I put in the next several years except one jobbing as a supply teacher with the Inner London Education Authority, the largest public education administration in the world. This gave me a very wide experience as I taught children from infants to lower secondary. The schools were mostly secularly administered while some had Anglican or Catholic affiliations. Not having a a contract meant I could fit in travel and study for my post graduate degree.
As a circuit rider I worked in schools all over West and North West London sometimes for a day, sometimes for up to a year. I moved on when I was all out of party tricks. As well I spent many hours in the old schoolyards, not just as a teacher but as a relieving school caretaker and an after school and holiday time play care assistant. Like Sempé, I observed how children respond differently than adults to the same stimuli.
What kind of school I worked in depended on what was available.
My first foray into a secondary school proved rather disconcerting. The boys I was assigned to weren’t particularly up to no good. They just wouldn’t give me the time of day: ‘Don’t answer all at once,’ I told them.
‘What, ’I replied, trying to break the ice.
‘Who’s this clown?’ one of them said, not caring if I heard, ‘When are we gonna get a real teacher?’
As soon as they knew I was a supply teacher, they tried to take advantage of me. Like offering me forged absentee notes. They started humming and making noises when I turned my back to write on the board.
I could talk to them individually but as a group they were past caring. They strained to get out of the classroom like greyhounds in the slip. These Crombie boys, like other youths throughout the country wore Crombie coats, Harrington jackets, with silk hankies and tie pins in their top pockets. The principal told me they were all alike in so many disrespects. I was advised, seeing I was the next victim, neither to get too close nor go too hard on them but to just hold the ring :
‘I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you this,’ said one department head, ‘but don’t feed or tease the animals. Don’t even think of it. They bite. Never raise your hand to them. It leaves your groin unprotected. Let your ribs take the brunt if you get a beating. Use your arms to protect your organs. Lower your chin. Protect your carotid artery. If that doesn’t work wait until Detective Smithers can come.’
‘I’ll make sure I keep them on side.’
‘Keep yourself to yourself. Undoubtedly you’ve seen people like them, but you would have had to pay admission. We don’t want a bear garden here. Our task is to tame the beast.’
‘They’re going through the pangs of puberty,’ I suggested, ‘that awkward age’.
‘Too true. Too old to say something cute and too young to say something sensible.’
‘There seems a high turnover of children. Yet their numbers are maintained. They come and go.’
‘Actually they go and come. Every time these mannerless young pups bunk it they are dragged back. Like stray dogs, they’re here one day, gone the next. If they keep this up we’ve half a mind to issue them life membership.’
We need you to stay here at least until the school holidays. Changing teachers unsettles them.’
I asked one teacher, ‘To what do you attribute this violent delinquency among the boys.’
I believe they pick it up from films. I took one boy to see the newly released ‘Clockwork Orange’ and he cried all throughout it. But maybe that was because he didn’t know who I was.’
In this predominantly white area, I had one lad who was the only black in the class. The chocolate chip in the vanilla ice cream. It was tough for him. It was so hard for him to be absent.
‘Are you working hard or hardly working? I asked one frizzy haired, lazy eyed, likely lad, George Ramsbottom, all knees and elbows, protruding teeth, luxuriant bum fluff above his upper lip.
‘Before too long you’ll be sporting a full beard, Georgie.’
“We Ramsbottoms are a hairy lot. I was talking to my mum about how quickly it takes us to grow a beard, and she agreed.”
He usually looked spaced out. In fact this serial chiller’s head was always somewhere else.
He was like a solar eclipse. You didn’t see him often but when he appeared it was something special.
‘Where is George today?’ I asked one of my colleagues.
‘He’s fifteen. That’s where he is. He thinks he’s his own boss.’
He was brought back to school by his father after he sprung him smoking hashish.
‘I came home and lit upon my son rolling a Camberwell Carrot,’ he told me – from my very best stash too!’
‘At least they have something in common,’ I told the colleague.
‘He gets all his looks from his father. Mostly the look of disappointment.’
I got to meet him on Parent’s Night, ‘Thanks for looking out for my favourite son.’
I’m your only son, Dad, George pointed out to him.
‘Who’s counting? Mr. Davis. You may have heard some weird stuff about me and my boy, but I wish to tell you they’re all true. George is nothing like me. He’s worse. I suffer the indignity of him telling me he is not my slave every time I ask him to pass the salt.’
‘What do you do when he behaves like that?’
‘I usually say to him,’ When are you go…’
‘Go on,’ George replies.
‘When are you going to let me finish my questions?’
Do you listen to what your father tells you, George?’ I asked him.
‘Always. Dad was complaining last night that I never listen to him. Or something like that…’
‘How do you explain George’s slap happy behaviour?’ I asked the dad.
‘I’ve raised him as an only child, which has really brassed-off his sister. My overriding aim now is for him at least to get a better job than I’ve ever had.’
When I asked George what his father did for a living, he told me, ‘He plants chickens.’
‘You mean he plants vegetables, don’t you.’
‘He told me ‘chickens’.’
It turned out the father worked in a chicken plant. He smoked dope to handle the monotonous, unpleasant tedium and exasperation.
I said to the dad on parent teacher night, ‘How’s your family?’
‘I spend more time with the chickens. They don’t ask for so much.’
‘So you go running for the shelter of a father’s little helper.’
‘It helps me on my way, gets me through my long day pickin’ pullets.’
‘Aren’t you afraid you will become addicted?’
‘Cannabis isn’t habit forming. I should know, I’ve been taking it for years. And I only smoke it in the late evening. Or occasionally the early evening. Or occasionally the mid evening. That’s it. Except occasionally the early morning—or the mid morning. Maybe the late morning or the mid early late morning. But I assure you, never at dusk. That’s when the little weed fairies come.’
He asked me to help keep his lad in check. He’ll try anything to put one over you. I won at the races and offered him ten pounds if he didn’t tell his sister. She disapproves of betting so I couldn’t offer her any. He said, ‘It’ll cost you more than that.’
He tells all kinds of porkies. He came home from school last week and said to me, “Dad, today in school I was punished for something that I didn’t do.”
I said, ‘But that’s terrible! I’m going to have a talk with your teacher about this … by the way, what was it that you didn’t do?’
George replied, “My homework.’
‘Georgie speaks a lot about you.’
‘All good I hope. What kind of things does he say?
‘He says he told you if you gave him ten pounds he’d be good.’
‘He did that. And what did he tell you was my reply?’
‘He told me you said, ‘When I was your age I was good for nothing.’
The kid was the kind who’d give an aspirin a migraine. The kind you’d send to the fish and chips shop and you’d expect no chips left when he got home. It did his father’s head in. The father put it down to him watching too much telly.
I told him, ‘George, ‘TV is a narcotic. Do you want me to paint you a picture? It induces fake dreams. It induces lazy habits. It drains away your manhood if you watch it all the time. You’re sitting too close. Look at your eyes, they’re turning into headlights.’
‘I flip through all of the channels. And still there’s nothing worth watching. But it gives me phone numbers to ring.’
It’s believed his parents’ separation led to his naughtiness. One of the differences between his father and mother was over how he should be educated. His mother wanted him to be brought up at Eton. His father said: ‘Why go to that trouble? He already looks as if he’s been eaten and brought up.’
His phone pranks started when he was in primary school. So as to extend his field of attack he had yet to brush up his act.
‘You say George has a cold and can’t come to school today? said the school secretary to the voice on the other line. ‘To whom am I speaking?
The other voice replied, ‘This is my father.’
In secondary school, he upped his mischief with the corny call, ‘Is your fridge running?’
With the phone balanced between the shoulder of one arm and ear, his mates gathered around him, he’d put his other arm on their shoulders. He’d be answered predictably by someone at the other end of the line caught unaware answering affirmatively. George and his gang got the satisfaction of getting to drop the “Well, you better go catch it!” before banging down the receiver and cackling away into the sunset.
‘Do you have pickled pigs feet?’
Having recently got some from the butchery, some unsuspecting respondent would eventually reply, ‘I do.’
George then offered, ‘Just keep your shoes on and maybe no one will notice,’ whilst becoming the centre of attention among his peers.
Another of his tricks was to pretend to be from the telephone company and try to get the answerer to do something, like blow in the phone to “fix” it.
In one variation, George warned them not to answer the phone for fifteen minutes “because if they did, the telephone repairman would receive a fatal shock. Then he called over and over again in the next fifteen minutes, and if they answered he let go a blood curdling scream.
In executing this prank, he was able to assume a position of authority, make demands and have the majority of these demands carried out. This was particularly satisfying for kids, who usually carry out adults’ demands.
For George and his low stakes rebels, it was a chance to embarrass without retaliation the adults that in the normal run of things had power over them.
‘You know, we have something in common,’ he would put on the person on the other line, ‘You don’t know know what I’m going to say next and neither do I.’
George was in the habit of being late for school or bunking it.
One day he skipped lessons and went to a strip club in Soho.
Worried as it’s effect, the principal asked him, ‘George, did you see anything there that you were not supposed to see?’
‘Yes, I saw my dad.’
One morning he arrived at class well into term and well after the morning bell went.
‘I’m sure we’re all thrilled to have our little lost lamb among us again as we begin this great second term adventure. Drum roll, please. However, I had hoped you were turning a corner in your attitude, George. Your father wants you to do well. He wants you to stop smoking for his sake.’
‘I don’t do it for his sake. I do it for my own sake.’
George, I want you to sort yourself out, to rise above your name. You have to consider him and do what he asks you to do. Are you receiving me?’
I don’t have to jump every time he snaps his fingers.’
‘Whenever your name comes up, students ask me, ‘George Who?’ Who is this George?’ Why are you late this time?’
‘My dad lost a ten pound note.’
‘This makes sense now. So you were helping him look for it?’
‘No. I was standing on it.’
‘Aren’t you being rather mean to your dad?’
‘Last week he said to me, ‘Here’s five pounds – don’t tell your sister,’
I said ‘why not?’
‘She’d say ‘it’s hers’.’
You should be more respectful to your father by being punctual. He has made a lot of sacrifices for you,’ I said.
That’s easy for him what with his religious beliefs. He’s a druid.’
By the way, what did you do with the ten pound note?’
‘On the way to school I came across a homeless man begging, Knowing full well this money would be used for buying drugs, I thought ‘What should I do?’ So I gave it to him.’
‘If ever you’re late again, make sure you have the right kind of note. It had better be good. You don’t want detention, do you?’
The next time he did have a note. ‘There’s a sort of greatness to your lateness. What’s your sob story this time?’ I asked. ‘Don’t tell me. You took the scenic route?’
‘My bus was delayed. You know what I mean. I waited for it so long, someone just stapled this to my chest.’
I looked at the flyer. Giving phone details underneath, it read in bold letters, ‘Have you seen our cat ?’
‘A likely story! You’ll have to do better than that. Having had to ring his home several times to check on his whereabouts I said, ‘Hey isn’t that your home number?’
‘Is it? I forget. I don’t call myself that often.’
Then he got taken in himself. One day he read in a flyer, ‘Send me ten pounds and I’ll tell you how to make money. He sent the writer the amount asked for. He got a postcard back that said, ‘Thanks for the tenner. This is how I make money.’
The next time he was late, I realised his social consciousness was coming along all too slowly.
‘So what was it today? For whom did the bell toll this time?’ I asked.
‘I had to ring 999 on my way.’
‘The emergency number?’
‘That’s the one. I had to wait twenty minutes to get through. When at last someone answered, I asked them ‘What’s the big hold up? I was just about to hang up. You’re very, very lucky this is a hoax’.
The next time late he rushed in puffing and talking too quickly.
‘Pump those brakes, son,’ I said, ‘You’re talking far too fast.’
‘You’re not listening quickly enough, Sir.’
His excuse turned out as follows: ‘On the way here on the bus I seen a sign that said, ‘Have you seen this man?’
So I got off right away, called from a pay phone and said, ‘No.’
‘That’s yet more waste of people’s time. Yours and that of others who’ve got important things to do.’
‘That’s just what the guy at the bookshop said after I rang it. He asked, ‘Can I help you?’
I said, ‘No thanks, I’m just browsing.’
‘‘Oh my days, George, a complete list of your indiscretions would make a best seller. Unfortunately they could be seen as harassment or interference. You might get rumbled. However, it’s never too late to mend your ways..’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Thinking is for those who have a choice. You don’t. You’d better outgrow your habit of making unsolicited calls.’
‘So I’m told. The last time I rang the phone service off the hook, I said, ‘I want to report a nuisance caller’.
Getting the hump, the operator cried, ‘Not you again’.
Another time he rang asking for directory assistance. Hello operator, I would the telephone number for Tommy Bragg in Birmingham.’
There are multiple listings for T. Bragg in Birmingham,’ replied the operator. Do you have a street name?’
He hesitated and then said triumphantly, as if he expected a gold star on his report card, ‘Well most people call me ‘The Telephonic Terror’.
‘What about T.A. Bragg?’ he went on.
‘That number I can give you. It’s Bir 123.’
‘I think I can remember that.’
Are you sure? Would you like me to write it down and send it to you?’
When those he phoned insisted on picking up the receiver and saying their home number, he would ask ‘Why are you doing that?’ What a complete waste of time. 020766944! I know that, I’ve just dialled it! The last thing I did on earth was dial those numbers. Do you open the front door and say your address? It’s the same principle.’
He rang the school several times to report sick. After this eventually proved unconvincing, he called in dead.
This phone habit of his was eventually brought to a halt. He had started reversing the charges.
‘Ah, the Resurrection! Where’s your homework? I asked him. I knew he didn’t have a dog so he couldn’t claim it had eaten it. This was the reason he gave.
‘As I was leaving home this morning, I said to myself, ‘the last thing you must do is forget your homework.’ And sure enough, as I left the house this morning, the last thing I did was to forget my homework.’
‘What do you want me to do to remind you – write it on your forehead?’
At last he brought in his take away assignment completed perfectly.
I say, George do you mind if I ask you how you came up with such a great effort.’
Mr. Davis we just had a burglar drop in. When we got back we found little taken – we have little to take – but my homework completed and our furniture rearranged.’
‘That’s weird. What did the police have to say?
‘Their theory is the intruder is a a gay Asian.’
‘All right. You have two hours.’ I announced to him and his class at exam time,
‘Please turn over your paper and begin.’
All those hold ups in his classes led to George falling behind. I asked him why he had failed in mathematics.
‘I hate maths,’ he said. I wanted to fail. Everyone tells me I’ll never be a success, so why not?’
‘Think about the consequences, Georgie. If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?’
He fell into the temptation of cheating – unsuccessfully I might add. I had expected him to do well in his English test, his best subject, but it turned out otherwise.
‘Why did you get such a low score?’ I asked him after marking was complete.
‘But that was one day I remember clearly you weren’t absent.’
‘I wasn’t, but the boy who sits next to me was.’
Before another exam, Georgie and a friend decided to go to peep shows in Soho. They were having such a good time they decided not to worry about the English exam that they had scheduled for that afternoon. They decided to tell the deputy principal that their bus got a flat tyre and if they could therefore take the exam at a rescheduled time.
Hearing the story, the deputy` wondered at first if they were pulling his plonker. Then he seemed to agree that it really was just bad luck, and of course they could take the exam later. At the appointed time, the deputy greeted them and placed them in two separate rooms to take the exam.
The few questions on the first page were worth a minor percentage of the overall grade, and were quite easy. Each student grows progressively confident as they took the test, sure that they have gotten away with fooling the deputy. However, when they turned to the second page they discover that they really hadn’t.
The only question on the page, worth most of the exam, read: ‘Which tyre was flat?’
Seeing him let down by his failure, I advised him, ‘Try harder and resist temptation to do the wrong thing, there’s a good lad.’
‘That won’t be a clean break. I’d like to be delivered from temptation but would like it to keep in touch.’
After I finished supervision of another test in which he looked furtively beside him, I brought up my suspicions to him: ‘I hope I didn’t see you looking at Brian’s exam paper ?
‘I hope you didn’t either..’
‘You mind yourself. You don’t know enough yet to know better. Always remember that during exams you are permitted to look down for inspiration and up in exasperation, but you are not permitted to look side to side for information. What have you got to say for yourself? Were the exam questions so difficult?’
‘They weren’t tricky at all,’ he replied. ‘It was the answers that gave me all the trouble.’
‘Please George listen to what I tell you. Use your loaf and follow the regulations for exams.
He walked into a final exam very nervous. But when he received the test, he was relieved to find out that it was a True or False exam. Immediately, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. Each time he flipped the coin he would write down an answer.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.
‘I’m figuring out the answers,’ he replied.
I remarked to him, ‘You know, Georgy Porgy, I really miss you doing everything you’re told.’
He looked at me quizzically, ‘but I’ve never done everything I’m told.’
I nodded and replied: ‘Yes, I know. I just said that I missed it.’
‘Mr. Davis. I can’t change the way I am. I always leap before I look. It’s too late to turn around. As my friends tell me, I have to be myself.’
‘Anyone who tells you to be yourself couldn’t give you any worse advice. It wouldn’t do you any harm to be a little more hesitant before you take decisions.’
‘It’s too late for that. I used to think I could be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.’
A friend dared him to take part in a physical contest.
‘That would be unfair,’ said George full of boyish confidence.
‘Are you that afraid?’
‘Hah, ’ll show you!’
He did a stretch in hospital after that friend bet him he could lean farthest out a window. George won.
‘What did he say before he went down?’
‘Hold my Coke and watch this.’
‘What was he thinking?’ I asked another teacher.
‘He wasn’t thinking.’
When he finally returned to school his leg was in a cast.
All the kids wrote on the plaster.
His cousin wrote ‘Do you know how hard it is telling people we’re related?’ He was adding insult to injury.
For a break I plumped for working in primary schools. They were easier to handle discipline wise, needless to say. I could cover for other teachers on a short term basis easily enough, but after a spell my box of tricks was empty and I started to run out of hocus pocus, I was less of a novelty and moved on. It didn’t take long to learn the ropes in a new school. By and large these schools were remarkably uniform from the range of personalities among the teachers, to the books and materials available. I’d walk into a school, along the freshly mopped corridors, smell that institutional smell of the tomato soup, peanut butter, disinfectant, and boys room. Past the lunchrooms I’d see the familiar lunchroom ladies with nets on their hair.
I feel sick.
Sung to the tune of Frere Jacques, this witty ditty was about something many found not so pretty.
The lunchtime meal which I shared, the main one for many, looked like feeding time at the zoo. All you needed was a chair to start with and bicarbonate of soda to finish. It sharpened the figurative powers of these young food critics.
‘Do you bags a knife and fork, Sir. Or a hammer and chisel? I’ve got some in me schoolbag,’ I was asked.
‘I’ve got some in my schoolbag,’ I corrected.
‘You still carry a schoolbag, Sir. At your age!’
The food got the kids creative juices going. The mince, knobbly mash or chips, soggy cabbage and mushy peas were followed by squidgy semolina pudding-called ‘gloop’. ‘clag’ or ‘wallpaper paste’ – with a blob of jam in the middle. Or glutinous sago pudding. ’Oh, goody,’ I would exclaim, ‘Frog spawn, the glue that holds us together. Now we’re really living!’
No one had to make up a novel name for ‘Spotted Dick’. Served with custard, it inspired the following question. ‘Why didn’t the Chinese invent custard, Sir?’
‘I give in.’
‘And how do they eat when they’re on a diet?’
‘With just one chopstick.’
‘And with what do they feed their infants?’ I came back triumphantly.
‘I must have Chinese in me,’ observed another, ‘I love it when we have rice. Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat thousands of something.’
I asked one boy who lay his head down on the table looking at his plate with it’s cauliflower remainder.
‘What are you doing ? I asked him?
‘I’m imagining I’m up in the clouds.’
Simon said everyone had to finish what was dished out. And if they couldn’t, the leftovers were passed on to those odd Billy Bunters who would gorge themselves silly on anything. Like Oliver they couldn’t put their hand up for more. Seconds were not allowed.
Except when they were issued as a punishment.
You had to make sure you got your fill first time around.
“One serving lady asked a boy, ‘How many potatoes would you like, Tommy?’
He said ‘Ooh, I’ll just have one please.’
She said ‘It’s OK, you don’t have to be polite.’
‘Alright,’ he said, ‘I’ll just have one then, you silly moo.’
Those were the days my friend – before soft tissue. The toilet paper was waxed, smooth and shiny on the front and rough on the back, not what you would call absorbent. Choosing it was scraping the bottom of the barrel. Printed on each sheet was the reminder ‘Now wash your hands’. A cross between sandpaper and greaseproof paper, no-one would pilfer it. Ah well – all things bright and beautiful.
Outside the school, I was always impressed by the lollipop men and women, holding up their sign, shepherding the children safely across the road.
In the fully asphalted playground I got to know the inner and outer workings of the British child. Skipping by themselves on the tarmac or using a longer rope while chanting skipping rhymes. They played chase and catch games, piggy in the middle and other ball games. What time is it Mr Wolf? hopscotch, farmer’s in his den, oranges and lemons and dipping rhymes to find out who would be “it” or “on”.
‘Would you like to play hide and seek?’ I was always invited.
‘I’m not very good at that, I think you’ll find.’
It is astonishing how varied forms of ball-play were. That simple piece of technology afforded kids fun in an apparently infinite number of ways by simply throwing, kicking, hitting, catching and bouncing a small spherical object. The mere presence of a ball of any size triggered the need to play.
One boy stood out for having positionings and movements designed for maximum efficiency. I recommended to the principal he apply through the school for selection by tournaments. He had to go through a number of selections and tests.
The children played lengthy series of games in which each has the hard shiny dark brown nut of a horse chestnut tree on the end of a string, each taking turns in trying to break another’s with it.’
Are you planning to introduce this sport to the Olympics?’ I asked.
‘It’s our plan to conker Mrs. Thatcher.’
Death by a Thousand Cuts.
One day, I heard the children singing a new rhyme. Taunting the Education Secretary for cutting off their free milk, they chanted: “Mrs. Thatcher, milk snatcher!”
Sure enough this pillorying made it into the school concert with one of my classes overhauling the hit by Herman and The Hermits.
‘No milk today, she’s taken it away,
The bottles stand forlorn, a symbol of her scorn
No milk today, it seems a common sight
But children passing by, they know the reason why.’
The issue was the loss of one of their benefits. And one of my daily duties. Escorting the children and lining them up to receive their third of a pint ration. Since the war, all milk toothed children had been provided with this in aid of their nutrition, as I had been back home.
Now Thatcher, the minister who’d become notorious for her public-spending cutting zeal had abolished free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven. In one staffroom one of my colleagues held up a copy of The London Sunday Express. The headline read “The Lady Nobody Loves.” ‘Hardly surprising,’ he said. ‘Matron Thatcher’s a tight one if ever there was. How low can one go pinching pennies?’
‘Scrapping milk is the stingiest, most unworthy thing I’ve come across in all my years. This harpy holds that few children will suffer if schools are charged for milk. We’re not all shopkeepers. Has she ever seen how the other half live? For many of our pupils, it’s their only source of calcium. In terms of building bones it’s absolutely key.’
‘One child in three in our schools comes to school without breakfast.’ I said. ‘That glass of milk in the morning provides a much-needed fillip. There are so many pressures on parents and I think understanding from some parents about nutrition is so poor that many children are just not getting it.’
‘What she wants to evaporate completely is “a nutrient dense food”. It provides bushels of nutrients essential for growth, yet with relatively few calories. It’s the “original fast food”, being a quick and nutritious snack.’
‘Surely as a mother she would have gotten wise to this. As a chemist she did research on ice cream, I believe.’
‘Before making such hard policies, she worked on manufacturing such soft ice cream. It’s less dense than the more natural, adds air, lowers quality arguably and raises profits.’
‘That’s the political precipitate extracted. She’s not part of any solution.’
‘I don’t see better-off children running for Mr. Whippy. Children with the highest dairy intakes come from wealthier families and eat better diets overall. As a source of calcium, milk itself is the most practical one for children who do not get a balanced diet from foods like fish, fruit and vegetables.’ On the noticeboard in the staffroom was a picture of Mrs T. beside the phrase “Flying Start”. The first letter of each word had been crossed out.
‘That reminds me’, said my colleague. ‘There’s a joke doing the rounds where Thatcher is seated in a restaurant with a group of ‘wets’ from her department.’
‘Those she considers soft, indecisive and ineffectual. Broken reeds.’
‘Yes. Weak sisters lacking in bloodlust. The waiter recommends to Mrs. Thatcher, who is treating her minions to the meal, the ‘Soup de Jour’.
When she receives it almost immediately Mrs. Thatcher is a bit dismayed. “Good heavens,” she says, “what is this?”
“Why, it’s bean soup.”
She replies. “I don’t care what it has been,” she sputters. “What is it now?”
She then makes the following resolution: ‘I’m sick of ‘Soup of the Day!’ It’s time we make a decision. I want to know what the soup from now on is.’
Asked what she would like as the main course, she replies: ‘Steak Tartare, please, fresh.’
‘Slay the beast, dehorn and mince it, then wheel it right in.’
The waiter replies. ’What about the vegetables?’
‘Oh, they’ll have the same as me.’
While waiting for the main course, Mrs. Thatcher’s choice of side dish, a Caesar salad is placed in front of her. As the waiter is walking away, she quickly calls him back to her table.
‘Please taste this salad.’ she says to him.
‘Why, Mam?’ asks the waiter. ‘Is there a problem with the salad? It’s the same salad you always have.’
‘Please taste it,’ she says again to him.
‘With all respect Mam, I can see nothing wrong with your salad. The lettuce and apple are fresh and crisp. The walnuts are top quality. It’s been prepared the same way we always do it .’
‘For the third time, Waiter, I ask you to please taste the salad,’ says Thatcher.
‘All right then… if you insist, he says, looking around the table, ‘but where’s the knife and fork?’
‘Ah hah,’ shouts Thatcher with a big smile on her face. ‘Set the table properly, Waiter. It’s not rocket salad.’
Procuring the beef for her and preparing it proved a huge challenge for the restaurateur. ’How would you like it prepared? He asked the Minister.
‘Just tell the beast it’s going to die.’
The restaurateur got his kitchen hand to drive all the way to an abattoir to get the required order. When Mrs. Thatcher complimented him on her meal, the restaurateur replied. ‘Oh that just the regular steak tartare we serve here every day.’
‘What!’ thundered Mrs. Thatcher, ‘you mean to say you don’t serve anything special when the Minister of Education comes to dine?’
After the meal was over the waiter laid the check on the table and hovered around expectantly. He had refrained from turning on the charm, had remained consistent throughout his service and was now trying carefully to make eye contact.
‘You can clear the table now,’ said the Honourable Minister, ‘We’ll settle up at the register. What are you waiting for?
‘I was hoping for a tip,’ confided the waiter quietly.
‘Do you think money grows on a tray? Well here’s a good tip. Get a better paid job!’
‘Attila the Hen mightn’t like any additions to her own basic food prices but she wants to jack up charges for school meals.’
I said facetiously ‘I’ve heard she wants to have printed on each sheet of government issue toilet paper: ‘ Use both sides’.
These decisions provoked a storm of protest from the Labour party and the press. My friend, geography teacher, Keith Morton commented ‘She’s bad news – Colonel Blimp with a handbag – the face of the growing reactionary ideological movement opposing Keynesian economics.’
‘It’s like a bad smell, it spreads,’ I said.
They actually believe it’s weakening Britain.’
‘Millions wouldn’t,’ I said. ‘People are very divided over her. Laud her or loathe her.’
Her reported comments don’t endear her to everyone. She was asked by one dowdy, roughly spoken party supporter, ‘Mrs. Thatcher, do you think English class barriers have broken down?’
‘Of course they have, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to someone like you.’
‘Can I help you in any way during your electoral campaign?’
‘Yes, ’replied Her Haughtiness, concerned the lady would show her team up, ‘Stay at home.’
‘As a grocer’s son, Allan,’ asked Keith, ‘how do you feel towards the grocer’s daughter?’
‘She’s very shrewd, but also shrewish. She will mow down ideas, people and situations with a comment which holds no place for sentiment or human sensibilities. She is used to getting what she wants when she wants, brooking no wavering or opposition, She bases her activity on a clear, if narrow set of principles. She stands by them and does not duck or weave. She says “We must treat our adversaries as they are, not as we would like them to be.”’
‘So let’s look at her ideas. She sees society as no more than an assortment of self seeking individuals – the most intelligent of whom, like the cream in her coffee, rise to the top.’
‘By tipping the balance of funding towards grammar schools at the expense of comprehensive schools, she can facilitate this.’
‘I know. And she expects us to be entrepreneurial. We could practice like lawyers, put up a brass plate in front of our houses and wait for clients.’
‘Yes I’m sure all the street children would queue up. Obviously this appeals to her Low Tory constituents – the nouveau or not-so-nouveau riche, those in trade, self-made men and women who work for a living in industry, publishing, marketing, City of London finance, the sort who buy their own furniture as opposed to inheriting it.’
‘ Self made men and women who worship their creator. And who just coincidentally think their wealth and rank derives from their congenital intellectual superiority.’
‘They believe that they are genetically constructed to be greedy, or as some call it, ‘financially ambitious’. This quality isn’t just good. It’s unavoidable. They believe they were born with their predatory instinct to accumulate which is healthy and natural. The weak exist to be devoured by the strong.’
‘Sharks are born swimming, aren’t they.’
‘And they are not past consuming the suckerfish who keep them clean.’
‘Financial ambition is the mental engine that powers the world. Without it we would go back hundreds of years in time. Without capitalists our standard of living would be much lower. It’s what separates us from the animals. An animal just wants food for a few days or to last through winter. Man is the only species that can project the idea of the future.’
‘We understand that a life isn’t limited to a few days. It’s years and we have to make that life as good as possible. We’re also the only ones who can imagine our own deaths. This leads to an existential anxiety which gives us a need to compensate. And because we understand that we can’t avoid our own mortality, it’s more important for us than any other species to enjoy our time here. And those of us with the best financial ambitions drag the others along. They contribute to making the world a better place to be. Without this ambition students wouldn’t need to try their very best. People wouldn’t need to go to work or develop technology.’
‘Money will allow you to do finally exactly what you want to do. So when people talk about capitalism with contempt, they have to think about it. Whether you like it or not, capitalism can’t be judged by motives. It can only be judged by the rewards it has given us. Not just as individuals but as a species.’
‘The ‘self made’ also believe they got where they are through hard work.’
‘When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: Whose?’
‘She thinks the emphasis on equality of access to education brings everyone down to the same mediocre level. That’s when standards slip. She says socialists think if you’ve got any brains, you can’t show it ‘cos that’ll put other people off. I think myself if you’ve got any brains, rather than boasting of it, you should use them to bring others up to your level.’
‘She’s certainly spoiling for a scrap. ‘I’ll give them the old one-two,’ she assures her followers, ‘I will, right up to the number ten!’ She’s going to impose savage public expenditure cuts on the state education system – not just nips and cuts.
She sees government regulation and what she sees as confiscatory taxation as neutering the animal spirits of capitalism.
‘This is a gross injustice to animals, who generally protect their own species.’
She doesn’t hide her ambitions for the top job. She calls her mission one of ‘national recovery’. If she makes it to Number 10, others on her hit list will include health workers and the miners.
‘Surely she she would expect to outrage many people by acting so.’
‘She is prepared to ram through her controversial scheme without regard to others’ feelings. Begrudgers like her know the cost of everything and the true value of nothing. She keeps the best whisky in her antique cabinet. ‘Let them eat cake’ she says – just like Marie Antoinette.’
‘What message is she and her fellow ideologues sending people? I asked.
‘She’s telling the masses: ‘Lock your doors, turn the other cheek, tug your forelocks, doff your caps. Money is the key to end all your woes, your ups, your downs, your highs, your lows. She’s telling them: Improve your life by yourselves, fend for yourselves, dig for your dinner, don’t rely on the government. Do your own thing. The Good Lord will help those who help themselves. Socialism saps the foundations of our society.’
‘The barbarians are waiting outside with chaos, anarchy, and worse!’
‘Socialism promotes a false sense of equality,’ he said, taking her off, his mouth puckered into a rosebud of disapproval. ‘It makes it impossible for the country to get anything really done. It undermines the rewarding of ability and exertion. Being enterprising means making moves. Employees want someone else to do what they should be doing. Macmillan said they’ve never had it so good. The fact is they have it far too good.’
‘Discipline’s gone. You’ve just got to look at the National Health Service. Any malingering snowflake without any redeeming defects can knock on a doctor’s door, moan, ‘I’m sick. Please treat me,’ and be issued a sick note automatically. The state doesn’t exist to mollycoddle their weaknesses.’
‘What should it do to restore the health of the NHS and other public enterprise operations?’
‘They have to be severely excised. The medicine is harsh. but the patient requires it in order to live. People think they have the right to live forever in perfect health at the taxpayers expense: ‘Doctor please, some more of these,’ while outside his door, these frequent flyers take even more.’
‘Not that the doctors are much better. Do you know how many doctors work in the NHS? Half. Do you know an NHS medico can earn in a year what it takes a chartered accountant to earn in a whole week. Common sense tells us people must work harder.’
‘But it must pay’, she doesn’t stop saying. ‘It must be rewarded so enterprising individuals enjoy the fruits of their labour. Every earner should be an owner. There is no alternative. Hard work pays off in the future for those who abide by and uphold the laws of the land, without which, I should add, we are beasts that want discourse of reason. For those whom it’s fashionable to call the disaffected and disadvantaged, laziness pays off now. We all know their motto: ‘Never put off til tomorrow what you can avoid altogether.’ They plead, ‘All we’ve ever wanted is an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.’
‘These slackers and double dippers are disinclined to take responsibility for their actions and their lives. They whinge, ‘I have a problem, it’s the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ They don’t look after the homes they’re already in. They leave their Council estates in such a mess throwing rubbish everywhere. But of course they say it’s not their problem. It’s someone else’s. The government’s. They’ve been given everything. All they can do is take, take, take and contribute nothing to the community. ‘What’s yours is mine. Excuse me while I help myself.’ They think money from the Exchequer grows on trees. They think pennies fall from heaven. They don’t. They have to be earned here on earth.’
‘For some in the very prime and flower of their youth, getting out of bed in the morning is a career move. They live in the government’s basement, focussing their energies on obtaining a larger allowance rather than getting a job and moving out. They spend half their day loafing in bed and the remainder selling drugs and stealing from each other.’
‘They’re too gutless to go out and make money for themselves honestly. Everything’s been given to these useless creatures, yet they’re never satisfied. What will they want next? First they whine saying they must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed.’
‘The socialist ‘nanny state’ robs people of initiative. It penalises talent and industry. It’s debilitating culture of dependency robs people of responsibility. They become like sheep.’
‘There to be led astray and stripped of their coats.’
‘If God didn’t want them shorn, he would not have made them sheep. Only one in a hundred of those losers is going to get on that ark. The rest of those poor wretches are going to drown. Listen, the plebs don’t grant the least value to work. If you want to live in this country, you must pay for the privilege.’
‘We all have to pay our way in life, to make our own place in the world. It’s like good housekeeping. Bills have to be paid and books have to be balanced. When I’m short one week I have to make economies the next. This state wants to change our time zone. At 9AM every Friday the clocks would go forward eight hours. What I want to say to workers is otherwise, ‘If you’re on time, you’re too late. ’Their job is to be in front and look into the future. They need bosses who will never be envious when they make a fortune. It’s the opposite. The real boss will push them to get as much as possible out of it. Not just for his sake but for everybody’s. He won’t come from the public sector. This state drives a great many of our decent men and women to do a bit ‘on the side’ to avoid taxation. And the worst sin of all. It disrupts the market.’
‘Rhubarb, rhubarb, we’ve heard it all before,’ I said, taking over from Keith. ‘The world doesn’t owe you a living. You’re on your own. Every man and his dog for themselves. Life wasn’t meant to be easy. We all have to find our own way in the world. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The meek won’t inherit the earth. The winners take all. Don’t expect something for nothing. Be like me. Me first,’ I said, thumping my chest.
‘Stop carrying the burden of the world yourself,’ said Keith raising and lowering his shoulders. Shrug this weight off like Atlas! Work for your own benefit, not that of others. Do only what is useful for yourself. Sacrifice nothing for others. That way you will ultimately create more value for the world. Then you’ll truly be Number One.’
‘He or she who thinks only of number one must remember, it is next to nothing.’
Then I could hear it, the Sound of Music spouting forth from within me. Not the light and fluffy movie but the satirical Broadway gem about egocentrism, amoral political compromising and sense of inevitability, all excised along with it’s class and political tensions.
The sound came from within me but not in the smoother, softer notes that Laurence Olivier would coach her to produce.
It came in the earlier hectoring shrill pitched tones of the aspiring Tory grand dame. I went up an octave to put on the voice of a woman who sounded like she was putting on a voice, singing:
‘That all-absorbing character,
That fascinating creature,
That super special feature,
Why not learn to put your faith and reliance
On an obvious and simple fact of science?
Every star on every whirling planet
And every constellation in the sky
Revolves around the centre of the universe
That lovely thing called, I.
And there’s no way to stop it.
No, there’s no way to stop it,
And I know, though I cannot tell you why.
Just as long as I’m living,
Just as long as I’m living,
There’ll be nothing else as wonderful as I.
I! I! I!
Nothing else as wonderful as I!’
‘Her style of government,’ said Keith, ‘is similar to running a corner shop, a small business with balanced books, in which she says those who wish to beaver away 20 hours a day leave in the shade the inconstant, slothful sods who drag their feet. Giving an appearance of working 9 to 5. ‘Hard work never killed anybody’, she attributes to them, ‘but why be the first!?’ ‘why take the risk!?’ ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s too hard’. ‘I just work here.’ ‘That’s the attitude.’ She sees the public service which delivers the protective social umbrella as an infernal nuisance. She never needed a social worker so why should anyone else: ‘We’ve become a nation of deserving cases’. She believes everyone should be able to run their own lives by themselves. She’s down on affirmative action. Her self centred approach is shaped by monetarist theorists from the other side of the pond.’
‘The same theorists who are now applying their ideas in Chile now that Pinochet has laid the groundwork. Not surprisingly Mrs. Thatcher has embraced this murderer’s dance of death. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.’
‘She’s heartless. She’s the kind of person that if you were drowning fifty feet off shore, she’d throw you a thirty foot rope. Then her publicist would go on TV the next night and say that she had met you more than half-way.’
‘Ethics teaches that virtue is its own reward, in monetarist economics we get taught that reward is its own virtue. To fit in with this they aim to bring in a host of big changes.’
‘Toll roads, electronic tagging of offenders, the privatisation of prisons, the return of ‘calm and sanity’, of capital punishment, the scrapping of the National Health Service, you name it’
‘Her party has it’s sights set on the coal industry. You mark my words, it’ll be privatizing the bloody air next. ‘Yes, hold your breath, Sir, that’s government property!’
‘She says if we don’t cut spending we will be bankrupt. She likens her cuts to harsh medicine which the patient requires in order to live. She says the homeless should save to buy their own house.’
‘That figures. The last homeless person she had any time for was the baby Jesus.’
‘She says there’s no such thing as society. She’s sowing the seeds for the dismantling of the welfare state,’ I said, ‘and replacing it with an even colder tighter company rule. There’s no telling to where this is going to lead.’
‘Heads will roll. She and the monetarists want to build a New World Order. A citizens’ wasteland. No regard for the poor. No regard for the indigent. No one to pick up the slack for you if you get sick. Cater for those with deep pockets, keep the wealthy happy and the others—-?’ he said, stretching his arms outwards.
‘Climb on their backs. Push them aside. But will it work?’
‘This might work well in a frontier society with boundless natural resources and no resistance from anyone but not here where most people hang their hats on selling their labour power. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and we as a country are only as strong as our poorest families. Unchecked, such politicians will destroy our social fabric and weaken the country. ‘
Mrs. Thatcher Visits School
Another of the many apocryphal stories going round the staffrooms was about the day when Attila was visiting one of the primary schools under her administration. After the platinum blonde in the pussy bow dress, garden-fête hat and chunky jewellery had talked down to the welcoming party, she was taken into the room of a class discussing words and their meanings. The teacher asked whether she would care to lead a discussion on the word ‘tragedy’, so she asked the class to give her an example.
A little boy stood up, and said, ‘If my best friend was playing in the street, and a truck ran over him and killed him, that would be a tragedy’.
‘No,’ said Mrs. Thatcher, ‘that wouldn’t be a tragedy. That would be an accident’.
A little girl raised her hand: ‘If the school bus had fifty boys and girls in it, and it drove over a cliff, killing everyone inside, that would be a tragedy’.
‘I’m afraid not,’ explained Mrs. Thatcher. ‘That is what we would call a loss of some proportion.’
The room went silent. No child volunteered.
Mrs. Thatcher’s eyes searched the room. “Can no one here give me an example of a tragedy? At the back of the room, a little hand went up, and a quiet voice said, ‘If a plane carrying you and Mr Thatcher was struck by lightning and crashed, that would be a tragedy’.
‘Magnificent!’ exclaimed Mrs. Thatcher, ‘You’ve got it in one. And can you tell me why would that have to be a tragedy?’
‘Sort of,’ said the quiet voice, ‘It would have to be a tragedy, because it certainly wouldn’t be a great loss, and it probably wouldn’t be an accident.’
Who would have known at that time that anyone would ever be so enraged as to consider putting the third possibility into operation at Brighton – and accepting responsibility.
Who would have known that upon her eventual death many would mourn and honour this privatising Queen of Hearts whilst many others would declare ‘good riddance to bad rubbish!’
I didn’t celebrating her passing but I’m under no illusion about the destructiveness of her policies and divisiveness of her legacy
Now back to her attendance at the school. At the end of the visit Mrs. Thatcher and the children were all photographed, and she encouraged them each to buy a copy of the group picture. ‘Just think how nice it will be to look at it when you are all grown up and say, ‘There’s Mary. She’s a lawyer, ‘ or ‘that’s Peter. He’s a doctor.’
Then that small voice at the back of the room rang out, ‘And there’s Mrs. Thatcher. She’s dead.’
Two Different Worlds.
Most of the schools I worked at were in working class areas. I always learned something about the local customs and habits to make my lessons more meaningful.
To make addition simple and understandable I put it to one class, ‘ ‘If I have six bottles in one hand and five in the other hand, what do I have?’
The answer, ‘A drinking problem.’
At another school I incorporated the children’s love of pets into arithmetic. ‘ If I give you two rabbits,’ I asked one small boy, ‘ and then I give you another two rabbits, how many rabbits do you have?
‘ Five’ he answered.
‘ No, listen carefully again. If I give you two rabbits and then I give you another two rabbits, how many rabbits have you got?
‘ Let’s try this another way. If I give you two guinea pigs and then I give you another two guinea pigs, how many guinea pigs have you got?
‘Good! Now, if I give you two rabbits and then I give you another two rabbits, how many rabbits have you got?
‘Five,’ he insisted.
‘How on earth do you work out that two lots of two rabbits is five?’
‘ I’ve already got one rabbit at home, Sir.’
I learned of their most popular reading, one they really got their teeth into. Those sticks of sticky, sugary rock dreaded by dentists. A ring of bright red letters spelled out the name of the seaside resort where bought.
I asked a class to write a composition describing their seaside holiday. One pupil, a boy with badly chipped incisors delighted me by spelling ‘Weston- super- Mare’ correctly every time he used it.
Eventually I asked him to the front of the class and said, ‘Show the class how well you can spell, Tommy. Write ‘ Weston -super-Mare ‘ on the blackboard.’
‘Please, Sir, I can’t any more,’ he pleaded, ‘I’ve eaten all my souvenir rock.’
One school was located in an area called Worlds End, a pocket of poverty, little worried about being tidy and well-behaved enough for its trendier cousin, Chelsea.
I had to go to a school in Chelsea and was told it was near an upmarket pub. I asked the bus conductor when I got on, ‘Do you stop at ‘The Chelsea Potter’?’
He replied, ‘Not on my salary I don’t.’
In Chelsea they bought clothes described as ‘vintage’. In World’s End they were described as second hand.’
It’s houses brought to my mind the Pete Seeger ditty “Little Boxes’. These small single-storey cottages were built as temporary public housing stock after the Second World War during which the area was blitzed. Proud men who had fought their way from Normandy to Germany came back to find themselves with no home of their own, living in squalid lets or forced to lodge with in-laws. For any of them get to the top of the council list and be allocated one of these pre-fabs had been heaven. They were continued to be used at least into the seventies. Now the area is described as bright and palmy, as are I’m sure the private developers.
At the chalk face, I found the children a handful after a while. They had difficulty focusing for thirty seconds. It was like trying to hold thirty or so corks under water at the same time.
They mastered the art of finger painting after the Principal’s car was scratched. It took a fortnight to make it look presentable again.
‘These culprits will offend later in life,’ said the Principal. ‘This is a good way to get their fingerprints early. I’m really cutting out the middleman.’
I was struck by the contrasting atmosphere at a Church of England administered school in Chelsea proper drawing on a more affluent family base. The girls there in the Girl’s Scouts raised funds selling croissants. The class I covered for continued working under my supervision as they did with their teacher. I didn’t have to tell them what to do – they knew and got on with it. They asked me to help when needed. ‘These pupils are very bright.’ the principal told me. ‘Prepare your lessons well. You can’t just wing it. Keep one step ahead of them. You don’t want to be be pulled up if you make any mistakes.’
He told me, ‘We have a tradition where we impose as few rules as possible. That’s the policy today. That was the policy when I was a pupil in Infants here myself in the fifties.’
I was disappointed when the time came for the permanent teacher to return.
‘Don’t have such a long face,’ I was told on hearing the news, ‘or you’ll topple over.’
At such a young age, these two sets of children, like their parents, were in different worlds – Us and Them.
As were those from one Catholic school I spent time at in the Hammersmith area. Located in a neighbourhood of West Indian immigrants, the children were almost all lily white. One of the few token black children couldn’t sing or dance. Everyone assumed he was adopted.
I was rather taken back when the headmaster let me in on their way of getting around the law that requires them to accept all children for funding. The school required parents to show proof of their children having been baptized in England. His position towards the newcomers was not a missionary one. Not on your nelly.
As for my own position, it was not as thrusting as some may have thought. I had encountered so many children and parents. On a crowded bus on the way to this school I smiled pleasantly at a woman sitting opposite me. It quickly became evident she didn’t know me. Realising my mistake, I said in oh too clearly audible tones , ‘Oh excuse me, I thought you were the mother of two of my children.’
Luckily my school was at the next stop.