Read this, it's great!" said my technician pal, handing me a copy of The Ginger Man by J P Donleavy. The blurb said I was about to dive into an instant masterpiece, to meet a fabulous literary creation. A large supply of clean trousers seemed advisable. I raced through the Quintin Jardine I'd already started, so quickly that I hardly had time to ask myself why I actually enjoyed the story, with its overblown, macho, infallible heroes.
Did I enjoy The Ginger Man? Hmmmm . . . It was beautifully lyrical, though the switches both in tense and from first to third person narrative were a pain in the arse at first. The real problem I had was with the main character, Sebastian Dangerfield. He was a drunk, thief, adulterer and wife-beater and I could not find much of what he did remotely funny.
Nowhere was it explicitly suggested that I should derive great amusement from his actions but somehow I felt I was expected to.
I hate the notion that we are supposed to have a secret admiration for hedonistic idiots. On the death of some piss-artist actor whose entire working life has had less stress than a week of teaching policing coal-mining, we are often told in respectful tones that he was a "hell-raiser". Digging deeper, this means that he was renowned for being ratted on aircraft, reeling down the aisle abusing stewardesses who refuse to serve him even more drink. Lock them up, I say.
But there's more. There was something about Sebastian Dangerfield that brought to mind a phrase that chills the bones of many teachers. He was a "real character". At various points in my career I have been told that someone is a "real character", prior to being introduced to a teacher (it is invariably a male) with a ready, biting wit, an armoury of sarcastic put-downs and a membership card of the Anti-Everything League.
While they are clever with words, any innovation is greeted with the sanctimonious catchphrase: "what good will this do the pupils?" The "real character" never asks himself what the benefits of treating his charges as some sort of pond life are. Real characters are often Scooby-Doo Teachers; if it wasn't for the meddling kids they'd get away with it, but the meddling kids usually rebel and it's always someone else's fault.
Don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed the company of real characters on a number of occasions and laughed along with the rest of them. But put one in my department or, worse, in front of my own children in a classroom and they'd be as welcome as Sebastian Dangerfield as a house guest.
Gregor Steele has managed to write an article based around a book without mentioning King o the Midden (available at all good bookshops).