All these Russian diplomatic expulsions have made me think of Coma Jones and the War of Charles XII’s head.
Coma Jones – or Mr Jones, as he was billed on the timetable – was a history teacher at secondary school. Everyone thought he was boring. Not so much I can’t believe it’s only been half an hour, as locked-in syndrome, trapped in this body and no-one can hear me screaming.
Ironically, experiences like these didn’t stop me training as a teacher. An act of desperation, I’ll admit. My life was going nowhere, and I thought if I didn’t get a proper job soon I’d really be on the rocks – little knowing that teaching was a whole new species of rock. It didn’t help that we’d just had a baby, who, despite being tiny, never seemed to need sleep or food, overmuch, but was blessed instead with the constitution of an air-plant, filter-feeding rude strength from the early hours of the morning. And it certainly didn’t help that everyone else on the course was ten years younger, with no family commitments. One of the low points was in the staff room one morning. I was sobbing, desperately jabbing my hands down the back of the sofa for anything that might do for a lesson plan, when Kelly burst into the staff room carrying a wide package.
‘Check this out!’ she said, laying a Shakespearian quotes board game she’d made that night on the coffee table.
I’d just like to repeat that, if I may.
A board game.
I left halfway through my newly qualified year. Ran away to the ambulance service in the same way criminals run across the desert to join the Foreign Legion.
Coma Jones wouldn’t have had any truck with board games. His lessons were very much on the chalk and talk model. Except he didn’t chalk all that much. It was too vigorous. What happened was: a bell rang; you dragged yourself to the classroom; text books were distributed (which always seemed to be European history, seventeenth through nineteenth century); you turned to the last page covered; (easy to lose your place in all that misery); took it in turns to read. Mr Jones asked a few questions, in the way that hapless fishermen toss groundbait in the water. You got out your exercise book ready for dictation.
I loved to sneak a look at him as he dictated. He’d be leaning back in his chair with his arms folded over his honey-coloured tweed waistcoat, his eyes shut, smoothly producing an endless stream of statements, dates and facts. If a foetus could talk it would be something like Mr Jones’ dictation. He was a curious, human-fish hybrid, floating in a warm suspension of history, perfectly secure, perfectly assured, blandly covering the most tumultuous events in European history, wars, riots, famines, blockades, assassinations…. the worst manifestations of human behaviour, the most appalling sufferings and cruelties, synthesising everything into an hour-long, life-long, amniotic suspension of fact.
The only time he showed any animation was when he had a gruesome picture to show us.
‘Take a look at this’ he said. A photograph was passed round showing a mummified head with a big hole in the temple. ‘That’s the head of Charles XII, killed during the siege of Fredriksten. Could have been grapeshot. Could have been one of his own men. But there you are. A bloody great hole nonetheless. A bit gory, I’ll admit. Don’t make a meal of it.’
The picture made its way back to his desk.
‘Exercise books out ready for dictation,’ he said.
The general view was that Charles XII got off lightly. I mean, no doubt the siege was cold – because Sweden is – the food bad, and so on. But whether it was grape or pistol shot, at least getting a hole in the head and falling off your horse would’ve been quick – a good deal quicker than one of Coma Jones’ history lessons.
I didn’t mind them, though. I found them comforting, in a narcotic way. They neutralised history, made it more of an anaesthetic procedure than any kind of dialogue with the past. I wish he was here now so I could sit down in his classroom and hear him talk about current events, the use of nerve agents to assassinate dissidents, cyber-warfare, expulsions of diplomats and so on. I’d love to see him lean back in his chair, fold his arms, close his eyes, and make the whole thing safe again.
‘Write this down’ he’d say.