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June 3, 2011 10:09 pm

Intervention and prevention

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Years ago, at my school, which was so old-fashioned they still had badges for deportment in the late 1980s, a new, daring lesson was introduced called “Careers, Social and Personal” (CSP). Every week we were steeled against the lure of smoking.

“But doesn’t it help tremendously with anxiety?” I said, all of 12.

“It appears to help, people think it helps, but in reality it just makes it worse,” the teacher answered. We were moved on to the science of squeezing spots, with annotated sectional drawings of angry-looking blemishes and what lay beneath. There was a great deal of talk about understanding our dermis, making friends with it even. There was always the dim suggestion that Boys might be the topic of next week, but Boys was always next week, and next week never quite arrived. It was a relief in a way.

On one occasion the class had a lively debate about telling tales. Telling tales could be vastly petty but also pretty heroic. It had a stigma attached to it – putting your nose into other people’s business was a saddo’s pastime – but without a strong ethical basis. Turning a blind eye to injustice was most definitely, morally, historically, possibly even mathematically, wrong. Not telling on a bully, for example, was cowardice, almost as bad as bullying. Yet calling someone a bully inaccurately was also a form of bullying. It was all very deep.

A girl in our class was being bullied at this time. The people doing it weren’t especially nasty, just a bit thoughtless and bored. It was careless bullying, a bad habit, an ill-thought-out hobby, yet the victim was really suffering.

A friend and I – she was the class rep, I the deputy – sought out our CSP teacher. We stood, heavy with responsibility. We spoke like the learned, bewigged lawyers I admired on my favourite, off-sick, daytime legal drama Crown Court: “Were it our opinion that a certain member of this class were being bullied by certain other members, the bullying extending to acts of taunting, prolonged questioning with cruel outcomes, general low-level but rising menace and so on, would it be correct to bring it to the attention of our CSP teacher?” For half an hour we spoke in the abstract, using conditional tenses and plenty of subjunctives and possibly even optative clauses, for that term we had just started with Ancient Greek.

Finally, this sunny teacher, patient and wise, said, “OK, I need names,” and we agreed to supply them but only if she turned her back while we scribbled on slips of paper. Then we could say to ourselves that we hadn’t told on anybody and it would be true: we had written! The matter was sorted. We were heroes in our own lunch-hours, but we vowed not to tell a soul, for we were bigger than that, and also a bit scared of reprisals.

This all came back to me today because a restaurant I like that is reasonably efficient during the week is almost laughably inept at weekends, so bad that no one would ever visit twice. I would be very sad if it shut down, so I am wondering about telling the nice owners.

. . .

At weekends a simple order can take more than an hour to arrive, and when it does it will be hit-and-miss, even when you are the only diners in the room. Then, each plate will be brought out at 10-minute intervals, creating a Viennetta-effect of cutlery combat. No order ever arrives correctly.

I hate to see a business evaporate before my eyes. It’s all I can do not to go downstairs and cook the meals. These remedying feelings run deep. My mother once stayed in a hotel in Dublin in the 1950s when the staff were all on strike and she ended up doing the breakfasts and the beds. During last winter’s snow, when there were no taxis to be had, I manned the door at the Ritz for 10 minutes so the doorman could have his break.

Also, I hate to say it but at this café the weekend waitress is very, very odd. I’ll give you an example.

“You are here without your children,” she says.

“Er, yes, that’s right.”

“Where are they?”

“At home.”

‘”Alone?” Her eyes throb with horror.

“No, with a babysitter.”

“So, you pay a lady just so you can eat dinner without your children being with you?”

I agree it doesn’t look good but it’s not, I hope you’ll agree, you know, evil.

When the credit-card machine arrives, flashing with the cost of the meal, it’s generally £32.50, but at weekends with the weekend crew the figures on the terminal will read £3,250 or, once, £42,500, and it takes a good 15 minutes for the mistake to be rectified.

I don’t want to get anyone into trouble but if I don’t intervene this already struggling café will shut down and then I will be sorry. The very hard-working owners will lose their business. I will have to cook my own food.

What to do? Where is Miss Millichamp when I need her?

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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