When I was a student at Art College it was decided that there would be an Art’s Ball held that year. It would be a charity event with all proceeds benefitting the local Hospital. Seemed like a worthy cause so myself and a few of my friends decided that we would contribute our time and energy to organize the event.
The board of governors, the College professors and directors of the Odeon ballroom held a plethora of meetings and discussions to formulate details. Days turned into weeks and nothing was done. We decided that the best thing would be to take matters into our own hands; time was getting short.
Generally I discovered that the ‘powers that be’ are for the most part primarily concerned with making sure that nothing disturbs their inept routines or threatens their salaries and pensions. Demonstration of even a smidgen of enterprise could be misinterpreted and land them in hot water. After my best efforts to conform to the various regulations which seemed to multiply almost daily it became apparent that the Art’s ball would fall into the category of ‘A nice idea but impractical’.
I found my self frustrated and disillusioned but I still maintained that it was high time for the Arts Ball to bloom. It was, after all, for hospital charity. Why not plan an agenda that would put the whole affair on the social map?
Without further ado I decided to simply prepare for the great event regardless. I was working on the principle that it is infinitely easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission!
Our budget was pathetically inept, but, with a group of students lured by gallons of free beer, I managed to transform the ballroom into something resembling an art teacher’s most rabid nightmare, complete with murals which we painted on large sheets of wrapping paper and trimmings of ribbons, painted paper, and balloons.
I booked the University of Sheffield’s Traditional Jazz Band, which would alternate with the standard resident geriatric orchestra. As an added attraction, Keith and I worked up a few numbers on guitar and ukulele, mostly American folk songs that we sang with a deep northern English accent. The evening began to hold some promise, and we were all very proud of our efforts.
Things started off well enough. The staff, their wives and guests danced Fox Trots to the strains of watered-down Glen Miller and Benny Goodman. Thrown in for the sheer thrill of it were traditional Gay Gordon's, a couple of Sambas and even a Tango.
Around nine-thirty the dance hall began to fill. The pubs had done their job, releasing forty or fifty loud, well-oiled students and their guests, all hell bent for fun and frolic. The jazz band took its position on stage.
What occurred next has always been a bit of a blur to me. Every now and then, in moments of random neural activity, I have flashing memories—visions if you will—of what transpired. But they’re somewhat vague and disconnected.
When the jazz band readied to begin, the room became deathly quiet, as if waiting for a hurricane to strike. And strike it did like a clap of thunder.
It was loud. Irreverent. Like a machine gun.
No trumpet such as this had ever been heard at the Victoria Ballroom. The band, immediately in full stride, plowed into “Muscat Ramble,” belting it out with raucous euphoria.
A great cheer went up from the students and the entire room was suddenly enmeshed in a tribal, jitterbugging frenzy. The dance floor, which moments before had epitomized all that was orderly and civilized, suddenly turned primeval.
The second number was even more raucous. It brought the students to a frenzy. Be-bopping bodies collided. The walls rocked and the wooden dance floor quaked. Couples whirled, their inhibitions cast aside like overcoats in a heat wave. Fancy dresses were ripped off and scattered. Dancers fell like sprayed flies.
I have never received a definitive sequence of ensuing events, but at the climax of a reverberating rendition of “Down by the Riverside,” Barbara Buxton’s brassiere was tossed high in the air and described an almost perfect arc, landing noiselessly on the table of the principal and his wife.
The ultraconservative staff went into catatonic shock. None of them had ever experienced such primal passion, at least not in public view.
Gazing at the “D” cup sitting on the table in front of her, the principal’s wife became galvanized. Her granite features locked into a scowl. She rose from her chair, heaving her ponderous bulk forward. Swinging her massive bosoms into place, nostrils flaring, she elbowed her way across the dance floor with the inevitability of a bulldozer until standing directly in front of the band.
For the second time that evening, silence descended on the crowd. But the band, undaunted, played on.
In a voice resembling a Welsh Guardsman shouting across half a league of pounding North Sea, she bellowed:
“There will be no more Jibe or Be Hop!”
She ripped the instrument from the clarinetist’s mouth, smashing it to the floor and grinding it beneath her foot.
Thinking herself victorious, she turned, marched back to the table, and taking her husband by the arm, hissed for all to hear:
“‘Home William! At once!”
Taking their cue, the more sober of the staff and guests filed dutifully out behind this grande dame and her embarrassed husband.
And that was that! The dance was history, cut off in its moment of glory by a wayward bra and a principal’s puritanical wife.
Jim, the clarinet player, was taken to a nearby hospital, where he received six stitches on his upper lip. He couldn’t play for three months. I was escorted to the nearest pub, where I attempted to sedate my frazzled nerves. I knew there would be ramifications—and difficulties for me since I had been the organizer.
Sure enough, we made front page in the morning paper, and upon my arrival at the College I was informed that the principal wished to see me immediately.
The atmosphere in his office was as thick as oil paint. The principal, the vice principal and my painting professor gazed upon me as though I were some creature from the primordial ooze. I was treated to what seemed like an endless harangue about how disgraceful the evening had been, how damaging it might prove for the College’s image, and how, quite clearly, it was all my doing. They viewed the unexpected turn of events as a calculated attempt to sabotage the many years of work spent to build the prestige of the College.
If public flogging had still been legal, I’m certain they would have thought it appropriate. However, the principal declared that he would settle for my instant expulsion. He actually uttered the words: “Never darken these doorsteps again!”
I was flabbergasted. My whole life, still short at that time but long enough to give me a taste of some pleasurable possibilities to come, seemed finished. I found myself planning to strangle this man who was about to ruin my career, even though I didn’t have one yet. I was on the verge of informing the group what conservative, half-arsed apologies for human manure they were when my painting master stood up.
“I wander if I might have a private word in your ear, Principal,” he said, with a tone of lucidity that somehow gave me hope.
The two retired to the anteroom, and for a few minutes I heard muffled voices. The vice principal and I were left alone. A tense, bitter silence enveloped us. Outside the building, the caretaker was methodically mowing the lawns, and rooks were indulging their usual clattering gossip in the giant copper beech swaying in the breeze. Everything in nature seemed in its place, unaware of the machinations taking place inside.
The principal and my professor finally returned.
“After further consideration,” said the former, starting to stutter, “I have d-d-decided to consider ... and with all d-d-due consideration ... and after reconsidering again, I have d-d-decided to let it pass this time. But don’t let it happen again.”
My mouth fell open. Salvation had been found. Clawing my way back to reality, my first thought was to kiss my painting professor. Decorum prevailed and I found myself blithering something about how sorry, grateful, remorseful, and all the other crap that I figured would cost me nothing.
“You’re a very fortunate young man,” advised the vice principal as he frantically jingled a bunch of keys in his trouser pocket.
“Erm, yes, quite ... erm ... right then ... er ....” muttered the Principal. And who was I to argue with him?
I scuttled out of the office before they had chance to change their minds. Like a reprieved prisoner, I took a deep breath and smiled at the copper beech.
Whilst my friends and I were indulging in a few wild whoops of celebration, I caught sight of the principal looking down from the second floor window. Our eyes met and locked for a brief moment. Slowly a mischievous smile lit up his dour face. I thought I detected a nod, a conspiratorial wink, as he moved back into the shadows of his office to deal with present and pressing duties that only a principal has the ability to handle properly.
It seems to me that we might compare this scenario to what is currently being played out in the current administration’s Health Care fiasco. Nothing will ever get done unless someone throws caution to the wind and takes the reigns.It does not require long drawn out debates; cantankerous posturing by inept, self serving politicians or wheeling and dealing machinations by financial institutions.
What it needs is for someone to decide that come hell or high water the event will take place. Hang up some brown wrapping paper on the walls then paint it!
Of course there may be some dues to pay but at the very least what needs to be done will be done and the ball will take place.
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