by Tim Messom
In my final year at Millfield, I was cast as Shylock in the school production of The Merchant of Venice. I identified very strongly with this cruelly put upon outsider and the role was highly therapeutic for me. I too had felt ostracised and excluded, partly because of my total lack of ball skills in a sports mad environment. It made me think deeply about the historical treatment of Jews in so many parts of the world, how they were prevented from undertaking most forms of work and how non-Jews were ever anxious to borrow their money before reviling them for daring to make a living in one of the few ways open to them.
Just before starting my Exeter University degree in English and Drama, I took part in a rehearsed reading of a documentary play called The Investigation. It consisted entirely of witness statements from the Nazi concentration camps. More food for thought. So when I responded to a Times Ed advertisement for an English teacher at what was then the Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys, I had high expectations of exceptionally gifted, highly motivated pupils with a love of learning. There were some of those . . .
My interview with Mr Stanton was brief and I was, to my surprise, sent to a private house in Highgate to meet a Rabbi Schonfeld, the very image of an Old Testament prophet with his long white beard and piercing eyes. I had quite fancied my Religious Studies knowledge, but failed to answer his questions concerning the Torah. It didn’t seem to matter – my appointment as third in the English Department to Mr Soester and Mr Marks, with some Junior History in Mr Johnson’s Department, was confirmed. I was delighted to find out about the early winter closing on Fridays and the October holidays, perfect for a jump racing enthusiast like me!
Mr Soester, who became a lifelong friend, started on the same day as me but came with a wealth of teaching experience and knowledge of the ways of Orthodoxy. I quickly became aware of his philosophical detachment and sense of humour, strengths which were to prove invaluable in the face of the consistent air of disapproval which our presence seemed to provoke in some of our colleagues.
That was in September 1973. It was my second year as a full-time teacher. My first had been in what was then the Friern Barnet Grammar School, a one form entry private school for boys run on a wing and a prayer. The headmaster lived in fear of complaints from the parents and, from time to time, would summon me from my lessons to answer why I had clashed with one of my more obnoxious pupils. My exit from the classroom would be accompanied by much cheering, my students delighted I was on the mat once more. I longed for the end of each day, though on one occasion my departure was delayed because mysteriously my car tyres had been let down. My popular name there was ‘Minced Morsels’, my lugubrious manner being somewhat similar to that of Clement Freud, famous for advertising that variety of dog food. It was time for a fresh start.
Although hysteria quickly and unpredictably bubbled to the surface amongst Hasmo boys, there was little of the personal malice I had previously experienced. Indeed many of my new pupils were charming and well able to sustain an adult conversation. But the slightest incident would have the younger boys rushing into a screaming, whooping pack. In class, too, there was the sense of a powder keg of barely restrained hysteria. Gradually I came to understand that this intense energy, which had to be suppressed much of the time, was particularly characteristic of the Yeshiva Stream boys. And no wonder, when they had such a long day, arriving early and staying late to learn, learn, learn the ancient texts. Moreover, physical exercise and competitive sport were not integral to the school’s ethos so there was limited opportunity for letting off steam in a healthy way. When they weren’t testing my patience to boiling point, I felt sorry for them. It was evident that some of my colleagues were only truly interested in the boys bound for Gateshead and the Rabbinate.
Just as there was an all too clear division amongst the boys, so too in the staff room. Fortunately there were two rooms available and the more intensely religious, who may have wished to avoid overhearing profane discussions, could withdraw to the ‘quiet’ one. Others were more relaxed. Mr Taylor, inveterate chain smoker, was always ready for a chat and often full of foreboding for those of us whom he felt had few prospects of advancement where we were. Mr Lawrence kept up our spirits with his sense of the ridiculous, though in gloomier moods he would look at the tree through the staff room window and be all too aware of the passing of time as the seasons changed. He eventually escaped by joining one of his brightest sixth form pupils in setting up a property management business. Mr Bloomberg was a kind, gentle soul who strove to retain early to mid twentieth century standards and teaching materials – undoubtedly a little trying for his French Department colleagues, Mr Tarrant and Mrs Schneider.
An early endeavour to heighten interest in English Literature and provide some creative relaxation was to attempt a simplified production of Oliver Twist. In Noam Gottesman we had a very promising Oliver and there was some interest as we began to cast other parts and have some rehearsed readings. We were stopped in our tracks very quickly. We hadn’t reckoned on the storm of protests our apparently innocuous idea would arouse. A veritable tide of objections: Should the boys be participating in such a frivolity when they could be studying the Torah? What material would any costumes be made from? Remember no male must impersonate a woman! Was Dickens anti-Semitic? Our initial enthusiasm quickly . . .
Few authors escaped the suspicion of anti-Semitism and, if they did, the issue of what was unsuitable material for the boys would be raised instead. Romeo and Juliet was the subject of a regular tug of war over many years. Like most schools, spending on new books had to be contained within a budget, so when an old set of H. E. Bates’ Fair Stood the Wind for France was dug out from the dusty library shelves it seemed likely this story of heroic endeavour against the Nazis would make an engaging second form reader. After several weeks’ work, and when interest was indeed being ignited, an anonymous complaint caused it to be withdrawn overnight. The only potentially offending words that we could find: ‘He reached up and touched her breast.’
It was strange to reflect that many of my colleagues believed the world to be five and a half thousand years old and that women, who should always keep their hair covered in public, are unclean and should not be touched for a chunk of each month. Yet many of the boys seemed relatively untouched by the extremes of religious dogma.
My first sojourn at the Hasmo lasted a mere five terms (though it seemed longer!) I chanced across an advertisement for a circus ringmaster and it so happened that I had been brought up with an interest in circus through the friends my father, a professional photographer, had made in that world. I made a special study of this branch of the performing arts as part of my degree. So the decision to join Circus Hoffman (billed as ‘the Wildest Show on Earth’) was not quite as extraordinary as it might seem. Moreover, it was a way to gain membership of Equity, the actors union, and in those days the stage still beckoned me. I was interviewed and accepted, probably because of my loud voice and a certain facility, honed after years of boarding school life, for talking my way out of trouble – a skill that would turn out to be essential in my new role! Two good Hasmo memories from this time: Mr Stanton telling me I would always be welcome to return to the school and my GCE class clubbing together to present me with a beautiful leather whip as a farewell present.
Mr Harrison had tipped off the Evening Standard and so supplied the first of many media stories about my change of occupation, usually along the lines of ‘Teacher Tim Runs Away to Join the Circus!’ Over the next couple of years there were television appearances and radio interviews and I appeared in a short film for schools’ television. Amongst the more colourful adventures were flood and fire, the lions escaped on one occasion and the monkeys on another, there was a pitched battle on the Isle of Wight between rival factions on the show, and a disastrous attempt to include a version of The Planet of the Apes that frightened the little children so much that audiences walked out en masse and the show had to pack up and leave Newcastle in a hurry. All very different to life at the Hasmo. And no, contrary to popular invention, my wife did not run off with a lion tamer. I wonder who thought up that one . . .
Five years on and, having changed occupation but discovered I was not cut out to be a commission-only life insurance salesman, it was time to fulfil the prophecy inherent in Mr Stanton’s promise. I had come to the conclusion there was much to be said for a salary, a pension scheme and paid holidays. By this time Rabbi Roberg had taken over as headmaster. As he remarked to Mr Soester about my appointment, ‘Better the devil you know . . .’
Little had changed in my absence: Mr Harrison was no longer there to study the Financial Times each morning and Mr Balin, with his memories of observing the Sidney Street siege, had taken a well earned retirement. But Rabbi Angel, with his beautiful assistant Goldie, who lived nearby and rarely entered the staff room, still ruled the Art Room. I replaced a certain Mr Lent who I was told had gone into business in the North of England as a baker. He was remembered for having incurred Mr Stanton’s wrath by conducting a private reading lesson during an Ofsted inspection, thus leaving the inspectors nothing to inspect! Assemblies still had the same atmosphere of murmuring and restlessness, as if a full scale riot could break out at any time. Indeed, throughout the day there were the same shrieks, shouts and banging of desks and drawers that I had known before. The suspicion of what corruption the English Department might be peddling seemed to have intensified. I was shocked to discover that boys coming to interview for a place at the school would be routinely asked where their parents bought their meat and whether they ever went out in the car on a Saturday.
There was a steady increase in staff meetings: utterly boring and pointless because so little ever seemed to change. They seemed to go on forever and, just as closure seemed imminent, the ever enthusiastic Mr Bokor would introduce a new topic and add a further quarter of an hour to proceedings. I was sure our leaders used to speak as slowly as possible in order to fill up the designated time. I succeeded in removing myself from this once weekly torture by signing up for a Barnet counselling course for teachers which happily coincided with the times of the dreaded meetings.
Counselling skills were little in demand at the Hasmo. On one occasion I confided to Rabbi Roberg that I felt I should get to know the boys in my form better. ‘Better not to get to know them too well, Mr Messom’ was his response. He did have a sense of humour. On another occasion I confided that I was worried about the behaviour of one of his sons, who would sit in my lessons with his fists clamped over his ears, presumably lest my words should in some way corrupt him. ‘Horrid boy, take no notice’ was the headmaster’s response. Funnily enough, it was another of his sons who was observed, to the amazement of a friend who had come to collect me one afternoon, outside the school rolling himself repeatedly from the pavement into the road and back again, gathering much dirt and dust in the process.
One ritual I instituted that lasted for many years was the Thursday Lunch Club: for those of a liberal disposition to take a lunch break at The Mill pub (now a nursing home) just down the road. School lunches left much to be desired, though it must have been a hard task to produce strictly kosher on what was undoubtedly a strictly limited budget. Our once a week excursion was a very welcome break from the shrieks, howls and hammering on the staff room door that did nothing for our digestion. DJ, I believe, particularly despised our Thursday exodus. Not that he said so – he rarely spoke to us – but there was a certain look, a heavy sigh, a look at his watch on our return, that spoke volumes. On one occasion I returned to find that my car had been damaged by some of our pupils ignoring the school rules, as was their custom, and chasing each other around the cars. I wanted to claim from the school’s insurance and when I put this to Rabbi Roberg, DJ intervened to say that, surely, as it was a Thursday, I would have driven to the pub. Oh the joy of being able to reply that I had travelled with Mr Johnson!
I was also required to help poor Mr Chishios in the Games Department (he was more up against it than we were in our attempts to convey the glories of English Literature). You would hardly think of my fellow sufferers, Mr Marks and Mr Soester, either, as muddy field enthusiasts! Mr Marks was very much more interested in the works of James Joyce than in the challenges of the football pitch and I had gone through my own school days using all my ingenuity to avoid team games, so it was way beyond me to now become a referee and adjudicate on the subtleties of the offside rules. Another of my roles was to be in charge of the library. In this I was greatly helped by an intriguing boy who liked to be known as ‘Tricky’ Tropp – he had trained himself to perform magic tricks and be an entertainer at children’s parties. I believe he kept a collection of reptiles at home. I wonder if he went into show business . . .
Such charm as our eccentric school had once held for me quickly withered when Mr Soester was replaced as Head of English first by Mr Benjamin and then – when he surrendered to the full force of repression lined up against the liberal arts – a Mrs Masterson, for whom I didn’t care. Mr Benjamin apparently didn’t realise what a conflicted establishment he was joining. He was an enthusiastic advocate of the now discredited 100% coursework for GCSE English and English Literature. What he failed to take into account was the string of private tutors that many pupils of the Hasmonean kept in tow, making it impossible to assess what percentage of the final submission was the candidate’s own unaided efforts. I think he finally gave up when, having arranged for a group of professional actors to come to the school to present a version of Macbeth, the event was cancelled at the very last moment. Something was said about it being unsuitable for boys to watch a woman on the stage, as their passions might be inflamed. The secret censors had struck again!
What I now think of as the moment when I knew I had to be on my way was an end of term assembly led by Rabbi Bondi. He reminded the boys that, since the Jews are at the head of Creation and superior to all other forms of life, they should not sully themselves by mixing with Gentiles during their holidays. Where did that leave me? Amazing, really, that I was accorded any degree of respect or acceptance, though I did know that there were many in the hall who would have taken little notice of the Rabbi’s admonitions.
The Hasmo had been good to me in many ways, had provided secure employment when I most needed it and there were always some pupils and colleagues to whom I could relate. But it was more than time for a change. After all, my second sojourn had lasted the best part of ten years. If I had any vocation as a teacher, it was to share what Literature and Theatre mean to me, and in 1989 I was lucky enough to find a post at the nearby Mount School for Girls where such aims could flourish unimpeded.
I was given a warm send off by my colleagues, but there was one last disappointment: Rabbi Roberg explained that, although the boys had all contributed to a leaving present, the one in charge had forgotten to bring it! I never did find out what it was . . .