“Uh-sack-sohn . . . you spastic! You sick . . . you sick in the head!”
This, apparently, is the traditional Greek Cypriot method of encouraging, and instilling a sense of self-worth and confidence in, a boy. Or it is, at least, the Chich method.
Jewish children are not cut out for Physical Education. True, many like playing football, the more sophisticated might try their hand at cricket, while the self-reliant tend to enjoy tennis. Others, however, prefer merely to be spectators. And the rigid discipline of P.E. is most definitely “not for us”. So, in joining Hasmonean, Mr. Chichios (inset, and middle row, fifth from left, in the staff photograph in Hasmo Legends I), obviously hadn’t done his homework.
“Chich”, as we branded him, was in sole charge of P.E. at Hasmo, which he ran from the fiefdom of his gymnasium. He was assisted, on a part-time basis, by a likeable black-cab driver, Mr. Hackett (back row, furthest left).
A coarse, short-tempered and politically incorrect (politically wrong would be a more accurate description) immigrant from Greek Cyprus, Chich would throw around the “spastic” insult as uncontrollably as, err . . . well, as, err . . . a spastic. And, with similar gay abandon, he would bring his favourite Dunlop trainer to bear on, admittedly cheeky, young Jewish backsides.
I don’t recall Chich himself having any particular sporting ability to speak of (though that would have made him no different from the vast majority of his Hasmo colleagues, in their respective fields). I remember, too, being contemptuous of the basketball moves which he would proudly demonstrate to us, prancing towards the net and pivoting like a swarthy Mediterranean “fairy” (in fact, if Chich had been the first male Shirley Valentine had met on her holiday, she would have been on the first flight back to Liverpool). Anyway, showing a Jewish kid a “lay-up shot” is about as useful as showing a black one a profit and loss account.
For someone who, when out of his trademark tracksuit, sported an offensive – even by early 1980s standards – purple suit, Chich placed a strange importance on dress codes, forever insisting on the wearing of jockstraps and “wutsocks” (white socks). I don’t (as others do) recall him checking for the former by peering down at “me crown jewels”, but, so obsessed was he, I wouldn’t have put it past him.
Aside from his favoured terms of abuse, Chich was also famous for his beloved minibus and multi-gym. Considering the relative affluence of most Hasmo pupils’ parents, the minibus seemed to take an Age to finance. And Chich greeted the arrival of the multi-gym like a gift from the Greek gods. Most pupils also viewed it as extraterrestrial, venturing nowhere near the uninviting mass of metal and pulleys.
I will most remember Chich, however, for his “cross-country” runs through the graveyards and golf courses of North Hendon. With the inevitability of Phil Taylor in the “arrers”, Nachshon would always come in first, with Melnick not far behind (making a nonsense of Chich’s oft-articulated view that Hasmo’s Yids were bigger “spastics” than its Yoks). There would then be an almighty gap to everyone else, especially to the sizeable group of stragglers (including yours truly) at the very back, who – as soon as Chich was out of sight – would start walking. The danger in such a course, however, was that Chich had the unerring, and unnerving, ability to appear from absolutely bloody nowhere, yelling “Spastic!” and slippering backsides with the deranged excitement of an escaped paedophile suddenly finding himself at a bar mitzvah party.
My favourite Chich story relates to the occasion on which we were patiently sitting in rows in the gym, waiting for him to emerge from his office. His young son George (which Chich pronounced, with soft French Js, “Joj”) – an annoying little runt who always seemed to be around (he had probably been expelled from his own school for continually calling other kids “spastics”) – was again present; and, on this occasion, Elbaz thought he could get a laugh by telling him that his dad was a c*nt. And he certainly did get a laugh. A big one. Though it was one which soon turned to stunned silence, as we watched George, as if in slow motion, wander off to his dad’s office, from where we heard him say, in his pre-pubescent voice (reminiscent of Dick Emery’s “Dad, I think I did it wrong again” character): “Da-ad, Elbaz says you’re a c*nt.” If Greek Cypriots had displayed as much resolve and fury in staving off the Turks as Chich did in emerging from that office, his country would never have been divided.
Due in no way whatsoever to Chich, our year, at least, had a decent football team, beating, inter alia, JFS (incidentally, featuring new signing Elbaz ["free transfer" might be a more accurate description] . . . though I believe JFS has since tightened up its admissions policy).
There were four “Houses” at Hasmonean – Carmel, Hermon, Jordan, and Sharon – and I recall experiencing a strange sense of pride on pulling on the green of Jordan (though I have absolutely no idea why).
School Sports Days, however, held at Copthall Athletics Stadium, were particularly farcical (even by Hasmo standards). At various such Sports Days, I participated in the discus, javelin and shot putt events . . . even though the relevant Sports Day was the first time that I actually set eyes on these objects, never mind attempted to project them. I ended up stabbing the javelin into the ground (in order to register one valid throw), and put my back out trying to putt the shot.
Notwithstanding all of the above, and even his questionable attitude towards Jews – he once, on a minibus ride, attempted to explain his intense dislike of crooner Frankie Vaughan to me (and it had nothing to do with his voice) – I found Mr. Chichios curiously likeable, or, at least, not objectionable in the DJ/Gerber mould. In fact, I think I was so embarrassed by the behaviour and nonsense of most of Hasmo’s Jewish teachers, that I attempted to disassociate myself from them by fraternising with the non-Jewish ones.
Jews are more adept at exercising their self-deprecating sense of humour than their bodies. As Woody Allen has observed, “Swimming is not a sport. It’s what you do to stop yourself drowning.” And I can still picture Baum, a rather rotund boy, heroically trying to complete a long-distance race on Sports Day, while my classmate, Paul Kaufman, followed him around the inside of the track, tormenting him with an open packet of Golden Wonder.
Mr. Chichios can, therefore, perhaps be forgiven his excesses, and even pitied, after unwittingly stumbling across a culture – both sporting and otherwise – so very alien to his own.
[Even if you have already related Chich stories (in earlier comments), please "cut and paste" them here. And, if you have a photograph of him, please let me know.]
Postcript (24.7.12): Just to show that some things never change, see this Hasmonean Boys Sports Day video that I recently stumbled across, paying particular attention to the ‘efforts’ of the high jumpers (over a bar that my grandmother would have walked over), first long jumper and the relay baton handoff . . . all “spastics” in the great tradition!
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part V: Back to Melchett . . . and to Me (Caribbean Trip: Week 3)