Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Usher and Witzenfeld

The other evening, I watched an old episode of "Silent Witness", the series about a forensic pathologist, the episode where a teenaged boy is bullied and eventually hangs himself. The breaking point came when graffiti were scrawled on walls with legends like "Malcolm is a Wanker". In my class at Grammar School (the composition of it remained moreorless unchanged for four years, that's why I can still recite the surnames of most of the boys in it), I remember two boys in particular: Usher and Witzenfeld. John Usher was irritatingly well-groomed, he had immaculate hair and a school uniform made from the finest cloth. He was well-spoken, self-confident, neat, hardworking and the pet in particular of our Geography teacher, "Dag" Tomlinson, probably because the boy drew such perfect maps. John Witzenfeld was in many ways the opposite of Usher: he was gauche to the point of clumsiness, he was scruffy, he wore heavy boots instead of the shoes that most boys wore, and he was a plodder. For all that, Witzenfeld was likeable and Usher was not. And Usher never stopped teasing and taunting Witzenfeld. All kinds of insults and snide remarks, personal and hurtful, against which Witzenfeld seemed to have no defence. He simply hunched his shoulders, lowered his gaze and took it.
The Geography teacher, Dag Tomlinson, hated me as much as he loved John Usher, and he tended to be openly critical - overcritical in my opinion - of any shortcomings in Witzenfeld's work. Maybe that was why I became John Witzenfeld's natural ally. Not a close mate, mind, because it's not a good idea to get put in the same pigeonhole as a "loser", but I always let him know that as far as I was concerned, he was ok. As for Usher, I had nothing to do with him. He was a snob, and would have turned on me too (my school uniform was definitely out of the bottom drawer, frequently consisting of handmedowns or trousers and jackets I had grown out of), but I was made of sterner stuff than poor Witzenfeld, quick to anger, quick to fight, and much cleverer with insults and banter than anyone else in my class.
Witzenfeld and Usher left school at sixteen, while I stayed on for three years in the Sixth Form, trying for A Levels and a place at university. I never heard from or of Witzenfeld again, but a piece in the local paper some years later caught my eye giving a lurid account of one John Usher arrested in a gents lavatory in Shifnal and charged with acts of gross indecency with other men. He was convicted and imprisoned, because sexual acts between males were illegal in those days. I didn't gloat, or at least I hope I didn't gloat, but it seemed like a sort of poetic justice to me that this clean boy had been caught doing something dirty in a public lavatory.
I had one final clash with the obnoxious Dag Tomlinson, an incident when he reprimanded me and I threatened to beat the shit out of him. There was a formal "tribunal" of the teaching staff to decide what punishment I should receive. All except two teacher wanted my expulsion, but I was saved by the Headmaster and by one teacher, Frank Arkenstall, who had been my form master, protector - and French teacher - from the moment I had joined the school at the age of eleven.
It's all water under the bridge now. though seeing that episode of Silent Witness made me wonder what happened to John Witzenfeld. My guess is that he has led an ordinary life, unnoticed, like most of us - job, marriage, kids, mortgage, fortnight's holiday in Skegness, watches the match on Saturday afternoon, is a keen gardener and a good neighbour. A decent uninteresting man. A good husband, a good father, a good neighbour and  a good citizen. Kind to animals too, I shouldn't wonder. I hope so. He was certainly a more decent human being than the boy who taunted and derided him all those years ago.

Envoi: Here's a challenge: pick out the three boys referred to in this article, ie, including me.


Unknown said...

John W is my dad. he became a solicitor & had his own office on North End Road, and was a life long socialist, taking me and my 2 sisters on marches and demonstrations even when we were kids. He even named me after Trotsky! Mum mum left him when us 3 kids were 4 6 and 8 years old and we grew up seeing him once a week. he then remarried to a woman who had 3 kids of her own, and they had a fourth child, giving him 7 children (without mentioning steps). He worked like a trooper his whole life and between that and the SWP work, which went so far as selling the socialist worker on the streets, "gauche" is frankly an understatement. He campaigned politic ally for years, and now for the sad part. He failed to communicate with any of his children well and they all feel distant. He fell into the workaholic trap and despite all the political idealism appears to have changed very little. His 2nd wife was affluent and stuck up, even haing previously had slaves when she lived in Africa, bring quite a lot of champagne into his socialism... Worst of all though he buries his head in the sand of television these days and lives a mind numbing retirement, & has tarted suffering age related memory loss. The ostrich trait never went away. Leon Witzenfeld Gilbert, July 2012

Jake Allsop said...

I cannot tell you how much your comment means to me. Your dad and I are getting old now. I sometimes think that the memory loss that comes with age may be nature's way of helping us to forget our mistakes and failings. It's tough on our kids, but that's ok, because one day they will be old, and then it will be tough on THEIR kids.
Thanks for writing. If it's appropriate, say hello to your dad from me, though I doubt if he will remember me.