Now that all my children are through with their education I have been pondering on some of the decisions we made along the way for them, and on my own educational decisions, or lack of them. I'm not sure that any of the lessons which have proved most useful to me in life happened in classrooms.
My middle daughter needed to make a film as part of her media studies A level and asked if I had any ideas. I was at the time working on a book with the manager of an electro-pop act which had sold more than twenty million albums during the late eighties and nineties and I suggested that she should ask him if she could film an up-coming re-launch of the lead singer, who was also the manager’s partner, as he was releasing a solo album.
The first venue for the re-launch was to be Madame Jojo’s, an infamous nightclub in the heart of old Soho, which had become even more famous in the seventies when its owner, Paul Raymond, had turned it into a transvestite burlesque cabaret. Paul Raymond, like his Soho neighbour, Christina Foyle, had been one of the earliest London characters I had interviewed as a freelance journalist and I had retained an affectionate fascination for his seedy and glamorous little corner of the world ever since. There were rumours that by the time Raymond died his interests in Soho property had made him the richest man in
The pop singer’s manager, an exceptionally kind man, liked the idea of having a student film crew adding to the buzz of the launch night, but one question still remained; would the school authorities, not to mention the parents of the film crew, be happy to have these vulnerable young minds let loose in one of the most infamously sleazy night joints in the history of the West End?
Fortunately my daughter had allies amongst the teachers and the project was given the green light. Partly in my role as parent/guardian and partly as a tourist from the seventies, I said that I would come too.
The star’s name had worked its magic and the place was a heaving, sweating mass of bodies, almost exclusively male. The star himself was the sweatiest of all as he strutted his stuff on stage in a costume of leather and feathers. The students, enthralled at being allowed to step through a time warp into a real-life Rocky Horror Show, behaved like professionals, moving with their cameras between the audience and dressing rooms with perfect discretion. I slid to the bar at the back of the room and found myself a stool from which to watch with a cocktail.
It had been a long time since I had been to a transvestite bar. The last time had been in
on a trip to Tahiti while I was still in my
twenties. (My art teacher at school had whetted my appetite for the South
Pacific when talking about Paul Gauguin’s escape from civilisation to
I’d been working as a travel writer, a role that I was partly inspired to take on by Hugh Lofting’s “Dr Dolittle” books. In my memory the doctor and his animal friends would spin a globe and the doctor would stab blindly at it with his finger. Whatever point his finger fell upon they would then set out to find. Maybe that only happened once in the whole series, but the image became immovably wedged in my mind and was, metaphorically speaking, pretty much how I chose the places I wanted to visit. Later, when I fell under the spell of Byron and his alter ego in “Childe Harold”, the image of the lone traveller took on an even more intense romance. The portly, balding fantasy figure of John Dolittle had grown into a world-weary, dissipated young Byronic hero – or so I hoped.
Hergé’s adventures of Tintin also contributed to my urge to visit exotic foreign lands, his tales made all the more tempting by the fact that we were banned from reading them at prep school. The school authorities seemed to be under the impression that text mixed with pictures would be a hopelessly corrupting brew for our young minds, rendering us too idle ever to read solid blocks of text again. It’s hard to imagine what those teachers would think of today’s social media and entertainment mix, where everything comes in bite-sized pieces and usually in video or abbreviated text form.
I had lighted on the
island of Tahiti
while making my way from New Zealand
to Hawaii, and
had ended up staying in a gigantic resort hotel which seemed to cater almost
solely for groups of pensioners getting on and off cruise liners. Even with the
idyllic island scenery as a backdrop, this was not the paradise that I had
imagined when day-dreaming my way through art lectures a dozen years before.
Drowning my sorrows in a pool bar I got talking to a Finnish businessman who suggested we take a “le truck”, the colourful and uncomfortable local mode of transport, into town. Wandering around town with my newly made friend we eventually ended the night in a transvestite bar. Lord Byron would undoubtedly have felt very at home lounging on those cushions, being entertained by the house cabaret, although I’m not at all sure what Dr Dolittle or Tintin would have made of it. By the next morning I had radically changed my view of the Finnish business community.
As the evening at Madame Jo-Jo’s wore on one of the teachers, who was youthful enough to look like he was part of the student team, wove his way over to me at the bar. He leaned close to be heard over the roar of the crowd and the throb of the speakers.
“Now this,” he said, “is what I call education.”