Abstract: Autobiography or confessional? The title is not plagiarised from the literary offering by a certain Mr. Tim Griggs, but that of a short story that has been languishing in my archives for over ten years, an ironic comment on the requirement in modern Western society for a female to be attached and the difficulties in attaining this state of “bliss”.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Pips and Gown

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:53 pm

My relationship with male authority figures has always been fraught.  From my earliest years of squirming on a hard, unrelenting pew with only a Pan Drop for consolation (possibly also a tactical move on the part of my kind neighbour to avoid the restlessness induced by the sheer tedium of the sermon manifesting itself in commentary), I was subjected to subtle brainwashing about the innate rightness of males in power, the Supreme Being a father figure (mirroring the domination of earthly patriarchs), concerned for the welfare of his charges, kindly, yet distant, benevolent, yet not averse to dispensing brutal discipline when his querulous underlings challenged his ascendancy.  A man in charge was inscribed in the very order of things, so natural as to go unnoticed, a fact of life corroborated by countless examples in my everyday interactions.  As soon as I stopped being overwhelmed by the inexpungible stain of having been born female and the attendant guilt (so skillfully manipulated by His representatives in the church with their monopoly on absolution), I discarded God as a noxious encumbrance.

Yet how saddened I was at the news that one of the icons of childhood Saturday evenings had passed awayBrigadier Sir Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart belonged to the Establishment, yet his admiration for the Doctor was genuine.  Although conventional in his attitudes, he was not as starched as a military moustache and tolerated his scientific adviser’s flaws out of respect for his knowledge and in recognition of their common cause, protecting humanity.  I unconditionally adored the Brigadier.  He was handsome, dashing, level-headed no matter how dire the threat, stoically resigned both to the doctor’s soft-heartedness and his propensity to disappear for prolonged periods only for them to pick up where they left off when he finally returned, unfailingly loyal in his friendship.  Relegated to the sofa as my Father claimed his rightful place in the armchair (he would never miss an episode), I was enthralled by the Brigadier’s adventures, how the Doctor could temper his no-nonsense pragmatism  when confronted with invaders to at least give him a chance to dissuade the latter from their plans in the interests of self-preservation.  The Brigadier could always be relied on to save the day, indulging the Doctor with mild amusement or exasperation depending on the direness of the circumstances, yet willing to accommodate his desire to negotiate rather than succumbing to the knee-jerk prohibition a commander of lesser calibre might have resorted to (the default setting instilled by rigorous training).

The image that most haunts my memory is of Jo Grant sitting on the floor, so engrossed in reading that she does not notice a repulsive giant maggot crawling towards her, her complete vulnerability conveyed to perfection by the nakedness of her exposed back in the carefully chosen dress.  Although the Brigadier did not come to her rescue by firing a few rounds into the vile creature, this was one cliffhanger that did not inspire nightmares, as, in spite of plot constraints (I was only 8 when the installment was broadcast), I anticipated his intervention, his presence so comforting.

Latterly, I find I identify with fictional male characters who occupy a position within a hierarchy broadly analogous with my own.  Over the last few months, my favoured escape from the stresses and strains of a workplace that devours ever-increasing amounts of my time and energies (intellectual, creative and emotional) has been into a similarly paranoid environment, the world of The X-Files (together with the Hungarian and my son we have watched every single episode plus the films).  I have earned scorn and derision not only from them, but from my dear friend Annie, who summed up their collective reaction succinctly: “You are deranged!” on the subject of which I find more attractive: Mulder or Assistant Director Walter Skinner.  Sorry, but I have remained true to type in this respect: Mulder embodies the masochistic male persecuted and suffering for his beliefs, an archetype drawn for Western religious tradition.  Skinner, by contrast, is more decisive, with his military background (the Marines), yet faces dilemmas and difficulties I can most certainly empathise with.

From the outside, Skinner wields power, yet his exercise of it is hedged about not only by the institutional imperatives inherent to every bureaucracy (and which by definition must take precedence over individual projects, such as Mulder’s quest for the truth), but his room for manoeuvre is also severely circumscribed by the scheming of his superiors as well as the machinations of the grey eminence lurking malevolently in the shadows, whose menace permeates Skinner’s office, symbolised by the cigarette smoke that lingers after his departure.

In order to climb to his present rank, Skinner has been forced to trade in a portion of his integrity, entering into compromises, which implicate him in the wider conspiracy, however marginally and however reluctantly.  No matter how much sympathy he might feel for Mulder and Scully, he has no option but to act as an agent of the forces they seek to expose.  He too possesses knowledge it is better for them not to be made party to.  Where he can, he leaves a space for autonomous action for them, turning a blind eye to their potentially disruptive and dangerous activities.  When left with no option, he instinctively sides with his subordinates at considerable risk to his career and even life.

Personal experience is not as straightforward and some affronts can neither be forgotten nor entirely forgiven.  Inevitably, my thoughts drift back to secondary school and the rector, swathed in his gown of mourning black, prowling the corridors to enforce his reign of fear.  His obituaries in the local and national press last year did not cause me to review the past with a glow of nostalgia, a melancholy fondness or introspective regret at the ineluctable destiny of all flesh.  I have no reason to dispute the testimonials about his dedication to his calling or that he rose from humble origins, yet to my mind (then and now), he epitomised the arbitrariness and unfairness of male authority.  This is the juncture at which wider social narratives intersect with my own drama.

Maggie, the most brilliant of them all, who circumvented the strict uniform rules with wonderfully insubordinate inventiveness and flair, wrapping a PLO scarf round her neck in the chillier months (in those days you could be belted for wearing skirts deemed provocatively – in both senses – short and overt political statements were anathema).  An ardent Communist in defiance of her privileged roots, she loathed the drilling cold-bloodedly calculated to transform hormonally-tormented, passionate teenage (potential or actual) rebels into model citizens, meek and obedient, knowing our place all too well.  She bailed out to study medicine at the age of 17 rather than put up with that constricting milieu any longer than absolutely necessary.  She had not been infected by the snobbery of reputation and did not stay on simply to pander to the expectations of parents or friends.  Any university would have scrambled to offer her a place.  She had nothing to prove and was free of the insecurity that whispers continually in my ear.

My Latin teacher, a much-loved eccentric, who always wore a bow tie signalling that he would play by the rules, but never abandon his individuality in the process, encouraged me to apply for an Oxbridge place.  My results were unmatched in my chosen subjects (I have no problems admitting to a weakness at maths and physics, languages and history always being my strengths), so there was no disputing my ability.  However, the support of the headmaster was essential, so I was summoned into NM’s presence.  Peering over the top of his glasses, he reviewed my results and summarily pronounced his verdict: he was only allowed to issue two recommendations, one of which was reserved for the male dux, the other for the son of the English teacher.  He would not waste one on a girl (not even on the female dux).  Only with the distance of many years can I see that I did not stand a chance; that from his vantage point it would be reckless to risk his good name in giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who came from the wrong part of town, a mere housing estate as opposed to a hilltop villa; that he owed his English teacher a favour in exchange for faithful service and this trumped any obligation towards a nobody, albeit a talented one.  This does not vindicate him in my eyes, even though I can recognise that he was a product of his time and generation every bit as much as the rest of us (which most definitely encompassed deep-rooted sexism and class prejudice).  It was still a mean-spirited decision that caused me a great deal of anguish.  He would have seen me as fit for a more modest role as a mother, as a compliant housewife, perhaps a pillar of the local community, but discerned nothing to justify broader aspirations.

As it turned out, the son of the English teacher was rejected and went to Durham instead.  I studied at Edinburgh.

On a visit home one summer, some twenty years or so after leaving school, I spotted the rector, gown long since handed over to his successor, striding along the pavement, diminutive wife scuttling several paces behind, desperately trying to keep up.  Although diminished in stature, his face was still set in a scowl, eyes ferociously intense yet devoid of any human warmth.  There was no flicker of acknowledgement as we passed.  The adolescent boys he punished with his strap would still be standing tall and straight, yet I wondered whether they would answer back.  Long suppressed anger welled up, yet I let the moment slip by without introducing myself to extract revenge by listing all my academic and other achievements in a demonstration of how wrong he had been, the extent to which he had allowed bias to interfere with his judgement.

1 Footnote

  1. Redemption Blues is not often updated nowadays and it was a pleasure to read this sffectionate and perceptive eulogy for the dear old Brigadier which softened your innate (and probably justified) dislike of male authority figures.

    It seems that Nicholas Courtney was even more lovable than the character he plsyed.

    Comment by Tony — Sunday, 27 February 2011 @ 4:05 pm

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