You know when you’re on an airplane and they give you a meal. Your wife is on your left and a large single traveller is on your right. You have various packages of food to open and a hot drink and you forgot to stow your book away. It’s at that point I wish I’d been sent to a Swiss Finishing School and been taught to eat with my elbows tucked in close to my body because I feel so constricted with my shoulders hunched like Gladstone Small.
That’s how I felt when I started at BHASVIC and was shown my workspace in the Maths Staffroom. If I wanted to do any marking or lesson preparation at the College, I had to work on a small desk with two (very pleasant) people either side of me, restricting my space.
It hadn’t always been like this. In previous jobs, although life was more challenging (and more rewarding in good days and more miserable on bad days), every teacher had a bigger space to work in. For the 25 years before working at BHASVIC, I had a large office to work in during my free periods, before school and at the end of the day. I was used to spacing myself out. Having all this space meant that I kept cassette and CD players in my office, put posters up and sometimes kept money in cupboards. I remember a good friend coming into school to talk about his work for BBC Education and looking at me with surprise as I carefully locked and unlocked my office every time I went in or left my domain.
Yesterday, I spoke to a good friend of mine whose daughter had recently been burgled overnight whilst her husband and young family were asleep. Nothing much was taken apart from their car keys which resulted in a high speed car chase through the city, the car being written off and two arrests. My friend asked if I had ever been burgled and, at home, thankfully I haven’t. Further thought made me think about two occasions when I’ve had money stolen from my office(s) at school.
I’ve already written (in my blog on Jackson C. Frank) about the boy who stole £50 from my jacket which I had foolishly left in full view in my office. Another time was when I took £277 to the school bursar on a Friday afternoon. I had collected the money from pupils and teachers for their Fantasy Football teams. The bursar was a very pleasant woman but she was Queen of the bursar’s office and woe betide you if your trip expenses showed any anomalies. I normally got on well with her but when I arrived with a jar full of money and asked if I could hand it in, she replied “Not on a Friday”. I was going to write that she shouted this at me which wouldn’t be quite accurate but that’s how it felt. I returned to my office and locked it in a cupboard. When I returned on Monday morning, the screws holding the lock in place had been removed, the door was open and the jar with the money had gone. I explained the situation to the Deputy Head (i.e. ratted on the bursar, teaching her a lesson about showing staff the respect they deserved! Ha!) and the money was paid back out of “school funds”, whatever that meant.
I can picture this office very clearly. It had a large window which looked out on the school field. In the Summer, the office became very hot even though there was a small window at the top. It was also a good opportunity for cheeky pupils to bang on the window and wave at me whilst I was trying to mark or prepare a lesson. After a few years a film was put on the outside of the window which had the effect of turning the window into a one way mirror. This was brilliant. I could look out onto all the carnage taking place on the school field but no one could look in and see me
day dreaming working. From the outside it was a mirror which meant that every now and then a glamorous girl or a small boy would stare into my office and arrange their hair which was always amusing.
One day, looking out of the window onto the field instead of marking, I saw a colleague of mine, Mrs. Collins, talking to two Year 9 girls, one of which, Nicola, had previously been in my tutor group. The conversation didn’t seem to be going well; Mrs. Collins looked cross and the girls looked unhappy. Five minutes later, there was a knock on the door of my office and Nicola and her friend Anne were there. “Can we have a word?” “Come in. What’s up?” Nicola explained that they had been sitting on the field near a can of Coke and sandwich wrapper that somebody else had left there. Mrs. Collins had asked them to pick it up. They started to explain that they hadn’t dropped it. Nicola carried on by saying “I know we shouldn’t have argued and we tried to say sorry. Mrs. Collins told us to stand up, which we did. She then got very close to us and she told Anne to look her in the eye. She then said to Anne that if she wanted to thrust her tits out at her she ought to make sure she had some first.”
I wasn’t really sure how to react but instinctively, I looked at Anne, as if to check out whether or not Mrs. Collins had a fair point. My colleague was very proud of her bust, which was considerable, but clearly her language was inappropriate. I asked Anne if she was okay and what could I do to help. We finally managed a reconciliation and the next day Mrs. Collins, to her credit, apologised to Anne and the girls apologised to the teacher.
What remains with me is my instinctive reaction. As teachers, we all have a huge responsibility to behave respectfully towards children. Regretfully, I didn’t always manage that but, in this case, I don’t feel that it was me whose behaviour was questionable. On the other hand, there I was, in an office with two teenage girls, checking out their bust size.
There’s a great line in “Song For Insane Times”, on this album which goes “Alice is wearing her sexiest gown but she doesn’t want you to look at her.” As a teenage boy attending a single sex grammar school, I was taken with this line when I first heard it in Peter’s bedroom in 1969. All it did was add to my confusion about why females dressed in the way that they did. Was I supposed to look at a girl? Was I supposed to comment on their appearance? Thankfully, I didn’t say the first thing that came into my head many years later when looking at Anne. Many years of repression held me in good stead.
Peter and I have spent a long time chatting about music since the pandemic took over the world. One of the issues has been albums which have a unified sound. Yesterday, I wrote about “Pornography” by The Cure and although the tracks are different, they are unified by a common sound. A shoegazing sound of echoed guitars, menacing keyboards and doom-laden vocals. A unified soundscape is a good thing. On the other hand, one of the great things about, say, “Revolver” by the Beatles, is the diversity of the sounds that they employ. “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are all different. A fragmented soundscape is a good thing. What do I prefer? Unified or fragmented?
“Joy Of A Toy” has a fragmented soundscape. Every song is different. The mood, however, is uniformly joyful. When Kevin Ayers was in Soft Machine, they released a single in the USA called “Joy Of A Toy” which sounds nothing like anything on this album which starts with a happy singalong song called “Joy Of A Toy Continued” where the only lyrics are “La la la la la la la…” It’s infectiously jubilant.
“Town Feeling” is much slower with a beautiful oboe piece played by Paul Minns of The Third Ear Band. Kevin Ayers’ voice is deep, melodic, languid and very English in the same way that Nick Drake’s voice invokes a hot lazy Summer afternoon in a remote rural village. It just needs The Famous Five to come round the corner asking where they can find some lemonade and buns. Or a banana maybe because Kevin Ayers just sings “banana” for no obvious reason at the end of a wonderful instrumental break in the middle of the song. The other words describe a day when everyone is staying in but it’s the first day of spring and he can see a girl on a swing. We will see her later in the album.
Much more jaunty is “The Clarietta Rag” which tells the story of a beautiful girl who races round the mountains on her motorbike. Is there anything more Sixties than these opening lines: “Have you seen Miss Clarietta/Riding round on her lambretta?” There’s a stupendous instrumental break which is possibly a melodica played by Kevin Ayers.
Seeing that girl in “Town Feeling” had a big impact on Kevin Ayers and the next song is all about the “Girl On A Swing” which is utterly wonderful with distorted guitar and other psychedelic sounds. Kevin Ayers repeats the title nine times until he summarises by singing “Such a pretty thing“.
Side One ends with “Song For Insane Times” with the aforementioned line about Alice and her gown. Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt were all members of Kevin Ayers’ old band, Soft Machine, and they all play on this song which is zany. The lyrics describe another laid back, acid crazed day when, amongst other things they “all sung the chorus of I Am The Walrus”. Oh yes, there’s another banana in this song too.
The album works wonderfully well on vinyl but on CD, when track six immediately follows track five, “Stop This Train (Again Doing It)”, sounds similar to “Song For Insane Times”. Kevin Ayers’ voice sounds like it’s being broadcast from the other side of the world in the same way that it does in “Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes”, a single he was to release two years later.
The best song on the album is “Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her)” I think she is the girl on the swing and now Kevin Ayers has found her sad and down. He offers comfort by urging her to “take another look around. Maybe what you’ve lost you found” There’s a stunning duet between flute and oboe while Kevin Ayers’ acoustic guitar drifts on into the twilight of the balmy Summer’s evening in 1969. So long ago.
“The Lady Rachel” is often considered one of Kevin Ayers’ best songs although over familiarity with it has left me a bit cold. It tells a fantasy story of a woman going to bed only to have dreams of the supernatural. “All This Crazy Gift Of Time” completes this marvellously diverse album with another joyful song, featuring a manic harmonica solo which leads into the final words “Goodbye, everybody. Now it’s time to go. I hope I don’t leave you feeling low” No you haven’t Kevin. You’ve left me feeling happy, enchanted and in a land where there is no pandemic and no burglary.