Driven undercover among a row of tents

I used to hate having to tell people what I did for a living. I'd be sitting outside the caravan on a French campsite, a glass of red wine in my hand, the barbecue gently sizzling beside me, the smell of pine in the air and my friendly, red-faced neighbour in the tent next door would start up a conversation about the weather, the campsite, his journey down, and then would come the question:

"So, what do you do, then?"

And I would reply: "I'm a school inspector."

"Oh," he'd say, his mouth becoming tight.

It was like admitting to an inquisitor in 16th-century Spain that God did not exist.

"My wife's a teacher," he spluttered. "She nearly cracked up after you lot had been in. She's only just getting over it and it was four years ago."

And that was the last I saw of him.

Once, after I had foolishly admitted to being a school inspector at a camp get-together, I had a queue of people outside the tent asking for advice on Brogan's dyslexia, Ashley's reading problems and a rather aggressive couple, in matching beachwear, asking why their Dominic had not got into the school of their choice.

So I used to invent jobs. "Oh, I'm a systems analyst for the Yorkshire Electricity Board," I would reply genially.

"Really, that sounds very interesting," my questioner would lie. "What does that involve, then?"

"Oh, taking a system and analysing it," I would reply.

And that would be that and I would have a pleasant, stress-free holiday.

Once I decided to be a little more adventurous and said I was the senior cleansing officer for Rotherham. That backfired when the showers went wrong and I was dragooned into examining the pipes.

"Actually," I had said, "I do sewers, I'm not big on showers."

One summer, I was there as usual outside the caravan (I was an actuary that year) exchanging pleasantries with my neighbour in the next tent when the girl across the way returned from the telephone box, screaming and waving her hands madly in the air. "I've got 10 GCSEs!" she shouted over to us, "with eight starred-As."

"Marvellous," I shouted back. The girl disappeared to tell her proud parents.

"Course," said my neighbour, "the exams these days are not like them what we took. These GCSEs - a monkey could pass some of 'em. All projects, copying out and colouring," "You're a teacher then, are you?" I asked.

"No, no."



"School inspector?"

"I'm a cleansing operative."

Just as well I had decided on a new occupation that year, I had thought to myself.

"The Government's trying to con people that standards are getting better, when everyone knows they're getting worse. Kids these days can't spell, add up, or write a decent letter of application. They know nothing about British history and grunt most of the time."

I met the educational expert that week in the supermarche.

"Do you speak the lingo?" he asked.

"Oui, un peu," I replied.


"Yes, I do," I told him.

"Well, could you come over to the charcooteray. We want this particular cheese but the wife don't know the name of it. We want to get it back home. Sainsbury's will have it."

At the charcuterie, the wife was scrutinising the impressive display of French cheeses.

"I've fetched this chap over from the next tent," the educational expert tells her. "He speaks the lingo and can ask what sort of cheese it is for us."

"I don't need anybody to help me," she told her husband, "I can point, you know."

Later, in the queue, I asked the couple if they had discovered the name of the said cheese.

"Oh yes," said the wife, indicating a large wedge of Rochefort in her shopping basket. "It's called fromage."

"I think it's called Roquefort, actually," I said helpfully.

"Well love," she said, "I think you'll agree that the man on the charcooteray knows a little bit more about cheeses than you do and he says it's fromage.

"It's fromage," I said nodding, "of course it is."

Gervaise Phinn was an Office for Standards in Education inspector and is now an author and broadcaster. His recent book, "Head over Heels in the Dales", was a best-seller

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