The story so far…
Robert Hopebourne has fabricated his CV in a last-ditch attempt to get an interview for his first teaching post. Summoned for the interview he ends up at a strange school that bears no resemblance to anywhere he’s ever been or seen. Here he meets cricket-loving Headmaster Spicy and is blinded by the lovely PE teacher, Miss Dazzle. Confused, a fish out of water, will Robert be offered the job? And does he want it anyway?
I hear nothing from Fitzrovia for a couple of days so go to the newsagent to buy a copy of “The Times Educational Supplement” to scour the “Teacher Vacancies” section. ‘There’s nothing. I’ll have to wait till next year now.’
‘Why don’t you try ICI?’ asks mum. ‘There’s bound to be something there. Clerical work for instance?’
Glumly I throw the paper down. ‘I suppose.’
‘You never know,’ mum continues. ‘You might hear from them yet.’
Ha! No. Bugger them. I don’t want the job anyway. Do I? Stuck up bastards.
And then there’s a letter.
‘It’s for you,’says mum.
The envelope has a blue and silver crest. In spite of myself I rip it open. Taste the bile of bitterness in my mouth. Know all too well what it’ll say.
‘What does it say?’ asks mum.
It’s typewritten. “Dear Mister Hopebourne, thank you for your interest in...”
Blah blah blah…
“I am delighted to offer...”
“...the sum of £2913 per annum, minus bed and board amounting to £710.” I don’t understand the last bit, but wow! My heart’s started to drum. I’m being offered a job. Last chance saloon.
I’m invited to teach “some Drama,” to “take charge of prep school cricket” and to “undertake evening duties in a junior boys boarding house.” It’s signed “JC Corrie- Anderson.”
Rib cage a timpani I flash back to Spicy with his old dog and obvious interest in sport; his remark about falling behind competitors. Back to the lovely cricket ground and manicured nets and Princess Anne wishing I was going to work there. To the promise of more young staff.
Do I want to be one of them?
Back to dad coughing crap into his hankie. ‘Make sure you don’t waste half your life like me, lad.’
‘Well?’ mum persists.
Back to Miss Dazzle with her lacrosse stick. Last chance saloon.
I hand mum the letter. ‘I need to buy some new clothes. No cords.’
Am I selling out?
A package and accompanying letter arrive in July.
Bearing the silver and blue crest, the package contains a glossy school prospectus and further information from Spicy outlining term dates and an address. My accommodation. Papers need to be signed and returned; the formalities of starting a new job.
I take the prospectus up to my room and slip “Led Zep 4” on the Dansette. “The Battle of Evermore.” I flick through photos of groomed smiling pupils with groomed smiling teachers wearing gowns in front of Bunsen burners. Pictures of Prefects. At my school I’d once asked a junior to straighten his tie. ‘Piss off, spotty!’
There are other pics of swathes of sports grounds, kids in yellow and blue running about, religious gatherings with cassocks and choirs, an orchestra in full black tie gear and rowing on the river. There are mission statements – “respect each other” – a Latin motto, “Dum Cresco Spero”, and photos of young men and women “going up to Oxford.” At my school, Uni was an alien concept. ‘You should make an appointment with the local Careers Office sometime soon. Have you considered mining? ICI? Or perhaps the Armed Forces?’ I scour the pictures for any hint of Miss Dazzle, but no luck.
“…the apples of the valley hold the seeds of happiness…”
The prospectus is like an advert for the promise of a perfect future. I recall Spicy talking of “staff expectations” and a picture of my final teaching practice clouds in. A dart landing in the blackboard while I’m writing on it. ‘Oy! What’s going on?’ Smirking faces all round. I’d grown too chummy with the pupils, trying to be popular. ‘Do you like Wishbone Ash?’ Been called a “tosser” to my face by one of the older boys I’d confronted. ‘What are you going to do about it? Sir.’
Mum browses the prospectus. ‘My goodness.’ I think she’s secretly pleased. ‘Can I take it into work?’
The letter asks me to report at the end of the first week in September. ‘I’ll take the train. According to their map, there’s a station not too far away.’
September sweeps round after a summer playing cricket and doing some odd jobs for money. I’ve also visited the library; lurked in the children’s section and skimmed copies of Billy Bunter or Jennings, having abandoned reading “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.” The Owl of the Remove and his chums at Greyfriars barely help my understanding of the toffs’ school system, though “tuck” boxes seem to be of paramount importance.
Buckeridge’s hero inhabits a more newly recognisable world at Linbury Court Prep school when I read “Jennings Goes to School.” He too is flummoxed by the strange language the other boys use and obsesses over his cricket debut. Parallels.
‘I wish you’d decided to get more of your hair cut,’ mum says at our goodbye. ‘Aren’t you shaving?’
Most of the Aussie Ashes team sport moustaches. ‘Get with it, mum.’
‘Right. Well. Just do your best.’ She pulls out a tissue. ‘Did you pack your toothbrush?’ Blows her nose. ‘Just be yourself,’ she concludes.
This is it. I’m on my own.
Armed with bags and stomach grumbling, I spend the train journeys down to Fitzrovia peering out. Contemplating. I shove on my headphones and drift into “The Hissing of Summer Lawns.” Joni Mitchell.
The interview was months ago, but the memories of Fitzrovia are still raw. I’m obviously not one of them, don’t understand the lingo of the place, felt unsettled by everyone’s casually confident ways, but Spicy must have seen something in me. I’m determined to try and repay that faith. Prove I can mix it with toffs like Chisel Face and the rest of the royal family.
Most importantly there’s Miss Dazzle to impress. Somehow.
“…they’ve been broken in churches and schools and moulded in middle class circumstances…”
Outside the local station, I’m immediately drawn to a set of playing fields. Sets of rugby posts stand and there’s a familiar blue and silver crest on a sign. ‘The Arnewood Field, Fitzrovia College, HMC Co-educational Independent Day and Boarding for boys and girls aged 13-18.’ The grounds are immaculately striped. There’s another gripe in my stomach that isn’t hunger.
I drag my bags along the platform and out to a waiting taxi. ‘Fitzrovia, please.’
Away from the station there are other fields, more rugby posts and hockey goals, and another crested board. ‘Nelson Field, Fitzrovia Preparatory School, IAPS, Co-educational, Day and Boarding for boys and girls aged 4- 13.’
4-13? I’m not going to have to teach four-year-old kiddies am I? Wipe their rich little arses?
As we speed through the streets there are more familiar boards. I lean to the driver. ‘Does the school own some of the town then?’
‘Without Fitzrovia there wouldn’t be so much of a town here.’ He nods out of the window. ‘Most of these are teaching rooms or the houses for the older gents and ladies. The younger ones and some other boarders are out at Home Acres, which is where you’re going. A lot of locals have some connection with the place. My mum, she did for them. You know, laundry and stuff.’
Quite soon we pull up. Along with my heart, flags flutter on greens in the distance. ‘When I first came, I arrived down a long drive.’ I drag my bags from the car.
The driver registers the meter. ‘That’s from the country end. This is the quickest way in from town. Not very far.’ He wrinkles his nose. ‘Can’t have the young gents and ladies walking too far, can we?’ I see him give me the once over. ‘What you doing here then?’
A furrow crosses his forehead. ‘Oh, right. Well, see you around I expect.’ Hands me his printed card. ‘Might need this sometime.’
In reception, Hovis Hair greets me with a static smile. ‘I’ll let the Bursar know you’re here.’
Another mystery term.
He turns out to be quite elderly with a military bearing and a firm handshake. ‘Now, Mister Hopebourne, you’re off to Maynard Road aren’t you?’
I recollect the note from Spicy. There’d been an address and something about “board and lodging.”
The Bursar fiddles for keys from a cabinet before speaking briskly. ‘It’s a nice house, a fifteen minute walk into town. Just the three of you in it.’
So, two others.
He hands me the keys. ‘I’ll take you over. Let me give you a hand with your bags.’ On our way he baffles me with talk of pension plans and pay scales. ‘Any problems of that sort, come and see me. You’ll be at the bottom of it to start with of course.’
I ask who I’ll be sharing Maynard Road with.
The Bursar glances at his watch. ‘Couple of Uppers teachers. Both been at Fitzie’s for a couple of years now.’ One will be moving out at Christmas. ‘Getting married.’
‘Do they play sport?’
‘Not that I know of, though everyone’s expected to do their bit of course.’ He ponders. ‘I think one runs the Model Train society, and the other’s quite active in the choir.’
Maynard Road’s a modern detached house on a quiet road. ‘No one here yet. I think you’ve got the box room,’ says the Bursar, leading me up the stairs, opening a door. ‘Yes, this is it. A bit small, but you’ll probably be looking for your own place sooner or later, eh?’
I drop my bag on the floor. There’s a single bed, a side table, chest of drawers, wardrobe and a desk with an angle poise lamp. Glancing out of the window, cars drift by on the road across from the front garden.
‘Hope you’ll be happy here.’ He’s glancing at his watch again. ‘Sure you will. I must dash, got a couple of others coming who are living over the other side of town.’ He offers me a smile. ‘Cleaning’s done on Mondays and Fridays. Strip your bed on Fridays.’
After unpacking my bags and plugging in my cassette player, popping on “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, I scrutinise my letter from Spicy. At six o’ clock that night I’m to go to “the Refectory.” What’s that? “Informal” says the letter. It informs me that the following evening there’s something else called “Dining In” also at the Refectory. OK. “Formal” the letter says.
Poring over the map that the Bursar’s left, the school crest’s on several buildings in town, a river running through its middle, a crest labelled “Boat House.” In the centre of the map there’s more silver and blue and a building. “Monastic Barn. Refectory.”
I’m a dot somewhere.
“… gotta get in to get out…”
I mooch round. Need fresh air, so change into jeans, trainers, polo shirt and cricket sweater before taking some deep breaths and making my way towards town. The sun’s warm, the streets are leafy, verges green, the air scented with newly mown grass from well-tended gardens. Buildings are in yellowing stone, a contrast from Grimston’s sooty terraces. The town’s streets are compact, a small square sitting in the centre with a couple of pubs and a fish and chip shop; an inviting smell. After gulping a bag of chips, I contemplate buying a new cassette from a local store. Something to cheer me up. “Songs in the Key of Life” by Stevie Wonder would be good; but as a double album it’s pricey. Maybe next week.
Back at Maynard Road I slump on the bed, and drift into sleep. It’s gone five o’ clock when I wake. After splashing cold water over my face, I run a brush through my hair. What to do? Evening sun’s out so I leave Maynard Road once more and retrace my steps into town.
‘Pint of bitter, please.’ The Crown’s one of those posh pubs with red banquettes and discreet lighting close to the town square. Music plays. “You Are My Love.” Is there a jukebox?
As I sit with my pint listening to Liverpool Express, a group of men are getting loud. ‘Here he is!’ Laughter rings across the room as someone joins their set, a young bloke with a distinguishing moustache, wearing a sloppy Joe and jeans. I fiddle with my top lip. It has a way to go to match his that reminds me of RAF types. Biggles.
‘How was Umbria?’ Standing, the guy speaking to Biggles slaps his back, waving one of those pewter tankards in his other hand. He’s got a penetrating plummy voice like that Henry Blofeld – “Blowers” - on the radio. ‘Have you heard Kit’s news?’ He wears mustard coloured trousers and a check shirt under a yellow waistcoat. Looks a complete cock.
Biggles sits down. ‘Yes, Marco.’
Marco the Cock. When I go to the toilet, I see a briefcase on their table, a name embossed in gold. “M. De Vere.” And a blue and silver sticker with “FCRUFC” from Twickenham.
Watching them more closely on my way back I can hear Biggles quite clearly. ‘How are the first fifteen looking this year, Marco?’
M. De Cock. Fitzrovia Rugby.
‘You’ll be getting a side up for start of term?’ Biggles is asking.
I toy with the idea of introducing myself, but they all seem so full of themselves. ‘Count me in if you are,’ Biggles continues. ‘Scrum half, please. Unless the golden boy wants to play there of course.’
‘Not at all, old chap. He’ll be at outside centre.’ De Cock drains his glass. Another?’
Hmm. Rugby’s another mystery to me. I pass by to inspect the jukebox’s more familiar territory. There’s even some Stevie Wonder.
The more I hear of the Fitzrovia group, the more I wonder what I’ve let myself in for. ‘I’ve just ordered a couple of cases,’ declares De Cock. ‘Plum jam in a glass.’ What? ‘Of course you’ve been to the Douro,’ says Biggles. Where?
Maybe Chisel Face’s right. I’m a fish out of water.
Or in the wrong pond.
The Battle of Evermore - Led Zeppeli
From Led Zep 4, which is surely their greatest work, and which of course includes the incomparable “Stairway to Heaven”, “The Battle of Evermore” features Sandy Denny alongside Robert Plant – the only song LZ ever recorded with another artist. It’s a soaring piece, laden with mandolin and guitars and Jimmy Page tells the story that he’d never picked up a mandolin before writing this piece. With its references to “Lord Of The Rings”, it has that quasi old English folklore feel that I particularly love. Can’t think of many other albums that had such a profound effect upon me as this one.
In France They Kiss On Main Street - Joni Mitchell.
I got into Joni Mitchell through my brother – again. He had a copy of “Ladies of the Canyon” which I often heard drifting from his room. I already liked “Big Yellow Taxi’ and CS and N’s version of “Woodstock”, so I was already predisposed to listening to the whole thing. As it happened, I loved “The Priest” best. Later albums passed me by until I came across “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” and was hooked by the opening track. From that time on I’ve been an avid Joni fan; love those later albums like “Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm” through “Dog Eat Dog” to “Shine.” Jazz meets folk meets creative genius.
The Carpet Crawlers - Genesis
I know it’s trendy nowadays to pour a bit of scorn on Genesis, mainly because some people associate them purely with Phil Collins, but of course they were the original prog rock sound back in the early 70’s with the irrepressible Peter Gabriel as the headliner and chief songwriter. If “Selling England By The Pound” remains my all time favourite from that period, then “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” – the last Gabriel influenced Genesis album – pushes it close. A double concept album with barely a dud track on it, and filled with soundscapes and riffs conjured magically from Gabriel’s whimsies, it’s a musical mystery tour.
You Are My Love - Liverpool Express
This is one of those summer hits from 1976 – the long hot summer – that sticks in my mind. At the time I was working stacking bales on a farm in Hampshire, earning a fortune but sweating pints. Radio One was forever to hand, and this is one of many tracks that can transport me back to those long hot days. Paul McCartney is said to have particularly admired the song. Wonder what he made of their outfits and haircuts? Nuff said?
Sir Duke - Stevie Wonder
“Songs In The Key Of Life” – wow!! There are surely few double albums that can hold a candle to this magnum opus. Maybe Elton’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”? Genesis “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”?
I remember hearing “Sir Duke” and “Isn’t She Lovely” pretty much non-stop on the radio and could hardly wait to get my hands on the album. The man’s an absolute genius with a feel for rhythm and foot tapping melodies. Feel good music with a soul bursting through; love for our fellow man and woman at the centre of it all. What’s not to admire and like?
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!