It was Wednesday afternoon and I found myself trudging across Sherdley Park, which Wikipedia would tell you is a 336 acre park in Sutton in St Helens. It's probably the biggest park in the area and I know it from my childhood when we'd occasionally visit to look at the peacocks.
It was late afternoon and the sun was already lying oblique to the land, throwing long searching shadows that had hurried me on towards the hospital where I was due to collect some important paperwork. I'd had a bad morning. For the third time in about a month, I'd discovered that the neighbour has not been passing on mail mistakenly delivered to their address. This is bad enough when the letter is a bill but far worse when the mail includes important hospital results. All week, my sister had been expecting a vital letter from a consultant and only when the letter was three days overdue did I think to check the only place we'd not yet checked: above the neighbour's fireplace. Sure enough, our neighbour had kept the letter and hadn't bothered to pass it on. It was why I found myself making the trip into St Helens so late in the day. It's why my day had been so frantic, how I'd come to accidentally smash my bike lamp (now fixed thanks to superglue), discovered that my headphones (essential walking equipment) were bust (and are still bust). Without music and feeling generally pissed off with the world, I was trying to pass my time taking pictures of trees as I made the 25 minute walk.
By the time, I was heading back, it was nearly three o'clock and the schools were emptying.
Sherdley Park sits beside Sutton Academy so it was unsurprising that I found myself surrounded by Sutton Academy students. In the modern climate, a man can't take photographs when there are school kids within ten miles so I put away my camera and pushed on towards the dying sun and my imminent train home.
And then I saw a group of them. Well, I say 'group' when I mean a 'gang'. It was a gang about 200 strong and the correct term is probably a 'mob'. It was a mob gathered on the edge of the park for reasons that were unknown until I got closer and I heard the cheering. Then I saw the fists flying and flailing cuffs darting between the camera phones held aloft. It was an old fashioned schoolyard scrap and I hadn't seen one of those in years. I confess: I smiled.
The path to the station led right past the crowd and I feared they might swell over and block my exit to the train. However, by the time I got close, the scrap came to an end when one lad broke away. He was a short brutish lout, probably raised on nothing but pig meat. He had the look of the typical schoolyard thug or typical in my experience of schoolyard thugs who always tended to look overweight, squashed features, short cropped hair topping off a look of malevolent evil.
He was cursing towards another lad who emerged from the crowd but I don't know why. I'd passed on, aware of that my train was due. A moment later, three teachers ran past me and back towards towards the riot. Teaching is an insane business, not for the weak of heart. My own instinct would be to leave the two lads to duke it out but, I suppose, the teachers aren't there to decide which fights are fair and which are simple bullying. Perhaps the punch-faced boy was the victim and not the instigator. I don't know and I'll never know.
Sitting on the platform five minutes later, I overheard all manner of rumour from the students waiting for the train. No doubt in some dark corner of the internet, videos are being posted and bloody noses posed for posterity. It's a different kind of childhood and, I think, a sad one too. I was beaten up twice in my life and both times at school. Strangely, I wasn't beaten up a third time. Not once I'd hit six feet and the thugs discovered that I knew karate. Yet I'd hate to think that footage of my childhood beatings still exist. I'm not sure how I would react had I been born into this generation where nothing passes into forgetful memory, when the youthful discovery of sex and violence are there for the word to see and to mock.
Yet the bullying isn't the real reason I hated school. I hated school because school taught me nothing but prepared me for a life of subservience to a system. The very concept of a tie is anathema to me. What exactly is a tie? It's the only item of clothing that doesn't actually fulfill a utilitarian service. People might say it covers up buttons or fills in a gap but, really, it's there to do nothing but indicate your subservience to a greater other. In the bright light of day, schools are supposed to be about personal development and bringing out your character and individuality. The truth rarely spoken is that schools -- and I suppose I really speak about those in deeply working class areas -- are really about destroying the individual, of taking away the rebellious streak, and preparing you for a life of 9 to 5 grind. Your school years really teach you how to wear a tie.
Last night, thinking all about this, I fired off an email to the school which was largely tongue in cheek but less largely, I suppose, a genuine expression of my relief that children are still unprogrammed, raw, occasionally bestial. Only a fool would prefer chaos to a civilisation but all great civilisations need a touch of madness. Last year, Jon Ronson wrote a hot blistering piece about hacking culture in America, a subtext of which was the correlation between crime and freedom.
Seeing the crowd calling for blood and excited by violence was a reminder that really that's there within all of us. It is ugly and might hint towards the frightening truth that civilisation is merely a thin facade and extreme brutality is merely under the surface of the suburban bland. However, it's also a reminder about freedom and how that's something everybody really yearns for.
Anyway, I'm hopefully programming today. Here for posterity is my email to the school.
I assume you are used to hearing only bad things about your students so I thought it only right to drop you a quick note to say 'well done' when they prove themselves a credit to our community.
Like so many of the older generation, I've been occasionally cynical towards the youth of today. I've always assumed that they're all ensconced pimple deep to their Gorilla glass, enjoying virtual worlds but otherwise too busy face-twittering their Google yahoos to care a hoot about healthy living and the great outdoors. I don't know about you but I say there's neither a vice nor virtue you can find on the internet that you can't also enjoy by climbing up a tree or looking down at the world from a high rocky ledge.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was enjoying a bracing visit to Sherdley Park today (peacocks) and I noticed a sizable gathering of your youth also enjoying this 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' (Keats). I say 'sizable gathering' when I should more accurately describe it as a 'mob', though I fear there are too many negative connotations attached to that word when I mean to say only positive things. There they were, upwards of two hundred in the field, enjoying nature in the gathering dusk. This, I thought to myself, is surely a sign that all is not ugly about modern youth. Watching them, I was reminded of the words of Fitzgerald who remarked that youth give off the 'calories of virtue'. I thought pretty much the same when I heard one of your virtuous tykes shout words which will forever be etched in my memory. 'Effing nail him!' he cried or words to that effect and I believe even you, Ma'am, would forgive his use of the Anglo Saxon had you seen the look of wild enthusiasm in his eyes.
So, please, allow me to congratulate yourself and all the staff at the Sutton Academy for encouraging your wards to embrace traditional sports. I would never have thought that bare knuckle boxing would still be so popular with our youth but now I see that it's still extremely popular at Sutton Academy! I've not seen a crowd so fuelled with bloodlust since I was lucky enough to see Ali fight Foreman in Zahire in 74. It was particularly encouraging to see that enthusiasm shared by the three members of staff I witnessed rushing out to get a ringside seat. One note of caution, however: I'm not sure men of their girth and age should be running quite so fast, particularly the one at the front who was a lovely mover and probably enjoys ballroom. If he popped a knee, what then? A promising dance career could end, just like that. [Snaps fingers] As for the one at the back (bearded, possible real ale drinker), it was an admirable effort but perhaps he should reconsider the wisdom of the hundred yard dash.
Finally, could you please pass on a 'very well done' to the two brawlers involved? It's so good to see young people feeling passionate about their sport and the combatants were certainly bursting with passion when they were done, particularly the short brutish lout who looked like he'd been raised in a shed on nothing but pig meat. You should be proud of him. In my experience, such a high tolerance for pain will certainly earn him a career as a doorman, bouncer, or even a history teacher.
Again, thank you for restoring my faith in modern youth.