Friday 17 October 2008

Never go back

14st 4lb (better); zero alcohol yesterday (good); 1,207 days left (poor); Old School Reunion Dinner (very bad indeed).

Thanks a bunch, Northumberland County Council. I took my car in for a routine service this morning and the garage reported that there was nothing wrong with it apart from the fact that it was dangerous to drive because of a tear in one of the newish tyres, almost certainly caused by an impact with one of the council’s carefully nurtured potholes. Luckily it will only take 24 hours and £109.25 plus VAT to replace it. It’s lucky that I don’t pay taxes to have the sodding roads repaired, or I might begin to feel quite resentful.

My other car being too small to accommodate three overgrown (in the physical sense) adults, I thought that I had at least found a cast-iron excuse for not being the designated driver to our old school reunion dinner in Newcastle this evening. But then my aunt kindly insisted on lending me her car instead, despite my increasingly desperate protestations. So that was my fate sealed.

I collected my first passenger from a small trailer park in a village not too far from my home. Not all the products of my alma mater have discovered the secret of upward mobility. I found him completing the process of cramming his ample physique into a colourful waistcoat and a glaringly unmatching dinner jacket and dress trousers, both of which had seen better days (in, I would guess, the reign of King George V). The stuffing protruding from the shoulder of the tuxedo was a particularly appealing touch, I thought. Then we drove to Morpeth and picked up one of my cousins, who had misguidedly travelled all the way from Cambridge for this occasion.

I was surprised to find a parking space bang outside the school gates, and so little sign of activity within that we wondered aloud, in a hopeful sort of way, whether we might have come on the wrong night. This concern increased when we looked through the windows into the apparently empty school hall, though when we got through the unlocked door it transpired that the event was simply very sparsely attended, and those present were clustered towards the war memorial organ, bearing the names of the dead in two world wars, doubtless wishing that their names were among those inscribed there. There were some sticky name badges on a table by the door and, as I put mine on, a blonde woman standing nearby leaned across and peered at it. I smiled in response and she said rather curtly, “Oh no, I wasn’t looking for you!” I could think of no wittier response than “Evidently”, so perhaps I am losing my touch. When she later bothered to put on a badge herself I identified this woman as the person employed by the school to maintain good relations with its old members. She was bloody rude to me last time I made the mistake of returning to the place too, now I come to think of it. I wonder whether she should be having a quiet word with the school’s careers adviser?

I wandered across to a trestle table at the side of the hall and a woman with arms like tattooed hams poured me a couple of small tins of orange juice into an inelegant pint glass. Then I made desultory conversation with a few people I did not know and did not really wish to know, until it was time for dinner. I took a look at my name on the 1971 Honours Board as we passed by and wondered whether the next name on the alphabetical list was the same person whose sudden death in Hexham at the age of 55 had been recorded on page 12 of this morning’s Newcastle Journal.

I had never knowingly set foot in the new school dining hall before, since I avoided school lunches in my days at the place because of their catastrophic inedibility. I remember sitting through a history lesson and learning that one of Florence Nightingale’s great contributions to the welfare of the British soldier had been insisting that they received edible meals in hospital, rather than hunks of animal roughly allocated by weight, which might turn out to be all bone and gristle. I had to restrain myself from sticking a hand up to enquire how many more centuries it would take before the school applied the same standards in its kitchens.

In fact, I thought they had knocked down the new school dining hall of my day and built an even newer one, but they proved only to have clad the 1960s structure in some fancier brickwork when they built whatever replaced the old gymnasium next door. It is a soulless place, with noisy air conditioning and draughts strong enough to blow out the candles on most of the tables. I was seated at a table of eight which also contained three contemporaries of mine (the two I had brought with me plus a multi-millionaire TV producer), three other blokes who were about three years younger than I am, and an unfortunate youth who turned out to be the “senior prefect” or deputy head boy.

One of the three slightly younger chaps, who had the sort of double-barrelled name that would have inspired Evelyn Waugh to write a short story, said that, while he had never spoken to me, he had been watching me with interest since he went to Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School at the age of four, and I was the big boy who rang the bell. Luckily he wasn’t the unfortunate I accidentally struck in the face with it, while swinging it enthusiastically for the start of lessons one afternoon.

We had a surprisingly good dinner, during which we engaged the senior prefect in conversation and established that he hoped to go to Oxford to read law. In which case, one of my friends enquired, what did he know of Lord Eldon (of whose house the lad was a member), one of the school’s most distinguished old boys. The right answer would have been that he was the longest-serving and most reactionary Lord Chancellor in English history. Instead the young fellow mumbled something about him having been the man who built the Square in town, sending us off into a huge bout of hilarity at his expense. “Oh, you think he was the bloke who built the shopping centre, do you? What about Lord Stowell? The man who invented the Chinese restaurant? Or Lord Collingwood, the chap who invented the pub?”

My, how we laughed.

I should perhaps explain for non-residents of Newcastle that the two latter peers were also distinguished old boys who had school houses named in their honour. Stowell was Eldon’s brother, and a notable judge, and the street named after him is now at the heart of Newcastle’s Chinatown; while Collingwood was Nelson’s deputy at Trafalgar and is commemorated in the names of many North East pubs, including the one nearest to the school. Convention in those days dictated that the boys went to the Collingwood and the masters to the Brandling nearby, and I duly I spent virtually every lunch hour and evening in the Collie, as we called it, when I was a sixth former.

Having destroyed this no doubt estimable young man’s self-confidence, and completely wrecked his chances of shining at his Oxford interview, we also established that he was the tenth best tennis player of his age in the whole of the United Kingdom, and that he lived right next to the tennis club up the road. I joked that when I was his age I had lived right next to the Stoll cinema in Westgate Road, which in those days was the city’s specialist in Scandinavian films, and that consequently I had been rated the tenth best wanker in the country. It went down like a lead balloon, and did not get any better when I explained it.

Before this we had told him horror stories of our own schooldays, which he clearly found incredible, including the beatings (which the head prefect was allowed to administer) and the fact that we were forced to submit to compulsory nude swimming lessons supervised by an elderly paedophile. But the thing that really made his jaw drop and “grossed him out”, as I believe the young like to say, was the intelligence that the man seated to my right was expecting to become a father again early in the new year, at the age of 56.

We went through the tedious ritual of various age groups “taking wine” with the president of the old boys’ association, giving loud rounds of applause to the one surviving old sod who had started at the school in the 1920s, and the rather more numerous survivors of its wartime evacuation to Penrith. I nipped out to the loo and evidently missed the loyal toast, but when I came back the president gave the toast of the school, and the new headmaster (who apparently started his career as a music teacher) sportingly played a Hammond organ to accompany the singing of the ludicrous old school song, banned by his predecessor. After this the head made a brisk speech painting himself as an accident-prone buffoon, and containing a number of old but reasonably good jokes with well-signalled punch lines. Then someone called Jonathan Webb, who made it clear that he had not much liked the school during his time there, gave a speech about his subsequent experiences as an international rugby player and orthopaedic surgeon. I thought it was pretty good effort, and could see that I might have found it interesting if I had even the slightest interest in rugger or surgery, but it went on far too long for one old bugger on the next table who kept heckling him to wind up because he had more important things to get on with, like preparing for his luckily imminent death.

When he had finished we sat around for a bit and I reminded the TV producer that he owed me £25 for the dinner, which I had booked on his behalf. He produced two £20 notes, but I had no suitable change. After pondering the problem for a bit, he suggested that perhaps I might keep the £15 balance and give it to the cancer charity for which the LTCB had done the Great North Run. I said that I had been hoping that a self-declared multi-millionaire might do a bit better than that, and he stared at me in utter shock, like something out of a Bateman cartoon. “What???” he spluttered. “You want MORE???”

He then helpfully suggested that I could waive my own reimbursement, and donate the whole £40 to charity if I so wished.

And that, my friends, is in my experience nearly always how the rich got to be and stay that way.

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