The return of Phil Harrass, Private HMI

26th December 1997 at 00:00
The sun had already set though it was but four o'clock in the afternoon. A chill fog began to descend on the city, yet my companion, Mr Sherlock Harrass, Consulting HMI, insisted that I leave a window open. Through this small portal drifted the scent of roasting chestnuts and the cries of their vendor. Harrass yawned and flexed his long fingers. "A drink, my dear Wilson," he said.

"Not for me," I muttered, "and I hope . . ."

"You hope, my dear Wilson, that I shall not be adding ammonium ferric citrate to carbonated water? Ha!" Harrass became animated as a sharp rap sounded at the door. "Come along, Wilson! Open it!" he commanded, ushering me forth with an open hand. I obeyed, and invited the two gentlemen who stood there to enter.

Harrass observed them for several seconds then said: "You will doubtless have surmised our guests are both members of the teaching profession. The fellow on my right is a geographer while his companion is an instructor of physical education with libertarian principles who has had to deal with an unruly pupil this very afternoon."

"But that is astonishing!" gasped the gentleman identified by Harrass as a geographer. "You are quite correct, sir. May I ask how you were able to divine so?" Harrass turned to me. "You will doubtless have observed, Wilson, that our guests are grown men obviously in full employment, yet it is but four o'clock in the afternoon. Both carry large bags, one distorted by the presence of exercise books, the other by soccer boots. Thus, we have two teachers, one of physical education.

"His companion's hands bear the stains of many colours of ink, yet he lacks the patterned shirt affected by art teachers to infuse an air of Bohemianism and hide the paint splashes. We therefore conclude he is a geographer.

"The hands of a physical education teacher should bear no ink marks as they have little cause to commit to paper, yet this one has obviously been writing within the past hour. We may deduce he had problems with one of his charges but eschewed corporal punishment in favour of scribing a paragraph to be copied several times." Harrass sat back in his armchair. "Now, gentlemen, how may I be of service?" "We would like you to use your phenomenal abilities to predict the shape of the educational system in 100 years' time," said the physical educator.

Harrass smiled his tight-lipped smile. "I fear you are confusing me with Mysterious Margaret, the fairground charlatan fortune-teller. Nevertheless, as a new year beckons, I find myself curiously disposed to answer your question, at least in part.

"One of two things shall come to pass. It may be that the very notion of society all but vanishes. It becomes the onus of parents to provide education for their offspring. You will think it preposterous but I tell you: the time may come when families are issued with education vouchers.

"Alternatively, if we develop as a civilisation, it will be seen as necessary for continued advancement to live according to the maxim that education is the responsibility of all. A man may have no offspring, but for his own good, and for that of his fellows, he shall gladly contribute from his salary to the schooling of the children of the next generation, be they princes or street urchins."

Harrass was lost within himself and appeared to be no longer aware of our visitors. "I for one, Wilson," he sighed, "should rather like to live in those times."

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