It’s 1984. A school-skipping, Nike-sponsored-breakdancing, minor-law-bending fourteen year old is sitting in a classroom when the bearded teacher announces that they are going to be doing ‘a criticism’ of ‘The Lake Isle Innesfree’. He (for it was a ‘he’) hands round some first-generation photocopies; they are the sticky purple ones that turned my stomach because they smelt just like the dentists’. There it is; a short poem. Now I must do my ‘criticism’ of it. I wonder what that might be?
Silence falls; they are all so busy ‘criticizing’. Nobody talks, flicks wet snot from their ruler onto the teacher’s back, kicks over their neighbour’s desk, or dances around the classroom like a chimp in the throes of a caffeine-fuelled frenzy. What am I doing here? What has any of this got to do with me? If only some angel could have whispered in my ear ‘Er, the poem’s about the desperate need to escape. I would have thought you might be quite interested in that, Vybarr. Your middle name is ‘Innes’ after all.’ The silence, though, endures and it is painful. What I write is painful, wrung hard from what little resources I have. A slow forty minutes passes. The books, collected. The lesson over. The classroom empties. I have been asked to stay behind. The bearded teacher hands me a book with a bright orange spine. It has a golden cover with some sheep on it. It looks shit.
Holding out the book he tells me, ‘This is what we’re doing.’
I think he wants me to read it. But it’s massive. ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’? What does that mean?
I had washed up at a private school, where I was to discover that all of the teachers had beards, including our aged and chronically-asthmatic history teacher. In assemblies she pounded her piano in the style of Les Dawson, always sternly immune to the forest-fire of suppressed hilarity this caused. Still today, it brings me a flicker of laughter to think of the majestic crescendo of ‘And… Was…Jerrrroosulemmm…’ only to topple down in ruins, destroyed by the hammered accompaniment of those bum-chords.
My mother, in a bold attempt to try and help me through my exams, had whipped me out of the comprehensive and threw what little money she struggled to earn at the last eighteen months of my education. To my shame, I detested it. My fellow pupils had been together since they joined the school’s nursery; they had known one another for about three-quarters of their lives. But it was not that they were unwelcoming or unkind, just that I was a stranger and I did not belong. They knew it; I knew it – my mother didn’t. I went on to skip at least one day a week – and out of boredom I would go shoplifting.
I sat my exams and in my O’ levels (I think it was the last year that they had them) I scored a ‘U’ in everything except Maths (E). A ‘U’ for those interested is ‘unclassified’. This meant that I scored between 0-14%. As far as the Joint Matriculation Board were concerned I need not have bothered turning up for the exam, my grade would still have been the same.
This is what my mother had struggled for. Her disappointment on results day compounded by my insistence that we give one of my schoolmates a lift – he got ten As.
Our set text of Far From the Madding Crowd was never read in preparation for my classes, or indeed my final exam.
I am now forty-two and it is still unread – for a lecturer in nineteenth-century literature this is like never having seen Star Wars.
I have been on the run from Hardy for nearly thirty years.
The comprehensive was not great. I had a lot of friends and was comfortable there, but I knew that I was not going to do well. I put up no resistance to moving school. As my mother likes to remind me, I was rather keen on the idea.
The one great thing about the private school was the sports. Everything was done on such a small scale (I think there were only twelve in the class) that it was much more personable than the casual debilitating brutality of the larger school.
Earlier that year, one of the last things I did at the comprehensive school was compete in sports’ day. I was to run ‘the mile’ in the House match. There were six competitors; one for each of the school’s houses: Hadrian, Marlborough, Tudor, Warwick, (X?), and mine, Elizabethan. I was not a particularly talented little runner. In fact, I was hopelessly naïve about my abilities. There was a photograph on the dining room wall at home, there so long that it was part of the furniture. It was a black and white eight by ten of a man stepping over a finish line, pain written deep on his face and body, looking like he had been shot in the back. No shoes, and blisters the size of walnuts ballooned from beneath his feet. This was my uncle (my mother’s big brother) getting a gold in the 1966 World Championships. He had run the marathon. Running, then, I believed was my genetic inheritance. I was wrong.
One of my competitors that day belonged to Hadrian and he was a terrible runner – he was that common blend of extreme arrogance and incompetence. I was no sports whiz, but I could have beaten him at anything. The gun fired and after about 100 yards I was already in trouble. Hadrian boy was well in front of me and the rest of the pack were already away. My chest burned from the inside like flames were licking up at my throat. It is a very particular pain, like the air has become almost too hot for you to breathe. The diaphragm pulls downwards to make space for the rush of gas, but nothing comes in. Numerous times throughout my childhood I had witnessed the effects of asthma. Two people in my school had died of it. My sister, Erika, had also struggled with it and I envied the attention she got, and even more so the wonderful whistling Intal Spinhalers that she was provided with. Little capsules, half clear, half orange, filled with white powder had to be loaded, then popped and spun to deliver their charge with a comic whirring whistle that sounded a little like they were ridiculing the wheeze of the sufferer. We played with her nebuliser that she had brought back from the hospital on one of her trips there. It could be an instrument of torture for the spies that you had captured. It was a great prop to play hospitals with. You could be a fighter pilot, an astronaut, or an alien just landed.
But the asthma began to spread. I started to show symptoms of it just before my teens, and my brother was later hospitalized with it. Unlike my sister, I was not having to regularly medicate against it, not yet, but it did still take me by surprise.
My body was not going to let me compete that day, but determined, with most of the school watching, I struggled against it. This makes it worse. I knew from the many cross-countries I had run that the best thing to do was to relax and try to forget about it. Not run harder because people are watching. I fell farther and farther behind. On one of the corners I heard somebody shout ‘Drop out. Why don’t you drop out?’ On the next lap, the same – this time I realised that the calling from the crowd was my brother ashamed to share blood with this pathetic show. I was determined to finish, proving what, and to whom, I was and still am unaware.
By the time I crossed the line the race was long over. There was no attention on me. Passing the post, I fell to my knees and grasped at the air for breath.
I was in contravention of the single and only fact that I had been taught about running at school – when you get to the end, don’t sit or lie down, stay standing.
There is quite a lot to learn about running, but I did not learn any of it at school. Like most, I had to do it for myself.
At some point between ’84 and ’85 I did actually give Hardy a go. On one day, in our lounge, in a comfy chair, I sat down in silence to read. This was something I never did. The act of reading had become associated with me with schoolwork, with something that you ought to do. Not counting the books that we read in class at school, up to the age of twenty I can think of two novels that I read. Both were film tie-ins for movies that I was too young to see. Nobody I knew read. My sister, Erika, was highly intelligent, studious, but not bookish. There were books around us, but nobody seemed to sit still with one.
On that morning, when I could have been spinning on my head, in my Nike gear, on some lino outside Tesco with my friends, I decided instead to read Far from the Madding Crowd. There I was, alone in the house, in my tracksuit, poised in the traps of ‘playing out’, and I was going to read about some milkmaid in Victorian Dorset fretting endlessly over which sheepshagger she should or should not marry.
Hours passed. I was very impressed with my performance. I did eighty pages. I had read about a fifth of the novel. The thing is, I had no experience of reading novels. And it soon transpired that I didn’t know how to do it at all. Not the least idea.
Like running, reading was something that you did in school, but technical competence was all that mattered. As long as you could run, it didn’t matter how you did it. As long as you could read, it didn’t matter how you did it.
I remember this feeling well. I got up from my hours in the chair and I couldn’t recall anything that I had just read. The words, sentences, pages, chapters, all had passed before my eyes. They had been visually ‘read’. But there was nothing. My mind had wandered, not in the Dorset countryside, but everywhere, anywhere else.
I never went back to the beginning. So disgusted with how that novel had sapped my titanic effort to read it, I never went back to it again. And so I got a ‘U’.
School, or rather my experience of it, all but destroyed two of the finest and most important things there are in life: running and literature.
Who could have made sense of Hardy for me at that age?
Who could have made sense of cross-country for me at that age?
No amount of explaining, arguing, demonstrating or showing could have made either of these things appeal to me. They had nothing to do with my life. And I desperately needed something that was to save me from hanging around in shopping centres, robbing records and fucking up my life by flirting with petty crime and dropping out of school.
Cross-country is now practically a thing of the past. It belongs to days when schools owned acres of land that its pupils could trample over before the local education authorities sold off the lot to housing developers in the late 80s and 90s. The one good thing about posh-school was that it had no money, so had very little land, so no cross-country. At the comp., the school would annually organize a cross-country that all ages could run together. The last thing that anyone wants is for 1,600 Manchester kids doing something ‘all together’, unattended. Gangs of older children would charge first years, stripping them, throwing them in thigh-deep pools of glutinous mud, shoving them into barbed-wire fences, flinging mud in their faces. If you were lucky you might skip all this, but you’re running kit would still be three-times the weight it was when you brought it in that morning. All that filth has to be worth it. If you played football the mud was worth it. For those that liked rugby, the filth was worth it. Nobody enjoyed cross-country running except for mean-spirited Neanderthals that didn’t enjoy it either for the ‘running’ or the ‘cross-country’. Brutal, stupid and pointless.
School made it impossible to fall in love with running or literature. I was too young and naïve to make sense of them, and there was nobody that could explain them to me. So I shoplifted a bit more till I got caught. I stopped breakdancing because it was ridiculous. I failed my exams for a second time. I suddenly found, at the age of eighteen, that I had nothing.