Mugs and mooches

I’ve just finished reading Lionel Shriver’s novel ‘So Much For That’. It was a bit of a slow burner, but the ending was, in true Shriver style, totally rewarding.

One of the themes that runs through this book is that of ‘mugs and mooches’, or rather, people who play by the rules (mugs) and those who don’t (mooches). For example, there are people who fill in their tax returns as honestly as they can, and those who think it’s only natural to fiddle the system. I related to the protagonist Shep Knacker: I’m a mug. I’m not very good at breaking the rules, partly because of my conscience, but mainly because whenever I do, I get caught.

When I was sixteen I was nearly expelled from school. I and a group of friends had decided to bunk off Spanish, which was a ‘general study’ and therefore a lesson we didn’t feel obliged to attend. We sneaked off after registration to a local café where we sat slurping coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes. Not daring to be late for history, I headed back to school ten minutes earlier than my friends and bided my time in the toilets until the bell rang for the next lesson.

While hiding in the toilets, I heard sobbing. It was a first year kid, distraught because she’d just been told off by the headmistress. As I tried to console her, the headmistress herself walked in, ordered the girl back to class and swiftly walked out again. I breathed a sigh of relief just a second too soon: she returned in an instant. ‘Shouldn’t you be in Spanish?’ she barked. ‘I just needed the loo,’ I mumbled. Later that day, after she’d conferred with the Spanish teacher, I was summoned to her office and threatened with expulsion if I made any more poor choices about my attendance.

How I kicked myself for being mug enough to return to school earlier than I needed to! Had I been a proper mooch, I would have hung out in the café for the full duration of my Spanish lesson, and not got caught.

Nearly 25 years later, my mug’s curse is as present as ever. When my eldest daughter started in reception a few years ago, she liked riding her scooter to school. Abiding by the rules, I would take it off her at the school gates, as you weren’t supposed to ride scooters in the playground.

My daughter would always whine, ‘But everyone else is riding their scooter, why can’t I?’ Eventually I got sick of telling her, ‘Because you’re not supposed to,’ as we were pretty much the only mugs obeying the rules. So, as I didn’t want my daughter to grow up being a total goody-two-shoes – or supergrass for that matter – one day I relented and handed it back to her. Two minutes later, she scooted straight into the headmistress, who politely, but firmly, reminded me of the school policy on playground safety.

Naturally we went back to carrying the scooter at the school gates. As for the other rule-breakers? Those kids continued to sail skillfully past the headmistress’s back while she stood there chatting and joking with their parents.

So if you’re a mug like me, I recommend ‘So Much For That’. For deep down in every mug, a mooch lurks waiting…