Chaos Come Again
You don’t expect mothers to turn up in their Yves St Laurent and dive headfirst into your wheelie bins
Before Bink went into the Florence Nightingale Unit at the age of 16 she used to complete her academic work with no apparent effort whatsoever.
We know now that her life was far from perfect – she had been in acute and increasing mental anguish for some years – but one challenge she didn’t have was academic achievement. Assignments were always on time; exams sailed through; near-top marks in all subjects for her a matter of ease.
After the Unit, everything became an almost unbearable struggle.
If you are a teacher, you may put some of this down to the A level course being more demanding than GCSE. A much more visible difficulty was a new curse of perfectionism. Bink had always set herself extremely high standards. But whereas previously these had spurred her on to sparkle, now they seemed to cripple her into incapacity.
She had coursework to write on Othello. For weeks, her labour had been agony.
On the last possible day she took her finished work into MPW to hand in. The relevant tutor had gone home, so she put it on his desk for the morning. She had met the deadline.
First I knew about it, her several-thousand-word essay had gone missing. It was handwritten: she had no copy.
“I can’t do it again,” she said despondently. “I just can’t. I’ll have to fail.”
My brother lost his PhD thesis the day he finished it. After searching for half a week, he simply sat down and rewrote it. Most of us have done something similar, and ended up with a more honed piece of work.
I had witnessed the sweat and tears. She really couldn’t.
Rapid research revealed that a member of the nighttime cleaning staff at MPW had so shaky a grasp of the English language that all the Principal’s attempts to sack her had so far fallen on deaf ears. Every time he dismissed her from her post, she smiled, thanked him, and turned up again the next day.
Characteristic of her eccentricity was that she had decided Bink’s essay on the tutor’s desk was rubbish which needed disposing of. Pointless to ask why. If she had a reason, she wasn’t revealing it: not in English.
She had put it in the wastepaper basket. Which, along with all the bins, was emptied each night into a large wheelie bin. Which in its turn was standing to attention as one of a row on parade outside on the pavement, waiting to be emptied by Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council.
“Stop them!” I shouted to the Principal. “Please, go out and pull them all back in again!”
What this might do to the entire college’s rubbish collection for the next week, I didn’t have time to care.
By extreme good fortune, the refuse representatives of the good burghers of the ancient Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had that morning had a lie-in.
“I can be there by bike in under ten minutes.”
Thing is, by the time you find yourself Principal of a posh tutorial college in one of the poshest boroughs of London, you get used to all sorts of self-sacrifices. And you don’t expect mothers to turn up in their Yves St Laurent and dive headfirst into your wheelie bins. (Not even your scholarship-mothers, in their writers’ mufti of jeans they’ve been wearing for a fortnight.)
He obviously thought it beneath me.
As Principal, though, you also tend to turn up for work looking fairly smart yourself.
I was pretty sure it was beneath him.
Bink thought it beneath either of us. “I can’t touch it if it’s been in the bin,” she wailed repeatedly.
“Let’s just find it, shall we Bink? You don’t mind photocopied contamination, surely? And your tutor doesn’t have OCD: he can mark it in marigolds if necessary.”
All credit to that Principal and his hapless, roped-in Vice Principal. I dread to think what it did to their Gieves & Hawkes, spending the morning going through the contents of several wheelie bins… before one of them emerged like a jack-in-the-box, triumphantly waving several pages in Bink’s neat handwriting on the theme of jealousy in Othello.
It was darned good, too. I’ve come across similar arguments since among serious literary critics, but I don’t believe anyone suggested it to Bink. Her thesis was that the green-eyed monster, the thwarted love in the play is all Iago’s; the climax, from memory, being the quasi-marriage vows the two men make on their knees at the pivotal centre of the play. It gave me fresh insight into a story I know well.
Worth spending half a day head down in a Council wheelie bin, up to your gold cuff-links wading through discarded Prêt à Mangers, your beautifully tailored trousers and handmade leather Oxfords waving in the air.