Friday, April 04, 2008

The past is another country

When I was 14, my class at school went to Chur, Switzerland, on an exchange trip. We were all parcelled out to what we rather facetiously called our "Swiss mothers" in different houses around the town, and attended the local Steiner school.

I was quite new to the class, having only joined the year before, and already rather unpopular for having been given (how dare I be) the role of Miranda, the only female appearing in The Tempest. In Chur, however, I was cast into outer darkness by the entire class for saying that the two popular girls, Laura and Tara, only bought clothes at a trendy shop in town, Globus, because it was trendy, and not because they really liked them. (This was the early 1980s so we are talking fluorescent batwing t-shirts here.)

This throwaway, bitchy remark, of course, may have been true, albeit rather cruel, and was given in a moment of madness to Olwen, a nasty little washed-out sneak fond of wearing lipstick the colour of bubblegum. Of course in an instant it became a classroom sensation (I can even remember the news passing like a Mexican wave through the classroom as one person whispered it to another); the fatwa was issued; and I was a wretch, to whom it was forbidden to speak, from then on.

Laura and Tara had been invited for lunch at my house, but the news broke the day before and they didn't turn up. My Swiss mother had cooked a splendid meal and I was unable to explain what had happened ("sie kommen nicht... sie kommen nicht") and cried copiously into my pasta. They were forced by our teacher to come round and apologise with flowers, a humiliating act which made them hate me even more.

My problem was compounded by the fact that my own mother had volunteered to come along to help the class. So I was not only a cast-iron bitch, but a teacher's pet as well. I avoided school as much as I could, and stayed in my attic room watching poorly dubbed Lee Majors series ("Ein Colt fur alle Falle") and reading an American magazine about how to get your "fanny" into shape and why Karen Carpenter's death resonated with us all. The view from the little window is burned into my memory forever.

Years later I shared a flat with Tara at university and she apologised to me for the way they had behaved. I wasn't ready to be magnanimous then: it was the biggest, most devastating event of my life so far. The rest of the trip I've pretty much blocked out. By the green shores of impassive Lake Lucerne, I redeemed myself slightly by losing at spin the bottle, in a late night game in our youth hostel, and having to run across the room naked. So I thought, but when we got home and the photos from the trip came down from the wall of the classroom, having been displayed there fora few weeks, I discovered that someone scratched my face with the point of a compass in every picture I appeared in.


Mummy said...

I have a theory that people who were not "cool" at school / were bullied grow up to become highly successful and motivated people.

I was ostracised for being a) too posh and b) not wearing sufficiently trendy shoes. The latter being something of an irony now.

I am currently planning a school reunion and rather looking forward to it. I have lost touch with most of the "cool" kids but stay in touch with my geeky friends all of whom have gone on to be happy and successful. The only one of the "cool" gang I know of was convicted of rape 4 years ago.

LottieP said...

A school reunion would definitely be a bridge too far for my class. I doubt whether, 21 years on, any of us are ready for it.

You've reminded me of that maxim "Professional success is the revenge of the nerd"...

It would be interesting to hear from someone who was magnetically popular at school about their progress after they leave. I've always thought it must be rather difficult to go out in to the world and suddenly realise that you are not the most popular person in the room anymore.

Having held your acolytes in your sway for five or ten years, how difficult would that be?

Claire said...

I wouldn't say I was completely happy and successful, but being bullied rather than being a bully does have its upside. It still gives me childish pleasure to see one Ms Jack still working in the Spar in the village and still as fat and ugly as ever. I'm sure you're a very nice person now, Caroline, but maybe this is life's elegant way of exacting revenge for being an utter twat in your early teens.

Grande Poobah said...

guess what - i too was on the uncool side at school (bad perm, good at physics for god's sake, no fashion sense at all - no change there - and also deeply unattractive to boys.

aren't girls horrid to each other though??

Mancsoulsister said...

I am currently writing a book loosely based on my experiences at school, about wanting so much to fit in and be one of 'the gang' and failing at every hurdle. I showed the first draft to my mum recently, and she was shocked at how miserable I must have been back then.

But then reading your post and the comments here, it looks like there was a lot of misery in Britain's Secondary schools in the 80s.

LottieP said...

Funnily enough, MSS, I didn't at the time think of myself as being bullied: in that confused 13 year old way, I think I thought I deserved it.

Mummy and La Grande Poobah, the world divides into those who were bullied and those who were the bullies. I know which side I'd rather be on.

Claire, I too sometimes think of Caroline Jack: fat, spotty, still in the village where we grew up, and selling pies to pensioners in the local Spar. We wreaked all the revenge we could ever want without lifting a finger.

tpe said...

Hey Lottie, sorry it’s taken me such an age to come and see you here.

First up, fuck. That’s really a rather horrible thing that happened to you. The shenanigans in Chur are bad enough, but it is in the defacing of the pictures - after the event, once the pernicious dust had seemingly settled – that an especial misery must lie. My God. What a brutal and malicious act.

One thing. You say that we used the term “Swiss mothers” rather facetiously. You may have, fair enough, but I didn’t. I used the term with an honest affection and meant it. In fact, I continue to think of her as my Swiss mother. We got along famously and I enjoyed going back to see her every once in a while as an adult and, hardly surprisingly, I bedded her most ruthlessly a few years back, in a ruinous congress of whirring limbs.

No, I didn’t, but the thing about using the term “Swiss mother” without attendant facetiousness is definitely true.

I’m not sure about the theory being bandied about here, really, although I can see why it may appear to make sense. It’s maybe just something you nerdy/unpopular guys tell yourselves? I don’t know. (And crikey, you seem like a rough and (thrillingly) vindictive bunch). But there have been plenty of bullying/popular/show-offy, shallow louts who have gone on to achieve “success” in later life.

And just as many of the downtrodden/unpopular/picked-upon/nerdy/sniveling types have gone onwards and downwards ever since, too. I suppose it depends on the character of the nerd involved. If they can see through the garbage spouted by the popular guys, then they’re in with a shout. I suppose it would also depend on your definition of "success".

I was quite popular at school, but a bit of a train-wreck in later life. The train-wreckedness has nothing whatsoever to do with finding it hard to adapt to being “normal” or “unspecial” in the outside world, though – this was a release for me, a phenomenally uplifting breath of fresh air and a chance, at last, to escape the attentions of the incurably inept – and, besides, I was already a train-wreck at the height of my popularity. Go figure.

It's a bit hopeless, really, because to protest that the attention caused extreme distress and exacerbated an already dim view of humanity, is to invite disbelieving ridicule. It's perfectly easy to see why it might be ghastly to be unpopular, but the same has never been true at the opposite end of the spectrum.

On the plus side, popularity meant sex - excuse the bluntness. It was also fleetingly nice - in lighter moments - to feel looked up to cetra cetra. I would forego every last hopeless thrash, however, for a bit of retrospective space.

I can't believe that Globus was ever considered trendy, by the way. God, we must have dressed like tramps. And watching Ein Colt für alle Fälle is blessedly corrupt. Well done.

Love from here to there....


LottieP said...

Hello, TPE. Ha! Umlauts! Where did you get them from? My original post is sorely lacking in that department and it bothers me.

I think you may be right that life is entirely random in terms of what happens to the good or the bad, and which one you were at school is probably immaterial. In fact one of the key ingredients of success in business, unfortunately, often seems to be an overweening confidence in yourself and your own abilities. Thus do mediocre people rise inexplicably to the top; and look around you, there are plenty of examples.

Thanks also for being so honest about the fringe benefits. You must have missed that just a little bit, surely, on leaving? Unless, of course, and I think this to be the (not entirely unsubstantiated) case, you went on to ravage your rapacious way from one willing worshipper to another.

Apologies here for the purple prose which lends itself irresistibly to alliteration.

And I like your admission that you'd have given it all up for a bit of peace.

Horrible and yet quite compelling image of the Swiss mother succumbing to your youthful charms...

Mummy said...

I am not sure that being popular means you have problems later in life but everyone I know who was bullied at school seems to have gone on to be rather successful.

Maybe it was not wasting time with boys who would never date you, maybe it was finding your only solace in being good at schoolwork, maybe it means that the friends you forge under such circumstances and then continue to forge throughout your life are so much stronger because they didn't come easily and you pick more carefully.

Who knows, but using my sample from school, the most successful of us now were all bullied back then.

tpe said...

Hello Mummy, how do you do?

Yes, I suppose I just mean that the rule doesn’t readily or seamlessly apply across the board. No arguments with the fact that it may be true for you and your ex-classmates, however, just that this doesn’t automatically lend itself towards universal truth.

Also, going back to something I said to Lottie, I do wonder at the definition of “success” we might be labouring under here. I’ve seen it mentioned a few times and yet remain none the wiser as to what this might actually mean to people.

Granted, it’s beautiful fun to attract money and to be good at one’s chosen profession – I am gobsmackingly good at mine, for example – but this seems a rather shallow, grubby and charmless way to define one’s place in the world and has always left me perfectly cold. None of it matters, as far as I can tell, and “success” – whatever that may be – seems just as likely to strike the undeserving braggard as the diligently driven nerd.

Nice to collide with you, by the way, out here in space.

Lottie Lottie Lottie - hello again. No, no way – the umlauts are mine, so just you keep your murky little hands off of them. It’s all I’ve got left to try to make myself stand out and feel special. You would take this from me? Seriously? Sheesh.

Bless you, child, for making me laugh-splat inelegantly with your descriptive and spookily accurate guesswork. Yes, I rampaged most greedily after leaving school – strutting and rutting and falling too easily into the clammy arms of a roughened sex and the sweetest desolation. All good stuff, of course, but it did mark me for life and made me feel very dangerously soul-sick (hence the current seventeen year stint of implacable (physical) fidelity, amongst other things).

The thing is – and I’m not really sure how to phrase this – but being popular at school does have certain implications, I suppose, slightly contrary to what I said earlier. I was left with an unspoken (and underlying) expectation that people and things would continue to come to me – and they did. And this just made me loathe them a little bit more – which made them more likely to keep coming, weirdly enough. I need space. Give me space.

It’s not that I think that I’m better than anyone (apart from Barack Obama, maybe), but I’ve never felt that I’m out of my depth in any given company and have no problems seeing myself as everybody’s equal. This, however, applies to drunken tramps as much as it does to Noam Chomsky. So there have been some problems, to be sure.

I like what Mummy said about friendships formed in adversity and choosing one’s friends carefully. I’ve learnt to choose very, very carefully indeed. This is why, from all those many people I once knew at school, I’m left with just you as my friend. It is impossible to emphasise enough just how little I would like it to be any other way.

And on that loving note, toodle-pip. (Need to take the dog out - now.)


(Seriously, I am the umlaut king. König, even.)

Mummy said...

Hello to you too tpe

Success is an interesting concept. I define it as happiness and doing whatever you choose to do the best you possibly can.

What rocks your world?

Anonymous said...

Practically nothing, Mummy, truth to tell, but your definition seems perfectly fair enough.

I don't know. I've always been made a bit uneasy by people's seemingly unshakeable belief that success in life is to be found in the workplace.

I don't want to sound like some weary old hippy - frigging hate those guys - but I simply can't for the life of me see how a day spent in a stressful environment, surrounded by people you may or may not like, each trying to outdo the other, trying to get ahead, pursuing money and recognition for the sake of money and recognition, spending hour upon hour away from the people you actually love - well, I just don't see that as a "success" when compared to a day in the wilderness with a dog and/or girlfriend. (Mainly dog, though. Just saying.)

It's true, you need to work to be able to get into a position to spend day after day in the wilderness, but the thing with these driven people - it seems to me, at any rate - is that the end is never in sight. If it's not one thing, it's another. Must do better, must do better, must have more money to spend in what tiny amount of time I allow myself to spend it. That sort of thing.

And then, at 65, they wonder how the shagging hell they missed out on trees and stuff. Maybe its just the inexorable logic of a free market capitalism - a system I heartily favour, incidentally - which finds the driven people driven to a life spent chasing money (to put it bluntly and, yes, rather unfairly, I know). Or maybe people don't like spending time on their own.

Anyhoo....anyone with a bit of loot can leave all of that rushing and mayhem behind. The fact that they don't, I suppose, means there must be something else going on here. Maybe, oh my life, they actually enjoy it, which is both baffling and yet entirely fair enough.

Just so long as they don't start bleating at 65 about all those things that they missed out on. Then we're sweet.

I don't see myself, certainly, at 65, darkly brooding on the porch, griping inelegantly about all those stressful money-chasing days I missed out on, longing to have been surrounded by the teeming mass of desperately busy ants and the alien values of the non-stop brigade.

Then again, I don't see myself at 65 full-stop. But that's a different thing.

I've been trying so hard to avoid saying "each to their own" because I wince at the blandness - and the hint of hippy, therein - but it really does seem to be that simple and fair, just so long as a catch-all definition of "success" is not foisted upon us and accepted as the norm.

The trouble, I suppose, is that we are bombarded with messages from an excitable press and culture about the ways to achieve "success". And whilst some people buy into this quite willingly, I've a feeling that others may never stop to question the wisdom or otherwise of these cultural mores and merely find themselves swept along.

Kind regards from the wilderness...


(Hey Lottie, hope you're tickety-boo today. Karen Carpenter's death failed to resonate. Am I in trouble?)

magicman said...

Well, the most isolated and under-friended person at my school (& few can be as alone in a first world country as an 8 year old at boarding school who has no friends) has grown up to be an orderly in an old people's home.

I leave it to the forum to decide whether they think that is successful or not.

I rather suspect the reply might be "Only if he thinks so". For is not success, as pointed out, very tightly wrapped up in one's own world view of what is good and right and proper and virtuous?

Gah, gotta go catch my flight.

Mummy said...

I enjoy my job and the people I work with. It is interesting, and fun, and I get paid to do it. Does that make me a bit pathetic?

LottieP said...

Hello, TPE, and thanks for your thoughtful contribution. I can't help thinking you are somewhat mischaracterising the world of the workplace for your own purposes. It's not all bad. I have fun with the people in my office, we generally like working together, and though it's externally stressful due to client demands, there are no politics. We don't get stellar salaries by Hong Kong standards, but most of us are comfortable enough to eat well and not worry too much about money. Sounds OK to me. If I wanted to buy yachts and private planes, I'd be unhappy. But I don't, so I'm not. I have my doubts abut consumerism anyway.

When I went to Scoraig (of which more some other time, when I can bear to think about the place) I felt that the people there actively despised me for being part of the rat race. Oh but they feared it too. And they didn't seem very happy either even in a utopian paradise [sic.].

Compared to someone in Myanmar whose family, home and belongings have just floated away upside down and inside out, I know how lucky I am. And I appreciate the small things, like my friends and the sun shining in the mornings when I get the bus.

I am not sure I knew who Karen Carpenter was at the age of 13.

Thanks for your contribution too, Mummy, and welcome, Magicman. I look forward to reading the rest of what you have to say. You are as well placed to comment as anyone on this issue, if not more so, so please do.

tpe said...

Nobody doubts how lucky you are, Lottie, if you choose to compare your lot with that of the people of Burma, but are you successful? Is your life a success? The tension mounts. (Mine isn't, incidentally, I'll tell you that for free.)

But anyway, you maybe didn't have time to properly read what I was saying, but there was no attack being made on those people who join the (horribly named) rat-race, merely an expression of a different preference - whilst all the while (do pay attention at the back) accepting that there was nothing wrong with any or either approach.

And any "mis-characterisation" of workplace shenanigans (guilty as charged) was surely adequately dealt with by my own:"to put it bluntly and, yes, rather unfairly, I know".

Generalisations are necessarily afoot, Ms P, and it doesn't do to take these things personally. Notice also, please, that I said people "may or may not" like their work colleagues. I did not say that they did not. I may seem erratic, it's true, but, secretly, I am extremely careful with my words. Word.

Please try not to mention Scoraig - I shudder with revulsion when I consider that, as yet and forever, unvisited place.

One thing I don't like, really - and it just so happens that Scoraig was mentioned in the last sentence, okay, but the following should not be seen as an attack on that island or its inhabitants - are those radical beings who drop out of the rat race, only to snipe from the sidelines whilst scrounging bitterly from a state they profess to hate. Just like those bastards on Scoraig, in fact.

I'm not sure that I know who Karen Carpenter is even now.

Mummy - who knows? Only if you want it to, I suppose.

Magicman - hello, how do you do? No arguments with anything you say, unfortunately.

You pose an almost impossible question to answer, though - I like those sort of questions. I can only really answer with a question, I'm afraid - why wouldn't he be considered successful? And, I suppose - who am I to decide such a thing?

LottieP said...

Thanks, TPE. I have, of course, in my turn, as you rightly point out, misappropriated your arguments for my purposes; in order, really, to avoid having to consider what "success" might be, since it seems such a nebulous concept and ultimately rather difficult to define.

"Success" in Hong Kong terms is easy to define: you're the man who owns 25 Ferraris. (Yes, there is one.) Or who has just bought an Airbus 380 for personal use. (Ditto.) Or the tai tai whose personal clothes shopping budget is HK$800,000 (US$100K) per season.

We seem to be agreeing, all of us, that "success" is a meaningless term out of context, and that the context has to be personal.

I would point out that "professional success is the revenge of the nerd" is referring, on the other hand, to a particular and quite definable type of success, is it not?

LottieP said...

I can add an update to this, which is that I stayed with the other half of the powerful duo, Laura, in London two years ago (how the world turns) and she too apologised to me.