When Year 11 students leave school, they have their own personal leaving book in which their friends write messages to them. 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. Here are some examples of comments that were written about me. “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: “I will never forget your mistakes and sarcastic comments.” There’s a theme developing here. “Thank you very much for being a wonderful teacher. I’ll never forget your sarcastic ways.” It’s like a two-edged sword. “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“.
In my defence, all I can say is that in learning to be a sarcastic teacher, I learned from the very best and last Wednesday I met up with them for a brilliant session of beer, bollocks and biryani in St. Albans. Dave, Jon and Steve worked with me at Chancellor’s School in Hertfordshire for seven years between 1983 and 1990 and their sarcasm, good humour and friendship remain as strong as ever. All three of us left Chancellor’s within a few years of each other and had good jobs in a variety of schools but we decided, on Wednesday evening, during our fourth pint, that we had more fun teaching at Chancellor’s School than anywhere else. I always gave Jon some stick for having an easy life as an Art teacher because all he had to do was sit at the front of a classroom watching his students paint. On the other hand, teaching quadratic equations was much more difficult. One day, I happened to visit his room and had to interrupt him explaining an intricate technique to a beautiful A level student. The next day he walked into my room to find none of my class were working because I had just confiscated a copy of “Just 17” and I was reading out the “Agony Aunt” column in my most sarcastic tone. My credibility was shot at that moment. Once, some Sixth Form students hid my car on the field behind a tree after I had inadvertently left my car keys on my desk. One Friday lunchtime at The Woodman pub, I found that all five of my Further Maths class were also in the pub so we agreed, there and then, to cancel the lesson. Staff morale at the school was either very good or bad, depending on your point of view. Most staff were unified in their disdain for the Headteacher and there were many Friday lunchtimes when 20 teachers were sat in a circle at The Brookmans Park Hotel with the ex-England footballer, Martin Chivers, serving us beer from behind the bar.
Of course, any of the above incidents would lead to instant dismissal these days but nevertheless, all these reminiscences about “the good old days” got me to wondering why on earth I had left. I went to work at a difficult school in Harlow, where I struggled to get any respect from staff or students and after a further five years, I temporarily left teaching. Why did I leave Chancellor’s? On reflection, I think I have a predisposition to leave early and by that I mean I don’t want to overstay my welcome in any social situation. I’m aware that this can come across as boredom with the company of others but I prefer to think of it as perceiving the benefits of leaving on a high. What’s the best response from a band who have just played a gig when the crowd asks for an encore? Dexy’s Midnight Runners, in 1983, played no encores after a sensational gig promoting “Don’t Stand Me Down” at The Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. In 1986, The Violent Femmes only played one song (“Children Of The Revolution”) for an encore at The Mean Fiddler but it lasted for over an hour. Van Morrison often ends his set after an hour but might play 10 songs for an encore. Which of these is better? By the end of one of those Van Morrison shows, I would be exhausted and pleased that there were no more songs. By contrast, the attitude of Kevin Rowland, of Dexy’s, was typically uncompromising and my disappointment was mixed with a grudging respect. As always, the answer is a middle ground – trying to find the correct time to leave is just one of the many complications of a social gathering. My inclination is to be more like Kevin Rowland than Van Morrison, but that’s not because I’m uncompromising – more a fear of overstaying my welcome.
Was it a mistake to leave Chancellor’s after seven years? My relationship with the Head had deteriorated at this time. In 1988 he made me attend a meeting with him and a parent governor to give me the Third Degree about the Health and Safety aspects of an upcoming Summer holiday trip to Switzerland, even though I had organised nine previous such trips. Another sign of the deterioration in our relationship was when I applied for a teacher exchange to the U.S.A. and he wouldn’t support me. I was frustrated and got a job in Harlow, much closer to where I lived. I could have stayed at Chancellor’s where it was much easier to teach and there was more fun to be had, but I just think it’s in my nature to leave somewhere before my sell-by date.
Unfortunately, feelings of not overstaying my welcome transfer to reverse social situations when I am “entertaining” guests in my house. I think that this stems from family gatherings at my parents’ house in my youth. My Dad’s three sisters would come every Christmas, Easter and August Bank Holiday and a ten hour vigil would start at lunchtime, involving an endless stream of conversation (or monologues) that I never found interesting. At the end of such evenings, my Aunt Joyce would drive her two sisters away from Kent and home to North London and the first thing my mother would say was “I thought they’d never leave”. These memories lead me to always prefer to meet in a neutral space, such as a pub, rather than invite people to my house.
Two weeks ago, my sister and I went to visit my Aunt Joyce, who is now 104 years old, in the residential care home that she has been in for the past few months. The light had gone out of her eyes and she didn’t recognise us. When I kissed her goodbye, she just looked nonplussed and devoid of emotion. It was very sad and the home have contacted us since to say that they believe that her body is shutting down. My Aunt is the last of my Dad’s generation to still be living and it will be a very sad day indeed, when she dies. I want to say that hopefully this won’t be for many years yet but it seems like she is living a terrible kind of living death, trapped inside a body that is no longer working. There’s a ghastly part of me that wishes that the end would come quickly and I fear that this is simply part of my irrational abhorrence of overstaying a welcome.
The result of this visit to see my Aunt is that I sunk into a low mood that lasted several days. If I had been teaching, my low mood would have been lifted by interacting with teenagers, reading “Just 17” or looking for my car on the school field. A need to adopt a cheery persona would be self-fulfilling but now that my social situations are more limited, my bleakness was not lifted. I think that the darkness was brought on by the prospect that the last of my parent’s generation would soon no longer be with us but also by my dislike of anyone overstaying their welcome. Any low self-esteem I had was only amplified by an intense dislike of myself for even having these thoughts. I don’t think I have “depression” because clinical depression occurs when someone feels sad for weeks or months on end but there can be triggers for a low mood, such as bereavement, losing a job or giving birth. The last two don’t apply, (I hope), but maybe I have suffered a strange sort of pre-bereavement.
My bad mood manifested itself in being very short-tempered with Roo, even more impatient with Bruno and his insistence on digging holes in the garden and pooing in the house, being disinterested in going for a walk and eating badly. Interestingly, my bad mood was instantly lifted when I began writing about it. I have since rewritten the most dark thoughts – this is the cheery version.
When Help Yourself came to make their third album, their songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, Malcolm Morley, was suffering from depression, which he called “The Shadow” and hence the album was named “Beware The Shadow”. Help Yourself were inclined to title their albums very literally, according to their current situation. Their first album was called Help Yourself. After Ken Whaley was sacked before their second album for being too laid-back, they named their second album “Strange Affair”. When he returned for their fourth album, they decided to title it “The Return Of Ken Whaley”. So to name this album “Beware The Shadow” made sense – watch out for debilitating darkness. However, this is not a depressing album – it’s a sunny, upbeat, lively rock album with stunning guitar work from Malcolm Morley. The influence of Quicksilver Messenger Service is apparent from the wonderful electric guitar improvisations on the 12 minute “Reaffirmation”. A bonus track on the re-issue of “Beware The Shadow” is “Mona” which was on “Happy Trails“. “Molly Bake Bean” starts as an out-of-tune ditty about a baked bean called, er, Molly, and it develops into a charming stoned singalong with lines such as “Lean time, she was having a bean time, a molly baked bean time, alone in a tin“. Another standout track is “American Mother” which is nearly eight minutes long and was co-written by Malcolm Morley and Sean Tyla, who went on to form Ducks Deluxe. It instantly sounds like a classic country-rock song that was left off The Eagles’ “On The Road”.
Best of all is “Passing Through” which is the title given to a six CD box set compilation of all the Help Yourself albums (see Blowing Free. Underground & Progressive Sounds of 1972 for an overview). This song is much more low key, featuring two acoustic guitars, a slower tempo and a haunting vocal with lyrics such as “There goes your life, just passing through. Oh my love what shall we do?“
The answer to the question of what shall I do, is to keep busy and maintain my writing. Thinking too hard about the climate emergency, war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and Liz Truss isn’t going to ward off the shadow.