Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone

“Mrs Jones, my eighth grade English teacher,” says the newbie author brightly. “She was the one who first spotted my talent. I owe everything to her.”

Good old Mrs Jones, I think. But I can’t identify with the latest bright young star in the literary firmament. First, because I can never work out how old eighth grade makes you. 11? 14? 16? Beats me.

But more importantly, I can’t think of a single teacher who inspired me. On the contrary, when I look back, I see a rogues’ gallery of nutters, obsessives and sadists. And the occasional paedophile.

There was Brother L (I went to a religious school, though the number of brothers had dwindled to a handful). He was stocky, smelly and had dandruff. And a Northern Ireland accent that could shatter glass at 20 paces.

He was my maths teacher, and was permanently grumpy. Nothing was ever good enough. He was a social misfit (most of the brothers were) and singularly unsuited to teaching unruly young boys.

One day, taunted beyond endurance, he hurled the blackboard rubber at a pupil. And missed. The boy’s reaction was instantaneous: he picked up the rubber, and hurled it right back. His aim was much better, and Brother L winced with pain.

It was a time of madness, and I don’t know how we ever learned anything. On another occasion, somebody put a dozen upturned drawing pins on L’s chair. 32 boys held their breath as he sat down. And… nothing. He was either very clever, or had a bum like elephant hide.

Then there was the day a friend of mine wore multi-coloured Bay City Rollers knee-socks with his school trousers rolled up. He waved his hand frantically when L asked for a volunteer to solve an equation on the blackboard. When A flounced up between the desks, revealing his outrageous socks and platform shoes, L exploded. Not a pretty sight.

But L wasn’t alone, so it’s unfair to pick on him. There was Mr B, whose obsession with birds meant mountains of extra-curricular mugging up on plovers’ eggs and swans’ nesting habits. Mrs O’N, who looked like a badly dressed transvestite but played the piano like an angel. And Brother B, whose ill-fitting wig was dislodged on our last day at school when some wag threw a firecracker under his robe.

Mr M successfully avoid talking about reproduction for an entire term. Mr P looked like a vampire and died halfway through the school year, leaving us in the hands of an inept replacement. And Mr X touched up boys on a school trip to France (nobody complained – this was the 70s, after all).

So on the whole, school was not very inspiring. More like aversion therapy. Or slow, painful torture.

I envy the novelist. We should all have a Mrs Jones, though I suspect only the very lucky ones ever do.

Les bras m’en tombent…

Why do they do it?

Last week, as I wandered round the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, I was surrounded by happy snappers. Don’t get me wrong: I had my camera too. But I used it to photograph the surroundings – the glorious columns, soaring ceilings and sun dancing on water. The glass pyramid, majestic pediments and converging lines.

But not the art. After all, it’s been photographed a thousand times, and better, by professional photographers. It’s in books and catalogues, and on mouse mats, posters, postcards and fridge magnets. So what’s the point?

Not that it stopped the snappers. Venus de Milo? Snap. Mona Lisa? Snap, snap. Raft of the Medusa? Snap, snap, snap. Compacts and SLRs, film and digital. And camera phones, for God’s sake.

The art was facsinating. But the snappers were more fascinating still. And I couldn’t resist…

Mad world

Look at the Amazon reviews of this book and you’ll get the usual bewildering gamut of opinions. ‘Lost it somewhere,’ says one. Presumably the plot. ‘Not good’ says another. ‘Disappointing’ says a third.

And then there’s ‘A thought-provoking read’, with five stars, which is baffling: if a book doesn’t provoke thoughts, what’s the point? You might as well have a drink instead. ‘Read this book!’ and ‘The best book I’ve read all year’ jostle for your attention with ‘Clunking’ and ‘Do not waste your money’.

Clearly, opinion is divided. As was my resolve, when I picked it up in Borders. Should I, shouldn’t I? Like many of the Amazon reviewers, I’d enjoyed Birdsong, Charlotte Grey, The Girl at the Lion d’Or and The House on Green Dolphin Street. But I’d also given up on The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives, a startlingly dull non-fiction effort from Faulks.

The trouble with Human Traces is that it’s not really a novel. Like The Fatal Englishman, it’s essentially a factual book – on psychology and psychoanalysis in the 19th and early 20th century. But to make a dry subject interesting, Faulks hangs a few token characters on it.

It’s still dry.

Thomas Midwinter, his sister Sonia and Jacques Rebiere (Thomas’s colleage and Sonia’s husband) are flat, two-dimensional and unengaging. There’s too much science and not enough emotion. Too much history and not enough plot.

And after 200 pages, I’d had too much. And enough.

So reluctantly, I shelved it in the most appropriate location I could find. Right next to The Fatal Englishman.

Call the devil out of hell

Christmas Day, and P suggests we go to Ely Cathedral. I check on the web, and sure enough, there’s a service at 10.30am. So off we go.

As we walk up the long central aisle, I stare in wonder at the soaring columns and spectacular stained glass. My mind wanders back to the times of Ethelreda, of saints an sinners, of simple faith and unshakeable belief. But not for long.

“Happy Christmas!”

I’m snapped from my reverie. A plump, grey-haired woman with a tartan skirt is beaming at us, thrusting the order of service into outstreched hands. She has a beatific look about her. We return the Christmas greetings and look for a not-too-conspicious spot – just in case we have to beat a retreat.

Already I’m feeling a bit uneasy. As a Catholic (very, very lapsed) I feel a bit twitchy inside a Church of England cathedral. My mind keeps turning to the little ditty my mother told me she used to sing outside the Protestant church in Clonmel when she was a child.

“Proddy Roddy, ring the bell,” it ran, “call the Devil out of hell.”

It could be worse. This appears to be very high-church – almost Catholic, in fact. Lots of flowers, a fabulous brass lectern glinting under the spotlights and an enormous tree. Trafalar Square-sized, lushly decorated and brightly lit. In the air hangs the distinctive sweet tang of incense.

A bell rings, a censer click-clicks, and the organ sighs into life. We all rise, and the procession begins. So far so familiar. There are no altar boys, but there are choristers, like pairs of white-over-red skittles making their way up the nave. A tall cross, several priests and even a president – or president, I suppose. Anyway, the one who’s presiding.

Throughout the service, I feel like a Spaniard who’s mistakenly tuned into a Portuguese radio station. It’s familar but strange. The prayers are almost the same, but not quite. The hymns are plainer, less tuneful, less mater dolorosa. I fluff most of the responses.

And it goes on forever. As a child, I quickly worked out which was the shortest mass at my local church. The earlier the better. Leave it till 12 noon and you’re doomed to a concelebrated prayathon that stretches out your hunger pangs. Get up early, and in 35 minutes, you’re done.

But we’ve already been going for 45 minutes. I count the remaining pages in the order of service. Only halfway though. I nudge P and suggest leave. We can’t, he says. We can, I say.

And we do, just as the president says ‘Let us offer each other a sign of peace.’ Before my neighbour can extend her hand, we’re off down the aisle and towards freedom.

As I wrestle with the latch and heave the great wooden doors open, my mother’s words are still ringing in my ears. “Proddy Roddy ring the bell…”

Out once more in the gloomy light of Christmas morning, I feel a little shiver of guilt. I take a deep breath and walk back to the car.