Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Train Journey and Class of RY

Between 1978 and 1985, I went to University College, a public school located in the heart of Hampstead.

In September 1981, at the age of 14, I began the class of RY. Confusingly, this stood for Remove Yates. This did not denote a pressure group or political campaign of any type, rather the Remove year (public school jargon for Year/Grade 10) of Mr Yates, our form teacher.

There were about 25 boys in the class and in the previous year we had been called EY, which stood for Entry Yates. (Years 11 and 12 were respectively called Upper Remove and Transitus!) One of our first collective discoveries, as RY, was that our charismatic English teacher, Mr Ronnie Landau, had been replaced by a Mrs Mary Read (soon to be nicknamed Hairy Mary).

Mrs Read’s first English essay assignment for the class was to describe a train journey and she gave us a couple of days to complete this task. The results were very interesting and gave an accurate snapshot of the type of class I was in.

The first category of pupils had no imagination at all. They observed the world scientifically and empirically. These pupils literally described their train journey to school. So, for example, their essays would be along the lines of, “... at around 8am I get to Golders Green Station. The train travels for about a minute before entering a tunnel and then after another couple of minutes, we get to Hampstead station...”

The second category of pupils had some imagination but not very much. Their essays described journeys in France, travelling through the countryside or along the coast.

Then, in the next category, you had the pupils, like me, with the strange imagination who had already read too many books. I described being an 8 year old child being rounded up and forced into an extremely crowded cattle truck, alongside my family, with only a tiny crack to peer out of. I detailed how, during the tortously long journey, people died of thirst around me and how screaming guards with machine guns and snarling Alsatian dogs greeted our arrival as we were all bundled off to the gas chambers.

(Incidentally, I got a B for this essay, with the comment: “good, vivid description and use of imagination. Well done!”)

Finally, there was the Jonny Zucker category. This category surprising only contained one pupil, my old friend, Jonny Zucker and was in a league of its own. Zucker wrote about a young man who got onto a train at his usual local stop. As the train journeyed, the man gradually aged and he watched all the main events of history unfold outside the windows. He saw the great world wars, the assassination of Kennedy and so forth. Then the train moved into the future as the man continued to age. He observed the nuclear holocaust and Armageddon caused by the final world war and then the train reached its destination, the burning fires of hell.

Zucker rightfully obtained a straight A for this and Mrs Read admitted she was dazzled by his ability. These days, he is a successful children’s author.

Class RY also produced Adam Lent, Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, Dr James Hyman and Sam Bourne/Jonathan Freedland all published, well respected writers and thinkers.

A Great Idea

What do you do if you are running a newspaper and there is a comparatively quiet day, a tiny lull from the ever plummeting sterling and ever deepening recession? Well, here’s a great idea. Why not create some further bad news? Everyone likes bad news, right? And the country can always do with some more.

But how can you manufacture a bad story, run it on your front page and give everyone a headache in the process? Easy, take some high sounding fool in a suit and ask him to predict that things will actually get much worse. Predictions aren’t lies, exactly; they are a good honest stab at the truth. It doesn’t matter that the so called experts have a terrible track record and couldn’t predict a sandstorm in the desert. If it comes true, the expert can be treated as a quasi-divine sage, if it proves hopelessly amiss, well, most likely everyone will have forgotten the original prediction anyway.

I love it! But who do we use? Well, which area has consistently got their predictions wrong and proved utterly inept at managing risk? Hmm, what with politicians, bankers, economists, and financial regulators, there’s quite a large selection. Yes, it’s a tough one. But let’s go with a very senior banker, preferably one with a tie, waistcoat and glasses so everyone takes him more seriously.

He can spout the usual rubbish about house prices falling between 15% and 30% in the next couple of years. I mean with that margin of error he’s bound to be somewhere within the ball park. Then let’s all get very upset about his prediction and talk about it all the time and forget that, in fact, it’s only a silly forecast from someone who has no more (in fact, probably less) idea than you and me.

Ah, this is fantastic! But who can we use? Who, indeed? Wait, what about that bloke, John Varley, the Chief Executive of Barclays? Ok, Barclays invests much less in property than the other high street banks and so he doesn’t exactly know what he’s talking about. But never mind that. Do you think he’ll do it? Somebody, make the call...