Thursday, 7 July 2011

Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris

Years ago I had Harris’s novel Chocolat foisted on me in a reading group, an experience that didn’t exactly enamour me to her work. I think one of my more charitable comments was that it was ‘bad art’, so when a friend passed me a copy of Gentlemen & Players, I regarded it with a certain amount of suspicion. I was wrong to do so. It’s brilliant.

St Oswalds, a well established boy’s grammar in the North of England, has just started its new term. Roy Straitley, the eccentric Classics master, fond of a medicinal sherry, and last of a dying breed holding out against the inexorable march towards Information Technology, computer science and email, is reaching his sixty fifth birthday and is reluctantly facing retirement. But before Straitley can receive his carriage clock, the school is going to undergo a crisis that may well destroy it.

One of the term’s new intake of teachers is the poisonous ‘Mole’ who has a very nasty grudge against St Oswalds and who will stop at nothing to get revenge. Small acts of theft, suspicion planted in the minds of teachers and students; Mole starts small, but is working up to bigger things:

I celebrated my first week with a bottle of champagne. It’s still very early in the game, of course, but I have already sown a good number of my poison seeds, and this is just the beginning.

Soon enough, Mole has poisoned a pupil, caused the porter to be dismissed for selling cigarettes to the boys, raised merry hell with the local press and has indirectly caused Straitley to have a small heart attack (a scene that is so wickedly funny that I forever forgave Harris Chocolat...). Slipping into the teachers’ local after another act of sabotage, Mole spots several of the staff, including the thuggish sports master, Light, drinking with some of the boys:

And so I went home to my chintz-hung room, opened my second bottle of champagne, (I have a case of six, and I mean to see them all empty by Christmas), caught up with a little essential correspondence, then went down to the payphone outside and made a quick call to the local police, reporting a black Probe (registration LIT 3) driving erratically in the vicinity of the Thirsty Scholar. It’s the sort of behaviour my therapist tends to discourage nowadays. I’m too impulsive, or so she says; too judgemental. I don’t always consider the feelings of others as I should. But there was no risk to me; I did not give my name, and in any case – you know he deserved it. Like Mr Bray, Light is a braggart; a bully; a naturally rule-breaker; a man who genuinely believes that a few pints under his belt makes him a better driver.

By the time Mole’s plan is in full swing a large portion of the masters common room are under police investigation, a boy is missing, parents are withdrawing their children from St Oswalds and the head is refusing to answer calls:

All things considered, a nice little piece of anti-social engineering. I say it myself (because no one else can), but actually I’m very pleased with the way things have worked out. Remains one small, unfinished piece of business, and I plan to deal with that tonight, at the Community bonfire. After that I can afford to celebrate, and I will; there’s a bottle of champagne with Straitley’s name on it, and I mean to open it tonight.

It’s time for the endgame, when Mole’s identity will be revealed to Straitley, that is if he can last to the end of the night without a final, fatal, cardiac arrest...

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