Jam in the doughnut of science

14th June 1996 at 01:00
"Twenty-four years just waitin' for a chance, To give him a referral or a please-take for a class, Now I've got to get used to not teachin' next door to Robert.

("Robert? Where the hell is Robert?") Such a song was just one of the ways the science staff at our place offered up their good wishes to Uncle Bob, the retiring assistant headteacher guidance. The composition expressed our sadness at his leaving and fondly alluded to the times he displayed a Pimpernel-like ability to be around but undetectable. His official staff presentation was the usual affair of praise, recollection and awful puns.

One anecdote is worth repeating. This genial, ever-practical chemist was fond of demonstrating convection by getting his classes to build a hot air balloon powered by burning methylated spirits. Delighted children would watch as these contraptions took off from one part of the playground, drifted around a little then landed in another part. Only one balloon had other ideas.

It soared above the school and hitched a ride on a breeze that took it over the town's cemetery. There its fuel supply expired and it descended like a shroud into the middle of a funeral gathering. I had heard the tale before but I still laughed hard enough to drop the jam out the doughnut I was eating at the time on to my school trousers.

Anecdotes came thick and fast at the less formal do. When I work out a way around the obscenity laws I will tell the one about the chimp and the biology teacher but, like Dr Watson's tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, the world is not yet ready.

Somebody made a Robert-shaped cake, complete with trademark deerstalker hat. Another member of staff had a bag of "things that remind us of Robert". The best was the biker's jacket with "Vera Lynn" painted on the back. The lyric sheet for the Roy "Chubby" Brownesque song bore a scanned picture of Uncle Bob and an invitation to write a caption.

Most of these were based around the theme of Robert having his hands in his pockets. Mine was different and I must recount it here, although not because it represents a major piece of wit. In fact it was a send up of the worst gag at the "official" do: "I decided to teach literature to prisoners when I retired. There was a housebreaker who looked like he might write the next Canterbury Tales. But it all came to nothing which shows that burglars can't be Chaucers. " Some people laughed, sort of.

I tell this duff joke because it inspired Robert to make a comment later in the evening. "I much prefer the company of scientists," he said. "They can talk about their own subjects in one breath and Chaucer in the next. Arts people tend to know only the arts." A nice compliment but is the sentiment true?

I would like to think so but know too many scientists who rubbish the study of arts if not the arts themselves. I did myself when I was young and stupid.

When I was young and stupid I also met plenty of students who failed to see the creative side of science, who saw us as technicians following a manual rather than interpreters of texts. I hope we have all grown up now and tried to learn a little of each others' disciplines.

And I wish it had been something other than a poor joke that had inspired Robert to make his comment in the first place.

Gregor Steele Gregor Steele didn't get a piece of Uncle Bob cake.

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