The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 31 July 2015

The kids were stuck to the floor

You hear him before you see him, somewhere in the school.  His voice comes down the corridor.  It’s near the Office now, searching for space to fill.  It’s getting louder.  He’s passing the Assembly Hall. When schools lock their children in, they lock the noise in, too.  They lock in the music teacher’s voice.   

“Me, me, me, me, me.” 

Now he's in your corridor.  His voice is very loud.  Too loud for a human corridor.  How can one person make so much noise?   The music teacher’s coming. 

“Me, me, me, me, me.” 

There is always music somewhere in a school.  In primary, the music teacher goes from class to class.  He normally rolls by – It’s not our turn! – but once a week he doesn’t.  The music teacher’s here.

“When father papered the parlour…”

The same, booming voice, but you don’t see him yet.  He stays an instant in the corridor – he can still surprise you – then sails into the room, like Pavarotti in the village hall:    

“… you couldn't see pa for paste.”

The first time I heard him, it was thrilling, for a moment or two.  The children were entranced, or I thought they were.  They can’t leave, can they, even if they want to?

“Mother was stuck to the ceiling; the kids were stuck to the floor.”
He only sang the chorus, but, when it was done, he didn’t go back to his normal, speaking voice.  I don’t know what his normal voice was.  The instructions he gave the children were half-sung too, like a recitative, or had the same rhythm as the song.  It was like the voice of God, the singing voice, unorthodox, but still no fun at all.  It weighed the children down and left no space for them to misbehave, so no one did, not even me.  You just waited for the end.
“You never saw such a bloomin' family so stuck up before!”
Me, me, me, me, me.  The big man’s favourite word.  The right word, in terms of irony.  If, as we are told, prose is good words in good order, and poetry the best words in the best order, how sublime is music?  It can do without words altogether.
“All stand up in your places, and hold your hands in the air.”

These days, they do a lot of clapping.  It helps children understand rhythm.  The big man’s classes understood.  This class, anyway.  They had the fiercest clap I’ve ever seen.  As for the good words, best words thing, I don’t believe it.  Not for a moment.

Just before the hour, Luciano reprises the parlour song.  It feels different now, like an old friend.  He’s going somewhere else.  He picks up his stuff, and surges out the way he surged in.  He’s in the corridor now.

 “Me, me, me, me, me.” 

I expect he’s still performing. 

“Me, me, me, me, me.” 

I haven’t been back for a while.  

Are they taught to sing instructions in music teacher school?  I doubt it, but they need to do something. Music teachers generally are bad at discipline.  It’s mundane, I suppose, controlling children.  They’re excellent with adults, though.  A music teacher wanted me to sing.  I forget which song.  I usually give excuses, but this time I didn’t.  It had a bouncy tune.  When I finished singing, she told the children, “Give Mr Spaid our clap.”   

She had taught them a silent applause.  They placed their right hands over their hearts and patted quietly, like beating wings.  Then she turned to me.

“What was that, a rap?” 

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Don’t itch yourself

“Feel free to intervene.” 

The music teacher must have thought I was shy.  A couple of the children were fooling around, and I didn’t stop them.

“You want me to interrupt your lesson?” I replied, carefully incredulous.  At the end, he ran out of the room – actually ran – to tell on me.  I was meant to help him.  I don’t get on with music teachers.

It started when I was a little boy.  We had to do a voice test, notes in a scale: No, no, no, no, no.  I was only in Year 5.  I didn’t get the irony of singing that word.  The other boys sauntered up the scale, one by one, like monkeys up a ladder.  I remember a child with plump lips.  He cleared his throat and filled his chest with air, then played out a string of perfect sounds.  He got A++.  I got A-.  It was the lowest grade.  I had, in fact, failed.  Why upset the parents by giving E or F?  

The music teacher was a slender young man with small eyes and a pointy nose.  He had a stick – cane or baton, as required.  His surname rhymed with ‘lash.’  I remember standing in a line and singing The Vagabond, a poem set to music by Vaughn Williams.  In case you don’t know, it glorifies the freedom of said vagabond.  Give to me the life I love…  It couldn’t have been more distant from our own subject world.  Wealth I seek not…  Sir was hovering.  Let the blow fall soon or late.

The music and the words annoyed me.  When I'm annoyed, I start to itch.  Half a century ago, I reached down and scratched my leg, the kind of thing that Sir was waiting for.  To begin with, he told me to keep still.  

“I was just itching myself.”

“Well, don’t just itch yourself!”

When he said the word itch, he flicked the cane down sharply on my calves.  A red line appeared on the skin.  It got brighter as I watched.  Seconds passed.  I didn’t like the song any better.  I don’t like it now. 

I know.  It’s tough for a music teacher.  How do you stick the kids to the floor when you only see them for an hour a week?  You try anything. 

There’s a boys’ school I used to work in.  97.9% Bengali.  Probably more now.  It’s a while ago.  The music teacher was Canadian, a slender young man with small eyes and a pointy nose.  One day, when I walked in, he was holding a video cassette.  Swan Lake.  He looked pleased.

“My wife’s a ballet dancer,” he said, as if explaining what was in his hand.  I let it pass.  He still looked pleased.  The Year 8s would do something new, and a video lesson wasn’t hard to teach.  

After ten minutes, he stopped the tape.  The boys were all behaving well.  They didn’t normally.  Sir looked delighted.  They must like the ballet.  Was everybody following the story?  One boy complained.  The film didn’t have any words.  The beauty of great ballet, Sir replied, was that you understood it without the need for words.  Then he turned to me.

“Mr Spaid will tell you what’s been happening.”  

“I’m afraid I’ve no idea.”

Swan Lake or the lash?  He looked at me and pondered for a second, then pressed Play again.  The swans resumed their flapping.  The boys were still behaving.  They weren’t just asleep.  In that part of London, girls don’t show their hair, let alone their tights.  

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

God, are You there?

A local Catholic girls’ school was recently infested with rats.  The girls made a fuss, understandably.  The school, understandably, defended itself, saying, in essence: ‘These are not our rats.’  It blamed the food waste generated by commercial premises next door, and complained to the council. 
The school also dismissed the girls’ “hysteria.”  The Health and Safety Officer said it was not an infestation, more a “steady trickle of visitors.”  That’s reassuring.  I’ve visited that school myself.
Councils are not normally responsible for what goes on in private schools, but these were public rats.  The council sanitised the building, and some of its inhabitants, though it took a while.  
Not everyone can wait.  In a school I visited last week, a teacher sanitised himself in front of me.  I walked into the staffroom at the end of the day.  Two teachers were standing chatting, a young man and a woman.  Without interrupting the conversation, the young man put a hand inside his bag, took out a can of deodorant, and sprayed himself twice in each armpit, on the surface of his jumper.
I suppose if you’re talking and you get the urge to spray, you won’t take your top off to do it.  And it’s not something you can hope to hide, like shingles or a fart.  Do it too quickly, and you might look embarrassed.  The young man sprayed methodically, peering at the woman all the time. 
Teenagers spray themselves and sometimes each other, even during class, in places you’d expect to find an odour, on the outside of their clothing or straight down the front of their shirts.  I’d never seen an adult do it.  The lady didn’t blink.  I don’t know what was in her mind, but I couldn’t help thinking: He’s cleansing himself of children
Teachers.  You have to watch them.  They won’t always sanitise themselves.  The Head of PSHE (personal, social and health education) at a local secondary school was sacked for starring in some pornographic films.  All the right experience, you'd think, but they said he'd brought the teaching profession into disrepute.  Or the porn industry.  I wonder how he viewed his different roles.  Was he moonlighting as a porn star or a teacher?  And it’s not clear who recognised him naked.  (Stop chuckling, this is serious.)  Another teacher?  A parent?  A pupil?  Someone ratted on him.  Most teachers don’t make films like that.  They don’t have the body.  
Sanitising children is just as much fun.  In the old days, when pupils said a rude word, they had to wash their mouths out with soap.  A mouth for a mouth, or something.  There are teachers in England who still like the old-time religion.  A Catholic primary school was in the news.  Like most schools, it’s got naughty children, but the Head was worried.  She wanted to teach some naughty ones a lesson.  She took them into the prayer room and said she was phoning God.  She told them to lie on the floor, face down.  It was ingenious.  Children stretching out, prostrating themselves – it felt more like an act of penance, and they made a bigger target for His wrath.  
“Hello, God.  Miss Gargoyle here, St Hairshirt’s.  Not so well, I’m afraid.  We have some bad children.  You know already.  Of course.” 
She used her cell phone to make the call.  Ingenious again.  A landline wouldn’t work.  A child knows that.
“That’s right, the ones on the floor.  Can You do something with them?  Really?  Millions of bad children?  All right, God, when You’re able to.  You know where to find them.”

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Decline of the Australian

We learn things in libraries.  Books are serious business.  Humorous books are no exception, it seems.  They're books.  They must be serious too.  We need a good reason to laugh.

In Australia, the new Russell Prize for Humour Writing was recently awarded.  Alex Byrne – not the winner, but the NSW State Librarian & Chief Executive – wrote:

‘Humour writing is not an easy genre to master, and Bernard Cohen and his fellow shortlisted authors have shown how humour is not only there to entertain us but to, perhaps more importantly, raise and promote important discussions about our contemporary culture.’

Raise, promote.  It sounds like the job I never had.  I like the perhaps more importantly.  I find it, well, humorous.  Why not send it in for the next Prize?  It could make some noise.  Sorry, Al, to pick you off like this – I say silly things too – but you did poke your snout above the shelves.  Just keep it down a bit.  You don’t need me to tell you.  I scribble fragments.  You’ve got whole libraries to be quiet in.        

Before I go on – I do go on – I’d better explain the title, The Decline of the Australian.  It doesn’t sound nice, does it?  Not if you’re Australian.  I borrowed it from the BBC – precisely the kind of behaviour that needs to be discussed.  

The BBC article explores why fewer Australians are doing unskilled jobs in London.  Either they don’t need to top up their travel money thanks to the strong Australian dollar, or they're doing professional work like accountancy, or they can’t get a UK visa in the first place, and are going to Bali instead.  One Australian writer said that young Australians have “come of age culturally” and are just not bothering to visit London.  They don’t have to prove themselves now.  No more borrowing.  They’re as good as Britain.

Confusing increased affluence with cultural maturity – that’s another thing Australians are good at.  The Chair judge, Kathryn Heyman, does not make the same mistake.  She knows we’re still screwed up, noting the ‘nervy restlessness in the Australian psyche.’  The winning entry, she goes on, gives us the ‘most elegant kick in the teeth we never knew we needed,’

There were 57 submissions for the 2015 Russell Prize.  At $66 a submission, plus 5 copies of each text in paperback, that makes … a lot of numbers.  Serious business.  The taxman could be interested if no one else.  Perhaps not even him.  The guidelines point out: The provision of the prize money may be subject to the GST.  Not sure yet?  It's that psyche again, or else a one-liner, the trotter in the teeth we weren’t expecting. 

The Chief Executive also refers to the ‘unique Australian sense of humour.’  Come on, Al, we all know where that hails from.  It’s as British as pork pies, which have VAT sometimes.  That’s UK GST, not mad pig disease.  

When he mentioned our contemporary culture, he meant, of course, Australian.  If the Russell Prize focuses on that, it may or may not inspire a sense of identity, but it will, without doubt, encourage insularity. How can culture be invigorated by placing limits on creative expression?  Let writers write, and the rest of us can say, ‘That’s real literature,’ not just ‘real Australian.’

Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He was Australian.  It’s a pretty big prize.  But it wasn’t big enough.  For the psyche, I mean.  Prizes are good.  Next time, though, librarians of Sydney, you might make it ‘The Russell Prize for Serious Humour Writing’ so writers who aren’t serious will know.