Friday, November 19, 2004

The Great Chair Race

The Great Chair Race

I'm old enough to remember the days when schools used to have chairs made out of wood. You know, the brown stuff that grows on trees. You know, squirrels. None of that cheapo metal-and-plastic rubbish - our school had top quality wooden seating, lovingly crafted by prisoners of war in the 1940s.

After decades of misuse, it was pretty safe to say that our chairs were falling to pieces, and with Thatcher stealing everything from milk to library books from our schools, Berkshire County Council simply couldn't afford to replace them. Every lesson was like Russian roulette as students gingerly placed their bottoms onto their seats in case it finally gave up the ghost and left them sprawling on the floor to hoots of laughter.

Those of us in the know would attend lessons with a screwdriver, tightening or loosening screws as necessary. After all, you didn't want to be the one with matching bruises on both arse and ego.

But it wasn't all fear and loathing in the classroom. By sitting facing backwards on one of these wooden chairs, and working the seat-back like a rowing machine, we found you could walk the chair across the finely polished floors, reaching terrifying speeds if the chair was knackered enough and you had muscles on your forearms like Schwarzenegger.

We were kids. We were competitive. When two or more are gathered in the name of dossing about, you're going to have a race.

Wet breaks are great, because you've got whole classes to yourself without any form of adult supervision. Any teacherless moment can be used for the latest round of the World Championship of chair racing - the aim being to hold a race in every room in the school and beat the crap out of the person who wins the most.

I have seen with my own eyes, in Room 4 of the Old School as rain trickled down the windows, all the desks pushed back and a dozen drivers going hell-for-leather for the blackboard.

I have heard with my own ears the sound of a portakabin falling to pieces as a not-so-secret race meeting got out of control.

It couldn't last.

There we were, just before the end of the school day, waiting for our tutor to come and fill out the register, and we would be free for another day. Just time enough for Ju-Vid and I to race down the gap between the desks in round 27 of the World Championship, then.

Go! Working our chair backs like crazy, we skated across the wooden floor to the finish line where Ernie waited with a makeshift chequered flag we'd knocked up out of an old towel whipped from the lost property basket.

Neck and neck, the crowd roared us on, and girls rolled their eyes to the ceiling.

Two things happened.

One: "What the bloody hell's going on here then?"

Oh, spoons. Mrs Gibson.

Two: SNAP!

Oh, spoons. Ju-Vid.

He landed with a clatter at Mrs Gibson's feet, performing a neat half twist to enable him to see right up her skirt. He was still clutching the back of his chair which had snapped off in his hands, all the evidence she needed to convict the two of us.

As you'd expect, deathly silence. The only movement was Ernie quietly concealing the chequered flag in his school bag.

Mrs Gibson was normally, friendly, quiet, reserved, blonde and the owner of a number of tight jumpers. I think the description I am scrabbling for her on this occasion would be "fucking ape-shit ballistic".

Caught like a pair of Treens in a disabled space cruiser, Ju-Vid and I were marched off to Mr Marcus, the world's hairiest man and middle school head. We were forced to confess our involvement in the illicit chair-racing cartel, which was apparantly destroying the morality of the school thanks to small quantities of tuck money changing hands in side bets.

Marcus sat on the corner of his desk, legs akimbo in a shiny Man-at-Burtons suit, hair spilling out of every orifice, as he laid down the law to the pair of us. We swore he put socks down the front of his trousers. Disturbing was not the word for it.

By way of punishment, we were to spend every day after school for a whole two weeks tightening up the screws on every single chair in the establishment, and hammering home wooden wedges to ensure that wobbliness was a thing of the past.

Not so Marcus's desk, which collapsed one afternoon as he perched on one corner whilst teaching geography. I swear on my dog's life I had nothing to do with it.

The day the plastic chairs arrived was a black one in the history of our school.

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