Social mores have changed radically recently. After being brought up on the residue of Victorian strictness in the 1960s, passing through the coarse freedom of the 1970s, I am now beached and stranded in a new age where I hardly know what to expect or what to say.
The old heirachy of deference; policeman, vicar, teacher, parent, child has been upturned, we must all defer constantly to each other, showing almost abject respect which is not the same as kindness, and at the top of the pillar of respect are children and the proud parents who were brilliant enough to have them.
You never know when the tenets of this new way will kick in. I arrived for my art class early and waited outside the room, along with one large middle-aged woman sitting down and one sprightly pensioner, who I will call Gert, manning the community centre office as a volunteer.
From the hall where the art class was due to start at 1.40pm orchestral music swelled. Peering through the window, I could see two rather overweight teenage girls in pink tights performing ballet. In my memory, ballet classes were accompanied by one old lady banging away on an out of tune piano. These days the best orchestral music is streamed in at the touch of a screen.
I almost observed to Gert that the dancers were a bit on the fat side if they were really serious about ballet, a good job I didn’t as the seated woman turned out to be the mother of one of them. They were due to stop dancing at 1.30 so that my class could set up, but they didn’t stop, just went on thudding away, failing to defy gravity, to the music of Tchaikovsky.
Gert got a bit nervous and opening the door a crack, signalled to the dance teacher.
‘You are due to finish now,’ she whispered.
‘Just one more dance,’ said a rather pleading voice. The door closed again. They were extending their class, Gert hadn’t been able to stop them, but the mother was furious.
‘You must not speak to the teacher in front of the children,’ she said, ‘It’s not right.’
Gert said that she has politely made a reasonable request.
‘You barged in and disrupted my daughter while she is taking an exam,’ said the woman, and more loudly, ‘And she is very stressed!’
‘My daughter once did ballet, I know it’s stressful,’ said Gert soothingly, ‘but there are other classes starting.’
‘It’s not my daughter’s fault that the class started late,’ the mother remonstrated. ‘It’s an exam and she’s very stressed.’
It wasn’t an exam but apparently the girl was preparing for her mock GCSE, yes, even ballet has been academicized. I was keeping out of it, but Gert seemed to be getting the worst of it and the mother kept on about her daughter’s ‘stress,’ seeing that as a perfect reason for keeping one class going twenty minutes longer than it should have.
‘What has your daughter’s stress got to do with it?’ I snapped at last.
‘She is a CHILD!’ the mother expostulated. That apparently justified everything.
‘I don’t care about your child or her stress,’ I said, nothing personal, just that context.
She was astonished. No one says things like that anymore. At first she laughed with shock then vented her disgust.
‘Do you know what you’ve just said? That’s horrific! (buzz word for, that is something I don’t much like) I’ve never heard anything so selfish.’
‘What’s your daughter’s stress got to do with me?’ I asked, feeling enjoyably loutish.
‘We must all care for all children all over the world,’ she explained. ‘I want to make sure that they are all safe, they should all be protected from harm.’
‘What has that to do with this class coming out on time?’ I asked again. She seemed about to explode.
‘You have interrupted her exam and you are both bullying me.’
I’ve noticed that if you disagree with a proponent of the new thinking, they’ll accuse you of bullying them, even if they are doing the attacking. At that moment the cascading music stopped, and the two girls waddled out in their coats and scarves followed by the teacher. The furious mother was not about to let her rage be quelled. Gert looked pale with anxiety and began the next stage in the new etiquette which we are now supposed to follow; apologising desperately to the woman, terrified that she would be ‘reported,’ as her behaviour, thwarting the wishes of a child and its parent was obviously punishable.
With rat like cunning, left over from my time on Fleet Street, I smiled sweetly at the teacher.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Do you think it might be possible the art group to sketch the girls one day, they looked so graceful?’
She was pleased. ‘Yes, we can arrange that,’ she said, ignoring the angry mother who was barging forwards. As she offered me her business card, I heard Gert gasp with relief. We would draw them, they would be happy; but nothing is allowed to be that simple these days.
‘Of course, every one of the children and their parents will have to give their permission,’ said the teacher. ‘The artists will have to complete a full DBS security check. That will take several months to sort out.’
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘Send me the forms. I look forward to it.’
I have no intention of filling in any of them. It would have been nice to sketch the girls dancing, but life is too short for people I don’t know to decide whether I am fit to be near teenagers, most of whom are twice as big as I am.
I remain happily left behind in the world of the old lady at the plinkety-plonk piano, when boys played football and girls did ballet for fun, while their parents with more important, grown up things to do, kept well out of their way.