“An administrator in a bureaucratic world is a man who can feel big by merging his non-entity in an abstraction. A real person in touch with real things inspires terror in him.”
We started doing a bit of French in our last year of Junior school. Numbers, days of the week, ‘Je m’appelle Middlerabbit’, the normal sort of thing. The first thing that threw me was that Mrs. Williamson, our teacher, went around the class and told us all how French people would say our names. In French lessons, we were to be addressed by our name, dependent on how it was pronounced in French, so Peter Williamson (no relation) became Pierre; Johnny Farnell became Jean; Stephen Fewster became Stephane, and so on.
When she came to me, she informed me that, unlike every other person in the class, there was no French equivalent for ‘Neil’, so she rechristened me Christophe, because there were no Christophers among us.
I was mildly put out by that. Stewart Watts had been called what sounded to me like, ‘Stew-errrttt’, so I didn’t see why I couldn’t be something like ‘Nee-urrrlll’.
No, I was told. You are to be Christophe. I didn’t like the sound of that. I might have only recently – and temporarily – left behind a Christopher Robin haircut, but Christophers behaved differently to Neils. I didn’t know how, exactly, but they must have. I felt a bit of existential torment. Plus, the kids would then wind me up by calling me, “Chris”, in English. I didn’t let on, but I didn’t like it.
Diversion – Ian Russell
It had turned out that Ian Russell wasn’t even called Ian Russell. When we had a supply teacher in one day she read the register out and called, ‘Donald Russell’ out when it was Ian’s turn. Eh?
We immediately realised that this wasn’t just senility kicking in because, at the sound of ‘Donald’, Ian’s head clattered into the top of his desk and he began shouting that he wasn’t called ‘Donald’, because he was called ‘Ian’.
We later learned that he was called Donald but hated it and his mum had primed the school to refer to him as Ian, because he was really upset at being called ‘Donald’.
Guess who was the last person to call me Chris? Yeah, nice one Donald.
End of Diversion.
Still, that was mild in comparison to what happened to Stewart Watts.
Stewatts had only joined us a couple of years ago, but he was alright. He played cricket and football with us at the park and he was one of those people who bought records, which I wasn’t. He had ‘Stand & Deliver’ and ‘Prince Charming’, by Adam & The Ants, which placed him right on the cutting edge of cultural awareness as far as I was concerned. Where did he get these things? How did he know what was going to be number one and buy that, so everyone would know that his musical taste was quantifiably better than theirs? It seemed like it was arcane knowledge that I would never possess.
Diversion – Cub secrets
Clanger and Ian Russell were the first kids I knew who were in cubs. I wasn’t bothered about joining at all until it transpired that they had to spend at least five minutes every break sitting against the wall of the main building, talking quietly to each other. I’d go and join them and be told, with regret, that I wasn’t allowed to hear what they were talking about because it involved ‘Cub secrets’. My interest was piqued: I didn’t realise that the Cubs had secrets that you weren’t even allowed to talk to your mates about, unless they were in cubs too. I bugged my mother to let me join, which she did.
After my first night at Cubs, I had learned no secrets. I questioned Clanger about this.
“How come nobody’s talking about secrets?” I demanded of him.
“Well, you’re here, aren’t you?”
“So? I’m in cubs, aren’t I?”
Clanger pointedly looked me up and down. I was in jeans and a Batman & Robin t shirt.
“Well, when you get your uniform and that they’ll probably start talking about them again. You’re not really in yet, are you, Mid?”
I supposed not and bugged my mother for the kit, which she got me.
Togged up and squatting down with the rest of my green clad wolf cub impersonators, we chanted “Akela, we will do our best,” in response to her demands of being good little pups and helping old people cross the road and what have you. To be honest, it sounded a little bit sinister to me, like when you see footage from the 60s and 70s featuring saffron clad cult members who look unrealistically happy in a day to day basis.
Then it was exactly the same thing as the previous week: tying knots, playing Port & Starboard, which was just tedious, then football, then badges, then home. No secrets were divulged that I could ascertain.
Next day in the playground, Clanger and Russ took their usual spot and this time, I came over and sat down with them. They were talking about Mr Parr’s sideburns, which were impressive, especially in comparison to our barely bumfluffed chops.
“Come on then,” I said, “What about these secrets then?”
The pair of them laughed and said, “There aren’t any, you silly sod!”
I rose and went off to play football, still not having learned my lesson about believing all the crap that spewed from my mates’ mouths.
End of Diversion
Not only as a result of his buying records and having parents who were prepared to buy him expensive, fashionable clothes, Stuart Watts (Stewatts, we called him) had joined us late, but had brought with him the unfailing confidence that some kids had that I, certainly, didn’t. If we went anywhere new, it would be because he’d suggested it. If we played anything new, it would have been Stewatt who’d thought of it. Everyone was happy, most of the time.
Then one day in French, all of a sudden, everything changed forever.
Mrs Williamson was going round the class and we all had to say the same thing, amending only our personals details. She’d point at one of us and we’d have to say, “Je m’appelle ‘xxxxx’, J’ai xxxx ans.” You know, “My name is ‘xxxxx’, I am “xxxx” years old.”
I’d done my usual and forgotten I was called Christophe for the duration of French – despite Donald Russell’s best efforts to remind me, so I had been given another detention for saying, “Je m’appelle Neil, J’ai dix ans,” Then I got another one for saying that Christophe could do my detention for me as I wasn’t him and, besides, I had more to remember than everyone else.
When she reached Stewatt, he said, “Je m’appelle Stew-errrrttt. J’ai douze ans.”
Mrs Williamson said, “No, that’s not quite right Stew-errrrtttt. Remember ‘dix’ means ‘ten’ and ‘onze’ means ‘eleven’. Try again.” Yeah, no detention for bloody Stew-eerrrrrtttt, was there? Stew-eeeerrrrrttttt looked a bit confused, but tried again.
“Je m’appelle Stew-errrrttt. J’ai douze ans.”
“No, Stew-eerrrrrrttt,” she said, “That would mean, ‘I am called Stew-eeerrrrrrtttt and I am twelve years old,”
“Yeah,” he said.
“But you’re not twelve, Stew-eeerrrrttttt. You’re either ten or eleven. Everyone in this class is either ten or eleven.”
“Well, that’s not true,” Stew-eeerrrrttttt said, “because I’m twelve, and I’m here.”
Mrs Williamson told us to get on with some written work and scuttled off somewhere.
The next day at registration, Stewatt wasn’t there. Presumably sick, although she didn’t call his name or ask any of his mates what was the matter with him.
Nutty asked. Nutty always asked.
“Miss, where’s Stewatt?”
“Stewart?” she corrected, “Oh, he’s gone up to High school. Open your Maths books children,”
This was unprecedented. One of us had been plucked from Junior school and, the very next day, sent off to secondary school. Away from his mates, with a bunch of, well, not actually older kids; kids who were the same age as him, but kids in the year above us. We were horrified.
It turned out that Stewart’s mother’s writing was a bit on the scruffy side and the school had misread the year that Stewatt was born, somehow. He was born in 1969, we were all 1970-71. How that worked, I don’t know. Maybe she just couldn’t remember which year he’d been born in, I don’t know.
That evening, when we all congregated in the park, Stewatt was there too. We asked him about going up to secondary school and what it was like and what the kids were like and all the rest of it. Stewatt was pretty cool about it, as you’d expect.
Diversion 2 – Mother gets a perm.
My mother always had very straight, long brown hair. I’d never really given the matter any thought, although I broadly thought it was normal and pleasant enough.
One day I came home from school, I’d have been maybe seven, to find my mother in the kitchen greeting me, asking, “Do you like my new hairdo? It’s a perm,”
I looked at her with undisguised horror and alarm.
“You’re not my mum,” I accused her. My internal model of ‘my mother’ must have been built on shakier ground than either of us had hitherto expected. As I say, I wasn’t consciously aware that the shape of her hair was so intrinsically linked to what I considered ‘my mother’. But it obviously was.
She spent the next four or five hours trying to brush the permanent waves from her, probably very expensive, haircut that she’d obviously been really pleased with.
I felt bad, but not bad enough to think about the way I viewed people. I’m embarrassed about it now.
End of Diversion 2
Shamefully, I now viewed Stewatt very similarly to how I’d viewed my mother, post perm. Which is to say: “The situation has changed which means you are no longer what you previously were.”
I didn’t want to hang around with Stewatt anymore because I didn’t hang around with secondary school kids because I was a junior school kid.
That was my logic, I suppose. I didn’t put it in those terms then. I doubt that I was capable of expressing it at all well, but that’s what I felt.
Even Nutty had more about him than I, and he was crackers.
It makes me wonder, now, about what was going on in my brain at that point. I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed with my brain for operating on such a shallow, surface level – repeatedly. This wasn’t a one off; I had previous – that something superficial changed about a person and, as far as I was concerned, they were no longer the person that they had previously been.
I don’t know if that sort of behaviour’s normal in children, we didn’t cover it at university and I was still too ashamed of my behaviour to admit it and ask about it. I’ve had a look through the internet and all I can find are articles on children who hate having their own hair cut, or about schools that made kids have their hair cut in a particular way. I’ve not even bothered looking into what happens when parents give the school the wrong date of birth for their child, who gets moved schools when it’s discovered and one of their so-called-mates disowns them because they’re not one of them anymore. I’ve guessed that there’s not much on that old chestnut out there.
And here we again: back to nature:nurture. If my brain thinks of things like this without my having told it to – at least consciously – maybe that’s me and I should just let it get on with it. But I don’t think that about everything. Not this, anyway.
My behaviour towards being called ‘Christophe’ – and how that was a different person to Middlerabbit, my mother’s perm and Stewatt’s unwanted and surprising promotion to secondary school, I find toe-curling. I don’t like to think of myself as being that kind of person, but evidently I am. And I don’t like it. So I did work on that – and even though my brain still jabbers away at me that I ought to immediately do whatever pops into my head, I know that that way lies twatdom. And I don’t like the idea of my being a natural twat.
Especially if I am one.