Richard Hoyes learns to treat irony with care

10th March 2000 at 00:00
I am living proof of the utter dispensability of the music teaching profession. Ouch. Did I say that? Yes (this page a fortnight ago, boasting about being self-taught on the saxophone). "Irony," I should have added in brackets. My e-mail has taken a lot of stick from angry baton-waving music teachers. Who said teachers don't believe in corporal punishment? Music ones do. Sorry. I'll sing it. Sorry hey-ho. I didn't mean it.

Mishandled irony is my forte. Sorry again reader, I'll rephrase that. Irony has always been my problem. Thank God I stuck to teaching and never went into politics or religion.

When I was at school I won the mock election. I stood for a party I'd invented, the Student Welfare Organisation Party (SWOP), and soundly thrashed the head boy (Conservative), the deputy head boy (Labour), and the cleverest girl (Liberal).

It was at the time of the 1964 general election and the country was still reeling from the Profumo affair. Tory sleaze was my theme. I told a crowded playground (where I held my rallies) that the bodies of the femmes fatales in the affair had been discovered on the beach in nearby Cleethorpes.

"How do you know that?" yawped an incredulous heckler. I loved my hecklers. "They were both found under a pier," came my riposte. The corniest gags worked best in the playground, but you had to explain them. "Pier and peer. Pier at the seaside and peer of the realm." My catchphrase became: "There are no adulterers on the front bench of the Student Welfare Organisation Party." I used to say it with an immense show of mock self-righteous zeal.

But I got my come-uppance. There was one heckler I couldn't handle. He was a new lad called Duckworth. He came from the other side of the Humber and had the gift of the flat put-down, that keen Yorkshire sense of the self-evident that stops the Lincolnshire ironist dead in his tracks. "That's cos none of you's married," he called back. I never found an answer to that. The thing was we hadn't even got a bench, never mind a front bench. We weren't even a party. SWOP was just meand my ego. And that was the joke. By choosing not to see the joke he reduced the pair of us ad absurdum.

I should have learned from that. Treat irony with care. But I didn't.

I once stood up in front of the whole staff on an in-service training day and said: "I went into teaching because I like the sound of my own voice." The theme of the day was student-centred learning.

At lunch time Betty, a colleague, said: "I thought you were very brave."

"Why?" "Well, you were so honest."

"But Betty, I was being ironic."

"Oh no you weren't love," she said.

And that really worried me. As a failed ironist, what dreadful things have I said to my students that they've taken at face value?

In Farnham, the theatre has closed. The planners have come up with the idea of replacing it with an orangery and a group of chi-chi restaurants and shops.

"What this town needs is an orangery," I thundered from my column on page 17 of the local paper. "Orangery. I've looked it up in the dictionary. A place where they grow oranges." I showed it to Shaun, my colleague.

"Brilliant idea," he said. "I like oranges, I do."

"Irony, Shaun," I told him. "What this town needs is a theatre. A place where they do plays."

I get very arrogant about being misunderstood. But am I really that opaque?

At least I'm not a vicar. The ironic pulpit defeats itself completely.

Many years ago ITV had this jingle at Christmas - "Christmas means ITV." I remember going to midnight mass and the vicar took this trivial sting as his text. "Christmas," he boomed out, "means ITV." And I am ashamed to say I rocked in my pew with badly stifled laughter.

Of course he was being ironic. But the thing with irony is you've actually got to say what you don't mean. So here was a vicar telling us that Christmas means terrestrial TV not celestial Jesus. I'll avoid irony in future.

End of my sermon. And God bless you all. Especially music teachers.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey.

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