Trouble Over Bridgwater by Half Man Half Biscuit


I was teaching a lovely Year 7 class a few years ago and a delightful pupil gave me the answer to a question as 5.345. I replied “I don’t want to be a pedant but I think you’ll find the answer is 5.346”. There was a gasp from lots of the class who looked at each other, silently mouthing to themselves “What did he say?” At first, I assumed that the disbelief was due to the fact that anybody who knows me and especially anybody who was taught by me, knows that I actually love being a pedant. But, that wasn’t it and a very helpful child explained that lots of the pupils didn’t know what a “pedant” is but they did know what a pedophile was. The gasp was due to the fact that about 20 children I taught heard me deny being a pedophile. I suppose that was better than admitting that I was but it made me think about how my students think of me and what words they use to describe me. Apart from scruffy, fat and picky.

Since I decided to impose a strict lockdown on my social activities two weeks ago in order to attempt to avoid catching COVID before my hip operation, it’s been quite difficult. Trying to find some meaning and purpose, I came across a notebook from ten years ago. When Year 11 students leave school, they have their own personal leaving book in which their friends write messages to them. It’s a good idea except that it’s quite difficult for a teacher to get students to do any work in the last few lessons as, for some reason, writing words of love to their friends is deemed to be more interesting than revising the quadratic equation formula. Some students ask their teachers to add their own messages and towards the end of my time at Oakmeeds, I replied that I would sign their book, if they signed mine. I still have some of these books and they are lovely things to read through in these days of darkness. Of course, these are not objective statements of validation as the messages were written in the last few days of an 11 year school career. One of the messages from a difficult student was “I would like to say thank you for the past 2 years. I have learnt a lot in the past 2 years. I’m sorry for causing problems in the past and disrupting your lessons.” Another message reads: “To Beardy. Ive only been in your lessons for two years and feel as though I have learned a lot, i feel that we have had a silent relationship that depends on me asking and you explaining, without your imence teaching and ocasional quizzes we wouldn’t have been so anoyed with eachother ocasionaly, but now i realise how great you are, all the best.”

Those two messages are okay – quite funny – from two highly intelligent but very disruptive pupils. What was more shocking is to find out how some lovely 16 year-olds described me. Here are some examples. “Sir! May I just say your sarcastic humour is class“. Or try this: “To Sir. Thank you! You have been a massive help in the last year and you are an amazing teacher (although very sarcastic, I must say).” Here’s another: “Thank you so much for your amazing teaching ways. I know I’m not the brightest of people but I never thought I’d actually do well. Thank you again for all the help. Will never forget the mistakes and your sarcastic comments. I’m going to miss the quizzes and chocolate.” There’s a theme developing. “Thank you very much for being a wonderful teacher. I’ll never forget your sarcastic ways.” It’s like a two-edged sword. “You have got to be the best teacher ever! Even though I can’t always tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, I have learnt so much with you as a maths teacher. I am going to miss the quizzes and chocolate“.

In conclusion, these are lovely children, about to leave school and thinking of nice things to write in a needy teacher’s book. So, very politely, they say thank you and they admit that they have been susceptible to bribery in the form of chocolate and quizzes. They all agree that I am very sarcastic. I’ve just looked up a definition of “sarcastic” and it is “using irony in order to mock or convey contempt.” Oh dear. I never thought of myself as conveying contempt. I always thought an example of sarcasm in a maths classroom would be saying something like “I guess you think you’ve got the right answer don’t you?” I would be appalled if I ever said anything like that. Here’s another definition: “an intentional inflicting of pain by deriding, taunting, or ridiculing.” Oh no. I’m gutted really and all I can hope is that 16 year-olds understood the word “sarcastic” as well as 11 year-olds understood the word pedant.

At least “sarcastic” is less insulting than “cynical”. A definition of cynical is “the belief that human actions are motivated only or primarily by base desires or selfishness.” So I guess that when I read that Boris Johnson wants to allow the good little people of England the opportunity to celebrate New Year without restriction, he is motivated by a desire to fight off a challenge to his leadership and not that our mental health is important to him. That would me being cynical. I hope I was never cynical in a classroom. I was extremely cynical in the staffroom, often ridiculing the actions of the Senior Management Team who would invariably pretend to be interested in staff welfare when they were merely saving their own skins. I digress.

It’s Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas” by Half Man Half Biscuit manages to combine cynicism with sarcasm in a brilliant way. In the same way that a 16 year old girl felt that she couldn’t tell whether or not I was being cynical or not, I still can’t work this song out. The lyrics of this song include “See how we yawn at your bile and your scorn. It’s a beautiful day. Peace on Earth has been played. Make a noise with your toys and ignore the killjoys, ‘cos it’s cliched to be cynical at Christmas” and the song plays out to a children’s choir singing “I saw three ships come sailing in”. So, taking it at face value, this song is a diatribe against people who turn their nose up at Christmas. Is it genuine or sarcastic?

Nigel Blackwell has built a career turning his nose up at all sorts of things. The first song on this great album is called “Irk The Purists” in which he lists a number bands, who inspire fans to be snooty, or purist, about them. He’s not having a go at Love, Can, Meatloaf, Rush, Michael Ball, The Fall, Hall & Oates, Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Simply Red, Sly Stone, Hüsker Dü, Captain Beefheart, ELO, Chris de Burgh, Sun Ra, Del Amitri or John Coltrane, even though all of them are mentioned in the song. He’s being cynical about fans of these acts. “Irk the purists, Irk the purists, It could well be an Olympic sport, Irk the purists, Irk the purists, If you’ve never, then you ought”. That’s genuinely inspired poetry.

The ultimate cynical (or sarcastic?) song on this album is the track “Visitor For Mr. Edmonds“. A life machine is beeping at regular intervals indicating that Noel Edmonds is in a serious but stable condition. However, after a minute, the visitor switches the machine off and a continuous beeping is heard. That’s all there is on this song. Just some beeps. It’s cliched to be cynical about Noel Edmonds.

Look Dad No Tunes” is one of Half Man Half Biscuit’s best songs. It describes someone who is content and happy but likes to pretend that he’s hurting inside. In order to do this, he plays The Velvet Underground, at which point the band play the distinctive bass line from “White Light/White Heat”. He then sings about feedback and how he likes to put his foot down on the angst switch in his bedroom in Nantwich. After mentioning Thurston Moore and “Arc” by Neil Young, he decides to welcome a new member to his band because he’s got a theremin. When Dave, Gay, Roo and I saw HMHB in London many years ago, John Otway opened the show. When he started playing a theremin, he got huge applause. He looked delighted but I don’t think he understood the reference.

Twenty Four Hour Garage People” is also brilliant. The singer annoys someone who works in an all night garage by not buying petrol but simply buying food. At first he asks for two Scotch eggs and a jar of marmite but then asks about sandwiches. “Well now you become quite irate and your voice becomes louder, and you start to sound like Leadbelly at the depot… “I got ham, I got cheese, I got chicken, I got beef, I got tuna-sweetcorn; I’ve got tuna-sweetcorn…” This is a modification of lines from “Rock island Line” by Lead Belly and also covered by Lonnie Donegan. The lyrics are “I got pigs, I got horses, I got cows, I got sheep, I got all livestock.” Another gig that Dave, Gay, Roo and I went to was The South Bank’s shows of Peel Sessions in October 1999 at The Queen Elizabeth Hall where Half Man Half Biscuit opened for Lonnie Donegan. Sadly, they didn’t play this song.

With Goth On Our Side” is a cynical rewriting of “With God On Our Side” by Bob Dylan which describes a Welsh goth. “Bottle Neck In Capel Curig” describes a bad road junction in North Wales. “Used To Be In Evil Gazebo” is a fictitious interview between a pretentious indie band member, and a journalist from the NME. “Uffington Wassail” mentions the Britannia Music Club. “Third Track Main Camera Four Minutes” takes the piss out of a briefly used caption format on Match Of the Day. “Gubba Look-a-Likes” describes a new evil species that all look like Tony Gubba. “Emerging From Gorse” describes “a million retired liberals” watching “Countdown” and dreaming of going on holiday with Carol Vorderman.

I like these songs. Does that make me cynical? Or sarcastic? To all the former children that I may have been sarcastic to: I apologise.

Oh, I see.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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