Extract Page 8

The ersatz father-figures whom I remember tended to be vigorous and vocal Christian Gentlemen. They were a source of wonder and sometimes a strange unidentified longing. Their natural spartanism could miraculously co-exist with their also having homes with wives, flower-covered sofas, coal-fires, pipes, dogs and occasionally – unbanished children! I do not remember consciously wanting love or affection from any of these men, except perhaps for a dim memory from the prep school I started when I was twelve. I had only just joined, coming from a previous boarding school which was ‘abroad’. I was an outsider because the other boys had been there from the beginning. I was therefore systematically scapegoated for being distinctly different, and I must have been keenly on the lookout for some figure of possible rescue. The headmaster of this place had some of the qualities I associate with the actor Michael Horden. I can recall a kind of vague longing for his affection and attraction to his manly physicality. We called him by his initials, JLR, which must have been a token of some intimacy.

On the whole, these father-figures were more likely to be challenging, or at best encouraging, rather than affectionate. They were generally on the look out for ‘funking’ (cowardice), not wanting to be seen as ‘fussing’ (being supportive). Here is Harrison on the subject:

It seemed it was the job of the great architect our headmaster and his team of master builders to turn us into sound, morally waterproof little dwellings, with roofs strong enough to resist the rain of temptation from without, and damp-courses to secure us against corruption from within. And so, in the name of character building, we were made to undergo all kinds of physical indignity and discomfort.

The sanction, or glorification of discomfort was in the name of manliness and would clearly be the absolute opposite to the ‘fuss’ and comfort which the world of the mother might represent. Some father figures took their job pretty seriously, in that they became specialists in letting their charges know just how useless they were, how little they knew. The sinister side of this is apparent, but it does not necessarily imply that they did not mean well. It was the style in those days. Perhaps in their reasoning it was in order to make a clean job, to construct a brand new building, to use Harrison’s metaphor, unspoiled by the influences of the past. The children who came into the school with some status, or some sense of their own worth, who had been mother’s little darling, or big brother, needed apparently to be brought down a peg or two. And they generally were; their frustration of coping with the changing standards will have been great. But getting used to living with double messages was one of the skills that had to be learned.

The power of the housemasters was reinforced by the use of corporal punishment, and at public school this was also meted out by prefects. In the matter of beating younger boys, prefects seemed like the housemasters’ henchmen, but in my day they also had considerable autonomy. Being beaten by another boy, even if he is much older, helps to reinforce control over the children, by means of the good old imperial strategy of divide and rule. In the matter of beatings, many children will not have experienced this at home, and receiving a beating could come as quite a shock.

I well remember my first taste of the cane. For the first few terms we had our lockers and did our prep (homework) in a large room called the JCR (Junior Common Room). Whenever a prefect, who might be seventeen or eighteen years old, came in we had to stand up and greet them, and open the door at the other end for them. How they loved to swagger through, savouring their first taste of real power. Many of them chose to enter the house that way, although there were other more direct routes. Although not a conspicuous rebel – I was far too timid and determined to survive – I had been appalled and repulsed, from the start, by the hierarchy. This I had not encountered in my first boarding school, which was run on European lines. I had lots of fear but little respect for the prefects. On that particular day, I had to open the door for a prefect and something, maybe some sarcasm directed my way made me snap: I slammed the door after this haughty young man. Calmly, the prefect let me know that I would regret it. As I already had one or two minor offences to my name, probably lateness or scruffiness, this threat produced a buzz of excitement in the house, which was fuelled in the customary manner, as I shall recount.

The prefects’ study was strategically situated between the stairs, the mail table, the general common room and the main passageway. Unlike most of the traditions, which seemed to exist simply because it had always been so, the door to the prefects’ study was routinely kept open for several practical reasons. Firstly, this room was an important communications centre: all manner of chits (notes) passed through there, and all kinds of permissions for any variations in daily activity had to be obtained from there. Secondly, the door was kept open because there was an electric toaster within. The prefects liked to make toast at all times of day, and what was the fun of toast unless it could be smelled by those who couldn’t have it? Lastly, it had to be open because the canes, symbols of their authority, were displayed there, crossed on the wall. Whenever there was to be a beating, which happened after lights out, the canes would be off the wall from early morning. Then everyone knew someone was going to get it, but no one quite knew who. This engendered terrific suspense. The atmosphere in the house would be electric; gossip would be rife. All those who were near the mark would either turn ashen, or adopt attitudes of devil-may-care defiance, depending on their personality.

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Bobby Approved (v 3.2)