On The Unification of the Kids, 1978
Between 1974 and 1978, when they finally kicked me out, I attended – was obliged to attend – a small private boarding school for boys in a small village in north Nottinghamshire. It wasn’t a bad time. The summers of 1975 and 1976 were long and hot, and my memories are mostly of building dams, climbing trees and canoeing on the river that ran along the bottom of the school’s grounds: good, wholesome, boy stuff. Being beaten with a gym shoe on one’s bare nine year-old buttocks for such minor offences as talking after “lights out” was less wholesome, but the kind of people whose patronage keeps these places going obviously dislike their children to the extent that they will shell out thousands of pounds in order to only have to see them a few times a year, so you’d expect them to want the little buggers to be given the full treatment while they are out of sight and mind.
And as for the people whose labour keeps these places going… let’s be charitable and say that it takes a special kind of teacher to accept a job that involves living pretty much your entire life in a community sealed off from the outside world, working to internal logic and laws handed down unchanged for fifty years; and an even more special one to choose to become a long-term inmate, which many of these people were. (I mean: large, detached house, inhabited by fifteen or twenty single adults of questionable and flexible sexuality plus a hundred-odd boys at and over the tipping point of adolescence? It’s the stuff of the Daily Mail’s most delicious nightmares.) I only note this to set the scene for the tender vignette that follows, because if there’s anything that makes the story worth telling it’s the utter horror and incomprehension some of these seething vats of socially dysfunctional geek hormones must have experienced upon this intrusion of late seventies thug culture to their bucolic Brideshead Revisited fantasy world.
On Sunday mornings, after our breakfast of grapefruit and boiled eggs, we’d pull on our little grey shorts and knee socks, smart navy blue blazers and black shoes shined the previous day for the occasion, and assemble ourselves into a crocodile (the animal that went in two by two) for the half mile walk to the village church. The teachers – “masters”, they were called – would walk at intervals alongside us, like police at a demonstration. Sometimes, by chance, the footsteps of a group of boys close together would fall into sync, and on such occasions it was fun to try and accentuate the rhythm, to make enough noise that the footsteps of those around would be drawn in, creating a rising, martial 2/4 clump reminiscent of the start of Holidays In The Sun. Usually this phenomenon would remain sufficiently localised that it could be nipped in the bud by a few well-chosen words on the part of the flanking police. But this one time, and it must have been in 1978 because that’s when the single came out, somebody, who may or may not have been your humble correspondent, had the bright idea of starting up the chorus of Sham 69’s If The Kids Are United in time with the rhythm of the marching. If you’re unfamiliar with the piece, remain so: until the hectoring cod-Cockney vocal comes in its scything guitar has a certain boneheaded hard rock appeal, but repeatedly bellowing a platitude as crass as “If the kids / Are united / They will never / Be divided” in the style of a football crowd is at best a reductio ad absurdum of everything that was good about the individualistic London punk rock scene that spawned it, and at worst its antithesis.
But small boys, and most men for that matter, care little for such Cultural Studies-type considerations, and they love shouting, and so it was that the chanting and the marching grew and swelled and swelled and grew until it seemed like the entire crocodile was yelling and stomping along. The “masters” didn’t even try to stop it. I guess by the time they’d realised it was happening it was already too late. Or perhaps they were enjoying the discipline it both showed and didn’t show. And so we continued through the sleepy little village in north Nottinghamshire: a hundred or so posh little boys in blazers and knee socks chanting the chorus of an absurd Sham 69 song in voices half of them unbroken and all of them socio-economically incapable of doing justice to the glottal stops of the original. Beautiful, and entirely ridiculous.
When we arrived at the church, we just stopped, out of respect no doubt for the anaemic Church of England god we had come to celebrate. And nothing was ever said about the matter. I don’t really know that our “masters” were horrified and uncomprehending. More likely, despite their considerable unworldliness, they were pissing themselves at the cuteness of it all. But it’s my story, and they can die if I want them to. So instead we’ll have them quaking in fear as their beloved Lord Of The Flies briefly threatens to get all three-dimensional on their desirous asses. And then they can quiver in sweaty relief when we don’t bolt them inside their sleepy little village church and set fire to the place.