Prep School

I have just finished a collection of essays by George Orwell called Books vs Cigarettes. If you read it, I would do so backwards as, while everything he writes is stylistically perfect, the real gems are in the second half. One is about his prep school days during the twilight years of Edwardian England just prior to the First World War. The school he described was similar to mine – disturbingly so – to the extent that I found myself engulfed by a tide of memories; most of them bad. Aside from the beatings, everything he described was as I remembered it – with the volume turned down a bit. I was incarcerated in the late 1960s but the world Orwell describes was familiar. As someone rightly said, the sixties didn’t actually happen until the seventies and Orwell’s school was closer to mine than the cuddly prep schools of today.

What seems extraordinary now was that narrowness of the education. There was neither music nor science. Latin and Greek had pride of place: I can see every page of Kennedy’s Latin Primer in photographic detail. On the plus side I read voraciously with almost all of Dickens under my belt by the time I was eleven and the positive side of the headmaster’s capriciousness was a smorgasbord of ideas that caught his interest for about two weeks before he moved on: roses, Greek poetry, the stockmarket and Chinese ceramics and all spring to mind.

With today’s sensibility what went on seems extraordinary and Orwellian in the literal sense. Take bedwetting. I did this occasionally but knew better than to tell anyone. The penalty was to have your bed publically stripped and a rubber sheet – a mark of Cain – put on it. To avoid this humiliation I would dry my bed by body heat over subsequent nights. Or food. I hated bread and butter pudding with its slimy sultanas that I found difficult to swallow without gagging. I developed a technique of pushing the offensive fruit towards the side of the bowl so that the headmaster could not see that I was leaving it uneaten. One day he rumbled me and I was forced to eat it. I was sick and had to eat that as well. Orwell describes genuine hunger and the beating of bedwetters – so I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

The tyranny of the headmaster was an immediate parallel with Orwell. The petty snobbery and capriciousness are described in all their grisly detail. In my case he would dress in plus-fours and was either drunk or hung-over giving a manic/depressive overtone to all our lives. When I read Selina Hasting’s biography of Evelyn Waugh, I had a moment of epiphany. I realized that he had been trying to be Waugh. Get the picture? Not a nice person. Throw in the gloomy Anglo-Catholicism of kitsch churches and enforced prayer to provide some background colour. No good ever came out of praying that I could remember and I think I resigned myself to damnation because I spent much of my time in church thinking about sex. Children are not innocents.

Like his hero he was a bully – and ruled with fear. He was also a pederast; low grade and just short of a jail sentence today. Why did I not tell my parents – who of course were horrified when I told them years later? Orwell is good on this. Children have no frame of reference. The world is as it happens to them. I just thought that that was what prep school headmasters were like. It is about power. As far as the child is concerned the headmaster has the power of life, if not death, over you. If he gives the word, your future will be destroyed. He tells you that so why should you doubt it? Your parents have chosen him and his school so they have agreed to him having that power surely?

And the fear that is engendered is corrosive. It brings out the worst in you. I was a pretty unattractive child as I sought to duck his fury or sycophantically curry his favour. It is this fear that I hold against him more than the sexual abuse which is ultimately, unless we are talking about penetrative rape, the real crime.

I realised this years later when I had left university and was doing a Chinese language course in Cambridge. At weekends I would ride out for a trainer in Newmarket – the equestrian equivalent of driving a speedway car. The prep-school was nearby and I found myself on a beautiful October morning outside the drive which was covered in weeds. I don’t know why but I knocked on the door and the headmaster answered. He was pathetically pleased to see me. He was broke. His wife had suffered a stroke and was in hospital. He was all ears for my news.

It was a cathartic moment. All I felt for him was pity. The anger and fear had gone. I was the one with the power: he was a sad old loser. It gave me an insight into the nature of abuse that has stayed with me.

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