‘There’s a letter for you, Robert.’ Mum’s thumbing through a glossy magazine from the dentist’s surgery where she works and nods towards the table. ‘Looks formal.’
Home from a match I plonk down my kit bag, aware my heart’s now begun to beat harder to the rhythm of Stealer’s Wheel on the radio. ‘Love this song.’
“…clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right here I am…”
The twin ICI chimneys and the grimy terraces across the road have disappeared into evening gloom as I inspect the envelope. It’s brown, typewritten, date stamped. May 1977.
“…stuck in the middle with you…”
My heart’s now a tub thump. Not like when I looked at Glad Eyes on the school bus as a teenager, but expectant, hopeful, nonetheless. Tearing it open, throwing a dark curtain of hair away from my eyes, I begin to read. Come on!
“Dear Mr. Hopebourne, thank you for coming for interview for our post as Teacher of English at Ravenston School...”
The entrance to Ravenston School is littered with fag butts; youngsters lounging against the rusting gate under a sullen May sky. The lads wear flared grey trousers, frayed at the hems, scuffed Cuban heels, shiny greying shirts untucked, tie pulled down from a collar with top button undone. Their hair’s long, straggly, and one flings a fringe away from his forehead, like having some kind of spasm.
The girls wear tight black micro skirts, ripped black tights, teetering heels. White translucent blouses are universally loosed, with bras clearly visible underneath. Their faces are plastered in make-up with heavy black eyeliner and they wear hair tumbling and unkempt. One is chewing gum, mouth open.
All of them are no different from the kids at schools where I’ve been on Teaching Practice or at my own. They barely give me a glance, though I hear one mutter something that sounds disturbingly like “wanker.”
Glancing down, I reflect on my choice of interview garb. Ice blue Rayon jacket with huge lapels, flared maroon Polyester trousers with turn-ups, white nylon shirt with a flower power kipper tie, and a pair of three-inch platform shoes in red and black.
Mum comments on her way out of the door that morning. In her coat ready for another day shorthand typing, she’s tying her headscarf. ‘I wish you’d had a haircut. And is your tie meant to be like that?’
I’m raking dark hair in front of the hall mirror. ‘Big knots are the fashion. Like flares. And turn-ups and platforms. Keep up mum.’
In the reflection I see Mum shake her head. ‘I don’t know I’m sure. In my day people wore suits to interviews.’
She bought me one for my eighteenth birthday. ‘In the sales.’ Bottle green, woollen, with drainpipe trousers, narrow collared jacket, it’s in a crumpled heap in the back of my wardrobe along with a pair of barely scuffed brown flat soled shoes she’d also purchased. ‘For college.’ As if.
‘Are you prepared then, for this interview?’ she adds, hand on the door clasp.
‘As much as I can be.’
‘That’s what you said about the others.’ Mum purses her lips. ‘Just think then, before speaking. Good luck.’
Ravenston School driveway is rutted, puddled, and leads to a set of low-rise prefab buildings with large windows. One is boarded up; another has tape across a crack. There’s a string of Portakabins lining a tarmac path with weeds sprouting through cracks. The new ROSLA block’s all glass and orange panels while other buildings have paint peeling. Broken signs. Grass left shaggy. There are some muddy looking playing fields in the distance; tatty goal nets. Even though it’s summer, there’s no sign of a cricket pitch; just some tiny figures in athletics gear, running. There’s the unmistakable aroma of steamed, stewed greens. All in all, it’s a blueprint for every school I’ve ever seen.
A temporary, hand-written wooden sign points me towards a red brick two-storey building with double doors. “Headmaster and Reception.”
Pushing them open, there’s a smell of acidic cleaner, lino floors that echo under my platforms and lots of doors, like a doctor’s surgery. The clink and chink of typewriters somewhere.
‘Mister Hopebourne?’ A dark haired woman wearing a short skirt she ought not to be sporting over chunky thighs is holding a manila envelope, beckoning, checking her watch. ‘Welcome to Ravenston. We’re running a bit late, but the Head can see you now. All right? Or would you like the gents first?’
‘No thanks.’ Why not? Get it over with.
Chunky Thighs taps the envelope. ‘Right. Come with me then.’
She ushers me into a large room with cream walls, blinds at the windows, the smell of smoke. ‘Mister Hopebourne, Headmaster.’ She hands the envelope to a white haired man, paunchy faced, in a dark grey suit rising from a desk. He’s got eyebrows like rugs; Denis Healey type. There’s a pipe in the ashtray. Holding out his hand he towers over me. ‘Please, take a seat.’ I perch on the edge of an armchair while the Head sinks into a deep sofa, and takes a piece of paper out of the manila envelope, scanning its contents. All eyebrows. ‘Thank you for coming.’
OK. Come on. Hit me with those questions.
‘Now I see you’re new to the profession. What made you apply for this particular post?’
Easy. I go through my prepared answer. How I want to stay in the local area; close to friends. ‘And I know Ravenston has a good reputation,’ I conclude. The Head raises both rugs slightly.
But he seems more interested in confirming what’s on my CV rather than asking penetrating questions. ‘I see you won a writing competition. What did you write about?’ No problem. This interview’s a doddle. I sink back into the seat. I can easily babble about that.
There are other polite enquiries about my schooling, family, and other random questions. ‘What would your choice of book be to take with you to a desert island?’ Does it matter what I answer? What was the last book I read? ‘A G MacDonnell’s“England, Their England.”’ I reply.
‘I’m not familiar with it,’ he says. ‘Why would you recommend it?’
‘It’s got a really funny chapter on a cricket match.’
One rug elevates on his face.
At the end of the interview I’m lounging in my chair, legs crossed. The Head rises, shakes me by the hand once more. ‘Thank you. Very interesting.’
I’m then taken to the staff room where I meet the other candidates for the job.
There are two more men, and three women, all drinking tea and making polite conversation, sizing each other up. ‘Where are you from? Which University did you go to? Is this your first post?’
I only get to speak for any time to one of the guys who’s about my age, dressed entirely in denims. Seriously. Wears his blonde hair long like Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. ‘I’ve been at Roundhouse School in Brum for the past couple of years. Looking for a new post near my girlfriend. Do you know if there’s a music scene round here?’ The other two wear suits. One has pebble glasses and greasy hair; the other, obviously older, sports a ginger beard. ‘I’m looking to take on more responsibility; a stepping stone to HOD.’
One of the women collars me. Old, at least forty, grey hair scraped back in a bun, wearing a tweed suit, she speaks as if I’m deaf. ‘Went to Oxford, just retrained as a teacher,’ she booms. ‘Spent twenty years in the financial sector.’ Another younger girl stands shifting from foot to foot in a grey trouser suit, nervously rearranging hair; speaks like a mouse. ‘This is my first interview.’ The other woman is tall, with heavy black-rimmed specs, like that Marjory Proops. ‘I’ve just been on a writer’s retreat in the Lakes; studying Wordsworth.’
Am I in with a shout over them?
My next interview’s with the Deputy Head. He wears a creased blue suit, pops on half-moon glasses and carries with him a faint aroma of stale cigarettes, while his questions are delivered with much referencing of his papers, pen poised to make notes. ‘What would you say your classroom philosophy is?’
I trot out phrases I’ve picked up from Teaching Practices like ‘keep on track’ and ‘focus on time management.’ He nods and buries himself in his notes.
‘And how would you deal with a bullying issue? Say if a junior boy came to you to complain he was being bullied in the changing room?’
I go with my instincts. ‘Well, I think bullies should be bullied back. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Put him in detention for a couple of weeks. Make him feel what it’s like to be in the same position.’
Is that what they’re looking for? He’s busy making more notes.
Then there’s an interview with the Head of English. She’s pretty old as well, and smells of that perfume which only ancient women seem to wear. Penetrating and sickly. Her study is freezing cold, her bookcase filled to overflowing with tomes. Copies of “Middlemarch” and “East of Eden” sit weighty on her desk. ‘Take a seat.’
I consider making conversation; something to break the ice, like ‘I really enjoyed “Silas Marner”’ as I settle in my seat; cross my legs. Would that go down well?
Instead, she fixes me in her sights. ‘You don’t have a degree in English, Mister Hopebourne?’
‘Er, no. But it was my main subject at college.’
She purses her lips. ‘Right. Let’s get down to business, then.’ She pauses and spears me once more with her eyes. ‘Have you read any Larkin?’
‘What about Virginia Woolf?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
She makes a brief note and skewers me again. ‘What’s your approach to the narrative form?’
Oh come on! Should have listened more in lectures. I hunch in the seat, burble and bumble; hope she buys into my stumbling and stalling. ‘I mean obviously it all depends on the individual…’
‘We’ll be contacting all candidates within the week,’ she says eventually, eyes on her notes. ‘Close the door after you.’
I’m part way through the letter from Ravenston School.
“It was good to meet you, and clearly you have much to offer...”
Oh yes. A major rush of hope.
“...we have decided to appoint one of the other candidates. Thank you for your interest in the post.”
Tossing the letter down, I open a cupboard and yank out the iron as “Oh Lori” cranks up on the radio.
Mum looks up. ‘Well?’
‘Didn’t get it.’
After savagely plugging in, I fetch the board. ‘I need to iron my whites. Got another game tomorrow.’
‘Careful. No need to manhandle it like that.’
‘That’s my last application gone.’ Now what? Unzipping my bag I wrench out flannels as the iron hisses and Alessi sing their sound of summer.
“…I’d like to ride my bicycle with you on the handlebars…”
Mum’s back to her magazine. The engine room of our family, she’s escaped a council house upbringing and squirreled away the household money. ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds’ll look after themselves.’
From Yorkshire, she stands for common sense and decency. ‘Manners cost nothing,’ she’ll repeat. ‘Please and thank you will always stand you in good stead.’ She’s borne dad’s death stoically. ‘As long as I’ve got a job. And your dad had a bit of money from ICI.’ Her philosophy for bringing me up has been simple. ‘Stand on your own two feet. Find your own place in the world.’ Mum might have invented the word “conservative.”
Now she glances towards me. ‘Maybe you should think of getting your hair cut.’
As if. This from someone who’s stuck in the dark ages of fashion. Wears slippers and one of those nylon housecoat things. Curlers on Friday evenings.
Barely resisting rolling my eyes, I snatch my shirt up and wrestle it on the board. ‘Mum, long hair makes no difference. More like my CV isn’t selling me enough. Or my interview technique. I mean I know I’m new and up against others, but I didn’t think it’d be this difficult.’ More steam splutters as I crush down, and tug at the shirt. ‘Maybe they didn’t like my face. I was hoping my cricket might count for something, but they didn’t even mention it. Or having been in plays.’
Why not? I’d always been told at school and college it was the sort of stuff that counted.
Giving the shirt a final stamp, more steam funnels. ‘I was up against five others this time. One had a degree from Oxford. Something’ll turn up.’
Who am I kidding? Mum? Or me?
‘Oh Lori, you make me feel like I’ve been born again…’
‘What about this?’ Mum reaches over with her magazine, tapping a page. ‘It’s a funny old name for a school but they’re looking for someone to teach English. Drama an advantage it says.’ She flashes a copy of something that looks like “Country Life.”
I barely glance. ‘It’s hundreds of miles away.’
‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you can’t get a job roundabouts maybe you should expand your horizons. You don’t want to spend all your life here, do you?’
She drops the magazine down. ‘I’ll leave it on the table. Don’t forget to unplug the iron.’
“…you bring the spring, the summer…”
I idly pick-up the glossy mag and hum along to the sweet sound of summer. Should I be expanding my horizons? Given my circumstances?
“…Dreamer, you’re nothing but a dreamer…”
That evening, listening to Supertramp on my Dansette, I set about revamping my covering letter and CV.
“Dear Sir, I write with reference to the advert for the position of teacher of English at your school. I enclose a copy of my CV which I hope might make clear my suitability for the post and the names and addresses of two referees.
I have recently completed my teaching qualifications having undertaken practices at mixed comprehensives, teaching English Language and Literature to pupils aged between eleven and sixteen. These were challenging posts but ones that I feel have prepared me well for full time employment.
I would be happy to answer any queries you might have should you choose to invite me for interview.
Yours Faithfully. R. Hopebourne.”
That should do. What about the CV? “Drama an advantage” the advert says. I should definitely jazz it up some more if that’s part of the package. Exaggerate? After all, every little helps.
And although I’ve never taught a single minute of drama, I’ve given acting a go at school, then at the local Am Dram club. Parts in the Christmas Panto. At college I joined the Musical Theatre society. ‘A policeman’s lot is not an ‘appy one, ‘appy one.’
And I’ve seen some stuff. One memorable day I sat glued to an excerpt from Berkoff’s “East” performed by some visiting troupe. I was agog. Roared with laughter. It was from a different planet.
I’ve just watched “Abigail’s Party” on TV. Been to the theatre to watch some Shakespeare. That’s practically the same as teaching, acting or directing isn’t it? Theatrical licence. Why not fib a bit? I pick “Crime of the Century” off the Dansette and slip “Blood, Sweat and Tears 3” from its sleeve.
Trying to cover all bases. I lick the envelope and seal it as “40,000 Headmen” comes to a shuddering halt. It isn’t all true, especially the drama bits which are misleading at best. Geography, not Drama, was my second subject, but no way do I want to teach soil erosion or sheep farming statistics. Will they check?
The writing bit’s true. I’ve always enjoyed scribbling; creative essays in English were my favourite bit of the course. And at least all about my cricket and music is accurate.
I remove “BST3” from the Dansette and reach for my copy of “Argus.”
As long as it gets me an interview.
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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“In The Beginning”. Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
If Crosby, Stills and Nash were the first supergroup (and Cream fans might argue their case), then ELP were not far behind. Keith Emerson, star keyboard man from The Nice, Greg Lake, the voice of King Crimson, and drummer Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster came together in 1970. Combining classical music with pyrotechnics, they were, literally, an overnight sensation after debuting at the Isle of Wight festival. “From The Beginning” comes from “Trilogy” and has always been a favourite opener to an evening in front of the speakers for me.
“Stuck in the Middle With You”. Stealers Wheel.
From bonny Scotland, school pals Joe Egan and Gerry (“Baker Street”) Rafferty formed SW in 1972. Now, I’m no karaoke singer, but upon being challenged one drunken evening in a pub, I chose this classic pop song. It’s singalong, carefree and perfectly formed. ‘Nuff said.
“Oh Lori”. Alessi Brothers.
Oh yes, the carefully groomed hair and dulcet tones. Identical twins Bobby and Billy punched “Oh Lori” as a one-hit-wonder into the charts in 1977. But what a wonder, somehow befitting a hot summer in England of that year, with the track’s oh so American West Coast feel. Happy music; reminds me of my summer vacation in ’77 stacking bales, daydreaming and drinking beer while the sun beat down.
I wouldn’t say “Dreamer” is a template for Supertramp’s style, which is more notable for its use of electronic piano with saxophone, but it certainly set me off to buy a copy of “Crime of the Century”, which quickly became my album of choice in 1974. My college roommate then, Dave, can’t hear it even today without being transported back to our Halls of Residence, coffee on the go, Dansette on full blast. Carefree days.
Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies were the driving forces of Supertramp, proving that two very different guys could hit it off personally and musically. Roy was privately educated with a love of the psychedelic and pop. Rick was working class and fiercely devoted to blues and jazz.
Love it all.
40,000 Headmen - Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Don’t you just love that period piece photo?
I first heard BST3 coming from my bro’s room as a burgeoning teenager. I was into Chicago Transit Authority at the time – early 70’s – and I thought it had a lot in common, with those pumping horns and brass, so furtively borrowed it.
Like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, BST also incorporated classical composition in some recordings. “40,000 Headmen” was written by Stevie Winwood, but with interludes from peasant song and a classical prelude. Classic BST which takes me back to my small bedroom where the Dansette took pride of place.
“Time Was”. Wishbone Ash
Renowned for their extensive use of twin guitars, Wishbone Ash cut the medieval themed album “Argus” in 1972, and its gatefold sleeve is still a wonder to behold. The music’s great too. “Sounds” magazine voted the album number one that year. I owe my introduction to Ash entirely to my best schoolmate, Rob, who got me listening to “Errors of My Ways” from their first album. I didn’t need to be asked again. Hook, line and sinker…thanks mate!
About the Curator: Richard Parsons
I’ve been fascinated with writing since I was a youngster; creative writing in English lessons was my favourite part of school life along with swapping music with mates or playing sport.
When I decided to quit teaching after many happy years, I applied for and won a scholarship to do a Masters at Plymouth Uni in Creative Writing. Drama was really the main string to my bow, but I soon became hooked on the idea of crafting short stories, and, eventually, the longer form of narrative. After graduating with a distinction, I cut my teeth writing for women’s magazines, but this was never in my own “voice” and was always formulaic. “Given Circumstances” is the real me.
Hope you enjoy it!