Tuesday, 7 December 2010


Maybe teenagers get to the point when they don't care about rules and can't help breaking them, because so much is happening inside them, the rush of hormones, the great leap forward of the life-force and so on. Here I am, in the final term of my last year as a junior, walking around the top plot at evening recreation, in conversation with two seniors by the names of Scanlon and Cranford, and we are not discussing the weather.
    I have a list of undiscovered transgressions behind me, despite the fact that I am vice-prefect of the junior dormitory, a position of responsibility which was meant to prepare me for more strenuous duties in the coming years. Miraculously, I am still in the dean's good books, having managed during the year to evade him in his game of cat-and-mouse. But I have also become popular among the boys, because of my low-profile anti-authoritarian pranks. I have developed cunning and become rather two-faced. Take, for example, my present perambulations in forbidden company: they are happening on the dean's day off, and I know that his substitute doesn't share his zeal for junior-senior apartheid. And so I have the best of both worlds: I will not be punished, and will also gain a certain amount of admiration for openly flouting the rules. I am still taking a chance, because the dean has been known to appear out of nowhere even on his day off, but the odds on this are not great.
    Fidel Castro has just come to power in Cuba. Elvis Presley has recently released a single called 'Jailhouse Rock'. There are always global developments which seem to coincide vaguely with what's happening in your own mind, as if you could believe in a kind of world-soul. Some begin their anti-authoritarian exploits in the mountains, some in a recording studio. Others, like me, feel obliged to play the piano with their toes, because it's the only way they can correspond to the new craziness - as if, unable to make head or tail of the chords with their fingers, they had to have recourse to the other extremities in order to give expression to the feeling that had overpowered them.
    I was for the new, in whatever form it came, and against the old. The dean was a dinosaur, and so was my father. During the holidays, I had my ears glued to Radio Luxembourg's 'Top Twenty'. Rock 'n' Roll was Fidel Castro with sideburns and Brylcreem instead of a big bushy beard, a guitar instead of a rifle.
       Let's rock
       Everybody let's rock
       Everybody in the whole cell block
       Was dancin' to the jailhouse rock.
The music teacher, Mrs Hargreaves, was the only female teacher in my boarding school. She had a houseful of cats and she brought a fusty cat's-urine kind of smell with her to the small room beside the entrance to the junior dormitory where the piano was and the music lessons took place. She was an old independent-spirited person, a bit of an intellectual - one of those bohemian types of women who age with their minds intact and don't seem to know that they're ageing at all. She told me that Hamlet was really about sexual repression, and lent me Salvador de Madariaga's book,  in which I read unedited passages from the play.
      And fall a-cursing like a drab, a stallion!
In the school version stallion had been replaced by scullion, meaning a kitchen maid, but a footnote in de Madariaga's On Hamlet explained that a stallion was 'a brothel male prostitute', which puzzled me, because I didn't know what a brothel was, or that there could be such people as male prostitutes.
    The music teacher wore layers of embroidery and cardigans, giving off that feline whiff, and she spoke in a posh, emphatic manner. She was a free spirit, and seemed totally unaware that talking about sexual repression to a boarding-school teenager might be deemed seriously out of order. Nobody took her music lessons seriously, neither the authorities, nor the students, nor herself. She was a sucker for digressions, willing to talk about anything under the sun, and sometimes I spent a music lesson without touching the keys of the piano.
      I wasn't particularly shocked by de Madariaga's take on Hamlet. I treasured his book not so much for its rather abstract sexual content, which I only dimly understood, as for its proof that there was a whole world of strange opinions beyond the confines of the college and that Shakespeare wasn't as respectable as the school editions would have us believe. The book became part of my non-conformist image. I wouldn't have to study Hamlet until the following year, and more important than actually reading  de Madariaga's book was being able to show it to guys like Pollard and Nolan, and to say things like 'I'm reading the Spanish critic de Madariaga, you know, and his view on Hamlet is rather interesting' or 'Hamlet is really all about sex, you know'. 
      Because of my obsession with Jailhouse Rock, I prevailed on Mrs Hargreaves to teach it to me from the sheet music.  But it was incomprehensible to both of us, and to me it didn't sound a bit like the record. In the end, the sheer frustration of not being able to learn the score led to my innovative performance of the song before some of my cronies during a wet day's afternoon recreation: banging the piano keys with my toes (I might as well, it seemed as tonal and rhythmic as the hideous chords in the sheet music) and roaring out the words. That performance caused a great deal of noise and mirth, and was interrupted by the dean's substitute, who hid his amusement, and cleared us out of the music room.

From memoir in progress 'The Hungarian for Cheese' © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

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