We were talking about my abysmal record in interviews. Keith’s view is that there is no social mobility in education. Only, will he concede, might it occasionally be encountered (in the UK) at Oxford and Cambridge, when members of the lower orders manage to inveigle their way in. And then, not because those places work as meritocracies, but rather, as he has it, that they provide an opportunity for the ambitious and aspirant poor to mimic by (sometimes) feigning, or (nearly always) adopting, the callous natures they observe in their new colleagues. Thus, they throw off the heavy cloak of self-pity with which, by their upbringing, they are adorned, and learn to turn their scorn outward.
And that is why, he adds, that important employers and national institutions, prefer to employ such people, because they arrive with a bit of backbone, and no, ‘poor me’ about them. Which also happens to explain how it is that an abnormally large proportion of stupid people continue to be tolerated in sought-after occupations.
‘Look at you,’ he tells me, ‘You’ve obviously been to lessons, and had some schooling, but you remain the same bleating, pathetic, creature that you were when you went in.’
It’s an angle, I’ll give him that. And I wonder whether he’s trying to goad me into defending myself as part of his life-lesson strategies or it’s just a straight insult. It’s probably for good motives, but it’s too wrong for me to resist intervening. I am nothing if not a chip off the old block when it comes to closing out a misconception with the final word on the subject.
The thing is, though, he’s right. I am a moaning, self-pitying, twerp. And have been for as long as I can remember. But the insult feels better on my lips. Different too. I understand why I stopped cooperating – that the people charged with my upbringing, refused to look for and engage the best version of me, I suppose. But now, here, on the spot, having started speaking, and wondering what I’m going to say next, with Keith standing over me, his piercing stare seeming to focus on a part of me about two inches behind my eyes, I start to see myself as he sees me and I falter over the answer that I should be giving.
I try to harness my thoughts. No, he’s right, but he’s wrong. He doesn’t get me properly. I have failed to explain me to him properly. Perhaps that is what it is – I don’t commit to the argument sufficiently well to have people who are not me, understand what it is that I am. I give up on it, and let them take away their own, ill-considered verdict of me, uncorrected. A history of brow-beating and a father, who was more determined than me to have the last word in any encounter had conditioned me to behave in this way. That was it. That was what I’d become. I am wearied by opposition, which I perceive in every encounter, whether it’s there or not. And I have learnt to see self-preservation in, giving in, and so adopt it as my house-style. Yes, that’s what I am, miserable – perhaps; self-pitying – sometimes; misunderstood – always; poorly explained – nearly always.
Our argument is circular, I could never have got to test Keith’s theory of social mobility, because the very qualities that he claims hold the likes of me back in life, I say were given to me by my mentors, and were my very obstacles to progress.
Look at my father, with his pious rectitude, determined to vanquish anyone he perceived to hold a view divergent to his own. Everyone was his opponent, especially me, his only son who lived in a constancy of abrasive wind, whistling across the featureless arid landscape of our home. Only a tiny conclave was spared his scrutiny, for in it, they all agreed with each other. Unfortunately for me, some of those exceptional men, were also my teachers. One was my English and Russian teacher, Mr. Digby-Jacks. As someone else once said of someone else, if he’d been given an enema before dying, they could have buried the cunt in a matchbox.
Have I told you about the Home and Colonial? The actual Home and Colonial was a first-floor café above Liptons or Woolworths or somewhere like that, on the main shopping street where me and Dolly stopped for lunch on busy shopping days. The H&C here is the name I gave to the massively disappointing VIth Form College, to where we were sent, to finish our education. A year older and we’d have stayed at the grammar school all the way through ’til university, but such was the way that fate fell for our cohort, school as we knew it ended, and we washed up in the brand-new bright tomorrow of the Home and Colonial. It was like being educated in something half way between the canteen of a massive, oppressive, institution whose real purpose was never really made clear, and a motorway services station.
I had been taught by Dingy-Slacks at the Grammar School, where we’d had our moments; and now here we were, together again, in the chrome and Formica future. Now reading Proust. Well, by the time the mock A-levels came into view, I, being lazy, unhappy, and feeling wronged, had only got round to reading half of it. In a revision lesson two weeks before the exams, he, having recently been spotted drinking beer with my father, looked at me, and said, ‘Here’s a nice soft one for you. Tell us in your own words why you like Proust.’ And he looked up to smile at the rest of the class, as if he was playing with the idiot for their amusement, for a moment before the class got underway. And it isn’t a soft question, it’s actually quite cruel. Easy questions are specific; awkward questions are open and vague and don’t give you a clear entry point. He did it to embarrass me – he needn’t have tried so hard; I could have done it all on my own.
Anyway, so, the question. Proust right. I’d quite liked what I’d read. I particularly latched on to that bit early on, where the taste of the madeleines dipped into his tea evoked memories of his Aunt’s house on Sunday mornings. I liked it because it resonated with similar sensations I’d experienced myself without quite recognising what they were; it seemed somehow to say it just when I needed to hear it, as so often happens when you read good books, where you realise that it’s not just you that has noticed this or that particular thing – and where the writer has encapsulated it in a way that you, in your private moments, hadn’t quite got round to doing yet. But, and it probably only really struck home with me at that moment, when I was speaking in front of the class, I realised that lots of other people probably pick up on that same passage in the same way – that it’s a bit too much of a well-trodden path, and I’d be given zero credit, not to say, receive a withering put down, for peddling such a worn out trope. But I did like what I’d read to that point, and though it’s good to buck the trend, and find a fresh angle in, there is also only a certain extent to which you can go against the market. Proust, he’s a reader’s writer. You can’t suddenly try to make a case for, ‘he’s shite,’ out of nowhere, for example.
So, making the vaguest reference, en-passant, to the innovative way in which he describes that thing which we all recognise: something which is neither memory nor feeling, but an elating, if not euphoric, mélange of the two, I expressed my admiration for the writer. Not least, I said, for doing that thing that is too often overlooked by his new adherents, that he was the first to get this idea down. Then, sensing that it might not be a disaster after all, as I’d expected when I began speaking, I added, ‘originality is so often scorned, not praised,’ a reference to my relationship with Dirty-Slacks, who gave me an acknowledging head-nod as I said it. Confidence surged then, and I pushed it, ‘like the way Orwell’s big new idea in 1984, has been lost over the years, amongst the criticism of his terrible novel.’
I catch Dingy’s eye again as I say it, we have history in the old school over 1984, a novel for which he possessed the proselytising zeal of a televangelist. I notice that his benign sanguinity begins to dissolve back into his normal grimace and it agitates something in me. I return to Proust, and decide to be honest, and say that I have only reached half-way, and though there are many positive things to say about the writer, and how much I am looking forward to what’s to come, at this stage of his life – early twenties I guess, I find him to be something of a dislikable ponce.
I intended to develop the theme. I can’t recall if there was a giggle, or the noise of a suppressed laugh, but I can still see his face – like my father’s, red and swollen as if he’s trying to force his sinister pale eyes to pop out of his skull. Bits of dry white spittle gather round the corners of his little mouth. His first instinct is to strike me, which somehow, he resists. I can tell that he is trying to come up with a killer question to expose me for the unruly underachiever that he knows me to be. He seems to be about to start talking, then suddenly stops. I see him makes a fist with both of his hands that hang at his sides. He bites down onto his lower lip, and takes two or three deep breaths.
He walks from his position at the side of the class to stand behind me,, at the blackboard. I turn to face him. I have the security of a desk between us. Composure regained, he says, ‘As you are unable to harness your argument either intelligently, or in a temperate way, we will set aside Proust, until you have caught up. Now, this instant, you will be given one last chance to redeem yourself. As you’ve got so much to say about it, your subject is 1984. Woe betide you, if you don’t. Begin.’
Again, an unfair question. It’s just too open. And it’s designed to trip me up. Added to which, where do you begin with 1984? That is shite. All of it is shite.
Him, father’s friend, had read so many extracts from it, and referenced it so often in his lessons when we were in the old school, it felt like we’d read it before we had. Hardly anyone bothered to as a result. We could quote from it as if we knew it; and we knew the main features of its plot backwards. Besides, they’d made a film of it around about that time, and we were made to watch it. Anyway, I did read it. He probably assumes that I haven’t. And it’s shockingly bad.
‘We’re waiting. Or did you only manage to read the first half of that too?’
It’s funny, a question like that would have normally taken the legs from under me, and destroyed what remaining chances I held of putting together any sort of answer, but on that day, it did the opposite. I felt an intense anger towards the man, in the same way I often felt the same towards my father, when, instead of arguing, he resorted to gratuitous insults, and it gave me a way in. Shaky at first, I was at least full of indignation, which enabled me to find a strong voice with which to launch into my argument, and so ride through the extemporised early stages, until I worked my way into my rhythm.
‘We’ll start with the enormous plot holes.’ I said; it was to buy time, while I tried to bring them to mind.
Stinky-Crack just laughed to himself. A stuttering start, and a wrong route taken. I was giving it to him on a plate.
But slowly I gained traction; but no momentum yet. I didn’t want to leave any important point out, but I didn’t have a prepared argument, so I did what useless dicks like him did, I spoke in lists until something came up that I could get my teeth into, where I could rely on my memory to take me through the argument. Like Marcel’s madeleines, about things I’d thought, but had never repeated out loud, ’til now: about the ridiculous and contradictory plotting; about character changes that didn’t make sense – like Julia, a crucial character, who went from engaged, curious and probing, to not caring at all about anything within a couple of pages; about secondary characters suddenly given a point of view; about contradictions, large and small, that appear within the same chapter – sometimes the same page, like ignoring his sudden absence from his home telescreen when he disappears to the junk shop, which we’d previously learned was mandatory, and never not monitored; or about when they are finally discovered, and the scene ends with the statement, ‘it would be the last time they would see each other,’ when it wasn’t. They met again after they’d been reconditioned, and it’s presented as an important element in the conclusion of the third act.
Out of the corner of his mouth, he says something, but to nobody. It ruins my building momentum, nevertheless, I stop to ask, ‘What was that?’
It was a mistake, it doesn’t embarrass him. He says, ‘Orwell’s most famous essay, is on writing in the English language. It seems strange, that you think you should be giving him advice. Have you read it?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘and I guess that he didn’t bother much with it either.’ Then pressed on with my lists, still looking for a rhythm to establish itself, for me to get on top of the subject. I talk about the proles, the enormous majority, who we were invited to think of as providing the labour to the new society, but with no information as to whether they possessed any skills, education or training; whether they were so neglected that each successive generation of them would decline further, until they were no longer of use, but ripe for revolution; or that they were provided with sufficient education to turn them into useful economic units, but such that one day, some of them might have the wit to burst through their ranks and demand changes? We were asked to accept a useful benign mass of ignorantly biddable labour, without any explanation as to why this trick might so easily be pulled off.
Dirty Slacks puts up his finger, he wants to come back in. But I’m rolling now. I don’t let him.
And what of the perma-war? It couldn’t possibly work as he suggests, with three world powers, Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia, because when Oceania suddenly flipped to a war with Eastasia, and changed the record to say that it had always been this way, what did Eurasia do? Sit on the sides and wait ‘til Oceania got back in touch and re-engaged it in war again? It needs a minimum of five continental forces to make his idea work. And it takes about ten seconds of thought to work that out.
‘That’s just ridiculous,’ he says. ‘Who says it takes five? You? No critic ever, anywhere, has made that point.’
Apart from me, just now. He likes original ideas that are over fifty years old. He doesn’t like them much when he first hears them. I ignore him, and press on. He doesn’t even know how to work out what you need, to make Orwell’s absurd proposition work. What of Winston Smith’s torture? And what of O’Brien’s role in it? A busy man like him, who does not just oversee that it’s carried out, he actually does it, himself. And as he does, he also takes the time to explain to Winston why they’re doing it. To a man who will shortly, either be dead, or at best an empty shell. And yet we are led to believe that hundreds of similar cases are dealt with in a similar way every day.
What of the consequences of Winston’s reaction to the torture? They are constantly varied without either party ever changing their position in respect of the giving or receiving of the torture.
Dirty wants back in. But I wave him down.
What of the revelation by O’Brien that the next stage of torture is to be Room 101? It is to deliver added terror, but it is never held out over Smith as an incentive to cooperate, nor to the reader to add tension. They just went there, unexplained, unjustified. Just as Julia had was gratuitously turned into an unquestioning sex object. In fact, so pleased was Orwell with his Room 101 idea, he had everyone who came through Smith’s holding cell when he first arrived in prison, plead not to be taken to Room 101, but the problem with that is, we subsequently learn, such people were highly unlikely, at that stage, have any knowledge of it, let alone justify each next person who came through his cell to be familiar with it – he wasn’t taken back to any such cell following his sessions there. All of that looks like an ill-considered edit, inserted in an attempt to rescue a bad situation, having mucked up what he thought was one of his best ideas.
Someone in the class laughs. Dirty-Spank takes a step forward towards me, as if to say, ‘All right, you’ve had your moment. You’ve had a laugh. We’ll call it a draw.’ But no, Dirty. That’s what you and father do. You either win the argument, or you call it off as a draw when you’re losing. Sit down, small man.
I draw myself up a few inches. And yet all of that, everything I have said, is of NOTHING (I overdid that a bit) compared to the massively redundant didactic lapses into the manuals of ‘how things are’. The novel is already overly didactic. Before we get to half way, we are heartily sick of being told and re-told what this dystopian totalitarianism looks like in the text of the normal prose. We get it already. But then, the author provides Winston with Goldstein’s [sic] treatise on the whole thing, and he starts to read whole sections, in full. The fucking manual! And because the new Julia, who is suddenly not interested in anything, can’t be bothered to read it, she asks Winston to read it out loud to her (so that she can pretend to listen, and go to sleep – were we not all so lucky, Julia). Not since they fell upon Father Zosima’s teachings in Brothers Karamazov have I been so disengaged with a digression in a novel. The both as pointless and ugly as a pair of crotchless knickers.
Dingy-Spanx, is disgusted. Good. He tries to intervene, but I don’t allow it. I ignore him, and talk louder. I’m on the verge of laughing, so is the class; there is a vibe in the air, that this thing must go to the end now.
… and then! If it wasn’t bad enough to sit through Winston’s reading that which we have already learnt from him as if it’s all a brand-new enlightening piece of information, and then sat through his reading the next section to Julia, guess what happens next? George thinks that we perhaps might still not quite have got what he’s going on about, so he has O’Brien do it all over again to Winston while he’s torturing him. Like a dentist talking about his holidays. It was I, not Winston, who was begging to be released from this awful experience by the final chapters.
1984 is not just bad, it is pathetic. It is as if, George Orwell, dying, could not edit it, and his publishers, not wishing to upset him so close to the end, didn’t dare to.
Dirty Spanx don’t like it. I sense the audience might be with me. Perhaps he does too. He’s got this silent tremor thing going on. It’s like I’ve just pissed on his new Hush Puppies. He mentions something about disparaging a dying man; it’s all he can get out. So I go back in, to put the little arsehole back in the box in which he’d otherwise have me.
‘He should have left it as an essay – it’s obviously how the whole thing started.’
Filthy Spanx regains his composure and has another go, ‘You miss the point. Nobody had written about communism, or totalitarianism in that way, until him. You deliberately disregard what is loved and enduring about the book.’
He has a point, although, to be fair, I did mention this at the beginning, when I called Proust a ponce. I wonder if he thought I meant nonce, not ponce? Too late now. And anyway, this isn’t an argument about 1984; it’s about sun and air. And suffocation.
‘It isn’t about communism,’ I reply. I threw it out there instinctively, recalling vaguely, that Animal Farm was banned in Russia, but 1984 wasn’t – it being seen by them as a description of fascism gone wrong.
Dirty Jack-Off starts laughing now. He thinks he’s won. I’ve proved it. He’s dealing with an ignoramus.
‘No,’ I add, ‘it’s about Christianity. It was the only good thing about it.’
Fucking hell, you should have seen him. His head turned into a beetroot and dry spittle went flying everywhere, while the words rumbled like boiling lava somewhere deep in his bowels, until finally they burst out incoherently from his tiny, tight-lipped, mouth.
‘People like you!’ he shouted, pointing aggressively, taking a violent stride towards me, ‘You people, you! Y,Y,Y, ….. above all others, should know that you need to cling on to the last vestige of God inside of you. That’s the only thing that holds you back from robbing and stealing your way through life.’ He’s so angry, that he tacks on, ‘And fornicating in the street.’
This is the teacher, who driven by concerns for my pastoral care, made a point of visiting my parents when I was at a university open day, to discuss me, and what had gone wrong. And how might I be put back on the right track.
It was of course a ruse, no more than concern dressed up to look like care, when in fact it was actually a search for allies in his quest to have me condemned. He found a willing audience. Relieved, that finally someone else could see what had been so clear to them for so long. They shook their heads, then shook his hand.
I wasn’t that which I wished to be either. I had flunked my Oxbridge entrance exams. Well not flunked exactly, more accurately, not tried – to make the point that we had not been prepared for them properly.
At the Home and Colonial, this innovation in education, they had not, as was previously the case, when we attended a school, allowed A ‘level students to use the time between formal lessons, to research, prepare homework, revise, play sports, practice an instrument, join a drama club. No, in this brand-new dystopia, people like us were to be made more socially mobile by filling up those dead hours in the curriculum, by being taught life-enhancing skills. What did they teach in these ‘Core Studies’ as they named them? Well, top of the list, in a non-ironic nod to Pencey Prep, was Horse Riding. I took them up on that offer, only to be told that it would be coming later. Others included, Know Your Car, Knitting and Needlework, Cookery, something about gardens.
I chose Music, and Introduction to the Stock Exchange. As to the latter, in the first week, we were given a copy of the Financial Times, from which we selected two stocks for our portfolio based on no guidance whatsoever, then, in each subsequent week, looked them up in the FT to see how they were doing. Err, that was it. Less taxing still was music, where we were given access to a small empty room with an old piano in it, but never a teacher. Whilst we wasted hours doing such things, we forsook our studies, or things outside of our studies that we might actually want to do, or in which we already had an interest. Jesus, they could have sat us down in front of a video of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and it would have achieved a thousand times more than that which they were purporting to do.
When it came to preparing for Oxbridge entrance, Core Studies were not dropped. But coaching for the coming exams was added. Added in the sense of being set a weekly essay on parts of the curriculum not yet covered by the teachers who taught us our normal subjects. They were set and returned in the true spirit expected of someone who has given-up a lunchtime for an ingrate.
Now, I don’t ask you to consider the same pupils of our age at Winchester, Harrow and Eton. I ask you to consider the children of Dirty Spanx, the lazy, complacent, religious nut, who was happy to deliver a half-arsed education to us, but managed to find the enthusiasm to drill his own children through the Oxbridge entrance exams.
My school averaged about fifteen to twenty boys per year to Oxford and Cambridge; the Home and Colonial, in my year, got three in, all on personal recommendation; none by exam. Dirty Spanx had four children and all of them got in.
‘Feel better now, do you?’ asked Keith
‘No,’ I tell him, ‘It reminds me that I didn’t deal with it at the time. And now I have let the demons of this story escape before I made them understand specifically, the damage they inflicted.’
‘Yeah,’ said Keith, ‘like I say. You’re the same bleating, pathetic, creature that you ever were.’
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