Just as the very presence of Jews in the Middle East is anathema to fundamentalist Islam, so was the teaching of non-Limmudei Kodesh (religious studies), mathematics or science subjects repugnant to the extremist regime at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys (maths and science were tolerated, due to their immunity from the ‘corrupting’ influences of liberalism and moral relativism).
Indeed, in the seventies and eighties, a PR position at the Zionist Federation in Damascus would have been considerably more alluring than teaching the arts at Hasmonean, and the poor bastards tasked with doing so should be more pitied than mocked.
The most to suffer from Hasmo’s philistinism were its English teachers, consisting – during my period at the school (1978-1985) – of fixtures, Ivan Marks and Jeff Soester, and fittings, Tony Pearce and Timothy Messom. (There was another English teacher, Jonathan Benjamin, who joined Hasmonean a year or so before I left, but other than considering that – as a very dark-skinned Indian Jew – he didn’t really look the part, I recall little else about him.)
Asking these gentlemen to impart their love of the English language, and literature, to Hasmo boys – who felt justified in being even more chutzpadik than they already were by what they knew to be the contemptuous attitude of the school’s Judeofascist regime towards the subjects – was, in cricketing terms, tantamount to asking Derek Pringle to bowl at Vivian Richards with his shoelaces tied together.
The closest competitor to Jonny Bokor (“the Bonnie Joker”) for the title of Hasmo’s Most Cordial Teacher – though, it has to be said, the competition was not all that fierce – must surely have been Tony Pearce, who taught us first year English. He left the school shortly afterwards, to become involved in Christian ministry. (See Hasmo Legends VIII, Parts I and II)
Perhaps the most persuasive argument for the existence of the Jewish Deity, and of the miracles that He will perform for His people, is that – in spite of Hasmonean’s Jewish ‘role models’ – Tony didn’t succeed, in his four years at Holders Hill Road, in converting any of us to “the Big J”.
The irony, of course, is that, as Jewish youngsters, we were continually being warned of the dangers of Christian missionaries . . . none of whom did any of us nearly as much damage as the assorted misfits and misanthropes charged with providing our spiritual education at Hasmonean.
The tall, bearded Timothy Messom, who replaced Tony – and who didn’t last much longer at the school – was a fundamentally decent man, though one prone to absolutely losing it on occasion (once again, usually with Elbaz . . . though he was not alone in that!)
In our first ever lesson with Mr. Messom, in the exotically named Mobile Unit (at the bottom of the playground), our new, imposing, and ever-so English, master – he was more that than “teacher” – spelt out his name:
“M – E – S – S . . . that is double S, of course . . . O – M.”
Naturally, in every subsequent lesson, some bright spark would again ask him how he spelt it . . . and Mr. Messom, in precisely the same fashion, and to our great amusement, would repeat:
“M – E – S – S . . . that is double S, of course . . . O – M.”
Hasmo legend has it that Mr. Messom had been a circus ringmaster, and that his wife had run off with the resident (or should that be “travelling”?) lion tamer. As with so many of the stories that have emanated from Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys over the years, you just couldn’t make it up.
If Messrs Pearce and Messom played nice little cameos in the annals of Hasmonean English teaching, Marks and Soester were clearly the leading men. In fact, these two gentlemen were the closest to a double act that Hasmo has ever had, their names – in tales of the institution – usually running together.
Marks and Soester taught the same discipline (at least in one sense of the word), their tenures at Hasmonean – from the early seventies to mid-nineties – largely overlapped, and they spent much of this time in adjacent classrooms, in the dilapidated former barracks mischievously rebranded the Sixth Form Block (as one commenter to melchett mike has wryly observed, “by the same Roberg-ist propaganda machine that brought us the £3 school kuppel”).
This unedifying edifice – situated between the fiefdom of Chich’s gymnasium and the Mobile Unit (see also the photograph in Hasmo Legends V) – had apparently, in the mid-seventies, been condemned as unsafe and insanitary, boarded up, and earmarked for demolition. But, by the time I arrived at Holders Hill Road, in 1978, the boards had been removed, and the Block designated for the exclusive use of Marks and Soester . . . the lucky so-and-sos!
When Mr. Soester became an extra in the late eighties BBC sitcom Brush Strokes – injudiciously, in view of the extra ‘ammunition’ it provided the already well-armed boys (though one can perhaps forgive his longing to escape his daily reality) – pupils would hum its theme tune as he walked into class.
This insolence would then spread to the adjacent classroom of Mr. Marks, who, on one occasion, was complimented (by another commenter to melchett mike) for his wonderful performance the evening before. His wit was rewarded with “a savage attack to [the] head with a hardback book”.
Mr. Soester’s opting to be an extra was rather apt. If DJ was Bond baddie Blofeld and Rabbi Greenberg Batman’s The Penguin (his actual Hasmo nickname), the considerably more likeable, if somewhat unremarkable, Marks and Soester – with their seventies blazers, tank tops, and polyester slacks – were the unfashionable detective extras, in the background at their NYPD desks, on seventies US cop shows like Kojak and Starsky & Hutch.
Rather conveniently, seeing as his son Simon is a regular on melchett mike– and has made all kinds of veiled, though good humoured, threats in relation to what I write about his “old man” – Jeff Soester didn’t teach me much at Hasmonean (emphasis on “me”, Simon, not “much”!) His classroom, however, was clearly rather chaotic, and I recall him being a rather edgy gentleman (as if that is any surprise).
I have one particularly vivid recollection of “Jeff” walking up the playground from the Sixth Form Block, while my classmate Abie Cohen – seated in the middle of our Form 2AB photograph in a beige jumper – performed a Mizrachi (North African Jewish)-style dance around him. Abie was whirling the palms and backs of his hands extremely close to Jeff’s eyes and nose, no doubt intending the excitable teacher to spill his precariously piled books. This somewhat odd spectacle has stayed with me to this day, because it somehow inexplicably captured the unique brand of Hasmo chutzpah.
But Jeff, too, apparently had a mischievous side. A commenter to melchett mike has related how, as a young Israeli boy new to Hasmonean, Jeff told him: “Go to the staff room – you can use the middle staircase – knock on the door, and ask for ‘Freddy’.” The door was opened by History teacher, Mr. Lawrence, who handed over a silver tray with a white plimsoll placed neatly on top, which the rather naïve boy promptly delivered to his ‘executioner’.
It was Ivan Marks, however, who was responsible for the major part of my English education at Hasmonean.
I recall Mr. Marks fondly, not just because his was my favourite subject (it didn’t face much competition), but because he was one of the few teachers at Hasmonean who actually attempted to treat us like adults. This was especially true for those of us who took English Literature A Level, which presented the first opportunity for us, largely repressed, Jewish boys to explore sexual themes through literature . . . an opportunity we rarely missed.
Mr. Marks, unlike so many of his Hasmo colleagues, also had a sense of humour. Often, even post-frenzy, he would barely be able to conceal a smile, which he would further attempt to draw attention away from by characteristically poking his spectacles back up his ski-jump nose.
It was these mock frenzies, perhaps together with his mane of lank jet black hair, which earned Mr. Marks the rather undeserved nickname “Mad Dog”. His bark was far louder than his bite, and I don’t recall him ever administering anything more rabid than a firm prod on the neck with the spine of his textbook.
Mr. Marks was frustrated by the “study aid” mentality of Hasmo boys. Rather than appreciating the rich source texts, we would buy up Dillons’ stock of Pan Study Aids, and York and Brodie’s Notes. For English Literature O Level, my classmate, Grant Morgan, went so far as to purchase Macbeth in comic form. He memorised the text by rote, and would walk up to puzzled boys in the playground – some of whom didn’t even know him – proudly proclaiming “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” He got an E.
Another Hasmo friend, Daniel Kelly, winds me up to this day about my predilection for study aids (ironic, I remind him, for a boy who had a respected Dayan as a grandfather, but who opted – during our time at Manchester University – to study Modern Hebrew, with non-Jewish undergraduates who knew not their zayin from their chet).
Mr. Marks was also continually frustrated by the idiotic machinations of Hasmonean’s religious elite – which would, inter alia, ban literature considered too sexually explicit from the syllabus and school library – and he would say so.
He would often – somewhat tongue-in-cheek, once again – take these frustrations out on the more religious boys. “It’s always the frum ones” was his oft-heard lament. And “Finn,” he would say, on one memorable occasion, “just because your father drives around Golders Green in a Volvo, it doesn’t mean you can do what you want in my class.”
Mr. Soester shared Mr. Marks’s irritation with frummers, handing back work with the line “I don’t want to hear everyone screaming, ‘Yitzi, Shmuli, I got half a mark more than you!’” (a request which, of course, had the opposite effect).
Ironically, two of Mr. Marks’s star English pupils, Simon Harris – who left the school a number of years before us, but with whom he kept in touch – and Jonathan Levene, from our year, both became significant frummers (the former becoming Chief Rabbi of Ireland). Mr. Marks must have been most disappointed.
I heard, some years ago, that Mr. Marks had not been well. I sincerely hope that he has made a full recovery and that, if he has dipped into melchett mike (as I understand Mr. Soester has), he has found at least something which he considers worthy of his considerable efforts . . . in an institution which didn’t deserve him.
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part XI: “Big Al(an)” Walters