Stranger Than Fiction: Tales From The Dining Room

An army marches on its stomach – well so, it turns out, do students. One of the first things we showed prospective parents on open days was the dining room. It wasn’t about showing off the architecture, or the nice windows, or even talking about how well your allergies were catered for – it was about telling them about the little lunchtime rituals that gave your house its character, about the prefects who chewed toast over their essays late in to the night  while the Lower Fifth clamoured for help with their Hamlet essays, and about pointing out the names of your friends on the trophies, shields and honorary placards.

The dining hall is large and characterful enough to be full of memories and stories, particularly when its inhabited almost full-time by something that could be an army if you gave us enough sharp sticks and pointed us at something worthy of being whacked with them.

So here, dear friends, are is a tale from this cavern of wonders that has stuck with me long after I left the dining hall – and the memories – behind.

– – – – –

Imagine the scene: it’s the first week of term, and your first time taking the reins on the most prominent of your Sixth Form duties – serving food at the head of the lunchtime table.

I am far from the world’s most co-ordinated human being, and just to spite me, we were dealing with one of the slipperiest meals known to schoolgirl kind. Spaghetti bolognaise. Or, as I thought of it, Slippery Oily Splishy Splashy Deathtrap.

Clutching the tongs in one hand and a ladle the size of a small county in the other, I braced myself for the arrival of my foe. Being the first week of term, of course, the Lower Fifth were just beginnng to catch onto their duties of fetching the food, and so things were a little chaotic between the tables; chairs were dodged, legs were tangled, and fingers were burned from underestimating just how hot the “hot plates” were.

Everyone knows it is the sworn duty of Responsible Sixth Former to remain an achorage of calm and decorum in the midst of this madness, so I tucked my chair in, and opened up a conversation with a new student about how she was finding her first day.

Then, quite suddenly, the world turned to squidge.

Unbeknownst to me, I had not quite pulled my chair in far enough, and one of the Lower Fifth had lost her footing in the gap – and with it, her grip on a pot of warm, oily spaghetti.

I would attempt to describe the scene, but sadly it would be purely an imaginary construct, for it was a rather deep pan, and rather a lot of spaghetti. All I was aware of at the time was the sudden outward rush of stunned, horrified, and (on the part of the perpetrator) monumentally embarrassed silence.

Quite calmly, I prized the pot off my head, set it on the table … and proceeded to sit there looking faintly confused for a few minutes while  my ex-lunch slithered down the back of my shirt.

It was only when I skittered out of the dining hall on my way to a shower that I heard the laughter begin. Some even had enough energy left to giggle when I returned twenty minutes later.

The event was clearly even more momentous than I gave it credit for, for not only was it the talk of the house – and a deeply mortifying running joke – for just short of a week, but the event was immortalised in that year’s Christmas house skit, with a real pot of spahetti being upended over the bonce of the very Lower Fifth who had administered that unfortunate fate to me several months before.

Revenge may be a dish served cold, but there’s no matching the lukewarm and slightly-clingy glory of an immortalised embarrassment.

Small Holiday Updates

Every week, she said. Without fail, she said.

Sorry everyone. Deadlines happened, and then I had to drive back to Germany, and then the clocks went forward by two hours and nearly turned me fully into the nocturnal half-vampire I have been trying not to become since 3 in the morning became my bedtime during the term.

It’s the holidays now, though, joy of joys … but sadly it is also the Easter holidays, which are not so much holiday as they are a period spent at home grumbling that your holiday has been repurposed as an extended revision session.

Miriam is embarking upon that great challenge of A Levels this year, with a place at Somewhere Most Prestigious to aim for – can I get some good luck wishes for her in the comments? – and I am scrabbling inanely at the revision for my two exams. Mine aren’t all that strenuous, this being the great ‘meh’ that is Freshers’ Year, but between them and all the activities that holidays require, I’m a little strapped for time, too.

One of these activities is, of course St Mallory’s 2. The draft is presently in my possession, and slowly gaining size. Emphasis on the slowly. But size it is gaining. Wheeeee!

The good news is, though I shall be absent for a few days impending, I shall be able to bring some nice things to the blog in return! These may include pictures, or more anecdotes, or just about anything you please.

Yes, I would like your opinion. What sort of thing would you guys like to see on the St Mallory’s blog? Leave a comment, and let us know!

In the meantime, I’d better get to my lunch. And try not to set it on fire like I did yesterday.

… You didn’t hear that last part.

~ Charley R

“Wild Child” – An Axe To Grind

It may not come as a surprise to many, but I have a seriously large bone to pick with films like Wild Child. An entire skeleton’s worth, in fact – it lives in the closet, sitting underneath the shelf that houses enough axes-to-be-ground to arm a large Viking raiding party and still leave some spare to prop open the doors on the way out.

ImageReleased in 2008, Wild Child did reasonably well at the box office – it currently sports a score of 6.0 on IMDB – though not well enough to leave much of a wake. The inclusion of Alex Pettyfer was about the most notable thing taken away by my dorm-mates, with whom I watched the film on a boring Sunday night in 2010.

To all intents and purposes, it’s a very typical sort of mainstream Hollywood outlet – spoiled teenage brat taken away from her standard environment to learn important life lessons / overcome challenges / acquire unrealistically attractive boyfriend in a kookily bizarre new environment.

It even comes with a tagline pun so hsameful they tried to hide it just above the credits. “A New Term for Trouble”? Dear oh dear oh dear.

Miriam told me she watched this film for research purposes before we got started on St Mallory’s Forever!, along with the new St Trinian’s film – which, fun fact, our publisher Mark hates in the same way most people hate Nickelback, or getting teeth pulled with pliers made of cacti – which is what got me thinking about it.

I’m not going to rag on about its inaccuracies (there aren’t enough hours in the world) or indulge my love of ripping apart trope-laden Hollywood output for my own glee. I can appreciate the demand for silly, fluffy films of this sort, and sometimes I can even enjoy them.

But what I’m not going to let it get away with is its lack of research. Oh yes, dear readers. This is going to be a post about research. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, don’t forget to wipe your feet on the way in, yadda yadda.

In order to create a polar opposite environment for Spoiled Protagonist Princess (also known as Poppy but that’s irrelevant), the film created an antithetical environment in the form of the boarding school. They did pretty well from the outset – I know at least three people who came from an “Abbey Mount”, and none of them from the same county – and conjuring up some strict teachers to act as barriers. The layout of the dorms, involvement of lacrosse, the fact that one of the staff actually had family living on campus, also were great elements that could be used to the plot’s advantage.

However … it was clear none of the producers or writers or cast members had ever set foot in a real boarding school. And they missed out on so many more things that could have made a mildly amusing chick-flick into an absolute gut-buster. I’ll break it down for you.

What They Did Have:

  • Pranks
  • The ramifications of sneaking out after lights out
  • The joys of raiding charity shops
  • An alarmingly accurate representation of how most people usually score goals in lacrosse.

All of these have their place, of course, but all were seriously underplayed in favour of harping on about the ‘untouchability’ of the Single Male Character Present Ergo Love Interest and the bitchiness of the stereotypical cardboard cut-out bully.

If one of the crew had decided to take a look at an actual school, here’s what they could have got from that list.

What They Might Have Had:

  • Hilariously awkward socials, involving bussing over a load of boys from a school up to twenty miles away just so the students get some socialisation.
  • Interplay and development between the characters, based on the extremely close friendships that can only be formed by sleeping in one room for the better part of a year.
  • More staff involvement – from matrons to groundskeepers to house staff. They’re people too, and they’re often the source of half he mischief we get into.
  • The joys of confronting an American student with Latin, Greek, or any of the other dead languages that tend to cause unsuspecting newcomers to stare at the page as if it’s going to try and eat them.
  • New girls’ rituals. Mine featured a cold shower, a musical number, and an everlasting mistrust of curtain rails.
  • Seasonal parties involving fancy dress. And trust me, we take our fancy dress very seriously.
  • Language mixups! If you thought coming from America to Britain was bad, add in a layer of bizarreness unique to antiquated bubbles of private education and you’ve got a recipe for hilarity.

Of course, this is very much a case of supposition rather than one tailored to Wild Child in particular. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that a film with as much potential as this one fell so flat on its face simply because a little more research was not put in to find the really juicy gems that might have saved it a real critical shredding. It’s not often Rotten Tomatoes produces something quite so scathing as: “This tween comedy mess falls flat on its face due to poor characters, poor direction and poor jokes.”

What about you, readers? If you’ve seen Wild Child, what did you make of it? And if you haven’t, what do you make of filmic research on the whole? Leave a comment, and let me know!

~ Charley R

Stranger Than Fiction: The Shed Story

At the end of Chapter 50 of St Mallory’s Forever!, there lurks an innocuous reference to just the sort of thing you’d expect to hear in a comic YA mystery set among the hi-jinx of an all-girls boarding school.

Someone got themselves locked in the gardening shed a couple of years back, and there was complete pandemonium until she turned up in the dining hall about an hour later.

Fun fact: that’s not an amusing comic interlude invented purely for a quick giggle and a pleasant sense of irony. It’s a true story.

One of mine, actually. And here’s how it happened.

Back in the Upper Fourth (Year 8 to all you ‘normal’ people out there), someone decided it would be a good idea to have one of our Latin lessons swapped out, bi-weekly, for an hour spent in the greenhouse out the back of the boarding houses. Why this decision was made – and why the first lessons began in the frostiest November since Jack Frost went on a year-long bender – I will never know.

I’ll confess here and now that I’m no great horticulturalist (read: wouldn’t know her geraniums from her marigolds on a good day), but the lessons themselves weren’t so bad. We never actually managed to grow anything, but it was nice to get outside and have a chance to talk about something other than the finer points of Ovid for an hour.

This particular debacle fell in about the fifth week of term. As was my wont, I had been relegated to digging bulbs out of what we hoped would become the tomato patch, and so was rather keen to rid myself of dirt and debris before heading off for lunch.

The sink in the greenhouse stood behind the door. Yes, there was a sink in the greenhouse. Yes, it was strange. Yes, it was bizarrely placed.

Yes, I blame the sink for everything.

Sorry, I digress. I was at the sink, washing my hands and contemplating the prospect of the lasagne waiting for me in the dining room. So engrossed was I in these mouth-watering fantasies, that I did not hear the fateful click. The click, that is, of a key exiting a lock.

By the time I turned back to the door, teacher and class both had vanished, and I was stuck.

What followed was a fairly bizarre thirty minute interlude of jumping up and down in the middle of the greenhouse (hoping to get the attention of the lunchgoers through the window in the boarding house beside the gardening patch), searching in vain for something to use as a lock pick, using anything I could find in the hopes it would make a decent lock pick, discovering that trying to take the lock apart with a screwdriver was no more useful than the previous strategy … and charging the door with a pitchfork.

The last option came to me purely in the hopes that the sound would carry to the grounds staff clipping the hedges off the main road. It didn’t work, but it made me feel a lot better. From what I can tell, the marks were still in the door until the greenhouse was taken down last year.

In the end, I resorted to James Bonding it out of a window – a highly inelegant process, given that I was fairly tall for a 12-year-old and the window was not designed with escape attempts in mind.

The best part of the story? There had not been any debacle whatsoever over my disappearance. On the contrary, no one had even noticed I had gone. I’d been ticked off on the lunch register on the assumption I’d gone to wash my hands – oh the irony – and no one had thought to wonder why the dining room was so oddly quiet.

Suffice to say it was a bit of a surprise for all involved when I came talking in an hour later and declared to the room at large: “I’ve been locked in the garden shed for forty five minutes!”

I did not notice the innaccuracy of my measurement of time. What I did notice, just a moment too late, was that there were three people sitting at my housemistress’ side at the main table. Two parents, and an eight-year-old prospective student.

The fact that I was taken out of the room and sternly told off for upsetting the guests seems reasonable, but I was still rather indignant about it. It wasn’t exactly my fault, after all.

Suffice to say, it was no great surprise to anyone that these gardening lessons were discontinued at the end of that year.

Curse that conniving sink.

* * *

Well, what do you make of that, readers? Reckon any of your stories, from school days or otherwise, can match up to the strangeness factor of The Great Shed Debacle?

There are, of course, plenty more little easter eggs just like this one lurking behind many a line of St Mall’s. Reckon you can spot any more? Suggest them in the comments, and I might just make a little series out of them. Or I might just do that anyway, because I think they’re funny.

~ Charley R

Exe-tra, Exe-tra, Read All About It!

I should probably be taken out and stoned for that awful title, but I wasn’t about to let Miriam have all the fun with puns. I regret nothing!

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We’ve had success with promotion across a great many boards – including BBC Radio Interviews, spots on innumerable blogs, and even a feature in Ebook Bargains UK. Still, there’s nothing quite like seeing yourself plastered over a full-page spread in a proper newspaper, is there?

This is, of course, my university newspaper – which you’ve got to get hold of very fast, lest they all vanish from their bins before you can get your grubby paws on one. What’s even better is that they’re free, meaning a curious student with an hour to kill between lectures is far more likely to pick it up, rather than spending their scant money filling their ever-growling belly (speaking from experience, this happens more than you’d think).

If you’d like to read the article – which includes ramblings about the process of co-authoring, organisation, and an explanation of mine and Miriam’s love-hate-eternal-torment draft-swapping lives, you can read it in the transcript HERE!

Until next week, my friends!

~ Charley R

Charley, In Short

Would you look at that! Not only does Miriam manage to regenerate the blog’s theme, earn us five more followers – hello lovely people! – but she also manages to do it with a magnificent pun in the title!

Well then. I suppose I’d better follow her illustrious example and reintroduce myself, for the benefit of you awesome people who might have forgotten exactly who this strange human is that’s been gabbling at you through the interwebs for the past two weeks.

So… who the blazes are you?

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Here I am in 2012! Looking relatively sane in a picture for once.

I’m Charley Robson; student, geek, sausage enthusiast, and author.

I’m the middle installment of the St Mallory’s arrangement, and currently halfway through my first year as an undergraduate of BA English at Exeter University. I’d make a joke about selling my soul to the government to pay off my student fees… but I’m pretty sure I never had one. A soul, that is. More on that later.

What are you doing here?

As the content of my previous posts has likely made obvious, I’m the member of this triumvirate who actually attended a boarding school. Like St Mallory’s, it was a small, single-sex establishment lurking in the idyllic English countryside, and absolutely chock-full of all the charmingly bizarre things you expect of such a place.

Little known fact: my history in education is more akin to Xuan’s than anyone else’s. The boarding school where I concluded my education was the last in a long succession of educational establishments – at least nine, at the last count – attended by myself as I tumbled in and out of cardboard boxes, following my father’s peripatetic job with the Forces.

Wait … go back to the bit about the soul? That’s to do with writing, isn’t it?

Oddly enough, it is. Though I can’t claim quite the same level of productivity as Miriam when it comes to my own work, what books I have managed to write, despite their wild variations in genre, theme and quality, have all been in unified in revealing that I have a marvellous predilection for cold-hearted murder. And wanton destruction. Sometimes at the same time.

I read pretty voraciously, both prose and poetry, and so my taste in authors is extremely varied; from J.R.R. Tolkien to Terry Pratchett, and Lord Byron and the Romantics to Shakespeare and back again, with a detour via Cicero and Scott Lynch if you fancy stopping for a coffee. I’m a great believer in reading, at least partially, as a form of escaping the dull and difficult fish bowl of reality for somewhere much more exciting and/or deadly. Preferably both.

As a result, I would call the majority of my non-St-Mallory’s projects ‘fantasy’, some of a more traditional sort than others. Mostly, though, I aim for interesting characters, engrossingly complex plots, shameless escapism, and making Miriam cry. Don’t feel sorry for her. She does exactly the same thing to me.

Okay … so what else do you do, when not writing?

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A more recent picture, from November last year. There are an alarming number of pictures of me with silly things on my head.

Unlike Miriam, I have the musical talent of a particularly dim pigeon – but that didn’t stop me taking to the stage, playing nought but villainous nasties and nasty villains since about the age of nine.

I did, admittedly, take singing lessons for a year, but despite having a top range that makes Alvin and the Chipmunks sound like deep-throated baritones, I’ve got nothing on Freddie Mercury.

Beyond that, I’m usually found indulging my not-so-inner voracious geek. You know you’re a proper geek when you’re on the committee for the Tolkien society, helping to arrange a trip to Rivendell (or the real-life inspiration for it, anyway). I’m also a fan of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones (yes, I’ve read the books. Yes, it gets worse.), Merlin, or just about anything that will present me with some nice historical weapons to drool over.

I have a thing for catapults. Don’t judge me.

Of course, when I’m not feeling up to braving the terrors of the wet and windy outside world, you will probably find me lurking about on…
– My Blog
– My Facebook Page
– My YouTube channel

That’s all from me this week! I’ll be back again in the near future – stay tuned!

~ Charley R

A Question Of Sport: Lacrosse

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day, on a slightly soggy August afternoon, that I crossed the threshold of the school shop. It was a bit like Harry Potter’s first time in Diagon Ally, full of weird and wonderful things that I’d heard of, but never quite believed in – kilts, skorts (more on them later), trunks, tuck boxes … and lacrosse sticks.

stick

Seriously – who thought THIS was any sort of sensible?

Lacrosse, to those who don’t know, is a sport that originated in North America – I do believe the Native American tribes used it as a substitute for war to settle inter-tribal disputes. It’s still fairly popular in the US, as far as I know, but over here in the UK it’s rather been relegated to a thing them posh types do when we’re not out drinking tea on the cricket lawn or mercilessly hunting down innocent foxes with packs of baying hounds.

It’s also a very weird sport. You only have to look at the sticks to realise that much.

Those of you who remember way back to when you first read St Mallory’s Forever! may recall a few of Abby’s ramblings on the sport. Abby, however, comes from a world where spending your Saturday morning chasing each other up and down a field after a flying rubber ball is a perfectly normal affair – she’s known the rules since she was about seven, and started having to play the game in P.E.   

It may surprise you to know that I, however, had no such knowledge of the game when I was first flung head-first onto the pitch to play against a worryingly competent contingent from the local state school – not even a rudimentary what’s-where, or any sort of assurance that I’d even know which way up the field to run.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that lacrosse very swiftly became one of my least favourite things in the entire world. Particularly, after a few games, extremely chilly practice sessions, and bruises un-numbered, when I began to realise just how scary it is.

In which the game is (apparently) played sensibly.

Lacrosse, as I said before, is a weird sport, and thus it has rather a lot of rules. The picture on the right here is of a boys’ team in America. Doubtless you’d be impressed at the care taken to ensure they all wear proper headgear and rudimentary padding – a neccessity, you would think, given that lacrosse is a (usually unintentionally) contact game featuring a 13-a-side team, theoretically boundless pitch, and focusses on a small, solid projectile flying through the air at speeds occasionally matched by the Red Arrows.

You’ll probably notice, too, that it’s sunny. Lacrosse is a fairly versatile sport – any muddy old field will do, so long as you’ve a couple of goal posts at the end of it – but summer, on the whole, is preferable for such excursions of sporting prowess.

shers lacrosse

I recognise the referee, too. Fun fact.

I now invite you to throw all these conceptions out of the window, and observe the picture on the left.

This is what lacrosse looks like to my memory – in fact, the player in green is, in fact, a girl I spotted once or twice passing down the corridor when I was in the Lower Sixth.

Padding? What padding? Nah, a mouthguard will do you just fine! And who cares if the pitch is a bit frozen – it’s November, of course it’s going to be a little chilly! What’s that? You’re cold? Suck it up! Your parents spent money on those wretchedly overcomplicated skorts, you might as well get some use out of them! Anyone caught in more than three pairs of thermal leggings will be made to run laps until the paramedics arrive!

Alright, alright, maybe I’m being a little overdramatic. Basically, what I’ve been trying to get at, is that anything – a sport, a word, a way of speaking – can mean any number of different things, depending on its treatment and execution in different environments. I never liked lacrosse, and retreated at the first opportunity to make a half-decent defensive player for the third-rank hockey team at the first chance. Perhaps this might have, just a little, coloured how the sport was portrayed in the book.

But, unless you played lacrosse yourself, you’d never have known that, would you? If you had your own experience, you’d have taken my death-mongering as the symptom of one who’d been smacked in the face one time too many, not as any sort of verifiable truth.

The moral of this little horror story, I suppose, is to say that experience, personal or cultural, can count for a lot in one’s understanding of something. A vague point, perhaps, but relevant. After all, it was only through the co-operative union of mine, Miriam’s and Mark’s experiences of life and publishing that St Mall’s came into existence at all.

However, for all I may rant and rail and waggle my fingers like some hyperactive Cassandra lookalike, I have to admit that my experience with lacrosse was valuable. It taught me about what sort of world I had come into in getting myself enrolled in this school, in this country, with these people, and the sort of values that lay behind the game – though I shall maintain until the day I die that “fair play” stepped aside to admit “homicidal inent” the instant the referee blew the starting whistle.

Sometimes, you never know how useful a seemingly pointless experience is until you’ve had it. Rather like this post, I suppose.

But seriously. Look at those sticks. Just look at them!

~ Charley R