Monday, 18 February 2013

You’re not one of the five-eighths, are you Charlie?

 When I was living in Co. Mayo, my doctor once asked
 “You’re not one of the five-eighths, are you Charlie?”

It took a moment for the meaning behind the words to sink in, but as soon as it did I shrugged and smiled back.

“Well, seeing as how 90% of your clients are farmers, no, I suppose I’m not.”
“No no no!” he insisted. “You’re a bit of a rebel, aren’t you?”

For a second I imagined myself sporting an extravagantly wavy moustache, a wide-brimmed leather hat and an X-shaped brace of bullet belts wrapped around my torso. What a ridiculous notion.  Firmly ensconced in middle age, my life was less Brando’s ‘Whaddya got?’ and more ‘What’s for dinner?’

“No, I’m not a rebel, doc. Haven’t the energy.”
“So how did a suburban London boy end up here?” asked the doctor.

I smiled and left, sparing him the answer. There was a long queue of coughing spluttering people waiting outside, so it wasn't the moment to settle back in my chair and say

“Well, it all started back in the Spring of 1973…”

We imagine we’ll notice the seminal moments in our lives, but at the age of 12 I had neither the perspective of hindsight nor the wisdom of experience. However, as soon as the doctor asked me, I instantly remembered the first moment I did something vaguely rebellious.

I was in my last year of Prep School, blissfully unaware that I was peaking in both my academic scores and social standing. A few months later, after arrival at Public School, I’d plummet from being a straight-A student to the bottom of the class. From being House Captain, Dormitory Prefect and one of the most popular boys in the whole school, I was about to become a bullied friendless pariah, gaining weight as quickly as I lost confidence.

Thankfully I didn’t waste those high-flying years. Each morning at Prep School after assembly in the gym, classical music played as the boys filed out in order of seniority, followed by the staff.

Our Headmaster was a tall thin rollie smoker called Jock Lumsden, known as ‘Jockles’ to the boys, which serves well to illustrate how much affection we felt for him.

One day Jockles told me I was to become the boy who sat in the wings of the stage each morning, hiding behind the curtain, ready to play the music for filing out. I was thrilled. It was an honour and a privilege.

Each morning the album sleeve of the record to be played was placed at the foot of the Headmaster’s lectern, facing the hall, so that everyone might know what to expect and possibly enhance their knowledge of composers along the way.

All went well until a band called Focus had a hit with a song called ‘Hocus Pocus’. An upbeat folkish instrumental piece, it shot up the charts, blared constantly from our transistor radios, and one morning I held the single in my sweaty 12 year-old paws.

Would I do it?
Could I do it? 

Would I be expelled, and if so, might that be worth it for the glory that I’d enjoy and the respect I’d earn from my peers?

A decision had to be made, as in a few minutes the boys and teachers would start arriving, and if there was no record sleeve out on the stage then there'd be questions to answer.

So with nascent pubic hairs sprouting from an onrush of youthful testosterone, I put the black paper single’s cover at the foot of the lectern and went off to hide by the turntable behind the curtain.

Being on stage and therefore behind the lectern, Jockles and the other teachers suspected nothing, because unlike all the boys, they couldn’t see the single cover.

Peering around the edge of the curtain I looked towards the boys, only to find every single student staring back at me with chins dropped, eyebrows raised in excited anticipation.

Jockles was making his closing remarks. As he sat down he turned to me, giving the signal that assembly was over. Time to play the music.

So I did. With shaking hand I lowered the stylus towards the vinyl, shrinking foetal in my chair as the song filled the gym. 

Boom-botty  boom-botty  boom-botty doom boom boom!

The planet didn’t rip apart, so I peeked around the curtain once again to see the boys filing out with huge smiles on their faces, the subtle hiss of exuberant whispers offering trebly background to the chart hit.

Finally the gym was empty, save for Jockles and myself. To say I was bricking it would be to say that Donald Trump’s got a few bob.

Rising slowly out of his throne-like chair, the Headmaster ambled over to me.

“Well, Adley, I might have preferred to have been consulted, but I don’t see why, maybe once a week, something more, erm, contemporary than the world’s classical geniuses might be played. Only something suitable, do you understand? Something suitable!”

Bloody hell, I’d got away with it! Better, I’d got a result. Not only had I rebelled, albeit in a minuscule way, but I’d changed things forever.

Well, I’d changed that Prep School’s assembly forever,

Or had I?

Altogether carried away by Jockles’ approval, and ridiculously too young to understand a word such as ‘suitable’, the following week I placed the album cover of Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’ at the base of the lectern.

As the boys stood to leave, the now-legendary opening chords of ‘Smoke On The Water’ blasted through the rarified gymnasium air.

Bam bam baaaaam       bam bam ba-baaaam     bam bam baaam       bam bab-baaam!

Truth be told, I can’t remember Jockles’ reaction. Nor do I recall playing any assembly music subsequent to that morning. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I think it’s safe to say the words ‘suitable’ and ‘rebel’ don’t sit well together.

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