The secondary school I attended had three buildings - the main building, the science building and the extension. Coming from a sooty sandstone primary school with imposingly-high ceilings, the extension was science fiction. Clean, white walls, windows all along one side of each room and a yellow floor covering that was almost bouncy when you walked along it.
The library even had a carpet! I had grown up believing that schoolchildren were not to be trusted with carpets. Not only were we trusted with them, we were also, in around S4, trusted to use a little reference room off the main library as a place where homework could be tackled at lunchtime.
Then one day the Hardmen came. It was the Seventies. Civilisation in schools had all but broken down in so far as there was no imposed dress code, so tribalism by alternative uniform flourished. The Hardmen wore Wrangler denim jackets and jeans ("The best, because Mr Wrangler says so") and Doc Martens boots.
Sneering, they removed encyclopaedias from the shelves and thumped them open on top of our homework books. "You read that one, pal!" It would have been far more trouble than it was worth to challenge them. If we hadn't got a pasting there and then, we'd have been picked off daily as we moved between buildings. We sat there and took it, then they went away.
Where are these guys now? Grown up and perfectly respectable, I suspect.
Perhaps some of them look back and wryly concede that there were times in their lives when they behaved like complete erses. I know I wryly look back and concede that there were times in my life when I behaved like a complete erse, and not just at school.
Maybe some of them have become cybererses. The great thing about being a cybererse is that you don't need a gang, don't have to be physically intimidating or even own a Wrangler jacket.
I visit certain motoring forums that are periodically invaded by psychological train wrecks. The PTWcybererse starts not by merely disagreeing with another post but by insulting the poster, often flinging in a bit of gratuitous homophobia. The first poster then complains, or someone complains on their behalf. Because it's the internet and not a school library, a virtual fight starts. Cybererse gets kicked off by the moderator.
Cybererse rejoins under a different username, starts complaining about the stifling of "manly debate" and mentions other forums where "banter" is happily tolerated.
What has that got to do with Hardmen in the library? Neither type seems sufficiently self-assured to live and let live. In some ways, I have more sympathy with the sneering denim-jackets from my school days. They caused more harm than twits on the internet, but a fair number were trapped by the raising of the school-leaving age, in a system that was perhaps not ready to meet their needs. Their foray into the library was a one-off. The cybererses keep coming back again and again.
There is something needy going on here, desperation to belong, coupled with an inability to know how to do so. Sad, but ultimately easier to avoid than a squad of Hardmen walking six-abreast between the extension and the main building.
Gregor Steele, chose a really stupid username the first time he joined an internet forum.