It's time to forgive and forget Sir Ted

26th July 1996 at 01:00
So Ted Heath is 80. Congratulations to him. It isn't his fault, after all, that like Baroness T, I still wince in agony at the mention of his name. How could he know of the indignity he heaped upon me, all those years ago? But though the voice of reason says that it's time to forgive and forget, it's far easier to do the former than the latter.

It was the first term of my first headship, and I was keen to make a good impression on parents and on the burghers of the town. I saw the school concert as a golden opportunity. This year it was going to be something special, more than a celebration of Christmas and the impending end of term, a sort of theatre for the new ambitions of the school and the head who had been called upon to lead it. Properly stage-managed, I thought, it would be a performance to remember. People would talk about it in the town, and there would be favourable comment about the role that I would play, modest but confident and well-prepared and - yes, let's face it - smart.

The hall was duly decked with bells and holly, the invitations sent, and the choir, who would sing by candlelight, were carefully scrubbed and polished. New readings had been chosen and rehearsed. A single spotlight would illuminate the lectern and the deceptively cherubic faces of the pupil readers. Nothing, you would have thought, could possibly go amiss.

Provided, that is, that the spotlight worked. For this was Ted Heath's winter of discontent, when the miners were on strike and the country was to be punished by a three-day working week. Every day there were power cuts applied by rota. Not till six o'clock that Friday evening did we know for sure that there would be lighting in the building. For the 20th time that day my long-suffering deputy checked the arrangements - the invitation list, the flowers, the seating and the spotlight on the lectern. Perilously late, I went home to change.

Home, however, was in another power-cut area and the village was plunged in darkness. My wife met me at the door, candle in one hand and sandwich in another. "You're going to be late," she said. "I've hung your interview suit on the outside of the wardrobe door." By candlelight I changed and ate, and then drove the 10 miles back across the vale. By 7.15 I was in school again, ready - just - to play the part that the occasion called for.

In the foyer outside the hall I greeted governors, welcomed the mayor and mayoress, smiled encouragement to pupils and their parents. If I detected an element of surprise, I put it down to the fact that we had risen successfully to the challenge of power cuts and the three-day week. It was a promising start, I thought. Things were going well. At 7.28 precisely I walked in front of the serried rows of staff (this was 1973 remember - things were different then) to show the chairman to his seat.

At which point a young textiles teacher two rows back leaned forward and said to me, quite loudly, "I see you've started smoking." My bafflement at this unscripted gambit must have showed, for she pointed at my attire and conversationally said: "You've got cigarette ash on your trousers." Doubly baffled, I glanced down - and froze in horror at what I saw.

From the waist upwards I was the very model of what the new head ought to be, carefully groomed, modestly but sharply suited. From the waist downwards, however, I was wearing what were only too obviously a much-used pair of painting trousers. Even in that first horrified instant I recognised abundant evidence of some of our recent domestic colour schemes. I mumbled something to my guest, fled to the nearest cloakroom, and scratched desperately, but to no avail, at my well-spattered knees. There was a bewildered pupil there. I sent him to find the deputy, to summon her to my presence.

"Are the guests all seated?" I feverishly enquired. Wide-eyed (both the circumstances and the location were unusual) she nodded confirmation. "And the candles lit?" Again, a nod of assent. "Then I want all the lights out in this building - now!" I said. "But the lec-tern ..." she protested. "Never mind the lectern!" I snapped. "I want the lights out - now!" There was an "ooh" of anticipation from the audience. In semi-darkness and with murder in my heart I took up my seat, behind the chairman and beside my wife. "Do you know what you've done?" I hissed at her, and gestured wordlessly at where my knees gleamed whitely in the candlelight. "Oh my God!" she said, "You'll have to make an announcement!" It was not the best evening of our marriage. The choir, to do them justice, looked angelic and sang sweetly, though without great skill. We made some sort of show at the carols marked for staff and parents, relying heavily on memory and on repetition. Sire, the night grows darker still has seldom been chorused with such feeling. But the carefully chosen readings were, to put it mildly, a disaster. Reader after reader twisted at the lectern, trying to catch some flickering reflection on the page. A fourth- former, showing more initiative than tact, tackled Betjeman by cigarette lighter, and the chairman (He was not that Light) struggled manfully but in vain with the illumination of St John.

Afterwards, in the still-darkened foyer, the chairman was philosophical about it all. "Damn good show," he said. "Great idea to have the candles for the singers. But what puzzles me," he went on, looking out of the window at the street lights that surrounded us on all sides, "is why they selected just this school for this evening's power cut."

I was ready for that. "I blame Ted Heath," I said.

And I still do. But it's time to let bygones be bygones, and forgiving is the prelude to forgetting. So happy birthday, Sir Edward, and many of them. If there's a spare seat at next year's party, I promise not to turn it down.

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