Please write on one side of the planet

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
Did intelligent life come from Mars? Scientists have been looking at the microbes and bacteria buried in rocks that have landed on the surface of our planet from elsewhere. The evidence has been analysed, and the finest scientific minds have now confirmed that life on this planet is extra-terrestrial and finely ordered.

There is conclusive proof that intelligent life did indeed come to Earth from Mars. Those that passed to grammar schools came from Mars, those that failed the 11-plus and went to secondary moderns were from Jupiter. What is more, stupid life also originated extra-terrestrially. Amazing but true. The microbes that got put on quangos, as political trusties and place men, are actually from Neptune.

One day a sliver of protozoa, a blob of algae or whatever, swooshed down from space and landed somewhere in the Home Counties. Splat! Another day, a few aeons later, John Major was standing there eagerly inviting it to be head of some useless bureaucratic educational quango. Next time you walk on Bognor beach, don't tread too heavily on any green squidgy bits. You might be squelching the prospects of a key political quisling in the year 5 billion AD.

From time to time journalists, writing an in-depth piece (150 words) on the selection of Martians back in the old days, ring me up to ask me what the 11-plus was like in its heyday. Can I remember any of the questions? Indeed I can. I spent enough time practising them. At that time the identification of Martians was a simple business. There was "mechanical" and "mental" arithmetic, English, and "aptitude".

I always loved the "mechanical" arithmetic part of the 11-plus. It was a surreal world of men digging holes and people filling up several baths, for no apparent reason. "If it takes 10 minutes to fill a bath with the plug in, and five minutes to empty it with the plug out, then how long would it take to fill five baths and empty them, one after another?" On Mars, they were always doing this kind of thing. Indeed, since it had absolutely no point, it was regarded as the supreme existentialist act, so we Martians had a real advantage. Try it on Jupiter and all that water would probably have just turned to liquid hydrogen and oxygen, so the poor old Jupitans were clueless.

A few private schools that tried to get Jupitans through the 11-plus in return for large fees used to spend weeks with real baths, filling and emptying them, only to find that on the day the exam paper was all about men digging holes, so it didn't work.

Even today, I am red-hot at answering questions such as: "If it takes seven education ministers 17 years to cock up most of the education system, how long will it take one prime minister to screw up all of it?" What in those days passed for "English" was also very jolly. Candidates had to complete a series of well-known phrases and sayings, such as "As old as the . . ." We Martians would fill in the correct answer, "hills", while all the Jupitans would give away their origins by writing "rings round my planet".

Once at our new school, we tried to flash the credentials that had got us there. "It's a long lane that has no turning, but then, the knowledge that every cloud has a silver lining is as old as the hills" we would opine in fluent Martian, only to get our essays back with the word "cliche" scrawled ungratefully in the margin at regular intervals.

"What's a cliche?" a fellow bewildered Martian, guilty of the same crime, hissed quietly to me early in our secondary career. I had a quick under-the-desk look in my new dictionary. "A trite phrase or saying," I whispered back, trying to sound as if I knew what I was talking about. "What's 'trite' mean?", he asked. Another clandestine look at my little pocket dictionary. "Hackneyed". Pause as fellow Martian becomes more desperate. "What's 'hackneyed' mean?" Another furtive rustling of pages. "Something to do with taxis," I whispered. After that, we Martians avoided the language of taxis.

I also loved the "aptitude" tests. These were, in the main, verbal reasoning tests, with the odd figural item thrown in, just to confuse the Jupitans even further. "'Apple' is to 'fruit' as 'carrot' is to . . .?" It was a gift. "Vegetables!" we Martians would scream, barely able to contain ourselves, only to get a thick ear from some hugely muscled, early matured Jupitan who thought we were talking about him and his pals.

Every year, after the 11-plus results came out, there was what became known as the "annual miracle". In every secondary school in the country, there were exactly enough places for the Martians and Jupitans in the area. This was amazing, because in some towns there were 15 per cent Martians and in others there were 30 per cent. It made no difference. The number of places for Martians was always spot-on.

Parents of Jupitans and the young Jupitans themselves were often heartbroken and demoralised to find they were from Jupiter and not from Mars, especially when their elder sister or brother was discovered to be a Martian, but that's genetics for you. Still, it was a wonderfully successful system.

About 20 per cent of the population was supposed to be Martian, including John Major. But back in the good old days, only about half of them went to university. Now, we are often told, comprehensive schools have ruined it all by putting Martians and Jupitans together.Yet today nearly half the children in school get five high-grade GCSEs and about a third of the population goes to university.

As a result of comprehensive education, a fair number of Martians and rather a lot of Jupitans are "getting ideas beyond their station", as they say in taxis.

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