The story so far…
A drunken Robert has met Miss Dazzle at last and agreed to play rugby against the school’s first XV. Now for some more given circumstance - drugs and religion – before Robert faces his first encounter with his pupils. The Big One!
It’s the middle of term at Bishop Tennant’s Teacher Training College. I’m twenty years old.
I’ve been invited by Bungalow Bill, one of my English group, to join with some friends for drinks. ‘Cool guys,’ he says. ‘One’s just back from a trip on the magic bus.’ And winks at me. ‘I think you’ll like them.’
I’ve always admired Bungalow Bill, seeing him as the most witty and intelligent of our group. ‘I’ve been reading some Hunter Thompson. Pretty cool.’ He lives in a house rather than Halls. Very cool. And I’d like to be that. Cool. Whatever that is.
I meet up with him at one of the Halls of Residence and he leads me up to a room that’s thick with sweet smoke, John Martyn on the stereo. “Solid Air.”
Cool music? I’ve got a copy myself.
Beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays litter the table, which is surrounded by a group of guys sitting on the floor. ‘Just finished my essay on Duchamp.’ A bearded guy in one of those very hairy sweaters is rolling a cigarette, a ritual that seems to involve crumbling a dark brown substance into the tobacco. It’s the longest fag I’ve ever seen. ‘A bifta,’ he says, and everyone laughs. After lighting it and taking a huge draw, he hands it on. ‘Lebanese. Pass it on.’
The guy taking it says, ‘Cool.’
I turn to Bungalow Bill and speak confidentially. ‘What does it do?’ OK. It’s an admission. I’m not at all cool.
But he smiles, nodding. ‘It expands your horizons, Rob. Like getting drunk, only more so, but without the hangover.’
When the “bifta” reaches him I’m thinking, if Bungalow Bill does it, there can’t be anything to be frightened of. He takes a huge gasp and hands me the “bifta” as I try to keep cool, though my heart isn’t playing ball. ‘Hold it in as long as you can,’ he eventually states, exhaling.
I take a massive draw and inhale.
Not long after the coughing, my heart rate’s doubled, like after a lung-busting run, and the hairs on my scalp seem to be prickling. Are my eyes on stalks? Has the room got smaller? Am I going to die? Here, aged twenty? Can I up sticks and walk out? What are the first signs of paranoia? Blood draining from my face?
‘You OK?’ asks Bungalow Bill. ‘If you have a whitie, I’ll talk you through it. Won’t last long. Just stay cool.’
If only my heart wasn’t in meltdown.
Then laughter rings out and the music’s changed. Upbeat.
“…Show business kids making movies of themselves, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else…”
Wow! Suddenly, out of nowhere, my feet are tapping to the new beat and I can feel a big smile develop, mouth and cheeks tightening into a permagrin. The room now seems warm and filled with friendly faces. It’s a wonderful world. We’re all so happy and smiley. I’m at the centre of my own film.
And I giggle.
‘Cool,’ says Bungalow Bill blowing smoke rings, handing me the “bifta” once more. I burst into uncontrollable laughter; whitie extinguished. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘This should top it off.’
‘Who’s this playing?’ I eventually call across the room to a guy with blonde floppy hair in patched and tattered jeans. He’s standing holding an album, swings hair away from his forehead. Speaks in a transatlantic drawl. ‘Steely Dan, man. They’re seriously cool.’
‘Can I have a look at the cover?’ I’m tapping my foot incessantly.
When we leave to go to the pub I can barely feel my feet which are in a state of fuzzy ecstasy, my mouth hurting from a steady grin, ribs aching from laughing. The rest of the night passes in a glorious haze.
The following week I seek out the Steely Dan man. Find him in the Art room. ‘Hi,’ I say. ‘Look, any chance I could borrow “Countdown To Ecstasy”?’ I hesitate as he nods and lower my voice. ‘And buy some dope from you?’
He raises an eyebrow, but smiles. ‘That’s cool. How much do you want?’
‘How much would you say?’
‘Give me a fiver,’ he says. ‘Have you got a pipe?’
‘Er, no. Should I?’
‘Better really. There’s a cool shop in town sells them.’
After scouring the shelves and choosing a pipe, I discover the cool shop also sells small bottles of patchouli and books. Pink Floyd play in the background; “Shine On You Crazy Diamonds” – cool music!
On a rack are some eye-catching slim volumes with psychedelic covers in purple and turquoise, with red spotted toadstools. “Mushroom Magic. A Guide.” Curious, I open to read. “A liberating, euphoric experience, illuminating life, filled with a deep love of Nature,” says the book.
‘How much for these?’ I ask at the counter, handing her the pipe and book.
The Pre Rapahelite girl serving, nods and smiles as she wraps the pipe, before flicking pages of the book, giving me a price. ‘Cool book,’ she says popping them into a bag.
‘Totally cool.’ Rummaging in my pocket I drag out a five pound note. ‘Sorry, this is all I’ve got.’
‘No worries.’ She hands me the bag. ‘You’re cool.’
Term at Fitzrovia starts with a full school service in chapel. For the first time I get to see Uppers and Prep pupils in the same place, alongside the staff who I quickly note all wear gowns; some, like De Cock and Chisel Face, with hoods. I don’t have either, and neither do Rugger Bugger or Adonis. Should I wear the right costume?
The Chaplain leads the service, and there’s a choir wearing cassocks; organ music; the full Monty. The Big Cheese is about thirty feet tall; bald; reads one of the lessons, eyes bulging, fierce. ‘In the beginning was the word…’ Gives a brief address to the assembled masses. ‘You are all in a very privileged position here at Fitzrovia. Make the most of your opportunities.’
Part way through it turns out to be a full communion service. There’s a queue of staff and pupils to take the Sacrament. I’m sat next to The Cravat who stands as if to allow me past. Speaks in a murmur.
‘You not going up to the altar, Robert?’
I shake my head. Does he raise an eyebrow?
Rugger Bugger and Adonis both go up. Miss Dazzle, resplendent in gown and hood goes up as well. I briefly consider pretending I’m in the know. One of Them. I’ve heard the Big Cheese promotes staff who are high profile chapel folk. ‘He’s a lay preacher himself of course,’ said Biggles. ‘A fundamental.’
When I was young, still at junior school, mum and dad took me to church. ‘As it’s Christmas,’ said dad. ‘Besides, the carols will sound nice.’ He liked to sing; he’d croak round the house, bits of Gilbert and Sullivan or Frank Sinatra. ‘Strangers in the night, exchanging glances…’
In church, dressed awkwardly in his suit, he’d give the hymns and carols a go while mum sang quietly, occasionally looking down as I tried to join in. She even wore lipstick. Now and again she watched “Songs of Praise” on a Sunday evening, knitting. But there was no copy of The Bible in the house or Grace spoken at the table like by a mate’s dad when I’d gone for tea. ‘Heavenly Father, bless this food, and bless our friends who’ve come to eat with us today.’
In church I’d perch on a cold hard pew, wrinkle my nose at the smell, shiver, peer at the stained glass and bleat responses. ‘Amen.’ I’d fumble through Psalms; fidget on handcrafted cushions on the flagstone floor chanting. ‘Hallowed be thy name.’ Organised mumblings. Painful knees. Like a punishment. I considered the language of the stuff being spoken. Power and glory; didn’t sound very kind or loving to me. More frightening.
The vicar gripped the pulpit and talked sternly of “right and wrong” as a concept. And guilt. Guilt over ‘the heathen pleasures of the flesh’ and the ‘heathen demon drink.’ How “the Sacrament” somehow changed things; making it all right again. He’d soften his tone, breaking the discs of bread or holding the wine up to the altar. ‘By worshipping the Great Redeemer. Begging his forgiveness.’
But ideas of an immaculate conception, someone rising from the dead and miracles of loaves and fishes, though good stories, seemed implausible to me.
As soon as I turned eleven, we stopped going to church. I never asked why. Perhaps they felt they’d done their bit. Now it was up to me, and the big school I was joining.
There I was forced to attend assemblies, sing a hymn, listen to notices, but there was little other religion in evidence. ‘We’ll finish with a short thought for the day. By Rudyard Kipling.’ There was a Christian Union, but it passed me by.
At Teacher Training college there were no compulsory acts of worship for the students. Thank God.
‘We’ll finish by saying the prayer of Saint Ignatius Loyola together,’ says the Chaplain.
I’ve barely followed the service, hardly hunched for prayers, scarcely moved my lips for hymns, book open but unread. I just don’t get it. I mean it’s all obviously complete bunkum. A clever way of controlling the peasant masses long gone. Playing on ignorance, manipulating behaviour, frightening people. Them and Us. But here and now? What are all these educated people doing, being Believers? What’s that all about?
No. I can’t act it out.
The service comes to an end with someone on the organ as the grand finale. We all troop out into bright sunshine, the Cravat walking alongside. ‘You’re not confirmed then, Robert?’
Does he purse his lips? Frown? My card already marked as an Unbeliever.
After, there’s a brief meeting with Spicy who makes a point of taking me aside. ‘Now Robert, you’ll be teaching drama in the Old Gym.’ He sounds flustered. ‘I’m afraid we don’t have any purpose built studio or anything like you’re used to.’
‘But I’m in discussions with the Bursar for something better. He’s aware that we need to up our game as far as Drama is concerned. Keen on it himself.’ He peers over his specs at me and smiles. ‘Sure you’ll cope. I’m very excited about having Drama here for the first time.’
He also hands me my timetable. I can see that as well as drama, I’m to teach English in a number of different places. ‘I’ve tried to ensure that you teach the older pupils,’ says Spicy. ‘Mainly ten years and up. I hope that suits.’
‘Great. Yes. Thanks.’
‘Now your afternoons are going to be pretty busy outside.’
There’s rugby first term, hockey or football second, and cricket third. He pushes his glasses back up his nose. ‘And you’ll have two weekday evenings on duty in Cowdray House. I’ll place you on the weekend rota as well. That means a further duty one Friday, Saturday or Sunday night every week. OK? They start at 6 30 and end at 10 30.’
He checks his watch. ‘Now, there’s just time before registration to introduce you to the Head of Prep English. She’s nearing retirement now but there’s nothing about the subject she doesn’t know.’
White hair severely tied back and wearing tortoiseshell glasses she speaks of parsing and dictation as staples of her lessons, and hands me a collection of “The Canterbury Tales.” The word “parse” has always struck me as being absurd, but even now that and the thought of Chaucer brings the woman’s wrinkled face back to me. The Wife of Parse.
There are also several study books full of comprehension exercises and copies of “Flambards” and “The Silver Sword.” Kiddies’ stories. She speaks in a business-like fashion. ‘These are the books you’ll be teaching the younger ones. Do you know them?’
‘Um...’ They’re slim volumes. Easier to read than “Mill On The Floss” at any rate. ‘”The Silver Sword” rings a bell, but not the other.’ I see her slightly raise her eyebrows. ‘But I’ll get started on them tonight. Shouldn’t take too long.’
She asks me what I’m going to do in my drama lessons.
Bugger. ‘I thought I’d start with some improvisations, role play, perhaps write some scripts, rehearse something.’ Will that shut her up?
The Wife of Parse fixes me with a look and speaks firmly. ‘I direct the prep school annual play. We’re doing “The Winslow Boy” this term.’ Call me picky, but I think I detect a certain venom in her voice. Am I treading on toes?
My first encounter with pupils is with my form group for registration.
This is it. The Big One. My first proper contact with the enemy. Them and Us. I’ve got Supertramp’s “School” running through my head. “…you know you’ve got to learn the golden rule…”
Time to put on my teaching act. The one that says “start hard.” It’s up there with “never utter a threat you’re not prepared to carry out.”
Quelling a nervous rumbling in my stomach, I fix a stern expression on my face to enter the classroom. No way these rich kids are getting one over me. The class to a boy and girl stand up. Quiet. A good start. But will they sort me out as a new boy? There are sixteen of them. ‘Sit down, please.’
I begin by telling them my name and giving them a few “house rules.” ‘When I am talking you are not.’ I peer as fiercely as I can muster. ‘And it’s always “hands up” if you want to ask something.’ There’s a sea of disarming, expectant faces. ‘But don’t ever feel you can’t ask. No question is too silly.’
How’s that for starters?
“…don’t do this and don’t do that…”
A girl shoots up her hand. She holds a ball of paper. ‘Please, sir, can I put this in the fuck box?’
‘She means the waste paper basket, sir. Mister Corrie-Anderson calls it the Fug Box.’
‘Right. Yes. By all means.’
I open my mark book to take their names. This at least should be easy peasy. ‘Anyone whose surname begins with an A?’ No hands go up. ‘B?’
Two hands go up. A boy and a girl sat on opposite sides of the classroom.
‘And your name is?’
The boy has dark hair and gerbil cheeks. ‘Balls, sir.’ He says it with a completely straight face, but I can see his cheeks glow. I flash a glance round the class and can feel my stomach grumble again. Am I being tested so early? What should I say? Trying to buy time I look across at the girl. She too has a crow shock of hair and rosy hamster cheeks. ‘And you?’
‘Balls, sir. Deborah.’
The Cravat’s words come back to me. They’re twins. Poor sods with a surname like that. I thank my lucky stars I haven’t gone off at the deep end with the boy, challenging him, or, worse, making a joke.
There are others with double-barreled names and girls who are called Arabella, Georgina and Charlotte. No one’s called Sharon, Tracy or Kelly.
The next test is to order the group’s stationery from the Book Room. I’ve discovered that I have to use a “chit.” A yellow form. I find one and begin. ‘Right. Who wants what?’
Balls shoots up a hand. ‘Please, sir, I need a new John box.’ There’s a growing chorus from others in the class.
‘Yes, sir, me too please.’
Floundering, I recall the Cravat. ‘And what exactly is that?’
‘It’s a Geometry set of course,’ says Balls. ‘You know, rulers, compasses, setsquares and things. A geom box.’
I nod. The whole thing’s a potential minefield.
“…maybe I’m just crazy…”
Morning break comes as a welcome relief from filling in forms and remaining fierce. Gulping coffee in the small Prep staff common room I contemplate my fellow teachers. There are a couple of women, dressed in tweedy suits and like the Wife of Parse of a certain age. There’s no sign of Miss Dazzle. The men are erring on the old, mainly soberly dressed in dark suits or tweeds from a time warp, contrasting my blue Oxford bag flares and light grey jacket with fashionably large lapels. Kipper tie. Platforms.
Rugger Bugger’s in his shiny grey suit, red of face, already worried that the rugby fixtures are in a mess. ‘I’ll have to write to them all and sort it out,’ he complains. ‘If I were you I’d check your cricket fixtures pronto.’ Adonis is nowhere to be seen. He’d sat next to Miss Dazzle at Dining In. ‘Told her there were plenty of fish in the sea.’
A lolloping giraffe comes over and introduces himself. He has protruding teeth and reeks of smoke. ‘I teach Maths.’ He takes out a packet of fags. ‘Are you a partaker of the dreaded weed?’
I peer up at him. ‘Not unless I’m really drunk. But if this morning’s anything to go by, I might have to take it up.’
‘You’ll get the hang of it.’ He grins, teeth showing. ‘A few of us go to the pub at lunchtime if you’re interested.’
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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Solid Air - John Martyn
I first heard this particular song in a smoke filled room not unlike the one described. I was vaguely aware that everyone else seemed to know the piece, like it was an accepted door to further musical enlightenment. Shortly after I purchased a copy of a retrospective John Martyn back catalogue and loved tracks like “Glistening Glyndebourne” and “Bless The Weather.” What a voice; what a guitarist; what a songwriter. Sad that in later years his voice became more bear-like and gravelly, losing those high notes of youth. I saw him play a venue in Maidstone in the late 90’s and he’d lost a lot of that joie de vivre I’d come to associate him with and there were patently songs left off the playlist that he could no longer perform.
Originally a folkie rather than a rock artist, he changed with the times and in the 80’s in particular became more accessible to pop listeners, working with friend Phil Collins, though he was hardly a chart artist. Perhaps my favourite track of his is “Dancing” which comes from the excellent album “One World.”
Show Business Kids - Steely Dan
“Countdown To Ecstasy” really was that album playing…how apposite is that!? It led me to a lifelong affinity with the Dan; perhaps my favourite all time band? I’ve all their albums and follow Donald Fagen as a solo artist as well. So sad that Walter Becker passed away in 2017.
So what makes them so appealing? I think it’s the mix of styles from soft rock to jazz and the chord progressions that seem so seamless yet “different”. “Show Business Kids” has always been a favourite, but can you tell what the backing singers are saying? Is it “Las Vegas”? “Lost Wages”??? “Or, as one friend of mine claimed, “Sugar Puff Daisies”????
Shine On You Crazy Diamonds - Pink Floyd
Seminal “cool” band and “cool” music. Seventeen minutes of gradual build and guitar gratification with the soaring saxophone to add guts and volume.
School - Supertramp
My best school friend still doesn’t like Supertramp, though he’s the first to admit that listening to “Dreamer” put him off. I’ve said it before – on my Musicto Blow Smoke Rings Across The Floor – that “Dreamer” isn’t necessarily a true reflection of their style. Nor, particularly, is “School”, though both tracks come from the excellent album “Crime of the Century.”
The fact that the band had two singer songwriters (Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies) from very different musical and social backgrounds I think helped harness a distinctive and clever sound, aided by the great sax of John Helliwell. I know “Breakfast In America” takes most plaudits as an album, but I really like “Crisis, What Crisis” as well and if you want a proper grand finale track there’s little to beat the atmospheric “Fool’s Overture” from the album “Even In The Quietest Moments.”
About the Author: 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!