It was my daughter who pointed it out.
“Dad, all these cars on Fitzjohn’s. All these people marching along in uniform, hundreds of them – it’s creepy.”
We were on our way to school, they were all on their way to school. And it’s not just Fitzjohn’s Avenue. It’s Willow Road, New End, Heath Street, Belsize – pretty much every road in NW3, twice daily – a show of strength in the belief in the power of education.
Which is generally a good thing. It’s right to educate our children. As Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And Hampstead has a proud tradition as a centre for nursery, primary and secondary schooling.
But Mandela’s militarist metaphor can feel all too apt when the area gets over-run by the school run.
With my daughter’s words ringing in my ears I turned from participant to observer in the week before half term.
I watched the slow procession of military-style 4x4s roll in to dominate the roads and pavements, their stony-faced parent-pilots circling, hovering, waiting their opportunity to swoop into the drop-zone and release their little trooper for the perilous 10-metre dash across enemy territory to the school compound. The tension was palpable; no one was smiling.
At first glance those who were walking to school seemed a happier, chattier bunch. Little wonder maybe, a slew of surveys indicate that those who trot to school on shanks’ pony arrive in better shape for the school day. Indeed a recent experiment at a local junior school found that in a one-mile race there was an average fitness gap of one minute between those who walked and those who were chauffeured, despite the best efforts of the latter group’s parents to poison the pedestrians with particulates.
But earwigging on the conversations of those on foot revealed a more sinister truth. Those parents who were talking to their children were usually interrogating them; either grilling them on what they would be or had been doing at school, or drilling them on their spellings and times tables. Little wonder then that so many kids chose to hurtle ahead mounted on Razor scooters, delighting in their freedom to spread shock and awe across the pavement.
Their anxious adults pursued at a distance, happy to deny knowledge in the event of collateral damage but quick to apportion blame elsewhere when their child incurred an injury – woe betide you if you are a third party who fails to leap out to the way!
Those parents who preferred the conversation of another adult to that of their children, and weren’t using a mobile phone, were invariably discussing school. If their children attended the same one they’d be bemoaning its imperfections. But were they to encounter a parent of a child from a rival school all imperfections were instantly forgotten and a game of one-upmanship ensued. I remain flabbergasted by a voluble disagreement between two mums as to whose Year 1 daughter was receiving the superior developmental boost, the one whose school offered free violin lessons or the one offering flute!
Apart from a few poor unfortunates possessed of helicopter parents, the older children were adult free. But no doubt having learned from the behaviour of their primary carers during the primary school run years they behaved much the same.
There were the Cyberkids marching down the street on stony-faced autopilot, oblivious to anything not displayed on their tablet or played through its headphones. Like the car-encased parents who yell at them to pay attention to where they are going they are aggressively defensive of their right to proceed unimpeded.
Giving both groups a wide berth I boarded the bus and found it packed with kids from a dozen different educational establishments. Their voluble chatter centred on the iniquities of the classroom with a fair amount of dissing of each others’ schools – all to the backbeat of a babel of mobile phones. The tinny music and the strident statements of this uniformed cohort made the bus feel like a barracks.
Outside the low autumn sun glinted off the blacked-out windows of a regiment of SUVs while more uniformed boys and girls marched stolidly up and down the hill. Outriders flew by on scooters and dark-clad adults muttered into mobiles and kept a wary eye on proceedings.
And all of a sudden I knew my daughter was right. There was something creepy about this mass mobilisation of the reluctant to march in devotion to an absolutist drum; something reminiscent of a North Korean military parade.