Parents’ Evening


I leave home for the short walk to the school. Stepping onto the street I notice two things. First, it is incredibly muggy. This does not bode well for a group of parents crammed into a primary school classroom with a south facing vista and tiny chairs. Second, the street is shockingly free of litter. One can only surmise that the street-cleaning orange gods (the indefatigable MA48) have made their monthly visit. Life quality is a nebulous notion at the best of times, no more so than in the removal of rubbish. Even so, I inwardly express gratitude to Stadtwien for their impervious commitment, although I still cannot quite explain why they contrived to forget:

1. An empty packet of Memphis cigarettes discarded in a bush, left I presume because the MA48 are only responsible for road-sweeping and not bush preservation. Above all else, if there is one immutable rule in civic Vienna it is you can never, ever, do another department’s job for fear of upsetting the space-time continuum.

2. Two empty cans of Gösser beer – slightly crushed – and some paper napkins artistically arranged next to the kerb in a small plastic Merkur bag.

3. Several of those laminated business cards offering to buy your car. Never used. Always disowned. 

As I walk I am serenaded by the chorus of canines which inhabit our street, ignored as usual by their irascible owners. (I am describing the dogs now.) The one with the squashed face (the “ejaculator”); the scraggy one (all self-important, bolshie and squalid), the one from Game of Thrones (cheerless and forlorn as it spends most of the day sitting in the shadows, its boredom only relieved by barking at the wind, the sun and sometimes the moon), and some other concoction nameless and largely unseen but fenced in and stressed like all the others.

The first thing I am going to do when I become Chancellor (actually the second; the first thing will be to move somewhere quiet) is enact legislation which will require all dog owners to obtain a licence (a bit like the “fit and proper” assessment for bankers but more rigorous). This licence will confirm that potential owners have the resources and knowledge to take on board a pet and the system will be meticulously enforced by newly created “dog sheriffs”, powers set somewhere between the inner circle of the Mongol Empire and the Stasi. Crucially, and without exception, it will be wholly financed by the owners themselves through a special tax on dog food, administrative fees and stiff fines for persistent miscreants.

A large part of this will ensure all dogs get proper exercise. This means they will be fitted with a GPS chip to track and record their twice-daily walkies. This data will not only be accessible to the sheriffs, but will be checked during regular visits to the vet – at least six times per year – at the expense of the owner according to a sliding scale of agreed standards for dog related exercise (based on breed, size and belligerence of the owner). This system will be called Mileage for Mutts – © 2016 Chancellor Robert Barratt – and sanctions for non-compliance will be swift, severe and agonizingly pricey.

This will not be a war on dog owners as such (more of an autocratic nudge) but tangible recognition that something has to be done about the deficient treatment of some animals at the hands of people who have little idea what it means to keep a four-legged friend. Additionally, it will be an attempt at balance redress. Recently, in an evening at Naschmarkt, it seemed every second table had a dog beneath its legs yapping away at its neighbour. Likewise as more of the “little fuckers” (the technical term, I have learned) passed by as part of their five minute evening perambulation. It made me think: since when did every other person in the city have a dog? Or feel the need to have one? It’s like a canine plague.

It occurs to me, as I continue down the street, that the scheme, when successful, could also be rolled out to incorporate children and the more louche of parents. Contented, I resolve to reveal my intentions at the parents’ meeting, if I can find the right German word for louche and not get sidetracked in some other more pressing issue which will undoubtedly surface once other parents are asked their opinion (usually about something exiguous).

Standing at the pelican crossing, I gaze up at the school building opposite. This institution of learning was built when Austria still had an emperor (Franz Josef). And as is befitting, there is a bust of him in the entrance hall treasoningly adorned with a bobble hat and scarf. Although I am a 923 miles from home, the school wouldn’t look out of place in many towns or cities in the UK. Even the smell is the same. And the paint. That said, I am not sure the local primary school in downtown Swindon would have “Viola Merda” daubed on its neo-classical inspired façade.

Moments later the little green man reveals himself and as is typical I wait for three more Viennese cars to shoot through the red light because it will save the drivers inside three more seconds on their journey (to purgatory with God’s speed). “Ya Bastards!” I curse after them only to be scandalously struck by a falling conker consolidating my belief that Vienna’s status as the number one city is, once more, under serious threat by the splenetic Viennese motorist and rogue windfall.

Buffeted by a gust of resignation, I enter the school and head for my son’s classroom paying respect to Franz and his knitwear. I scoot up the stairs and along the corridor, my vision temporarily blinded by a profusion of colourful primary school artwork hanging from every wall. On entering the classroom I offer the usual half-hearted “Grüss Gott” and shake the teacher’s hand. Gleefully, there is a free chair in the corner next to an open window which I procure with as much finesse as a Brit can in need of fresh air and the desire not to talk to anyone.

The meeting begins and three seconds later the first smartphone starts ringing. The owner, a fellow parent whom I have never seen or spoken to, nonchalantly inspects the screen and then, with the urgency of an Italian after lunch, places the phone back in her pocket with the sound muted. (Third job as Chancellor: life sentences for smartphone users during meetings.)

Like many of these evenings before, they simply exist for the dissemination of information. Such information could easily be sent by letter or email saving everyone concerned time, effort and a reduced need to smile weakly at the smart-arse joker in the group. But no. The world is obsessed with meetings which are ineffective or unnecessary. Just ask any company. (Fourth task as Chancellor: life sentences for instigators of meetings; usually self-doubting, talentless middle-managers* who labour under the belief that what they have to say is of any interest to anyone.)

Having said that, a couple of serious points are briefly considered. The first about how the Stadtschulrat (the body responsible for education) will be collecting more data on children in schools. There are only slight mutters when we are assuaged that this is simply to assess the propensity for some kids (at the behest of their parents) to always get sick on Fridays and Mondays. Schooled as most of us are in the art of contemporary snooping from the state – through our electronic transactions and smartphones which track our every move – nobody objects that much. Given the potential ramifications of this personal intrusion, such submission may surprise you. Certainly, it surprises me, so much so that I want to leap from my diminutive wooden chair and write “INDIFFERENCE” in big letters on the blackboard and then ask the class what they think it means. But I get my legs stuck under the tiny desk and proceedings move swiftly on.

Then there is a short discussion about the possibility of primary school children not receiving marks or grades in the first couple of years in school. Apparently, some primary schools do it or not (ours yes) but our opinion is important and grading is up for review. Again there is little dissent and we are moved to vote. Overwhelmingly as it is to retain grading. “All in favour?” we are urged. All hands are raised with the promptitude of the school swot.

For a few brief seconds I consciously waver. And then, cursing myself as I do so, I half-heartedly raise my hand. In that moment I know I have succumbed to the twin evils of group-think and peer influence. Once upon a time and true to form, I would have least raised a mild concern but I know instinctively I am powerless to intervene in these few pivotal seconds. The fact that I let the issue pass with such effortless acquiescence is dispiriting. I must say something just for balance I tell myself, but it is too late, we have moved on to more earth-shattering concerns: school dinners.

I don’t want to interject a note of gloom at this point but ask your average parent what they think about the state spying on their children or the iniquities of academic assessment for the under-9s and at best you get a whisper of opposition. Yet ask the very same people to comment on the state of school food and suddenly everyone is Jamie Oliver.

What follows is an animated twenty minute discussion, exactly nineteen minutes longer than I deem necessary, where individual parents list the foods their child liked or did not like, the necessity to provide for a vegetarian option (they do but some parents see no reason for this because vegetarians are anti-Austrian) and my favourite, the relative qualities of lasagne versus vegetable lasagne (everyone knows mozzarella lasagne is the king of lasagnes). In short, the food offered by the school is universally derided.

Such a spectacle is a wonderful snapshot of the state of people’s minds in 2016 in the number one city (and elsewhere where we have forgotten what life quality really encapsulates). The same parents who will happily feed their children one Euro to buy a plastic bottle of sugar-packed, crappy iced-tea from a vending machine, complaining about the quality of hot food on offer in a primary school (special scorn is also reserved for the meagerness and sophistication of the sandwiches and snacks in the “afternoon club”).

As this ensued several things came to mind. First, school dinners were always bad and we all survived, even on baked beans and chips. Second, judging by the girth and shape of many of the parents in this hundred year old space, none of their children look in danger of starving anytime soon, school food or not. Indeed, as the excellent historian Yuval Harari has mischievously reminded us, for the first time in human history, more humans die as a result of too much food (over-eating) than die of malnutrition. Moreover, with all this talk of eating I am now famished.

Sensing this debate could run and run, the teacher calls an end to the meeting shortly on the hour. This is just as well. Someone has just brought up (not literally) the potentially explosive qualities of quinoa and chick peas. Sensing an anti-vegetarian backlash (shitstorm is perhaps is not the best word to employ at this point) I gratefully extricate from under the mini-desk and slipping out the door, evading eye contact like the British pro I am, I wish my fellow parents a hearty “Mahlzeit!” (English translation: “Bon appétit”). And with that, I am gone.

* This does not include teachers.

© 2016 RJ Barratt