The cane

My daughter was bemoaning the fact that she’d missed her ‘lie-in’ this morning. Since I am increasingly deaf, and she is Devonian, there was some confusion to start with as to whether she had missed out part of a Shakespearean speech (drama being her forte), or possibly felt a sentimental pang for a cuddly toy effigy of the king of the jungle (Devonians have a habit of making one syllable two, or at least of stretching a vowel). But no, it was her lie-in.

I switched instantly into VOF mode (Very Old Fogey), and told her of the many tribulations of my boarding-school career, including as it did, at any rate at the age of ten, the use of a cane as a punishment (and no lie-ins, and many cold baths). Caning is such a forgotten thing (I doubt even the Bash Street Kids are caned in the Beano) that it seems surprising that it only vanished as a teacherly sport in the 1960s, and maybe later. (Indeed, even senior pupils were allowed to use bits of wood on their juniors’ backsides at the school to which I was sent at the age of 13.) I have lost count of the people who said ‘It never did me any harm,’ which was true, except that they had grown up into fascists (in the literal sense as well as the political).

I was only caned twice. There was a tradition in the school that, for each stroke of the cane, you increased your ‘worth’. As a coward and a snivelling do-gooder, I was only ‘worth’ 5 by the time I left the school – a 2 and a 3. A score of 40 was considered more manly.

The 2 was as it were self-inflicted (quite the wrong way of putting it). I was sitting next to someone in a Latin exam, at the age of 9, when my neighbour, catching my eye, wrote ‘What does ubi mean?’ on the top of his question paper. As a swot – I am coming out of this tale badly – I wrote ‘when or where’ on the top of mine. And then, no idea why, since I knew the answer, probably I was just joining in, I repeated his felony and wrote ‘What does trans mean?’ This was un-clever, since the invigilator was standing behind me. We were hauled off for two of the best. The head-teacher kept a selection of canes in a stand which was evidently constructed for the purpose, and he had given them all names as well (one was called ‘Burlington Bertie’, after the music-hall song).

The other 3 came about because, surprise surprise, I was untidy. I had left twenty books on my desk during a break-time, and a proportional punishment was meted out – the other miscreants received only 2 or 1 strokes. All I can recall is that it hurt.

This has put me in mind of a great number of other petty rules. I will write about them tomorrow, once I have tidied my desk.

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