Wednesday, 13 February 2008
Jesse James and King Zog of Albania
The Liverpool Institute of Further Education was a pale blue Victorian building on Duke Street almost opposite the Anglican Cathedral. The building itself seems to have gone, which is a shame because a large part of myself has gone with it. The Anglican Cathedral remains, which is something.
The Institute was an exam factory for anarchists and free spirits. Mrs Clough was one of them, a sixty year old student who’d just given up smoking because she wanted to live longer. Then there were Balbur and Daljeet Kanijar, two Indian brothers who were hopelessly in love with Lily, a diminutive pre Raphaelite blonde. It was a place where the unexpected happened, and sometimes sex. Toni was her name, an intense nervy looking girl in a blue corduroy dress. She had an interesting way of breaking the ice, unbuttoning the front of her dress and taking out a breast. ‘You can feel it if you want.’ Then there were those who were less sexy.
Mark Serralier was less sexy, a porky looking boy with black hair and a high pitched lisp. He claimed to be descended from Jessie James and King Zog of Albania. Worse, he believed it, which made him irresistible. My abiding memory of Mark is of him sidling up to us in Liverpool Central Library. The main reading room is a huge acoustic reservoir, a vast book-lined dome where a dropped pencil reverberated like a World War I cannon.
“Have you seen my new umbrella?” he whispered.
A thousand faces looked up.
We shook our heads, but said nothing.
“It opens out with a touch of a button.” (We’d never heard of such a thing!)
The devil spoke to me then. “Show us,” I said.
He looked round as one who hoped he wouldn’t be seen, then pressed down his thumb.
Metallic spokes exploded. It was like the crack of a hundred bull-hide whips, and he stood there, in the middle of the reading room beneath an open umbrella, waiting for rain or for the ground to swallow him up.
The place was an exam factory, the teachers cynical and dedicated at a time when you could be both. Notes were dictated, a two-year course compressed into one and we valued the teachers who spoke clearly, gave good notes and told it as it was. We’re not here to educate you lot; just learn the damn notes. As a teaching method, it can’t be faulted, except by progressives who find beauty in complexity.
The Institute was also a place of laughter and excitement. One window opened out onto sky and the gothic grandeur of a great cathedral. Below us was the hum of a Liverpool in ferment, and just a little down the hill was small seedy café where you learnt to make tea last an hour.
I learnt’ Sixteenth and Seventeenth century history from Mr. Radcliffe. He may be dead now, but then he resembled a prince of the church, a Cardinal Wolsey in a grey suit. He was fleshy, sardonic, good humored and cynical. Later I learnt English Economic History 1750 to 1920 from Bob Waring a man with the face of a battered cherub. He later became a Labour MP and grew less cherubic, though no doubt rich. For English I had Ms Fahey, a Catholic with a merry smile and a very sharp tongue.
Finally there was a tall thin man in a grey pinstripe suit. He was bald, and I think his name was Basil. He made the workings of the British Constitution even more mysterious, his notes a patchwork of random thoughts, biographical asides and finely tuned boredom. His real passion was Moral Rearmament a Christian cult that spearheaded the importance of the individual. I would have settled for decent notes.
He was more interested in making converts, focusing on those lads he thought had ‘leadership’ qualities. So I was spared. Tony McMullen however was not and went to his Hope St. Flat on a number of occasions to meet Mrs Basil (I wish I could remember his damn surname) for pamphlets and tea.
Portals have become cliché in speculative fiction, and we struggle to find new names to refresh a useful device. The Liverpool Institute of Further Education was no Star-gate but it was a magical portal - and thoroughly human. It whirled me from the kitchen to University and introduced me to the first great love of my life.