The British public school is built around the house system. The house is where you work, sleep, do games, generally pass the time and oppress those younger than you, usually under the expert tuition of the prefects – who better?
Our eight houses were called A, B, C (do I need to go on?) and each consisted of; a dayroom, two dormitories, a washroom, bootroom and masters’ and house matron’s accommodation.
The dayroom is the hub of the house, furnished with long tables and chairs for compulsory silent house activities such as prep, reading and letter writing and if you were lucky (which in F House we were not) some amenities such as table tennis or billiards. In addition every boy was allocated a small locker to store school books plus any meagre personal possessions that were allowed.
Each house was “home” to 40 boys and was ruled over by the Housemaster, a key figure who set the ethos, laid down the house rules and managed the prefects, the first-line enforcers. In F House the incumbent was Mr Breckons, aka “Bertie”, a nickname he personally adopted with relish: perhaps he enjoyed the ironic contrast between the Wooster-ish jolliness of “Bertie” and his own morbidly dark personality. Maybe not, I doubt if irony was his thing.
When I say he was a fat, vicious bastard I speak dispassionately and, I think, objectively. Rumour had it that his grotesque size was the consequence of a broken leg that had left him with a permanent limp and cut short a promising career as an athlete. This had, so it was said, left him an embittered man. I can attest for the last bit anyway.
My two abiding memories are, firstly, of him blocking the way to the house from the cloisters as we returned in a line from dinners. He would wave us all on to the outdoor toilet blocks at the end with the words “Long visit! Long visit!” I guess he felt this fully discharged him of his duty of “in loco parentis”.
The other was the“Bertie tortures™” – his own term for a range of non-formal physical punishments. These were deployed for a range of minor offences and particularly for mistakes during Maths, which he taught (I take some liberties with the term here). At one end of the scale (the “merely humiliating and unpleasant” end) was the “Bertie Scrub”, a scrub up the back of the closely barbered neck with a clenched fist, through the middle of the range sanctions such as the “Bertie Flick”, (against the side of the nose), the “Bertie Tweek” (the ear) up to, at the top of the range, the full “Bertie Punch”.
I only remember receiving one of these and that was during one of my first Maths lessons when I was standing at his desk as he corrected an exercise. Suddenly an oath and then, in short order, a punch landed in the small of the back that sent me flying, leaving me winded and smarting.
Fortunately he retired or died (no I really can’t remember) within two years and a new Housemaster took over, who not only introduced a table tennis table, a billiards table and even, eventually, television but also had many, if not all, of the characteristics of a fully signed up member of the human race.
But before that we shall revisit Bertie Breckons’ F House once more in my next posting to learn about letters home and the consequences of not writing “a proper one”.