I turned on the radio on Saturday morning to hear an Irish woman talking about the reaction to the Saville Inquiry and its conclusion. She talked about the reaction to the massacre at the time, and it brought back a personal memory that I hadn't thought about for a long time. In 1972 I was a young 14-year old, at a grammar school in North East London. I was beginning to take an interest in politics, but it didn't run very deep. I hadn't much thought about Ireland at all; the only time I remember having had a thought about it previously was as an 11-year old, reading the front page of the Daily Mirror about the Army storming into the 'no-go' areas in Londonderry. It must have been August 1969, and I recall thinking that this was probably a good thing, since the Army were the good guys and there shouldn't be any areas where they couldn't go.
In 1972 though, we had a new form master - Mr Sloan - who was also our Spanish teacher and French teacher. I've always been crap at learning languages, but for a short time that year I felt like I actually might be able to learn Spanish. Mr Sloan had that odd mixture of humour and menace that sometimes works in male teachers, which managed to convey that he was hard but fair. I really liked him and wanted to please him, so I made more effort with languages than ever before or since.
Mr Sloan's hardness was the more plausible because he was an Irish catholic from Glasgow. I didn't even know about the Glasgow Irish connection, but we learned a lot about it that year, along with stuff about how Franco's regime suppressed the Catalan language. We learned about gerrymandering, about the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, and sectarianism. This was all at a boy's grammar school, where the headmaster had something of a reputation as a right-wing bigot. Somehow I connected Mr Sloan's Irish nationalism with my own emerging Jewish identity - part of no longer identifying as British or English, which up until then I had done. I didn't become any sort of Republican, but I no longer thought of either the Unionists or the Army as the good guys.
They day after Bloody Sunday Mr Sloan came into the classroom and wrote on the blackboard, in the space where he would sometimes write the names of those he wanted to intimidate. He wrote the number thirteen, and crossed it through and wrote the number twelve underneath. The point was that he was keeping score. One British soldier had been killed, so the deaths of the thirteen Bloody Sunday victims were on their way to being avenged.
It's kind of amazing to think that this could happen in a British school at that time. I think it would be on the front page of the Daily Mail now, and the teacher would be sacked and never work again.
I don't remember there being any consequences for Mr Sloan, though I also don't remember him continuing his scoreboard; funnily enough, I remember that he was pleased at the introduction of direct rule and the abolition of Stormont in 1973. Later that year he went off sick. He never came back as our teacher. We organised a collection for him, for a card and a present. I ended up buying the present, and chose a book about the IRA in the Civil War. He came back once to make a little speech of thanks. He looked really ill - thin, hairless and yellow. He died of cancer a few months later.