Au Revoir Les Enfants

It is 1964. I am Captain of the School Cricket Team and Head of ‘F’ House; the Big Cheese, Top Dog, Head Honcho, King of the Castle or to adopt the terms favoured amongst that most alpha of alpha male worlds the financial industry, I am a rainmaker, a Big Swinging Dick. Which metaphor is on reflection peculiarly inappropriate to the petite monde of a junior boarding school. I am just 13 and adolescence with its acne, oscillating vocal chords, sprouting hair and descended testicles had hardly begun to assert itself let alone swing.

However, you take my point. I have power. In a very small pond – I grant you- I am a big fish. Which means that if Davies says fetch you fetch, Davies says carry you carry, clean you clean and so on. I do recall telling one boy to hand over his orange and when he spiritedly refused, taking it anyway and making him stand in the corner for an hour as a punishment. Yes, I do blush. I even apologise, belatedly.

But I was only a petty tyrant abusing my bit of power, and doing in turn as had been done to me. I ought to have read Machiavelli “People should either be caressed or crushed. Do them minor damage and they will get their revenge;” I was about to be taught a lesson in realpolitik.

Oblivious to it though I was, a muttering was about. It was the sound of the worm turning.

A normal morning: I awake, ablute, dress and take the concrete steps down from the dormitory two at a time in glad, confident stride. Thrusting the shoes I am carrying at the first Second Former I see, I bark. “Clean these and bring them to me in the dayroom, whelp!”

Discomfort. Small boy’s eyes cast down. Nervously replies “I can’t, Davies!”

“What! You bloody well can and you will. What do you mean ‘Can’t’?”

“Melbroke and Foster told us not to do anything you told us to do or we would cop it worse from them!”

“We’ll see about that. I will sort them out. You just get these shoes cleaned or else!”

“Alright Davies” small boy squeaks. Goes off unhappily.

Despite my bluster I have a sinking feeling. I have been called out and suddenly the Emperor has no clothes.

My premonitions of doom prove all too well founded. I confront my fellow prefects who tell me the game is over. They are calling the shots now and nobody is going to take shit from me anymore. I rage and storm off unconvincingly but the tide has turned. I am sent to Coventry. Excommunicated.

There follows a hellish time until the usurpers start to make themselves pretty unpopular in their turn, offering me a window to re-invent myself but things are never quite the same again. I have had a corner knocked off.

And now the Senior School beckons and soon I will be once again a small fish in a big pond. We are all scared that we will have our heads stuffed down the toilet and the flush pulled (No, since you ask and I never heard of it actually happening to anybody else).

With no regrets at all I pass through the Junior School gates for the last time. In September it will be Ston Massive, Senior School.

But before that eight weeks of glorious summer holiday. Au revoir les enfants.

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Half Term

The Science Museum, Cassiobury Park, The Serpentine Lido, Richmond Park; the names still have a powerful effect on me 50 years later. Guessed the connection yet? Look at the title dear boy! Come on!

At the Masonic Schools half-term was a midpoint weekend in every trimestre when our parents – more properly the singular form as none of us had fathers – could visit and take us out for the weekend. Saturday morning school finished an hour early – by itself an exquisite relief from routine – and mothers arrived from 12.00.

The excitement! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

As everybody else’s mother arrived to a storm of emotion (“Hello Mum” that kind of thing) a dash of anxiety heightened the mix in case yours had screwed up and thoughtlessly got run over or some such.

Then we leave the gates (inscription “Abandon hope all ye who enter here!”) and head for the freedom of London’s dives and fleshpots parks and museums, for which see list above.

Saturday was bliss and we did not have to return until 8.00pm except in the Autumn Term when half-term coincided with Bonfire Night and our visitors were allowed to return with us for a giant firework display around a bonfire that the Head Groundsman walked inside to ignite. It was on such a day that I was taken for my first Wimpy. How could food taste that good? The genius of the toasted bun became the highlight of half-terms thereafter.

My daughters struggle to believe that I never went to a proper restaurant until I was 18 when “Horace” Harmsworth, my Greek master, took the three of us (the entire A level group) to a hotel in Abingdon and I had duck with orange sauce. Prior to that such sophistication was undreamt of. If there was anything better than Wimpy I was unaware of it.

Possibly because she ran out of places to visit or because it cost less or for both reasons, at some point my mother started staying with an Auntie Barbara in Rayner’s Lane which in the 60’s was still gloriously John Betjeman: Metroland in all its magnificent whimsy, as evoked by his magnificent homage to suburbia “Harrow-on-the-hill”

When melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley
And electric trains are lighted after tea
The poplars near the stadium are trembly
With their tap and tap and whispering to me,
Like the sound of little breakers
Spreading out along the surf-line
When the estuary’s filling
With the sea

Then Harrow-on-the-Hill’s a rocky island
And Harrow churchyard full of sailor’s graves
And the constant click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing
Is the level of the Wealdstone turned to waves
And the rumble of the railway
Is the thunder of the rollers
As they gather for the plunging
Into caves

There’s a storm cloud to the westward over Kenton,
There’s a line of harbour lights at Perivale,
Is it rounding rough Pentire in a flood of sunset fire
The little fleet of trawlers under sail?
Can those boats be only roof tops
As they stream along the skyline
In a race for port and Padstow
With the gale?

metrolandIt’s awful now, of course but in the 1960s Rayner’s Lane still captured that vision sketched out so skilfully by the ad men of the Metropolitan Railway and romanticised by Sir John. Those relatively few who had cars washed them on a Sunday. Front gardens were neatly clipped and the word hard standing had not entered the language.

And so half-terms morphed from tramping around museums to mooning around at Auntie Barbara’s mock Tudor bungalow, watching television and having boiled eggs for tea; all of which suited me just fine.

Sunday was more of the same but shorter as it was back to school for supper at 6.15 and the comforts of home once again a distant prospect.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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The Appearance of Davies Minor

Dad and familyAs you can see from the inset I was not an only child. Taken around 1957 the photograph reveals me as the jug eared one leaning on my father’s knee. He was Cmdr. Stanley Davies RNR and if you are interested in his wartime exploits commanding 159th Minesweeping Flotilla, as narrated by my older brothers Hugh and Jeremy respectively, you can read them here (you will need to scroll down the page on the website until the article Minesweeping Heritage – Cdr. Stanley Ewart Davies DSC** RNR)

He was a warrior and let us just say that his story makes my life seem pretty tame. “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea” said Samuel Johnson 250 years ago and it still has the ring of truth today.

My father did not survive many years beyond the year of the photo; perhaps three and he was gone: within nine months I for my part was trundling along the old London Road heading for the Masonic School, a couple of years prior to my 10th birthday.

This separation from bosom of family was cunningly done by nourishing me on a diet of Jennings books, with their tales of midnight feasts and other whizzo pranks, japes and escapade (see earlier post), all of which inclined me favourably towards the idea of a boarding education. I stepped thus with a light heart into Uncle Fred’s Wolsey on the appointed day.

However,reality shot that fox and after three years my brother could have few illusions about boarding school.  A different strategy was required if he was to join me for an education at the expense of the Brotherhood.

And actually, with both the eldest brothers long married and my sister very recently also hitched, my mother was evidently liking the idea of keeping one in the nest.

It became clear that if I did not act he would be continuing to live a life of comfort(relatively speaking) at home, whilst I followed the path of cold showers and lumpy porridge. Already he had missed the first two years of Junior School and I was certainly going to make sure he kept his date with destiny for Year Four. My mother put up some resistance but ultimately I played the “both or neither” card and it was agreed that Rich would finish the local junior school but then join me for the Autumn term 1964 at Bushey instead of taking up the place at Fairfield Grammar that was awaiting him.

I have a feeling I have still not been forgiven.

Oh and worse still, he was planning to take his favourite teddy with him; inseparable as they were. This was not in my game plan, however, as a) it would mean certain death by ridicule for him and b) shame on Davies Senior. Actually reason b) may have been reason a) in my hierarchy of thinking: it was a long time ago. Je ne me souviens plus.

What I do remember is snatching it off him in the back yard of the house and hurling it up on the roof of our two story Edwardian semi. Not an inconsiderable feat but that is not, of course, the point. He was inconsolable and the act and the memory of the act still, I fear, casts some slight shadow over an otherwise close sibling relationship. That and my role as principal actor in ensuring that he served a seven stretch at Bushey, that is.

On the upside I may have saved both teddy and its owner from a worse fate at the hands of his merciless peers at Ston. Furthermore there is more than one woman who has felt it incumbent to offer solace of the Ugandan variety, as a result of hearing the Teddy and Heartless Elder Brother story. So in the end was I really so bad?

Judge me as you too shall be judged.

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A Prepubescent Sexual Awakening

Relax I am not going to talk about boarding school and homosexuality.

Although If I carry on with this blog at some stage I shall have to, unless you are spared it by my early demise. Steve Jobs and Bert Jansch (the acoustic Jimi Hendrix – not a bad epitaph) died yesterday, confirming that I have reached that age when names I have grown up with crash and burn around me. To quote the words read in a friend’s early draft of his first novel “You cannot really live each day as if it were your last, although one day it surely will be”.

No, my theme for today is maids, Royal Masonic School housemaids that is. Maids with green uniforms, white aprons, little hats and, of course, stockings and suspenders. I am sure of this last accessory because I still recall Lathom House’s maid, Noreen, bending over to make a bed at the end of the dormitory and revealing a flash of white thigh that scorched a permamark on the erotically charged psyche of this 15 year old boy. My sexual development was probably arrested by this Brief Encounter and I am trapped in a lingerie time warp, skewered on a filigree of cotton garter.

But I am ahead of myself. I try to maintain some sense of chronology in this schoolboy side of my blog and we are still at the Junior School in the early 60’s. Let us wind back from that dormitory moment.

It was at mealtimes that I remember the maids. They waited at the top of each refectory table, presiding over the gently steaming tea urn and tray of Welsh Rarebit (l’horreur) and congealed, rubbery toast. What crushes we had on these young girls; fair skinned and fresh of face from Irish villages in County Cork and wherever. Drafted over with goodness knows what back stories to live under careful supervision in the Maid’s Block at Bushey. Ah Noreen, Colleen, Kitty! How you had us daft-brained, doting and wound around your fingers. For you were Forbidden Fruit and there is no fruit to match that which is illicit.

For we were, of course, forbidden to talk or communicate with maids in any circumstances. But, aged 13 and in hock to our hormones, we wrote letters; letters professing torrid love and we received by return equally passionate billets doux; pink envelopes furtively passed from maid to boy under cover of some routine transaction; refilling of the margarine dish or whatever device cunning intelligence could invent. To get the nod and take secret delivery of a letter was excitement of a rare intensity. More blissful yet to open it in some quiet corner, reading and re-reading its contents to saturation point. My lovelorn delight at the delicious (but with hindsight touchingly innocent) sentiments matched only by my shock – if I am honest – at the appalling grammar and spelling.

But forbidden fruit has a price .

One evening, standing at tea table prior to the saying of Grace (Benedic Domine, nos et haec dona tua .. I can hear it now), I was in the act of surreptiously asking the duty maid if she had a letter for me from Kitty, the lucky one to whom my heart was pledged. The reply was drowned out by an appalling bellow,

“Davies! Get out!”

The Duty Master had entered the Dining Hall to take Grace and had seen my maladroit whisperings from across the hall. It was Ferguson. He of no facial hair, rumoured to have lost his balls in a road accident, and with a temperament to match; as vicious as a ferret in a sack when the mood took him.  And the mood had taken him.

Oh bollocks! if you will forgive the unintended irony.

Despatched to wait outside his study, I spent an increasingly desperate hour trying to think of a convincing reason for talking to a maid prior to service. As tough a challenge as it was, my natural creativity did not fail me. After turning over and rejecting every conceivable gambit, I was eventually inspired

“Sir, I was asking the maid to change my boiled egg which was cracked”

Brilliant! (Genius you say?) but my cunningly contrived justification failed to convince. With due theatre and a heavy sense of anticipation the sawn off cricket bat (the most feared weapon in the armoury) was withdrawn from the map tube and, unconvincingly indeed laughably, the glib “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you, Davies” proceeded the laying on of four enthusiastic strokes. This in turn topped off by the sanctimonious handshake and, in the circumstances, tasteless but expected “Thank you, Sir”. Gritted teeth and resolutely stiffened upper lip just stifling the hint of a waver.

An early lesson in the price of True Love.

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The Rhythm of Term

Hammering rain and grey scudding cloud make a less than inspiring backdrop to our departure from the auld country. Budget airlines compound the misery and relieve us of a further £60 for our additional 10kg of baggage – that’s in addition to the £350 or so already paid for additional baggage booked online.

This return to our chosen land is a far cry from that distant yet all too vivid memory of the termly return to Ston. In later life on the rare times when I ever talked about anything meaningful with my old mum (requiescat in pace), she would never have it that I was reluctant to return to school. “Oh Christopher! You ran off, happy as a sandboy, as soon as you set eyes on your friends!”

Ah Memory! What a temperamental and fickle mistress you are! One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory (Rita Mae Brown). Such start of term dramas as I described in an earlier post, registered not in the maternal cerebrum.

In fact as a young child I hated and dreaded the beginning of term (didn’t all boarding school boys in the 1960s) at least until my later teens when boarding school became a chafing constraint rather than a  misery. Although, as in most things, there was a hierarchy. Winter terms were the worst: the end of the long summer holidays, the evenings closing in and the long winter term in prospect combined in a perfect storm of melancholy. The start of the summer term was, by contrast, far more bearable with the prospect of cricket every day and school fixtures on a Wednesday and Saturday if you were lucky. Swimming too and the outdoor pool (of course it was not heated! Have you learned nothing?) would be cleaned and the lapping green water turn sparkling blue.

I remember too that I learned how to dive in the Easter holidays of my eleventh year. I was so pleased with myself that I was actively looking forward to showing off to my friends when I did return to school (NB this is not the same as actively looking forward to returning to school). The reason this somewhat random event is fixed in my recall is because it was juxtaposed in my memory with another more dramatic event. I was sitting in the sitting room at home with the television on, idly dreaming of diving from the springboard to the adulation of my masonic peers when my mother came into the room and blocked my view of the screen.

Because, I am sure, I understood the word to mean the same as “basket” and to convey a rhetorical force that was no greater, I requested that she “Move out of the way you bastard!”. The result was electric and way beyond that required or expected. “Don’t you ever dare use that word to me again. If I ever… etc.”. My lame explanations did not completely extricate me. My Partner in Life had a similar fate when, aged nine, she asked, at tea with family at the Bath residence of her ferocious Granma “What lies on its back with its prick in the air? A drawing pin! Hee hee.”

A steely silence was followed by something close to Collapse of Stout Party and her – genuine – defence of not understanding what the joke meant, just that it sounded funny, failed miserably to clear the air.

Meantime I am glad that this return in 2011 is to the blue skies, warm seas and warmer welcome of Mediterranean Turkey rather than the cold comfort and grey porridge of The Masonic School Bushey in the 1960s.


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The Dish

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” the Duke of Wellington once said. Actually Google is alive with excited commentary about whether the Great Man himself really did say those words, rather than some anonymous subaltern, the late Dr Johnson or even, no doubt, Elvis Presley.  If that sort of speculation is for you you are reading the wrong blog. It sounds authentic and that’s enough for me.

The playing of Games was (and, I am sure, still is) at the heart of the Public School experience, along with fagging, the House and the prefectorial system although I am still somewhat under the spell of having just seen Lindsay Anderson’s If for the fifth time which may be affecting my perspective.

Games, games and more games: mens sana in corpore sano. How else to keep a couple of hundred semi-incarcerated (on reflection omit the semi) boys occupied for 15 hours every day 7 days a week. Only on a Sunday were Games not compulsory and then we usually formed a crocodile and were taken out for a Sunday afternoon walk along the roads around the school grounds.      

Brutal then if you were what my daughters used to call, before maturity visited upon them a marginally more politically correct lexicography, a “malco”. Brutal because your destiny would have been to spend a lot of time in THE DISH!

The population of each house, being around 35, yielded, after allowing for those required for school team practices, two teams of 11 players for a house game of the term’s major sport; football, hockey or cricket. The half dozen or so not selected constituted The Dish. These Untouchables were given a ball to kick/knock around or, as long as they didn’t kill each other, pass the time however they liked: nobody seemed to be paying any attention. To have been consigned to The Dish meant becoming invisible for an hour or two.

Day after day this must have been humiliating in the extreme and though I do not hold with the Everyone’s A Winner Non-Competitive Sports Day lunacy that that still informs (that’s irony btw) a lot of educational thinking today, I do not either hanker after the unfeeling crassness that underpinned so much of Life At Ston (see The Food of Love and Grunters for more more examples of same sensitivity applied to the teaching of Music). There has to be a middle way, as Rod Liddle said in this week’s Times, when contrasting his own experience of being blasted by his father for failing to come first in the 100m on Sports Day with the sorry situation at his own child’s school where they sprint the first 90 metres and then wait for the others and run across the finishing line together .

I only remember being in the Dish once, as a new boy, and that was enough. I loved sport and cricket in particular was my game. I lived for the summer term and, once I had made the school teams, for the practices and especially the fixtures. Away matches were the best of course with a coach journey to add to the excitement: drawing cricket whites from matron, cleaning and whitening your boots, oiling the bat and so on (well at least I have spared you the crack of leather upon willow). The only other thing that came near in intensity the excitement of this anticipation was the despair when bad weather required a match be cancelled. Death where is thy sting? On second thoughts finding porridge on the breakfast menu instead of cereal (weetabix, cornflakes, puffed wheat in that order) also came close on the despair front (what do you mean reductio ad absurdum? I was there).

Intensity is what comes to mind when I think of my school experience. Because much of it was dull (chapel, lessons, army, homework) or hateful (separation from home, bullying) the good things (end of term, friendships, exeats, seeing your name on the team list for Saturday’s match) had an intensity that life after Ston rarely delivered.

That’s not disappointment btw I have happily traded away the joys of away games because in return….

I will never, ever have to wake to lumpy, grey, gloopy porridge.

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Pedagogy Masonic Style

Like nearly everybody in the school, I came from a state junior school. We sat some kind of pre-admission test which was used to allocate us to streams (2A, 2B or (l’horreur!) 2C) but there was no entrance exam requirement.

So came that 1961 intake: 50 or so nine year olds from schools across the country, from crowded and lively primary classes of 35 or so, to the echoing quiet of (in my case) 2A, to walk in silent lines from Maths to Scripture or Geography, Latin or French and so on. Each master had his own classroom, where the lines of iron-framed wooden desks – chacun son inkwell –  bore the chiselling of generations of Masonic boys and a wall clock marked the passage of time with a deathly slow ticking crawl. Tedium laudamus.

I remember my first Maths lesson well because the master, Bertie Breckons, had us stand and attempt to recite by heart multiplication tables . A test we failed, to his manifest contempt. The exception being Courtenay Hall (I hope he will forgive the mention) who was able to rattle off any table on demand and who, to Bertie’s delight, had come from “Dunstan Hall Preparatory” or some such preppy sounding place. This gave Breckons the opportunity to remark that “At least somebody in the class had been properly educated”.

Unfortunately Courtenay’s prowess with multiplication tables proved illusory and after struggling in 2A for a term Courtenay went down to the B stream although he discovered a talent for the violin, which eventually took him to the Royal Academy. Draw your own conclusions on the limitations of rote learning.

Most lessons were bloody dull, the occasional one interesting and more than the occasional one downright terrifying. This was usually because either the master was a sadist, like the French Master, King, or you didn’t get on with the subject; often both of these applied.

For this reason everybody had lessons they dreaded. For the unathletic PE was a nightmare; lessons generally consisted of being lined up and made to vault over seriously high or long boxes in turn. Derision or contempt greeted failure or refusal. My horror was World Maps in Geography where you had to identify the capital cities from the dots on a map: a task that seemed beyond my particular form of intelligence. A low score meant a detention or even a beating.

Maybe interesting lessons were in fact plentiful and I have just forgotten them but I think not. It was not, you will have gathered, a gentle pedagogy and the stick was preferred to the carrot.

It would be churlish, however, not to acknowledge that I did get a good academic education. Like I said at the outset, I really, really would not want to repeat the whole experience but I doubt I would have fared better at home. So I am grateful for the education, although I got off to a slow start:  after coming 13/13 at the end of the first term my mother promised me a guitar if I came in the first six in the Spring Term. I obliged by coming first and was rewarded by my first and only guitar and enough change to buy the “Bert Weedon Learn Good Guitar in Five Minutes” tutorial. A somewhat extravagant claim as I failed to learn a single chord in six years. I did though finally go on to get a degree in Classics from Exeter and after adventures in Iran and other places fell in to a career in teaching.

Rather have been a Guitar God though.

Ain’t Life a Bitch.

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New Term Same Old Masters

January 1962 and I am back for my second term at the Masonic Junior School. JSton as we called it (I don’t know! Stop asking irritating questions). My attempt to run away had ended in ignominious failure and my rebellious refusal to return after Christmas had been skilfully bought off by my mother. The bitter pill had to be swallowed. I was there for life, which was pretty much how a nine stretch looked at age ten. A pill all the bitterer because my younger brother still lazed in the comforts of home – but that’s another story altogether.

When you are a child you accept the world around you without question. The adults who populate your world, for instance, are as you take all adults to be. It is only as you grow up that you start to realise that your world was not necessarily the same as that of others. For us boys, I am sure, the masters who dominated our daily reality we took as representative of all adults: their behaviour and attitudes those of adults everywhere.

As we grow up we reassess and what a strange bunch they now appear in retrospect: Bertie Breckons, with his range of Bertie tortures as I described in an earlier post, Kingie, a dark character, who always made boys drop their underwear before beating them and took a grim delight in the terror he inspired, the Rev Stowe who told me on a Sunday Walk that he stripped his wife naked every night and inspected her to ensure cleanliness (still surprised I don’t go to church?), Jay, an English teacher who even ten year old boys realised was drunk most of the time, Girp (sorry no idea either) Haig who had a metal leg and horrible facial deformities due to First World War injuries, a hopelessly ineffectual teacher whom we treated shamefully badly, Fergus Ferguson, a strangely hairless teacher of Geography, whom we were all convinced had lost his testicles in an accident which accounted for his acerbic temper. Of the rest, half-remembered as they are, only one,  Bruno Junior (there was an older Mr Brown laying claim to Bruno Senior), stands out as a warm and fully paid up member of the human race. He taught English and took real pleasure in the essays we wrote and brought enthusiasm and humour to the subject.

The world was very different then and children weren’t listened too as they might be now. In addition, as unpopular governments all over the Middle East are finding out, it is much more difficult to keep control in a world of cell phones and the Internet. All our letters were checked and we were not able to talk to our mothers for six weeks at a time.

Boarding schools of the time must have provided a tempting home for the inadequate unmarried male. We weren’t paying customers either, as in regular public schools. Potentially a toxic mix and perhaps I should count myself lucky that no serious abuse came my way or any of my peers.

I am almost tempted to say “Boarding school? Never did me any harm!”


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Another term begins

1960 Temple Meads Station

I will never forget drawing in to Bristol Temple Meads on the first day of the first holidays (or should that be I have never forgotten? I guess what is remembered at 59 has effectively been remembered for life already). I remember the excitement of approaching the station through the still bomb damaged wastelands that surrounded Brunel’s magnificent edifice. Remember?  I can feel it now as I write. Coming home. Never felt it about anywhere in adult life. Not like that.

There is the screech of iron on iron and the explosive hiss of escaping steam sending up its curling billows to lie trapped in the high vaults of the distant station roof dome. The banging as numerous doors fly open and my mum is there to greet me. After three months apart did we hug with the kind of intensity I must have felt the occasion demanded? Probably not. As a child I loved my mum and I certainly missed her but we didn’t do the touchy-feely stuff. Compte rendu of the repressed nature of that generation even – born in the starch of Edwardian England and the shadow of two monstrous global conflicts – she was still in a class of her own in terms of sublimating emotion and pain.

“Stiff upper lip”, “Minding you own business”, “Not washing your dirty linen in public” and “getting on with it” were the watchwords, the sacred tenets by which life must be lived. The “Queen of People’s Hearts” and Charlatan Blair’s “People’s Princess” were an unbridgeable distance away. Some Grumpy Old Man part of me says Thank God, although I am glad we are all more at ease with the language of affection.

Enough. Home. Christmas. It all passed in a splendid whirl of warm familiarity and relaxed routine: playing out, lounging in, oppressing younger brother, irritating older sister. What larks! The Damoclean Sword of a new term was reduced to the smallest discordant note in the furthermost reaches of consciousness. But the passing of Christmas was a watershed and with the urgency of a fault building in a dam, the daily dissonance quickly became impossible to ignore and then the unthinkable thought began to dominate each passing day. The Return.

I grew to recognise this syndrome every holiday. Initially a perfect peace and then an ever growing shadow that blighted the last few days of the holiday and led to a last day spent mentally saying goodbye to everything: last time I will watch TV, feed the cat, see my friend, eat home breakfast, lunch etc..

Then to bed but not to sleep until I drop off in the wee small hours to be awakened by my mother telling me I must get up now or I would miss the train. She must have dreaded waking me. My reluctance could hardly have been a secret, although I do not remember ever talking about it.

This morning, however, I wasn’t having it. I pulled the bedclothes over me and refused to surface. My mother’s pleas, imprecations and finally threats to get Uncle Fred around failed to move me. Then her masterstroke: “What if I come with you? We’ll take the train together and I will come back to school with you.” Bedclothes twitch. Calculation. “All the way? Right to school?”

Her voice betrays her relief. “Yes, of course. All the way.”

The price is agreed and I have discovered I am a lousy negotiator. With me leading for management the Chapels of Fleet Street would still be full of hot lead and typesetters, winding machinery would clank across a thousand pitheads and we would all be driving Austin Allegros.

My attempt at defiance was over.

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Goin’ Home

After an eventful first term the end is in view and the days are ticked off. The prospect of seeing friends, family and the comforts of home are delicious beyond the imagining of those who have not been to war, done time or been to a British boarding school. Really, it’s hard to exaggerate the anticipation. 

Day rooms are cleared, lockers emptied and suitcases brought out of storage. The house is lined up for report reading by the Housemaster. Forms are distributed for mothers to sign along with a whole raft of other institutional procedures, the stuff of institutions, each adding to the fevered sense of event that is The End of Term.

It’s the last night at school: luggage is labelled and lined up in the dayroom ready for an early start. We are assigned in groups, each under a master who will escort us in to one of London’s great railway terminals according to each child’s home destination.

But that’s tomorrow; first to bed, to sleep perchance to dream. Fat chance! sleep does not come easily and the school’s clock rings out the small hours before I drop off, only to be roused by the same bell ringing the wake up. Never have boys sprung out of winter beds so lively. A wash, dress and breakfast pass in a fever of excitement and soon we are lined up. It is still dark and quickly the school drains as we wind off in our crocodiles towards Bushey and Oxhey station. Heads are counted and soon we are on the Bakerloo line and heading for Paddington.

It’s 1961 and steam is still the order of the day. The station’s glorious vaulted ceiling fills with the belching smoke of a dozen steam engines and the thundering tumult and grind of these magnificent iron beasts heightens the sensual pleasure of the moment. “Davies. Platform 4 Exeter, leaves at 10.00 and try not to be an imbecile and forget to get out at Bristol Temple Meads.” “No, Sir. What’s an imbecile, Sir.” “You are, Davies. Now get off or you’ll miss it!”

Into a carriage, luggage on the rack and we are off. Steaming out of London, past the grimy “Cathy Come Home” tenements and towards the fresh air of the West Country, the pleasures of home, the prospect of Christmas and the embrace of parent and siblings.

Amidst the euphoria was there the faintest of shadow cast over this most sunny of uplands? A whispered voice “Gone for now but back soon!”  If there was it was quickly squashed. Here, now, nothing mattered but that the ordeal was over.


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