I moved in 1964 to Mirfield Grammar School and was again only peripherally involved that year in manoeuvring a teacher’s Mini car, on its side, into the main corridor.
How did we – sorry, they – do it? And why? It’s not remotely funny. It’s just cocking a snook at authority.
Anyway, on to Cheltenham.
I made friends that first year with a second-year student who was an expert and fearless edificeer – a person who climbs buildings.
This was not then, and is not now, approved behaviour, so a lot of it had to be done at night.
I seem to think we did Cheltenham Town Hall and the Local Marks and Sparks, but memory is hazy.
Jasper – for that was his nickname – managed to get the college principal’s pushbike hooked over the chapel spire.
Once again, as you can imagine, I had no part to play in this enterprise.
I have no idea if you can still see the moustache I carved into the upper lip of the statue of Neptune in the middle of the fountain in the centre of Cheltenham.
In Pitville Park, the wardens kept the rowing boats tethered in the middle of the lake to prevent the likes of Keith and John getting at them in the middle of the night and dragging them into the middle of the nearby rugby field.
I name the miscreants now at this distance in time, hoping we will finally be forgiven.
I confess ‘twas I who put tomato ketchup in the refectory handbell which was rung by the duty lecturer to signal the start of a meal.
I also admit cowardice. I didn’t dare go down to breakfast that morning. But I was told the effect was not unlike a gory Sam Peckinpah movie.
As one gets older, the tricks become less bold and dramatic.
The best I can come up with these days is making a little coat for a neighbour’s garden gnome and there are only two reasons this has not happened yet – I can’t sew and none of our neighbours has a garden gnome.
In the last big snow the girls across the way from us built a representation of an item of the human anatomy in their back yard and it took a long time, I can tell you, to shrink to nothing.
We have a little stone dog that sits on the doorstep. We’ve found it much cheaper and cleaner to keep than a real dog, though it fails most spectacularly to warn of approaching strangers.
Every year I get a marker pen and fix it up with a squint. For some reason this amuses me. It leaves everyone else cold.
“Have you noticed we’ve got a strabismic dog on the doorstep?” I ask visitors excitedly.
“Yes,” they say and don’t speak to me for half an hour.
I think I’ve lost my touch.