Get On My Cloud! Or how not to develop ‘confident speaking’. With help from Mick Jagger, Rhys Ifans and the cast of The Boat That Rocked
Hey, hey, you, you, get off of my cloud,
Don’t hang around ‘cos two’s a crowd.
The Rolling Stones, Get Off My Cloud
It was 1969. The streets and universities of Paris and the US were in the grip of serious student unrest. Honky Tonk Women by The Rolling Stones was at number one in the charts, and I was ending my second year of a seven year stretch of incarceration as a ‘prisoner of conscience’. Two years previously my parents had examined their consciences (and bank balance) and decided that I should attend a boys’ boarding school five hundred miles north of the family home. It was often tough going, but the experience had a major part in making me what I am, so I’m not complaining.
Looking at schools from the outside, they can seem very strange places at the best of times, but what seem like arbitrary rules and procedures are often there for very good reasons. The classic one about only walking down a flight of stairs on the left hand side and up on the right, for example, is there to prevent accidents. However in some boarding schools you can find some very bizarre rituals and goings on that seem to exist mainly to promote a sense of privilege among children and teens of different ages, in order to establish a pecking order among the pupils, which ultimately leads to a form of social control.
Let’s take the Matron in our school as an example. Anyone who fell ill or had a medical problem had only one chance to see her, by lining up after breakfast, against a wall in the corridor outside her ‘consulting room’. Nurses are supposed to be kind and sympathetic, but I guess she was the exception that proved the rule. In order to get seen, you had to write your name in a notebook outside her room, with a description of your complaint. No name, no description, no service: it was as simple as that. Woe betide anyone who complained of vomiting or diarrhoea. In those cases Matron insisted on being shown ‘a sample’ before she would even countenance letting you in her room. No sample, no believe you sonny: it was as simple as that. Many were the boys who left muttering under their breath, ‘But how am I supposed to provide a sample? Walk around with a little jar in my pocket in case I feel like chundering or get a case of the runs?’
I worked in a supermarket once, and the manager told me that all customers, and especially children, were potential thieves. Maybe Matron and the Brothers who ran the school believed that all boys were potential malingerers, who had to show solid proof of their sickness. As someone who has worked in the National Health Service, I know that statistics are important, as well as the need to have solid evidence in order to show the effectiveness of your treatment. There need to be health and safety regs too. But to this day I still can’t fathom the logic behind our school rule that if you were unlucky enough to throw up outside a toilet then you had to clean the mess up yourself.
As a little boy a long way from home, in an occasionally hostile environment, it wasn’t good to ask too many questions. Unfortunately I was naturally curious, and this often got me into trouble. When I was very young I loved role play, and as I got older my favourite fantasy play involved standing in front of the mirror with a tennis racket and pretending to be each member of the Beatles, or anyone from last night’s Top of the Pops- apart from Mick Jagger, who quite frankly I found very confusing and rather scary. During a holiday at home I happened to tune into a live televised discussion between Malcolm Muggeridge and Mary Whitehouse about ‘The Permissive Society’. Mrs Whitehouse showed clips of The Rolling Stones singing and dancing to Get Off My Cloud and Honky Tonk Women. Her and Malcolm rather sneeringly (I thought) dismissed Mick, Keef and co by saying, “It beggars belief that young girls can find such ugly, and frankly quite sinister, men so attractive. And what exactly does I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis/She tried to take me upstairs for a ride mean? And what about She blew my nose and then she blew my mind?”
My belief was beggared too, but being a curious little fellow, I squirreled the experience away for later use. And it wasn’t long before this nutshell containing Mary, Malcolm and The Stones was going to land me in a heap of trouble. Enter Brother Jasper and his ‘Improving Your Confidence as a Speaker’ classes. Every Tuesday after morning break we sat in our rows in class for an hour, having our confidence as speakers improved. Brother Jasper was an elderly gentleman who had been officially ‘retired after an illness’, but still liked to keep his educational hand in as an ‘oracy’ specialist. We knew he smoked, because you would be almost knocked over by the reek of tobacco surrounding him. However coming as I did from a teetotal family, I couldn’t understand why a bearded man always seemed to have a sweetish aroma on his breath. Surely he didn’t drink aftershave?
The lesson always began with ‘a round of jokes’. Each boy in turn had to tell a joke. Some were funny, some were obscure, and some were downright painful. A few boys just couldn’t cope. They either couldn’t think of a joke, or were caught like rabbits in the headlights of Brother Jasper’s gaze. You see, it was quite tricky to read this man’s mood. If he entered the room with a wistful grin on his face, you knew he would put up with a bit of light-hearted nonsense. If he came in with a knot between his eyebrows, then you had to be a bit careful. If he shuffled into the room with a hooded look, then you knew that there should be no messing about. Well at least I knew. Maybe the good thing about being sensitive is that you learn to see a threat coming from a mile off. Maurice McDonald couldn’t see a threat even it was staring him in the face (or had just thrown a board rubber at him.)
Brother Jasper had a brilliant way of keeping order. If you said something silly then he would say, “On the floor” and the offender would have to sit cross-legged on the floor in front Jasper’s desk. Once three boys were on the floor then they all got whacked with a leather belt. There was a whole ritual to the belting too. By the time the second boy was on the floor, Jasper would tell one of us to go to the school office to get ‘The Office Belt’. This was a much-feared (and some would say respected) instrument of corporal punishment. The idea was that once the belt had been sent for, then no boy would be foolhardy enough to mess around: as not only would he get belted on the hands, but his fellow inmates would get it too. (Presumably Jasper reckoned that we would then give boy number three a good kicking during lunchtime.)
Unfortunately for me, Maurice McDonald was very foolhardy. After the round of jokes, each one of us in turn had to ask Brother Jasper a question. If you couldn’t think of one when your turn came, Jasper would quip/growl/snarl, ‘You’d better have one ready for the next time I come to you.’ As sure as night follows day, McDonald the Foolhardy could be relied upon to ask,’ Brother Jasper, what would happen if an atom bomb fell on your head?’
Jasper had some stock responses to all questions, depending on his mood. If he was feeling chipper he would either ignore daftness, or answer an interesting question in detail. If it was a mildly threatening question; e.g. ‘Brother Jasper, what is sex?’ his considered answer might be either, ‘The most beautiful thing in the world’, or ‘The difference between a man and a woman’. If he was feeling a bit low then the sex question would be met with, ‘You’ll do that in biology next year.’ If he was looking hooded, then the cheeky chappie who asked the question would find himself ‘on the floor’ in the twinkling of a hooded eye. Whatever his state of mind body and soul, Jasper’s retort to all religious or vaguely philosophical questions was one of the following:
- It’s a mystery
- There’s a passage about that in the Bible somewhere
- The Holy Father is due to issue a Papal Encyclical on that subject any day now. Ask me next week.
During one of his few memorable lessons, Jasper‘s look was particularly hooded. He looked like he had a very bad toothache. There was one boy already on the floor (His Limerick, beginning
There was a young woman from Leeds, had not gone down well.) It was my turn, and Jasper snarled, ‘Jones, I’m relying on you to ask me a really sensible question.’ As per usual, my mind was swimming. Then I had a vision that I was sure was going not only to unhood those eyes, but raise Jasper’s eyebrows to the ceiling with delight: ‘Well Brother, do you think that it beggars belief that young girls can find ugly, and frankly quite sinister, men so attractive? And what exactly does I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis/She tried to take me upstairs for a ride mean? And what about She blew my nose and then she blew my mind?’
Not only was I on the floor in two seconds flat, but then McDonald, who sat behind me, dropped his usual nuclear-related bombshell and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Not long after that a visiting elderly Brother came to visit the school ‘on retreat’. Unfortunately he died in his sleep after only two nights of retreating. Our Brother Principal, who fancied himself as a bit of a liberal, decided that it would do all of us boys good to go into the room where Brother Thingy had died, to ‘pay our last respects’. It was an optional experience, but no boy was going to opt out, in case he was accused of being ‘chicken’. I’d never seen a sleeping Brother before, let alone a dead one laid out on the bed. On viewing the body I began to shake uncontrollably, rushed out of the room and puked up all over the corridor.
For some boys, the sight of a fellow human being vomiting is more exciting than poring over a cadaver. Several friends dashed out to see if I was OK. ‘Quick!’ shouted one, ’someone get some bog roll!’ As I slumped on the floor looking at the remains of my school breakfast, (a white bread roll with a dot of butter and a smear of marmalade and a bowl of cornflakes washed down by a cup of tea), I thought it heart-warming to know that even 11-year old boys (some of whom were from Glasgow, and therefore pretty damn hard) can find it within themselves to challenge authority and clear up another boy’s sick. Back comes matey with the toilet paper: “Right lads, tear off a piece of bog roll, dip it in Jonesey’s puke and keep it safe. You never know when you are going to need it to fool Matron!’
The next lesson was with Brother Jasper. He was particularly upbeat and smelling particularly sweetly. I guess it’s not every day one of his kind snuffs it. There were no silly jokes or questions. Everyone was asking sensible and earnest questions about death and heaven and sin and Last Rites. Even Nuclear McDonald had a good question: ‘What exactly does happen to your body when you die?’ Brother Jasper cracked his knuckles and launched into a detailed description of how as soon as the heart stops beating the billions of bacteria your body has been fighting all your life immediately take over and the process of decay….
The last thing I heard, as I tumbled off my bench in a faint, and as my head whacked against a desk, was McDonald shouting, ‘On the floor!’
We love to boogie: How rock on the radio can save the lives of nurses, hairdressers, lavatory attendants, office workers, shoppers, trawlermen, boys in dormitories, girls in dormitories and anyone else who is feeling oppressed and institutionalised. From the brilliant film about pirate radio, The Boat that Rocked. Rock on!!!!