extract from The Careerist - a chapter of the novel Alexander
Alexander’s voice took on a reedy note as he struggled to make himself heard over the standing noise-level. About half of 3a were intermittently engaged in sotto voce conversations. The other half, all with curly bronze hair, savant eyes & an abundant supply of freshly minted malice, were listening, with a titter at the ready. Geography may have been a subject they actually savoured &, in their humdrum light-hearted way, even cared about. But when their unhappy instructor was fumbling with at best partial information on the rainfall, diet, outlook, education, social habitat & recreations enjoyed by the Nigerians, topics on which they 3a already possessed a plethora of information & could teach him more than a thing or two, then he might brace himself for a rough ride.
“A pest on the population in that part of tropical Africa is the prevalence...”
He winced, they snorted. The unfortunate string of p’ s he had just come out with was, he fancied, the source of their derision.
“...the prevalence” - his voice rose in pitch - “of the Tsee-tsee fly.”
“The tsee-tsee fly!”
It was too much. The word - almost as Liverpudlian in its phonetic peculiarities as “cup o’ t’ea” - was pronounced to rhyme with Betsy. They knew that, & they had taken it to their little scouse hearts; & Alexander, who was supposed to be teaching them, did not. The result was anarchy. He wondered what Machiavelli would have advised. One brief twelvemonth earlier at Oxford, the works of Machiavelli had been his only care, his Special Subject - Discorsi, The Prince, The Mandrake, Istorie Fiorentine, The Art of War - light-hearted trivialities, a bag of quips, a bundle of witticisms, a ladleful of wisecracks, a soufflé of jests & frivolities: child’s play compared to this!
Miss Brierley - the supervisor assigned to him by the university department - a wiry little woman reputed to be eighty, & a ball of fire, & merely frail-looking, spoke no word. She sat like a spider in the corner, & spied malignantly through her rimless spectacles.
As Alexander’s sadly underequipped instructional caravan bumbled on from semi-desert through savanna to steamier coastal jungle, the mere anarchy that had loosed itself upon his charges threatened to boil over into riot. Halfway back two boys were pinning down a third who resisted strenuously. They had him stretched across the desk. Had one been available, they would cheerfully have broken him on the wheel.
“Pour ink in ’is ear’ole!”
“My mum’ll kill yew!”
Miss Brierley’s disapproval was passionate. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she despaired, “this is after all your chosen profession.” Alexander wilted. Could he honestly describe teaching as his chosen profession? The inverse was truer; he being fit for nothing else, teaching was a profession which offered openings, & when he & many of his peers found themselves after graduation standing around as it were like leftovers at a hiring fair, it could in some sense be said that this profession, faute de mieux, had chosen him. “You’ve got to take charge, you’ve got to make them respect their education,” Miss Brierley insisted. Alexander groped in his mind for an elusive meaning, found it, & in the event durst not to express it. It shaped itself as a sentiment worthy of an Osborne play, an opinion derived from long hours of apathetic browsing through the Manchester Guardian & the Sunday poshies, a reflection in some stagnant inner pool, & it went like this: if he Alexander attached in his existential dubiety not the slightest value to any education he might have to offer, how could he reasonably expect anyone else to. But he suppressed this opinion as being too shocking & progressive for Miss Brierley’s old-maidenly ears, & fell back on an inner resource which he liked to think was of Zen provenance - infinite patience. And in the end as usual he said nothing.
What Mr Lush was manifesting in History with 2d you couldn’t call infinite patience. It was more the lacklustre weariness of someone who had aeons ago given up hope. It was in itself an emotional paradigm of history, monotonous, unvaried, full of savagery - overt or unspoken but so often repeated that one incident merged into the next & nothing managed to detach itself from what had gone before.
Though perhaps it was infinite patience after all, thought Alexander, or virtue of some kind. It was like the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner - bovine simplicity raised (or reduced) to the level of heroic endurance. Mr Lush had a stock of seven declarative sentences, & two dates. During the 35 minutes of the lesson, he presented the sentences about seven times each, sometimes inverted, sometimes in different order, & with varying emphases. It was a method of composition which recalled to Alexander the name of Arnold Schönberg, inventor of the tone-row, but without wishing to be arrogant or judgmental in the matter, he did not believe Mr Lush was up with the dodecaphonic development.
At irregular intervals Mr Lush wrote one or other of the dates on the blackboard. Some of the sentences mentioned Edward the Third & referred openly to a Golden Age. Most of the time Mr Lush sat on the front of the teacher’s desk with his feet on a classroom chair & leaned forward, & rehearsed his declarative sentences, slowly & with long, impressive pauses.
2d’s responses were not forthcoming. Some of them were attending, but the message was not getting through. The classes in Egmont Boys’ Secondary Modern were streamed, Alexander had been told, with a greater concentration of boys at the upper level, & fewer in the lower streams so they could profit from close individual tuition. There had been thirty in 3a. There were no more than a dozen in 2d. All were over thirteen years old. Sometimes they looked at Mr Lush. Sometimes they looked out the window, at a blank wall, topped by sky the colour of mud; it was November. Twice during the class, one of the boys asked after Robin Hood, but Mr Lush made no audible reply, proving heroically immune to what might have been construed as a temptation.
From the obscurity where Alexander sat, in the corner furthest from the window, he noticed, a few minutes into the period, something going on in a desk on the other side, by the window, halfway back. The boy on the inside shrank down in his seat & his neighbour leant a comradely elbow well forward on the desk, seemingly to screen the other from the master’s line of view - as a group they weren’t even aware of Alexander. The human shield stole frequent glances under his forearm - nay, to be frank, like the other boys in the vicinity he was skilfully pretending insouciance while lewdly fascinated with the jiggling in progress beside him. The protagonist may have been the smallest boy in the class, but there was one watershed of growth at which - somewhat ahead of his fellows - he had evidently already arrived. He was pulling his little plonker. After some ten minutes of class-time his goal was achieved, & the comrades rewarded him with a suppressed cheer. Later, more than halfway through the period, & after some muted banter which one could guess involved a challenge of some kind, he started over. It wasn’t going to be as easy this time, & it would be harder than ever to stay below the teacher’s line of sight, but the mates rallied closer to shield the indefatigable little fellow from prying eyes, & aided by their murmurs of encouragement, by dint of herculean effort & earth-shaking endeavour, with a frantic extra flurry which set the whole desk hopping up & down right as the bell rang, he got there.
Mr Lush dismissed the class.
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