Shaping up

It was 1970. Summer, and Joe had just finished five years at prep school, and chosen not to follow the majority of his class-mates into public school. They’d all sat the ‘common Entrance’ and their parents had all delved into the piggy bank for Eaton or Harrow or Westminster. They were destined to become tomorrow’s leaders – Conservative MPs, captains of industry – but Joe just wanted to fit into his anonymous family’s middling status without a sense of injustice. Know thy place. Believe that you have no entitlement and that hard work will earn you security, not fame and fortune. That came from Dorothy’s upbringing, not Tom’s. Tomasz had been privileged and his mother, Miriam, had expected more of his marriage. The chasm between Dorothy’s down-trodden father, a clerk in the civil service, and Tom’s globe-trotting business-man father, Otto, had somehow remained in Joe’s blood. You thikn it is just the expectations of your parents which you have to try and satisfy, but in truth, those expectations go way back, and Joe just couldn’t measure up to his father’s standards, while his mother had far too little expectation of him.
That July, he went home to Wimbledon from the security of his ‘home’ at boarding school and come September, after an uninspiring summer trying to adjust to home life, he followed both his older brothers to school in Kingston. Joe was thirteen and going into the third year at Tiffins, a state grammar school,rather than starting with all the other boys in first year. It was a better than average school selecting children from the local middle classes who had passed their eleven plus exams. League tables were just beginning to appear in the TLS, and Tiffins was among the top quartile of performers, ranked maybe 70 out of 300 independent and private schools, though far behind Eaton, Harrow and Westminster – you get what you pay for, and Tiffins was free.
His older brothers had both spent their prep-school years at Worcester, boarding, and both had adapted fine to the new regime, so Tom and Dorothy expected, of course, that Joe would also be fine, especially with the older boys to keep an eye on him. He just had to know his place and work hard for his security after all.

“Come on Joe, you can wear Jeremy’s old blazer. You know Tiffins isn’t as posh as Westminster, and lots of other boys will have hand-me-downs. Oh do stop blubbing. You’re far too old for that. Aren’t you glad to be a day-boy again?”

Joe almost failed the eleven plus because he had the ‘flu, and he was allowed to take the test on his own, in a small education department office in the local borough. When the tests were marked, and the educational psychologist met with Dorothy, she recommended he be streamed out of the grammar system, and put where he belonged. Dorothy wasn’t much of a fighter, and her own insecurity about educational failure was strong, as she’d failed to complete her own studies. He very nearly ended up in the local secondary modern school ,which would have placed him below the parapet,beyond the pail. Just that one moment, when Dorothy could accept the recommendation or argue against it would have changed his life.

It wasn’t as though the prep school had not done what it was set up for, at least for those who were being prepared for public school common entrance exams that is, but somehow, the eleven plus and the state school system was designated ‘infra dig’ and left to the side. While the prospective Eatonians were swotting every evening to try and pass their common entrance, Joe was excused from class because he wasn’t going to be one of the ruling class. Had he failed the eleven plus and become truly mainstream, he might have gone on to become a journalist or school teacher without a degree, or he might have become a full-time artist. Academic grammar schools certainly didn’t offer enough time to the children’s creativity, while the secondary moderns, later to be comprehensives, positively encouraged creativity, and Joe liked art more than most other subjects.

But something told Dorothy that she should push him up. Perhaps it was Tom’s expectations for him, or Joe’s fear of being dropped in the deep end with the rough kids. By the skin of his teeth and because Drew and Jeremy were already doing well at Tiffins, Joe was given the benefit of the doubt on the entry criteria, but not on whether he should be allowed into the fast stream or the slow stream once at the school. The fast stream meant more hard work and no time for art or music or dreaming, but it also meant a shot at university rather than the local poly or an HND in car repair. At 13, he hadn’t a clue about these things, but being fourth out of five children, and part of an intellectually aspiring family, he was under the cosh.

“I just can’t understand how you did so badly in the test, Joe. You might not be the brightest in the class, but I always had you down for a trier. Look, darling, it’s OK if you’re not academic, whatever daddy says. There’s lots of things you could do, you know, like umm….”

The transition from prep school to a public day school was traumatic enough. He’d long since had his local accent scrubbed out of him, along with the poor table manners, by parents and prep school alike, and been left with crisp Queen’s English and an accent that was ‘just so’. ‘Oy’d loik a sloyce of poy’ became ‘Ay’d lake a slayce of pay’ and blokes were were now chums or fellows, and fuck and cunt were not on the menu. Joe was walking a tightrope between the past and future, where bullying and ostracism were the penalty for mispronunciation or the wrong terminology. He was a quick learner when he had to be, and as soon as he arrived at Tiffins, he began to change, to become part of the scenery.

He’d led a cloistered life at the Abbey, and his naivity about all things teenage – pop music, fashion, girls, wanking and acting tough – was complete. Boys at the Abbey knew more about Carl Orf than Roxy Music, more about Billy Bunter than the Mods and absolutely nothing about the female anatomy. Joe hadn’t bought a record in his life, and his idea of stylish was green shoes and yellow bell-bottoms. But he was hungry for change. It wasn’t that he was unaware of the need to know, only the vastness of his ignorance. The new school was a huge place, and after having spent years in a school of only 36 pupils, he felt he had been launched into this turbulent sea without a paddle.

They arrived early for the interview, and standing in the vestibule outside the headmaster’s office, Joe’s mother wanted to smoke, but felt intimidated by the grandeur of the entrance, with its marble floor and ornate glass cabinets full of trophies. It was always the same, and Tom refused to take time off work to attend school meetings.
“Did you brush your hair before we left? I told you to wash your face. Come here.” And she pulled a handkerchief from her bag, wet a corner with her own saliva and went to scrub the supposed mark from his cheek. Joe recoiled , and was saved from this terrible embarrassment by the secretary calling them into the head’s office. Dorothy slipped the hankie back into her handbag as they shuffled through the secretary’s anteroom into the small, overheated office in which Brigadier JJ Harper stood to attention.
“Good morning Mrs Weiner,” he pronounced the name with its German version, ‘Viner’, rather than ‘Winer’, as if to suggest that the family had Nazi connections. Joe was the third boy with this surname to attend Tiffins, and it might seem reasonable for JJ to have come to terms with the name’s origins by now, thirty years after the Battle of Britain, in which he had fought. It might also have been reasonable that he would know by now that the family was Jewish, but his distaste had not changed.
“Good morning Headmaster. Thank you for seeing us and for taking Joe into Tiffins.”
Dorothy was not comfortable with authority, and her formal grammar and tightened diction made this evident.
“Now, we have a rather marginal score for young Joe’s eleven plus, so I’m going to take him through to our Mr Snelling in Maths to assess his knowledge. It shouldn’t take long, and you might like to wait in the staff room, Mrs Weiner.”

Joe was interviewed by Mr Snelling, the maths teacher, whom he later came to know as fartface, while his class sat in front of him with their heads bent over their problems. He asked Joe how he would establish the length of the hypotenuse on a right angle triangle, something he’d never had to do, let alone something he saw any point in doing. Maths was not Joe’s strong point – the teacher at Westminster had been fired for child abuse and none of the boys wanted to appear too keen on the subject.
Joe wanted to please, so he suggested Mr Snelling take his ruler and measure it the length of the line, if that was what he meant by hypotenuse. Joe had certainly never heard of Pythagorus. A condescending smile was all he got in return. Then Mr Snelling asked how Joe could prove that two lines he drew were parallel, and again he suggested measuring the distance between them at one end and at the other and if the two matched, they were parallel. Mr Snelling interpreted Joe’s guesses as intelligent enough to warrant a fast stream tag, and sent Joe back to collect his mother while he delivered his verdict to JJ.
Simply that. There was no need to talk history to the old dusty man in the staff room who knew all about history, nor to expound on his biological know-how. It was deemed, in a state grammar school of about 1000 middle-class boys, that maths would be a good enough indicator of intelligence, and intelligence would be a good enough indicator of success, and being successful, as far as Tiffins was concerned meant getting good enough A levels to be considered for Oxbridge or at least one of the Red Bricks.

Joe spent the years between fourteen and eighteen in a turmoil of spots and insecurities, of swotting for exams and rear-guarding against petty violence and bullying. Though nice schools hide the unpleasantness behind their facade of gentility and their uniform, and secondary moderns show the scabs and their bared teeth to the world, it’s all the same for teenage boys. They start from the position that the best form of defence is attack, and then overlay that with the wildness of their new fuel – testosterone. He started by throwing rocks and insults, and progressed to the sophistcated and cynical demeaning of others. It was a long and merciless process which lasted until he lost his virginity, at eighteen, at which point he woke up and realised that all his worst growing pains were behind him, and that there was more to the world than competing for everything. Nevertheless, it was those four years which gave him the weapons for politics, and showed him what was worth fighting for.

The school, with its high larch lap fence surrounding a clutch of pre-fabs and low-slung sixties concrete and glass structures, had only one a permanent nineteenth century red-brick building, with long wide corridors and heavy doors, wings and portico for the head teacher and senior staff only, to gaze upon their wards, grouped in the yards. The boys were not allowed through the front door, except on parents’ evenings, and then only accompanied by their parents. They used the two entrances at one or other end of this long building. At one end were the arts classrooms and the other the sciences. Joe was usually at the ‘other end’ because he chose to focus on science. Being academic meant choosing against art and geography, and studying chemistry and biology. It meant taking eleven ‘O’ Levels, when six were required and eight would have been normal. It meant a blur of teachers and lessons and homework. Joe’s form tutor was Rastus, the latin teacher. Firm but fair Rastus. It wasn’t his own name, but somehow it was how he was known. Was it Afrocaribbean? Not at all. Was it a reference to some Roman general? Probably not. Rastus is latin for rat. Rastus had hard hands and a traditional black teacher’s gown, dusty from the blackboard and conjugations, and no clear reason for his nickname. Perhaps it was his pointed nose and long top-teeth and the fact that he was usually poorly shaven enough to seem to have rat’s whiskers. More likely, he was just quick-witted and sharp-eyed. He was a stickler, born in the 1920s or early 30s, and having lived through the air raids, and by 1970, he was a dessicated fifty-something. Joe spent many a detention writing out latin verbs or translating sentences. Each time the work was done, Rastus would check it and send him back to his desk to re-write the full 10 sentences until it contained no mistakes, regardless of how long that might take.

At break-time, the boys clustered along the walls, scuffed their shoes on the paths, shoved each other onto the tidy verges with their metal edging, and ran only in short bursts to ensure that they were not stopped by the prowling duty masters. And when the bell rang at exactly eleven, set to a timer rather than waiting for a duty master to swig his last mouthful of staff-room tea before pressing a button, they reacted like pavlov’s dogs in the rush to get to their classes within the prescribed two minutes. Throngs of boys marching and dawdling, skipping and scuffing one another between the rooms in the minutes between physics and religious studies, between naked fear and torpidity.

Biggles, the physics teacher, once broke a one-meter wooden ruler across Joe’s knuckles while drilling onto him Newtons third law – something about actions and reactions equal and opposite – the force of the wood countered by the inertia of the bone. QED. And later, in front of the Rev Churchy Churcher, Joe gave a discourse on why religion is bad for people, an opiate of the masses – a quotable quote from Marx or Lenin or whoever. The Rev wasn’t a bad sort. He at least thought a fourteen year-old’s view on religion was valid enough to be given five minutes. But the seventies heralded discussion. Women’s lib and bra burning was already ingrained from the 60s, along with John and Yoko’s Bed-in and the news on Nixon and Vietnam, racial equality was coming and these middle-class educated leaders-of-tomorrow were being taught to scorn the racist comedy from Bernard Manning and Love Thy Neighbour’s Sambo and Honky, Jim Davidson’s Coons and jungle bunnies, and the skinhead chants and Enoch Powell. ‘Who’re you fuckin screwing?’ from the snarling mouth of a town boy, hanging around the gate of Tiffins, with a view to slipping in to the bike sheds to steal a bike.
Joe figured that meant ‘who are you looking at?’, rather than any reference to his virginity.
There was a union jack shaved into the boy’s skull. He wore the uniform: a Ben Sherman short-selleved check shirt and red braces and two-tone ‘tonics’, a pair of very short trouser with pressed creases, finishing above the ankel to display high laced Docs, highly polished Bovver Boots with steel toecaps and brick red shoe polish. He had a swastika tatoo on his neck. And to Joe, in his blue blazer and grey flannel trousers and ‘sensible’ black lace-ups, he was pure evil and the stuff of pant-shitting fear.

Joe began to watch the news, though his father regularly berated him for not reading a daily newspaper. Scargill was always on, making angry speeches which reminded Joe of the Nuremburg Rally footage. The family had to cope with power cuts and the three day week. Yom Kipur war and then petrol rationing in 1973, put so much on hold. Joe’s Mobylette, which achieved 125 miles to the gallon, was off the road, because of the lack of stamps.


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