The past: a foreign country

This will almost certainly never happen – so don’t don’t hold your breath whatever you do – but I thought I might pen a fantastically successful ‘cozy’ (or ‘cosy’, if you’re English) detective series. This would solve all my financial worries in one swoop, in perpetuity, and be very good for my ego. However, I’m not much good at getting to the beginning of projects let alone the end, and this would be a very long project indeed.

But I am very good at preparing. I enjoy the preparing so much more than the doing. This is because doing – especially writing-type doing – is very hard work and that fierce concentration, that excitement, that passion – sucks the very life-blood out of you.

So, in ‘preparation’ I am reading a monster of a book by Dominic Sandbrook (in fact there are two books, this is the first) entitled Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. My God, it’s a huge thing, I mean Bible-sized. You feel like you need a lectern.  My right thumb all but fell off with cramp after five minutes of reading.

That poster – You Never Had It So Good and the face of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan were part of my early teens. You couldn’t walk up Station Road without those hooded old eyes and those droopy old moustaches following your every move: MacMillan was the Big Brother of the early sixties.

But at that time I was just starting a new school, with all the terrors involved in that. Politics didn’t mean anything to me then and I had no idea that I was living through the seminal decade of the twentieth century. Whilst others were sitting around looking cool in coffee-bars or prancing round campsites in the West Country bedecked with flowers I was going up and down Station Road in my school uniform, burdened – yea, burdened – by hormones and a generalised sense of doom. I had no overview.

I would like to ‘write’ the sixties but the thing that worries me is the non-PC aspect. Can I really manage the awful, repugnant attitudes, the rampant racial prejudice, the ghastly belittling of women? Of course any writer worth their salt ought to be able to but it’s so very close to home. I was alive then. I didn’t know, but I was complicit.

We once had a temporary teacher of English. He was a young man – somewhat under thirty at any rate – and personable. We were a girls school full of frustrated teenage virgins (mostly) and you can imagine the electrical effect he had on us. Hysteria. We followed him everywhere, primping and giggling. But once in his lessons he threw a board-rubber – one of those great chunky wooden things – at a girl. It hit her on the forehead and she started to bleed. He was apologetic of course.

And once a Jehovah’s Witness girl stood up and confronted him. She was a timid girl, gingery, freckled and mostly silent – but he had just read out a couple of lines from T S Eliot’s Morning At The Window and it sparked something in her:

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently from area gates.

There is no such thing as the soul, sir, she said.

OK Susan, but let’s pretend there is such a thing as the soul, for the sake of the poem.

No sir, there is no such thing as the soul…

She was being courageously, terminally annoying. I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation as a teacher. What I think I would not have done even then was take her by the ear and drag her, tearful but unprotesting, to the headmistress’s office and dump her on the bench outside.

None of us thought a thing of it. He was our beloved, gorgeous English teacher. He was strong-jawed and handsome. His thick blonde hair was combed back in a kind of quiff. She was not popular, and he was a man.

In my new tome of a research book, I read an extract from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a famous novel of the sixties. I remember reading it at the time and thinking nothing of it. Arthur Seaton is sleeping with two married women, but tells himself:

If ever I get married… and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures ever now and again and take her for a drink on Saturday. But if I thought she was carrying on behind my back she’d be sent back to her mother with two black eyes before she knew what was happening.

Arthur Seaton is the hero of the novel.

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Our handsome, bequiffed English teacher left after a term. He had in fact been a good English teacher as far as English was concerned, introducing us to challenging and relatively modern poems like Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October which I would never have come across otherwise. He broadened our minds. He threw board-rubbers at us. He took us by the ear and dragged us.

He left to become a Black And White Minstrel on TV. My parents loved that programme and, forever after, every time it came on our black-and-white TV I would look out for him, although of course you couldn’t tell under the black-face makeup. Apparently he was a resting actor. You didn’t have to be qualified in those days as long as you had a degree. It never occurred to me that it was offensive for white people to black up. It never occurred to me, to be honest, that Minstrels were supposed to be black people. They were just Minstrels to me, as Gollywogs were just a kind of teddy-bear alternative. Not people.

Which is another story, and one that I don’t feel up to telling at the moment.

Nuances: The concert she never went to

She had never been much good with nuances, at least not when they came from other people. Yet she herself could speak in nothing but nuances, whilst assuming that her mumbled half-truths and veiled allusions to this and that would be crystal clear to others. It was a fatal combination.

The boy travelled on her morning bus. She went to right through to the college. Maybe he worked in the town. She’d seen him again and again and thought “Why does that boy keep looking over this way?” It seemed odd. The view from the window on her side was not inspiring – certainly no better than his – industrial units, the perimeter fence of an airfield, a string of semi-detacheds strung out like teeth in the jaw of the road.

Thus it was that when the boy bent beside her one day, oddly stressed-looking, and handed her a longish rectangle of grey card, stammering, “I think you may have dropped this, Miss?” she was horrified. A stranger had spoken to her. A male one. “Oh, did I?” was all that came out. She couldn’t exactly look him in the eye.

People were getting huffy – he was holding up the queue, standing there, so he shuffled away forward, down the steps and off the bus. She caught sight of him loping off down the road, concentrating on his shoes. Trembling, she inspected what appeared to be a ticket for a concert in a local hall. This evening.

For a moment she wondered, if she were to go to the concert alone – the very thought of which filled her with dread, for she had never been anywhere like that on her own – would he be sitting in the seat next to her? Would he turn and smile at her, relieved and pleased: “Oh, there you are.”

Or had he really, actually, meant “Did you drop this?”

She had never been good with nuances. Not knowing what to think she didn’t go, but she did look out for the boy for many mornings after that.

He never got on the bus again.

(Unfortunately, a true story : ) )

Goodbye, Miss Chips

I originally trained to be a teacher. Three entirely wasted years at training college, using up all the grant students were then entitled to claim from their Local Authorities: bridges now were burnt; boats had been sunk; no second chances.  Why did I do that?

At eighteen, going on fourteen, I had based my decision on a range of factors, which were:

Not knowing what else to do, apart from getting a job, which I sensed (accurately) would be a disaster at this stage of my life. All I wanted was to be a poet, but there didn’t seem to be any openings for poets. A tutor suggested working in a factory while I wrote. I had never been in a factory and at that age was still running on the inverse snobbery of my parents, who were upper-working/lower-middle class. Only lower working-class people worked in factories. I had read Altarwise by Owl-Light from beginning to end. I had read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, albeit the bowdlerised schoolbook version. Duh! How could such a prodigy; a future poet almost if not quite as good as Dylan Thomas; such a towering intellectual be expected to work in a factory?

Later, I was to work in not one but several factories – collating greetings cards – week after week of sickeningly scarlet Valentines cards in the middle of July, I remember, glue and glitter that got everywhere – and a bookbinding factory. I would feel more at ease in such anonymous, uncompetitive, unchallenging environments than in any other. But at eighteen, going on fourteen, you know nothing and you think you know everything.

The shorter-than-me, half-Austrian boyfriend had accepted a place at a teacher training college in London. He was a maths genius, or so he’d been telling me for the past year. I had no way of knowing since I had never scored higher than twelve per cent in any maths test. I had spent the larger part of the previous year being dazzled by his talk of infinity and quadratic equations, while doing nothing very much in the way of studying English and French.  As a result I passed my two A Levels, but with grades so very, very low that to all intents and purposes they were fails; and this in spite of having achieved high-grade O levels in the same subjects.

I was supposed to be doing sociology A Level as well. People would joke that certificates in sociology were printed on toilet paper. I must be the only person from that era who hasn’t got one. I can’t remember a thing about sociology except that the textbook was heavy, and by Stephen Something-or-other. I must have stopped going to lectures early on in order to spend more time in the company of my long-haired pocket genius drinking black coffee and cheap cider, sharing plates of chips and learning about infinity and quadratic equations.

I knew I would never see him again but somehow my going to another, similar college maintained the connection to what had been the best year of my life in the sense of being alive. You don’t realise – the exhilaration of being eighteen and in love for the first time – the sense of possibilities – a whole vast planet yours for the taking. How soon that fades, but at the time you don’t realise, which is a mercy.

students

I needed to get away from Dad, but by some strange Freudian miscalculation managed to get myself accepted at a training college a short bus-ride away – so no actual leaving home and another three years of fierce and occasionally violent rows with Dad. I could have got away. And yet I couldn’t. It would take marriage – the classic short hop to another, similar man – to achieve that.

My mother said I was making a mistake – that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to be a teacher. But hey, I’m a trial-and-error kinda gal: I kinda have to do things, mess them up, realise I messed them up, then do the same thing over and over and over again.

So, for whatever reason I ended doing three separate six-week teaching practices in three separate schools and being dreadful on every occasion. I could hardly eat for terror during these six week torments. I hardly slept at night, knowing I would have to get up, get the bus and walk into that room full of evil, antisocial aliens all over again the following day.

Yes, I was the trainee in tears, who had to be rescued by her tutor from a room full of paper-aeroplane throwing, desk-banging, screeching, cheeking, fighting, mocking, singing, rioting teenagers.

I was the cowering, red-faced idiot in the too-short skirt being leered and sniggered at by boys taller, and only two or three years younger than myself, in black blazers. ‘Get yourself some glasses,’ my tutor suggested. ‘They’d make you look older: plain glass, of course.’

I was the one who had to be taught fractions in the staff room by the maths teacher before assembly, then fight my way in to 4B and teach a double lesson of it before it faded from short-term memory, praying the kids didn’t ask any questions because at that point I would be stuffed.

I was the inspiring young pedagogue who set creative writing tasks and got back forty-two almost identical one-line stories about Frankenstein creating a monster, the film having been on telly the night before.

The Certificate in Education, on crisp, cream paper with fancy scrollwork, which I was awarded at the end of the three years in spite of the above catalogue of disasters, apparently on the basis of an ‘outstanding’ in English (my Main Course) would rapidly become the albatross around my neck. Prospective employers would query, naturally, why, having studied for three years to be a teacher I wasn’t actually, now, teaching. And how could I explain without telling them the whole sad story I have just told you? Then they would have thought – what a dork. And why would anyone employ a dork? Nothing – believe me, nothing – fails like failure.

After a while I had a bit of a brainwave: what was to stop me leaving the Certificate in Education off my CV? And so I did that. It created a secondary problem in that with those three years  blank it looked as if you had been locked up in some sort of young offenders’ institution or living rough on the streets, but I found ways round it. I began to apply the only talent I actually possessed, and that in goodly measure – creativity/lateral thinking – the ability to spin an ever more intricate protective web of tales around myself – to my CV and other areas of my life. I became an invented, acceptable, suitable person. In the process, for many decades I lost sight of whoever was underneath.

But I survived.