BOOK REVIEW / Ultimate class act Small life, big story: 'Last Lesson of the Afternoon' - Christopher Rush: Canongate, 9.99

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The Independent Culture
THE semi-autobiographical A Twelvemonth and a Day was picked up by Channel 4 in 1989 and made into the acclaimed movie Venus Peter. Christopher Rush's latest work, Last Lesson in the Afternoon, is likely to go the same way, for Rush has such a vivid command of setting, comedy and dialogue that you feel you've seen and smelt his world rather than read about it. Though it is certainly a clever book, packed with drop-of-a-hat allusion and self-reference, the storyteller never loses his place: this is highbrow entertainment at its best.

Campbell MacKay, the hero, is an English teacher at a fictional Edinburgh public school called Robert Blair's. He is teaching his class Milton's Lycidas, but indulges in a massive sidetrack (every schoolboy's dream) to tell the boys his life story. From humble East Coast beginnings, through the sordid details of his sexual initiation to his fostering under The Great Tradition of Taft Academy, we follow Mackay to Aberdeen University, where he takes a top First in English. Offered the world, he chooses to become a humble schoolteacher, emulating the prodigious service of his early tutors. But 20 years on he finds himself enmeshed in a bureaucratised nightmare where schools are factories and headmasters are managers. He is quitting, and this is his last lesson.

MacKay lives and breathes quotation. His adult life has been one long English lesson, and this has left its scars on his

ability to communicate. 'Never confuse Life and Art,' warns an early mentor, but Mackay does and as a result sees his life as a foiled epic. Rush's book belies that pessimism, for though his hero's life has not been a great one (and his poetry is fairly dreadful) his life story is a winner. And for every sensitively cited verse, there is a libido waiting to earth the moment and to turn the hero's efforts into bawdy farce.

At Aberdeen in the Sixties, MacKay's Presbyterian landlady has house rules to defy the decade's creeping promiscuity: 'Don't expect any red meat, it'll only make you randy, it's a fish and vegetarian diet for you, my lads, and porridge for every breakfast, oatcake and cheese for supper, that's all the protein it's safe to feed you and that's what you're going to be fed on, like it or lump it, and that'll keep your nasty tassles from their shameful erections.'

Rush is himself still a teacher and his assault on the current education system is heartfelt, bitter and shamelessly biased. He abhors it, not in a committee-minded NUT sort of way, but with a cosmic cynicism. Were Aeneas here today, we are told, 'he'd find a dildo quicker than a Dido, I dare swear, in these tainted isles'. This has all been said before, but never with such spite and rarely so readably. If the sentiment is political, the details are gloriously fictional. Cranford (the novel's hated headmaster) has corporate think-tanks over Bollinger in his school-funded Jacuzzi and, in case that isn't enough, he is also castrated and married to MacKay's childhood sweetheart. These are moments of Swiftian satire, a potentially disastrous genre which Rush has pulled off brilliantly. And if the film does get made, perhaps Christopher Rush will be able to give up schoolteaching, too.