When I was setting up the Irish Writers’ Union in 1986 one of the major tasks was to devise and adopt a constitution. The way I decided to tackle it was to draw up a comprehensive draft, scavenged from the constitutions of other unions. With clauses to cover every possible angle and sphere of activity, I called a meeting for 3.00 pm on a Saturday afternoon in Buswells Hotel, and set a three-hour limit for the meeting.
We started full of urgency, and a sense of destiny. ‘Clause One. The name of the Union shall be … All in favour’. The hands shot heavenwards. ‘Clause Two …’
‘This is extraordinary.’ A voice from the back. Was it someone ecstatic at a hundred writers assembled to hammer out a constitution for a Writers’ Union? It was John Jordan, one of the wonderful writers who had flocked to the cause, but who are now passed on. ‘Yes, John?’ ‘This is extraordinary.’ ‘What is, John?’ I was puzzled. We were still at the uncontentious issues of registering and affiliating. ‘This Clause 55.’ ‘But we have only reached 3 yet, John.’ ‘Oh,’ and John lapsed into silence. A quarter of an hour later came the same ejaculation from the back: ‘This is extraordinary.’ ‘Yes, John?’ ‘This Clause 55.’ ‘We are only at 12 yet.’ ‘Oh.’
Several times over the afternoon John interjected with his ‘This is extraordinary.’ But all the time it was Clause 55 that was on his mind. At last we reached it. The penultimate clause, and the very last one was a formality about winding up the union. I glanced at my watch. Five to six. We were almost there.
‘Clause 55,’ I called. ‘John, you wanted to speak on this one.’ Silence. I looked down. John had fallen asleep. I nodded to someone to give him a nudge. ‘John, we have reached Clause 55.’ ‘This is extraordinary.’ ‘You have the floor.’ ‘Clause 55 ‘, he read. ‘A member may be expelled from the Union for conduct unbecoming. There is no such thing as conduct unbecoming for a writer.’ A moment’s silence was followed by a collective belly laugh. I glanced at my watch again. I could be finished within the time, or we could be there til midnight debating this one. ‘Are you proposing that the words for conduct unbecoming be deleted, John?’ ‘Most certainly.’ ‘Anyone to second that. ‘Several hands shot up. ‘All those in favour of the amendment?’ Every hand in the room shot up. ‘Clause 55 is passed as amended, and now for the last one.’
I often recall John and his indignation. But is there no such thing as conduct unbecoming for a writer? There is certainly conduct unbecoming for a human being, but then one cannot be excluded from the human race on that account, not since we abolished capital punishment anyway. I had lifted that clause from the constitution of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, of which I was a member at the time. My day job was as a school principal. And I had no difficulty with the concept of conduct unbecoming for a teacher or for a school principal. Some people in society must be expected to set standards of behaviour for the rest of us.
The reflection sends me into a cold sweat as I remember the incident of the bicycle thieves. As a young principal with a shining new school, I was bubbling with enthusiasm for the challenge of changing the world. We had an outbreak of bicycle stealing, and the school was on red alert. One day four of the sixth year students burst into my office: ‘sir, sir, we saw two lads stealing bikes from the yard. They’re gone down the dual-carriageway. If we go in the car we can catch them.’ They were four athletic young men, well up to the task in my estimation.
About a mile down the road we spotted two youngsters pedalling vigorously. ‘That’s them, that’s them.’
‘Ok,’ I said. ‘We have to do this carefully. I don’t want them or you hurt, at any cost. We will wait until there is no traffic. Then I will pass them, and when I give the word, you hop out and catch them. But no rough stuff.’
With a clear carriageway behind me I passed them out, halted about fifty yards ahead, and my students hopped out. Two of them apprehended one kid in a single swoop. But the second kid was craftier and skipped past my other two commandos. He pedalled fiercely towards a bus stop where about half a dozen people were quequing. My men were gaining ground and I drove up behind them, stopping in front of the queue and getting out, as the kid threw aside the bicycle and knelt down in front of the onlookers. ‘Please help me,’ he pleaded. ‘I’m being kidnapped.’ He was a crafty one alright.
I went up to the queue of bemused but passive faces. ‘It’s ok,’ I said. ‘I am the Principal of the school up the way, and I have this situation under control.’ Then I put my hand on the kid’s shoulder. ‘Now come with me, either back to the school or to the police station.’ He got up obediently and sat into the back seat of the car with his companion. Two of my students flanked them in the back seat while the other two rode the bikes in triumphant convoy back to the school.
As we were driving back one of the kids asked, ‘What’s this all about?’
‘You stole these bikes out of the school yard. We saw you.’
‘We didn’t steal them. They’re our bikes.’
‘What were you doing in the school grounds?’ I asked.
‘We were delivering an urgent message to Toby Smith from his mother.’
My anxiety rose a little at the mention of one of the most trustworthy students in the school. ‘So if I call Toby out, he will be able to confirm that, will he?’
‘He will.’ They were good bluffers, if they were bluffing.
‘What school do you go to, and why are you not in class today?’
They mentioned the school. ‘We have a half-day.’
‘I know your principal. If I phone him, will he be able to confirm that?’
‘He will. Please do.’
I could see their confidence was growing, while mine was trailing along the road like an oil slick from a dodgy engine. By the time we reached the car-park of the school I decided that I needed an exit strategy, and urgently. All I could rely on was bluff.
‘Ok, boys,’ I said. ‘I have decided to believe you. I will give you your bikes and let you off this time. But you mustn’t do this sort of thing again. Is that clear?’
‘No, sir, we won’t,’ they promised as they took their bicycles from my sheepish-looking commandos, who slunk back to class as I slunk back to my office. There I awaited the arrival of their parents, the police, writs from their solicitors. I imagined the headlines in the tabloids. Kidnapping. Assault. False imprisonment. Defamation.
I could have gone to prison. But they were different times, and I got away with it. Conduct unbecoming. I could have been expelled from the Teachers’ Union. Yes, school principals are expected to set standards of behaviour. Writers can get away with murder.