Donnelly’s Tales 3 -The Snark Was A Boojum, You See

Posted by in Stories on Dec 4, 2011

In my view (said Donnelly) the rot set in when we decided to abandon the school uniform. It was a perfectly nice uniform; a sort of deep plum colour, with a gay device on the blazer pocket and a Latin motto: Cave Canem, was it? I don’t remember exactly. There were caps for the boys and berets for the girls, except in the summer term, when boys were allowed to go with open neck shirts, and the girls had lovely straw hats to wear. All very charming. We even had a school song in those days! Oh yes, we were a very pukkah outfit. It was something dug out of Hymns A & M, you know, a ghastly dirge called O Happy Band of Pilgrims. I can assure you that there’s nothing more dismal than the noise of that issuing from a couple of hundred throats. In the end, we let it quietly drop. The only one who liked it was Edeltraut, of course. She tried to revive it lately, and hers was the only voice to be heard in the school hall; a sort of reedy, elderly whine, about half a beat behind the school piano. Nobody else could bring themselves to enunciate the mournful ditty. Not an experiment that anyone’s in a hurry to repeat, old man.

But one day, someone came up with the notion that the uniforms were too expensive for some families, and uniformity stifled a sense of individuality, or some such pile of old cabbage. I remember it was Malcolm Tregorran who pushed for the abolition of the uniform most energetically, and thereby hangs a very sad tale, old man.

Old Tom Hobbes pointed out that if we dispensed with uniforms, the only thing that would set us apart from all the other schools would be the Harmony of the Spheres dresses. You must remember Harmony of the Spheres? It was a form of music and movement; you could indicate musical tones, signs of the zodiac; all sorts. Most especially, you could show the sounds of speech, and all dressed up in silky nighties and draped in yards of coloured chiffon. All very Isidora Duncan and madly expressive. Perhaps a bit too expressive at times. There was one bunch of seventeen year-olds who had been chucked out of their common room for leaving the place untidy and listening to loud music on the wireless. They bided their time, and then offered a Harmony performance for Founder’s Night. Well, the staff were all delighted, of course, patting ourselves on the back and telling each other that what we teach sinks in in the end, and the youngsters had turned an important corner. I had my doubts, and I was not wrong, old man. They got up on stage in front of local dignitaries, members of the Board of Trustees, parents and pupils, and told us all in Harmony of the Spheres gestures that we were a shower of misbegotten sons of camels and to eff off. All this in graceful movements to the music of Debussy. At the end the parents, dignitaries and Board of Trustees all solemnly clapped, while those of us who could decode the various prancings were seething with a rage that we were frankly unable to explain to the rest of the audience. No wonder it was always abbreviated to “Harm” on the timetables! The school loved it, of course, having understood every movement, and clapped wildly, demanding encores, especially the sons of camels bit. Poor old Edeltraut Runkelstirn, bless her heart, just thought that they’d got it wrong; that what they were representing simply didn’t make sense. Tregorran alone stood up for them when we discussed it at the Council of Teachers meeting.

“We’ve stifled their creativity, their sense of identity and invaded their own space,” he bleated, and the worst of it was that according to the rules of our meetings, we had to listen to him as though he was talking sense. So we gritted our teeth and nodded. Only old Peter Potocki kept calm.

“Yes, we could certainly get rid of the uniform,” he said; “after all, Steiners have already done so.”

This, of course, went down like a cup of cold sick. Steiners were the enemy. In a city where twenty four percent of the kids go to independent schools, we and Steiners were the only ones who were really “alternative”. We hated them because, frankly, they were so much better at it than we were at St. Geoffrey’s Co-educational Day School for Children from Kindergarten Age to University Entrance. We used to meet members of their staff at standardization meetings for exam marking and so on. They stood out a mile, looking superior and sympathetic all at once. They knew what was wrong with everyone else, and forgave us for it. We just avoided them, or treated them with cold courtesy. Tight little smiles and raised eyebrows whenever they said anything radical, such as abandoning exams altogether. I mean, I ask you, old man! They just sat there looking high-minded, waiting for the rest of humanity to catch them up. Sick-making.

“But,” Potocki went on: “if we get rid of the uniform, you can be sure that in three, six, nine months, they will be coming to school in blue jeans and sports shoes. We have seen this in the United States. There is nothing to stop it happening here. I don’t say we shouldn’t abandon the uniform; just what to expect if we do, and what the consequences of that would be to our pupil numbers when their parents see how our pupils dress.”

The vision of American-style clothing turning up with our pupils inside it sent a cold shudder round the room. Hobbes had to nip outside for a dram out of his novelty walking stick, and Edeltraut had to have explained to her what bluejeans were. I think old Daisy Barnet fainted clean away. So a strongly-worded message was sent to the PTA, informing them of our decision. They immediately sent a strongly-worded message back, telling us what they thought of us, which rather chimed with what the pupils had said in the Founder’s Night concert, and so we agreed to drop the uniform. You can’t fight parent politics, old man. They were fed up with the prices that the big stores charged for our uniforms, and that was it and all about it. That’s all she wrote, as the chap said. We sat back and awaited the tide of blue denim. And it appeared, old man. Oh yes, it appeared, all right. And all the ghastly appurtenances and accessories that went with it. The hair, old man! The jewellery! The colours! And the footwear! Sports shoes was the best of it. There were sandals, cowboy boots, wellingtons, snowshoes; some even came barefoot! This was the era of Flower Power, and All That That Entailed. Oh, it was a nightmare, old man.

Tregorran went around looking smug and saintly all at once. He had read the Zeitgeist, you see. He was in tune with Youth; understood them and their squalid ways. Or so he thought. He was a Cornishman with a Sense of Purpose, don’t you know, and that purpose was Education with a capital E. He used to ask for a cut in pay, old man, to make sure that poor deserving kids could afford to come to school. Well, I mean to say; pure middle-class bolshevism, old man! And after all, he could afford it. His wife was a psychiatrist, or a florist or something. Something well-paid, anyway. He could manage on a handful of petty cash if necessary, so his Grand Gestures were simply swank. Another thing about him was that he was an intellectual snob. Poor old Larry Snudge only had an Upper Second, and Tregorran used to look down on him as if he were a poor relative cadging a meal at Christmas; kindly, don’t you know, but letting one know that there were limits.

He had a way of stroking the table leg as he taught classes in the library that got in amongst those girls who were a tiny bit susceptible to nuance. They felt somehow unclean and used after his lessons, but couldn’t exactly say why. Tregorran also had a way of looking out of the corner of his eyes that was downright shifty. Did he know he was doing it? I haven’t a clue, old man. All I know is that he did it, and it upset pupils of a nervous disposition, or those who had not quite emerged from the Genital Phase of Infantile Development (you’ll remember your Freud, old man), and in those days, that was by far most of them. We’re still assessing the damage done by the Permissive Society, old man. But Tregorran still thought of himself as the students’ friend and spokesman, and talked about them with Romantic fervour, as though every boy in the senior school was Byron or Shelley, and every girl…I don’t know: that lassie who chopped up Marat in the bath, or someone like that. He embraced their revolutionary fervour, you see.

Well, the next thing that drove us all round the bend in staff meetings was the most unsightly fashion I think I’ve ever encountered. The boys started coming to school with carefully designed rips across the knee. The result of this was that their knobbly, hairy young joints were in plain view whenever they sat down. It was hideous, quite frankly, and in flagrant breach of the school rules about ripped and torn clothing. The trouble was it was a case of once bitten, old man, so nobody did anything about it. Let the sleeping dragon of the parent body lie, was the watchword, unofficially, of course. There were the school rules lying in metaphorical tatters about our feet, while the boys were wearing their trousers in literal tatters around their knees. All quite obscene, old man; enough to put you off your porridge.

This turned out to have rather an unexpected effect on Tregorran. He’d sit in classes, and his gaze would fall on the youthful knees – and stay there! The chaps were quick to notice that his attention had been drawn ineluctably to them, and they punished him for it in terrible, subtle ways. They started to slowly inch their trouser legs up, further and further, gradually exposing more and more stringy white leg, and watching carefully for a response from the region of Tregorran’s groinal area. Well, response slowly manifested itself in a distressing bulge, and Tregorran had to rush doubled over from the room to drench himself in cold water. I mean, this was savagery of the most refined sort, old man. The girls noticed and used to egg the boys on with little notes, watch the results and titter behind their jotters. Oh, it was cruel! Cruel!

In the end, it drove Tregorran round the twist. He became a hollow-eyed recluse, eating his sandwiches in the library when no-one was about, and never meeting the gaze of any student. It got in amongst him; fairly ate him away inside. He took to slamming doors and blaspheming in class; all quite ugly. He even raised his voice in a meeting. And to poor old Daisy Barnet, of all people; the sweetest, most inoffensive creature. The Writing was definitely On the Wall. Once the kids make up their minds about you, old man, the verdict is well and truly in. And they had. And it was. Finally, of course, he simply evaporated. He faded from view, leaving not a wrack behind. You remember The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll old man? The Uniform Snark had been a Boojum, you see. You remember the lines:

But O beamish nephew, beware of the day

If your snark be a boojum, for then,

You will softly and silently vanish away

And never be heard of again or something like that, old boy. I’ve no head for poetry.

Anyway, it sums the whole thing up much better than I ever could. I attended his cremation the other day. Quiet affair; not many in attendance. Have another one of those, old man; it’s hours to closing time.