It used to be that everyone wanted a cake shop of their own: cosy and copper kettle-ish or decadent with marble shelves and nods to Marie Antoinette. It would be that thing that people recommend: making your hobby your job. It would also lead to something everyone thinks they want – free buns and a place where everyone (Cheers-style) knows your name. In February I opened the most winning email from a friend that I have ever received: “Apologies for my silence. The bakery I go to every day came up for sale. They were going to turn it into a noodle bar. I had no choice.” It’s the only time in my life I have sensed on an email a delicate dusting of flour.
Yet, suddenly, no one wants a pâtisserie and everyone I speak to fantasises about opening a school. You pass a derelict house with steps up to a ground-floor sitting room and people are ushering in a crocodile of children in their minds.
They furnish the room, in their imagination, with the little green benches from the school at the end of Villette. They situate an inspiring Miss Brodie at the blackboard with a pointer, shoehorning maxims and solid values into porous souls: respect for other, fidelity to oneself. There may be modish adjustments to the thinking of the day. For example, tolerance, that supposedly great British value, troubles me, for to tolerate is to endure reasonably politely something you dislike or know to be wrong. No one deserves to be on the receiving end of that.
The desire to create a school is generally built on reservations about the schools our children attend. “Schools are always a compromise,” people sigh, and we think of our perfect establishment. Lunches will be grown in the schoolyard. Teachers will be recruited from among our nearest and dearest. “If we just pool all our skills, we’ll be a massive success. You do tap and Henry James; I’ll do colour words in Anglo-Saxon poetry; Joan can do … what can poor Joan do? Pilates and celebrity gossip?”
A highly eccentric fantasy syllabus is composed. A mother of triplets says she will do biology. Someone’s 100-year-old grandmother will do history: “I remember the groom saying the horseless carriage will never take off … ”
The subject of uniforms is always contentious. Fantasy school mistresses often insist on uniforms as it gives more scope for art-directing. Dove grey and ivory is popular: feminine, a bit Dior; or berries and cherries, chosen for cheer, or chocolate brown and baby pink (like a strawberry soft centre). Checks are popular, both gingham and houndstooth.
But the idea of uniforms sits uneasily in an age when individuality is prized. “Children I know who attend schools that have no uniform seem to spend all day in games kit anyway,” is often used as justification. The uniform debate leads to endless discussions that are not as enjoyable as bakery ones about whether a millefeuille, iced and feathered, ought to contain fresh cream or crème pâtissière.
All this was going through my mind because I was in the uniform department of a large store with some teenage girls. There were shrieks of outrage and eye rolling. There was that hardening of the mouth in readiness for a fight that teenagers do so admirably. The subject of their outrage was a well-trodden schoolgirl battle. It concerned hemlines. A new skirt had been brought in: boxy and knee length. The girls surveyed it with slitted eyes. It wasn’t that the new garment was unwanted or unflattering. It was simply out of the question. It could not be. These girls all believe that you buy your school skirt on the skimpy side at 11 and it will see you through to 16.
The shop assistant, camp and nervy, did not know what to say.
“If I wore this skirt,” one offered, “I’d literally be bullied.”
“But if everyone has them?”
“Then I’d bully myself.”
The girls rolled the skirts in time-honoured fashion, so that they created a bustle at the back, a sort of hunched-bot effect. They spoke about transferring to other schools.
I suddenly had a flicker of mother’s pride, remembering that my dry cleaner – when I was 18 – charged a mohair minidress of mine as a “jumper” on account of its length. I thought of mentioning this, for we had reached an impasse. There was a skirt-off. A deal would have to be struck, but I didn’t have the energy for negotiations that day. We would have to come back.
There was only one thing to suggest. “Cake?”