North London, Comprehensive School, 1976
Walking up the Girl’s Staircase behind the vast expanse of Mr Bush’s bottom prompts my friend to stretch her arms out by the sides of her body; illustrating its width. The girls behind us giggle. She replaces her arms by her sides as Mr Bush turns his head to view the commotion. He really does have the hips of a woman, and a large woman at that.
We were tramping up to the third floor to be drilled in Spanish, interrupting our deep and meaningful recess chatter about the concert we had attended the night before. Joan Armatrading was something else. The trek across London, without parental consent and the trouble I got into, getting home after midnight was worth it, even on a school night. Joan was worth it.
Our teacher, Mr Bush, looked as old and as tired as my grandmother and had the weariness of an entrenched teacher. His clothes were not of the time; the 70s with all its loud colours, tight bodyshirts and big hair had passed him by. He came from another age. Dressed in drab, brown, baggy trousers, fawn shirt and tartan tie, he looked like I imagined Mr Chips, which we were studying in English for that year’s O level exam. I bet he had never heard of Joan Armatrading, let alone ever been to a concert.
Mr Bush tried to settle us, made us count to 10 in Spanish; “Uno. Duo. ..” and then tried his best to explain the finer parts of Spanish grammar, all of which I have forgotten. Such an unrewarding task. Even at 15 I could recognise this. But unlike other teachers he never raised his voice, or said threatening things, and he never gave any detentions. I could imagine him going home to his drab brown life, eating drab brown food and having to mark our very drab homework. All with no music. Poor man.
It is 2010, and I am listening to a podcast of the Bookshow. I hear a man with a vaguely familiar voice talking about translating books. He has an educated, thoughtful tone. Choosing his words deliberately he explains the process he undertakes when translating eminent South American authors into English; it is not just about replacing Spanish words with English, but about conveying the meaning of the sentence, paragraph, page and book in a way that keeps true to the original language.
Half-way through one of his sentences I hear him count; “Uno. Duo…” Those excruciating school lessons flood back, and Joan Armatrading, all merged together. It could not be he, could it? He was an old man then, how could he still be around today? What must he be: 80, 90 even? I do calculations in my head, listen to his voice, does it sound very old? I finally, at the end of the piece hear his name. Peter Bush, born 1954.
Time is a wibby wobbly thing, so says Dr Who. This man, I now know, was a mere 22 when he taught me, a baby from where I stand now. Seven years can be different worlds when you are 15, but even so. ..
It was disconcerting to find Mr Bush on the internet, his smiling picture looking back at me. Regular clothes, same face, hair more grey than I remember, but otherwise a normal looking 50-something man, who lives in Spain with his wife and reminisces, publicly, on Radio National, about his career path including the two terrible years he spent teaching Spanish at a North London high school.
Nowadays when I think of Joan Armatrading, born 1950, it is as a young woman: voice and guitar filling the stage and space of the Hammersmith Odeon. Just her on the vast expanse of that stage. Mr Bush will always be an ageing Mr Chips in brown, trying his best to control a group of teenagers. Dr Who is right.
See also Vin Maskell’s story about Love & Affection.
Stereo Story #503