INTERESTING TIMES 4: SHERBORNE

By Andrew Maben

SherborneEleven Plus, I’m sorry to tell you, was yet another shameful humiliation. You may well be thinking it’s high time I got over it. What can I say? Only that I fail now, as I did then, to understand the mentality that would imagine it possible to beat the fear out of a child. It did not work in my case. It did teach me to be sullen, to hold myself apart, to hold my tongue. “He’s a shy boy,” grown-ups would declare. One way of putting it, more exact would be to say that I was just afraid to draw the least attention to myself. Of course that would end up making me the red-faced focus. Peeing. The shame of bed wetting was by now so deeply ingrained that I was ashamed to piss, at least to draw attention to my need to. Afraid to get up in the night, afraid to hold up my hand in class. Pathetic? Absolutely, I agree. But it might have helped to have a guiding hand, a comforting shoulder. I wouldn’t know.

I sat in the examination room, breezing through the questions. I was in a classroom at Tiverton Grammar with some other Ravenswood boys and several rows of locals. The papers were distributed, we were cautioned to be silent, to keep hands and eyes to ourselves.

“Very well. You have one hour, turn your papers over and begin.”

Yes, breezing through it. Until I felt that pressure begin. I squeezed my legs together, tried to ignore it. The more I tried to ignore it, the more persistent it became. I knew I could hold it till the end. Unfortunately this occupied so much of my attention, as I squirmed silently, as inconspicuously as I could, that I barely managed to finish one or two more questions, but I held on for fifteen minutes or more. But by the time I realized that I wasn’t going to finish the exam, or make it through the whole hour, and held up my hand… Too late. Pathetic. Yes, but it won’t happen again for fifty years or so. And yes, of course I failed.

Mr. Whittaker had an appealing teaching style: he would stalk the classroom with a heavy bunch of keys in hand, asking boys questions at random. Woe betide you should you get the answer wrong, he would swing the keys in a perfectly co-ordinated arc against the back of your head, never failing to connect at that small knot of bone at the base of the skull, just where it meets the spine. yes, it hurt, what do you think? It hurt a lot, but I do have a solid grounding in French grammar.

Music continued to make its presence increasingly felt. Trad Jazz, as practiced by Mr. Acker Bilk, Chris Barber and others was joined by Lonnie Donegan and the Skiffle movement, which opened the door to Folk Music. A younger teacher actually played the guitar and entertained us with 500 Miles, Tom Dooley and the like. Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio…

I do not remember anything of the Thirteen Plus, but I did pass, and with an exceptional score.

I continued to immerse myself in books. Swallows and Amazonsoffered a vista of freedom and adventure, then Beau Geste, a romantic picture of valour, of honour held to through all adversities – just the thing for me. A little Hornblower, a plethora of tales of war heroes, the Battle of Britain, The Colditz Story, of course the theme of escape was attractive, what else would you expect in the circumstances?

At last in the summer of ‘61 came the Common Entrance exams. The end of Ravenswood and home to a summer of anxiously waiting for the results and a letter from Sherborne. Although I had avoided Tom Brown’s Schooldays, I had read Stalky and Co as well as various comic book depictions of Public School life, so I did not look forward to acceptance with unalloyed joy. But I was proud enough when the letter finally came.

Sherborne is an ancient school with high academic standards and noble traditions. The countryside is straight out of Hardy, the town is picturesque, beautiful soft Ham stone buildings, the Abbey and its cloisters which were now School House, Chapel and the Headmaster’s quarters, the Almshouses, a narrow High Street.

My sullen approach had become essentially my whole schoolboy persona by now. I was in the habit of leaving an untidy bed, even though by now there was nothing to conceal in the folds. I was tardy. I was disrespectful – even today I have a hard time addressing anyone as “Sir” without a taint of disdain. Naturally this led to the familiar round of black marks, detention, beatings. First time around it was “four of the best” from the Head of House. The ritual had been refined over years. First the torture of waiting, you always knew when you had fulfilled your quota of infractions and the inevitable repercussion. But there was some leeway between collecting the final black mark and the punishment, which might be on the same day, or up to two evenings later. At last the dreaded summons would come. All eyes covertly upon you, you leave to wait in the cold cloister. There was a fixed spot where you were expected to stand at attention until the head prefect arrived. At last the sound of approaching footsteps, then the swishing of the cane. Canes were sold at the school outfitters, a cluster standing in an umbrella stand. Any visit to the shop would offer the opportunity to watch a prefect or two pulling canes, testing their flex, trying a few practice strokes. Once a cane had been chosen the end would be carefully split at the bottom eight inches or so. The prefect would approach, with a carefully calibrated disdain ask if you knew why you were there, if you had anything to say for yourself. Naturally the only acceptable responses were “Yes” and “No” respectively. Then “Very well. Bend over.” Bent over, eyes fixed on the ancient flagstones. A moment while he measured his position, like a batsman at the crease. A couple of practice swings would always precede the first blow. Then the awful swishing sound, the always surprising sharp pain, always worse than remembered. The split in the cane would open in the descent, then snap shut. With practice, and most prefects saw plenty of practice, all the blows would fall in essentially the same spot, the pain worse each time. And of course the ignominy was a very important factor, the shamefully submissive pose. And do not dare to utter the smallest gasp of pain, never allow even the suspicion of a tear in your eye. At last he would be done. A contemptuous dismissal. The painful walk back to the dormitory. Jaw clenched against tears. All this was, of course, regarded as yet another exercise in character building. And as usual it formed mine, literally beat me deeper into myself. The idea seemed to be that the reward for suffering stoically would be the pleasure of being allowed later to inflict the same torture on other younger boys. In the dormitory you were expected to show of your welts, for the other boys to appraise the accuracy of the strokes, to see how much blood might have been drawn.

Now it would take only two black marks and the next time would be six, then came six from the House Master and the final ignominy of six from the Headmaster himself. I regularly arrived at six from the Head of House, once was beaten by the Headmaster, who didn’t appear to take as much pleasure in it as the others, his blows were certainly less painful, with very little blood drawn. On one occasion, I have absolutely no memory of what I had done, perhaps it was simply due to the Headmaster’s absence, I was beaten by the Head Boy, who by way of contrast was visibly filled with sadistic delight as he ran to deliver slashing blows of the cane with all his cricketer’s strength.

I was growing. I was willing myself to grow, to accommodate my body to my feet – each night I would hook my feet in the bed’s foot-bar and spend a fair time gripping the head-bars, pulling in an effort to grow taller faster. I was also starting to think, rather than simply react and emote, for myself. I refused the offer to be Confirmed when it was first presented. The vows involved seemed to be rather serious, and I did not feel that I could go through with it unless I fully understood what I would be committing myself to. It was hard to square the Sermon on the Mount, the professed “Christianity” of school, with the institutionalized brutality and casual cruelties I saw and was obliged to live with.

I was still bound for the R.A.F. A diagnosis of myopia had put paid to dreams of flight, but I quickly decided to become an aeronautical engineer, which would still mean I could be around planes, with plenty of opportunities to fly. Unsurprising, but still embarrassing, that my political views were both naive and reactionary. School was a bastion, a veritable Masada, of conservatism and I still had some notion that I could fit in, not to mention my recent obsession with World War Two, which had expanded far beyond the Battle of Britain, but still featured Churchill as conquering hero. The Bomb had been permanent background noise and was beginning to make it’s presence more concretely felt, an uneasy awareness of what precisely a four-minute warning might actually mean. It seemed that the great Cambridge spy debacle was in the news semi-permanently for years. Soviet leaders paraded menacingly across the front pages. None of which inclines me to much sympathy for my insistence that the only proper way for the Americans to conduct their war in Viet Nam was to drop the Bomb on Hanoi. I was fourteen.

Although I still was not subject to physical bullying, I was constantly the object of teasing and other harassment that kept me perpetually on my guard, constantly a step or two away from misery. One day a boy decided he had to find out how far he could push me. I asked him to stop. He redoubled his efforts. I told him to stop, but still he kept on. And I snapped. I grabbed a handful of his shirt front, pulled him towards me till our faces were inches apart, raised my left fist up beside my head. I was on the brink of punching him as hard as I could in the face. As I was about to strike I saw the fear in his eyes. Seeing his fear I recognized my own. I was disgusted. Disgusted with him for trying to bully away his fear. Disgusted with me for being brought down to that level. I lowered my fist. I hope I let him see my contempt. I let go of his shirt, turned and walked away. That was a moment in which a life-long hatred of violence and its perpetrators gained a little more ground in my heart.

It must have been the summer of that year that mum took me and Claire for a holiday in Ostend. We stayed in a little pension, family run. The daughter, Christiane, was a not unattractive girl about my age, so Claire chose to tease me constantly that I had a crush on her. I don’t think so. What I most remember, to the point that it has essentially displaced all other memories of the trip, is a day we spent visiting battlefields and graveyards of the Great War. There is a place where the land has remained untouched ever since the Armistice, trenches and dirt, bones, said to be of horses, still protruding in places, rusting steel helmets, and displays of photographs. “The horror, the horror”. My jingoistic juvenile militarism, my passion for the glories of war, gallantry, courage, all the vicious lies that had led so many millions to their needless deaths, all this was overwhelmed by the sight of the hideous, meaningless waste. I felt humbled, shamed, some kind of reverence. The graveyard, white, identical crosses in perfect alignment, how many thousands? We walked slowly past some of the graves. Each marker bore a name, a rank, a regiment, a date of birth, a date of death. Overwhelmingly privates, and so young. Glory? Patriotism? Honour? What value do these words hold in the face of this callous, cruel, cynical waste? From that day glory and patriotism ceased to matter to me. But honour, perhaps there may be something beyond blind self-sacrifice in the name of ideals that conceal base motives. Perhaps there is an honour to be found somewhere. Perhaps there are ideals that do have some truth, some value in themselves. An honour found in life and living. It was clear there was no honour in all these crosses, there is no honour in death. The beginning of the search that I have pursued all the days of my life. Oh, we shall certainly see in days and years ahead how often, and how far, I strayed from the path. No matter, that is, has always been, the only goal of my life. To discover, or construct, and to try to live by a standard of honour that would at last afford me full membership in the human race, and worthy of love. If you stay with me through my tale perhaps you will be able to judge how far, whether, I have succeeded, or failed.

It was a little difficult to reconcile my changing view of the world with the political conservatism which prevailed in my immediate environment. Up to now I had accepted without question that “British” was synonymous with “good”. As a child I had been peripherally aware of the Korean War and the Suez Crisis, and formed a childish mental picture of the “bad people” who threatened us. When a boy was called from breakfast and we were informed that both his parents had been killed by the Mau Mau in Kenya, my picture of a world in desperate need of Britain’s humanizing and civilizing influence was further reinforced. But. But I was beginning to see that there might in fact be some incongruency between this image of a sage and benevolent empire altruistically bringing a barbaric world into the shelter of the Christian family and my own personal experience of brutalizing treatment. As I went into puberty all kinds of changes started to happen, slowly, gradually, physical changes of course, but also, and perhaps more importantly, mental changes that left me a very different person from the thirteen year old boy I once was.

Physical changes were the most obvious, of course, by virtue of being visible. I contiued to grow taller, and gradually my feet became more proportionate to my body. A first downy approximation of a beard appeared. Naturally, sleeping in dormitories as we did, this onset of puberty was very much a shared experience. When one boy, appalled at the thick black hair growing on his legs chose to shave, we all shared the lesson he learned when the hair grew back thicker, blacker and longer than before. And we all discovered the joys of masturbation, more or less together. After lights out there would be a few moments of complete silence in the dark, but then a surreptitious, rhythmic shuffling would break out on all sides, with the occasional throttled grunt or sigh. One night this ritual was interrupted by a cry of horror. The dorm captain turned on the lights, a boy was standing by his bed, ashen faced, gasping. His pyjamas, from crotch to knees, were stained a deep crimson, the stain visibly spreading. “Oh, god! I’m bleeding!” He took his dressing gown and fled. It seems his young body was not ready for the violence of his ejaculatory efforts and he had burst a blood vessel. When he returned he showed us with sheepish pride his penis swathed thickly with an already pink stained bandaged. For a week he had to go to Matron to be unwrapped and then given a fresh bandage each time he had to pee. And you may have thought I had urination problems… God alone knows what his adult sex life might have turned out to be. And there were vaguely homosexual goings-on – size comparisons, mutual touching – that I was largely excluded from on account of my outsider status, not to mention a certain measure of disgust.

I will not say happy exactly, to be an outsider, but I felt little affinity, and mostly a marked aversion for my schoolfellows. These were the sons of privilege and wealth, with a sense of entitlement and nose for the subtlest nuance of class honed over generations. Sons of sherry, of cider, of a senior civil servant whose services to the Crown were too secret to be published. Oh yes, and sugar. I never have settled to my own satisfaction whether my aversion was pre-emptive. My grandfather’s unexpected death, or rather the consequent taxes had left Grannie living in a cottage. The manager of the Monkey Island Hotel bought the island for a thousand pounds and sold it a decade or so later for a million.

I had one more fight, with a boy called Martin. I remember very little of it, least of all the cause. I imagine I lost. I continued not to excel in sports. My term reports were mediocre, I “could try harder”, or “failed to reach my potential”. And then came an announcement that seemed to offer a concrete promise, rather than the desperate hope, that things might actually get better. The school was growing and had acquired the Digby Hotel to convert into a new boarding house. The call went out for volunteers.

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