CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING
I am away in Athens for Christmas and New Year, and there will be no new post until Monday 11th January. Thereafter the blog will publish once a week, every Monday. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Merry Christmas and a brilliant 2016 for everyone.
Freddie Bone who was about 55 or 56, in 1966, was an unusual looking man, rather like an Ealing comedy send up of Adolf Hitler, with his surprisingly square head, his clipped moustache, and his oddly foreshortened and truncated haircut. The similarity stopped there, as I doubt Hitler ever wore faded tweed jackets with leather arm patches, and though both of them were fastidious and fussy, I’m not convinced that Hitler cared very much about exact pronunciation of his native language, not least because he was at least in his formative infant years, a spluttering, slurring Austrian, and not a precise and sonorous German. Bone was Head of English at my Cumbrian Grammar School, aka The Brothel on the Hill, when I was doing my O levels in 1967, and as well as being my teacher then, he also taught the A level General Studies a year later. He happened to know my girlfriend’s father socially, and told him once I was ‘quite intelligent’, which though the modifier might have been added in translation, was a bit of a characteristic disclaimer. I was definitely the brightest, most literate of the bunch, which wasn’t saying much, as they were by and large parochial science students doing General Studies, and I was the only one who read novels and the New Statesman outside of school. However in his classes I was fool enough to make two egregious errors in among my many precocious achievements (synonym for ‘curt’, anyone? No. Ah, yes…yes, you at the front? ‘Brusque’? Very good. Yes, brusque, very good indeed, boy).
I said ‘brussk’ and Freddie said ‘brooosk’, and though I wasn’t phonetically correct, I believe he was even less correct. He also had the singular belief that the consonant combination ‘ct’ as in ‘virtual’, ‘actual’ and ‘picture’, should be pronounced separately, rather than mushed into a ‘kch’ as everyone in the world said it, apart from Freddie Bone. Hence a feasible Bonian sentence might have been, Is this a virtyoo-al image of a picty-ar, or is it an actyoo-al picty-ar? It occurs to me now for the first time in almost half a century, that Freddie didn’t go the whole fanatical hog, and say something like, ‘that was a deplorable ac-tyon on his part’ which goes to show that pedants will only go so far in their scrupulosity, and even they sense that some of their logic is borderline idiotic if pushed to the limits. At the opposite end to this Academie Francaise approach or the katharevousa versus dimotiki (most appositely the contemporary Greek Fascist junta favoured the former) was Freddie’s remarkably original notion of gentility, when it came to picking his nose in front of us. He had a permanent sniff to the point of a minor handicap, and he found it necessary to do his mucous excavations every five minutes, rather than every break between forty minute lessons. His solution was to put his finger inside his hankie, and then poke away happily and guiltlessly, as if that infinitely hygienic and sanitary guard absolved him from any accusations. It could have been argued that hygiene aside, it was as decorously polite in this particular context, as it would have been if he’d farted every five minutes and placed a paper cup over his arsehole…or alternatively sung the National Anthem or our highly patriotic school song while letting fly with his irksome wind.
We are but young but we shall grow
To be the heroes of our time
While adding to whate’er we know
We feel that knowing less is crime!
Quite quite. Dammit, I find myself feeling that knowing less in 2015 is also a crime, don’t you? No? Well you should do. As I said, twice in his 1968 General Studies classes, I made absurdly comical errors in my wish to prove myself a brainbox. One day we were discussing writers who chose unusual religious directions in their personal lives, such as the recently deceased Aldous Huxley. The word ‘mystic’ came up as the agent noun, and of course the adjective ‘mystical’. Freddie Bone the zealous taskmaster said that he wanted the less familiar abstract noun, meaning ‘the pursuit or practice of being a mystic’. No one in among the would be engineers and chemists and bacteriologists and doctors, had a bloody clue of course, so at last I decided to take a reckless stab in the dark. I shot up my hand and when Bone nodded permission, I cried:
A single student called Wethers was widely read not in fiction, but in the Guardian and the New Scientist and the Sunday heavies… and he guffawed with heaving shoulders at my absurdity. Freddie Bone by contrast, permitted himself a slight and mareish puckering of the lip, which indicated a scintilla of subdued amusement. Perhaps this risible error was why he later told my girlfriend’s Dad that I was alas only ‘quite’ intelligent…
“No, no! Mysticism…” he exhorted the whole of the mesmerised class, and not just me.
There you go. But far worse was to come, and only a few weeks later. Freddie had provided us with a massive reading list if we wished to become seriously acquainted with the best of 20th century fiction, verse and drama. Being born around 1910, and doing his degree in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he showed his age with his Somerset Maugham and Compton Mackenzie, his Eric Linklater and his Joyce Cary…but he also daringly included the Angry Young Men, meaning John Wain, Kingsley Amis, that honorary male called Iris Murdoch (I’m not joking, that was at the time how she was given a generous pigeonhole) and among the dramatists, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker (born 1932). It was with the last one I came to grief, and it followed on from a general discussion, meaning an austere and soporific Bonian monologue, apropos the notion of proper drama. At one point I was fool enough to mention my fondness for TV drama, it being the only kind I could possibly know up in remote West Cumberland in 1968. Freddie stared at me bleakly, then with a melancholy mien, dug up his snout with his hanky, took a diagnostic glance at his precious finds, and gave his olympian judgement.
“Television plays are not plays, “ he trumpeted majestically. “I really don’t know what they are, but they are certainly not proper drama. The few that I have akt-yoo-ally forced myself to watch, that is.”
And that was that. Bear in mind this was the golden age of Dennis Potter, Joe Orton, Shelagh Delaney, David Mercer, when some of those BBC Wednesday Plays with their raw demotic language and plentiful nudity, and also some of the ITV Armchair Theatre, which of course showcased the outrageous Orton, were truly incendiary, and frightened the delicate shite out of the gents who wanted nothing but Brian Rix bedroom farces, where the sex, such as it was, was baggy underpants around the ankles, and otherwise as antiseptic and passionless as the driven snow.
We moved on briskly to the 1950s playwrights, and I got Osborne’s Look Back in Anger right when no one else had heard of it. Then Freddie decided to try us with something tougher. He demanded to know which of Arnold Wesker’s plays, indeed one of his most recent, from 1962, was his best known, and by now, so to speak, a household name. No one, including me had any idea, and my guess is that neither that play nor any by spleen-filled John Osborne (1929-1994) had been adapted and broadcast on the perennially dull and deadly 1950s, and early 1960s BBC.
As nobody had any notion, Freddie Bone decided just for once to give us a clue, and make it all child’s play:
“Chips…” he began, and then stopped dead.
One or two of us openly salivated, though not because of the hit metropolitan stage drama of 5 years ago.
“Oh come, come, come, come, come!” he sternly implored. “You are sixth formers, not ignorant little first formers, and you really should know this kind of thing. You are all supposed to be university material, are you not?”
University material? Do they still say that nowadays? I find it depthlessly charming. It is the second noun that is so profoundly enchanting. Material? Did they mean something like pre-stressed concrete, or the stuff of wincyette curtains? I have never known for certain.
“Chips with…” was his second clue.
Suddenly a brilliant inkling came to me. I had after all vaguely heard the name of that play, something to do with the Jewish working class in London? Chips with, chips with, chips with…
Chips with Tomato Sauce? Chips with Daddies’ Sauce? Chips with Fruit Sauce? Chips with Salt? Chips with Bread and Butter? Chips with Bread and Stork Margarine? Chips with…
“Chips with Vinegar?” I blurted confidently, after raising my mitt and receiving permission to proffer my hard earned sagacity.
Wethers guffawed uproariously yet again. Freddie Bone was miraculously quite speechless. He didn’t even bare his teeth like a smiling mare, and he looked at me as if I might have been playing the adolescent fool.
And I will never be sure of it, and he would never subsequently enlighten me, but I also thought I heard Desmond Wethers utter my other ludicrous invention, ‘mysticity’.