Extract Page 9

When the lights were out there would be an unusual hush in the dormitories. Eventually, you would hear leather-soled prefect’s shoes determinedly striking the floor boards and stopping at the chosen cubicle (we each had a little partitioned section of the dormitory). Only then could you be certain who was to receive the punishment. On that occasion I recall the footsteps stopping outside my cubicle, and a serious voice commanding: “Duffell, put on your dressing gown and slippers and come downstairs.” I remember fearfully making my way below, past the prefects on sentry duty on the landing, to the JCR, where the head of house was waiting, cane in hand. First your offences were read out to you, next the sentence, then you had to bend right over a Windsor chair and hold onto the bottommost rung. Naturally it was painful, but somehow it was the melodrama and humiliation which was the most degrading. The requirement of thanking the chastiser and next day showing your stripes to your contemporaries was nothing compared to the guilty anticipation and the ritualised procession down the stairs.

Although much of the daily discipline was imparted with relish by other children – the prefects – particularly at public school, it was the headmasters and housemasters who were responsible for the ultimate sanctions. These were either serious beatings or expulsions, which they would carry out with unflinching dedication to duty. I cannot remember an incident which did not involve some punishment. At the same time, these father-figures were the same ones who encouraged the children to come to them with any problems, who preached the Christian virtues of turning the other cheek, forgiveness and loving thy neighbour. We were left to form our own conclusions that authority figures were hypocritical and merciless. Small wonder then, that many a boy would find his relationship with his own father difficult, and in consequence his own image of himself as man and father, deeply problematic.


Perhaps it is fair to suggest that the Father, although dominant in our culture, is at the same time an enigma in family life. For how many boys, or girls, can say that they really know their fathers, or that they have been close to them? At a certain point in our workshops participants are invited to experiment by role-playing their fathers, to see if they can discover what it was like for them when their sons or daughters were sent away. We find that this can be a very difficult exercise for boarding school survivors. Often what emerges are stereotypes, because the father is not really known. Even had the child remained at home, he may not have seen much of his own father. My own father went to ‘the office’, a magical world to me as a child, in which I had no idea what he did. When he was at home he would often be hidden in remote but somehow sacred isolation, behind the newspaper, playing golf, or mowing the lawn.

The German psychoanalyst Mitscherlich, whose work has been drawn upon by poet and mythologist Robert Bly, says that if a boy does not know what his father does then a ‘hole’ will be created inside him.5–6 And because nature abhors a vacuum, into this hole rush ‘demons’, or fantasies. This hole, or absence, is created both by the father being ‘out’ at work, but it can also be made by him being at home, but emotionally withdrawn. When I was a boy, my father’s life was a mystery; on his return from the office he was usually tired and irritable. In my thirties, I discovered from a friend, who had worked in the same company, that his role was perceived as that of being everybody’s Good Father. I was shocked, and riven with envy. But I was still lucky, for when I was at home I did have a father in residence, and that was an asset, for he was like a permanent backstop and could be relied on in times of trouble. For the growing child a resident father is important: even if he is not overtly supportive he is someone to struggle with, to come up against, even to get angry with. These things count.

We have discussed the crucial importance of mother’s interest, care and physical presence to the small child. Father is clearly vital, too, but in a different way, especially as the child grows older. Parental roles may be interchangeable in early days and under very flexible social conditions, but there does seem to be some commonsense demarcation of tasks. If mother through her holding helps a child to hold together with a good inner core, then father helps the child to come out and discover the world. Additionally, father provides a sense of boundaries and limitations for the family, as well as protection from the outer world. He is able to demonstrate the accumulation of useful skills and is a role model for his growing son; at the same time he teaches his daughter about the different ‘species’ men, while he safely reflects back her emerging femininity and sexuality as something good, and precious, to be both desired and honoured.

It seems fathers have particularly important tasks during the teenage years. For the boys it is to be what Robert Bly calls their ‘Oedipal Wall’. By this I think he means that a father should be like a wall for the youth to come up against, to argue with, to dispute with, in politics and ethics, to exercise his unintegrated but passionate nature. That way the boy will feel himself at a wall of contact. He gets a sense, from that clear contact, of what he himself is made of, in relation to another who cares about him. The father should be not so strong a wall that the boy is smashed when he comes up against it. But he must also not be so soft, or absent, or compliant and permissive that the boy has nothing to push against.

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Bobby Approved (v 3.2)