Objectionable, mercurial, fierce, wise, bandaged, solitary and irresistible, Phil Smith and I were not close. Only in our last year at school did I really get to know him. He shared a stud (school slang for study) with John Carnegie, to whom I was close. Ergo, I saw a lot of Phil and the inside of his stud. For the first three years of school he had been Smith, as the unwritten laws of school dictated. We did English A level together, Othello, Plath and Hopkins. John and Phil’s stud was similar to every stud you ever saw, in that it looked as though it had just been burgled, with one key difference. The law of the stud determined that its walls should be covered with posters, preferably of bands, and the shared desk space, a counter running the length of the wall, invisible due to the sediment of a year’s worth of essays, books, commentaries on Othello, and the sleeves of LPs. Above it hung shelves crammed with yet more books, and yet more albums, fighting for space with a speaker stack the size of a small car. When Phil cranked it up, which was often, he wanted everyone to know about it. Uniquely in my experience of school, Phil had actually seen the bands displayed on the walls of his stud, and had actually read the books on his shelves. I still remember his Kierkegaard phase, quoting him as he sparred with the headmaster, who took our general studies sessions, just to annoy him. You were supposed to fall in love with Camus, Fowles, Orwell and Sartre aged 17, but Phil got there years ahead of the rest of us.
One evening in chapel the guest speaker told us an anecdote, the point of which escapes me, about schoolboys falling into three essential categories: intellectuals, heroes, and the rest. Though he had elements of each, Phil fitted none. With his Pete Townshend nose, spiky hair and acne, he ran into bowl, his shirt billowing behind him, looking like a man intent on hurling himself into a brawl outside the nearest pub. A fine goalkeeper at hockey, he patrolled his D in an army jacket he had purloined from the cadet corps store, thwacking his pads with his stick and yelling profanities, at defence and attackers alike, from behind a mask that was part Texas Chainsaw, part Silence of the Lambs. This may be apocryphal, but legend has it he played an entire match wielding a stick with a sawn off head. As is common for those who choose to dish it out, Phil could be remarkably thin-skinned. When one of us reminded him that the band he had been touting for a year as the next big thing, U2, were Christians, he stormed out of the social we were having, the door slamming behind him, leaving his copy of Boy on the turntable, never to return and collect it. Once, on arriving at a nearby school for a cricket match, a master teased him that if things didn’t work at our place he could always come here to finish his A levels, and lead a revolution in his spare time. Phil refused to get off the bus, and only showed up as the game got going, where he single-handedly destroyed the opposition with a fifer for eight runs. School could be brutal, but it was also intensely forgiving. You could mutter a lot of things under your breath to a lot of people, and get away with worse, if you still showed up for the cause when it mattered. Best of all, school loved it when it looked as though you weren’t trying. Phil made it look as though he bowled only for himself, never the team, which amounted to the same thing.
Phil was ahead of us in the other main currency of school life, music. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the accepted grammar was that we all threw out our Supertramp, Genesis and Pink Floyd records so we could get on with pogoing while swilling coffee to Blondie, The Specials and Police during break times, studiously ignoring the genius of the Earth Wind and Fire and Michael Jackson tracks DJs slotted between them. The truth is that we held on to them, listening on headphones, or when no one else was around, or during the holidays. Meanwhile, thinking ourselves rebels, we invested in The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Talking Heads, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Joy Division, without realising we were all going in the same direction to the same destination. Only one other person I knew got to A Certain Ratio, but even they didn’t get to 23 Skidoo, Rip Rig and Panic, Pigbag, Captain Beefheart, PiL, U Brown, Yellowman, Prince Far I, and Weather Report. I can still recall the shudder of delight, terror and astonishment I felt on hearing ‘Winter Hill’ for the first time, at full volume, sandwiched between John and his stud door, one October break time after double English. Phil did not play you records in the hope that you might like them: he lectured you with them to make you realise that you had been wasting your time on everything else.
Whoever we had been close to, and whatever our achievements, the ultimate, unofficial laws of school decreed that you went back only once, for the Old Boy’s rugby match at the start of the autumn term following the summer you left; and that you stayed in touch with no one. Though it took me the best part of thirty years to break both of these, I regret that I never saw Phil again in person, though I know people who did. The closest I got was finding him on a YouTube clip of all places. I had been Googling videos about managing classroom behaviour while on teaching practice, to show to my students. Suddenly there he was, glaring at the camera, in a brown suit, with a skinny tie, talking about the rates of deprivation in the area of Brighton he served as a primary school headteacher. The pride he felt about his charges, and the community they came from, was evident in his every word. Any teacher worth their salt, he said, needed to remember what these kids have to experience just to get here each morning. We say that people don’t change, but he hadn’t. Yet here he was, Phil, a head: I had to chuckle at the irony. Like me, he had pursued a career in teaching. Like me, he had lost his hair. A few clicks later I learned we also shared a diagnosis of cancer in our early forties. While my treatment had been successful, however, Phil’s prognosis was much tougher. He had been told he had terminal liver cancer. He died sitting in his garden just five weeks later. The video I had just watched was Phil in the past tense. There would be no emails of congratulation, no getting back in touch. The online version of the local paper quoted his wife as saying: ‘He was a very non-judgemental person and that transferred to his job’. The paper also showed a picture of Phil with his two children. Rounder in the face than I remember him, he looked like a man who had found what he looked for in life, and who had not wasted time in relishing that fact. Scrolling down further I found a final irony, too delicious, and poetic, to miss. Phil, it said, was mourned by children from a former relationship, the youngest of whom was called Anthony. Having chosen to call myself Tony at school, it is a name he would never have known me by. I know it is hopeless, but am still naïve enough to think there might have been a connection.
Rival Tribal Revel Rebel (Pt. 2)
in memory of Phil Smith (1964-2009)
The Canal Run in autumn term.
From spitting rain and profanities
a country gent in three-piece tweed
comes marching with a shooting stick,
a folded Times under one arm,
in his free hand a boom-box blasting Crass.
Even in words of one syllable
your situationist two-fingers
to our shivering acquiescence
is beyond what we’re able
to hear: ‘You just don’t get it!
You’re doing what you’re told to, not should.’
Next year you won it in running kit,
in case we doubted you could.
My words. I enjoyed this. I enjoyed the ‘plus ca change’ of stories of bright boys. The ruefulness. Reminded me of Norman, the chancer of our 6th form group. Jack the lad …who became a Primary School Head. Reminded me of a poem I wrote in a Poetry Business workshop. Same context. Different twist. I’ll paste it in. Then you can delete it if you like. Think of it as tribute.
Brightest and best
We were. Sons of the morning – the early
bit , the one without masters, ours –
before assembly, registration.
The time when you held court – the cleverest,
best-looking, the best hair – that dark blond quiff.
Always , it seemed, the most at ease.
Easy to believe you’d have your pick of girls;
you told us just how far they’d Go. And that
you’d Done It. You’d Gone All The Way.
And it was true. You had.
You never went to Oxford, not even to
the Science Sixth, despite those eight
so effortless Grade A’s. Your girl, you told us all,
(years later – a half-a-century on)
was sent away to Wales, hush hush, to have
the baby and to give it up.
After that summer, we were shocked to find
you just weren’t there. You’d left, were never
coming back. Would not be holding court.
We all moved on, of course. Not you, it seemed;
when we met up with all our several lifetimes
later, although the easy arrogance,
and hair, were gone, for you the clock had stopped
in 1958; our schooldays were, for you,
the best days of our lives.
As though that promise
never lost its glamour, never would. I heard
three days ago you’d died. Still no one knows
exactly what it was you died of. Just that,
once again you won’t be coming back.
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Beautiful piece, Antony wonderful Othello and Plath !!!! et plus ca change en nos vies
Your writing is a gift, a treat to follow, thank you! I enjoyed every mouthful 🙂
Searing, tender and truthful. I can see him and hear him.
Antony, I have a similar recollection from the Moose River, James Bay, Canada:
Life scorched you.
The first time I met you, it was down by the shore,
We were ghosts reclining on the bank in a smudge,
You and Tony, James and Moses, Gilbert, Jimmy and I,
The work week over, a bottle of whiskey passing around,
The talk, of hunting, our voices low in the long-shadowed evening.
And to me, you were the mirror of an Orkneyman, tough, reliable, spare,
Like the weathered spruce paddle lying in the grass beside you.
There along the river,
I saw the hard-scrabble toll it took,
Hammering out a living on that cast iron
Anvil of hot summer days,
The clamorous autumns,
Those joyful springs,
And through winter’s
I wish I had known.
But life scorched you, didn’t it.
The last time I saw you was tides and tides ago
On the trail leading to the grassy ledge where I anchored my boat.
I saw you coming from an unguarded moment, wearing hip waders,
Head down, lost in a thought, straight-backed as ever, still young and strong.
We said hello as we always had, then passed each other by.
I wish I’d known, but it wasn’t my place to know, was it.
Your boat was full of fish, sea-run trout mainly, pike, pickerel and whitefish,
A gill net was neatly coiled in a washtub, your paddle resting on the boat seat.
It was high tide I remember, in the fall of the year, after the geese had gone.