I don’t usually do my whole excerpt thing until I’ve finished a book, but only 62 pages into Zoe Heller’s Notes On A Scandal I’ve already marked so many passages that I think I’ll need to do this one in instalments. The very last sentence quoted, in particular, is one of those lines which is so incredibly, bitingly, spot-on that you wonder why you never realized it before you read it.
* * *
I used to run into Sue Hodge quite a lot. Being smokers, we both tended to nip off at lunchtimes for a fag at La Traviata, the Italian cafe down the road from St George’s. We never sat together. There was something of a froideur between us, dating from an occasion a few years earlier, when Sue had caught me sniggering over one of her class worksheets entitled, “Dem Bones: the cultural roots of the negro spiritual”. Sue is a frightfully pretentious woman – always making the children do expressive dances to Pink Floyd and singing “American Pie” with them, playing her horrid little banjo. Underneath all that free and easy hippy malarkey she is actually the most awful prig – the sort of woman who wears Lady-Lite panty liners every day of the month, as if there is nothing her body secretes that she doesn’t think vile enough to be captured in cotton wool, wrapped in paper bags and thrust far, far down at the bottom of the waste-paper bin. (I’ve been in the staff toilet after her and I know.)
Alas – and this was what made Sheba’s interest in her particularly incomprehensible – Sue is terrifyingly dull. A living anthology of mediocre sentiments. A woman whose idea of an excellent bon mot is to sidle up to someone on a hot summer day and bark, excitedly, “Hot enough for ya?” Many years ago, before the negro spirituals incident, I had the misfortune of spending half an hour waiting with Sue at the bus stop. At some point she actually turned to me and declared, in the halting, exultant manner of a person who was just then minting a delicious epigram, “You wait – when the bus finally comes, there’ll be five of them right behind it.”
* * *
Like so many members of London’s haute bourgeoisie, Sheba is deeply attached to a mythology of herself as street-smart. She always howls when I refer to her as upper class. (She’s middle, she insists; at the very most, upper-middle.) She loves to come shopping with me in the Queenstown street market or the Shop-A-Lot next to the Chalk Farm council estates. It flatters her image of herself as a denizen of the urban jungle to stand cheek by jowl in checkout queues with teenage mothers buying quick-cook macaroni in the shape of Teletubbies for their children. But you can be quite sure that if any of those prematurely craggy-faced girls were ever to address her directly, she would be frightened out of her wits. Though she cannot say it, or even acknowledge it to herself, she thinks of the working class as a mysterious and homogeneous entity: a tempery, florid-faced people addled by food additives and alcohol.
* * *
At least once a term, Pabblem makes the entire staff attend a special lecture given by some sour-faced young person from the education authority. Because he is a progressive bully, the subjects are always things like Meeting the Challenge of Diversity, or Teaching the Differently Abled. Shortly before Sheba came to the school, he set up a system called Morale-Watch, which requires all staff members to fill out a weekly report card on their mental and spiritual health. (Any admissions of dissatisfaction are rewarded with agonizing follow-up interviews, so naturally everyone always fills in the cards with slavish avowals of personal joy.)
* * *
“Oh, no,” Sue broke in. “It’s true. Men are such babies. They need to be told how bloody marvellous they are all the time. They’re insecure, that’s the thing. They need their egos stroking, don’t they?”
I waited for her to stop, so that Sheba could finish what she’d been about to say. But she kept talking. “Women are too canny to be taken in by flattery. If Ted says something nice to me, I know he’s after a bit of nooky. That’s the other thing. Men are such dogs, aren’t they? Brains between their legs!”
I have never enjoyed this kind of women’s talk – the hopelessness of the other sex and all that. Sooner or later, it always seems to degenerate into tittering critiques of the male member. So silly. So beneath women. And funnily enough, the females who go in for this low-grade misandry are usually the ones who are most in thrall to men.