From spires to solvent abuse

25th July 2003 at 01:00
I am bowling slow left arm in the crisp morning sun of a lost summer long ago. Shadows dance across the lovely green. Latin teachers collapse in deckchairs under roses. Paradise. Most of the school are elsewhere toiling on irregular verbs or Gallic Wars or dissecting frogs or The Prelude.

Except for the Tinies. They are picnicking on Tizers and buns on the boundary. I unleash a perfect drifting "Chinaman". The batsman is quite flummoxed.

"Owzat?" I yell.

Umpire Merrylees - my English master who is teaching me Marvell and the Miltonic similes - ponders, pauses and puts up his finger! Out! Tinies cheer and wave Tizers. I love it. I am a hero. King of a tiny spoiled world - a precious universe of fruitbats. I knew no other.

I leave with S-levels in snobbery. University was grammar school 2 - with dreaming spires. I gave up the slow left arm for existentialism. I wore a lot of black. I wore a lot of shades. Especially to Antonioni movies. I was a bit "beat".

I went distrait. So distrait I disowned my own mother. She had left school at 12. A very bright woman much given to free association and a catastrophic wardrobe, she preferred Frankie Howerd to Franz Kafka, knitting patterns to The Naked Lunch.

One day she felt compelled to visit the dreaming spires. Oh no! She would show up in a church fete frock and a beret favoured by the French Resistance. I would have to smuggle her out before she started chirping randomly about clean socks or apple and blackberry pies, or her spinster sister and the lawnmower.

I was beyond all that. My snobbery was in full bloom. I dreaded that visit.

Not as much as she did. She got as far as the first dreaming spire and legged it back to the charabanc, never to return.

Suddenly I could see it all. I'd gone from clot to poseur to snob to monster. I should have been put in the stocks. Or shot. Education - especially of this kind - seemed a source of much woe. I must remedy this.

I would teach real children in the inner city. I read Hoggart and Illich and Foucault. The lot. I knew it all.

I knew nothing. I was in for big shocks. Real children were tough. Some classes seemed more floridly crazed than the west wing of the Maudsley. My knowledge of Foucault and Hoggart and Chinamen cut no mustard. I'd have been better off with the Beano - and the Bash Street Kids.

There was Ronald Crumlin. To ward off the longeurs of my lessons, Crumlin would sniff glue off his cuffs and fall out of consciousness and off his chair. One afternoon he went fishing in a canal off Meanwhile Gardens. In a grim solvent stupor he caught a pram. Or it caught him. He fell in - and was fished out by a passing tug.

"I could've died, Sir !"

There was Ingrid Shriek, who once plunged from a first-floor window fleeing a wasp.

And there has forever been Dave Mania - Lord of Misrule and Quasar of Chaos. I have been his pastor, confessor, amanuensis, and lifestyle manager. To no real avail. Mania has always been somewhere else, usually down the Portobello flogging razors or rugs or mangoes - or his granny. One afternoon I caught him dealing drugs.


"Chill, sir. They're just lumps from dustbin lids!"


"You chop 'em up and they look like hash. Go down a bomb with the tourists."

That first year was a bit of a white knuckle ride. And so were the other 30. A Crumlin and a Shriek and especially a Mania have surfaced in every class - sharp as pins and twice as bright, and just as quick as mother.

But I made the right decision. This is the only place to teach. Sometimes grim but always enthralling. Sometimes a bit too enthralling. Sometimes I cannot help but crave a little of that gentle grammar school tedium.

A pastoral interlude. So I collapse in deckchairs under roses sipping wine on these soft July evenings. I drift into green thoughts in green shades, and summers long ago.

Mr Merrylees' voice falls across that lovely square.

"And the incoming batsman is David H Mania."


Best of all possible worlds.

Ian Whitwham teaches in a London comprehensive

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