Ballad of the salad cream

27th November 1998 at 00:00
I remember everything as if it happened only yesterday, as the song says. We were in P7, in a tall, wooden floored classroom with large yellow heating pipes around the sides. We were in rows, not groups and the boys and girls sat separately. Our teacher Mrs Glenmuir, she of the rasping voice and permanent stoop, had set an interpretation exercise for the whole class.

The text was titled "The Bottle of Salad Cream". "Regular customers at our restaurant were always amused when someone reached for the bottle of salad cream," it began.

There then unfolded a tale about the bottle of the title's reluctance to discharge its contents.

All was quiet as we read and answered, ungrouped and undifferentiated. Mrs Glenmuir marked some maths jotters and checked her medical cabinet. Inexplicably, she seemed to have a parallel role as the school nurse and had a cure for everything. The cure was almost invariably bicarbonate of soda. I was, however, about to learn that she had an alternative cure for lateral thinking.

Question one: Do you think the restaurant in the story was a good one? Explain your answer. I knew the answer they wanted: No, the restaurant in the story was not a good one. If the restaurant in the story were a good one it would have a fresh bottle of salad cream on every table. But hold on. Was there not an alternative answer that was almost as good?

When the time came to go over our work, Mrs Glenmuir asked who thought the restaurant was not a good one.

All but two pupils put their hands up. One gave the desired explanation when queried. "And who thought the restaurant was a good one?" asked Mrs Glenmuir in a slightly harsher voice. A shilpit lassie in pastel and grey artificial fibres put her hand up shakily. I felt only a little bolder as I raised mine. "Why do you think that?" Mrs Glenmuir snapped at the girl, who lowered her eyes and shook her head. "And what about you?" One never thinks of oneself as shilpit and dressed in artificial fibres, but I probably was, save for a homeknit jumper. "It must have been a good restaurant or it wouldn't have had any regular customers," I ventured.

"Oooooooooorgh!" said Mrs Glenmuir. It was a noise like a large metal pipe sliding off a lorry. And thus the chances of me trying some gratuitously lateral thinking again were diminished. To this day I maintain that my answer, though almost certainly wrong, as I knew it was then, deserved a bit more respect.

Gregor Steele's primary school has moved up the road.

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