PsychoGeography #57: Tall tales from the classroom

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The Independent Online

We had a massive geography teacher when I was in my early teens, and by massive I mean physically huge. I've got some kind of a mental block about his name, probably because we were cruel to the poor fellow in a way that only thirty 13-year-olds can be: ritualistically, gleefully, unstintingly, acting with the unfettered sadism of many concentration camp guards with a single inmate.

The exchange between Mr Wells (I'll call him this for convenience) and our class, which sealed forever his status as a hapless butt, occurred when he asked us to "Name a power station - any power station". There was a slight fermata in the usual brouhaha and then we got back to being disruptive. "Go on," Mr Wells was reduced to bellowing, "name a power station! ANY POWER STATION!"

A hand went obliquely up towards the back of the class. It was Sid Gold, a dreadful wiseacre who already had an account at the bookie's, and who bought Parma ham during lunchbreak then skipped around in the street cawing: "Where's the rabbi now!" If Gold had put up his hand it's because he believed he had newly minted coinage of great wit. "Yes Gold," Mr Wells ventured with some trepidation, "Can you name a power station?"

"Battersea, sir, Battersea Power Station."

"Yes, Battersea," Wells's solid bar of brown moustache crinkled with approbation, "good man Gold, good man."

That did it for us; for the balance of school years whenever we saw poor Wells come looming down the corridor we would poke our evil little fingers in his direction and crow "Yes, Battersea, good man, good man!" before collapsing into helpless giggles. Why exactly we should have found this amusing remains utterly beyond me. I would say "you had to be there", but in truth, I was there, and I still don't know. Perhaps it was because the great salience of Battersea Power Station on the London skyline made its actual naming a statement of the ludicrously obvious; or maybe in our fervid minds there was a curious congruence between Wells and the Power Station, for both were seriously out of scale.

Wells wasn't the only Brobdingnagian geography teacher on the premises - there were Messrs Purves and Hinchcliffe as well. All three exceeded 6ft 4ins, and all three were alumni of Loughborough Polytechnic where they'd studied the academic equivalent of chewing gum and walking at the same time: Geography and PE. But while Wells had a 'tache, a perm and an equine face harnessed with anxiety, Purves sported a devilish ginger beard and the chiselled good looks one associates with neo-classical sculptures of the Ancient Greek pantheon. Purves could rain down thunderbolts from his Olympian perspective. He was the first man I ever saw wear a tracksuit in the street - clearly it was the Shapelessness of Things to Come. As for Hinchcliffe, he was of an extreme height - perhaps 7ft - and very sadly died of heart failure when I was in the lower sixth. The school, being of almost celestial crummyness, memorialised him in the library with a small sign affixed to a shelf of geography textbooks which proclaimed: "The Brian Hinchcliffe Memorial Shelf".

I wish I could tell you that despite all of this my geography lessons planted in me a seed of interest which over the decades grew into the mighty psychogeographical redwood you see before you. But I can't. Apart from the Battersea anecdote and a desultory field trip to somewhere near Luton where we observed synclines and anticlines, I can recall next to nothing of those millennia of sodden Thursday-afternoon double periods. I wonder if anyone can? People are always claiming to have had inspired pedagogues, but very few of them seem to have been geographers.

No, my own interest in the perplexing polarity of topography and its representation derives, as so much does, from my father. Dad, as regular readers of this column will know, not only was an academic who specialised in urban development, but also had little or no personal modesty. Many was the time as a lad, that I would blunder into the toilet and find him squatting there like an old bull over his own dung, and with a map spread over his knees. The varicose veins on his spindly shanks seemed to segue into the whorls of contour lines which indicated the height of the South Downs or the Black Mountains.

Yes, Dad perused maps for relaxation. The Ordnance Survey was his laxative joke book. He actually preferred to examine quite old maps when at stool (the kind printed on paper backed with linen) rather than the up-to-date products of pinpoint surveying and aerial photography. At the time I found this almost as risible as Mr Wells, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see that Dad preferred to psychically perambulate in a pre-First World War Arcadia, long before Battersea Power Station or Loughborough Polytechnic came on the scene.