Drift against Hope

“Every schoolchild” writes Craig Brown in his review of Peter Ackroyd’s recent book about gay life and culture in London “has been taught the tale, first mentioned by the Venerable Bede, of the 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great setting eyes on a group of fair-haired young English slaves in a market. On being told that they were Angles, Pope Gregory is said to have replied ‘Not Angles but angels’.”
And so it goes: the phrase ‘as every schoolboy knows’ is used to simultaneously imply that there is a vast body of common knowledge which aids social cohesion, while poking fun at those poor individuals who, through their own  negligence, failed to attend Grammar School and never mastered Greek or Latin.

Mark Liberman has tracked down a reference to particularly brilliant pupils: He quotes Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), vol. I, Lecture XVII, in which Blair writes:
I spoke formerly of a Climax in sound; a Climax in sense, when well carried on, is a figure which never fails to amplify strongly. The common example of this, is that noted passage in Cicero which every schoolboy knows: “Facinus est vincire civem Romanum; scelus verberare, prope parricidium, necare; quid dicam in crucem tollere.” Not Cicero the pop singer, but Cicero the classical historian.

The poet Macaulay is also regularly cited for his 1840 essay on Clive: “Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa”.

Alas, I didn’t study the classics at school; in fact we didn’t study much of anything for three years, since the local edukayshun authority had chosen us as guinea-pigs for a new system of teaching. Instead of English, History and Geography, we would be assigned a Topic, which the entire class would study for a year, and which would include the humanities and language skills as part of an organic whole, rather than being taught separately.
This system probably works very well if you have well-behaved pupils and lavish classroom facilities; but those were the far-off days before the arrival of computers or photocopiers. Indeed, I spent much of that period living with my grandmother in a terraced house with no fridge, telephone, washing machine or colour TV.

So we embarked on the grand topic – for example, Roads and Rail – for which we studied the development of the road network starting with the Romans and moving up to Thomas Telford and the motorway system. As part of this topic, we learned the Highway Code. Since my family didn’t own a car, I never managed to link the requirements of the Code to normal everyday transport, and it remained for many years an abstract set of rules and decorative road signs.
It was a severely patchy schooling, and left some formidable gaps: we never did Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Byron; we never studied the works of Plutarch or Cicero or Sophocles; and, constantly aware of these shortcomings, I find myself compelled to haunt charity shops where I buy second-hand paperbacks of Balzac and Gide and Rushdie and Zola and Christobel Kent and John Cowper Powys and Thomas Pynchon and Armistead Maupin and Matt Thorne, whose ‘Eight Minutes Idle’ I read in 2003, not knowing that fourteen years later I would end up in a call-centre myself.

I also spent a lot of time in the library. Normally I am highly organised, and will return my books on time; but on three occasions I ended up being fined for taking them back overdue. One of these was in 1979, when I was hastily transferred to a council-run care home. I had a copy of ‘The Oxford Book of Mystical Verse’ which was due to go back to the Blue Gates library in Smethwick; the journey there took over two hours, and on arriving I discovered that I didn’t have enough money with me to pay the fine (70 pence was an awful lot of money in those days) but they were kind enough to accept the meagre sum I had taken.
The second occasion was in about 2006, when I had borrowed a book about Time Management Techniques; it seemed faintly hilarious that this, of all books, was going to incur a small fine for late return. And the third time was when I was late returning Katie Roiphe’s book of essays, ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’. And what could be messier than forgetting to return one’s books on time?

The concept of ‘Every Schoolboy Knows’ can be gradually extended to the sweeping statements employed by grown-ups to impress their workmates or family members. Many British factories have a canteen, with grubby eau-de-nil walls and Formica tables where the lads will sit eating sandwiches, playing cards, and reading The Sun.
Occasionally, someone will comment aloud about a story they have just been reading: ‘Look at this, some woman teacher has been convicted of having sex with a couple of fifteen year old lads!’ And there will be a grumbled chorus of lucky bleeders and it’s what every young lad needs, which undergoes a neat segue into the tedious narrative about how it’s different when you’ve got a bloke messing around with young girls, I mean you can’t trust any bloke who would want to be a teacher, it’s not a real job for a man is it?

I sometimes wonder if my workmates had been coached in the sequence of these debates, since their comments were exact copies of the remarks I had heard previously and would hear again at different factories in the future.
Other remarks which formed the staple of canteen conversations were modern art: ‘Did-you-see-that-Lowry-picture-on-the-news-last-night-four-million-qiud-at-auction-pile-of-rubbish-my-five-year-old-could-do-better-than-that’
And drink-driving: ‘Well, everybody knows you drive better after a couple of pints, makes you more relaxed’
And higher education: ‘Honestly, these bloody students, useless the lot of ‘em. Haven’t got a clue, good at passing exams but no real experience of anything.’ When people look back at the nineties, they might realise that the Blair Government successfully changed the nature of higher education. Instead of being a glamorous rite-of-passage for a small handful of wealthy teenagers, the University system was made available to anybody with enough brains who wanted to join the worlds of business or science. 

I derived great benefit from attending Polytechnic back in the eighties; it got me away from my home town and forced me to become independent. I even managed to learn a bit about Chemistry on the way, although I soon found that there was a significant gap between what we had been taught and what was considered useful by the industrial sector. But now, thirty years later, I find myself working as a call-centre advisor, rather like the hero of ‘Eight Minutes Idle’, a bleak, funny novel about a phone centre in Bristol.

Some people view higher education as a Bad Thing, claiming that it takes talented youngsters away from home at just the time they should be working to cement their position in the local community, starting a family and building a career. And worse, it exposes them to new ideas and different types of people; ‘Oh mummy, it’s just so awful! Caroline’s house doesn’t have a tennis court or a piano!’

But life in the call-centre is a bit awkward. The weather is warm, so we need to open the windows, which means that we can hear the constant banging from the building site nearby. I don’t know what they’re constructing; a nuclear power station or car park or something. Half of the open-plan office is full of staff dealing with customers on the phone, so our instructor is unable to shout – instead, she wanders from desk to desk, trying to make sure that we are all at the same point in our training schedule.

And it was thirty years ago today…that I landed my first proper job, working as a Lab Technician, feeding bricks and concrete lumps into a crusher, after which they were milled to a fine dust and mixed with dilute acid.

Journal Entries, 26 May 1987: Phone Manpower – arrange interview, see Joyce Jones and tell her can’t come tomorrow, go Dole Office and change signing-on time, buy Baby Bio for spider plant.
Posted my weird letter to John F and my even weirder letter to Steve R. A bee just got into my bedroom, obviously thinking that the Shostakovich trio was a fellow insect in distress. He went all round the room looking for something.
27 May 87: Industrial Research Lab, Curzon St, Digbeth. Went to lab to be interviewed, then went to sign on, then went to Day Care Centre. While there, had phone call from Manpower saying ‘Success’. ‘Don’t know’ I said, and he replied ‘No, I’m calling to tell you that they want to offer you the job!’
He told me I would be starting next Monday, so I went to the jobcentre and handed in my signing-on card. Then later I had a phone call from Manpower telling me they now want me to start tomorrow.
30 May 87: In the post had a dole giro for two days’ money, so I put it in an envelope and posted it back through DHSS letterbox.

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