Magazine article The Spectator

New School Ties

Magazine article The Spectator

New School Ties

Article excerpt

New school ties

Roy Kerridge

COMP: A SURVIVOR'S TALE by John-Paul Flintoff Gollancz, L10.99, pp. 285

Holland Park comprehensive school opened in 1958 and quickly became the comprehensive for children of wealthy Labour supporters. For a while, such parents could say, `Of course, Emma and Justin go to the local comp.' Other rich Labour supporters would admire such parents for risking their children's lives for the sake of an ideal.

After a while, the penny dropped. All the pupils were Emmas and Justins, the Honourable This-or-that, if the `local comp' just happened to be Holland Park. The school became a laughing-stock. Partly to remedy this, partly because of a new system of 'banding', or bringing in less academic pupils, Holland Park `broadened its intake', as the educationalists say. Unfortunately situated near the drug paradise of Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park became as rough a school as those of Brent, a few miles to the north-west. Brent schools, or rather their pupils, are well known to me. However, the odd 'posh kid' still turns up at Holland Park, for its good reputation dies hard. This is where John-Paul Flintoff, a pupil during the years '79 to '86, comes in.

This unusual book is written in the style of a schoolboy diary, interspersed with short chapters of `adult commentary' here and there. A quick-witted boy, determined to shine in the eyes of his fellow pupils, the 11-year-old John-Paul soon acquired a working-class accent for school only. In the same way, some grammar school boys used to acquire a middle-class accent which they were careful to switch off at home.

Between the first year and the sixth form John-Paul progressed from swearing to fighting to stealing and taking dangerous drugs. Finally, in the sixth, he found that all the rough boys had left and that the people to suck up to were not hard boys' but teachers. So he swotted and went to Oxford, in the process losing his immunity to being beaten up by younger boys.

Very readable, in an Adrian Molepossessed-by-Satan kind of way, the author fixes on a 14-year-old persona and sticks to it, regardless of the passing years. The few 'adult' chapters, by contrast, are unreadable, the historical digressions full of errors. An excruciating poem, a tribute to his old headmaster, ought to have been omitted by a kindly editor.

Whether justly or not, John-Paul Flintoff presents himself as a somewhat unpleasant person. He ingratiates himself with bullies by inventing ingenious tortures for them to use on others. Most of the book is devoted to boastful accounts of his exploits and to admiring descriptions of more daring crimes committed by 'harder' pupils. It reads rather like a comic but heartless description of prison life, in a modern prison where warders and governors live in fear of the convict bullies who rule the roost by 'hardness'.

Until he reaches the sixth, John-Paul appears never to notice official lessons or the nervous or dogged pupils who try to work throughout the uproar. In this way, he does Holland Park an injustice. On the other hand, as the conclusion of the book makes clear, he feels a debt of gratitude to a school that gave him the happiest years of his life, usually at the expense of others.

Despite its many faults, this book makes fascinating reading for students of the condition of Britain. Comprehensive schools in London have grown far worse since JohnPaul's day, and modern problems can be identified here in their embryo forms.

As I write, the most hard-working and diligent pupils at the Brent comps I know are Indian and other oriental girls. …

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