The story so far…Robert Hopebourne has just completed his first half term teaching drama at Fitzrovia College – a school for “toffs.” A fish out of water, he has narrowly escaped dismissal following an incident in class, been injured plying rugby, and fallen for the PE teacher Miss Dazzle, before flying off to Greece for a holiday where he meets for the beautiful Venus just before she flies home.
I’m up early on the first day of the new half term. Slam on my freshly purchased cassette at Maynard Road. More Steve Miller. An echo of Erotes.
“…in the winter time when all the leaves are brown and the wind blows so chill…”
The staff room’s busy. There’s the smell of coffee, small groups gathering to chat. ‘We hired a little place in New England. Beautiful in the Fall.’
For once my eyes aren’t peeled for Miss Dazzle, but on the staff mail pigeonholes. Because I’ve written three increasingly desperate letters to an address in Greater London. “Please write back.” Given my home address. Asked mum to forward anything that arrives. ‘Who are you expecting to hear from?’ she asks. Annoyingly.
Feverishly I run through the papers that are stacked high, Steve Miller revolving in my head.
“…I’m calling, hear me calling…”
Oh well. Where’s Miss Dazzle?
She’s in the middle of a gathering. Twittering females. ‘Oh it’s beautiful!’ What’s going on?
I grab a coffee as a peal of laughter breaks out from Biggles, De Cock and Chisel Face. De Cock’s slapping Chisel Face on the back. I catch Biggles’ eye, and he wanders over to talk. ‘Good holiday?’
‘Yes. Thanks. What’s happening here?’
Miss Dazzle’s holding her left hand up. There’s something sparkling on one finger. Glittering.
‘They’re engaged.’ He nods towards Chisel Face. ‘Quite surprised. Thought he was a bit of a ladies’ man. Not one for settling down. She comes from money of course.’ Then. ‘Thought you might have had a bit of a tan. You look pretty pale to me.’
My first lesson’s in the Old Gym; it’s like an ice-box. My class come in, their breath steaming. ‘Sir. Do we have to stay here?’ Groups of girls huddle together. ‘Ugh!’ They’re wearing heavy coats. The boys either stand like statues, hands withdrawn up blazer sleeves, or stamp their feet. ‘Sir, it’s too cold to do any work.’ They all start complaining loudly. ‘Yes, sir.’ A growing hubbub.
Normally I’d try and lighten the mood. ‘Aren’t you glad you’re not stuck in some stuffy classroom?’
But not now.
‘Shut! Up!’ I roar. A thunderclap reverberating round. The hubbub stops immediately. All faces are watching me, eyes wide. Like after I’d thrown the board rubber. But I can’t stop the blood in my cheeks. My eyes are probably bulging, my voice is certainly shaking. ‘How dare you come in here and complain! You chose drama. This is where drama takes place.’ I’m glaring. ‘Now take off those coats, get your hands out of your pockets, and let’s get started. Right?’
‘Right. In a circle. Move.’
At the end of the lesson Fizz appears in front of me. She’s red in the face. ‘Are you all right, sir?’
‘Only I’ve never heard you properly shout before.’
‘Yes, well, now you know I can.’
‘Or be angry.’ Her eyes search mine.
‘Well there’s always a first time isn’t there?’ I have to look away. ‘Off you go.’
During a break I sit and write a fourth letter, bitter and angry, to Venus. “I don’t know anything about you really; not even your name. How can you treat me so badly?” Then rip it up.
I’m not hungry so skip lunch. In the afternoon I join-in rugby practice under heavy sullen skies, throwing myself into the fray. ‘You OK?’ asks Rugger Bugger. ‘Not your usual self.’
That evening, under steady drizzle, I change into my running gear and pound round the local streets, out into the suburbs and countryside before returning via the school’s gravel driveway, splashing past the pitch and putt and back to Maynard Road. Grinding it out.
Later I stride down to The High Flyer. Taff’s there. ‘You look like a man on a mission, boyo. Shall I get you a pint?’
I hammer the jukebox, morose, until last orders, then somehow find myself outside Maynard Road, breathing hard. The rain’s returned, and the keyhole seems to be moving. I stumble in, crawl up the stairs and fall on the bed.
Love? Give me a break. It doesn’t exist.
‘You look like shit,’ says Adonis next morning. He’s considering booking to go to America the following Easter.
I also pass Miss Dazzle in the corridor. A stammering ‘congratulations.’ Avoidance of eye contact. Hope I don’t bump into Chisel Face.
In the common room there’s still no letter forwarded from Venus. Biggles comes over. ‘How’s the script going? Got any more to show me?’
“Darkheart” is the tiniest pinprick of light at the end of what appears to be a very long tunnel. I resolve to spend more time on it. ‘A bit. I’ll get it to you.’
‘Uppers school play’s on next week,’ says Biggles. ‘We’re going on the Friday. Want to join us for a drink beforehand?’
That evening, we quaff some beers and listen to some more of Biggles’ fusion stuff. ‘You like guitar music don’t you? Heard of Shuggy Otis?’
‘Heard the name…’
The play’s a translation called “The Government Inspector.” Some chap in the Maths department, who’s into drama, directs it. ‘Nothing personal,’ says Biggles, ‘but he’s no idea. Just doesn’t get what the audience is crying out for. Entertainment. Not some highbrow stuff. I’ll be interested to see what the audiences are like.’
The concert hall’s no more than a quarter full on the Friday night.
‘It’s a great facility waiting to be brought to life,’ says Biggles. ‘Great opportunity for the right person.’
There are smartly dressed pupils handing out programmes and when the curtain opens, the backdrop is dazzling, drawing applause. I know Taff has been up half the night for the previous week working on it. ‘It’s a pain in the arse, boyo, a pain in the arse, but I’ve no choice.’
The acting’s OK, but the subject matter too turgid for my liking, despite it being labeled a comedy. Biggles raises his eyebrows theatrically at me when the lights come up. I see Fizz as well at the interval. She’s munching on a chocolate biscuit. ‘What do you make of it?’ I ask.
She wrinkles her nose. Turns her shining eyes up to me. ‘Boring, sir.’
December turns out to be good time to keep me busy with thoughts away from Miss Dazzle and Venus. There are end of term exams to mark and reports to write and check. Polite requests to colleagues. ‘Can you redo this one? There’s only one “s” in “disappointed.”’ The Art department’s particularly weak at spelling. ‘Maybe you lot should draw pictures, see how you get on,’ growls one of them when I return a report for the third time.
I barely keep up with the news, but have kept a weather eye on the England football team’s demise in the World Cup, failing to even qualify. Then, despite it being blindingly obvious that Brian Clough should succeed Don Revie, they appoint some boring “safe” option in Ron Greenwood. I just don’t get it. What’s wrong with a maverick who’s successful? Has charisma?
I’ve held winter cricket nets over the second half of term. Wednesday evenings in the school sports hall.
Waiting seniors come in to mooch about as my session ends, do a bit of slip catching, generally larking about until my opposite number in Uppers arrives.
He’s very tall with mutton chop whiskers and a balding head. Mid forties perhaps, he wears a light grey tracksuit and a sweater with light blue border. Seems almost embarrassed to answer when I ask who he’s played for. ‘Fluked a Blue in my last year. Only got in because of an injury.’ I find his name in a copy of Wisden. He’s played several first class matches; scored a fifty or two and taken wickets. ‘Played hockey as well, actually,’ he says quietly. ‘Have you heard of Hounslow?’ I immediately accord him God-Like–Status.
I’ve started inking in names and pondering others for my team.
Spicy’s identified a boy who might do well as captain. ‘Be warned, though,’ he continues, ‘his father’s cricket mad; it’s why he sent him here to us rather than a state school. Threatens to take him away if his performances don’t improve.’
I meet Dad first when he turns up out of the blue at winter nets and quizzes me on my cricketing background. ‘Derbyshire league, eh?’
He turns out to be a meteorologist from the Weather Centre. Like that Bill Giles on TV. ‘Oh I don’t do the glamour bit,’ he says. ‘Could have done, but I leave that to those with more hair.’ A cricket nut, he wants his son to become a “proper cricketer” and has invested his savings to send him to Fitzrovia. ‘State school cricket’s dead.’
When his son goes for his net, Bill Giles pulls out a shooting stick and parks himself close by. Hawk-like.
Young Giles looks a good player with a natural looking shape to his shots. He should surely be scoring runs with a technique like that. My thoughts are interrupted by a shout. ‘Owzat?’ Young Giles’ wicket is clattered. Bowled. I hear his dad groan out loud.
‘Stop!’ I walk down the net and carefully place a ball on the ground. ‘Put your bat down and take up your stance without it. Now, stretch forward and pick up the ball. See? Look where you’re moving your front foot. And bend your knee a bit more. That’s it.’
‘Is that better, sir?’ Young Giles asks at the end of the net. ‘I feel I ought to score more runs.’ He studiously avoids talking to his dad.
‘Fingers crossed for a good season,’ Dad says when he leaves. His farewell to his son seems awkward.
I practise throwing, catching, slip fielding and skiers with the boys. ‘Under it, eyes on the ball, soft hands…good catch!’ We learn the long barrier and the one handed pick up and throw. ‘Hunting. You should walk off after two hours fielding, drained, like after a game of rugby.’
Packing away gear at the end of each session, I keep an eye on the senior lads. Listen to God-Like-Status. ‘Don’t hold the bat down by the splice. Long handle; gives a better transference of power.’
Then it’s down the Flyer for a couple of late ones and a few pence in the juke box. “Benny and the Jets”; good value; always a favourite Elton.
I rarely listen to the radio anymore. Would struggle to say what was in the Top Twenty. Quite a change from my days at home where it’d be on a lot of the time. I rely on the kids for up to date info. ‘Do you like ABBA, sir?’
Instead, there’s the School Concert. I’d been once to my own school’s where a succession of youngsters had scraped violins and farted through woodwind instruments, making me giggle and snigger, having to hide my face under the chair.
This evening’s more like listening to a proper orchestra, a succession of gifted individuals performing on piano, clarinet or violin. One plays some Eric Satie on the piano, hair everywhere, like some demented creature. Captivating and intense.
The concert hall’s filled with more adults than pupils. Grown-up music? Looking round the audience, I see Miss Dazzle sat next to Chisel Face; can barely subdue my misery.
During the interval I pop outside the concert hall for some fresh air, only to see Chisel Face huddled close in deep conversation with the French Assistante, all short skirt and make-up. She seems to be animated. Throwing hands up. What’s that all about?
After the interval, Biggles gives a virtuoso performance. His acapella group steals the show, lively, modern and inventive in their choice of material, and when he accompanies them on the piano in a version of “California Dreaming” I cheer along with the pupils in the audience who are obviously enthused and excited. No wonder Biggles is so popular. I’ll have my work cut out to impress him with my script.
It also stiffens my resolve. Time to get a grip, get over it, and get on with it.
Winter Time - Steve Miller
Steve Miller was a huge part of my early teaching years - again that power of the music to recreate a place or image. When I first went on a last minute holiday to the village of Lindos on Rhodes in the late 70’s, I was absolutely hooked on the whole experience.
At night, the DJ at the outdoor disco was a Miller freak. Me and my mate Ray would quaff ouzo and lemonade before bouncing back off walls through the village to our basic room. Later I went again to Lindos with my college mate Dave and had another whale of a time! Same disco; same music! Those were the days!
Strawberry Letter 23 - Shuggie Otis
According to his mother, (an Afro-American-Filipino), Shuggie is short for “Sugar.” Son of a blues guitarist, Shuggie was soon playing the instrument himself as a child, disguising himself with dark glasses and false moustache to play with his father’s band aged 11. By the late 60’s he was being influenced by Sly Stone and Love, and appeared with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills on sessions. He also played electric bass on Zappa’s seminal song “Peaches En Regalia.”
Of all his compositions “Strawberry Letter 23” remains his best known, re-recorded and made into a hit by The Brothers Johnson in 1977. I love this original, which sounds way ahead of its time…perhaps with its oblique reference to LSD tabs.
Benny And The Jets - Elton John
Ah the college juke box! And if you wanted value for money – i.e. the lengthiest tracks - then for me, “Benny and The Jets” was one to go for, alongside “Twilight Alehouse” which was the B-side of Genesis “I Know What I Like.” Both over five minutes! Value! It brings back memories of lounging on Union chairs, coffee or beer in hand, surrounded by mates. Good times. The power of music to create pictures, appreciate friends and opportunities and the sensation of looking forward when all things seemed possible. There aren’t many double albums that can hold a candle to “Goodbye Yellow brick Road.”… discuss!
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!