Robin Stummer is a bit confused by the latest COVID-19 news because he found mathematics a little tricky
I never could do sums. And sums, of a kind – of virus tests done, semi-done or undone, of official, allegedly definitive numbers that crumble at the slightest scrutiny, the deaths, admissions, recoveries, the lot – dominate our lives as never before.
For O-Level, I was streamed into the super-remedial class, and even then managed to get the room number wrong for the first lesson. After a year of one-to-one tuition, I scraped a rather rare U-grade – U for unclassified, ungraded, useless. Then, in case anyone suspected mere beginner’s luck, twice repeated the feat, bungling the numbers-thing well into the 1980s. Friends assured me that I was clearly in the Einstein league; that the exam system was finessed to eliminate youthful genius in favour of mediocre box-tickers; that such abject, utter nullity placed me right at the heart of the national tradition of glorious failure which was success’s closest sibling. Most kind.
Nevertheless, I did quite like the maths teachers, a herd of fresh-faced born-again Christians and ancient men whose fury at life had set their faces into marble contortions of diabolical horror borrowed from barbarians on classical marble reliefs. All smelt of damp Tweed and Rothmans. I felt for them, like Russian gunners watching the oncoming Light Brigade with a mixture of incredulity and admiration.
One of the numbers gang, Mr Mason, could be terrifying beyond reason. A tormented, grey spectre of the kind haunting provincial grammar schools in the very last terms of the pre-pocket calculator era, his weekly rages would shock neighbouring classrooms into silence. His physical resemblance to Alec Guinness’s obsessive Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai led, inevitably, to the boys’ warning whistle of Colonel Bogey whenever he was spotted on corridor patrol.
“Mickey” had been imprisoned in the war and was now tasked with getting the hardcore maths thickoes through their O’s. It was never clear who had captured him, the Japs or the Hun. Maybe both. On days when he was especially “physical” with the boys – usually ear-twisting and back-of-head slapping – we assumed Mickey had been brutalised in some Far East hellhole. But no. Whoever his captors (no one dared quiz him on that part of his life) he had, he once let slip, never witnessed any horrors other than a still-belligerent British NCO being propelled across the camp’s muster-ground by the guards’ rifle-butts.
As with many of his generation, Mickey had been demobbed and then trained as a teacher. It was recalling his first teaching post, not his war, that caused Mickey to crumble, perhaps for the first time. This had been to a broke, brutal state school in inner-city Manchester, around 1947. Factory kids. During an unexpected lull in his impassioned exposition on Venn Diagrams – the one maths topic I did warm to, since it involved drawing overlapping circles and colouring-in with felt pens – he slowly put down the wood-block blackboard eraser he sometimes lobbed, hand-grenade-style, into our midst. Removed his glasses. And began to cry.
“The poverty, the shame of it,” he said, looking at the floor. “There I was, a young teacher just out of a war, and these poor kids, they didn’t have the money for shoes, they had old newspapers shoved into the soles of their worn-out shoes, the clothes were in rags, they had no hope really. Such poverty, I’ve never forgotten. They didn’t have food, proper food. Their dirty faces... And you, you’re all so lucky, but you have no idea do you, no idea.” The tense silence that followed was broken when one of the boys, I don’t think it was me, but it might have been, said something usefully blank like “I’m so sorry, Sir.” And that was the last of the lesson. Ending early for once, he picked up his tatty leather briefcase and left the room, without a word.
News of Mr Mason’s tears spread. It was as if a dividing wall had been torn down, a vaccine found, June in January. Soon after, he retired. I, as with many who had served under him, was sorry to see him go. Nevertheless this, the most feared and respected teacher on the school roster, the greatest exponent, some said, of teenage maths dunce-reversal the nation had ever known, had failed to bring about any improvement in my troubled relationship with numbers. To me, they were all still Arabic spaghetti. Which isn’t to say that Mickey gave me nothing.
His enduring legacy, one I have thanked him for ever since, was bestowed one weekday, oooh, probably around the time of the Falklands War. As with many ex-servicemen, the prospect of conflict of any kind appalled Mickey. Heightened tension in international relations led to increased lobbing of the blackboard-eraser. That day, my remedial maths class was scaling new heights of numerical ineptitude. Rather foolishly, one of our number had faked his homework, writing out solutions without showing his workings, the classic error. The boy rumbled, we awaited the eruption. But this time, no. Patiently, quietly, with absolute control, Mickey addressed the room.
“Often, boys have asked me what I hate, because, apparently, some of them think that I tend to anger. Well, I shall tell you what I hate. It isn’t this foolish boy’s attempted deception. It is the fact that he has done it so badly, so half-heartedly, that I cannot do anything other than take it as a huge insult to me. Do you think so little of me?”
His voice now rising to a crescendo, we realised, too late, that this rage was of an order and scope that dwarfed anything before unleashed on Remedial Maths. The blast of a home counties Vesuvius.
“NEVER, EVER, deceive anyone badly!!! Do you understand!!?? WELL?!?!?”
This came to mind this week, listening to the daily dissection and nonsensing of government statistics by experts on all things viral that is now almost as ritual as the dishing up of those suspect figures in the first place.
Even those well versed in mathematics, numbers and all the wriggly, weird stuff that goes with them, cannot agree on the figures, other than, well, that they are in some way suspect. But it’s the half-hearted way in which they are proffered to the public, as flimsy as dandelion seeds on the mid-May breeze, that really hurts.
“Do you think so little of us?”
Well, perhaps, yes.
Robin Stummer is, at last, completing his book touching on espionage and the arts in London from the 1930s to the 1960s. He never did pass his Mathematics O-Level.