Arguably the greatest Hasmo Legend is the school’s former French master, Mr. Alan Bloomberg, known to all merely as “Cyril”. So numerous and wonderful are the stories surrounding this man that thousands of North West Londoners who never even attended Hasmonean are familiar with the nickname. I have never heard a definitive explanation of its origins – in fact, the only one I have heard relates to the Nice one, Cyril record, inspired by the former Tottenham Hotspur left-back Cyril Knowles – but it fit the slight, eccentric Swansean perfectly, and stuck (though, of course, no one dared call him it to his face).
The large majority of teachers at Hasmonean could be divided into eccentrics, sadists and downright lunatics. That Cyril fits into the first category is a testament to a humanity and humour, however weird, not displayed by too many of his staffroom colleagues. As a result, while Cyril’s eccentricities might have been ridiculed, he was not disliked.
Bring together two or more thirty to fifty-something ex-Hasmo boys, and they will soon regale you with the most wonderfully entertaining stories pertaining to Cyril and his French lessons. I can vividly recall desperately trying to get to sleep every Monday evening, to hasten the arrival, on Tuesday afternoons, of double French, an hour and a half of unbridled hilarity. And I can honestly say that, if I could choose to revisit any ninety minutes of my life, I would not select a memorable “conquest” or a game of football (even my beloved Leeds United effectively clinching the First Division Championship at Bramall Lane in 1992), but just one of Cyril’s French lessons.
Cyril was meticulous to a fault. If we had overpowered him, pinned him to the floor, and forcibly measured the length of each bristle of his trademark pencil-thin moustache, I am certain that we would have found a range differential of no more than a tenth of a millimetre. He kept immaculate records of attendance and test results. And, if he made a mistake, he would pull out a tiny penknife from his inside pocket and scrape the infringing ink off the paper.
My personal favourite Cyril story – and, no doubt, that of most of my former Form 1BK classmates (see photograph below, a year later, with Cyril, our Form 2AB form master) – actually dates back to our first ever lesson with him, in Room 13, in our first week at Hasmonean, circa September 1978 . . .
Cyril compiled his register for the coming year by going through the alphabet and asking boys to raise their hands when he called the letter matching their surname. A hapless Israeli, with very poor English, put his hand up when Cyril called “A”. “Yes,” he said eagerly, “Amnon”. Then, some half an hour later, when Cyril had reached “Z”, Amnon put his hand up yet again. “Zakaim,” he said, rather more gingerly this time, the penny having dropped. Cyril went absolutely mental, his brand new register ruined on the very first day of the new school year. He probably spent that entire evening scraping through thirty-odd names (Zakaim left the school shortly afterwards, probably delighted to get back to the relative normality of Israel, never to be heard from again . . . though he will remain forever in our hearts).
Cyril punished misbehaviour by dishing out what he called “sides”. “Take four sides” (the minimum), he would bark, “two on Obedience and two on Sensible and Decent Behaviour” (preceded, sometimes, by “You’ve wasted my time, now I’m going to waste yours“). Oddly, for such a resourceful man, he never came up with any new topics, which made things difficult for repeat offenders, who had nothing new to add on the subjects. We would fill the “sides” with absolute drivel (“I must be obedient, because it is important to be obedient, because obedience is important . . .”), after it became clear that Cyril never took them home for evening reading.
Cyril would dismiss boys from class with a cry of “Get out, you lout!” And, with the exception of his “star pupils” (Bassous and Coren in our class), who could do no wrong, the rest of us were all, at one time or another, referred to as “wretched creatures that you are”.
Unlike some of his sadistic colleagues, however, Cyril rarely resorted to violence, a quick and incisive wit (if, again, weird) being his weapon of choice. There was, however, one occasion on which he pulled three boys – Garfinkel, Kelly and Kenley – into our classroom (Room 12, I think, “over the bridge”), for making faces through its window. Cyril had his back to the door at the time, and my perennial partner in mischief, Grant Morgan, and I – who had been banished to stand at the back of the class earlier in the lesson – had grassed the three up in the classic fashion: “Sir, there are these boys . . .” Yanking each one in turn by his sideburns, from their standing positions downwards (as if shaking a lulav), while yelling “Stop annoying meeee” (at increased volume with each victim), one half expected the sides of each of their faces to be ripped off from ear to chin. And the looks of shock on those faces as a result of the unexpectedly vicious assault – I can still picture Kenley’s exactly, over 25 years later – had Morgan and I laughing so hard that we were reduced to our haunches.
Cyril’s lessons, even more than most at Hasmo (as it gave more daring boys an opportunity to test his famous unpredictability), were frequently interrupted by requests for spare chairs. On one occasion, this happened so often that Cyril became infuriated, vowing that “the next boy who knocks on this door is gonna be for it” (another one of Cyril’s favoured expressions). And we didn’t have long to wait. Cyril rushed to the door, an enraged Welsh dragon puffing smoke, and pulled it open in order to administer another Chinese haircut. . . until we heard the now famous words: “Oh! Sorry, Mr. Chichios!”
Cyril possessed a wonderful sense of both drama and comic timing. It was as if the classroom was his stage. And his performances were usually captivating. He would read out examination results in ascending order. On one occasion, he reached the top mark without having called the name of Marc Reiss. Lifting Reiss’s red ink-covered exam paper to the class, as if it was diseased and he didn’t really want to be touching it, Cyril commented that marking it was “like wading through a sewer”.
Even though they would be sitting right in front of him, Cyril employed the highly effective dramatic device of referring to errant pupils in the third person, beginning sentences with “This boy . . .” Indeed, one of Cyril’s favourite putdowns was “He is like an idiot. No. He is not like an idiot . . . he is an idiot!”
True, Cyril enjoyed the odd cringeworthy play on French words – for example, “Toute suite” (the instruction he would give his wife [who, for some reason, we referred to as "Agnes"] when she picked him up from school), and “Was he pushed? No, Eiffel” – but he also possessed a wonderful turn of phrase, coming out with some truly memorable lines:
- He would occasionally regale us with tales of his post-war military service in Burma, but – not being able to imagine him in the pith helmet he was obviously so fond of – I once asked Cyril what he was doing in the army, to which he fired back “What do you think I was doing? Sipping cocktails?!”
- He summed up his contempt for football by describing it as “22 grown men chasing a pig’s bladder”.
- And, Cyril’s amusing nicknames for pupils tended to stick – Anthony Levy, for instance, who once hesitated with an answer, became “Errr Levy” for the remainder of his Hasmonean days.
Every few weeks, Cyril would administer a test for revision purposes, with each boy’s answers being marked by the boy sitting in front of or behind him (“mark out of twenty, sign your name, and pass it back in the usual manner”). Cyril would comment on each mark individually, ranging from “very good indeed” down to some expletive or other, with all those just clearing double-figures being greeted with the term “scraper”. More cheating occurred in those tests than in most middle-class suburbs of Paris, seeing as a single-figure mark resulted in “extra work”. It was remarkable that Cyril so rarely became suspicious that the vast majority of marks fell into the “scraper” category. And, to this day, I have never heard of a half being referred to, as it was by Cyril, as “ten and one half”.
Other than “Un bon vin blanc” (Cyril’s demonstration of the full range of French sounds), “Bonjour monsieur” and “Asseyez-vous” – our greeting to, and reply from, Cyril on his entry to the classroom (with his books piled perfectly one on top of the other) – hardly any of us can now speak a useful word of French. That is, however, less the fault of Cyril, and more that of the then archaic syllabus. Judging by the appallingly unimaginative Lectures (French texts), the publishers of our textbooks, Whitmarsh, were obviously oblivious to the fact that anyone in France was called anything other than “Jean” or “Marie”.
In fact, the full extent of our practical exposure to all things Gallic consisted of a one-day ferry trip to Boulogne . . . from which we returned with no French, but plenty of flick knives (don’t ask me why) and pornographic playing cards (no need to ask why). When a more progressive French teacher joined the school, and dared to set her own, more practical examinations, Cyril – fearing his hegemony was being challenged – would refer to her merely as “the wretched Mrs. Samuels”.
We knew how to push Cyril’s ‘buttons’, and they rarely failed to work . . .
- He had particular contempt for those boys – in our group, Reiss, Mencer and, of course, Elbaz (or “Elll-baz” as Cyril referred to him) – who should, hearing French at home, have been better at it. When any of them underperformed, we would generally prompt him with “Sir, that boy is French-speaking.” And Cyril rarely failed to take the bait, hissing “Yesss . . . French-speaking.”
- Cyril didn’t like his routine disrupted, which he felt it was by the fourth year Israel Trip, a one-month study visit to Jerusalem, attended by about a third of his French class. Following our return, he scornfully blamed every underperformance by any of us on the trip. The class would gleefully, in unison, greet every wrong answer or low test result with “Sir, that boy was on the Israel Trip.” And Cyril, again, would always rise to the bait . . . even when the boy in question hadn’t even been on the trip!
- Even a seemingly straightforward request by a pupil to remove his school blazer could be blown up into a major incident. Cyril, commencing with his trademark “Hmmm . . .”, could deliberate on such a request for several minutes – weighing up the weather conditions, whether he himself felt the need to remove his jacket, etc – before reaching a decision (and would sometimes even hand out “sides” to the maker of the request for, irony of all ironies, wasting the class’s time).
We were more than willing participants in the drama of Cyril’s classroom. For example, Morgan, who always marked Elbaz’s tests (as we always sat in the same places), was ever keen to expose the “French-speaker’s” mistakes to Cyril and the class, whilst pretending that he wasn’t aware of the boy’s identity: “Sir, this boy,” he would begin, holding up Elbaz’s exercise book. When Cyril would enquire whose work Morgan was marking (even though he knew), Morgan – who had been marking the same exercise book for months – would, theatrically, slowly examine the name inscribed on the front cover. “It’s Elbaz, sir . . .”
Paul Kaufman used to use French lessons as a vehicle for his impressive and amusing take on Call My Bluff. On one occasion, he succeeded in convincing Cyril that the French word bas (meaning “low”) derives from deep-swimming sea bass. Cyril was taken in for some time, until – when it dawned on him (probably assisted by us) that Kaufman was selling him a whopper – he suddenly exclaimed his renowned “Wait a minute!” (which sounded more like “Wayderminnit”), and ‘rewarded’ Kaufman with a generous helping of “sides”.
In fact, there was no greater challenge or enjoyment than getting Cyril to dish out “sides” to a classmate. On one occasion, Whitefield, too academic to be a “lout” or a “wretch”, but wanting to be part of the fun and games, started mimicking Cyril’s trademark “Ohhh” sound (which sounded similar to Loh [the Hebrew for “no”], and – though I have never had the pleasure – how I imagine a Welshman sounds on reaching the height of sexual arousal). Boys would often mimic this sound within earshot of Cyril, and then scarper. On this occasion, Morgan and I, sitting behind Whitefield, and sensing the opportunity, egged him on. The noises got louder and louder, and Cyril, cunning to a fault, pretended not to hear them . . . until he pounced. Suddenly regretting his ill-conceived departure from “Swotdom”, Whitefield turned round to us, entreating “It wasn’t me, was it?” He couldn’t complete the question, however, before our heads started nodding vigorously, providing Cyril with the confirmation he required.
Mr. Bloomberg was a cultured man (certainly more so than most of his colleagues), once even taking us to the opera, La Traviata. . . something he probably regretted, when one “wretch” (either Kenley or Gittelmon if I recall correctly) rolled an empty soft drink can down the aisle, causing a racket (and, no doubt, more anti-Semitism amongst the British middle-classes).
Mr. Bloomberg, who is now in his eighties, still lives in Hendon (we attended the same synagogue, Raleigh Close, where one of his former pupils, Mordechai Ginsbury, is now his Rabbi). He enjoyed his retirement, going on regular cruises with his wife, but was also struck by tragedy, in 2001, when his daughter-in-law Techiya was killed, and son Stephen and granddaughter Tzippi paralysed from the waist down, in a drive-by shooting by Palestinian terrorists.
Mr. Bloomberg, thank you for all those happy hours and memories. On behalf of all your ex-Hasmo pupils, I wish you all the very best.
[Thanks to "That's not French, that's Morgan" for helping to jog my memory of Cyrilisms. Next on Hasmo Legends, "Sid" or "Chich" . . . haven't yet decided which! And if any of you have any good Hasmo photos, especially of Legends, please get in touch.]
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part IV: Sick in the Head – Mr. Chichios