"I'm not going to do Nothing anymore…Well, not so much. They don't let you."
The House at Pooh Corner
Sunday afternoon, July 14th, 1972.
We have gone for a picnic in our local park. There is a cricket match on the grass; my granddad is sitting in a deck-chair taking score. There is a church on the hill, and at around 6.00 the bells ring. Weeping willows dip their leaves into a stagnant book. The words 'I love the smell of my 12 year old sisters navy blue school knickers as I wank off' have been written on the wall of the gentlemen's toilets, which have not been cleaned since 1967. The scene, in short, could hardly be more English.
The red-haired boy who I don't know and my irritating cousins have got a bat and are starting to play French cricket; but I, at the earliest possible opportunity slope off by myself behind the pavilion, where the willows form an umbrella like canopy; each tree a tent; a bubble, a place to hide. I have a copy of The War of the Worlds, about the closest thing to science fiction I can find in the school library. I understand about a quarter of it, I skip passages of political digression and bad Victorian science. At one point, the narrator mentions that while fleeing the Martian invested London, he pauses for rest on a hill near East Barnet. I am overwhelmingly thrilled by the fact that my town can be mentioned in a book about aliens. I like the dated language, the sense that I am reading a grown-up book. I like the references to space ships and monsters. I like the fact that for once, I'm reading a book which my father approves of. But mostly, I just like reading for its own sake.
I also, lest you think I am dangerous intellectual, have a stack of Spiderman comics. My parents are slightly concerned that such a clever boy as me is wasting his time on trashy American comics; in fact, the vocabulary in the speech balloons is considerably more advanced than anything being set at school, although the spelling is American, so Miss Augustus would presumably not approve of it.
I have an exercise book, in which I am making a rather half hearted attempt to write a science fiction story of my own.
If you had asked me what I spent the afternoon doing, I suppose I would have said 'playing', or 'mucking about' or 'reading'. The real name of the process was 'education' or possibly 'real life'.
For the other five days of the week, my parents delivered me up into the hands of a wicked witch called Miss Augustus, who used to spank children and misapply texts from the Pentateuch. She taught us old-fashioned grammar and Protestant guilt. She had horn-rimmed glasses and once made us pray that God would protect Mr Heath from the miners and all other wicked people.
Grammar did not mean correct sentence construction, the use of the semi-colon and not ending sentences with prepositions. It meant learning the difference between nouns and verbs. If you read books (and I read books incessantly) then once the phrase 'A noun is a naming word, a verb is a doing word' has been written on the blackboard, you have nothing else to learn: but we spent whole hours going through tedious grammatical examples: underlining the noun; drawing up tables to show that 'red' is an adjective of quality while 'big' is an adjective of quantity. This was insultingly obvious and tedious and I actually found it humiliating to have to do the work, just like I found it humiliating to have to do Comprehensions on books that were far beneath my reading level, and write ('In a sentence') 'I know that Pooh was Piglet's friend because he brings him a birthday present.' My mind wandered; my handwriting became untidy; I drew the lines in my little charts in ink or didn't bother to use a ruler. My grammar book was a mess; I got low marks; I was told (and for while believed) that I was bad at English.
Punctuation, or at any rate, 'full-stops-and-capital-letters' came into it as well. I started to use quotation marks weeks before she had taught them to us and was roundly told to stop, because I wasn't 'making' them correctly. Have you ever met someone who actually takes the trouble to draw little '99s' and '66s' when writing longhand? Doesn't everyone just draw squiggles? But that's lazy. 'If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well.'
She also made us learn tables. A certain amount of memorisation is necessary in arithmetic, but rote learning is simply the wrong way to go about it. In real life, one works out strategies and mnemonics. I can comfortably multiply by four by adding two single-digit numbers together '4+4=8, 8+8=16.' But, if we were to believe Miss Augustus, this was cheating. Although I could get the answer right, I couldn't confidently chant 'three fours are twelve, four fours are sixteen.' I still can't. This meant that I was bad at Maths.
Next on the still denationalised curriculum came History. Miss Augustus would do a five minute speech on some aspect of historical sociology, say, what it was like being a little boy during the Roman Age (the schools were nastier, and they wore sandals) or what it was like to be a little boy during the Viking Age (the schools were nastier, and they wore sandals) or on some aspect of political history, say the life of Thomas Becket (who wore sandals and went to a nasty school) or the Norman Conquest. We had to draw our own four-frame reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry, giving due emphasis to William the Conquerer's sandals. This tended to collapse history into a series of unrelated anecdotes, often with moral points. For example, the point of the Norman Conquest was that it was very naughty of Harold to have lied to William about his intention to let him become king on Edward's death; the point of Thomas Becket was that was very naughty of King Richard to lose his temper and say something he didn't mean. I don't think the Vikings had a point. I don't know according to what criteria the anecdotes were selected: why, with the entire vista of world history to chose from Miss Augustus selected Elizabeth Frye, Florence Nightingale and Sir Thomas More as important historical characters. I even recall a lesson about that bleeding Victorian lighthouse keeper who rescued someone from a storm—arguably not the most important event in the whole of the 19th century. We were then required to either summarise her narrative in our own words, or draw a picture to illustrate it. We were marked on the accuracy of our colouring, the correctness of our spelling, and the neatness of our quotation marks. On this basis it turned out (surprise, surprise) that I was bad at History. I was also no good at geography (colouring in maps), science (colouring in pictures of birds and bees) and religious studies (colouring in pictures of baby Jesus and maps of the Holy Land.)
I was, in short, a bit of an academic disaster.
If you had asked Miss Augustus, I think she would have said that everyone was quite capable of producing neat handwriting and learning their tables, and failure to do so was evidence that you weren't trying; which is to say, evidence that you were bad wicked naughty child. ('Obstinately refuses to draw his letters correctly' was Miss Augustus's incisive comment in one school report.) To give her her due, she did at one point suggest to my parents that the reason my quotation marks were so inaccurate was that I was in some way mentally handicapped, and the solution to this might be to buy me a pet dog. (That bit's true, by the way.)
Actually, she had a point. Anyone (however stupid) prepared to take the trouble can persuade their lips to recite tables, and force their hands to colour in maps. It was, in fact, true that the reason my academic work was so bad was that I "couldn't be bothered"—that it is to say, that I simply wasn't interested in table-chanting and map-colouring. The fact that I was interested in less important things, for example, nineteenth century satirical novels, went for nothing. The system was set up so as to equate "interest in colouring maps" with "cleverness": that is to say, Miss Augustus did not reward children with particular abilities, but those with particular personalities. Timid children who were afraid of punishment, conformist children who wanted Teacher to be pleased with them and stupid children whose minds weren't sophisticated enough to wander got labelled as 'good' at school, where intelligent, questioning, non-conformist ones got labelled as 'bad'. This was, of course, precisely what Queen Victoria, who invented the system, intended. Miss Augustus did not think that colouring in maps was a particularly useful social accomplishment: she rewarded it because it was evidence that you were a hard-working obedient person. We were in the realms of the Protestant Ethic: the fact that you were neat showed that you one of the Elect, the fact that you were untidy showed that your were one of the Damned.
Not that Miss Augustus would have talked about Salvation and Damnation. She did teach us 'scripture', but Bible stories always turned out to be complex and oblique metaphors about the importance of honesty and the wickedness of lying. But everything was moral: the world was neatly divided into those things that were 'good' and those things that were 'naughty', or occasionally simply 'rude' (as in 'what you have been doing in the boys toilets is very rude'.)
Telling lies was the third naughtiest thing in the world. The second naughtiest thing in the world was to lose your pencil. Almost every day would start with someone saying 'I've lost my pencil' to which Miss Augustus would respond 'Well, you'd better find it again', a strange, Kafkesque reply which only an insane spinster who had lived her life among seven-year olds could invent. She would not, no matter what, give you a new pencil. (She had two or three spares in a jam jar on her desk which she would temporarily lend you.) You had to 'find' yours—never mind that it might have been put in the bin by the cleaner, or pinched by another kid. There was one term when me and Paul Adams had to share a desk, because there was one less desk than there were children. On one dreadful morning, there was only one pencil in the desk. Paul opened the desk first, and claimed that the surviving pencil was his, leaving none for me. I could not believe that I had done something so wicked and immoral as to lose my pencil; and in any case I did not dare utter the confession 'I've lost my pencil', so I put up my hand and said 'Paul has taken my pencil'. Miss Augustus examined the pencil, and by some Holmsian process concluded that it was indeed Paul's, and told me that I had better find mine. This went on every morning for an entire term. If I had mentioned to my parents that I was getting grief for having lost a pencil, then they would have bought me another one in Smiths for five-pence, but I didn't dare tell them because I believed Miss Augustus when she said that this careless waste of the school's money was 'naughty'. If I had been yelled at and made to stand outside the classroom then naturally I was a wicked little boy, and I wouldn't want my parents to know that. I wasn't ashamed of the crime, but of the punishment. The classic abused child's mindset, and all over a rather low quality council issue HB. You don't need to believe in hell to convince seven-year-olds that they are predestined for it.
Actually, it was not entirely her fault. Presumably, someone in authority had said 'Each school may have a stationery budget of £463' and the headmaster had ordered 232 exercise books and 100 pencils and put 32 pencils and 60 exercise books in the cupboard of each classroom, and it was the literal truth that when the last one was used, there were no more available. Pencils were therefore irrevocable, irreplaceable, precious—gifts from God. This would explain why Mark was spanked—actually hit, hard—for tearing a page out of his exercise book. To this day, when I tear a sheet of paper out of a notebook, it feels like a high crime or misdemeanour. Wasting things was a big deal. We got one of those don't-know-how-fortunate-you are-and-are-you grateful talks because it turned out that our school had thrown away more food in the last fiscal year than any other school in the entire Chipping Barnet catchment area. (Evidently, someone had been hanging around outside the kitchen weighing bowls of cold baked which seems to me like an obsessive compulsive disorder.) The solution was not to ask why the dinner ladies gave out over-large helpings to little children, or to fire the cook and find one who was prepared to make stuff that children were actually prepared to eat, nor to point out that we had a perfect right to waste the food which our parents had, after all, paid for. No, the solution was to tell us what wicked, naughty, wasteful children we were, to quote without irony the usual clichés about the fact that they were starving in Ethiopia, and to inform us that anyone who didn't eat everything on their plates would be sent to the headmaster, a polite euphemism for 'hit'.
But there was something even more wicked to waste than cold baked beans and there was something even more precious than pencils, and wasting it was the naughtiest thing in the world. This thing was, of course, Time. 'That's a wicked waste of time,' was one of Miss Augustus's catch phrases, like 'If I've told you once I've told you a hundred times' and 'Not in a month of Sundays'. She once made us sit still for a whole minute, and then told us gravely that that minute could never be brought back; and that this was one of the most frightening things we would ever hear.
On another famous occasion, she caught me reading a book.
In my defence, I would point out that it was class reading time, (or 'literacy hour' as it would now be called) and that I was quite interested in it. It was about bird-watching, so I don't know why. However, the 17 allotted minutes had passed, Miss Augustus had announced that we should take out our Maths books and because I was concentrating on the book I hadn't heard her. The rest of the class had their Hundreds, Tens and Units in front of them, and I was still engrossed in the mating habits of the lessor spotted manglewarbler. She signalled to the class to be quiet, and waited until I looked up from my book before starting the next lesson. This took about two minutes. Everyone was looking at me; I was embarrassed. She informed me with the sort of gravity usually reserved for major offences like talking in the lunch queue that I had just wasted two minutes of everyone's time, that is to say, two minutes of 32 people's time, that is to say, more than a whole hour of our lives. The logic of this still perplexes me.
Because wasting time was so wicked, Miss Augustus was concerned about what we did outside school. It was, of course, Naughty to spend your weekends 'mucking about' or 'playing'. She wanted you to have a Hobby. 'Do you have a hobby?' she would say in a sickly patronising false motherly voice, and ask us to write essays ('compositions') entitled 'My Hobby'.
She cooed vampirically over the well-behaved brats with names like Malcolm and Julie who listed their hobbies as knitting model trains and sticking cancelled stamps into albums. Why, stamp collecting is boring enough that you might do it at school, and embroidery is the continuation of craft lessons by other means. Don't waste those precious minutes that will never come again; the devil makes work for idle hands, spend your lives usefully. Heaven lies about us in our infancy, but you can collect stamps instead.
'I do not have in any hobbies,' I wrote in my sick little blue exercise book with my neurotic little fountain pen—what sort of sick sadist makes a left handed seven year old work with a fountain pen?—'I do not have any hobbies, only reading.'
I actually wrote that; I had internalised her mad world-view to that extent. I thought it was an apology, but I now recognise that it was the voice of the resistance. I thought I was saying 'I don't have a real hobby, I wish I was a real person like little miss blonde eyes who gets to ring the school bell, but I only have a sort of half hobby, inferior, reading books.'
But I now see that it was an act of defiance, the only hope for the future of the human race in that godless pre-fab. Despite her grammar and her tables and her netball, I had found some space on a Sunday afternoon that she couldn't regulate, or discipline, or mutter pious clichés about.
'I don't have a hobby. What is more, you can never make me have a hobby. A hobby is something teacher approves of. Reading is something I like.'
I've fought all my battles, Pellinor, and there stands the victory.
Surely everybody knows that science was invented by a man asleep under an apple tree?