An Early Inspiration

Memories of my Gun Collecting Headmaster.

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People|March 2024

I remember, if the memory of a fifty-something can be relied upon when recalling events through the eyes of a seven year old, when ‘Mr Sheppard’ as we knew him, first walked down the concrete steps from the playground and along the path towards the door of the post-war Hawsa Hut that served as a classroom for pupils in the seven to eleven age group.

He was wearing a blue pinstripe suit in the fashion of the mid 1970s with its big lapels and flared trousers. He had a boyish look and a confident stride. He took over from the retiring Miss Nott, who had succeeded her mother as headmistress decades earlier. She was an old-school primary school headmistress, kind and understanding.

Mr Shepard was different. Not so much rote learning of times tables, more listening to Holst’s Planet Suite and writing free expression about what you felt or imagined.

With brother Paddy, about to go fossil hunting.

Not a fan of team sports, when we boys wanted to play football or cricket in the field, we were pretty much left to do so unsupervised, as I recall.

Mr Sheppard liked motorcycles, shooting, guns, painting and solitary pastimes. He was creative and good at making things. I remember a pair of mahogany grips he once made for a colt revolver.

Guns were a regular topic. My friend Jason and I were enthusiasts. Both spending most of our free time shooting what we could with our air rifles, we were fascinated when our headmaster would set up his desk with four or five new additions to his collection, bought the week before at Weller & Dufty in Birmingham.

Gallery rifles, converted Lee-Enfields, double elephant rifles, Lugers, all sorts. This was pre Dunblaine and we were freer to own firearms then. Somehow I don’t think a teacher would last long in the job if he were to hand guns to the kids in class today.

To us it seemed natural, interesting and normal. I do not ever recall any parent even raising an eyebrow. We were a country school, guns were uncontroversial.

Being forced to learn maypole dancing did not sit well with a boy who wanted to be a soldier...

I believe those early years informed and confirmed my lifelong interest in history and firearms. They have been life-long passions.

I do have less fond memories. Being forced to learn maypole dancing did not sit well with a boy who wanted to be a soldier, or Bodie and Doyle of The Professionals, or James Bond, or Steve Austyn, the Bionic Man. I was, let’s say, not in touch with my feminine side!

Being cast in the Christmas play, not as a cowboy, like Jason was, but as ‘magma’ and instructed to swirl around the church to music; like I was melted rock forming the planet ‘in the beginning’, did not fill me with delight either.

I remember Mr Sheppard reading us Watership Down and loving every second of that wonderful, nuanced and gritty novel. Perfect for a country boy who was not in the least squeamish and was fascinated by animals.

I was always happier messing about in woods and streams.

I also remember him taking us to hunt the Burwarton pools for newts, caddis fly larvae, water boatmen, water snails, water scorpions and the like so we could put them in our classroom tank and study and observe them. I was very good at catching newts by hand.

As for art, I once expressed my talent by soaking fungi in ink and placing them gills-down on paper, so that the maggots within wriggled out and made patterns on it as they squirmed away.

As a budding engineer, I constructed a Plasticene fly prison, making tunnels by rolling the material around a pencil and inter-linking prison blocks with barred windows. A piece of meat at one end encouraged the flies to journey from beginning to end of the labyrinth.

it was probably sheer delight in devilment

Was this harnessing my creativity or tolerating the strange urges of a slightly odd child? I don’t know. I don’t remember being harshly punished when I carved ‘Z’ for Zorro in the newly plastered boys’ toilet walls or when I hid dog stink horn fungus on the heating pipes.

There was no malice in my heart when I did these things. I don’t know what drove me, it was probably sheer delight in devilment. Sometimes, there was no reason, it was just impulse. Punishment would have had no effect, I was, at least, conscious of that at the time.

I think Mr Sheppard was too.

He allowed me to be me and encouraged me in whet he instinctively seemed to sense were the deeper passions I would develop in later life. He was a good teacher, with a sense of what the job was, rather than the by-the-numbers routine that dictates so much of modern education.

I have always thought there was something of the Eternal Boy in Tony, as I am now allowed to call him. Maybe that is why he seemed to get us.


Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

People|March 2024

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