Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Great Bookham, Surrey

Edd Bagenal Imaginary Landscape 2013

The rivalry and mutual loathing between the boys in my year and those in the year above was legendary. As a shared experience it was an elemental constant, with no beginning or end, but each of us would be able to name a personal genesis; an event earlier in our childhood that proved to us that the year above were utterly loathsome scum. For me it involved a magic wand and my first experience of true injustice. I had taken up an interest in conjuring, and unwisely brought my magic wand to school; a piece of yellow and black plastic from a Paul Daniels magic set. Thusfar the wand had exhibited no magical properties but that would surely change with the correct incantation. Inevitably the wand was lost, in the morning break. This was distressing enough, but at lunch time I saw that it was in the hands of a boy in the year above called Bradley Reese. This was the worse possible outcome. I protested that it was mine, and in response he just exaggerated the mannerisms with which he luxuriated in his enjoyment of it, enhanced immeasurably by my loss. He leaped about, casting spells. I could have told a teacher, and if he was a younger boy I would have done exactly that. But I knew in my heart it was utterly hopeless. He was in the year above. No-one would believe me.

Events a few weeks later magnified the loathing. My best friend Will and I were trying to throw stones onto the roof of the school. I was a poor thrower. My stone hit a window. The glass cracked. A cold wave of terror ran through me, and I turned to see Bradley behind me (it would be Bradley, of the hundreds of children in the school, it had to be Bradley), his hand immediately shooting up into the air as he ran calling to the teacher on playground duty. Ratting us out. The kind of thing that would get you jugged in prison; treated worse than a nonce, but in the playground was felt to curry the favour of authority. In the distance I saw Bradley with the teacher, pointing at me and Will, the teacher rushing towards us, Bradley's eyes shining with the exquisite pleasures of schadenfreude, his strange hateful hooked nose, Bradley telling everyone, everyone watching as Mrs. Braille dragged us to the Headmistress.

It was impossible trying to explain that we weren't trying to smash the windows, but only trying to get stones onto the roof. Like with the magic wand, it was useless. As far as me and Will were concerned, Bradley would be believed because he was a year older than us. All credibility rested on age. I don't remember the dressing down we received from the Headmistress; I have no ill memories of the woman. But Mrs. Braille was absolutely terrifying; the incident seemed to transform her whole face into an ogrish rictus. It was this I remember, because it was this that I saw at the moment of our total betrayal at the hands of Bradley Reese.

It got worse. Within weeks we knew we were to find out who our teacher would be the following year. There were two possibilities – Mrs. Brennan or Mrs. Braille. I prayed -my earliest memory of desperate self-directed prayer- that it wasn't Mrs. Braille, the witch who surely hated me and would make my life hell. Every night I prayed. On the last day of term, a golden day of fun and laughter, a day full of giddy possibility, the summer stretched out before us with the promise of base camps, tree houses and endless adventure; on this last day my fate was sealed. I was going to be in Mrs. Braille's class. Bradley Reese had ruined my life.

Of course I now realise that he hadn't – but he certainly ruined my holiday. Every day I would wake up, absolutely ecstatic that there was no school, and within seconds that feeling was overshadowed by despair, in the way only a child's heart can be. Every day brought me closer to the beginning of the autumn term, the beginning of a living hell at the mercy of the sadistic Mrs. Braille. Every bright thought was darkened, every spark drowned, every leap dragged down into darkness. All because of that malevolent coward Bradley Reese.

One of the strange things about my childhood, and the child's wildly crooked perspective, is that it was never an option to tell my parents about these fears.
Had I done so they surely would have explained that I had nothing to worry about; that Mrs. Braille would be a very nice teacher and she wouldn't hold the incident against me. But I didn't tell them because I didn't want them to be mad at me for throwing the stones. At the heart of my anxieties was the secret of a terrible crime, so the burden would remain mine alone. But none of it would have happened had it not been for the tell-tale rat Bradley Reese, stealer of wands, ruiner of summers.

It's safe to say I had many reasons to hate Bradley Reese.

Mrs. Braille turned out to be a very nice teacher who probably didn't even remember the incident and certainly wouldn't have held it against me. But it still took me months to shake off the feeling that the crime wouldn't be whipped out at a later juncture and used against me. For now though, things were good. Will and I were able to rejoice, as we were in the top year at school; the year above had left for Middle School. But that held a greater fear. The following year we would have to start there – surely a place of routine bogwashing that we were convinced still used the cane - and worst of all, we would have to face the year above, their smug authority, and the myriad injustices that befell us in their wake.

The Middle School years saw Will with his genius for mischief repeatedly winding them up by running off with their tennis ball and hiding their bags. Intervention from the headmaster just saw the matter transferred to outside of school hours. A face off between Us and Them in the streets of Bookham saw the front wheel of my racer buckled. One of Bradley's friends rode into it intentionally with his vastly more expensive and vastly more rugged mountain bike.

By the time we had reached secondary school one might have expected us to have grown out of this but instead the rivalry was magnified by hormones. They reserved a special loathing for my friend Ben because he was screwing girls in their year. That was never going to play well. Their greatest crime, to me and my self-consciously counter-cultural friends was that they were jocks; they were beer boys. At sixteen many of them had already begun to resemble their fathers, scowling pub leopards with nascent beer bellies, blokeish banter and received right-wing opinions. We smoked weed and took acid. Alcohol was for these wankers who voted Tory in the school election. At 36 I now know that alcohol is very much for me as well, and drugs are not counter-cultural, but it was the early nineties, I was a teenager and at least I fucking behaved like one.

Looking back I have no firm idea of what they talked about when they stood huddled, sniggering at me and Ben and Ben's girlfriend(s), affecting an air of removed cynicism to mask their glowering jealousy. Ben was taller, suaver, more handsome and a shit-load cooler than any of these pricks, and the girls liked that of course. I wasn't tall, suave, handsome or cool but Ben is one of the most loyal people I have ever known and had no problem with my being a sartorial sinkhole. Greasy curtains, four eyes, spots, tie-dyed items. It didn't occur to me at the time but it likely enraged the beer boys that someone so radically disastrous-looking was even in these girls' orbit. It was only because of Ben, but I'm sure it stuck in their craw nonetheless.

It may strike you that from my tone it seems I haven't entirely moved on from my loathing of these people. You'd be right. These issues run deep. (I found myself reflexively doubting the testimony of whistle-blower Bradley Manning as a result.) I looked up Bradley Reese on Facebook. He's there, and it seems he's making up for those lost years; his profile photo shows him holding court, surrounded by six women, all laying their hands adoringly on his chest. Harmless. Normal. Perhaps. But I'm inherently suspicious of self-irony that plays the same hand as self-aggrandisement. It's a way for people to get away with indulging bad behaviour. Maximum deniability. Hey! Don't take it so seriously. Can't you take a joke? The conservative who says they just enjoy winding up liberals, and does this by espousing their sincerely held conservative beliefs. The wolf in wolf's clothing.

Bradley – give me back my summer holiday 1985 and I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. You can keep the wand.

(Names have been changed to protect the guilty stealer of wands and ruiner of holidays Bradley Reese.)

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