Poisoning Pigeons In The Park – How A Tin Box And A Magic Virgin Made Me Realise I Might Be Becoming A Man
We all have teachers who inspired us when we were at school. We were ungrateful little bastards back then, of course, and didn’t recognise or appreciate that inspiration. But it was always there, waiting to be remembered fondly when we eventually became adults.
I was lucky because my school had a lot more inspirational teachers than most. But the one who is springing into my mind at the moment is Mr Hutchinson, my R.E. teacher. “R.E.” stands for “Religious Education” by the way, in case it’s called something else in your neck of the woods.
Tony Hutchinson, or “Hutch” as we called him, was not like other R.E. teachers. Such teachers tend to be pasty milk sops or big fat women with violent tempers. At least that was the tendency in the school I went to. But Hutch was different.
He was an ex paratrooper for a start. Tattoos, forearms like ham hocks and built like a brick shithouse. He was a man who had actually lived life and done stuff. So when he was telling you something, you knew he wasn’t telling you it just because he’d read it in The Bible. Hutch had gravitas and charisma. You listened to Hutch.
So, when he asked me and a few of my friends to go on a road trip with him one weekend, we jumped at the chance. Okay, it was a road trip in our rust-bucket school minibus and the destination was a Catholic Shrine to The Virgin Mary in Walsingham, Norfolk. But you take your entertainment wherever you can when you’re a 17 year old Sixth Former with very little money.
The trip to Norfolk was highly entertaining. We shared the minibus with a party from another school. They were a very quiet lot. We, on the other hand, were not. This was quite unexpected given that we were in the company of our teachers, but it’s difficult to remain guarded for hours when you’re essentially locked in a tin box together and hurtling down the motorway at what was, quite frankly, alarming speed.
It wasn’t long before we were cracking jokes and singing songs, mainly rude ones. Teachers as well as students. At one point, Hutch cracked the old favourite : “I used to think that Muffin the Mule was a sexual offense.” To which I immediately replied “No Sir, I think you’ll find that’s Dobbin the Horse”. (We were still calling the teachers “Sir”. It wasn’t that relaxed.)
I have no idea where that witty reply came from or how I came up with it so quickly, but Hutch was highly impressed with it. He laughed like a drain. Though that was a little disconcerting, because he was the one who was driving the old tin box down the motorway at the aforementioned alarming speed.
A short while after I made that comment, we stopped for a rest break at some service station somewhere. We were all in the Gents’ – all of the party from our school that is- and Hutch spoke up when we were at the “now please wash your hands” stage.
“Well,” he said “you boys are really dominating this situation aren’t you? I’m feeling quite proud right now.”
And one of us, I can’t remember who, said “You really think so, Sir?”
And Hutch replied “Yes I do. In fact, don’t call me Sir for the rest of this trip. Call me Tony. You’ve earned it.”
Quite an honour that, I assure you. Though it’s an honour I don’t think he would have bestowed upon us quite so readily if he’d known what we had done on the stop-over in Derby the night before (see previous post “Sorry I Didn’t Quite Catch That”: http://tinyurl.com/gwudlm5) Then again he might have. He was an ex-paratrooper after all. He might have found what we did fucking hilarious.
So we got through the actual visit to Walsingham by joining in a few activities and generally taking the piss out of our fellow Catholics, who were not out for a road trip but actually believed in Magic Virgins who could heal the sick. And we travelled back from Norfolk to Newcastle and when we arrived back, we reverted to calling Tony “Sir”. Because what happens on a road trip stays on the road trip. That, we thought, was the end of that. It wasn’t though. Not quite.
Now, I’m not saying that Hutch had started viewing us as equals after that trip. He clearly hadn’t. But he had gained quite a bit of insight into the sort of thing that made us laugh.
One afternoon, not long after that trip, Hutch cornered me and my friend Shane –who had also gone on the trip. He said the following:
“I’m taking a bit of a punt here boys, but after enjoying your company the other weekend I think there’s a chance you might both appreciate this.”
And he handed us a blank cassette tape with the words “An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer” written in biro across its stick-on label. We went back to Shane’s house that evening- his mum used to feed me quite regularly- and listened to the tape.
The first song on it was this one. It’s called “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park”
If you’ve just listened to that song and never heard of Tom Lehrer, your reaction to the first few bars was probably pretty much the same as mine and Shane’s at the time. That reaction being “Er….I don’t see what’s funny about this.”
I don’t think Hutch had provided us with a track list, just the tape. So we were listening to it with absolutely no idea what to expect, not even a song title to give us a clue. We exchanged nervous glances during those first few bars. Had the mighty Hutch read us wrong? Had he completely misjudged us? Of course he fucking hadn’t!
When we heard the line “Every Sunday you’ll see my sweetheart and me, as we poison the pigeons in the park” we were laughing immediately. By the time we got to the line “We’ll murder them all amid laughter and merriment, except for the few we take home to experiment”, we were laughing so hard we were having difficulty breathing.
We loved that tape. And we told Hutch so the following day. He gave us both a wry grin and said “Had a feeling you would”.
That was a landmark moment for me. It was the moment when an authority figure who I respected – I mean really respected- basically said to me “Here mate, you’ve got to listen to this. It’s dead funny.”
It was the moment I realised, “Oh shit, I’m not a little kid anymore”.
When you get older and become a man – or indeed a woman if you happen to be female- there are some things you need to remind yourself to do. Act like a grown up when you need to act like a grown up. But act like you’re seventeen again when you need to do that. Crack jokes, laugh and sing rude songs. Live your life and enjoy your friends and help as many people on the way as you can.
And most importantly of all, seeing as this post is inspired by an R.E. teacher, heed the wise words of Jesus from The Sermon On The Mount (Luke ch6 v31) : “Don’t be a cunt”.
Okay, those aren’t Jesus’ exact words. What he actually said was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s the same thing though, when you boil it down. And “Don’t be a cunt” is probably how Hutch would have put it. As I’ve already said, he was an ex-paratrooper. Listen to Hutch.
Copyright Michael Grimes 2016