Food Not So Glorious Food

I was probably always a fussy eater. Early memories of food prior to going away to boarding school are practically non-existent so I can’t be sure. My father, who died a couple of days after my ninth birthday – hence the ticket to the Masonic School – was something of a gourmet though. The walk-in larder was dominated by mysteriously spicy smells: black puddings, tinned lychees and other such exotica were to be found there. For all that I don’t recall mealtimes except one traumatic one where my father was trying to force my sister to eat goulash (I don’t know how I knew that either) despite her tears.

What does make some experiences memorable? Easy enough to understand where strong emotions like anger or fear are evoked, as above, but some early memories seem absolutely random; my father mixing cement or my mother mangling clothes.

Food revenant nous mouton only kicked in to focus when I started at the Masonic School. A day at school could be defined by whether it started with god-awful porridge ladled out and passed down or glorious cereal (and within that a pecking order from Weetabix at the top down to Puffed Wheat at the bottom).

Food was prepared in the kitchens and handed out through the serving hatches to monitors who collected for each table. Most of it, to my perhaps overly fastidious taste, was horrible. Because you were expected to eat it all, mealtimes often became a challenge as to how to get rid of the bits you didn’t like, disguising them as acceptable leavings or passing them to somebody else: some boys would eat anything and were a godsend.

Boarding school life (at least when I was at school) had something of the intensity that I imagine life in wartime held. Perhaps this is why some people cleave to their time at public school because life afterwards is disappointingly grey. Ends of term were as intensely exciting as the returns to school were dreadful. Visits out, letters from home, private moments with friends – all had that quality that comes from the sense of a moment snatched but all too fleeting. 

So too with food. When it was good, baked beans on toast, arctic roll, fish fingers and chips (my God was that it?), it was very, very good. When it was bad, greasy stews, semolina, welsh rarebit, and many more, it was horrid.

My nemesis came when my my two worst dishes – lamb and barley stew (all fatty meat and grease) followed by suet pudding with marmalade sauce – followed each other in the dinner from hell.

I failed totally in any attempt to palm bits off and was forced to return to the House with both plates congealing and, while the rest of the house had silent reading, the deputy housemaster tried, unsuccessfully, to force me to finish my dinner. A ghoulash moment.

Through the masters’ eyes, many of whom had come through wartime deprivation, I must have looked wretchedly ungrateful. I am still somewhat fastidious  (tripe, liver, kidneys, fatty meat NOOOOO!) but food and the preparation of food is now a source of great pleasure.

But then England too is a different place. We have all moved on from the country of Martha Harrison’s observation “I’ll bet what motivated the British to colonize so much of the world is that they were just looking for a decent meal.”

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Time to Escape

At the Royal Masonic School. It is now November and half-term has passed. Life takes on a settled gloom with the end of term an impossibly long seven weeks away. The Infirmary Club continues to meet without any successful outcome. This is a kind of “Reverse Colditz”, a secret committee with the mission of getting people in rather than out. Everybody who is sent to the infirmary says it is fantastic: a place where you get looked after by the attractive and warm nurse and there are no lessons or scary masters. Bliss. A small group of us dedicate ourselves to scamming our way in.

Unfortunately, unlike the intrepid and ingenious eponymous POW’s, we are a bunch of useless children whose only stratagem that I remember was  to hold the thermometer against the radiator, if the nurse turned her back or left the room. I do recall faking my way into a visit to the infirmary and did actually get a chance to hold said instrument against the cast iron fins of the radiator for a few seconds but the reading was normal. Attempt failed. In fact I never succeeded in securing a stay in the infirmary the whole time I was at the junior school and the senior school infirmary was run by a glacial old harridan whose cure for everything, including fractures, was a couple of aspirin.  A place to avoid. Open bowel surgery in the woods with a stick would have been preferable to a stretch there.

So as day succeeded day, a couple of friends and I hatched a plan to run away and get back home. Our plan of getting to Elstree Airdrome and stowing away on a plane to one of our home towns seemed a masterpiece of cunning and chutzpah. The odd weak points that must have surfaced at the planning stage (e.g. Where is Elstree aerodrome? ) were largely brushed away on the basis, I guess, that we didn’t want to drown in detail. The plan had a certain élan to it, I grant you, but was largely akin to breezing into the Colditz Escape Committee and suggesting “Pole vaulting the perimeter fence and legging it to Blighty”.

Logistics were light too and we provisioned ourselves with a jar of marmite and a half pot of peanut butter, which is all we had in our lockers between us.  Thus prepared, one afternoon after games and before afternoon school we jumped the fence and set off in what seemed as good a direction as any. The talk was upbeat and the mood optimistic as we walked  along the Aldenham Road, stopping the occasional passerby for directions to Elstree. However, as dusk fell and cold and hunger set in we fell to silent contemplation. All our requests for directions had met with strange looks and “Sorry, I can’t help you” so we decided to knock on a door and ask for help (I am not sure what sort of help: a brain transplant perhaps?).

We crossed the large carriageway that we were perambulating and rang the bell of one of the typical 1930s houses that flanked either side. A middle-aged woman answered the door and to my horror Kim, one of our number, went off script and, dropping to his knees, said that we had “run away from school, didn’t have any food or anywhere to stay and wanted to go home and please, please, please would she let us in and help us?”.

If she was amazed, as she must have been, she hid it well and invited us in. After hearing something of our story she said that she would telephone her husband who would take us home and in the meantime we must have some food. Our irritation at Kim for cracking up subsided, as home now looked in sight. We tucked into boiled eggs whilst she made the necessary call to husband. Hardly had we finished our eggs than the door bell rang and in came…the police.

The drive back to school in the panda car was a joyless affair and the reception by the headmaster, Colonel Dark, also lacked a certain warmth. I can still recall standing in the echoing corridor outside his office awaiting punishment. Courtenay and Kim were given a token two strokes of the cane but I was awarded four as I was deemed the ringleader. I cannot remember which emotion was dominant; the humiliation that a beating always brought (I had several during my first term), outrage at getting a heavier punishment than my co-conspirators or pride at this early identification of my leadership qualities.

After that we were despatched back to the house and sent straight to bed (the whole dramatic escapade had only lasted a few hours) “on silence”. We had to pull the covers over our heads and were forbidden to communicate with other boys.

Needless to say (see post 12) my letters home made no reference and I abandoned for the moment any further thought of cunning plans.

Except for the Infirmary Club. Toujours l’espoir!

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Half-term

A few weeks in to the first term at the Masonic School and there is a glimmer of light on the horizon: half-term is approaching.

Half-term: a weekend when your mother can come and take you out on Saturday morning, returning you to school in the evening and collecting you again on Sunday morning before the final return that evening. The joy. It is impossible to describe the thrill of anticipation but I can still feel it 50 years on.

Saturday morning: the excitement is intense and after an early finish to Saturday morning lessons we await the arrival of the beloved parent after seven weeks of separation. Was there ever a child whose mother, for whatever, reason did not/could not attend? I recall that such a lot did occasionally befall a child, but Thank the Lord, never me.

After the joy of reunion, an embrace (probably constrained – those were the days my friend) and our mothers took us off for the day. The Bakerloo Line train from Watford and on to the Science Museum, Madame Tussaud’s or some such, followed by a Wimpy and Chips. Around us the drab 1950s were segueing into the more colourful 1960s as Beat gave way to Beatles. London was not yet Swinging but the plates were shifting. Not that we Masonic boys were aware of anything but the joyful taste of freedom as we trailed around museums and parks (they were free) clutching the reassuring hand of our mothers, eating sweets and other such treats. Ahead of us, on return, the annual fireworks – around a monster bonfire, pride of the Head Groundsman complete with an walk-in entrance to allow him to torch it from inside – which our mothers stayed for. After the display we slept soundly in the knowledge that our mothers were accomodated somewher nearby and in the anticipation of another such day on the morrow. Briefly life felt good.

Sunday dawned clear and we were soon away into London’s parks and low-cost restaurants. However, as the day wore on thoughts of The Return intruded. The final cream tea, savoured for its every moment, before we return heavy of foot and heart through the school portals darkness descending.  Parting is unalloyed sorrow but a stiff upper lip is required. Cry-babies along with Sneaks were looked upon with contempt by masters as much as fellow pupils.

As the dormitory lights clicked off down the rows of red brick houses, the air hangs heavy. Each boy’s thoughts a curtain of misery: a perfect storm.

However, in my mind a plan is forming; a cunning plan. An ingenious. A plan so cunning, you could “stick a tail on it and call it a weasel”. But that’s for another day.

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On the Food of Love and Grunters

I was a “Grunter”. This was official nomenclature at the Masonic Junior School and freely used by music masters for ease of reference as in, “Right! grunters over here. School choir here etc.”

The Head of Music was called Clotworthy, and a more suitable name is hard to imagine. He took us for a weekly singing lesson at the back of the School Hall, seated at his grand piano. That was the sum of music education for most of us. Individual instrument tuition was for selected children or it was optional, I do not recall exactly. Tragically the weekly singing lesson was compulsory. This is how it worked.

We filed in in alphabetical order and sat in a row along the front (classes were small. 2A consisted of 13 children). The lesson plan was invariable as far as I remember, a pitch test followed by class singing of various old faithfuls: “Men of Harlech”, “The Licolnshire Poacher”, “Who is Sylvie, What is She?”. You may know the kind of thing…

The pitch test was the horror for me as I could not then (and still struggle to now) pitch my voice to a single note. This was, however, exactly what was required. Clotworthy would ping a note somewhere in the middle octaves and each child would have to stand up in order and reproduce the note. Perfection resulted in a score of 10 down through to zero for the sort of sub-human grunt that I seemed only capable of producing.

So the lesson started something like this;

Clotworthy: calls out “Brown” and strikes a note

Brown: stands and produces fair imitation

Clotworthy; “6! Good effort. Sit down. Cliff!” Strikes another note

Cliff: who is best in class stands and produces a spot on rendition.

Clotworthy: “10 out of 10. Excellent, boy. Davies” titter goes round class in anticipation. C strikes note.

Davies: stands with air of desperation and makes sound of rusty door hinge forced to open

Clotworthy: “0. Grunter.Next”

Hamilton stands and so on

The only two variations in this sorry routine that I remember were when once I stood up as usual and randomly croaked a note from my limited repertoire (rusty hinge, creaking cartwheel, bullfrog, stray cat etc) but was rewarded with a “4”. I was stunned. However, it proved a lucky shot. I was unable to build on this promising development and at the end of term my report showed a score of 4/100 for the term’s efforts.

On another occasion Clotworthy called “Davies”, I stood opened my mouth but before a sound emerged he said “0”, which collapsed the class in laughter. He was quite overcome with his own wit and actually laughed himself. A rare sound. His wife probably had a good night.

There were occasional attempts at a different approach: a new Music master joined the staff to teach instruments at some point and obviously had the bright idea of trying to do something with those of us who were not singers. He came in to the lesson and Clotworthy called all the Grunters (3 of us) to go with him and he put a violin in our hands and gave us an introductory lesson. He obviously spotted that I had some talent and was very keen for me to pursue violin lessons. However, at the Masonic School to carry a violin was a death sentence. You might as well carry a teddy bear or suck your thumb, which were other effective ways of inviting bullying and I had no intention of going down that road. So I stuck to my guns and refused.

It was not until I left school that I found some outlet for my small reservoir of musical talent. I bought a cheap piano and found a brilliant retired musician at Exeter, Harold Stringer (RIP) who got me playing and up to Grade 6 standard. Now a day hardly goes by without I spend some time at the keyboard.

Can’t say Mr Clotworthy has occupied my thoughts to any degree, however.

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Dear Mum

One of the few real highlights of the Masonic week (along with the morning bun and Sunday evening Penguin bar) was the letter from home.

My mother may have had her shortcomings as a parent but she observed routines to a religious extent. She laid the table for breakfast every night before retiring to bed without fail. She would no sooner have switched out the lights with the table unlaid than smoked a pipe or sworn in public. Unthinkable!

She was therefore a completely reliable correspondent and wrote four sides of news from home in the weekly Sunday letter and two sides in the mid-week Wednesday one. In my early years at school these letters, with news of home, were tremendously important and if one failed to arrive on the appointed day (which it did no more than twice in four years and then it came the next day), it was an enormous blow. They were in a very real sense a lifeline.

By way of return boys were required to send a weekly letter home and this was done as a house activity. The house sat down under the eye of the duty master and we wrote each our letter after lunch on Sunday. The letters were taken unsealed to said master, who would check them through before sealing and posting them.

The absent parent was thus kept reassured by a steady stream of letters telling of House Victories on the sporting pitch, progress in lessons, stories of japes with friends, requests for news of pets and any other banalties that could be scraped together. Truth was the first casualty of our letter writing.

However, a few weeks in to our first term, a moment of madness must have seized my good friend Courtenay Hall because he told how it was, bang on.

He was a sensitive boy and went on to study violin at the Royal Academy. Last time I saw him in the mid 70’s he was a Francisican Monk.

Anyway revenant a nos moutons (you don’t know that one? You disappoint me online definition) Hall went up with his letter and handed it in. Minutes later as we stood lined up to leave the House the master returned with a face like thunder and told Hall to step forward. He was then lambasted and told to read his disgusting letter. I don’t recall it word for word but he basically did the dirt on how unhappy he was, how much he missed home, the beastly masters, the awful food, totus porcus (come on I am not going to tell you everything) and finally he ended with the words as I write this I am crying and my tears have made the ink run.

Well after we had heard the wretched Hall stumble through this sad little letter, our awestruck silence echoing around him, the master took back the letter, ripped it up and in tones of icy contempt told him he was a pathetic boy and to go and write a proper letter.

We didn’t get to hear that one but I leave it to your imagination (Dear Mumsie, Very exciting week we beat C House at footer and good old Royston scored three goals!…

The world is not better for children in every way today. By no means! Many babies have gone out with the bathwater. But at least adults can’t lock you up and throw away the key for three months at a time anymore.

Have a nice day.

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The Housemaster

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.

The school cloisters

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.

Fond memories!

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”.

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Bushey 1961 God Moves in a Mysterious Way

We are a class of 13 nine year old boys in 2A, the first year academic stream of the Royal Masonic Junior School. Recently we have lost our fathers but now we are safely in the hands of the school’s masters. Perhaps we should be counting our blessings but far from home and family, we are not feeling very blessed.

It is Scripture with the Rev. Brian Stowe, Bachelor of Divinity (you have worked it out already? Not original but “Bisto” it was).

“Bisto” enters the room and we all stand. We sit and prepare ourselves for a tedious 40 minutes till the bell sounds release. A few weeks in, we now know that virtually all lessons are tedious at best and that Scripture is perhaps the most opaque and tedious of them all, enlivened only by the odd bit of colourful Old Testament language found in words like “eunuch”, always guaranteed to raise a ripple of slyly amused glances around the class.

We are about to learn, however, that the tedium is not invariable and even the Reverend is not above enlivening a lesson with, perhaps (I can only guess), some kind of practical demonstration of the application of Scripture and how God Moves in a Mysterious Way.

He walks over to the radiator, perched upon which is an old map tube in which he keeps his beater, a sawn-off hockey stick. This he withdraws and with due reverence (excuse the pun) taps a couple of times on his hand. The point of the exercise is not clear. Perhaps he has had a bad day and this little routine offers comfort (well you think of a better reason then).

In a moment of what can only be called complete insanity, the boy in the desk next to me, Hamilton – a pudgy boy with glasses (picture him if you will) – calls out “You wouldn’t use that Sir!”.

The Reverend’s stare is hard, and long enough to bring pin-drop silence to the room. Someone has just made his day. Twelve pairs of eyes focus on the Hapless Hamilton, who starts to retreat into his wooden desk.

“Wouldn’t I, Hamilton?”

“I was only joking Sir. I didn’t mean it. Sorry Sir..!” A note of desperation; he has sensed what is coming.

“Come here, Hamilton!”

“Sir, I’m sorry Sir. I’m really sorry”. He is starting to blub.

The reverend is not moved and drags him to the front, where he is bent over. The first strike draws a mighty yell but three further strokes follow, applied with equal vigour, expertise and a measure of deliberation, to the reddening backside of the young sinner.

Hamilton, now a blubbering wreck returns to his desk and weeps quietly for the rest of the lesson. The rest of us spend the proceeding 30 minutes processing this new turn of events in awestruck silence.

Another day. Another lesson.

Never trust a dog collar.

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About the Masonic Schools

The Royal Masonic Boys Schools were established in the early twentieth century to give a boarding education to the sons of deceased freemasons. I was sent to one at the age of nine until I emerged at eighteen hungry for the freedoms of university life.

Why am I writing the story of my time there? Well I am NOT writing the story because I am bitter about my treatment there as a fatherless young boy, although much of it was harsh.

I am not bitter because

  • It doesn’t get you anywhere anyway
  • I personally was never abused in any sexual or other serious way (although some very dodgy moments)
  • I did get an education that has served me well in many respects (leading to a good degree in Classics)
  • Thousands of freemasons gave generously to fund a very expensive group of institutions (swallowing some £50,000 a day in today’s money)
  • As is true for the many boys I have seen in urban schools growing up without the influence of a father, I would not have fared well at home

Whilst I would definitely choose open bowel surgery in the woods with a stick over the option of repeating the whole nine years, I have no serious regrets.

Others of course see things differently. So here are two takes on the Royal Masonic Junior and Senior Schools.

Here is a typical comment from an ex Masonic boy from the website of Geoff Kirby, himself a Masonic boy, whose website documents many such contributions.

“My brother and I still to this day have nightmares about that hell hole and do not think that we have fully recovered. We were both deprived of a childhood and abused as children. I hope that one day I meet those bastards on the other side so I can inflict the same torment on them that we endured”

By contrast here is a link to a video (part 1 of 2) of a publicity film made by a freemason to assist in the considerable fundraising efforts necessary to keep the schools afloat. Enjoy. It is unbelievable!

Literally. Take for instance the master who picks up and carries in the suitcase of a young boy stepping out of a taxi to be greeted by the headmaster on day one of his arrival age 9. How nice, except I recognise him as Mr King (“Kingy”) ex-Chrystal Palace footballer (reputedly) and sadistic French teacher who always beat you on bare buttocks. And he beat frequently, even for minor slips in French lessons.

Here it is http://vimeo.com/1632152

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Bushey The Penny Drops

September 1960. It is day three at the Royal Masonic School for Boys and the penny has finally dropped.

The dorm feasts and other whizzo pranks that seemed to constitute daily boarding school life for Jennings and Co have not materialized. Worse the food is crap and on day two older boys refused to pass me the salt at dinner. I complain “Matron, they won’t pass me the salt”. Immediately a hissing refrain strikes up “Sneak! Sneak! Davies is a sneak”. I colour. The humiliation is intense. I get the salt but nothing can flavour my food now.

I have learnt Rule 1 of the public school code. Never, never sneak. The fate of grasses, snitches, sneaks and squealers is no different at public school than at any other residential male establishment: army, prison, wherever, ostracism and the threat of physical violence.

The dream is dead and on day three I approach the deputy Housemaster “Excuse me Sir. I want to go home now”

With contempt he dismisses me “Don’t be stupid boy. Term ends at Christmas”

Rule 2: The adults are not, and will not be, there for you.

The words land on me with the force of a mountain and I return to the line of boys readying themselves for afternoon school. As I stare across the tarmac wilderness of the playground to the playing fields beyond a lump rises and I fight tears. The future rises up before me like a wasteland an interminable wilderness separating me from the comfort and familiarity of home and family.

Why didn’t someone tell me?

 

RMS Logo

RMS Logo

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September 1961; to Bushey!

September 1961: I am nine years old. My mother is in the passenger seat of Uncle Fred’s Vauxhall and we are on the road to London from Bristol.

My father, a freemason and distinguished naval commander, left this earth ten months previously November 12th 1960 and I am in the back seat on my way to the Royal Masonic School for Boys in Bushey, courtesy of the Brotherhood. All expenses paid.

How do I feel? Since you ask, I am excited, keen to crack on. For the last six months my mother has carefully served up a diet of Jennings books to me and at some, no doubt carefully calculated, moment popped the fateful question “Would you like to go away to a school like Jennings’, Christopher?”. Is the Pope a Catholic?

Here I am, on the road, sucking my way through a tin of travel sweets and keenly anticipating a future of dorm feasts and spiffing japes. We arrive and are greeted by matron and ‘F’ House’s (I know, imaginative or what?) Housemaster, Mr. ‘Bertie’ Breckons. After the formalities I wave mother and Uncle Fred off, ever keen to press on.

 

First night, moon through dormitory windows falls on serried ranks of iron bedstands and pale blue counterpanes. The quiet is broken by the pitiful sobs of new arrivals. Not mine though: what are they like these idiots? This is going to be FUN

How little I knew. Altogether more prescient my fellow travellers had already grasped what took me a couple more days; alone and pathetically unaware, I had entered a long, dark tunnel.

Into my still early life a whole lot more rain was about to fall

 

Abandon Hope

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