Richard Hoyes starts the great novel

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Mike Jarvis is a funny little man, always looking for something he's lost. See him in the science prep room looking for it every day. What is it, Mike, this thing that you've lost? Your marking? Your ability to control Year 10? A memo from Grist the headmaster re his concern over your home-made wine and what looks like a still in the lab? Your hair? Your virility? That bottle of hydrochloric acid you left on the shelf 25 years ago in the days when you passed steam over heated iron filings and got hydrogen gas at the end, the days when the whole class sat on benches around you and watched you, chemistry master. Hey presto! Prestidigitator! And you struck a Swan Vesta at the end of the test tube to prove it was indeed hydrogen gas because it went pop? How your classes loved it, Mike, when your experiments went wrong and there'd always be one last theatrical catastrophe to thrill them just before their exams. Those were the days, Mike Jarvis. And are you looking for them now?

I'm an English teacher writing a novel on his palm top. That's the first page, the only page in 25 years. It's called Downstairs at Betterton Street. Not much of a title I know but you have to be careful. A teacher in Germany published a novel called Prostitutes Don't Kiss and got the sack. Quite right. Would I want my daughter taught by someone writing prurient filth when he should be checking her homework? And novel writing can reveal too much about the writer; teachers don't betray their inner selves. But I think it's great that English teachers write novels. And that art teachers paint, music teachers sing and accountancy teachers creatively account. And chemistry teachers... It's open session on Tuesdays in the cellar at the poetry cafe in Betterton Street, Covent Garden. People get up and read. Mike Jarvis, my protagonist, is a closet performance poet. It's an outlet for his talent denied expression in the modern classroom. On Tuesdays he goes to Betterton Street.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. It's a lie. There's plenty of teachers who do. Yet there's something about teaching that discourages doing and encourages deconstructin. Take my revision lesson on stylistic analysis. "Listen to this," I tell them. "Mike Jarvis is a funny little man, always looking for something he's lost. See him in the science prep room looking for it every day. What is it, Mike, this thing that you've lost?" "Start of a novel," they tell me, confidently. "Addresses the reader then the character. Reiteration of 'lost' gives lexical cohesion..."

I tear up my page into little pieces in front of them and screw them into a ball. It's an old trick and relies on the performer having an identical but untorn piece of paper screwed up in his hand already and requires a deft movement to dispose of the shreds. Somebody who's drifted off in the middle gasps as I unfold the page complete. The rest are unimpressed.

"It was better torn up."

"But do you take my point? It's easier to dissect than it is to create..."

"Does he ever find what he's lost?" "Yes," I reply enthusiastically. "He discovers a new form of yeast through his brewing and sells it as a miracle drug to Pfizer for a fortune..."

I have admitted too much. Could Mike Jarvis be me? Am I the person looking for something he's lost? Am I, oh God please not, the chemistry teacher who thinks he's about to discover the new Viagra, the English teacher who is about to write a bestseller, the music teacher who is about to take the Albert Hall by storm... but never does? The teacher on the edge of doing, the worst of all teachers, the one who can't but wishes he could, who only teaches because he dreams of something else?

I shall stick to what I know.

I've had lots of e-mail asking for the recipe for runner bean wine since my column on April 7. Now there's a book in that. A safe book. A teacher's guide to runner bean wine. I have its title already, neither dull nor prurient. I'll name it after a well-known variety, Scarlet Emperor. Or maybe it could be a novel, The Teacher and the Beanstalk. There's this teacher, you see, plants this runner bean, and there's this giant... Reader, deconstruct that!

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. E-mail: richarddeaubenay@yahoo.co.uk


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