Howard Jacobson: Wounds of school that never heal


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The black dog of depression has been busy around me these past 10 days or so, I'd like to say sinking his teeth into my life force, but it's been more a matter of humping my leg and snuffling my groin.

So I suppose I should call it the speckled puppy of dejection.

I've not yet suffered depression on a Rottweiler or British bloodhound scale, for which I should be grateful, though I'm mindful there's time yet. My depressions have mainly been local and peevish, the result of passing erotic disappointment or unseasonably bad weather. I was depressed the whole time I was at university, but that had a weather explanation, Cambridge being cold every day, and it had an erotic disappointment element as well, there being no girls at Cambridge to speak of in the years I was there. Or if there were, they made themselves scarce when I turned up in two scarfs, a scarlet smoking jacket and with a Gauloise hanging off my lip.

In later years literary disappointment succeeded the erotic, but that doesn't explain the leg humping that's been going on recently, as it's been a good book year for me, what with winning the You-Know-What and having a collection of my Independent columns just out. So I have to account for it otherwise.

It's school, I think. It has to be the wounds of school that have never healed. The shrinkage of all hope that September brought, the evenings closing in, the end of the holidays, no matter that you'd been nowhere, done nothing, seen no one and moped about for six weeks. Forty years on – except that it's more than that – and I'm still dreading having to return to school. In memory I see those first mornings back as colder and darker than they must have been. September isn't that dreary. Even then, September wasn't the smoggiest month, was it? But half of what we call climate is simply the complexion of our souls. In my heart it was dark and cold and foggy. And it was always, no matter what day we actually returned, Monday. Always Monday.

So I'm conflating the horrors of the summer holidays being over with the horrors of the weekend coming to an end, those terrible Sunday evenings with pallid, pious music on the radio, the smell of autumn coming in through the letterbox, and your parents wondering why you have only just decided to do the homework you could and should have done days before, only just got around to digging out your school cap, only just got round to whitening your gym shoes, only just got around to searching out your pens and pencils.

Because my birthday fell – as indeed it still does – towards the end of August, the presents from my family were invariably school-related: a new satchel from my aunty with my initials (HEJ) embossed in gold lettering – a gift to the school wits: "Here comes HEJhog!" – a couple of white shirts from my mother, and from my beloved grandmother a compass and protractor set. How many compass and protractor sets she bought me I have no idea, but that I never once used a protractor or discovered what a protractor was for I can assert with confidence. When I see compass and protractor sets in stationers today I feel a double sorrow – one pang for my poor grandmother who died, looking like an old lady, several years short of the age I am today, and one for the money she wasted on me. We're talking the Fifties here, when it was a protractor or a round-the-world cruise.

In Little Dorrit, Dickens describes the Sunday nights of my childhood: "Gloomy, close and stale ... Melancholy streets in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency ... Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up." This is the dire despondency of a Calvanistical Victorian London, but it was no better further up the country as witness D H Lawrence's even bleaker evocation of Ursula's Sunday night depression in Women in Love: "As the day wore on the life-blood seemed to ebb away from her, and within the emptiness a heavy despair gathered ... She sat suspended in a state of complete nullity, harder to bear than death ... Tomorrow was Monday. Monday, the beginning of another school-week! Another shameful, barren school-week, mere routine and mechanical activity."

Ursula was a schoolteacher, so it should have been better for her than it was for a pupil, but I have been a teacher too and can assure you to the contrary. If it was a spiritual hell sitting there in the Sunday gloom, whitening one's gym shoes and imagining the bell going the next morning, it was worse thinking about being the person who rang the bell. Nothing I have ever done has felt more like death than schoolteaching. When you're a pupil at least you can look forward to getting out, whereas a teacher ...

But then again, maybe not. I have just read that a male teacher (I'm not certain of his discipline) has been caught moonlighting as a stripper, naked butler and lap dancer. This is one way, presumably, of combating the shameful nullity of a Sunday night before the teaching week begins, and ensuring that the speckled puppy of dejection doesn't snuffle your groin, though if it does you're going to be in serious trouble. Instead of being peremptorily sacked by the General Teaching Council, which you would have thought exists for no other reason – if you're not for firing teachers who lower the tone of an already demoralised profession, then what are you for? – he has been let off with a reprimand and a smack on the backside. Thus returned to the sacred calling of pedagoguery, he has been waffling on about "the art of pleasure". Think of it: a male stripper and naked butler, leading his charges out of ignorance into the light of knowledge and wisdom! Education, education, education. Reader, sometimes we have a duty to be depressed.

'Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It', a collection of Howard Jacobson's 'Independent' columns, is published by Bloomsbury