The Smart social barometer by Emily Smart
Step back in time
I’ve been thinking a lot about my school days recently and, in particular, the two years I spent at sixth form college between the ages of 16-18. Having left my secondary school, which really was a mixed bag of youngsters, I then moved to a rather exclusive college which was full of ex-private school kids who had bags of money, attitude and posh accents. Strangely, I immediately felt at home there and thoroughly enjoyed making new friends and having fun. Oh, and writing the odd essay or two, attending lessons, you know, the usual stuff.
It was during my time at this educational establishment that I came up with my own way of – for want of a better word – assessing people. You can’t blame me for making judgements, we all do it, but this has lasted my entire adult life and I find it both funny and slightly weird that I still do it.
Anyway, take yourself back to the late 1980s. Although Thatcher was about to be dethroned, it was a time of capitalism, wealth, ripped jeans (the first-time round), dodgy pop music (Kylie was lucky in love and not yet spinning around), and the coolest thing was wearing clodhopper shoes that had Grolsch bottle tops instead of laces. Life was great at sixth form college. I had an eclectic bunch of mates, we enjoyed boozy lunches, we mercilessly took the piss out of anyone and everyone, and we laughed a lot.
The school was formerly fee-paying and had a certain amount of tradition and expectation. I was no bright young thing and had scuttled in the back door on a Theatre Studies A level. When it came to break time, the school was divided into two factions. You either went to the ‘smoking hut’ for a fag or you loitered in ‘the basement’ with a KitKat. And there you have it, the rest of my life has been spent categorising people as those who went to the smoking hut or those that hung around in the basement. But what does it all mean?
The big smoke
The smoking hut as you might expect, was a fug of smoke. There were tables and chairs and a crappy stereo. Actually, I’m not sure if that was someone’s stereo, but an assortment of music from what I would call mixed party tapes rang out. Nothing that I liked, but when you’re in a room full of goths (mostly teenage boys with far too much eyeliner on), hard core rock fans (mostly boys with too much hair) and tortured souls looking for the meaning of life (mostly all of the aforementioned), then it’s unlikely Bananarama are going to get much air time.
Another group who frequented the hut were the Sloanes (the expression is a portmanteau word (had to look this up) deriving from Sloane Square in Chelsea, London famed for the wealth of its residents and the television character The Lone Ranger – thanks Wikipedia!) At my school this meant a lot of rich kids with big label brands. Both sexes wore a lot of Tommy Hilfiger clothing and exuded an air of superiority. Called Juliet, Gilead, Abigail and Gerard they all drove VW Golfs which their doctor parents had bought for them and would head home to hold extravagant parties around the family pool in the summer.
The smoking hut was edgy, exciting and full of rebellion. Everyone smoked Marlboro Lights and thought they were uber cool. Coffee was the drink of choice, and this was long before the existence of Starbucks. Teachers didn’t enter the smoking hut – probably out of fear of getting cancer by proxy. The door remained firmly shut and, looking back, I can’t help but be grateful the building didn’t burn down, killing most of the misunderstood youths inside.
A different kind of underground
The antithesis of the smoking hut was of course the basement. Situated in the main old school block, it wasn’t the dank, dark cellar you might be imaging. Light, huge, airy and carpeted, the basement had open entranceways at both ends and kids could sit on cushioned benches and, if I remember correctly, bean bags. Full of happy, shiny, keen students, the basement was a bustle of joy and life itself. If I were being unkind, I might also say it was full of nerds and swots, but these people loved school for its groves of academe and if they weren’t in the bowels of the building in the cosy, warm all-inclusive basement, they could be found working hard in the library. There wasn’t a black leather jacket or sign of potential depression in sight. Creased stonewashed jeans, pressed blouses and t-shirts were de rigueur, and packed lunchboxes were standard. Everything and everybody was clean and tidy.
Me – where did I spend my time? In both locations of course. While the smoking hut was hip, spending too much time in there meant that you came out stinking like an ashtray, and this was long before the days of Febreze! Malboro Lights never did it for me, I was more of a Silk Cut girl and I preferred a pint in my hand with a fag, never mind coffee. I had many great friends who lived in the smoking hut and I flirted with it most days to keep up with the latest gossip and catch up with mates.
The basement was home to my straighter friends who weren’t full of angst and dilemma. I liked the welcoming environment and, though I have always been drawn to what I describe as ‘naughty people,’ I obviously realised at a young age that I needed a good balance in my life. When it came to my social life, I went wherever the Stella Artois was, and much to my joy, the basement people also indulged in the odd lager – though possibly not quite as much as my smoking hut gang.
To this day, when I meet a person, I automatically determine if they would have been a basement or smoking hut person. I don’t think that’s bad, but for me, more of a social barometer. I have many friends in both camps, and I probably have different relationships with them based on which category my brain files them in. So, to all my basement buddies – thanks for being there, I can always rely on you, and I appreciate your guidance and support. To those smoking hut reprobates, why the hell are you reading this? It’s your turn to get a round in at the bar.