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Tuesday 14 October 2014

The (less than) great debate

Sixth-form Swank
Short story. 1954 words

THE thick lenses in Arthur Gager’s spectacles radiated circles within circles,  spinning round eyes that yearned for light. No rugby or cricket for him, not that he minded. As a sixth former he had been reduced to umpiring and found he enjoyed the authority, liked being acknowledged for his pedantry and love of arcane rules.

His outside world had gradually contracted. Rather than squinch at it he preferred to read about it. As during this brief wait for the bus. Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower was elegantly written, but even so his sensitive ears picked up the voices, animated and high-pitched. Two girls at the other bus-stop wearing their navy blue blazers. Off to their grammar school in the other direction.

Something about the girls’ images needed decoding but they were too blurry. In his brief-case were umpiring glasses which gave him more distance. But his bus was arriving with a roar and he needed to step from the kerb on to the platform without making a fool of himself.

Sitting inside the bus he removed his glasses to blot out distractions. He’d not noticed the girls before which was odd since they, like him, were using the most obvious service for getting to school. But perhaps The Proud Tower had been more gripping. Perhaps too they were not always as vocal. Tomorrow, wearing his distance glasses, he’d get another chance.

RE-ENTERING school he forget about them as the sense of sixth-form privilege descended A group of four, all equally clever, all seriously committed to history, all manipulated skilfully by Arthur’s favourite master Ted Plaice.

“Beckinsale,” said Plaice, “give me your thoughts on Charles Grey.”

An incomplete question and therefore a trap, lacking the qualification “relative to the 1832 Reform Act”. Beckinsale was however unfazed.

“The prime minister was cautious, and for good reason. He had the ear of the King.”

“Why was that important?”

“The King supported the Act reluctantly,” said Beckinsale.

“Do kings usually favour greater electoral powers for the people?”

“Not as a rule. But their regal glitter can be dulled by so many rotten boroughs. Grey truckled to the King by selling the Act as essentially a conservative measure.”

Gentle approval. And so it went on.

At the break Plaice asked Arthur to stay behind. “Do you fancy a cigarette? Outdoors.”

“I don’t smoke, sir. But I’m flattered.”

They stood together in the courtyard. “Look Young Arthur, I could fix you up with a history class but you’d do that standing on your head. I want to test your adaptability.”

“Not maths, I hope sir.” Gager touched his pebble glasses. “The blind leading the blind.”

“How about geography?”

“Good grief!”

“It’s a bum subject. But if you fail – which I’m not expecting – no innocent young mind will be scarred.”

Gager nodded. “Peninsulas and coal mining in Lodz. I’ll be pleased to give it a whirl, sir.”

“Good man.”

TRANSITUS C consisted of fourteen-year-olds who were academically going nowhere. Their parents paid fees which ultimately ensured that more brilliant minds like Arthur got a shot at Oxbridge. Surveying the classroom as they filed in he spotted a wall map.

“My name’s Gager. Cordingley, who’s Cordingley,” he called out firmly, asserting himself.

A hand rose.

“Tell me, Corders, why should that map be ignored?”

“Because I’m not into world domination… sir.”

Perhaps Transitus C weren’t duds. Just lazy.

Gager said, “Let’s assume – however difficult – you are the oughties equivalent of Phillip the Great. You’ve been handed that map for your next campaign. You immediately put out the eyes of your map supplier. Why?”

Briefly he had their attention. Someone, not Cordingley, pointed out the USSR no longer existed. Gager asked them to identify Kazakhstan and Chechnya and they played along for ten minutes. But the mood was sluggish and he saw he was losing them. As a cop-out he asked for fifty words on the difference between physical and political geography.

“You have quarter of an hour,” Gager said. “After, I want them all read out aloud. In break time if necessary.”

It wasn’t teaching but at least Transitus C were under control. He walked the aisles hoping to generate menace. As he passed by, the boy who had known about the USSR pulled out his handkerchief. No doubt he would now blow his nose with a noise resembling a fart.

From the handkerchief something fell to the floor and Gager picked it up. A photograph of a plain-looking girl wearing the girl’s grammar school blazer, reminding Gager of his unfinished business. He handed the photo back and the boy unexpectedly blushed. “Thank you, sir. It’s Hoskins, by the way. And that’s the girl-friend. IT need her photo for the programme.”


“For the debate, sir,” said Hoskins. “The annual debate.”

Dimly Gager remembered. An inter-grammar-school event that tended to cause much faux-sexual chat among the staff and the boys. Gager had never attended; the debate subjects had never seemed serious enough.

“What’s the subject this year?”

Hoskins said, “Feminism – success or failure?”

Typical, thought Gager. “It take it your… er, girl-friend is speaking?”

“Ooh yes, sir. She’s mega-clever.”

Plaice required a report on the geography class and pooh-poohed Gager’s pessimism. “I wasn’t expecting a Damascene moment, Young Arthur. No transfer of knowledge. You kept the barbarians in order. That was what mattered.”

Gager wondered whether Transitus C might have hidden virtues, that their defects might be due to other causes, not their fault. Normally he’d have discussed this but for once his mind was elsewhere. That a more or less unexceptional fourteen-year-old lad had a girl-friend.

UMPIRING glasses made things clear: the two girls – young women, Gager supposed – were carrying brief-cases, proof positive that they too were in their school’s sixth form. The traditional shoulder bag was useless for the heavy tomes of advanced learning. Both girls/women were immensely superior in looks to Hoskins’ mega-clever debater, even though they were chalk and cheese to each other. One tall, willowy, with scattered light-brown hair, the other darkly complexioned, a mildly voluptuous body and a polished-jet bob.

Gager stared at them transfixed, his mind empty of thought, given over to sensations. They noticed and the darker one waved. Gager felt his face warm up alarmingly. The first time he’d knowingly blushed.

On successive mornings he stared, they waved and finally he waved back. Both smiled. On the fifth morning the darker one called out. Gager stepped halfway across the road.

“See you at the debate tonight,” she repeated.

And Gager nodded vigorously.

Lord Melbourne’s compromises were pushed to one side as Gager, cloistered in the library, brought himself up to date on women’s politics. By his standards the sources were poor tack and he scythed expertly through book after book, unworried by the burden of dates, the validity of cross-references or of axes to grind. The authors’ names, seen previously only in newspaper headlines, ebbed and flowed in his consciousness and the range of subjects appeared to contract rather than widen. Repetition set in and he found himself drawn into the byways. Shaw engaged him with wit – a quality in short supply elsewhere – and he had time to tackle Simone de Beauvoir’s more technical journalism, untranslated from the French.

The sheets in the ring binder thickened until it was time to dash home for tea, put on a shirt and tie and walk out to the bus-stop. He had wondered whether he might share the bus with either or both of them but things turned out better still. A protective father was driving them and they stopped to pick him up. He found himself on the back seat with willowy Liz, a PPE in all but name and a degree. Pam sitting in front frightened him slightly when she confessed to organic chemistry. Gager had unaccountably suspected poor eyesight would be a hindrance with the hard sciences.

“Will you be speaking?” asked Pam, dark eyes merry and welcoming.

Gager held up the ring binder and Pam’s expression was immediately wiped away.

 “What’s that?”

“Some notes I put together. I needed a bit of background. Until today Bindel and Dworkin were just names.”


“Mostly back-up. I expect you lot will cover the big names while I fill in the cracks. Shaw impressed me all those years ago.” Alarmed by Pam’s blank face, Gager added hurriedly, “But perhaps he doesn’t count these days.”

There was no further conversation and Gager realised something had gone wrong.

THE DEBATE informed him. No one else had made notes; no one else had apparently thought twice about what they were going to say. Within minutes Gager saw that the main speakers’ research was ineffably feeble, gathered from the Internet, magazines, even television.  Of all the names Gager had ploughed through only Germaine Greer’s emerged and that as part of a weak joke based on the title of The Female Eunuch. Hoskins’ girl-friend proved to be almost childish and he realised that his few hours’ work gave him the power to wipe her out. The concept of opposing views appeared lost in a welter of parrotting.

Glancing around Gager noticed the audience included two masters who, way back, had taught him. Studiously they listened, conscientiously they applauded.

Proposers and seconders stumbled on and Gager sank back, metaphorically shrugging his shoulders. He’d misunderstood the level, any contribution he made would be hopelessly out of key, and it only remained for him to restrain himself.  Perhaps even leave now, surreptitiously.

He picked up the ring-binder, shuddering at the thought that he might have strayed unwarned into this amateur gathering, trying to sell a handful of Anne Whitefield quotes from Man and Superman. Crouching he eased himself out of his seat, turning to the end of the row.

To a deafening silence.

He hadn’t noticed.

The final seconder had abruptly closed her mouth and the moderator had gestured to the floor. Making Arthur Gager, half standing, binder in hand, appear as the first volunteer. What then? Should he sign out with an acid word from Cromwell, say, or Lord Salisbury? The authentic voice of the sixth form.

Tasting a stream of instantly available quotations he glanced voraciously round the hall and his eyes lit on the barely familiar face of Hoskins. Hoskins! That meaningless fourteen-year-old, staring vacuously. Hoskins? Oh, not Hoskins. Thrice blest Hoskins.

Specs still in place Gager looked to his right and saw Pam’s face, frowning, even apprehensive. Had she intended to speak? Had she sensed his situation from what he’d said in the car? Pam, oh God! She reminding him why he was here. Not for any rubbishy debate but to help him re-create that delicious sense of unease.

Ineluctably the sixth form ethos took over.

Gager put his binder down. “I’d like to say something to everyone from the Girls’ Grammar School. But I’m male and the chances are I’ll raise suspicions. I have to say it anyway.

“I’d like to be liked but that’s obviously too much. To be thought honest – far too big. To be thought supportive – huh, I’m asking for the moon. I’m male and males have bad records.

“So I’m lowering my sights. Are you able to think of me as polite? Nothing more?”

Silence rang out with tinnitus added.

Gager looked around, avoiding Pam’s face but saw Liz’s. Typed it as quizzical.  He shook his head. “I guess not. Sad really. Now I’ve got a bus to catch.”

THE WEEK-END intervened. On Monday he left home ten minutes early and they were there at his bus-stop, changing their brief cases from hand to hand to ease the weight. Somehow Pam seemed slightly less voluptuous, while Liz had gained authority.

Liz said, “How about alternate dates? Or if you must, a threesome?”

NAME CHANGE. The school mentioned in this story and its associated practices are imaginary. This is inevitable since I have no direct knowledge of what goes on in sixth forms - I left formal education behind at age 15. However I needed a short snappy name for a teacher and I chose one attached to a teacher who for one year did teach me. Not history (no teacher had much success with that) but another subject. In fact his methods were exemplary and there were others reasons why I admired him. Rather than have his innocently chosen name tied in with my story, I have replaced it.


  1. Wow - his sense of unease will never feel delicious again.

  2. I like this one very much, though unfamiliarity with the tripartite system had me guessing. Well plotted with every scene vital and interesting. I don't know whether Liz's closing propositions are sincere or sarcastic. Works either way. Love it.

  3. I'm sending this to the Kindle to read at leisure (probably in the loo).

  4. All: The first comment on this story came from Fedorovna. Alas, it only got as far as my email Inbox, it never appeared publicly. I reproduce it here (in itals) with my response:

    Fed: Delicious! 17 going on 80....as is the way of earnest sixth formers. Remember William Hague?

    RR responds: One of the great treats about writing fictional posts is that they generate utterly unexpected comments. I never saw Gager in this light (the young/old teenager) and yet as I re-read the story I see this interpretation as completely legitimate.

    For those unaware of British politics William Hague briefly led the Tory party and was until recently Foreign Secretary, due to to retire from politics at the next General Election in May.

    He is famous for giving a speech at a Tory party conference while only 16, berating the Old Guard in a horribly flat West Riding accent (ie, like mine). Later he had surgery on his accent but it was only partially successful. As a result he speaks a unique form of English, made even more bizarre by a strange addiction to pauses in inappropriate places.

    Ellena: I was rather proud of "delicious unease" as a two-word summary of an adolescent's awakening to sex. As I leave him Gager - like most of my short story characters - sits uncomfortably but that is always the case with lads of his age.

    MikeM: The first draft was 2500 words long and hinged on a completely different (though equally chaotic) version of the debate. Proof in writing fiction that amputation is nearly always beneficial. It seems appropriate that Gager's situation (totally inverted) is matched by Pam going down and Liz going up. Both young women, with those names, existed in my adolescence though I am clearly not Gager since I left school at 15. Sixth form was then as much a mystery as it is now.

  5. In the end this soothed my 3am insomnia (too much coconut in the Quiet American's Thai curry and weakness in not turning down coffee afterwards). A really very satisfying read. Arthur's contribution to the debate must surely be one of the best male responses to feminism I could ever hope to hear, and I'm so glad he gets rewarded for it. Despite, or compounded by, Fedorovna's William Hague illumination, I have difficulty believing any 18 year old boy - even an oughties reincarnation of RR - would ever be be able to formulate it in those circumstances, but one can dream.

    (Thank you ever so for the e-mail, I am treasuring it up in my heart and will respond, meanwhile I have an appointment with a hoover, a barrow load of concrete and 'Guys and Dolls' on the telly this afternoon...)

  6. Lucy: Thank you for your kind words which, nevertheless, left me wondering if they would have differed had they been composed at that other location you mentioned. More contemplative? More saturated with relief.

    I know you don't do so directly but I had hoped I could avoid any suggestion that Arthur Gager and I shared any academic experience. The attraction in writing this story was to depend purely on my imagination in creating life in the sixth-form - a bit like that other story where I imagined life in heaven.

    A barrow-load of concrete! I tremble in anticipation. Will we be seeing another masterpiece like the one about grouting and/or pointing?

  7. I have a dear little Chrome extension that will format any web page or selected text therefrom and send it neatly to the Kindle; useful for blog posts, stories or other internetty things which benefit from being taken off into a place of undistracted isolation, such as the loo, or where the computer cannot easily go, such as the dentist's waiting room. Sadly, the amount of matter thus collected far outweighs visits to these places; there is always more to read than opportunities to read it.

    Tom suffering from lack of sleep and surfeit of coconut too, cried off the concrete job, a low outside wall, so I dug the vegetable beds instead. I used to be the concrete-mixer-in-chief at one time, I mixed, he laid. My services aren't really called for here, he could easily do it himself, I just feel a need to reclaim some of my bricolage role for reasons of self-esteem, I think.

    I didn't assume you and your character necessarily shared experience, only that you might have been exceptionally able to come up with such bons mots in those circumstances, or something like that.

  8. How did Harry Rée (my dad) get into this story?

    Jonathan Rée

  9. Lucy: What's with this toxic cocoanut? Or are we talking about a family-wide allergy? For me cocoanut is two things: (a) chewy, (b) excellent in soap. But there, I may have answered my own question.

    Nice little app. But if we're talking allergies, Chrome's one of mine.

    "shared academic experience". Oooh, ah, it's a compliment. You know how bad I am with those. Sorree.

    Anon: He happened to be my French master at school. I just needed a name, that's all. A schoolmasterly name. I have now changed it, see footnote

  10. About Harry Rée, my dad: sure he would have been pleased. There was actually a big gathering last weekend to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday, attended by many grateful former pupils (Bradford, Watford, York) with funny stories to tell

    Jonathan Rée

  11. Having read the story and the above fascinating discussion, I will focus on my response to the story. I think for me it captures the curious intersection which occurs in adolescence, namely the development of intellectual abilities coevally with the awareness of the wonders of (interaction with) the opposite sex. Whether this occurs in the sixth form or in the sci fi literati of the jazz club circuit, it comes to the same thing. The mind and the libido of the individual, whatever their gender, start to serve each other, and long continue to. This story rings true to experience and imagination, the latter being as fine a tool of composition as experiential memory tracks (equally may also be). I should really weed out the wordiness of this comment but hope it makes some sense.

  12. Lucas: Hey, look. That moment you describe - the sudden discovery of another option - is a complex one and you're entitled to all the words you need. And here's a minor confession: I've never known exactly what coeval meant.

    There is yet one other aspect I've only just recognised. Had the level of debate been somewhat higher Gager would probably have made his planned response, very likely it would have been over-long and over-stuffed with academic data. Quickly forgotten. As it was his situation forced him to be concise and - I trust - more memorable. A valuable lesson, not always taught in schools.