My parents were a bit concerned to receive, when I was about eleven, a letter written from me in the sanatorium (a word never heard outside private schools, even then), where I was laid up with – well not much, actually. It made candid reference to being bloody sick of the school and ruddy sick, too, and added I know what these words mean. Which was something of a lie. There were many words of which I was in total ignorance, and I can only assume the rather feeble expletive, ruddy, is a rhyme-word for ‘bloody’, anyway. I am sure I didn’t know the word ‘euphemism’.
We take ‘bad language’ pretty much for granted these days. The words are not interesting: what is important is the inflection. There are strange memories I have of particular ‘bad words’, though. When twelve, I had another sally into what might have been deemed ‘foul language’, and I can’t recall exactly what words I tested. I do know that there were two of us involved, and that the words – somehow this was what turned it from an infringement into a crime – were written down. It was as bad as if they had been hoisted on fifty-feet banners above our heads.
It is rather hard to describe the intensity of what it is like to be cooped up in a boarding school; there is no hiding place. The other boy, whose name was Johnson, and I, were threatened with most of the potential punishments, from caning to disembowelment (not really, but expulsion might have been involved). Anyway, we decided on a simple and practical course of action while the powers above us chewed over the appropriate retribution. We went to see the school chaplain.
The school chaplain, whose name was Webb, was an ex-RAF Billy Graham convert, and also a disturbingly nice man. We told him how bad we had been, and that we would like – I think it was this brazen – to pray for forgiveness. The school had a chapel where such acts of contrition could be undertaken. He showed us to the pews. We gave prayer a serious shot. At no time did we say to each other what we were undoubtedly thinking: I wonder if this will work. And by ‘work’, we did not mean divine intervention.
About three hours later, the deputy head, a man of cruel and unusual demeanour, asked us to foregather at the swimming pool (the school had a mini-pool). There we were told that, on this occasion, our foul language would be overlooked, and the slate wiped clean. It was unbelievable. In fact, so amazed were we by the success of this wheeze that we pretty well ran back to the chapel, fell on our knees, and thanked bloody God we’d effing got away with it.