The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (Books 2020, 21)

    This short novel feels surprisingly modern. Indeed, maybe it’s modernist. It was written in the fifties, and is set in the thirties. The modern part is mainly the way it plays with time. Starting at a point and then flashing back is simple enough, but then we get various flashforwards and explanations of what’s going to happen to the various characters. It’s all very elegantly done, with the changes smoothly integrated, so they don’t feel like jumps at all.

    Jean Brodie is a teacher, and kind of an educational reformer, in that she thinks her students should be taught a broad array of things, and should learn about the world, rather than just follow a narrow, fixed curriculum. She would never “teach to the test” – which phrase is never used, but Brodie would be strongly against that modern malaise.

    But she very much plays favourites. Her “set” get all her attention (outside of school as well as in it), and all the other pupils – those who have no chance of becoming “la crème de la crème” – are ignored. She is, ultimately, exceedingly self-centred.

    Notoriously, she also has exceedingly dodgy – or maybe just deeply naive – political views. Here is Sandy, the main viewpoint character, when Brodie has shown the class a picture of Mussolini and his fascisti:

    They were dark as anything and all marching in the straightest of files, with their hands raised at the same angle, while Mussolini stood on a platform like a gym teacher or a Guides mistress and watched them. Mussolini had put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets. It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching along. That was all right, but it seemed, too, that Miss Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault. Perhaps the Guides were too much a rival fascisti, and Miss Brodie could not bear it.

    It gets worse, though, when she:

    was going abroad, not to Italy this year but to Germany, where Hitler was become Chancellor, a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini; the German brownshirts, she said, were exactly the same as the Italian black, only more reliable.

    She sees the error of her ways, though, after a fashion:

    After the war Miss Brodie admitted to Sandy, as they sat in the Braid Hills Hotel, “Hitler was rather naughty."

    She has some more positive views, though:

    “We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French. We are Europeans.”


    But my favourite quotes involve religion:

    The Lloyds were Catholics and so were made to have a lot of children by force.

    And getting back to those Fascisti:

    By now she had entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie.

    It’s a sad story, in the end. Worth reading, though.

    Exciting times

    These are exciting times in Hackney. Not only has my son just started secondary school today (where did those eleven years go?) but it seems that we are getting a new bookshop near the top of our road.

    This is big news indeed. Our little corner of Lower Clapton is characterised more by chicken-based fast-food joints and kebab shops. A children’s bookshop opened on nearby Chatsworth Road a year or two ago (my daughter was their first customer). There was a brief, exciting moment last year when something that looked like a bookshop opened up on Lower Clapton Road, but it turned out to be a religious booksop, specialising the the Christian field.

    But today I went up to get my hair cut, and I noticed a new sign up: Pages of Hackney. A new bookshop on the Lower Clapton Road, opening on Saturday 13th September. Excellent news.

    Not so good is that Saf’s Barbers is “closed until further notice”. I hope everything’s all right. I still have shaggy hair, which never looks good when it’s receding.

    It doesn't matter who wins...

    I found myself feeling curiously left out as my colleagues left work to watch the England match yesterday. This despite the fact that I didn’t want to watch it, I purposely avoided watching it, and I intended/hoped to take advantage of the reduced commuter traffic (not much reduced, as it happened: such is London’s diversity) to get home easily, and collect my kids from school.

    Where they were watching the football, of course, courtesy of the after-school club.

    Above all, if I had intended to watch it, my sympathies would have been with the other side anyway: I am Scottish, after all, and as my Dad used to say, “It doesn’t matter who wins, as long as it’s not England.” Plus I’m a sucker for an underdog (I mistyped that as “undergod”; there’s a story in there, I’m sure).

    But despite all that, as my colleagues left the office for the pub or wherever, I still felt a slight echo of the thing I felt as a kid when I was left out of something that “everyone else” was doing.

    We all want to be part of a tribe, I suppose.

    In the end I watched he last half hour or so at the school; from just before the scary personality-cult chants of “Rooney, Rooney!” to the end. The cheers, as you might expect in a primary school, were very high and shrill. I was pleased, though, that Trinidad and Tobago’s goal (before it was disallowed) got almost as loud a cheer. This was Hackney, and of course, there are a lot of kids with Caribbean ancestry.

    And maybe a lot of good sports, too. Maybe I should learn from them, and support England. But I can’t see it ever happening: there are some early-learned prejudices that die impossibly hard.

    So I guess I’m still part of a tribe.