Memory of 39
I know that because I was there at the same Brentwood School with him - and, unlike so many of the self-serving, fact-bending childhood accounts which cross this desk at the TLS, his recall is provably near-perfect.
Or at least provably near-perfect to me.
Rhys Jones's Semi-Detached has been deservedly well received by fans and reviewers. The book is a hymn to an Essex suburbia which, if not now wholly lost, is not as warm and welcoming a thing as it once was. Many of us miss the old ways of Brentwood and the other gentler early sixties societies like it. We are nostalgic because, although we were happy be mockers at the time (especially the comic generation of Rhys Jones) we never signed up for it to disappear.
Hey. Stop. Leave the opinionising aside. Someone else is reviewing it for the TLS.
Semi-detached was sent out to one of our writers before I realised exactly what it was. I might otherwise have been sorely tempted to test our readers' patience by trading memories of master's nicknames and light brutalities with the bunsen-burner hose.
That unintended decision to stand back was certainly for the best.
My critical reaction to reading this book was that rare and uncritical thing - simple bloody marvel.
There again in these pages is suddenly my old English master, Mr 'Spud' Baron, the drama teacher with the rumoured 'Pilkington glass fortune', the secret service past, the Rachmaninov fingers, the director for whom 'acting was paramount, his acting mainly' and whose rehearsals were 'an opportunity for him to perform the entire play himelf'.
And a return too for Mr 'Bilge' Gilbert, the science teacher who began every sentence with 'Aww ginn', a phrase which we would all repeat in assembly whenever there was need for a corporate rebellion. Even in our school not every boy could be clipped around the ear with 'Percy', the flexible gas pipe. It was Bilge who made absolutely certain that I would become a classicist.
And then there is the restoration of Mr 'Daddy' Brooks, the grammarian who would not allow mention of the number 39, or the Warley mental asylum, still less the name Percy - since all were associated in different ways with Mr Gilbert. Every Brentwood master, I had forgotten, had his own designated number in the school regulations known as 'The Blue Book'.
I had better stop now before I praise further Rhys Jones's recall of Spud's explosion against Christopher Fry's excessively modernist The Boy With The Fart, his crowd scene with Douglas Adams as Julius Caesar - or the day the future comic star was demoted from Lady Macbeth to Third Witch.
Can I find anything wrong? The author possibly underestimates the ill-feeling between Mr Baron and the art master, set-painter and poster- designer Mr Featherstone.
Then perhaps Rhys Jones wasn't there when Spud first saw the poster for his Winter Theatricals production of Arms and the Man, a purple head between two outstretched elbows and hands, and screamed 'No, not that kind of arms, you cretin'.
Hey. Stop again. That omission surely seems a small fault - and an even smaller concern except to those surviving few (hundred?) of us who survived Brentwood School in the sixties and are still reading from time to time.