If you met Ben in a street, you’d see a nearly seven foot person that worked as a bouncer in a particularly difficult bar. He’s huge. Not fat, though. It’s muscles and big bones. What you would not imagine is him sitting cross-legged in an attic room with me, weaving together an ode to the chimneys and roofs outside the window, all from the perspective of a chimney sweep in Edwardian times.
People are always contrasts between persona and perception. That is what makes people interesting; finding the cracks and the depths that separate the true persona from the immediate perception. That is the joy of writing fiction too, when you sit on a window sill in an attic room and look down on people hurrying through the chill and the damp toward their eventual destination and imagining what they’re like beyond the immediate prejudice of perception.
For some reason Ben, Abbie and I were all in that attic room. For once the once three musketeers were together again. Our lives have split so much since we were inseparable. Abbie is more with his new friends who agitate for socialism and a free Palestine. Ben sits in his hall room and do the student life thing that both Abbie and I miss out on because we live off-campus. Abbie do the LGBT scene thing with chasing elusive hook-ups and boyfriends in bars and clubs. And I try to lead my oh so middle class life with husband, car, and a house.
And in the middle of it all, we all think back to college. Back to when we were inseparable. To all those little moments of hilarity and shame and triumph and togetherness. You know, when you can look back and laugh at all the stupid things we did, or saw. It feels good, and it feels sad. It feels good to be back in the frame of the three musketeers against everything else. It feels sad that it’s really not like that any longer. It is sad that it is momentary, fleeting, a bit pretend.
I think all of us recognise the truth now; the school we went to back in college was fantastic. When you’re in the middle of it, the little things always rub the wrong way. One is used to the milieu and don’t see the greatness in the living moment. Each day is like the others. Teachers annoy, peers act silly, and the processes feel inadequate at the time.
The almost Jesuit seal the old college had to make us well-rounded within the constrains of keeping its place in the league tables is missed. The idea that education is not so much learning facts, but learning how to find facts for yourself. The idea that it is all very well to know the death date of Henry VIII, but that it’s much better if we have the means of finding out for ourselves, in a critical and intelligent way, when he died – and why.
This university is good. It’s pretty high up in the league tables. But it’s flaws contrast to what we had, and for those of us who were fortunate to come out of that college, it’s flaws seems like gaping wounds in its method. In its way of thinking. In its approach. And we can now sit back and marvel at how fortunate we were, and that we all miss that approach.
Later, at home, when Mark and I were on the sofa watching some stupid television program that we weren’t actually watching, I tried to tell him about our meeting in the attic room. But he wouldn’t understand because he didn’t see much difference between now and back then. Mark’s brush with further education was finally being let out of a box; of finally being a bit challenged; of finally not having concern trolls hovering over him to explain that his intelligence and boredom was not in fact an acronym soup of conditions.
Of course, he went to an ‘academy’ that was more concerned with its reputation, or lack thereof. His school wanted to be the Eton-on-the-Wye and failed at that because the uptake area was not the one per cent but the upper working and lower middle classes. His school spent more time fussing about having a school uniform than it did about its teaching methods. Even in that it failed because the quality of the school uniform was shoddy. But his teachers, he has told me, were good and could separate the silliness of the school administration from the real job of challenging him.
My college never bothered with perception because it didn’t have to bother. It had self-confidence. Maybe it also had a certain arrogance. And I wonder now if that’s not the end-point to fix inequality? Self-confidence to not worry so much about perception, but about persona. In the end, it may boil down to the same thing that I started out with – the interesting differences between Mark’s old school and mine are to be found in the contradictions between persona and perception. The clues to be found is in delving into the depths and the conflicts within the two states. In the end, maybe our institutions are just reflections of that conflict inside us. Maybe it applies to everything – from the school in the neighbourhood to the great halls of our democracy, like the House of Commons. What are the conflicts between our collective persona and our collective perception that make it so shambolic?