There’s an episode of Friends in which Monica is delighted to be asked out by her former high school crush.
Over dinner, things soon start to unravel as she discovers that Chip Matthews, most popular boy in the class of ’87, has never quite managed to leave the happiest days of his life behind. He still hangs out with the same jocks, still works at the local multiplex and, the clincher, still lives with his parents. “But I can stay out as long as I want.” No need, Monica is already on her way home.
The point is, revisiting your school days as an adult can be a fraught business. Anyone who has ever been to a reunion and awkwardly attempted small talk with the person they once sat behind in third-year ceramics knows as much. Nevertheless, the impulse to do so remains strong for many.
Look at Michael Gove. This week, in a teacher-baiting exercise on a par with wandering around the playground with a “Kick Me” sign on his back, he wrote a sucky letter to his former French master, Mr Montgomery. “You were trying, patiently, doggedly, good-humouredly, to broaden our horizons … And all we could do was compete to think of clever-dick questions to embarrass you and indulge in pathetic showing-off at your expense,” he grovelled.
Fiona Phillips, on the other hand, took an invitation to speak at her alma mater as an opportunity to settle some old scores. The former GMTV presenter said that the school had been “rampant with hormones and no discipline, no aspiration and no encouragement”, blamed it for turning her into a “vile teenager” and claimed she managed to leave with only one O-level – and then only because she read a lot at home.
Who hasn’t dreamed of doing what Gove and Phillips have done? Reassessing and explaining one’s childhood self, and telling former teachers exactly what one thinks of them to boot – all from the older, wiser and more successful platform of adulthood? It might be therapeutic but, as exercises go, it’s as pointless as those sixth-form career-aptitude tests that analyse your handwriting and conclude that you’re going to be an archivist, or maybe a nail technician. Worse than that, it’s a vanity project, like combing old school reports and picking out early signs of brilliance/non-conformity.
Of course we were all more ignorant, immature and annoying to adults when we were at school. We were children. Fortunately, at school, learning lessons is the name of the game. There are plenty of things I wouldn’t do now that I did then. I’d never lock my boss in his office, for example, but we regularly did it to our English teacher in second year. Sorry, Mr Edwards. There, I feel much better but saying sorry doesn’t rewrite history.
Our schooldays shape us, shape our lives. There are teachers whom we never forget – those who inspire and set us on the path, those too, perhaps, who scar and discourage. Growing up is about learning lessons and moving on. Clinging to the highs and lows of a single early decade, however formative, many years later, is a little sad. Just think of Chip Matthews.
As for the Education Secretary’s sign off – “So Danny, it may be too late to say I’m sorry. But, as my mum told me, it’s never too late to set the record straight” – it’s a C- at best. In fact, it’s never too late to say sorry, if you really mean it, but doing so to “set the record straight”, that’s just cheating the past.
The fine art of making a joke
Politicians are kryptonite to comedy. As soon as someone, anyone, on the green benches adopts a popular joke, it dies. See “Calm down, dear”, the -shambles suffix, Nick Clegg’s “I’m sorry” song, etc.
But what about artists? What happens when they get in on the joke? The question was raised in exuberant, unexpected style this week by Ai Weiwei when he joined the Gangnam gang. “Gangnam Style”, in case you’ve been living under a wireless-free rock for the past month, is the Korean pop sensation which has become the most “liked” and third most watched clip in YouTube history, with 530 million hits so far. Like all net-quakes, the music video and its silly dance routine have spawned a landslide of imitations with everyone from Eton schoolboys to Ban Ki-moon spoofing its moves. It can only be a matter of time before Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian and Team GB’s diving squad share their versions, too.
In the meantime, Ai has made his own parody, flailing around his Beijing studio compound in neon pink shirt and signature grey beard and doing the giddy-up hands while wearing handcuffs.
It’s gloriously silly but it has a serious side, too. Ai has called his version “Caonima Style”, a reference to a Chinese censorship. “Our happiness is constantly being taken away from us, our homes demolished. We are always controlled, passports can be taken away from us…” he said. “However, every morning we have the opportunity to give others something to laugh about.” The Chinese authorities, naturally, didn’t see the funny side and wiped it from the web instantly.
Unlike MPs who like to crush a meme under the weight of their own manifestos, Ai appears to have done the impossible – filmed a YouTube parody that might just be funnier than the original and scored a political point in the process. That really is a fine art.