There’s Hair in my Alphabetti Spaghetti! A tale of obscenity, flagellation and Omerta. With help from Carly Simon, Van Morrison and the cast of HAIR!
Omerta.Such a beautiful-sounding word. It could even be a picturesque village nestling on a hilltop in Tuscany. If it is, it’ll be a pretty quiet place, because Omerta is the Code of Silence in the Mafia. Code of Silence. It sounds almost noble. But in my school it meant ‘If you grass on me I will get my friends to give you a good kicking’. Even if you knew that someone else had done the thing that you were falsely accused of, you wouldn’t dare tell the Brothers or a Prefect. So you had to grin and bare it when it came to getting punished, which in my case seemed to be a fairly regular occurrence.
You couldn’t really say we attended a ‘public school’. It wasn’t that posh, but we did have one or two boys whose fathers were minor celebrities. At the beginning of the school year everyone was allocated a seat in the refectory, at a table with five other boys, and you had to sit there at every meal for the rest of the year. When I was 14 I had the bad luck to share a table with the son of a quite famous person. Sometime fame breeds humility and a love of humanity. In this case it bred an arrogant, opinionated 15-year-old with a coterie of hangers-on who were prepared to do his evil bidding in order to get to sit in his dad’s Rolls Royce when he came to visit. Let’s call this boy Chris Dimbleby, or CD, as he liked to be known. CD would no doubt have thought of himself as self-confident. To me, he was self-seeking and cocksure. There’s always been a mystery about who Carly Simon was singing about in You’re So Vain. I bet CD thought the song was about him.
Who’s so vain? Mick Jagger? Cat Stevens? Chris Dimbleby?
I’m not entirely sure why CD didn’t like me. Maybe because I didn’t like him? All I knew was that CD had a tendency to sneer at anyone who seemed a bit weaker than him. Maybe he resented the fact that he wasn’t as good as he’d liked to have been at spelling. I, on the other hand, have always found spelling a natural thing to do: say a word and I could spell it. Sometimes my spelling was better than the teachers’, and apparently I was referred to in the staffroom as ‘Jones the Human Dictionary.’
Food was a bit of a problem at our school; i.e. it was horrible. Parents were aware of this issue, so mothers used to secrete as many treats as possible into their sons’ luggage before they left home at the beginning of term. This ranged from a fruitcake to tins of beans. If your parents could afford it, they arranged for a local shop to deliver ‘food parcels’ every Friday night. The brown paper bags usually contained fresh fruit (not part of our menu) but CD, being from a rich family, used to augment his diet with the latest in processed food, including Instant Whip, Angel Delight and everyone’s favourite- Heinz tinned spaghetti.
You never knew with CD if he was telling the truth or not. He might come back from the Christmas holidays with a bit of a tan and say he had spent a few days in The Bahamas with Princess Margaret (or was it Margaret Rutherford?) or boast about having had a chat the other day with Frank Sinatra (or was it Frank Spencer or even Frankie Howerd?). So no-one was surprised when he crowed about having seen the ‘Tribal love rock musical’ HAIR down in London’s West End. HAIR was legendary. Not for having a fantastic score, libretto or choreography, but because at one point every single person on stage was NUDE!
CD was in his element as boys swarmed around him, asking for minute details of exactly what could be seen. There was a rumour going round that a sixth former had a copy of the HAIR soundtrack album. Some of the song lyrics were apparently so shocking that one song was made up almost entirely of bleeps, apart from the line Father, why do these words sound so nasty? I was too busy listening to Imagine or Pictures at an Exhibition by Emerson, Lake & Palmer to be interested in anything profane, and anyway I was too young to know about The Kama Sutra. My older brother was just getting into American West Coast bands at the time, and probably had their album.
The whole fabric of our school was held together by a band of local people officially called ‘The Ancillary Staff’. We called them The Skivs. I now know that it is wrong to give groups of people derogatory labels, and especially if you think you are from an ‘elite’ echelon and they come from a so-called ‘lower order’ in society. I know it’s wrong, you know it’s wrong, but there you are: I was only 14 and should have known better. Most of the ancillary staff were elderly, though sometimes a few young women worked around the school. One young woman was called Gloria. I say ‘young woman’, but she could have been 17 or 18: any girl older than 15 was a young woman to me. She was very shy, and was occasionally to be glimpsed working in the kitchen, but rarely served food or cleared away. I thought she was nice, and totally out of place working with a bunch of teenage boys. Though we could be quite insulting about this group of staff, who used to work in the kitchens, bring our food to the tables and generally clean up after us, I don’t remember anyone ever being rude to any of them. Apart from during one infamous incident, which I unwittingly became embroiled in.
It all began at breakfast. Someone had etched the initials CD in the butter on our table. It later emerged that it was done as a joke by a group of older boys who bore a grudge. They quickly passed a rumour down to our table that it must have been done by ‘a young female admirer’. CD immediately jumped to the obvious conclusion: ‘It must be that young Skiv girl. She obviously fancies me! How dare she? I’ll teach her a lesson!’ During lunchtime, Gloria suddenly appeared at our table with a bowl of something that looked worryingly like a mashed animal’s brain. She blushed, plonked the bowl down and disappeared back into the kitchen. CD wouldn’t eat the food, but was able to dip into his vast supply of processed goodies to make sure that he didn’t go hungry. Out came a tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti.
I was always starving, so got stuck into the grey matter. Every so often CD would call over, “Hey Jonesy, how do you spell ……..?” Maybe he and his gang had a biology exam after lunch and they were doing a bit of last minute cramming, because I didn’t recognise any of the words that they were asking me to spell. They sounded a bit like diseases to me. I shouted back my answers and carried on ploughing through my lunch. It never paid to make eye contact with those guys, so I didn’t notice what they were up to. Usually CD and his crew made me stack their plates at the end of the meal, but today they told me not to bother. Maybe this was a show of gratitude for helping them out with their biology revision? I rushed off before they changed their minds.
Our Brother Principal fancied himself as a bit of a liberal and free thinker (within the broad confines of Catholic dogma). He also believed in leaving at least 12 hours after a crime was reported to him, before starting an investigation and meting out punishment with his leather strap. So after assembly the next day I was surprised to be called out of registration to visit Brother Principal in his office.
Later my friends said that they admired my nonchalance as I sauntered out of the class (I could spell that word but had no idea what it meant, so was a bit alarmed at their candour). It was only as I neared the office that the old guilt started to creep in. Had a Prefect seen me smoking? Had someone noticed that I had been making a lot of sideways glances in Gloria’s direction? I started to shake a bit and feel sweaty.
Angela the school secretary gave me a dreadful look; the one you might reserve for a condemned man as he walks towards the gallows. She ushered me into Brother Principal’s office. He was sitting there with a pile of paperwork on his desk. Next to all the paper were a Bible and a large leather strap. In the middle of all his admin was an unwashed white dinner plate. To my horror I could see that it was covered in Alphabetti Spaghetti. The conversation went something like this.
BP: Sit down Jones. (Pointing to the plate) Do you recognise this?
Me: (Shaking and looking guilty) Yes Brother. It’s a plate.
BP: Don’t be stupid boy. Have you seen this plate before?
Me: No Brother. At least I may have, but all plates look pretty much the same, don’t they?
BP: (His hackles rising, but trying not to show it.) Take a closer look.
At this point it all became clear. It felt like I was in the last five minutes of The Usual Suspects (though I wasn’t to see that film until 40 years later). All over the plate was written a long sentence beginning ‘Gloria would you like to meet me so that we can (followed by all the words I had spelled out to CD and his friends during the previous lunchtime). I’m not going to give you the pleasure of reading the words here. If you can’t imagine, then Google HAIR musical lyrics. BP was warming to his subject. “Jones, you might as well admit that this is your handiwork. After all, the plate was left in the place where you sit. I had one of the prefects draw up this (at which point he brandished a diagram showing which boy sat where.) Own up now, take your punishment and then I can get on with my admin.”
‘Omerta. The Code of Silence. Say nothing and take it like a man. Then you can exact revenge.’ These thoughts flashed through my mind as BP waved towards the plate and broke the silence.
BP: Do you know what any of these words mean?
Me: No Brother
BP: But you can spell them?
Me: I can spell most words Brother.
BP: I know. That’s why I think it was you, Jones. Who else in your year can spell c*******gus and know it has three ‘n’s? Admit your guilt boy!
At this point I felt him playing with me (like a cat with a mouse). He made me look the words up in the dictionary. None of them were there. (It was a Junior Dictionary: the one with a line drawing to illustrate a key word on every page. If the editors had included some of the words on the plate and illustrated them, there would have been a court case as scandalous as for Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the OZ Obscenity Trial.) Brother Principal then played his trump card. He produced a thumping great dictionary and slammed it on the table. “Each of these profane words is in here! I had to explain to that girl what each one meant. The poor innocent child was mortified: she didn’t know where to look!”
I laughed. Even I knew what went on in Sodom, and didn’t they catch Gomorrah for doing it? (We attended a religious school, after all).
Golden rule: Never laugh at someone who is angry. I was doomed. BP was spluttering as he asked me to look up ‘flagellation’ in the dictionary. Ten minutes and six lashes on the bare bottom later, I was standing in front of BP, while he delivered a psychological blow whose effects lingered long after my bruises had gone down.
“That poor girl has resigned because of your behaviour. She was working here so she could save up to go to college. Now she won’t be able to go.”
This comment triggered the guilt, exactly as was intended. I went into guilt meltdown for several days and nights. It all ended by chance when I saw Gloria sauntering through the school grounds. She looked rather groovy in her orange cheesecloth blouse, purple crushed velvet maxi skirt, blue clogs and with henna in her hair. I ran up to her and apologised for getting her sacked and told her the whole sorry tale about the butter and Alphabetti Spaghetti: including who the true culprit was. Gloria just laughed. “I didn’t resign. I was only working here while my granny was off on holiday. She’s back now. I’m going to study Law next year at University. I’ll get a full grant for that. I’m off to work on a kibbutz and then maybe visit Morocco with my boyfriend. I knew it wasn’t you. I showed the plate to all the other staff and they thought it would be great crack to send me up to the office to show Brother Principal. I had to explain to him what the words meant. The poor old sod was mortified: he didn’t know where to look! As for that CD, you can tell him from me where he can stick his butter.” At which point she gave me a hug and a kiss and I never saw her again.
A few years later I went with a friend to see Hair in London’s West End. It was unremittingly awful. The Spanish version you can watch here was brilliant in comparison. Acres of bare flesh? Not a chance. We were up in the gods and all we saw was some hairy actor’s bottom and a few dancers wearing what were clearly body stockings. We left at the interval and headed into Soho to see if we could get the kind of excitement that all 16-year-old boys really crave. That’s right; we managed to get served in a pub and bought a pint of beer each.
Hair: when the Moon is in its seventh height and Jupiter aligns with Mars it will dawn on you that you have been totally ripped off.
And Gloria, this one’s for you, wherever you are.
And did I exact my revenge? Omerta.
Take care out there