As I sit here and think about what and how I am going to write this part of my story, I wonder how I can explain it all without either trivialising or over exaggerating the events. I guess all I can do is follow Dylan’s advice again and begin at the beginning.
To this day I don’t know why but at the age of eight I was sent away to boarding school. I have to say that I found it quite a traumatic experience and in today’s terms it would have been considered abusive but back then probably normal, I don’t know. I was relatively lucky in that the abuse that I suffered was only physical, however, some boys suffered sexually as well. I don’t think any of this had a lasting effect on me and I certainly do not claim that it ruined my life but it was a period that helped shape me into the person I am today. Without doubt it toughened me up a bit but most importantly it proved to me that I could survive even when someone is piling shit upon you. The important part of that analogy is the depth of course. I would stress that I do not recommend this method of learning for any eight year old child.
I followed my closest sibling, Richard, to Milton Lodge, a private boarding school near Wells in Somerset. It was a very small school with, at the time, only about thirty pupils and about three teachers. Some of the pupils were local lads and went home every night but the majority were boarders like me. Also at the time I was the youngest there. I remember that I was incredibly homesick and cried a lot in the beginning and throughout my time there I was particularly unhappy.
I had many new lessons to learn both from an educational aspect, Latin, French, Algebra and Geometry were a shock to the system after the local primary school, as well as life lessons like sneaking (that’s schoolboy talk for grassing somebody up), telling lies and owning up when you have done something wrong to name but a few. The educational stuff didn’t lodge itself in my brain and managed to go in one ear and gush out the other side quite rapidly. The life lessons though have stayed with me always and at the time they helped me get through the piles of brown stuff.
Beatings were a regular thing for me as the headmaster had devised a points system whereby doing bad things meant you received points and could only remove those points by doing good things. Bad things consisted of anything that displeased him ranging from unacceptable school work to general misbehaviour. If your points total reached ten then you received two strokes of the cane every day until you reduced your points. For every point over ten you received an additional stroke up to a maximum of six. Working off your points would consist of doing chores in the huge garden or submitting some excellent class work.
Because, maybe, I was not the sharpest knife in the draw, I ended up with the school record of points at twenty four. Needless to say I did a great deal of work in the gardens nursing a very sore arse as well as welts on the side of my chest. The canings were dealt out with you bending down and touching your toes, therefore as the cane landed it curled around your buttocks and the tip would catch you on your torso. It was always a relief when his arm got tired and he had to use the other. It evened it all up a bit.
Sever was the name of the headmaster and he was feared throughout the school. He wore a pinkie ring which he used to great effect when he cuffed you across the head for minor misdemeanours. He was also a fanatic about American cars. Somehow he always had huge Cadillacs that he would squeeze anything up to twelve pupils in to take them somewhere – church probably. That always struck me as a little odd in that here was a man who was sadistically cruel who was also insistent that we all went to church every Sunday. In his own distorted way he was a very religious man. To me that defies logic and is probably why, in later years, I became a confirmed atheist although I like to believe that I have adopted some of the moral thinking of various religions. I call it being a human being.
Not long after I arrived there, the whole school was taken out on a day trip. I don’t know where they went as I was not included. My crime? I was unable to recite my time tables. I had to remain behind and learn them. I was exceptionally miffed about this but as it turned out I had a great day with Mr Spreadbury, our maths teacher. He was a young man with a great deal of acne but he was a very kind person and we spent the day wandering around the grounds in the warm sunshine going over the tables until I got them into a nice rhyme in my head. Oh that teaching could always be like that. Sitting under the huge oak on the bottom terrace, where we normally played cricket, surrounded by tranquility. It was very conducive to learning. It was almost like being equals really as he was bullied by Sever but in different ways. It was almost as if he knew the stuff and just wanted to share it with me. I learnt my tables but poor old Spreadbury didn’t last very much longer. Too soft I suppose!
Another teacher arrived not long after me who brightened up all the pupil’s life a little. His name was Ian Wallace and was an ex-commando who served during the war. He was apparently a friend of Sever but really we all had difficulty believing that because the assumption was made that to be friends you had to be like minded. He was the complete opposite! There was no doubt that he was a hard man but he was also compassionate as well as being a very good teacher. He had us all eating out of the palm of his hand and we would have all been star pupils in nuclear physics with him as a teacher. Unfortunately, his subjects were geography and history. All the same he made them tremendous fun. He was also involved in some physical training aspects and he had us doing all sorts of crazy stuff.
I remember quite distinctly the time he had us all jumping from the top of a twelve foot wall down on the bottom terrace and teaching us how to break the fall by doing a para roll. This consisted of, as you landed, bending the knees and rolling sideways as parachutists do. Remember I was only eight or nine at the time but I would fly off that wall with no fear and glow with pride when I landed and got a well done from Mr Wallace. I wonder what the health and safety people would say about that today.
He was my hero even when on one occasion he was asked to cane my brother and I after we had been caught climbing a tree. Yes, you read that correctly. Sever had decreed that we should receive four of the best, not a problem for me as by that time I was a hard arse, pardon the pun. Unfortunately for us, Sever had a bad back and felt he could not deal out the punishment in the manner he felt was appropriate. Hence, Wallace did the dirty deed. Shit! That one hurt. Both because he was a tough guy and he certainly did not spare the rod, but also because it felt like a betrayal. We thought he was on our side. I don’t know which hurt more. However, when we talked about it afterwards we both felt that he didn’t really want to do that to us – he had to. That was alright then – still our hero.
I am fairly sure that most boarding schools, even now, have a matron. Basically this person would be responsible for the health and wellbeing of the pupils. If you had a cough you would go to her for some medicine, that sort of thing. She would make the decision on whether to refer you to a doctor, or not. Mrs Storey was our little bundle of evil, swishing around in her starched white uniform with her hair tied back tightly in a bun like some harridan. I still shudder now at the thought of her. She could have been Sever’s mother she was so cruel.
The main incident which confirmed her sadistic nature was when I developed a few boils about my body. I don’t know why I got them but it could possibly have something to do with the bad diet, it was not long after the war and some items were still rationed. These were not little spots that if left alone would go away. Oh no, they were huge puss filled things that left me feeling somewhat under the weather. Matron’s remedy for these was to insist that I report to her every day and have them squeezed to remove the disgusting stuff inside and reduce their size. What excruciating pain that was! It was infinitely worse than being caned and she would not let up even when I was screaming with the pain. Fortunately they cleared up after a while and I didn’t have to undergo that torture for too long. I was always very fearful, however, whenever I had the smallest of spots.
Another time, I had hurt my foot whist running around like a demented Dervish in the grounds and I repeatedly went to matron complaining of the pain. This went on for several weeks and she finally succumbed and sent me to a doctor. Subsequently I had an x-ray and it was discovered I had broken a bone in my foot. The comment from matron, when I returned with my foot in plaster, was that she had not believed me and thought I was making a fuss about nothing as with the boils.
She could give you a healthy whack as well. Not surprisingly, I don’t think she had any children of her own or if she did they were long gone!
The last person I would like to mention at Milton Lodge at that time is Mrs Thompson. She was the wife of the original owner of the school and, I guess, some kind of deal had been made to keep her there when he died. She was a nice old dear I suppose but she always had a cigarette in her mouth and constantly coughed everywhere. Unfortunately for us she was in charge of the kitchens. One could often hear her bringing up her lungs and see her spraying ash all over the food as you passed by. Apart from the shit that she served up she was generally liked. There was no malice about her which was not the norm in that school. I wonder, does cigarette ash cause boils?
Many years later when I was in my fifties, I visited the area and talked to the owner of Milton Lodge. It transpired that Sever only ever rented the property and even then owed a considerable amount in back-rent. He was also in debt to many of the local shops and was blacklisted by some. It was then that things started to fall into place a little. I don’t remember the exact year but the school upped and moved to another location. We left Wells at the end of one term and at the beginning of the next arrived at Milton Lodge in Haresfield, Gloucestershire.
That one turned out to be a whole new ball game…