On the receiving end

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My parents were divorced when I was so young that I cannot remember my father living with us. I was brought up in a household of women – my mother, my elder sister, our nanny, my sister’s governess and various domestic staff.

I remember only two men who were of any importance to me – our gardener, Ernest Dyer, and my elderly uncle, Hugh Seebohm. Sometimes I would help them. I helped Ernest with bonfires and with building a wall. I helped Uncle Hugh with repairs to a fence which he worked on during his annual visits. While we were working they would chat with me without condescension.

I had toy soldiers, but I also had a sewing-box. I loved pretending, for instance in a gipsy caravan made of chairs, and I loved the acting games we sometimes played in the drawing-room when we were allowed down after tea – dumb crambo and charades.

I learnt to read and write. I have a vague memory of a book for beginner readers in large type with a picture at the top of the page, a brief text, and a list of new words at the bottom. My memory then jumps to a thick book about Robin Hood, that is still on my sister Jane’s bookshelf. On the first few pages there are pencil dots indicating how far I had read each day - just a few lines. And then suddenly there are no more dots because I had understood how reading worked and I read the rest of the book to myself.

I have no recollection of being taught to write, although I remember having to do exercises to improve my writing. The only one I enjoyed was a row of cccs which you turned upside down and then turned into a row of fat ssss by doing an interlocking row of cccs above them.

Jane used to write stories for her own enjoyment and I imitated her. Sometimes we used to amuse ourselves by doing exercises from a blue, cloth-covered school-book, called A Practical English Course, by Lawrence Oliphant1. It was divided into lessons. Each lesson began with a passage followed by some comprehension questions, and then a series of grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and spelling exercises. We picked out the tasks that amused us, and particularly enjoyed the last part of each lesson, which suggested topics for imaginative writing. I expect this book was also used more formally in actual lessons with our governess, but I only remember dabbling in it for pleasure, without supervision.

My introduction to French was through a book called ‘French without Tears’, by Florence Bell. The title indicates that at one time tears used to be a normal part of French lessons. I remember the kind of illustration and the type-face and the general look of the page and the word ‘canif’, but I don’t think I got beyond lesson three.

I was brought up as a Christian, saying my prayers every evening as a child, being taken to church on Sundays and singing carols at Christmas. When I was eight or nine I was given a copy of the Bible, and so I began to read it, as I read all the other books I was given. (I gave up at the Book of Numbers.)

Serious school boredom of course came later, but I remember being bored in church, before I ever went to school. I used to enjoy the hymns and sometimes the lessons, but the psalms and the prayers and the sermons were almost unbearable. 'Shshsh,' Jane and I were told. 'Sit still.' And I would look at the stained glass windows and examine the back of the pew in front of me and swing my legs and look round at the other people in the church, and 'Shshshsh! Sit still.'

I read poetry for pleasure, and I still remember snatches of what I read then. ‘Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I.’ ‘Hamelin town’s in Brunswick, by famous Hanover city.’ ‘Three jolly farmers once bet a pound.’ ‘’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves.’ ‘Oh fat, white woman, who nobody loves.’ ‘There was an old man with a beard.’ Jane used to chant verses from 'How Horatius kept the bridge' and parts of Hiawatha, so I learnt them too. And of course I knew many nursery rhymes and songs.

For a term or two I was sent to the little day school where Jane went. There were three eight-year-old boys and perhaps twenty girls up to the age of fourteen. We did country dancing and practised marching and I played the part of Mustardseed in an extract from Midsummer Night's Dream. I was introduced to ‘La Vie de Madame Souris’, by G. Gladstone Solomon, and I spent a couple of terms on the first page.

Madame Souris a une maison.
La maison de Madame Souris est petite.
La maison de Madame Souris a une porte.
La maison de Madame Souris a quatre fenêtres.
Une, deux, trois, quatre.
La maison de Madame Souris a un jardin.
Dans le jardin de Madame Souris il y a quatre fleurs.
Une, deux, trois, quatre.

I quote from memory, so I may have missed some of the finer details. I simply can’t see how we can have spent so long on this and the corresponding page of illustration.

There were occasional recitations and performances by the older girls, and I was enthralled by the scene where Hamlet summons his father's ghost, and a recitation of The Listeners by Walter de la Mare.

I only remember one aspect of the school that I found almost unbearable. That was homework, when the world outside the room where I was working was calling me to go out and play. The chair I was sitting in used to become peculiarly hard and sticky, and occupy most of the attention that was not caught by the sunlight from outside the window. I found it extraordinarily difficult to write or learn anything at all.

Every day I walked up to the school through a wood with Jane and two of her friends. Most of the time I was happy. And then, a month before my ninth birthday I was sent to Connaught House, a boarding school for boys.

My mother, as I learnt later, had not wanted to send me to a boarding school so young, but the social pressure was too strong for her. Little boys of our class were sent to boarding schools. She hated seeing me off on the school train as much as I hated going. After the train had gone, she told me, there would be many weeping mothers left on the platform.

For those of us on the train, even when we were eight years old, it was considered weedy to be homesick. If you couldn't help crying, it was best to hide, or to wait until after lights out in the dormitory.

The distress used to set in three or four days before the beginning of each term. It became pointless to start reading a new book, or to make any plans for the future. All I could do was hang about and wait.

It seems extraordinary that parents at that time can have imposed such misery on themselves and on their own children, but it was considered to be inevitable. Middle-class parents were obliged to sacrifice their own boys on the altar of the prep-school so as to make sure that they were properly prepared for an after-life in a public school. As a reward their boys were to be transformed into something wonderful – respectable conformists with the right accent who could play football and cricket and knew a few words of Latin. What is even more extraordinary is that it is still happening today.

When I was telling my daughter about my plans for this book, I found myself using the phrase 'unnecessary suffering', and so powerful was my indoctrination sixty years ago that I immediately felt that 'suffering' was too strong a word. On reflection I realised that I was wrong to regret my choice of word. My so-called privileged education entailed plenty of suffering.

I remember homesickness as a physical sensation. People talk of a 'sinking feeling' when something seems to be going wrong. Homesickness is a sinking feeling that lasts for days on end. When you are eight years old, the three months of a school term seem like eternity. Being sent back to school was like being condemned to death.

The feeling did not last, but it would keep returning. It was worst at the beginnings of terms and after half-term breaks, but it might come back at any time, particularly at night.

Nick Duffell, a psychotherapist, has worked for more than ten years with what he calls 'boarding school survivors' and has written a book about their experiences called The Making of Them. It shows that my distress was comparatively minor.

When I arrived at Connaught House I was bewildered. Bewilderment is one of the techniques used in wartime to extract information from prisoners. When you have no idea what to expect, when you do not know what is true and what is invention, you lose your sense of identity and become malleable. It was worst at the very beginning, of course, but what I learnt from that bewilderment has lasted all my life.

When you are eight years old, surrounded by noisy boys, almost all older than you, doing things you do not understand, the safest thing to do is to imitate them. When a bell rings and everyone goes indoors, you follow them. When there is silence for grace before meals, you keep quiet. When all the others take off their boots after football and get into a shallow trough of warm water to wash the mud off their knees, you do the same. When they snap their ties at each other's bare legs, or roll up their handkerchiefs into hard little coshes and bash each other, you practise the same skills.

There was a frightful game we used to play on Sunday evenings, when one of the big classrooms was always cleared of desks. For some reason we all had to wait in there together for a while. The floors was of slippery polished wood, and we all wore leather-soled shoes, so most of the boys enjoyed running and sliding as if they were on ice. The game consisted of trying to knock people down by sliding into them from the side, and sweeping their feet out from under them. I never even learnt the skill of running and sliding, so I spent most of my time cowering against the wall, and I usually fell over if somebody slid into me there.

At the end of lunch in the dining room one day just before one of my first half-terms Mr. Hoyle, the headmaster, checked up that proper arrangements had been made for everybody. The school was silent as he called out the names of the few about whom he was still uncertain, and they gave their answers. Then he came to me. I was frightened at speaking in front of the whole school, but I said, truthfully, 'I'm going to stay with the Misses Bolitho.' Everyone roared with laughter. I still don't know why.

We accepted everything that happened to us, because that was the way things were, and we couldn't imagine any alternative. Another instructive incident during my early days occurred when we were playing a battle game in the gardens, with two armies. I was caught behind a lilac bush by a big boy called Barratt, who had a reputation for being rough, and I cried. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'but this is how it's got to be.' I found this remark strangely reassuring.

We put up with the food. Lunches were good, considering it was war-time, but twice a week we had a cooked tea. One time it would be baked beans, and the other time Hitler's tummy. The staff called Hitler's tummy 'savoury rice', but everyone hated it and I was once made to sit over a plate of it until I managed to sick some of it up. I still hate baked beans.

We put up with treading silage. Silage was a novelty at the time. At Connaught House there was a wooden tower, probably not more than six or seven feet high, though it seemed huge at the time. All the mown grass was tipped into it, and then, once a week or so, the boys would be dropped into the tower to tread it all down. Mr. Hoyle stood on some steps and picked us up by one arm and dropped us down inside. You couldn't get out and it stank.

As soon as anything became routine it stopped being bewildering. Why did we all have to dress exactly the same? Why did Mr. Chadwick put his hand down inside some people's beds when he was doing lights out? Why was the headmaster's sitting-room so nice and comfortable when our rooms only had desks in them? Such questions did not bother us.

I was no good at games. At cricket I was always at the end of the batting order and I used to field at long stop. When we played soccer no one ever passed the ball to me. The only sport I was able to join in with was rugger, because as a forward you had a role to play in the scrum whether you could run and kick or not. I was clumsy with my hands, so when there was a craze for making model aeroplanes or balsa-wood warships my efforts stood out as inadequate. In the Scout troop my patrol was the only one to have no one in it who had won a single badge. My mother kept my letters from school and after she died I looked through them before destroying them. I came across a paragraph about the fact that no one had spoken to me on the school train all the way from Paddington to Taunton – in those days a journey of three or four hours.

My status, then, was low. However, I enjoyed playing cards, Monopoly, Stockbroker, horse-racing games, chess and draughts, and I had one real social asset which was my ability to make up stories. In some dormitories we would have an illegal rota to decide who was to tell the story to lull us to sleep after lights-out, and my turn was always a popular one.

When I was at school caning was still the usual punishment. At Connaught House there were two positions for caning. The first time I was caned I had to stand up close to the end of one of the long school dining-tables. I was nine years old, so it was about waist-height. I had to bend over the table, resting my face on the polished wood and holding on to either side with my hands. As far as I remember I got three strokes of the cane, and they hurt more than anything that I could remember. This was in spite of the fact that they were deliberately restrained; they did not break my skin or even leave a bruise.

You had to assume the second position for a caning if you were caught talking in your dormitory. This meant bending over the end of your bed. It was worse than the table for two reasons – firstly you were only wearing pyjamas, instead of pants and flannel shorts, and secondly you had to bend your top half down over the bed-rail, so your bottom was tauter and more exposed.

When I had first arrived at the school there was a less fortunate boy in the class above me, nine or ten years old, who was always in trouble and was beaten more than once a week. I didn’t know what his crimes were, but only saw him as an unpopular, ugly boy with a furtive manner. The story in the school was that the headmaster had broken a cane on him. All this beating failed to improve his behaviour, and he was eventually expelled. At the time I was too busy learning to fit into the school to bother about cruelty to one of my fellows, but I have remembered it all my life.

What was extraordinary about my own beatings was that I was extremely well-intentioned and never wanted to be any trouble to anyone. I had never been punished at home, as far as I can remember, in spite of occasional tantrums and occasions when I resisted physically to being taken upstairs when it was time to have my bath. Punishment had simply not been part of my life, and without punishment I had generally behaved very well.

You can appear foolish if you don't understand local customs. Early in my days at Connaught House, when we were supposed to be marking each other’s answers to a spelling test, I corrected the spellings I was supposed to be checking and put ticks by every answer. This was discovered, Mr. Hoyle, the headmaster was called in and I was accused of having been dishonest. I was nine years old at the time, and of course I hadn’t meant to be dishonest, I had meant to help my friend, but this was not taken into account.

And you can appear foolish if you are too keen in your efforts to help. One day when some of the domestic staff were ill we had to carry piles of plates into the dining room. I tried to carry too many, and dropped them onto the slate floor of the pantry. There were then not enough plates to go round. Mr. Hoyle made an announcement about it to the whole school. I was very distressed but I tried to smile to show I didn’t care. He saw my attempt at a smile and attacked me for that too.

Incidents like these inspired an awe of authority that I absorbed without thought or any sense of proportion. The maths room was heated by a metal stove, and you could roast chestnuts by balancing them on top of the door when it was shut. My desk was next to this stove, and I was roasting chestnuts quietly during a lesson when my bare knee touched the door. I did not cry out, but I sat and watched the skin go yellow, crinkle and shrink. Sitting quietly in the classroom was more important than first aid.

I was of course frightened of the teachers and the bigger boys, but that was not all. I was also frightened of my contemporaries. It was terribly important not to be an outsider. Even trifles could be dangerous. My games sweater was a slightly different pattern to everyone else's, and my mother's regular holiday washing kept it gleaming white. Everyone else's tended towards a respectable earthy colour. The teachers didn't mind, but I did. I was different enough anyway, without having a special variation of uniform.

We lived together all day, and we slept in dormitories. There was no escape from the constant pressure to conform. Every inadequacy was exposed to public comment. We did not see the resultant mockery and ostracism as bullying, we accepted it as a natural consequence. The staff sometimes set the example. Mr. Hoyle, who of course spoke English with an upper-class accent, always made fun of a boy who pronounced 'one' as 'wonn' instead of 'wunn.'

It was not only the values upheld by the staff that became ingrained, it was also the values of the subculture. The staff preached obedience, and there was a rule that you must not speak in the dormitories after lights out. All the boys talked after lights out. If there was anyone who didn't talk because he wanted to obey the rule he was regarded as a goody-goody and a coward. If the staff caught you talking, they beat you, and that was that. It was not taken particularly seriously by either party.

The concept of goody-goodiness as something to be avoided at all costs overrode most other moral considerations for most of the boys. This did not mean that they had to spend their time breaking rules, but that if there was a rule most people broke, you must break it too, if there was a teacher who could not keep order in his class, you must contribute to the chaos, if a boy was unpopular you must shun him. I was for a long time a goody-goody in all respects except for talking after lights out. I accepted the demands of the adults, but I resisted the pressure from my contemporaries.

We had to wear the school uniform, of course, including shorts all the year round. (I was an exception. After I got pneumonia and nearly died I was allowed to wear long trousers in the winter.) Clean clothes were handed out once a week. Every evening we had to fold our clothes neatly and put them on the chairs beside our beds. They were checked at lights out. Before breakfast we stood in a queue to be inspected for cleanliness. We would have to hold out our hands palms upwards and then turn them over to show the nails; if we didn't do it properly the matron would turn them over for us. Then she looked behind our ears. Palms, fingernails and behind the ears were apparently key areas for hygiene. After breakfast we all had to go to the lavatory and then report to the matron as to whether we had moved our bowels. Every other evening each dormitory of four to six boys would share the same bath-water. (There was one dormitory captain who required every boy in his dormitory to pee in the bath and then drink some of the water, but this custom did not spread.)

In spite of all this Connaught House was, by comparison with many other prep-schools, a gentle and friendly place.

In this comparatively gentle and friendly place we also suffered from frequent boredom. Boredom sounds like a pretty minor form of suffering. 'I'm bored,' people say, when they can't think of anything they want to do. School boredom, though, classroom boredom, homework boredom, is in a different category.

When I arrived at Connaught House I had to start again on Madame Souris.

Madame Souris a une maison.
La maison de Madame Souris est petite.
La maison de Madame Souris a une porte.
La maison de Madame Souris a quatre fenêtres.
Une, deux, trois, quatre.

You may remember it too, by now. In the whole of the first year we never got beyond page 4.

We started on Latin. At the age of eight, this meant learning the following:

Nom. mensa a table
Voc. mensa o table
Acc. mensam a table
Gen. mensae of a table
Dat. mensae at or to a table
Abl. mensa by, with or from a table

It seemed completely nonsensical, and not surprisingly it took us weeks to learn it. When we had learnt it, we knew it for ever.

One day when we had made rather more progress a friend and I practised speaking to each other in Latin. Our subject-matter was limited. ‘Sum puer. Rex amat reginam. Ego magistrum non amo.’ (I am a boy. The king loves the queen. I don’t like the teacher.) Nevertheless it was a good deal more interesting than learning the declension of nouns, and I see now that encouraging us to speak would have been a far better way of teaching us.

We read The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar in English lessons when we were ten or eleven. There was no attempt to help us to understand what we were reading. I remember the teacher complaining about the way we read 'o'' as if it was 'oh'. If we couldn't say it properly it would be better just to say 'of'. I don't think it had occurred to any of us that it meant 'of'.

'The quality of mercy is not strained,' we had to learn by heart. The irony of it only strikes me now. If only our teacher had been merciful.

The first line was self-evidently nonsense. I could not make any connection between the abstract idea of mercy and the concrete vision of a kitchen strainer. I understood the next line and a bit, 'It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath,' but otherwise it might as well have been in a foreign language. It is dismal work learning words that mean nothing to you; you gain nothing from it and you blame the author of the words for your suffering. It is astonishing that so may people who loathed Shakespeare at school come to love his plays as adults.

School boredom is a kind of imprisonment. You are imprisoned in school anyway, but boredom in lessons puts you in a cell within a cell. It is not just that you have to be there, that you have to sit quietly, that you get punished if you talk or fidget or pass notes. Even your mind is invaded. Think about this, you are told. Don't dare look out of the window. Copy this out. Answer these questions. Learn this by heart. La maison de Madame Souris a quatre fenêtres.

There were times when I was willing and interested, or even enthusiastic, but there were also hours and hours of emptiness. We had to sit for whole lessons while other people answered questions and made mistakes. We had to do futile exercises.

For a geography prep, for instance, we had to find the longitude and latitude of various capital cities. I was the only one who looked them up in the back of the atlas. Everyone else tried to work them out from the maps. I was afraid I had been cheating, but when the time came for our work to be returned, I was congratulated and the all the rest had to do the work again, using the index at the back. Because I had done so well, I was told to work out the distance between the cities from their longitude and latitude. I gave the answers in degrees, and was told that I should have multiplied them by 69 to get the distance in miles. It is only at our latitude that a degree of latitude corresponds roughly to 69 miles, so the whole exercise was nonsense, but it kept me occupied while the others were doing the work I had already done. Keeping children occupied is a teacherly obsession, and it means keeping them occupied with activities that keep them quiet, not activities that excite or interest them.

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