These days it isn’t unusual – when recounting to modern listeners nostalgic tales of the more bizarre and hair-shirted practices experienced by those of us who went to British boarding “public schools” [what might more properly be described as “private schools” anywhere else in the world] some forty or fifty years ago – for their reactions to vary from stunned bemusement to moral outrage (I won’t add the term “woke-based” because that would imply that a wishy-washy, liberal, “do-goodery” factor to which many wouldn’t subscribe) that leaves them wondering aloud with full-on concern just how on earth one managed to avoid becoming a later-life dysfunctional mass of dribbling sociopathic contradictions and phobias.
(If indeed one did!).
Yesterday – mostly because she had expressed an interest in doing so – I drove a lady out of London into the countryside to the educational establishment which I had attended between the ages of 13 and 18.
My last trip to it had been in 2019 for an informal 50th anniversary reunion of the school’s rugby 1969 First XV team and – I would estimate over the years since I “went out into the real world” – I have probably been back there in total but about twenty times over the past five decades.
On the way there I entertained her with some of my “greatest hit” stories of how life was lived in the 1960s.
Like the fact that in those days fagging and beatings (both by masters and senor boy prefects) were still staples of everyday existence.
Each new pupil was allotted a “fag master” – a boy at least two terms senior – who had to teach them tens of practical, esoteric and sometimes obscure facts about the school, after which the new boy had to take his “fag test”.
This was a quick-fire Q & A test interview with a prefect in his house unit, the penalty for failing which was a three-stroke beating … not of the new boy, but of his “fag master” (who was automatically presumed not to have taught his charge properly, or possibly at all).
Other examples of punishments for minor misdemeanours in those days could include a five-minute immersion in a bath filled-to-the-brim with ice-cold water – cold showers after games were routine back then – or detentions (and sometimes a beating) for a whole range of offences including eating food anywhere outside a building.
Some might regard these practices as medieval but there was a certain logic involved. Every boy was given a list of all supposed school “crimes” – and the relevant punishments if one was convicted of any of them – and essentially the individual had a choice: did he eat a biscuit, for example, when walking between one building and another … and thereby risk a beating … or not?
As fourteen year olds my best pal Tim and I once came across a pigeon with a broken or damaged wing not far from the science block.
At the time the school had a practice that every time a boy walked past a master going in the opposite direction, he had to “give him a tick” (raise his nearest index finger in the air at said master) and say “Good morning” (or “afternoon”, depending) Mister [add here the master’s name] …” to which the master concerned would also raise his index finger in acknowledgement.
On this occasion Tim and I were tending to the afflicted pigeon and, as we passed Mr Mathewson – a rather austere, tall, red-bearded Scot who taught chemistry – one of us explained that we were taking said bird to a master known to deal with injured animals.
Later that afternoon Tim and I were called separately to see our housemaster in order to receive three strokes of the cane for failing to “tick” a master.
Late yesterday, after our two-hour tour of the school buildings and grounds – the extent and quality of which amazed my lady companion and, I have to say, also impressed me as I beheld some of the more recent developments at the school – we met up for a cup of tea with a gentleman who had been at the school at the same time as your author and in his retirement now liaised with old boys coming to visit the school.
At one point my companion told him that she had been horrified to hear some of my stories of my time at the school – and gave him examples. To these he replied stating that they certainly reflected his own time at the school … and then went on, with some relish, to give a few additional “hairy” stories of his own.
Afterwards I was left reflecting upon yesterday’s relationship between the “straight facts” of the school’s regime fifty-odd years ago (seemingly so horrific and contrary to basic human rights in the eyes of a 21st Century person) and the warm, nostalgic manner in which we two old boys of the school had been looking back upon them in our dotage.