Out Now!

Friday, 27 March 2009

And so it goes

The Welsh Office gave the school a grant that could only be spent on a work of art. Eventually they settled on this, a monument that dominated the front of the school. The artist attended several assemblies explaining the concept, and of how, at certain times of the year, the sun would erupt from the monument's tip. 'Like bloody sperm' somebody muttered - a remark close to the truth. St Joseph's must have been the only catholic school in the world with a giant phallus guarding its entrance. This picture doesn't show it in all it's glory, but what we had was a slender stone spire with a central slit, and at its base two brick rings resembling testicles - oh, and every so often the sun erupting from its top.

Buildings have a habit of falling down after I’ve left them. The Junior Boys school was one, morphing first into a social club where I had the immensely sad experience of pissing in a classroom turned urinal. I think it may have been where Robert Chard once sat. A year or two later it was demolished more thoroughly.

St Josephs, a purpose built comprehensive suffered much the same fate. It epitomised 1970’s ‘cheap-build’ – a series of glass and aluminium blocks loosely linked with aerial corridors. Freezing in winter; in summer hot enough to grow peyote. Now that would have been a good idea.

It must have been chilling for those under Stalin who fell out of favour, and – if they lived long enough – found themselves written out of history, erased from photos, walking ghosts.

It’s much the same feeling when a building is erased in a moment. For neighbours it may have been just a landmark, a piece of street furniture. For those who worked there, something greater is lost but it is hard to put into words. All you have left is memories - the worm without its apple.

I think of the sweat and toil, anger, frustration, friendship, achievement, and joy. I think of countless assemblies, my back anchored to the same piece of wall, the never ending homilies that sometimes had a point, the badly sung hymns, and kids – faces I can never forget.

Everything is gone, even the ‘monument’ built in the style of a giant penis.

The new St. Joseph’s built less than a mile away is a more modern affair but lacks the windswept spaces and the gothic, unkempt grandeur of a building falling around you.

In its place stand some modern houses built too close together.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Krogers and Dave Thomas - who was not a Russian Spy

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” So wrote E. M. Forster and that is the heart of Hugh Whitmore’s Play – ‘Pack of Lies’.

The play is set in a London suburb and is based on something that happened in 1960. Bill and Ruth Search allowed their home to become involved in state security. From it M15 began monitoring the activities of their neighbors and good friends, Peter and Helen Kroger. They are told that the Krogers are in fact Russian spies.

From that moment Bill and Ruth Search are confronted with the choice of betraying their country or their friends. The play raises questions like whether an individual can be an ‘enemy of the state’ and at the same time remain a good person. For Ruth Search, who had established a very strong friendship with Helen Kroger, the strain becomes almost too much to bear as trust is destroyed by lies. Mind you, having to maintain a ‘normal’ conversation with a suspected Russian spy who unexpectedly calls in for a cup of sugar and a chat whilst policemen are eavesdropping in your toilet - enough to strain anybody.

I did face something similar on a much smaller scale and without policement in my toilet. I suspect many of us have, in one way or another.

Dave Thomas was an Oxford graduate, a gifted teacher, but one who cultivated a louche persona. He was also a friend, a gifted drinking partner when not in the classroom. Towards the end of the academic year, Mike Barry informed me that Dave’s contract was not to be renewed for the following year, but not to say anything for fear it might cause unpleasantness in the intervening months.

I rationalized it as best I could: Even if I told Dave he could do nothing about it, and the whole thing would sour his last two months to no good effect. Even as I rehearsed the argument so it became almost convincing, I was uneasily aware of less worthy reasons. If I told Dave, Mike Barry would know it had come from me. The choice was pragmatic. Dave was understandably bitter when he found out I’d known all along, and a friendship was lost.

As you get older bad memories like these emerge, like small islands, in the great flood of events, so if Dave Thomas ever googles his name in a spasm of narcissism or boredom, then here’s my apology. I’m sorry. (Dear me, a Gordon Brown moment)

Friday, 13 March 2009

Kojak and Kitty Fisher

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon 'round it.
(The tune for Lucy Locket was later used as the basis for Yankee Doodle. For more about Lucy Locket, see below - and eat your heart out Dr. Seuss.

The 1970’s was a decade of certainty. Dirty Harry was certain. So was Kojak. So was St. Joseph’s policy on school uniform. I’ll never forget a shy black girl with a lovely smile. Her clothes were sometimes shabby, and she sat near the back of the class. One day she came in resplendent, like a young lioness, her hair braided in multi-coloured beads. She looked six foot tall. She looked great.

All hell broke loose. This was not school uniform. School uniform was a dark jacket and a tie striped navy and pale blue, and…well…unremarkable hair. She was brought before her Head of Year and the law was laid down: the beads had to go.

And then in a weirdly triumphant spirit of compromise and fudge, the Assistant Head of Year came up with a - solution. She was so pleased with herself. The girl could return to school the following day, but the beads would have to reflect school uniform, beaded alternatively navy and pale blue.

Our new Head of Department, was someone else possessed of certainty. He dragged us kicking and screaming into the turgid wilderness of social and economic history, turnips and steam-engines. Other than that he was merry, almost bouncy, though not always careful with nicknames. One of our pupils, Catherine Fisher, he took great delight in calling ‘Kitty Fisher’ which she took in amused resignation. It was innocent word-play on Mike’s part. He knew who ‘Kitty Fisher’ was but probably not in great detail. (see below)

Catherine Fisher was a dreamy-eyed student who I didn’t inspire but from whom I learnt one of life’s great lessons. Yes, I too, was possessed by that dreadful sin of certainty – seeing her only in terms of how good or bad she was in ‘History’ and seeing nothing else. Catherine Fisher has since become one the finest YA novelists in the country. Her writing is lyrical - didn’t get that from turnips and steam-engines – and I ended up learning far more from her than she ever learnt from me.

Lucy Locket was a barmaid at the Cock, in Fleet Street, London, sometime in the 1700s. Lucy discarded one of her lovers (her 'pocket') when she had run through all his money. Kitty Fisher, a noted courtesan, took up with him, even though he had no money. It also taunts Lucy Locket because a "pocket" was what prostitutes kept their money in and would tie to their thigh with a ribbon.

When he visited London in 1763, Giacomo Casanova met Fisher and wrote:
... the illustrious Kitty Fisher, who was just beginning to be fashionable. She was magnificently dressed, and it is no exaggeration to say that she had on diamonds worth five hundred thousand francs. Goudar told me that if I liked I might have her then and there for ten guineas. I did not care to do so, however, for, though charming, she could only speak English, and I liked to have all my senses, including that of hearing, gratified. When she had gone, Mrs Wells told us that Kitty had eaten a bank-note for a thousand guineas, on a slice of bread and butter, that very day.[3] The note was a present from Sir Akins, brother of the fair Mrs Pitt. I do not know whether the bank thanked Kitty for the present she had made it.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Peter Morgan Part 2

The pattern was rarely broken: three pints in the Albert after school – four on a Friday when I did my shopping and bought all manner of interesting things. The Albert served the finest Bass in Newport, the quality only diminishing when they changed the vats in the brewery sometime in the late seventies. We sat in the back room, surrounded by oak-paneled walls and small, round tables that looked like islands depending on how much you'd had to drink. And we talked some very important stuff, none of which I can remember now.

Two others sat with us, Merv, sharp eyes peering through spectacles, an opinion on everything, and now almost certainly dead, Mike, a shy hairdresser who looked like a boxer, and - holding court - Peter Morgan. Then, he had a sleek porcine appearance, jet black hair and neat mustache; ruddy faced, with blue hard-boiled eyes that stared at you from gold rimmed glasses. His lips were usually pursed, waiting for the cigarette held some distance from his face. He held a cigarette like Lauren Bacall.

Things changed. The Albert closed down and we moved to Conti’s (now also closed down) in Skinner Street. Damn it. I can’t remember the beer, I think it was Bass. I can remember Peter sitting between my brother and a very drunk Glaswegian, and trying to understand the conversation going on over his head. With the catarrhal consonants of Scouse, and the rapid guttural of the Glaswegian bouncing across him, Peter sat bemused and wreathed in blue smoke.

And then disaster struck. Peter fell in love. Now he and Aileen held court together, sitting on high bar stools, surveying the world. It should have been good – especially the birth of a daughter. Only two things conspired against him.
Drink is a dangerous friend. Even more dangerous are those anal Catholics who confuse rectitude with intelligence and compassion, the kind that make Pharisees look good.

Peter was a ‘divorcee’ – acceptable just so long as he didn’t marry again – not at least if he wished to retain his job in a Catholic School. This ironically did not apply to non-catholic staff. Peter was more than willing to give up his pastoral role as Head of Year but the millstones were grinding…Peter had to go.

The process was brutal and he began drinking more heavily than ever – especially when he was given a ‘non-job’ in Hartridge, a neighboring comprehensive. Soon after that his marriage broke up.

A fortnight after I’d bumped into him, holding my sweet-jar, he was dead.
Pete Morgan had loved St Josephs but it was one divorce too many.
The one lesson I learnt was to deal with institutions rather like you would dine with the devil thought perhaps with a longer spoon.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Peter Morgan Part I

The last time I saw Peter Morgan was a week before Christmas outside Lloyds Bank. I was carrying a 5lb jar of sweets, a stocking-filler for my wife. (Big stockings) and Peter, immaculate in brown shoes, sharply creased trousers and sheepskin jacket was on his way to a pub. We spoke a few minutes, his eyes watering in a cold east wind. It was the last time I saw him.

The first time I saw him I never realized how good a friend he would be, never suspected that I would remember him years after his death.

After the summer break three schools were merging into a purpose built comprehensive in Tredegar Park. Pete Morgan would be my Head of Department. I’d heard he drank in the Albert and determined to introduce myself to him over a pint. It was not an easy encounter.

He looked up from his beer, face wreathed in blue smoke, his eyes hard in an arrogant stare that said quite plainly ‘who the fuck are you’. He still wasn’t impressed when I told him.

Then, Peter Morgan was at his prime, a hard drinking bull-shitter who loved his subject (history) and lived for those he taught, (along with rugby and beer). I still remember the names of his favourite pupils – Paul…(Okay, so I can’t remember his last name) Liz Smitheringale, Mike Panting, Debbie Waters… There were more but the list would be too long.

I remember how he rescued me from a hot-tempered remark I made to girl from Pill, a rough end of town, and smoothed things over. The one piece of advice he gave, worth more than a year of teaching practice, was ‘Sell yourself, and you sell your subject’. Common sense really, but it had to be said.

There were many who disliked Pete Morgan; some found him crude, brutal with the truth; he prided himself on being a hard man. He was in fact a vulnerable man, divorced, cut off from his children, his world resting on work, friends and Welsh Rugby.

Drink was part of the mix. It was the essential lubricant of teaching, more important than chalk. If you see old episodes of The Sweeney, or the more recent ‘Life on Mars’ you’re not just watching the police force in action but much of the teaching profession.

The ethos was similar in many respects, a care for the good guy, cheerful brutality towards the bad, the grey, or those that didn’t toe the line - or couldn’t find it. Competence, commitment, professionalism, none of these things were worn on the sleeve or displayed in certificates. It was part of the package along with the confidence you were doing something important.

Pete Morgan was in his milieu but then the seventies ended.