The Happiest Days of Our Lives (Part 1)

In which The Author remembers his schooldays

Last night’s edition of Just a Minute on Radio 4 included ‘The Albert Hall’ among the list of topics. Susan Calman cleverly went off on a flight of fancy about the Albert Hall in Stirling, before being challenged by Gyles Brandreth on the grounds that there was no such place. Mr Brandreth then conceded that the subject on the card could have referred to any building with a similar name.
It reminded me of an incident which took place when I was about seventeen, and a prefect in the Lower Sixth form in school. That particular week, my mate Chris Buller (now a doctor) and I were on ‘late book’ duty. This meant that we had to wait just inside the main entrance, and mark in any pupils who arrived after the bell had sounded. It was one of the best things about being a prefect. Because everyone else was already in class, you could take things easy and just laugh at the latecomers.
One lunchtime, we were waiting with the book when one of the regulars strolled up to the doors. There was a hard core of late arrivals whose names might as well have been printed on the pages before we even started. He was one of them.
Chris had adopted the word ‘meatheads’ to describe the sort of kids I’m talking about, and it had quickly spread among the prefects. They turned up simply because they’d been caught mitching once too often, and were skating on the edge of the law. For the most part, they were troublemakers, bullies, petty criminals – the ones every teacher knew to keep an eye on, and every prefect had on his radar.
The meatheads would, by and large, go straight into the dole queue, or (quite possibly) join the armed forces, or find jobs on building sites. Those were possible avenues thirty years ago, when you could leave school at Easter with no qualifications whatsoever and still manage to earn a decent living. Now, when you can’t even sign on the dole without having the ‘basic skills’ needed to get by in the world, they aren’t options. A few of them ended up with drink and/or drugs problems, and many of them went to prison. Quite a number are dead now. So it goes.
This lad was classic meathead material. We probably could have written his name in the book before he even got to us, but we thought we’d better go through the motions.
‘Name and form?’ I said automatically.’
‘A. Hall, 4B,’ he replied in a dull monotone.
‘Not Albert, surely?’ I asked with a smile.
‘No – Andrew,’ he droned, oblivious to the joke, and walked off without a word.
When I turned round, Chris was doubled up with laughter.
‘Albert Hall! Brilliant!’ he managed to gasp eventually.
You really have to know your audience, don’t you?