Where the Archduke Got Shot

This was a piece I posted to tumblr some time earlier this year (January 2014 to be precise).  That darling of the right, former Education Secretary Michael “Whatever! I do what I want! Oh dear I’ve been sacked” Gove had decided to level his debatable guns on the ever-so-cunning Blackadder Goes Forth.  (Read more in a piece by David Mitchell [comedian/actor, not the writer] here if you need the context – it doesn’t really matter to the story below though).  It reminded me of a tale from my distant past…


When I was wee, only seven years old and yet to move to Orkney, we did a project on World War One, or The Great War. All in capitals, I remember. Our teacher was a man who seemed impossibly ancient to us at the time; now I guess he was probably in his fifties. He was a stern teacher, one whom everyone was more than a little scared of. (Bonus Truth: I had a bad habit of chewing when I was little, chewing everything. Pencils, pens, fingernails — nothing was safe. During the course of a term I ate my wooden ruler. More precisely, I ate 17 centimetres of the 30 centimetre ruler. On the last day of term this same teacher found the ruler, and demanded that I return the missing 17cm on the first day of the next term, or there would be Consequences. I spent all Easter holiday being terrified, unable to enjoy it).

I digress. This teacher never laughed, never smiled. His face was carved from a grey block of aged oak, his teeth yellow and split, hair nicotine stained and lank. In short, he was as frightening a man to a child of seven as ever existed. We operated a system of housepoints, as so many schools did, and I imagine still do (I think the Houses were Raleigh, Cook, Drake and Scott. I was in Cook. I think. I always wanted to be in Raleigh, as their colour was green, and green is the best. Years later, at Stromness Academy, the houses were Thorfinn, Sigurd, Magnus and Rognavald, much more exciting names. I was in Thorfinn – the Skullsplitter).

Again, I digress, or add colour and background, depending on who you are…

Scary teacher. Never laughed.

Now, as I mentioned all the way back there in the first line — we did a project on World War One. We had been told we would be starting this project, and we were all looking forward to it. Everyone knew of the Wars, sheds were often scoured for helmets, for spent ammunition cases, memorabilia gathering rust and dust and now probably worth a fortune. One friend had a bayonet and he swore his granddad had speared someone with it.

I had discussed this coming project with my parents, and they had talked to me about war and violence so I went into school that day forewarned and prepared. A head start on the other kids, a chance to win some housepoints for Cook (was Cook yellow? I think it was). So, although I was painfully shy, and rarely answered any questions, when the teacher asked us:

‘Why did The Great War start?’

I threw up my hand. My Dad had told me this, and I was bursting with pride to share this knowledge.

I did not understand why the scary, terrifying teacher snorted and rocked back in his chair after hearing my answer, was he ill?

No… he was laughing. We children looked around at one another, perhaps even more terrified and most assuredly confused.

After all, I was sure Dad had told me the truth.

‘I’ll give you the housepoints Crow,’ Scary Teacher shouted, wiping a tear from his eye. ‘Although it was The Balkans.’

But my Dad had definitely told me Archduke Ferdinand had been shot in the Bollocks…

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