Pettifogging rules

All this memory yesterday of being thrashed reminds me of the astonishingly pettifogging rules which dominated my years (66-69) at one of our nation’s allegedly Leading Schools (it was the one with the oval balls, and I would even now douse it in kerosene).

There were ten boarding-houses, and one ‘house’ for successful applicants from the local neighbourhood, who did not board. These boys were sneered at and dismissed as idiots and swots every day, by the nasty, jumped-up others. (For once, I am not actually going to condemn myself. I really was in a bit of a minority: I remember there being a debate during the school’s quartercentenary about whether the school should be abolished. Six people, including me, thought it should. Hundreds thought it shouldn’t. Only, I think, at that moment, did I realise that I was pretty much on my own. However, this is not to condemn every last so-and-so who went there. I recently broke a vow to have no contact with any of them, and met up with a nice bloke called Dick. But then, I’d liked him then, as well.)

The boarding-house, locked at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. in summer, and containing about 60 inmates, had some obsessive rules. In the centre of the bulding was a quadrangle. You were not allowed to cross this quad until your tenth term. Any such infraction was entered in a punishment book (three entries meant a punishment, of a prefect’s devising, which on one occasion was to be forced to run up and down three steps for an hour – but then the prefect in question had been badly bullied in his time, and was certainly getting his own back). It followed that, in your tenth term, when you went into a metaphysical state of existence known as ‘Hall’, you stood in the quad all day. Another privilege accorded to members of Hall was that of owning an umbrella. An umbrella therefore became a symbol of status, and it was not unusual in summer, on a cloudless day, to see a boy striding down a street with an umbrella (known as a ‘gamp’).

Status was of course the name of the game. The whole school was obsessed with status, preparing boys as it was for status in later life – for them to join governments, banks, the judiciary, the civil service, and so on.

Probably, of course, I am exaggerating all this, and the damage it did me – it is perhaps the one period in my life about which I feel genuinely bitter and twisted – did not extend to others. I wasn’t bullied, as others were – for their names, their faces, their bodies, their faiths. This bullying was not physical. It was mental, and probably an inevitable consequence of placing 60 boys in a confined space. We didn’t hack each other to death, as in Lord of the Flies, although that has never seemed much like fiction to me. In fact, the flaw in Lord of the Flies is that the boys are from a private school, which weakens Golding’s intention to make it a universal parable about the naturally bestial state of the human psyche.

There were many more rules and regulations, including about three million on how to cross a road on a bike with a hockey-stick attached. I will stop here, as it is actually quite depressing. The only good thing about it was that my father, eventually, came round to accepting that I didn’t like what he had forked out huge sums for, and that at least created some kind of rapprochement between us.


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