Preface to the Preface
Note from Andrew Alcock: This post was written by my father, Donald Geoffrey Alcock, in 1994 on the venerable XyWrite and Ventura Publisher - I have converted them to a newer format. Over to you, Dad!
The schools stood at opposite poles; Beacon Hill at one, St. Andrew's Preparatory at the other.
Beacon Hill School was founded by Bertrand and Dora Russell in 1929, so named because of its location near Beacon Hill on the Sussex coast. After her separation from Bertrand, Dora carried on the school alone. She moved it over the years from Sussex to Essex to Surrey to Somerset, and eventually to Cornwall. It was a school notorious among educators of the day for being left wing, co-educational, godless and progressive.
St. Andrew's Preparatory School was founded by Major A. G. Mullins (‘Ponty’ on account of his fine Punch-like nose) as a boarding school for small boys. He offered God, competition, manly sports, and nothing remotely progressive. This was at Grahamstown in South Africa.
I went to Dora at six years old and stayed until the war. Then I was sent to Ponty.
Sending a child of six to boarding school is unusual. Removing a child from Dora's regime to Ponty's would seem inexplicable. I relate only briefly the circumstances of my transfer from one to the other because this is not an autobiography; its purpose is to compare two opposed approaches to education and record the impact of one on an intermediate product of the other.From Dora to Ponty.
I was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on the last day of February, 1930. My father was a civil engineer with the Public Works Department in charge of roads in the tea-growing district of Pusselawa in the hills near Kandy. I emerged a month behind schedule, jaundiced, weighing in at ten pounds. This was too much for my mother who died six days later.
The loss of his young wife was so devastating to my father he transferred to Trincomalee, on the other side of the island, leaving me in care of an ayah and sympathetic English family, the Bosworths, who lived in Colombo. Some six months after our mutual bereavement my father arranged for Mrs. Bosworth to take me on the long sea voyage to England. He came too.
By the age of six months I had crossed the world and been given into the care of my paternal grandparents who lived in Seven Kings, Essex. A few weeks after the transfer my father me, left England, to build roads and bridges for the Colonial Service in Tanganyika.
My grandfather was a stockbroker's clerk who travelled second class – his position forbade him to travel third – from Seven Kings to Liverpool Street every day wearing a top hat. I have the diary he started on my arrival in England and kept sporadically until I was removed from his care four years later. The diary records that I arrived at Southampton ‘skinny’ and with ‘tropical pallor.’ He wrote that I tended to be fractious. The skinniness (coincidentally the fractiousness) he remedied after reading the label on the Cow & Gate tin, to discover that I had, since birth, received precisely half the specified measure of powdered milk. I was just bloody hungry.
My grandfather I called Dadgran and loved him. And I loved my Auntie Jean, his daughter. My grandmother, whom I called Nanny, I cannot remember loving, but must have done in the years before memory catches hold. She was deaf – had become progressively so since contracting scarlet fever as a girl. By the time she looked after me she was totally deaf. Also perennially cold in the bones; she crept around in woolly shawls. From the time I can remember, Nanny not only felt cold but was convinced others felt so too, never accepting our mouthed assurances to the contrary. It was hopeless trying to make her understand.
We had a cheerful maid, Winnie, who would dress and look after me, and take me on trains, but Nanny was the one who bathed me. She did this not in the tiled bathroom upstairs but in a galvanized tub in the kitchen, having stoked the kitchen range before the operation she called ‘the scrub.’ Coming from Leicester she pronounced it the way a Londoner would pronounce ‘scroob.’ After the scrub, and her inevitable demonstration of how a pumice stone ‘swims’ (I would shout that she meant ‘floats’ but she would not hear), she would swaddle me in hot towels.
I was happy in Nanny's care. Wondrous memories of my first four years include sitting in Auntie Jean's lap while she played the piano and sang. And the riotous affectionate games with Dadgran and Uncle Arl (‘Arlent’ in full). Uncle Arl was fun; he brought my toys to life, making them talk in silly voices and do incongruous things. He would make me laugh until I had to roll on the floor to relieve the pain in my ribs.
There was a garden shed with tins of ancient and solid paint, rigid paint brushes, rusty tools, rusty old motor bikes smelling of oil. There was a cellar with precipitous steps and a smell of tar and coal.
Then there were Koala and Jerry, and several other animals, on my pillow when I went to bed.
From the age of six months to the age of four years I had Auntie Jean and Grandad to love (I learned, on the way, to say Grandad rather than Dadgran). During that time I never knew the feeling of rejection. Or perhaps I did, because Grandad's diary tells how, after a day-long visit from two children and their mummy, I ‘looked earnestly into his Auntie Jean's eyes and said “Where Donny's mummy?”’ – which question was not officially answered until I was sixteen.
Then came Daddy and Auntie Lenore, and I did not like either of them. Grandad had told me Daddy was special, but I did not find him so. My memory of the meeting (which is acute, but I cannot swear to its validity) is of people who wanted something from me and I did not know what the something was. I remember expecting something from them that didn't come. I know now that neither enjoyed children. Children were to be smiled at, talked to in a special voice, and returned to their keepers as soon as possible.
At dinner one day, when Grandad was carving the beef, Daddy announced that ‘we’ were going to live somewhere else; a house in Sunnyside Road not far away. I was delighted with the plan until it became clear that ‘we’ included me. Then I felt cold inside.
To ease the shock of the change, Auntie Jean came to stay with us for two weeks. I remember, but do not like to remember, the day she left.
New feelings: loneliness and boredom. Nowhere to play, a barren patch of grass for a garden, no shed with motor bikes, my bedroom out of bounds during the day, food I did not like to eat. Above all, no feeling of warmth or affection. No love apart from Jerry and Koala.
Auntie Lenore never cuddled; the closest Daddy could get was mock fighting, tickling to the point of hurting. Yet somehow I gave them my affection. Auntie Lenore I got to calling Mummy because all those I met and who came to play called theirs Mummy. Then I forgot she had been Auntie Lenore and imagined she had always been Mummy. I took it for granted she had had to go with Daddy, when I was a baby, because his work was far away. I did not blame them. Nothing was done to correct my phantasy, which was crudely upset seven years later by a coincidence to be related.
The happiest time was when Daddy and Mummy caught the 'flu. Auntie Jean came and took me home with her to Elgin Road until they were better. But then I had to come back to Sunnyside Road.
My most frightening adventure was at St. George's Hospital, Ilford. I was to go with Mummy who needed treatment, she said, but when we got there a nurse pulled me by the arm down the corridor, undressed me and put me in bed. I resisted, and shouted it was a mistake, but Mummy said ‘Go with the nurse, there's a good boy.’
She explained afterwards, when I woke with a sore throat, that she had thought it would be easier that way.
They had taken my tonsils out.
A great sadness was Jerry. I was given a puppy called Jerry, the same name as the Jerry who slept on my pillow. I went with Mummy to collect him and we got lost on the railway, finding ourselves in Black Heath by mistake, returning long after dark with Jerry fast asleep in his basket. The next morning there were smelly messes all over the kitchen floor and Mummy had to clean them up. Apart from that, Jerry was tremendous fun. But he would never stop messing on the kitchen floor. So Mummy took him to the vet and came back saying he had distemper and had to be destroyed.
The best laugh I had was Daddy rolling a roast potato onto the floor. The carving knife slipped and a potato rolled over the table cloth, leaving a long brown gravy stain, and dropped over the edge. That was funny enough, but he shouted ‘Dam-NATION!’ which was a word I had never heard before. I thought he had made up a funny ending for ‘dam,’ and found it outrageously funny, but he didn't like my laughing at him.
I had another adventure similar to the hospital one; and adventure that altered my life. I was moaning, as usual, there was ‘Nothing to do-o-o-o!’ (There was, indeed, nothing to do because I wasn't to go outside on account of the weather, and even if I had been allowed outside there was nothing there but a patch of wet grass.)
Mummy obviously couldn't stand my moaning and I don't blame her for that; it must have been miserable for her. So she stuffed me into my overcoat, combed my hair hard, dragged me tripping, fast and too tightly, to the school at the end of Sunnyside Road. And there I stayed for the remainder of that day.
And there I went every school day thereafter.
Most memories of that school present themselves strangely, as though they had all occurred on the very first day. On that extended first day I learned how to suck a sugar cigarette to a sharp point. We tested the sharpness on each others cheeks, always sure it was us who had made the sharpest one, and it made our cheeks and fingers sticky. I made friends. I learned the proper way to drink a bottle of free school milk with a straw. I learned how to fix a rubber band – with drawing pins – to a wooden clothes peg so as to make a catapult that shot match sticks. Ingenious.
The most vivid memory of that first day is being pissed on. I was pissed on by a tall boy with ginger freckles. It happened in the lavatories which stood at the far end of the playground; girls went in at one end, boys at the other, a reek of carbolic and ammonia from both ends. I was waiting my turn at the trough when this tall chap turned and pissed all down the front of my jersey. I cried like mad and ran back to the class room to find our teacher, retribution in mind, but all she did was tell me to stand near the schoolroom fire to get dry.
Mummy enjoyed telling people about my first day at school. She would tell how Bunny (her pet name for Daddy) had come home and asked ‘Where's Don?’ How Bunny had ‘laughed like a drain’ when told she had got fed up with my moaning and taken me off to school.
One day Mummy said I wouldn't see Grandad again because he had ‘gone away.’ I asked where to, but neither parent would be more specific. He had just had to ‘go away.’
For years afterwards, whenever there was to be an outing, or we were moving house, I raised the hope that we would bump into Grandad. Eventually, on a holiday from Dora's when (wonder on wonder) I was allowed to stay with Auntie Jean, I asked if there had been news of Grandad. Auntie Jean broke the silence she had been ordered to observe and told me what had happened: ‘He would never have gone away and left us; never, never done a thing like that!’
It was then about three years too late for grief.
I lived with Daddy and Mummy for about two years, during which life got better and happier. We moved once to a flat in Eltham where my father found work, then to a tiny flat in Greenford, Middlesex, where he worked for a building contractor (1935 was a bad time for civil engineers). By six years old I was at a school that looked much like the one at the end of Sunnyside Road. They were just two of many Victorian school buildings around London; high pitched roofs, entrances labelled Girls and Boys in shiny brick letters, playgrounds of tarmac. I could read and write a little, do simple arithmetic, abilities I later lost for a long time.
Daddy said one day: ‘We're going to Africa.’ I thought this a splendid idea, jungles and lions, and jumped up and down. ‘No, not you. Mummy and I are going to Africa. You'll stay here in England and go to boarding school.’
Dora wore some kind of woolly cloak and flapping carpet slippers; she shuffled along the corridor towards us. She looked as if she had just got out of bed, but it was nearly tea time. I thought ‘Mrs. Russell because she rustles.’
I stood quite near Mummy, closer than she liked. Dora said ‘Hello Donald, I hope you'll be very happy here.’ I said ‘How do you do?’ as taught.
Dora said everyone was out for a walk because it was Saturday; last week they had all gone swimming. We said we had seen them from the taxi and they had waved to us. Dora said Dorothy had stayed behind to show me round while she talked to Mummy.
Dorothy had freckles. She was a lot older than me, about eight, and a little bit fat. She was nice, and showed me the lawn and where the gravel paths led and which doors to use for going in and out and where my bed was and the names of the children who slept in the other beds in my dormitory and where the lavatories were and my classroom and the dining room and the Smalls' room. She told me I was a Small. The big ones were called Bigs.
The corridors had lino and they echoed. The ceilings were all high. Tables and chairs looked too small for the dining room. The whole school and its grounds were big. Rooms had smells I had never smelt before, especially the dining room which had a sharp smell not quite clean.
I wasn't sure I could find again all the things Dorothy had showed me.
Mummy and Dora still hadn't come out so Dorothy and I played on the lawn where there was an enormous wooden box and some deck chairs. We made a house. We went back to my dormitory, half unpacked my box, and brought my animals, Koala and Jerry, and all my cigarette cards, to be in the house on the lawn. We made it cosy with cigarette cards on the walls and my animals sitting at opposite corners.
Then Mummy called from a window that she was going so I waved goodbye.
Then Dorothy decided she would go and do some knitting. I got lonely and went exploring. When I came back to the lawn, those who had been on the walk had returned. They were all over my little house, a man inside, one of the masters, pretending to be a tiger and everyone laughing and shouting.
My cigarette cards had gone, and my animals. I never saw them again except for a few torn cigarette cards. I found the head of a koala bear on a gravel path. I would not believe it was Koala's; it must have come from another bear rather like Koala.
I left it there.
I had been to three schools before Dora's, always in the middle of a term, so was accustomed to the experience. But those schools were for one day at a time; the bell meant escape until the next morning. Life in boarding schools is different; night follows day follows night and there is no one to cry to. But a young child is nothing if not adaptable. I quickly got used to the school regime. Although shy, I joined in more and more activities.
In school time we were well supplied with paints, bricks, piles of sand, all the usual things found in infant schools. I discovered the carpentry shop and learned you could go there in your spare time, and that discovery made my life better at once. We had chemistry lessons with acids, granulated zinc and marble chips, and that was marvellous too. I made friends, both boys and girls, and had no serious enemies.
I had arrived towards the end of a term, so we were only a few weeks away from my first holiday with Auntie Jean. Anticipation kept me going until I saw her again, and ran upstairs to my old bedroom and its familiar smell. Dora reported later that I had not ‘settled in’ easily for my second term, so for ensuing holidays I was sent to family friends, some of whom I had never met before, some of whom were horrible. I used to settle in well at school after those holidays, and was as happy as anyone in boarding school could be. It was, after all, a special boarding school in which boys and girls slept in the same dormitories and bathed together, where we called the staff by their first names and could miss class if we wanted to.
Bath time was always enjoyed and I have devoted a whole chapter to ablutions.
The danger was Lily. In The Tamarisk Tree Dora extols the ‘no nonsense’ character of Lily, our matron. No nonsense it was! She called us muck pots (with the Gracie Fields ‘u’ that sounds to Southerners as ‘oo’).
‘Coom 'ere, mook pot, and wash that mook off your face!’
I accept now that she must have loved us, but she succeeded well in hiding the fact. She said we were all a bloody nuisance and I believed her. I kept out of her way when possible.
When Lily picked up the scissors at bath time I would hide behind the bath, or escape down the corridor, because scissors meant finger-nail cutting which she undertook in the manner of a mad tailor, gripping your hand, looking everywhere except at fingers, slashing off the whites of the nails to expose the dark red skin beneath.
‘Oh, Lily! Ow!’
‘Shoot oop and 'old still!’
It wasn't so much the pain as the fear she would lop off the end of a finger.
But Lily once gave me a unique sexual thrill. I had stayed too long in the bath lathering soap, some of which had got up the end of my peeners (ibid) which began to sting as a result. So I took my problem to Lily at her post-bathtime surgery. It must have stung a lot to risk that. But Lily stopped the stinging at once by rubbing in, with unexpected gentleness, a hand full of olive oil. What a wonderful sensation that was! I considered reporting the same complaint again but decided against it because I would be being a bloody nuisance.
Lily took us for walks in winter, her chilblains red and raw right up the ankle. She watched over our swimming in summer. We would ask her to come in but always got the same reply: ‘Me? Swim? I swim like a brick!’ What Lily would have done in emergency I do not know; no good jumping in with all those layers of clothes on.
I was over seven when I saw Mummy and Daddy again. Then we had a good holiday, sometimes staying with family friends or relatives, sometimes in seaside boarding houses. We rented a cottage called Farthings in Ready Money Cove near Fowey. Beaches, rock pools, seaweed smells, digging pits in the sand and watching their walls collapse as water percolates in.
Mummy and Daddy were shocked at my table manners, but I quickly adjusted. Re-learning table manners was needed often because every adult, every institution, it seemed, had a different way of handling cutlery.
Why couldn't I read when I had been reading quite well last time they saw me? Worst of all, why had I refused to stand for God Save the King after the film?
I hated not standing for God Save the King. Everyone looked at me. But I felt it was expected of me; I owed it to Dora and thought Daddy would be proud of my loyalty to the school he had sent me to. Instead of being praised I was reprimanded in the form of a quiet lecture from Daddy, completely incomprehensible. He had no gift of explanation. It made me cry as I always cried when being lectured by an adult. But I was grateful, thereafter, to stand up for God Save the King as everyone else did.
Then it was back to Dora's.
There ought to be something to say about friendships at Dora's but little comes to mind. I was friendly with Harriet, who was the same age, but she didn't care for making things, or guns, or things I liked. She was going to be a film star. Andrew spent a lot of time with Derek but they called me in on some of their games along with the more boisterous of us. Most of their games had a vaguely contrived purpose. A stack of brass stair rods became gold bars to be guarded by one lot and stolen by the other. No rules in particular; much wrestling. The greenhouse was the dungeon; I remember escaping through a broken glass pane in the roof, hoping fervently I would not be attacked when half way through.
I am not suggesting there were no friendships at Dora's, just that they were evenly based, those in each age group sticking together without cliques or much ganging up. It was, after all, a small school in which everyone knew everyone else.
In my last year at Dora's I was in love with Wynel but I doubt she knew it; she was younger than me but didn't seem so. I contrived games to bring about fortuitous body contact and made the most of that, but could never bring myself to touch or hug her overtly – let alone kiss her which is what I dreamed of doing. Overt actions of affection were well repressed in me and remained so.
What did we talk about? There was a lot about ghosts, especially round the fire on winter evenings (we turned out the lights when talking about ghosts). We discussed wars a lot, and dictators. In 1936 there was Franco and the Spanish civil war. Many staff and children wore badges in the shape of the Iberian Peninsular stamped with the legend ‘Friend of Spain.’ Franco was bad, the other side was good, but I didn't know any of their names. Nevertheless I considered myself a Friend of Spain, despite being given no badge to wear.
In later years we talked much about Hitler and the terrible things he was doing. We talked about Goering, Goebbles and others among Hitler's acquaintance. Stalin we talked about, but never as a dictator. We knew him as a kindly leader who looked after his people and spread the idea of communism and fairness. We knew the names of Stalin's acquaintances such as Trotsky, but I cannot remember if Trotsky was good or bad. And we loved to talk about tortures; the school divided into those who had seen the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud and those who hadn't.
Hitler and tortures went well together; we argued how we would dispose of him when he was caught. One method was to dunk him in liquid air, then shatter him with an iron bar. The most exquisite method was suggested by Deborah. Be nice to him! When he was hungry we would say ‘Yes! Would you like a foot or a hand?’ We would get a surgeon to amputate the chosen morsel painlessly, and a chef to cook it for him nicely – with vegetables and gravy. We would continue in this manner until he had eaten himself.
Dora's school moved twice during my time there, from Boyles Court in Essex to Surrey (for only a term) then, in 1937, to Kingwell Hall in Somerset.
In 1939, after three years at Dora's, things started to happen.
I was spending part of the summer holiday with Dora because the shipping schedule of Elder Dempster Lines had been altered and no longer coincided with Dora's school year. First we all stayed with Dora's sister, Mary Unwin, at a rambling old house somewhere in Surrey. I loved Mary Unwin, thought her the ideal mother, warm and feminine, adored by her sons (both sons and their mother died of tuberculosis during the war) whom I envied. I was struck by the contrast between the home-loving Mrs. Unwin and her forceful and clever sister. Mary had warmth where Dora had brilliance. Mary had a chuckling sense of humour where Dora had jollity and gaiety but not much humour.
After several days in Mary Unwin's lovely rambling (but rather leaky) house we drove in Dora's Ark (so named and described in The Tamarisk Tree Vol.2. as her ancient Armstrong Siddeley for transporting adults, children, monkeys, cats, dogs and goats) to Southampton to see John Russell (son of Bertrand and Dora) off to America on the Queen Mary.
Having climbed a narrow gang plank from shore to a hole in the side of the ship, near the stern, we walked down flights of steep stairs and along a narrow corridor with many doors to numbered cabins like wardrobes. We found John waiting for us in one of them. It was tiny and had no porthole; he had to share his cabin with others. I think he was travelling third class or steerage. For me, the name ‘Queen Mary’ thereafter ceased to be synonymous with luxury.
Later that week I was taken to Plymouth where the Obosso was due from Takoradi. Pat took me. Pat Grace was the school secretary. Although ‘secretary’ he never typed letters; Dora did all that. He was no teacher either, never coming near a class room. He was often drunk, always unpredictable. He would tell us stories about Mr. Braithwaite, Lord Mayor of Penny-on-the-bottle, and his friend Mr. Mudd. He laughed loud explaining how Mr. Mudd fell in the mud, so his name really was Mudd! Ha, Ha!
One day Mr. Braithwaite came to a school Council meeting. He said nothing out loud but whispered to Pat who would then interpret, calling out: ‘Mr. Braithwaite says...’
I believed everything about Mr. Braithwaite and Penny-on-the-bottle because I asked Pat if they were true and he said Yes. But Harriet told me it was Ben from the garage dressed up (she had found in her mother's wardrobe the green woollen cap he had worn). Pat never admitted it was invention.
Pat got frightening when he talked politics, which he often did. His hatred of Conservatives was unbelievable; he wanted to hang Chamberlain. He wanted to cheer the Red Army marching down Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace. He hated the king and told us how bad it was to have royalty. He made us embarrassed and ashamed of the way our country did things. But yes! We were right to fight Hitler and Mussolini because they were Fascists! In this one respect Pat allowed us some pride in our country.
Harriet was not keen on Pat. She told how he and Walter (Lily's husband and school cook) had once, on a journey to Cornwall, started fighting by the roadside, and how Dora had calmed them down.
We grew convinced Pat was in the IRA, and had something to do with the bombings in London. At night we would weave phantasies about what Pat had been doing, making his absences coincide with bombings, finding the arrival of the grocer's van suspicious, remembering glimpses of police crouching in the shrubberies.
In her autobiography Dora tells a more sympathetic story about Pat. She describes him as a broken and unemployable political worker, revealing much about her compulsion to succour lame dogs. His mercurial behaviour, like buying a chattering monkey on impulse, or creating anarchy in her school by abolishing the time table (ibid), Dora relates as lively and stimulating events.
So Pat was to take me to Plymouth. The railways were in chaos in 1939 because of troop movements. Our journey took all night, the 3rd. class compartment was dark, stuffy and crowded. Pat kept putting his arm round me and I kept wriggling out because of the suffocation. Pat was half asleep and muttering, his breath having the smell of Father Ford's pub (the one near the school) on a hot afternoon.
We arrived at Plymouth early in the morning, but too late to catch the passenger tender to the Obosso which had arrived hours before and lay anchored some way out. I became resourceful: I knew Beacon Hill School held fifteen shillings of my money, so I asked Pat if we could hire a motor boat. This was the sort of thing Pat was good at. He became resourceful too, and hired a motor boat in no time. Oddly, it cost me exactly my fifteen shillings: ‘Bang goes your fifteen bob’ said Pat.
It was fun bouncing out to the Obosso, spray flying about, sea smells, salt on the lips. We tied up against the tender, got pulled up onto its deck by seamen in blue jerseys, walked across the deck of the tender, then up the gang plank and through a hole in the side of the Obosso.
Who was I? Who had I come to see? Parents? What class did my parents travel; first or second? I thought Second, so a man in black trousers and short white jacket led us to the second class. The purser couldn't find ‘Alcock’ on the list of passengers.
Pat began to turn a yellowy green; he said he felt seasick (which was stupid because we were anchored and scarcely rolling) but he said ships always made him sick; he would have to have a drink and lie down. Then Mum appeared behind us, having heard reports of the unorthodox arrival of a man and scruffy boy and fearing the worst. She found out where we were and came down from the first class. She asked what we were doing here anyway? And why did I look such a filthy mess? I was supposed to be with Dora in Bath where they had planned to come and collect me.
It was, indeed, my fault. I had insisted to Dora (and did really believe) that I was expected in Plymouth, as I had been on the previous occasion of my parents' arrival years before. But it was worth getting into trouble; it had been great fun.
We had drinks in the lounge. Mum let me open her new round tin of Craven A. (Cigarettes were exported to the tropics tinned in 50s. Under the lid was a thin metal diaphragm that had to be severed by a little cutter built into the circular lid, rather like opening a tin with a tin opener.) Great fun. There was a lovely smell of tobacco when the top came off. I pulled the paper tag designed to lift the first cigarette from the middle of the tightly packed bundle and offered it to Mum. She lit it with one of the purple-dyed matches they used in the Gold Coast. Why they had to have purple matches I never discovered for certain, but was told it had something to do with discouraging insects.
Whilst we were having drinks, Pat fell into a pathetic stupor. I don't know how he was got rid of. Daddy was angry with him and annoyed with me for bringing him, but eventually freed us from him.
At the quay we were met by a man who had come to deliver our Ford Prefect. It was blue; the bonnet opened upwards from the front in a modern way instead of the usual double-hinged flaps lifting on either side of the engine. I learned the car had cost £135. That day I gave my allegiance to Ford, and with Ford my allegiance stayed for many years.
We drove to Cornwall, Mummy driving part of the way because Daddy had tooth ache. Daddy gave continuous advice on handling the Prefect: ‘Ease the clutch, E-e-e-e-z-e the clutch!’ I could feel the tense atmosphere.
Before Britain declared war on Germany we were given gas masks and ration books. We queued up in a village hall where they had cardboard boxes stacked against two walls from floor to ceiling. Each box contained a gas mask in size S, M or L. For small babies there were special rubber wombs. The baby went inside and you had to keep pumping air to keep the womb inflated and the baby breathing. One mother who was given one started screaming that she couldn't put her baby in that thing, and was set upon by St. John's Ambulance women who sat her on a chair and gave her aspirins.
My gas mask made rude noises round the ears when I breathed out. It made my face sweat; ten minutes in a civilian gas mask would make a breath of fresh chlorine seem blessed relief.
When Britain finally declared war the blackout began. I helped Daddy cut regulation slits (an inch long and a quarter wide, I think) into cardboard disks which we then fitted behind the glass of the Prefect's headlights. Thereafter we did not go anywhere in the car after dark; there were no street lights and the slits in the cardboard did not let enough light through for safety.
Notices saying POOL in huge black letters were stuck to every petrol pump, obliterating Shell or Esso. On the day before petrol rationing every car in Cornwall, including ours, queued for a final top-up.
The holiday ended: I went back to Dora's, Dad took the car back to the Gold Coast, Mum stayed in a boarding house in Bath. I didn't know why she stayed but I was pleased she would be there to have me in the holidays.
In June 1940, only days after the evacuation of Dunkirk, Mum telephoned me at Dora's. It was the first time in my life I had been called to a telephone. I could not hear well, understood little of what Mum said, but was clear about one thing: we were going to Africa and this time the ‘we’ included me. And it was to be in a few days time.
It was exciting to think about Africa, of leaving boarding school, of adventures to come, but I was surprised to realize how much I had become attached to Dora's. Dora's had been the centre of my life for four years, the only stable place outside Auntie Jean's. On the last Saturday afternoon I lay on the lawn, chewing Co-op mints with Harriet and Wynel and others, and feeling melancholy. I was in love with Wynel but unable to show it.
Before the end of that year, Paul and Grete had been interned (they were Austrian), Kingwell Hall requisitioned by the War Office, Pat Grace received call-up papers, and Dora moved her school – now with only seven pupils – to her house in Cornwall.
Mum and I travelled by train to Liverpool, a long journey from Bath, and we put up at a real hotel, not the usual boarding house. We were not told the name of our ship, or when she would sail, but had to be ready to leave as soon as they told us. ‘Careless talk costs lives!’ the posters said.
Mum took me shopping for things you couldn't buy in Africa: kitchen utensils, a pair of mosquito boots for me (they had to be ladies' boots because mens' did not come in children's sizes). Mostly Mum bought dresses and things, but on one glorious day we set out to buy me a bicycle. You could still buy bicycles early in the war, although there were few models to choose from. We could not find a small Hercules or Raleigh or BSA but found a good model called a Bee. It had a 26" wheel and was too big for me, but the man in the bicycle shop said he would wire 1" wooden blocks to the pedals so my feet would reach. I would, he said, ‘grow into it.’ (I did, and it served me well until I was seventeen.) The man in the shop also promised to deliver the bicycle to our ship, but how this was to be accomplished I never knew. We, ourselves, didn't know the name of our ship or its sailing date, but when we eventually reached Takoradi I was relieved to see my bicycle carried down a gang plank to the wharf by a stevedore who was evidently fascinated by the odd-shaped pedals – as deep as they were wide.
Clothes were not yet rationed in 1940 so Mum bought lots of dresses at Marks and Spencer, a store popular with Coasters. (People who did ‘tours’ in the Gold Coast called themselves ‘Coasters.’ ‘Old Coasters’ were those who had retired to bungalows in Eastbourne or Worthing where I had sometimes been taken to meet them.)
Once we went to the cinema – a rare and exciting experience for me at that time – where I was confronted by a puzzle of apparent contradiction. Advertised in the foyer as a forthcoming attraction was ‘Babes in Arms’ starring Mickey Rooney. Fixed over the door of the auditorium was a permanent notice saying BABES IN ARMS NOT ADMITTED. It made no sense; why would they advertise a film they would not admit? But I didn't ask Mum about it because it clearly involved babies, and ‘having babies’ was her euphemism for things to do with sex.
Suddenly we were to leave. We packed and took a taxi to the docks. There we spent most of the day in queues. A queue for handing in ration books, another for returning gas masks, another for having passports examined, another for having our luggage searched, a special queue for Mum to have herself and her hand-bag searched, a queue for all sorts of papers to be presented, lots of questions asked and answered. I knew I was the subject of many questions; there were no other children around.
The queues were ranged along a covered wharf, terminating in a bank of booths with high counters, like gambling stalls at fairgrounds, staffed by sharp-voiced women. Alongside the wharf, groaning and creaking ever so slightly, was our ship, her name on the stern painted out but still readable – Obosso.
The Obosso! No longer shiny black and white, as I had last seen her; no red insignia on her funnel, just a dull grey paint daubed over everything. At her stern an anti-aircraft gun on the high deck and a naval gun on the low deck. Most of the time in these queues I spent staring up at the guns.
When the queuing was over we walked up the gang plank, steep and slewing gently in response to the undulation of the Obosso, the gap between ship and shore expanding and reducing, a smell of rotting vegetables and tar rising from the oily black water.
Officers in blue uniform welcomed us aboard and gave us each a heavy life jacket comprising two canvass bags stuffed with kapok and complicated with webbing straps and tapes. Some jackets had ‘Obosso’ stencilled across the chest, others had ‘Elder Dempster Lines.’ Some, like mine, had no insignia.
At lifeboat drill, shortly after sailing, we were shown how to put the jacket on, and told never, never, never to be without it. (During the war, friends and I used to find such life jackets washed up on the beach or in shallow water where we could dive for them. We never succeeded in making one float, even after drying it for days in the sun.)
A ship's officer told me we were safe from magnetic mines because a cable running round the ship was given just the right potential to neutralize the ship's magnetic field. I could understand that. It was called ‘de-Gaussing.’
I kept a diary of that voyage. It tells how I counted twenty-three ships in our convoy – and that was only as far as the horizon seen from deck. The diary tells how we broke from convoy several days out, U-boats having sunk some of the tankers. For the rest of the voyage we were alone.
My diary is regular during the first few and last few days of the voyage. Excitements on a sea voyage, apart from the intrusion of U-boats, are limited to departure and arrival; the boring part is the middle. My diary reflects this pattern; there is nothing but blank pages in the middle of it.
I was forever being gently ticked off by cabin staff and waiters for being without my life jacket. Deck quoits, deck golf, shuffle board, and other time-killing games contrived by Elder Dempster lines I found boring when played alone and there was seldom anyone to play them with. The best thing was the canvas bag lashed to a timber frame to serve as a swimming bath. When the weather got rough, sea water flung from side to side, knee deep for a second or two, then over your head. That was fun. But then they would ban swimming on grounds of safety and drain the canvas bag until calmer weather.
Mum played bridge most of the time, drank gin and lime, smoked Craven A's. She told me she enjoyed ‘chatty bridge’ and only played for a penny.
We failed to call at Dakar. France fell to Germany the day we were due in, and Dakar belonged to France, so we went straight on by. A few days later, outside Freetown, we were welcomed by an ancient biplane, a Walrus. It had wires and struts to hold the wings together and a single spluttering engine tied backwards between them, the propeller pushing instead of pulling. It was an ancient machine even by 1940 standards. It came so low I could see the pilot's face. He smiled and I felt reassured he had not flown out to bomb us.
Everything was more relaxed now we had reached land. We were not allowed ashore, so contented ourselves throwing pennies into the sea, the boys manning the flotilla of dug-out canoes around the ship achieving a high rate of recovery. A penny thrown caused at least three boys to dive for it. The one who got it would surface, wriggle horizontally into his dugout so as not to let water spill in, then sit up and call ‘English one penny, nineteen-twenty-seven. God bless you Master!’
Several days later we docked at Takoradi where the Obosso tied up alongside, and we walked down the gang plank much as we had walked up it at Liverpool two weeks earlier. This was an anti-climax; if you landed at Accra, Coasters had told me, you were slung over the side in a ‘mammy chair’ and paddled ashore in a surf boat with the boys chanting as they paddled. According to one Coaster, who liked to talk to me when he was drunk, the boys sang ‘White woman got face like a cow’ which I considered outrageously funny. Being lifted from mammy chair to surf boat, he told me, women would scream and drop their handbags in the sea. Sometimes surf boats capsized. Families had lost all their belongings that way.
I had so longed to land at Accra, and go ashore by mammy chair, but we had to be content with a gang plank at Takoradi.
We spent all day on the train, puffing through damp green forest. Every few miles a clearing; a village of mud-walled houses ingeniously roofed with palm-fronds or flattened petrol tins. I became, for the only time in my life, an object of public attention, an experience I found agreeable. The arrival and departure of a train was an event the children from every local halt and station would assemble to enjoy; there were hundreds of children at every stop. Suddenly they would notice me, a child's face framed in a first class carriage window, probably the only white contemporary they had seen. They would point and chant ‘Aaaah-eeeeh!’ and I would smile and wave in a regal manner befitting a white boy representing Great Britain.
We arrived at Kumasi as it was growing dark, met by Dad still dressed in his day-time tropical kit: khaki shorts, long socks with garters, white open-necked shirt, topee. Several boys grabbed at our luggage; I heard Dad apportioning trunks and cases among them, giving orders imperiously in Pidgin, a dialect of English I had not heard spoken at length before. It sounded silly: ‘You go for car, you find-um one blue car by that side!’ Pure English, kept simple, would surely be more accurate, and less trouble to acquire.
We found-um one blue car by that side, which was, of course, the Ford Prefect we had bought in Plymouth.
No blackout in the Gold Coast. Dad drove us, headlights on full beam, to ‘The Ridge’, also brightly lit, where the Europeans lived. A near neighbour, I later discovered, was Judge Kwashi-Iden. Not a European, he was the exception, serving as a model to which his countrymen might aspire.
Then started a unique interlude in my life; I was ten years old, no boarding school to be packed off to, I was living in my parents' house for the first time since the age of four. Dad was Town Engineer of Kumasi; he had designed our house, and an identical one built across an unfenced stretch of lawn, and had supervised their construction. (He had also designed Prempeh Hall which still stands.) The second house was for the Assistant Town Engineer who was Irish. Our houses had the only flush lavatories in Kumasi; we shared a septic tank whereas everyone else had buckets collected and emptied by Kumasi Town Council (you never quite knew if someone would open the trap door when you were busy).
Each of these houses was designed for a couple living the life of a Coaster; twelve foot verandah for drinks, living room leading through a dining room to the back verandah, and a single bedroom. No guest room. Guests stayed at a municipal or government rest house. So for the next few months I slept in the same bedroom as Mum and Dad. I didn't like that aspect, and have no doubt they found it inconvenient too.
The social life of a Coaster comprised whisky and soda for the men, gin and Rose's lime juice for the ladies. Rose's lime juice was the only thing on the tray for someone my age; its astringency drew in my cheeks but it was better than nothing. Conversation at drinks lacked continuity and direction; strange images and half sentences; raucous laughter unconnected with things funny. I assumed there were many double meanings in the things said, meanings I could not understand, so I was no good at drinks talk. Except once: I had heard the word ‘influenza’ spoken by a lady across the table, and this made me call out ‘I opened the window and in flew Enza’ (an old Beacon Hill joke). Everyone laughed so much I thought I'd accidentally stumbled on one of their double meanings. I blushed hot.
Everyone on the Ridge took turns asking everyone else within the same social stratum to drinks at sundown. Mum (who looked after social matters) would never have asked a missionaryto drinks. Nor, as wife of the Town Engineer, could she invite the Governor. I believe we had a District Commissioner and his wife once, and that was an ‘occasion.’ Drinks were sometimes followed by a dinner party, as on that occasion.
Army officers entertained civilian guests on their parade ground. Guests were seated in wicker chairs arranged in semi-circular groups focussed on the stand where the regimental band played light music. The conductor was a huge and very handsome African. One dark night I strayed (being bored with lime juice and nobody talking to me) some way from the party we had been invited to (by Major somebody) and towards the band to get a closer look. I had at first assumed that our party was the only party on the parade ground, the sole audience of the band, but suddenly realized there were other parties given by other Majors (and no doubt by various Captains and Lieutenants) all looking much alike.
I crept around the circumference of the parties for a long time but couldn't find the one I had lost. Until I heard Mum's voice pitched above the music, thanks to the gin, telling one of the stories I had heard many times.
Time in Africa is not the same as time in England. While steward boys served drinks on their verandah, or waited for Master and Missus to return in their car, cook would juggle pans in the kitchen such that when the diners eventually came to table – often two or three hours after the appointed time – the food appeared miraculously, and unspoiled. Generations of Coasters have remarked on this particular talent of African cooks. Or perhaps the food was spoiled but everyone was too drunk to notice.
The end of dinner was celebrated by a ritual enacted throughout the colonies of Empire: ladies would retire to the bedroom and visit the bucket loo by turns, gentlemen would form a firing line across the lawn and piss on the grass. A daring hostess would call out of the window ‘Not on my geraniums, gentlemen!’ which was thought funny and rather risquÃ‡.
In out-buildings behind our house lived George, our steward boy, a cook who was called Cook, and a gardener who was employed by the Council (I did not know what that meant, but was told several times that our gardener was employed by the Council). There were also African women (whom Coasters called ‘mammies’) with their babies. They would squat on the ground, or sit on mats and lean against the wall. I never knew who they were, whose family they were, or attempted to recognize them apart. I was ‘Small Master’, following the example of my elders, remaining aloof and condescending.
To occupy myself I made things out of petrol tins and petrol boxes. Petrol tins and boxes constituted an essential raw material of Africa in those days. Petrol and paraffin were imported from Britain in rectangular four-gallon tins, two tins to the box. The ends of the box were of Â¾" softwood, the sides of Â¼". When empty, the tins were used for cooking, for heating bath water, for transporting water or grain on the heads of mammies. When the tins eventually rusted, and started leaking, they were flattened to serve as roofing tiles. The boxes provided timber for many small items of woodwork, the one-inch nails being drawn, straightened and re-used.
Dad bought me a small kit of tools: keyhole saw (it was conveniently small and cheaper than a proper saw), a light hammer, gimlet, pliers, screw driver. With these, and an old pair of Mum's scissors that proved strong enough to cut the steel plate of a petrol tin, I made all sorts of things including a toy telephone, a locking cupboard and a book case. I worked on a kitchen table Mum had placed in the corner of the living room for my play things. It seemed whenever I had some nailing to do, Dad was listening on the radio to Wickham Steed, a wartime political commentator. Wickham Steed whistled on pronouncing the letter S, and this made me giggle which annoyed Dad even more than the hammering.
My bicycle, with its extraordinary blocked-up pedals that African children would point at, gave me an escape when the atmosphere grew tense. I was not allowed as far as town, but cycling round the Ridge was better than cringing at home.
I was not the only child in Kumasi; a few other Coasters had risked the U-boats to bring their sons from England. Among them were the Brays: Richard and David about my age, their brother several years older. (Two years later, in Cape Town, Richard was killed on his bicycle. He was hanging on to the back of a lorry – as we all did in those days – when it turned a corner and crushed him against a wall.)
These were the first ‘ordinary’ boys I had known. By ‘ordinary’ I mean coming from a conventional background. They had a mother who hugged them, a father who spoke to them in a natural voice as when talking to grown-ups. They owned lead soldiers, air guns, Schuco cars, fountain pens, wrist watches, things I had never owned. They had been to a school that had a uniform, they had learned arithmetic properly, they knew the dates of Kings and battles I had never heard of.
We became friends but I felt inferior – except, perhaps, in the matter of politics, but they showed no interest in the principles of socialism and communism.
The Bray boys allowed me to be a member of their army. Shouldering air rifles, we would march about the parade ground, when it was empty, in front of the band stand where the officers held their drinks parties. I was taught the rudiments of army drill (they had learned it in their school cadet corps and taught me) and this was fortunate because a knowledge of drill saved me embarrassment when pitched into Ponty's military regime. I did the correct thing on recognizing the command ‘Right dress!’
Several months went by before the question of schooling arose. Then it was decided the Bray boys and I would attend the Kumasi school. But it did not work well, perhaps because all the other pupils were being taught in English, which was a foreign language to them, by masters to whom English was also a foreign language. Eventually the school masters gave us tuition privately. But after only a few weeks of the Kumasi school Dad announced that Mum and I were to go to South Africa straight away (I know I was getting on his nerves) and he would follow when his leave was due.
Dad drove us all through the forest to Takoradi in the Prefect. It took most of a day. In Takoradi we boarded SS Calumet, a small cargo boat of Elder Dempster Lines that carried twelve passengers. Mum and I shared a cabin with two bunks.
Every day I would go to the stern to talk to the Royal Navy gunner on watch. We had an anti-aircraft gun on a raised platform, an anti-submarine gun on the main deck, just like those on the Obosso. Two Royal Navy gunners were assigned to the Calumet to man the guns twenty-four hours a day: one on watch while the other slept. I chatted to the gunner on watch for hour after hour; when they changed over I carried on chatting to the other. I thought I might be annoying them, so to make certain I was welcome I stayed away for a whole day. The following day they told me they had both missed me, so I felt reassured and went on chatting as before. It was about two weeks to Cape Town.
Early in the voyage the Royal Navy gunners recruited the adult male passengers, gave them tin hats and taught them to man the guns. The shells looked heavy to carry. One was dropped during the lesson; it rolled to the edge of the high platform but came to rest safely in the gutter. The cordite charge used for the exercise was a dummy, so the gun went click instead of bang which was a disappointment to me. But the gunners did let me fire a .303 rifle out to sea; they had it there for detonating stray floating mines but we never saw any.
The chief engineer once took me on a tour of the engine room to see the reciprocating steam engines which were clean and quiet, then to the stoke hold to sample hell. Black buckets of black coal clanked down on a chain through a black hole in the ceiling, black men with huge white eyes grabbed at the bucket, tipping the black coal into heaps to be shovelled up by more black men and shot into the red mouth of the furnace. The heat was unbelievable; the dust choking.
There was nobody to meet us in Cape Town. We went to stay at the Bay Beach Hotel, Sea Point, where the sea is cold because it is part of the Atlantic. I loved to swim in it. I made friends among the boys and girls I met on nearby beaches; cycled with them up and down the coast between Sea Point and Mouli Point, swimming from stony, sea-weedy beaches, swimming in warm rock pools that were replenished by the sea at high tide. A little off shore we could see Robben Island where they had a prison.
Mum took me to the famous surfing beaches on the other side of the Cape Peninsular, Muizenberg chief among them, whose waters are warm from the Indian Ocean. It was a happy time.
Dad joined us for his leave. Whereas I had felt no fear for myself on the voyage, I feared terribly for his safety whilst he was at sea. It was enormous relief to hear his ship had anchored in Table Bay and he would soon be ashore.
Soon after his arrival we bought an old American car, a Hudson Terraplane, for £70. In this we drove East round the coast, then North to Grahamstown, taking several days over the trip. Grahamstown was where the good schools were.
It was early 1941; I was eleven years old. Arriving in Grahamstown, the Hudson having given us a trouble-free ride, we found a boarding house and I went next day with Dad to see the headmaster of St. Andrew's College. We arrived without appointment and his secretary explained the head master was teaching but would see us if we would wait. When the headmaster appeared in his academic gown he explained that boys came to his school at thirteen or fourteen years old (we had arrived two or three years early) and directed us a mile up the Cradock Road to St. Andrew's Preparatory School which was run by Major Mullins. The preparatory school had the same name, the same school badge, but otherwise no connection with the college.
The part occupied by Ponty's family had a green lawn and flower beds. Inside was bright and had a pleasant smell of camphor which came, I think, from a piece of furniture. There I met Ponty and stood in awe. He was astonishingly tall; his bass voice rumbled in my tummy. I got the feeling he didn't like me because he didn't respond to my smile. He spoke to Dad for a long time, then we were shown around.
In the boys' part of the school the ground outside was bald of grass. The smells inside resembled those I remembered from schools visited when on holiday from Dora's, essentially Lifebuoy soap and piss. From a corridor with pegs for blazers and caps came a damp and death-like smell. I knew I had come to a real school.
Next day Mum took me to Birch's, the local outfitters, and bought my uniform, which included second hand rugby boots and a new straw hat, a basher, for church on Sundays. I had not worn a uniform since before Dora's and felt it undignified to do so. The cap made me look like a schoolboy; the blazer had a silly badge on it; the basher was so horribly stupid I wanted to cry when made to try it on, and I hated the idea of going to church.
Two days later I started school. It was towards the end of a term (I had never yet been sent to a new school at the beginning of a term). I was allocated a bed in a dormitory of twenty-two beds, in a school of about a hundred pupils, every pupil a boy, every one speaking sharply and shrilly in that strange South African accent.
Dad and Mum took a house in Port Alfred, a small coastal town thirty miles from Grahamstown where he could go fishing. They would come and take me out on Sundays and I would spend the next holiday with them in Port Alfred.
During my first days at Ponty's I assumed the staff should be consulted about things you needed, things you didn't understand, things you didn't like, but the staff were not interested in what you liked or didn't like; if you needed to know anything you had to ‘find out.’ I soon discovered that fellow pupils were not like those at Dora's, and that the staff, particularly Bitch were not on my side.
Bitch was Miss Smith, one of the many unmarried teachers of her generation whose brothers and potential mates had been slaughtered in the Great War (as World War 1 was then known). On my first morning I did not take to the idea of a cold shower before breakfast. I asked Bitch, in innocence, if I might be excused because I was not accustomed to it. The noise she made may have been a laugh but sounded more like a scream of hatred; it included the word ‘dirty.’ It had seemed reasonable to ask for special treatment because I did not consider myself an ordinary pupil. I was there because of the war and for no other reason. As an evacuee, I would go back to Dora and bath every night the moment the war ended. I held nothing against Prep but could not feel part of it. I was different.
What I failed to see was that my attitude was repugnant both to staff and fellow pupils, but to nobody more so than Bitch. And she rubbed my nose in it, so I make no apology for using her nick name.
The worst rub happened early on, in my first week or two, when I ran round the dining room table after grace to finish off someone's breakfast. He had offered it, and finishing off another's breakfast was standard practice at Dora's, so I ran round the table after grace, homing in on his plate. Then came the explosion:
‘Alcock! What do you think you're doing?’
As I slunk away, very embarrassed, I heard ‘You nasty, evil, slimy creature!’
She may have put it differently, the adjectives in a different order, but those were the words and one doesn't forget them.
I had not been long at Ponty's before my self confidence collapsed. I could no longer speak to an adult in a normal voice; I would breathe hysterically, half in a giggle, and precede everything with ‘I'm afraid’ (which, by that time, I most certainly was). Ponty's termly reports, which I now have, refer to my ‘getting all hot and bothered about nothing.’
Bitch would mimic my hysterical speech in front of others, including staff, to much merriment. Ponty's daughter in law, who introduced me gently to Latin, who emanated more warmth than any other member of staff, and who helped out at the evening surgery (which was called ‘Sore-boys’) once came to my rescue during that performance, calling ‘No, shame! Leave him alone!’ but Bitch had no shame.
I think the mimicry was the cruelest thing Bitch ever did to me. Her vicious slap on my face in class (I had never known any teacher do this to me or anyone else before or since) was nothing by comparison. But I never deigned to hate her; I just wanted to be somewhere else.
Half way through my career at Ponty's, Bitch achieved a triumph in putting me down; the incident concerned a book called ‘Tales for Two.’ How this had come into my possession I do not know, but I was twelve or thirteen years old and the book was for five year olds. Rather than throw it away I carved out its middle and built a crystal set inside. I lined the cavity with thin mahogany from a cigar box and wound a honeycomb coil which lay flat under the mahogany lining. It was a nice piece of work constructed in M.J.'s workshop before we burnt it down (ibid).
I was kneeling by my bed ‘tickling in’ on the crystal when I realized someone had crept up behind me. I slammed the book shut. When I realized it was Bitch, and that I wasn't breaking any rules, I decided to reveal my genius, show her something she could respect me by, and solemnly raised the cover of Tales for Two, exposing the ingenious construction within.
I should have known better.
‘What a waste! What a wicked, wicked waste!’
Oddly, strangely, my relationship with Bitch improved over the years. As I learned to resemble a ‘Prep boy’ more closely, and regained a little self confidence, she exuded less and less hatred. And once, whilst rehearsing the Afrikaans play she wrote and produced (of which more later), she smiled at me as a reward for doing a good job.
I had been at Ponty's only a few days when I learned the ritual of Benjy and its infliction. It happened when the school was assembled for roll call and the inevitable prayer, the staff ranged along the wall. Two unfortunates crept up and ‘reported’ to Ponty.
‘What were you doing?’
‘Flicking ink, sir.’
I knew nothing about flicking ink; what you did or how you did it or why. The ink, I presumed, came from one of the ink wells in our desks; every desk had several, of which some had ink and some a gunge of wet blotting paper. But how would you ‘flick’ it? With what? At what, or at whom? I cannot answer these questions and don't think Ponty could either, but ‘flicking ink’ was clearly something to be dealt with before delight in its practice permeated the school.
Benjy was fetched by one of the ink flickers from the book case. The atmosphere was charged and uncanny; I had never been in the presence of anything like it before. Expectant, thrilled silence from pupils and staff alike, all eyes on the two unhappy ink flickers.
The first was told to bend down, which he did, in front of us all. The simplest explanation of what followed is that Ponty whacked him twice and as hard as he could.
As the victim strode back to his desk, frantically rubbing his buttocks, staff and pupils looking on, Ponty crooned in a rather special tone I heard often thereafter, ‘Give it a good rub, son!’
Then he did the same to the other ink flicker.
In those few minutes of horror I saw, acted before me, an awful ritual. I watched the deliberate infliction of pain, which I had been taught at Dora's, and believed deeply, was a barbaric act. Doubly barbaric in an adult. Then the humiliation of bending down in front of an entire school, including female staff, and the subsequent public, and urgently necessary, massaging of buttocks. This humiliation was intensified by the honeyed croon: ‘Give it a good rub, son.’
In fairness: Ponty would not have seen his advice as humiliating, simply as practical advice prompted by fatherly concern. What I have described does not approach in horror the ordeals reported by George Orwell or Roald Dahl. Although the bruises were spectacular in their colouring – mauve, magenta, chrome yellow, vermillion – Ponty seldom drew more than a tiny smudge of blood, and only from those with a delicate skin. But for someone so recently raised in Dora's ideals of humanity, the witness of this awful ritual of pain and humiliation came as a shock.
My friendships during those first odd weeks at Ponty's were varied. My knowledge of female physiology (ibid) earned me a brief acceptance by those at the top of the tree, but brief it was. I talked with many others, particularly the loners, and found little in common with them. Nobody knew the difference between a Socialist and a Conservative; they said they were United Party, and that meant nothing to me.
Lewey Blackhead was one of those I remember best. When he grew up he was going to be a machine gunner as his father had been in the Great War (‘You shoot them down in hundreds and thousands, man, and still they keep coming, man’). Blackhead's entertainment was to catch grass hoppers and impale them on the thorns of a mimoza bush. On a good afternoon he would have as many as fifty grass hoppers impaled, three hundred legs waving forlornly. (He did well in the Cadet Corps at the senior school and became, I was told, a high ranking officer in the South African Police.)
Friendships were important at Ponty's; they were an integral part of survival. Without the friendship of M.J. I should not have survived sane. We met on the last day of my first term on finding ourselves top of School Drawing (ibid). We discovered we were both going to Port Alfred for our holidays and the holiday proved an excellent one as a result.
M.J was a day boy; day boys could invite boarders home for the afternoon on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Being invited to somebody's home engendered a feeling wonderful beyond description, something I had never enjoyed at Dora's because we were so far from everybody. Feelings vaguely remembered from my years with Grandad and Auntie Jean were rekindled in M.J's home. I contrived to escape, whenever I could, from Ponty's school to M.J's home.
M.J's father was a Captain in the Air Force, based a long way from Grahamstown but not overseas. M.J lived with his mother and little sister. His mother ran a morning nursery school to eke out her Service allowance; the school room was in what should have been M.J's bedroom so M.J slept on the stoep, wearing a balaclava in winter.
I did not meet the Captain until my second term at Ponty's. He terrified me, standing six foot three, his voice making the structure of their small house resonate. Over the years I discovered he was the gentlest man ever born, a gentleness inherited by his son.
After that first school holiday, Dad went back to the Gold Coast but Mum stayed in Port Alfred. By my third term she had decided to leave Port Alfred and take a job in Grahamstown, running one of the dining halls at St. Andrew's College. By this arrangement she would be conveniently near my school.
In the school terms that followed I suffered the most exquisite torture I have known. I was not a day boy like M.J., nor a boarder like the rest, I did not belong anywhere. I would visit Mum on Wednesday afternoons and over week ends, returning to school in time for evening prayers and Ponty's sermon on Sunday night. I was an outsider, an intruder, unacceptable to the pack.
Because permitted times for leave away from school were perfectly regular, I would sometimes forget to ask Ponty, or member of staff, for permission to go on that particular afternoon. When out of school bounds I would suddenly realize I had forgotten to ask, and was therefore technically ‘bunking’ – which was punishable in arbitrary ways.
I lived in terror of the school being infected by mumps, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, any incidence of which would put the school in quarantine. When in quarantine, as we were more than once, boarders were confined to school bounds for weeks at a time. ‘Home’ was half a mile down the road and I wasn't allowed to go there.
One term we had every childhood infection strike at once. I caught measles and was confined to a curtained sick room with fellow sufferers. Still with the measles rash I caught whooping cough, and was still whooping when I caught chicken pox. We were dropping like flies; one of the dormitories was converted to a sick room and Ponty's staff were overworked looking after us and emptying the commode placed like a throne at the end of the dormitory. Defecation was a public and regal act.
I never asked Mum directly why I had to be a boarder, why I couldn't live with her, because I knew what she felt. She had several times told me her feelings about it. She would say how she loved toddlers and little boys, they were so uninhibited, so interested, so alert, so natural. But when they reached about ten they carried sticky things in their pockets, had dirty necks and mouths, giggled in corners, had dirty knees, and didn't get nice again until about seventeen or eighteen. I had no doubt about how she regarded me.
On a visit to the dentist I started talking to a pleasant lady in the waiting room. She asked me about myself and where I came from so I told her I was born in Ceylon. She said she had lived there for many years and asked my name. When I told her she said ‘Oh yes! Your poor mother died when you were born didn't she?’
In that moment I remembered again my first meeting with Auntie Lenore, remembered her sitting on the sofa in the front room at Elgin Road, smoking a cigarette, and remembered her saying I should call her Auntie Lenore. What the lady in the dentist's waiting room said was true. I had never had a mother at all.
I kept this experience to myself. But I knew she knew I knew. When I returned from the dentist I overheard her talking on the telephone to Mrs. Waring, the lady who had put her foot in it.
Nevertheless there were good times. M.J., his sister and their mother, gave up their little house and now lived with old Mrs. Strueben in her Victorian stone mansion. It stood in large grounds, had a green-house, a fern grotto, and a detached garage that had once been the stable. The garage housed cars and servants quarters below and had a hayloft, approached by ladder, above. The hay loft became our work shop; in it we made many things – including crystal sets.
Our own crystal sets we made from proper components that had been available in the shops until the end of my first term. Then the stock suddenly sold out. There was obviously a good market for crystal sets and our idea was to improvise them. To get the copper wire we raided motor-car scrap yards for induction coils and generators (the field coils of a generator provided the very best wire for the coil of a crystal set, also for the aerial). For the crystal holder, and the arm which holds the cat's whisker, we used bits of broken light switch, defunct electric toasters and fans, any bits that could be assembled into a small and neat device to hold a crystal and provide four-axis movement to the cat's whisker. It was impossible to make a variable condenser but we improvised alternative tuning devices working on the principle of one coil moving relative to another.
We failed completely to make crystals. Our research, which included visits to the local museum where they had beautiful crystals on display, revealed that the right variety for a crystal set was galena (I'm not sure if this was correct information). Galena, we learned, is a form of lead sulphide. Accordingly we got lead from a derelict car battery found in a scrap yard, bought sulphur from the chemist, and tried to combine both materials to form crystals. For the combination we rigged up a wood-burning stove in the hay loft. We heated the lead and sulphur together in an iron pot. That didn't produce crystals so we tried burning sulphur and dropping pellets of lead into the glowing ooze, we tried melting lead and sprinkling sulphur into the melt, we tried plunging red hot irons into a mixture of lead scrapings and sulphur. Sometimes we got a bit of lead that looked vaguely like a crystal but it never behaved like one; not a peep through the ear phones. So we gave up.
We used the wood-burning stove, instead, for stewing berries that grew on a tree in the garden. One day we must have stoked the fire too hot because that night the garage, the servants quarters with all their belongings, our workshop with all our tools, caught fire sending flames to the skies.(In later years M.J. and I conducted other experiments in pursuance of science that ended in disaster. The most dramatic involved a wartime veteran who had survived unscathed from El Alamein through Italy to Berlin, but got blown up by us on returning home, having to spend Christmas in hospital.)
My final year was the best I had at Ponty's. Mum had left Grahamstown and taken a job as matron at a girls' boarding school in Port Elizabeth eighty miles away. M.J.'s mum had also moved to Port Elizabeth, so M.J. became a boarder like me. It was good to have a friend and be the same as everyone else for once. Without fear of being caught bunking, the fear of quaranteen, belonging neither in one place nor another, I became more relaxed and possibly less disagreeable. Ponty, the staff, even Bitch seemed to treat me in much the same way as any other Prep boy. Inside I never managed to feel like one.
In my last year Ponty appointed me and Hazely as librarians. This particular appointment was unconnected with Standing Order; it was used, I think, to tell the appointees – who were always the less sporty types – that if they weren't enthusiastic about cricket they would jolly well have to do something useful instead. The librarians' job was nothing more than tidying the library before evening prep. so that staff could have their supper on the long mahogany table.
The wall at one end was shelved from floor to ceiling, the shelves stacked with books in all stages of decomposition. There were the classics like Dickens, adventures like King Solomon's Mines, lots by Dornford Yates, English school stories of the 1920s (the frontispiece depicting boys in knee-breeches and masters in cap and gown), even novels by authors like Cecil Roberts. During the afternoon, books would be pulled off the shelves, browsed, rejected, and left in arm chairs, on window sills, on the table, on the floor.
I am a naturally tidy person, so was Hazely, so we took pride in keeping the library tidy. The result was astonishing. We were summoned one evening during the middle of evening prep. to ‘tidy the library.’ This was impossible! We had tidied it as usual. But when we got there, and saw the staff sitting round the supper table smiling, we realized they were playing a game with us. They had summoned us to be commended for keeping the library tidy (which no previous pair of librarians had done) and invited us to finish off their supper (which we declined to do, not because we weren't hungry, but out of stark embarrassment).
On my very last day at his school, Ponty summoned me privately. For keeping the library tidy he gave me five shillings and said I should buy a book with it. (I bought a three-cornered file, hacksaw blades and some copper rivets.)
My termly reports from Ponty's – solemnly headed ‘Terminal Report’ – are all of them good. I have only recently seen them. It seems I was always top in something, whether algebra, geometry, spelling, or drawing. Yet in my three years at Ponty's I received only two commendations, two tiny morsels of praise. The first was for Holiday Verbs (ibid), the second for keeping the library tidy. The ethos was ‘Praise a boy and you make him cocky’ which confuses cause with effect. The more my abilities appeared to go unrecognized, the more I felt it necessary to draw attention to them. And people who do that are lucky to get praised at all, even for keeping the library tidy.
The Three R's
My Auntie Jean assured me that before going to Dora's I was reading and writing well, and good at sums. I remember the school at Greenford, the teacher warning we would be ‘kept in after school’ (terrible threat!) if we left our O's open at the top. Some of mine were a tiny bit open but I got away with it.
I remember adding up columns of figures with hundreds, tens and units signified by H, T, U at the top of the three columns; I understood the positional principle then. But these abilities disappeared at Dora's. I started reading again at eight or nine when Roddy got Beano and Film Fun every week.
At Dora's we had only to express an interest in something for that interest to be encouraged with individual attention; nobody grew distressed if you lagged behind in the three R's. One of my school reports shows ‘Mechanics’ as a subject I took and that I had made little progress at it. I have no recollection of this. It must have been Paul encouraging my interest in all things technical, and I guess he tried to teach me the principles of leverage and turning moments. I would have balked at that.
Reading and writing were not ‘subjects’ at Dora's, they were incidental to them. Nor was spelling a ‘subject’, although the big dictionary was constantly in use. Arithmetic, however, was a ‘subject’ and none of us liked it; it made us think. To ease the pain of thought we made a wall chart of multiplication tables. We cut out the numbers from coloured sticky paper, making each column of the chart a different colour from its neighbours. It was exceedingly useful because it saved the agony of learning our tables – and incidentally revealed the beautiful symmetry that made it possible to derive, by addition or subtraction, any product you did not know from one of the products you did.
Alison had heard of algebra. She said you used letters instead of numbers and the idea appealed strongly because she hated numbers and was good with letters. The concept seemed a bit of a cheat to the rest of us (had she discovered some back door escape from an inescapable drudge?) but Alison persisted and Paul started her off on algebra. I don't think it was what she had expected. Brilliant though Alison was, mathematics was not high among her abilities and she gave up algebra as a bad job. (But we named one of the kittens Algebra, the other two being Lenin and Bomb.)
Like children everywhere we wanted to know WHY we had to learn arithmetic and WHAT USE WAS IT? I was going to be an electrical engineer and knew, in my heart, I couldn't do without mathematics, but Harriet was going to be a film star and what use was it to her? Dora, with shrewdness and ingenuity, assured her that she needed to be good at arithmetic in order to count her money.
At the time of my transition from Dora to Ponty I understood the principles of basic arithmetic, the concept of division, why multiplication by 10 shifted a number leftwards, and so on, but I was slow and inaccurate at what I was doing. It was tedious work and I would lose concentration.
The head master of the Kumasi school (ibid) said I was so bad at arithmetic (I didn't even know my tables) I would have to go down to Standard 1 for those lessons. But I would go up to Standard 10 for English. He said I could read aloud so beautifully I must read aloud to the whole school, which I did.
My reading was taken from their Standard 10 English set book. Perhaps this work was chosen with care, on grounds that Africans in their last year of school would discover, through English classics, an intellectual meeting point with their British Colonial Administrators. Or perhaps it was a job lot of books, thrown out by an English public school and salvaged by missionaries. The book was ‘The Mill on the Floss.’
Ponty was formal about the three R's. Every Monday morning the first period was Copy. I have described this activity elsewhere as a punishment; the only punishment I thoroughly enjoyed. As with the punishment, the page of copy book you received could contain anything from Grade 1 pot hooks to Grade 10 walks through the woods with a dubious reverend.
Writing was important to Ponty: your hand writing had to be copper plate as defined in the copy books; it had to be rendered with a dip pen equipped with a pointed nib, relief nibs being forbidden. It had to be large because ‘as you grow older so your handwriting shrinks.’ At arbitrary times Ponty would decide to mark a Latin exercise, a sentence analysis, any piece of our work he chose, not for its content but for the hand writing. We would line up in front of him for marks, holding our exercise books across our chests. Weir once – and unknowingly – held his exercise book upside down. Ponty climbed onto the table, bent over and peered backwards through his long legs at Weir's writing. I don't know how we managed to stop giggling – or rather I do know how; there was Benjy in the book case.
Spelling was treated with gravest importance. We had a book of words listed in alphabetical order; not a dictionary, just words. Every day every pupil in the school had to learn the next twelve words. When the book was finished we would begin it again. After morning parade and roll call Ponty would ‘ask’ us ten of the twelve words we had learned for homework. The usual Ponty formula applied: Ponty call out the word, we write it down, Ponty give the correct spelling, we mark our attempt R for right, X for wrong. When anyone asked, Ponty would explain what the word meant, also give us the etymology if the word was Latin based or had a common root with Afrikaans. To calculate our marks we had to subtract the number of mistakes from 5 (thus one word wrong, out of the ten we were asked, implied a score of 4). If you managed a whole term without a single mistake, Ponty solemnly awarded you a tikkie (three pence).
It was rare for anyone to win that tikkie. I did once. Ponty used to explain that the reward was small so as not to tempt us into cheating. We marked our own work at his school and that made cheating easy, therefore honesty was expected of us. But it was not so much the high minded principle that kept me from cheating, more the awful consequence of being found out.
Arithmetic at Ponty's was taught by his staff, and taught by rote. I could do an LCM or HCF or Banker's Discount without having the faintest idea what they were about. Banker's Discount was PRT over 100; if you remembered PRT over 100 you got it right. But I still don't know what Banker's Discount is.
In my second year I was taught algebra by rote. Bitch taught us. I do not believe she understood algebra, but certainly knew enough rules to get the right answer every time. Her rule for opening brackets works well:
‘A minus sign outside a bracket doesn't mean “subtract.” It's a signal saying “Change all the signs inside the brackets.”’
Why? Because that's the rule, and it works!
Another rule (for expressions like X + 0.5 of Y): ‘Of’ means ‘multiplied by.’ Why? Because that's the rule.
We were given the rule of divisibility by 3: ‘Add up the digits, and if the result is divisible be 3 the original number must be divisible by 3.’ For example, 3456 gives 3+4+5+6=18, and 1+8=9, which is divisible by 3; therefore 3456 is divisible by 3.
One valid rule she repudiated. For divisibility by 11 there is an elegant rule: ‘Add up the odd digits and take away the sum of the even digits. If the result is 0, or divisible by 11, then the original number is divisible by 11.’ Take 204567 as an example. 2+4+6=12, 0+5+7=12, 12 minus 12 is zero; therefore 204567 is divisible by 11. Beautiful! But Bitch insisted on her rules of divisibility. She would ask someone the rule for 11, and as he fumbled for explanation she would interrupt, saying ‘No, There isn't one! There isn't a rule for eleven! It's quicker to divide by 11 and find out.’
Poor Bitch! She could see it only as a practical test; her pragmatism hid from her a beautiful abstract concept.
When I reached Top Class at Ponty's I had him for Latin, arithmetic, algebra and geometry. These subjects, in particular the mathematical ones, did not lend themselves to his map-and-Benjy approach, nor did they receive it. Wherever learning by rote was effective – as was the learning, throughout our years at the school, of the daily dozen words from our spelling books – we had to learn by rote. But by Top Class, in mathematics at least, we had progressed beyond the need for rote learning. Ponty would pose the problem, explain what sort of answer was to be sought, lead us steadily through to its resolution. Within a single and unforgettable geometry period I understood the famous theorem that Pythagoras was famous for, was able to prove the theorem geometrically. I understood, for all time, the simple and beautiful concept that the square on the hypotenuse must be equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
Then we would be given a rider (I loved riders) and would hand it in for marking.
Any differences between a free and disciplined approach to learning did not arise in Top Class. My only objection to Ponty's teaching of mathematics is that I came away with the clear, but erroneous, impression that Pi, the ratio of the length of a circle's circumference to the length of its diameter, was precisely 22/7. Whether Ponty was aware of transcendental numbers I cannot know.
Geography & History
At Ponty's, teaching in the lower forms was methodical. Take geography for example. In Form V(b) geography was taught by Ponty. It was an afternoon class; that meant we could do our prep. after dinner during rest.
The briefing for homework was always simple; learn page so-and-so. If it was page 23 we would open our school atlas at page 23 and learn it. Learn the name of every chief town by size of print, every important river by thickness of line, every state or province by its red boundary.
Twenty minutes of frantic cram, propped on one elbow, gazing at a map dated some years before I was born. Look at page 23 through half closed eyes to see if I remember the names of the blobs and wiggly lines. Tigris and Euphrates; that's easy, but which is which? There's Iraq. Or is it Persia? Where's Baghdad gone to?
My tummy never completely lost its butterflies before being tested by Ponty – whether on geography, Latin, geometry, or Holiday Verbs (ibid). Lying on my bed with the atlas was like sitting in a dentist's waiting room with Punch; a time of foreboding. Then would come the ordeal itself which was never as bad as I thought it would be.
End of rest; no more swotting. Find shoes among all those other shoes on the stairs (shoes not allowed in the dormitory) and go to class room. Take out ‘general’ book and wait for Ponty.
Ponty's geography equipment comprised two things: a world map, which he pinned over the black board, and Benjy with which to point at it.
‘Chief town there?’
Dip pen in ink well and write the question number against the left margin. After the question number write the name of the town pointed at. Write from memory; don't try to read it off the map on the wall, that's cheating. Dip pen in ink well and write ‘Baghdad.’ Write in copper-plate and with a capital B. Spell it correctly. If you spot a spelling mistake, cross out thewhole word and write it again. Miss any such detail, especially the one about crossing out and writing the whole thing again, and you must count your answer wrong.
Then the post mortem. There was always the post mortem.`What have you got, Williams?
‘I didn't put anything, sir.’
‘How did you spell it?’
‘Wrong, son, it's B,A,G,H,D,A,D. Give yourself half a mark. What did you have, Selkirk?’
‘Got it right, sir.’
Dip pen in inkwell and write R against a right answer, X against a wrong one. Mark your own work and mark it without cheating; the punishment for being caught cheating is too horrible to be worth the risk. R for honestly and completely right, otherwise X.
‘Ocean along this coast?’
‘Chief town here?’
‘Mountain range here?’
And so on, covering the natural and man-made features shown on page 23 of an atlas printed before I was born.
And sometimes, magic:
‘Does anyone know what Baghdad is famous for? You, Charters?’
‘Jute bags, sir?’(Giggles all round. Where on earth had he got jute bags from?)
‘No, son, not jute bags. Baghdad is famous for ...’
Ponty's digressions were digressions only from the drill and pattern of questioning; he would not stray, and could not be induced to stray, from the subject of the lesson. But when he digressed, the world became wonderful; a place of expanding possibilities and interests.
Inevitably the ritual of handing in marks:
For matters domestic and institutional there was Standing Order: for matters academic, which were limited to a few activities such as handing in marks, the order started with the boy who had come top last year; the order in which we sat along the benches in class. Every aspect of life at Ponty's had its order; Ponty was an organizer.
The other teaching staff, especially Bitch who stood on the window sill so she could catch the cheaters, adopted the same method of teaching; question, post mortem and marks. Whether this was by instruction or emulation I do not know. They followed Ponty's pattern but lacked his magic.
Dora, by contrast, was not an organizer.
Geography was disorganized. We made a world map on a sheet of plywood salvaged from a tea chest and drilled it with holes where cities were. The idea was to mount little light bulbs behind the holes and devise some kind of keyboard for lighting them selectively. It was a political map, not because of misplaced ideology but because it was easier to paint areas of solid colour than attempt gradations of green and brown. The Atlantic was shrunk along the latitudes so that the world would better fit the sheet of plywood available.
The world map was one of Paul's more ambitious schemes; fun to start but too tiresome to complete. The holes were drilled but no light bulbs ever mounted (Paul could probably not afford them and I doubt if there was enough money in Dora's kitty to buy them). Most things at Dora's were like that.
I ‘did’ Africa. I chose Africa because of family association. The work of ‘doing’ involved pasting magazine pictures of Africa into an exercise book, copying pictures of Africa from an encyclopedia, tracing maps from an atlas. Occasionally I summoned enough self discipline to write a sentence in the exercise book under an appropriate picture, but generally kept words out of it because they were hard work for me.
The term ‘project’ is used today to described what I was doing; in those days there was no word for it because few schools allowed geography to be confused with scissors and paste and paints. ‘Donald's doing Africa’ was how we phrased it.
Dora's approach is commonplace now but was novel in the 1930s.
History, too, had disparate treatment at Dora's.
Her declared aim was to eradicate nationalism from the teaching of history, make it international, reveal it as a history of world peoples rather than the quarreling and scrapping of Western nations over the last few hundred years.
Accordingly we started as near the beginning as we could get; the creation.
We were offered a theory, and allowed to doubt and debate it, about the formation of the universe which included the hypothesis of a bit flying off the earth to create the moon, leaving a hole where the Pacific now is (a theory thoroughly discounted now, as it probably was then, in best geological circles).
Then we did the dinosaurs. Today, dinosaurs appear in effigy in every elementary school, but not in those days! Nobody at Ponty's had heard of a brontosaurus or pterradactyl.
At Dora's we did eventually reach humanity; lots about cave men, a little about Rome. I remember something about King Arthur because of the knights in armour, but I don't think we reached anything as modern as the sixteenth century. The little I learned about Queen Elizabeth came from extra curricular sources.
We learned more about military tactics of the Bolsheviks than those of Henry V at Agincourt – not because the Russian revolution was taught as history (Dora disclaimed teaching anything that could be directly labelled politics) but because she loved talking about Bolsheviks and we enjoyed listening.
Our favourite story was one about Trotsy who had to steal the money he needed for the cause. He hid it in a stove. Then his friend came home and lit a fire in the stove which burned all the money, so Trotsky had to go and steal it all over again. I forget the actual names of the protagonists but believe Trotsky was one of them.
Around the fireside in winter Dora read us ‘The road to life’ which was, they told me, a scandalous book about life in revolutionary Russia. Visitors had expressed horror that children were permitted to read ‘The road to life.’ I enjoyed it tremendously because it was so scandalous, but didn't understand a word of it.
History at Ponty's was the most boring of all subjects. Its teaching followed the usual pattern of reading, for homework, the prescribed piece from our history book and being interrogated the next day, mostly about dates. ‘What was the date of the battle of...’
I never had Ponty for history and do not believe he taught it.
Our history book defined English history as a succession of monarchs and battles, precisely dated. The dates of battles were boring. Boys read with enthusiasm about weaponry, transport and medical knowledge – and consequently assimilate a rough but sensible time frame in which to fit the battles. Napoleon failed to use aeroplanes for much the same reason as machine guns played no part at Agincourt. As it was, if the correct date of a battle was 1456, then 1356 was no worse an answer as 1457. Neither got you a mark.
It was from this book we had to copy when awarded ‘lines’ as a punishment. I believe Ponty chose the twenty-five most boring lines in the whole boring book. Although I knew the first twenty-five lines by heart I never considered what they were saying; they were just lines of words like the catechism (ibid).(In my first year at the senior school we suffered ‘Cape History’ starting with Jan van Riebek and culminating in the Boer War. The book was even more boringly written than the one at Ponty's, so I took up Greek in senior school in order to drop history.)
For several years at Dora's I took French but left her school unable to construct even the simplest sentence in French apart from ‘Noo som tray fattigay’ which I had learned by rote. I knew ‘cushon’ and ‘poulle’, and a few other animal nouns illustrated in a baby text book, but was unaware – completely unaware – that nouns had gender or that verbs changed endings. French meant no more to me than substituting French words for English words on a one-for-one basis. I saw little point in it.
Lessons were spent sitting round a table with a book in front of us, being asked to read a sentence, having our pronunciation put right, laughing and jeering at each other's accents. I don't remember if we were expected to translate French sentences into English or somehow assimilate their meaning from the babyish illustrations (one was a bright blue bird carrying a letter in its beak). When it came to translating into French I was unable to manage a single word. I would wait for Dora to put a word in my mouth, then echo the sound through my nose, sometimes being complimented on a good French accent.
In my last year at Dora's I realized there was more to French than different words. That was because I had met a lovely Belgian lady in the holidays whose smell excited me, and who spoke French to me in a voice that made my tummy feel warm. But I don't remember putting extra effort into French when I got back to school.
I also had German lessons with Dora but have no recollection of learning a single German sentence or word (with the possible exception of ‘brief’, but whether ‘der’ or ‘das’ I know not). My only recollection is having ‘missed’ a German lesson and hearing Dora say how foolish I was to miss a language lesson.
Of all the teaching at Dora's, language was the most ineffectual. That is sad, because Dora had once read German and French at Oxford. It was her subject.
Language learning started on my first day at Ponty's – with Afrikaans and Latin.
Those in my class who came from rural areas already spoke Afrikaans, one or two spoke it fluently. All of them had had a year of Latin in the third form followed by a term and a half in the fourth (where I now started). So at first I had to go ‘down’ for Latin which meant remedial lessons in the library from Ponty's daughter-in-law. She was always kind. I memorized Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Amant with ease, being intrigued how the ending changed instead of a He, She or We being placed in front, an idea that should have been familiar after years of French, but wasn't.
I caught up eventually. Never quite to the top of the class, but I learned to speak Afrikaans tolerably, and passed my Holiday Verbs.
Holiday Verbs was an institution typical of Ponty, reflecting his genius at organization and incentive. He could use a carrot as well as a stick.
Kennedy's Latin Primer had pages and pages of verbs, their principal parts and English translation. Amo, Amare, Amavi, Amatum: to love. I cannot remember precise numbers, but I think there were about thirty pages of principal parts. We could learn these, if we wanted to, and ask Ponty to test us. Ponty would call out ‘to burn’ and we would reply ‘Ardo, Ardere, Ardi, Arsum.’ If we could do this for ten verbs without a mistake or self-correction we won our holiday – plus the sum of half a crown. Five weeks' pocket money! If we fumbled we had to wait a week before applying for another test.
Reg Gasson and I decided we would both have a go. We swotted, then tested each other by turns. Reg passed on his first try. I knew the verbs as well as he did, but my dread fear of Ponty undermined my power of recollection; I failed on the seventh verb. On the next try I failed on the eighth. After each attempt Ponty told me I was ‘getting too hot and bothered’ – which was a gross under-estimation of the turmoil within. I passed on my third attempt and Ponty said ‘Well done, son’ in such a warm tone I went away and quietly cried.
The ‘holiday’ was a day off school. We were given a large empty jam tin to serve as a billy can and a jute sack containing sausages, chops, potatoes, sugar, coffee, condensed milk, jam, butter, bread, and a box of matches. In those days it was not considered odd or dangerous to send a pair of thirteen-year-olds alone into the bush to light a fire, brew coffee and grill chops.(On the strength of Holiday Verbs I won the junior school Latin prize on graduating to St. Andrew's College. In 1951 Reg Gasson was shot down flying his Mustang over Korea, bailed out and broke a foot on hitting ground. He was imprisoned by the Chinese but eventually released.)
Afrikaans is a simple language, simpler than the High Dutch from which it derives. Apart from English it is the only Western language that has no gender, and that saves a lot of bother. If you can master the gutteral ‘g’, and a few awkward rules about changing the position of the verb after certain prepositions, you should be able to pick up Afrikaans.
For one holiday from Ponty's I was sent, with two friends, to a farm in the Great Karoo called Dagbreek (Day break) where the farmer's wife took English speaking South Africans for school holidays – with the aim of teaching them Afrikaans. Muvrou Moolman was educated, well read both in English and Afrikaans, a frustrated intellectual. Most of the students she took were older than we were; they came from St. Andrew's College and the D.S.G. (Diocesan School for Girls!), effectively the sister school. Muvrou Moolman's idea was noble, but although she tried hard to make it work it seldom did. None of us attempted to speak Afrikaans except at table, and when spoken to by Meneer or Muvrou who presided. Out of Muvrouw's hearing it was undignified to discuss anything to do with learning. The ethos of that era, in South Africa at least, was fundamentally anti-intellectual. Talking to one another in Afrikaans would have been too embarrassing; showing off; only wets or swots would do it. So we came away having absorbed none of the benefits Muvrouw Moolman so sincerely offered.(I was sent a second time to Dagbreek, this time from St. Andrew's College. We were all about sixteen then. On that holiday I read an Afrikaans novel from Muvrouw's library. It was called ‘Vreemde Vertes’ by Kootjie van den Heever. The novel had the perennial Afrikaaner theme of ‘Terug na die plaas’ (Back to the farm). But away from her hearing we spoke only English. Boring day after boring day we spent on the stoep, lounging on cushions and blankets to baffle the chill from the concrete floor, a record of Dorothy Squires or Frank Sinatra on the wind-up gramophone, never daring to make that longed-for pass at a D.S.G girl.
I never heard of Dagbreek being at the centre of a scandal or pregnancy. It was an age of arrested development, not just for me.)
I was six years old when I first poured dilute hydrochloric acid on zinc granules, watched the bubbles of hydrogen forming, felt the warmth of the exothermic reaction through the test tube in my hand. Chemistry was inherently interesting.
In my last year at Dora's, chemistry developed an industrial flavour. We insisted on doing things that had an end product. We made soap from animal fat and soda (caustic or washing; I can't remember which). We created a crumbly substance which lathered little and covered our hands in a thin film of odiferous grease. I tinted my soap ration with red ink and developed a strangely florid complexion.
More fun was photography. Harriet had been given a Kodak box camera and decided she would use the chemistry lesson to develop and print her own film.
Paul showed us how to do it. We raided the kitchen for enamel dishes. Paul made a safe light from a cheese box and toffee paper. He made a printing frame from an old picture surround and steel hairpins. He improved the blackout of the lab windows. (War-time blackout was strongly enforced at that time so conversion to a dark room was already half accomplished.)
We became an enthusiastic team; one member handling the printing frame, one shouting out plausible seconds (ONE hippopotamus, TWO hippopotamus, THREE hippopotamus...), one of us switching the light on and off, one developing the print, one fixing it, one washing it under a jet of water in the laboratory sink.
Harriet's contact prints were not bad considering the primitive equipment and uncertain cooperation. Despite our enthusiastic confusion nobody ever switched the lights on whilst a pack of printing paper lay open on the bench, or spilt hypo over the safe light.
Paul would not stop at contact prints. Somewhere he found an old bellows camera which he converted, despite assistance, into an enlarger. We projected Harriet's snap shots against printing paper pinned to the wooden door of the chemicals cabinet. Some good enlargements were made before the shops ran out of film and photographic paper. There was no hope of further supply until the end of the war.
My contribution to chemistry lessons was the suggestion we make fizzy lemonade. The idea came from Andrews Liver Salts being given me by some ‘Aunt’ (a family friend I think) on whom I was billeted for a school holiday. I see from the scientific article I wrote – for the only school magazine we ever produced – that the process of making fizzy lemonade involved sugar, tartaric acid and bicarbonated (sic) soda.
We enjoyed our chemistry lessons during the lemonade era. Harriet once put the activity in jeopardy by setting a match to Paul's hair which flared up, terrifying Harriet so much she couldn't say sorry. Paul took it very well and let us make lemonade after all.
The only serious accident happened while Dora was boiling acid in a crucible over her bunsen burner (for what reason I have not the faintest idea). Harriet wanted a closer look. She jogged something and the whole lot went over, splashing boiling and fuming acid all over the place. Dora rushed about among us, who were all screaming like mad, sprinkling us liberally with ammonia from a glass stoppered bottle. The only casualty, as I remember, were Roddy's corduroy shorts burnt right through. We sagely suggested the shorts should be sent to ‘The Invisible Menders’ (assuming those skilful people would achieve no less than their name implied) but Dora said it would be cheaper to buy a new pair of shorts.
We enjoyed chemistry; the dreary part came on Friday when Paul would write on the blackboard what we had done (to be more accurate, what we should have done) and we had to copy it into note books. The anguish of Friday notes! It took all our willpower to copy those blackboards. I copied word by word, never assimilating what I was copying, mucking about between words and making the agony last longer. If I had read the notes afterwards I might have learned something, but never did.
At Ponty's there was no science. The exception was a period on Saturday morning for Top Class only. I was at his school for two years before reaching Top Class.
The text book was ‘A Readable School Physics’ which had been published some time in the 1920's. Most copies had READABLE altered in school ink to UNREADABLE but that was misleading; it was readable and I loved it. Physics lessons followed Ponty's usual pattern: a chapter for homework, questions asked, post mortem, mark R or X, another question, and so on.
But Ponty's elaborations on what we had read were fascinating. He understood a lot about how the world worked and could explain its workings clearly.
One Saturday morning Ponty did not arrive to take physics, he had sent a deputy – a visiting cousin or something. He was a youngish man who, I discovered, knew nothing about how things worked. He failed to answer any of the questions I had prepared for that day. Smiled shyly and said ‘I don't know.’ A grown man teaching physics and he didn't know!
By the meagreness of our physics ration, and Ponty's occasional absence which deprived me of the little science there was, I deduced (I believe fairly) his motivating principles on the subject of science – and art too: Although fun, these subjects were not really important; the important things were the basic tools of learning (hand writing, spelling, grammar), also masculine sports, a sound grounding in Latin and mathematics, all in a firmly disciplined Christian atmosphere. O.K. for some!
On the last day of term at Dora's our work was laid out in the art lab for display: leather work, lino cuts, paintings, odd bits of carpentry. In the chemistry lab a frog was on display. It was cut open, its heart kept beating. The skin of its abdomen was stretched out on both sides and pinned to a bed of paraffin wax. The wax was weighted with lead shot to prevent the whole gruesome assembly rising to the surface of the water that covered it. I can't remember who the surgeon was, but he or she did the job with precision. I'm glad we were not encouraged to try our own hand at disembowelling.
Tadpoles, newts, pitcher plants, weeds of all kinds featured in the display. Botany and zoology were strongly represented at Dora's but I remember few details because they never interested me, except for the fate of the unfortunate end-of-term frog. Was it still thinking?
At Ponty's, Bitch used our bathroom. Her room was next door to it, just down the corridor and opposite the rack of Sunday bashers. She got up before any of us and bolted the bathroom door. For the duration of her shower, at which I do not doubt she lathered herself under the icy downpour for several long minutes, boys would creep along the passage to watch her ablutions through a hole bored by pen-knife through a door panel and sealed by day with Lifebuoy soap. Why anyone would risk the wrath of Ponty for a sight of Bitch naked I could never understand.
At Dora's we knew the shape of bodies. We swam naked, played on the lawns naked. Once we induced Dora to come and sunbathe naked. It was a solemn occasion; she was led to the lawn by the older girls, the rest of us being a bit embarrassed. But she lived up to her dictum that if the weather was warm it was natural to take your clothes off.
At Dora's, boys and girls shared the bathtubs and occasionally slept together. It seemed natural for boys to seek out girls' beds for warmth, but only on the coldest nights because the school divans were too small to sleep two in comfort.
So there was not much mystery about bodies at Dora's, although we were never formally taught about sex. At one council meeting everything went hush as Dora told us what all the rude words meant: ‘fuck’ meant ‘to mate’ which was an anti-climax. I do not remember how she dealt with the others.
There was, of course, biology. Tadpoles, newts, frogs, slow worms caught and kept in old glass fish tanks. And there was physiology. For text books on human physiology we had two large layered cardboard bodies, one male, one female. The outer layer showed the skin, the next the veins, and so on to the organs and skeletons. I cannot remember how explicit were the reproductory aspects except there was no pubic hair and several attempts were made to rectify the deficiency.
Physiology was not my best or favourite subject but I remembered some of it. Several days at Ponty's passed before anyone got wind of the fact that I held this special knowledge.
A remark that we wore no bathing costumes at my previous school excited no interest at Ponty's; they, too, swam kaalgat in the dam at home. The remark that my previous school was co-educational fell flat also because nobody knew what it meant. Only when I spoke of a ‘girl’ at my school did somebody connect girls with absence of bathing costumes. The news spread through the school at remarkable speed. I became interesting; for a short while even popular. I was consulted by groups at the highest social level.
I had learned the essential terminology of the process of procreation and was therefore able to pass my knowledge on to others, older but less fortunate. I knew, for example, that the man had a peeners and a woman a vulvers. Putting one into the other was coyters.
I made no claim to omniscience because aspects still baffled me. I had overheard adult gossip about an ‘unwanted baby’ but failed to understand why its parents had subjected themselves to this extraordinary procedure unless they had wanted it. And there was the Swede who came to Dora's to stay with Juliet. For our entertainment (he obviously intended it for our education) he blew up a French letter like a baloon, explaining its true purpose which was to enable him to go through those extraordinary motions of coyters without having a baby. Very odd. And the French letter was ENORMOUS.
The science of mating, upon which I spoke with authority, had nothing to do with the mysterious subject of ‘girls.’ Fantasies about ‘girls’ (accompanied by hours of painful erection through ignorance of the mechanism of relief) started as far back as I remember. Strongly heterosexual were those fantasies, but coyters played no part in them.
My audience, however, tended to confuse my discourse on mating with the mysterious subject of ‘girls.’ But even here I had the edge; I knew about sanitry!
I was sure of the name because Brenda used to tie things called sanitry towels between her legs. She was proud of her condition and called us to admire the deep red blobs she left on the lavatory seat. They smelled horrible. When she had this trouble we said ‘Brenda's got sanitry again.’
I explained sanitry and found nobody knew the name. One said he had heard of it before and it was called ‘changies.’ Another one said it was called ‘the curse’, but I maintained that if you needed sanitry towels then the proper name must be ‘sanitry.’ That was logical.
I did not understand the connection between sanitry and babies, indeed I was not certain there was any connection. So I let sanitry remain as much a mystery to my audience as it was to me.
The lack of connection between coyters and ‘girls’ (indeed, between girls at Dora's and ‘girls’) probably had less to do with Dora's educational system, more to do with my family predicament. The last time I had been overtly and lovingly cuddled was at the age of four by my Auntie Jean, and even she had been reticent about it. My emotional development was evidently stunted; I was fourteen before discovering masturbation.
Arts & Crafts
A gentle art teacher came weekly to Ponty's from outside – probably from the teacher training college; Grahamstown was full of colleges. She would ask us to draw something (I remember once it was a stained glass window) then go round helping. One art period a week was the limit of her attendance, so there was little else she could do to exercise our talents.
Picture a typical school art room. It would have pictures pinned to the wall, half finished clay pots on shelves, papier maché masks on picture hooks, buckets of brown and white clay on the floor, poster paints in jars on trestle tables, finger paints, shoe boxes filled with lino-cutters and squeegees, a sink full of paint brushes. All art rooms are like that today. They weren't then.
Ponty's school simply had no art room; just class rooms. Classroom walls were bare; painted in the mould green and shit brown popular in Victorian institutions. Wooden desks and benches carved with the initials of those gone before (nobody would have dared carve a desk in our time). Deep V-shaped grooves burned into the edges of the woodwork by rapidly sawing with the edge of a ruler until the contact area smoked and blackened (and the ruler thereafter produced curved lines). Ink wells at boy-spaced intervals, some with cleanish ink, others bunged up with a gunge of supurating blotting paper. An all-pervading classroom smell of ink, damp caps, blazers and disinfectant.
At Ponty's there was no carpentry, no metal work, no pottery, no handicrafts of any kind. Before my arrival, I was told, there had been a craze for assembling balsa wood aeroplane kits, and a room had been set aside for it, but that had now become a staff bedroom. There was nowhere – not even a trestle table – on which to construct anything. An attempt to build a crystal set in the locker room, squatting on the floor, ended with one of the rawfs treading, with evident satisfaction, on the carefully laid out pieces: ‘How am I supposed to get to my locker, man? Your stuff's in the way.’
At Dora's the art lab (we called it ‘lab’ despite reminders that it was not a laboratory) was like the art room of today's schools – visitors would say they had seen nothing like it before. When I first arrived it had abundant stocks of paints, papers, clays, skins of leather, but over the years they were used up.
The art lab was run, in my later years, by Grete who taught drawing, painting, and any art or craft that took our fancy. If one of us elected to do leather work on a particular day the others wanted to do leather work too, but were encouraged first to finish whatever they had started the previous period. Tenacity was not a strong point at Dora's; enthusiasms were strong but short lived.
Grete had talent! She could do anything.
The medium I enjoyed was lino-cut. It was absorbing and provided quick results. But it had a unique disadvantage; once you had driven the gouge into what was supposed to remain an area of solid black, neither piety nor wit could lure it back to ungouge half an inch. And there was no point in crying about it; the print would show a white gash.
If you engrave words on the lino they get printed in looking-glass form. Roger, who had a sensitive touch at crafts, cried when his laboriously carved name translated itself into what looked like Russian. We learned mirror writing the hard way.
Once we produced for Open Day a school magazine called ‘Come this way’ as you see it here. The means of reproduction was the most painful imaginable; Dora – and possibly other staff – typed the text several times, each time with as many carbons as the machine would take. Top, intermediate and bottom copies were distributed as fairly as possible among the finished magazines. All the illustrations were by lino cut, those for the front cover being individually water coloured by Grete. Every copy was bound in legal fashion in orange silken ribbon. I have a copy still; it may be the only one in existence.
At Ponty's nobody had heard of lino-cut.
Graphic art found a place in everything at Dora's. All our notes – history, geography, biology, physiology, even mathematics – we managed to illustrate in some way. Grete willingly gave personal instruction if you asked her for it; I kick myself, now, for not asking for it enough.
Carpentry was enthusiastically run by Paul. Carpentry lessons (we made what we pleased and seldom finished anything) were a cacophony of bangs and shouts:
‘After you with the hammer.’
‘After you with the saw!’
‘You're not using it! I said “After you with the hammer!” ’
‘Haven't finished yet!’
The fish-bone glue (we called it fish-bone but I believe it was made from hides and hooves) was kept hot in its double boiler. It was popular because it stuck quickly, and we grew to like the smell of it.
During my years at Dora's the art lab, as well as the carpentry shop and chemistry lab, grew steadily shorter of materials.
By the time I left Beacon Hill School the art lab had no piece of leather big enough to make a purse or comb case, no coloured inks for lino-cuts, no sticks of charcoal, no glue other than home-made flour paste which went black with mould and stank, in fact nothing much at all. The poster paints had amalgamated and degenerated into a uniform pink blancmange. The only paper to draw or paint on was the remains of a roll of news print salvaged by Dora or Pat from a Fleet Street waste bin. And a sample book of wall papers. What was left of the clay had dried to rocky lumps.
In the carpentry shop Paul's enthusiasm survived all deprivation. By the time he arrived most of the tools had been lost or broken; those that remained were blunt and rusty. There were no materials to work with – no timber, no nails, no screws – except what we could salvage from tea chests and grocery boxes.
The carpentry shop was where I liked to be; I went there in free time just for its atmosphere. For fun I devised a firework game, pushing a copper soldering iron into a live light socket so as to send sparks showering all over the work bench beneath. When I showed Paul he told me earnestly that what I was doing was very dangerous indeed, so I didn't do it again when he was there.
At Ponty's the problem was altogether different. There was no question of materials running out because there were no materials (except standard-issue drawing books and pencils) to run out of. If we wanted colour we had to provide our own paint box or wax crayons.
But art was not altogether neglected at Ponty's. On the last Monday of each term he laid on a veritable orgy of art. It was called School Drawing. It did, true to name, involve the whole school.
On the evening of the final Friday of term Ponty would declare the School Drawing Theme; three that I remember depicting are Music, An Accident, The Journey Home.
We were given the prep. period on Friday evening, and whatever spare time we wished to devote to art during the week end, to draw and colour a picture on the declared theme.
Monday was judgement day.
Class by class we would line up in front of Ponty, his teaching staff sitting behind him as deferential art advisors. Each boy held his effort against his chest like a human easel. Then Ponty would pontificate: This picture was better than that: That one better than this: This better than that. Human easels were exchanged and shuffled until he was satisfied that we and our efforts were arranged in order of artistic merit.
If Ponty did not understand what was depicted he would ask the artist directly:
‘What's that black thing with legs; there on the left?’
‘A horse, sir.’
‘Oh!’ (tittering from art advisors, smirks from a few daring human easels) ‘Looks more like an octopus, son.’
Finally the pay-off. The best artist was awarded sixpence, the next best three-pence (the coin was known, in South Africa, as a ‘tikkie’), the third best a penny.
There was no disgrace in coming bottom. Indeed, it enhanced the esteem of a good rawf to be at the end, away from the artists at the top of the line who were liable to be wets.
One craft was preserved at Ponty's, that of carving your name into wood. In the corridors, mounted high on the walls, were some ancient blackboards carved all over with names of former pupils. Anyone could apply to carve his name, but it was well to have distinguished yourself in some way, like playing cricket for the first team, or some other sport, or even a wet thing like being a year in Top Class. Then a step ladder would be provided and you could carve your name into the blackboard's surface. The result looked like the American Declaration of Independence, some names (like John Hancock's) written huge, others modestly, some precisely executed, others badly.
I never applied to carve my name, retaining to the end a feeling I did not belong to St. Andrew's Prep, I was there because of the war, they did not want me there, I would return to England.
Comparing Dora's methods with Ponty's it seems inevitable her school would have provided inspired candidates for the Royal Academy, whereas Ponty would have set loose a bunch of Philistines. I have no evidence these things happened, and do not believe they did to any extent. But I would guess that visual art, and delight in crafts, has meant more in the lives of Dora's former pupils over the years than to Ponty's.
When parents and guardians came to Dora's to collect us at end of term we performed a play for them. Our play. We had rehearsed it, made the props, sewn the costumes. Above all, we had written it. A weekly school period called ‘Play’ was taken more seriously than any other, and Dora herself took us for it.
Dora sat with note-pad and pencil at the head of a long table compounded of several small tables; we sat round.
Anyone who wanted to act was allowed to be in the play. During the first Play period of term we reached a democratic decision on what the theme of the play was to be and what parts we wanted to play. Dora did her best to accommodate.
One of the plays was called ‘The Feast of the Gods.’ Dora had read us, the previous term, some of Kingsley's ‘Heroes’ and everyone wanted the theme to be Olympian. Not me; Greek mythology held no interest whatever. The previous holiday I had seen a film about a British submarine; the part I had in mind was a brutally tough sailor called Jack who had a sheath knife and a navy blue jersey. Dora did not say no, but used her wiles (years afterwards I read she was famous for her wiles) and said of course I could play a sailor if I wanted to, but wouldn't Poseidon be a better name than Jack? I thought not, but she said Poseidon would fit in better with the theme and I felt disposed to give way. Democratic principle had taken root.
The play was written by everyone calling out the lines he or she wanted to speak: ‘I'm going to come in and say “Ha ha! Caught you! I arrest you in the name of the law!”’ Sometimes we suggested lines that others should speak: ‘Let Harriet say “Because you're the sort of person I don't like!”’
Dora would smile the lofty benign smile she reserved for taking Play, and either commit the speech to her note pad or convince its contributor, without discouragement, that it was not entirely appropriate. She appeared to impose no ideas of her own (indeed, we would beg her to compose lines for us, knowing how brilliant they were bound to be) but all she did was maintain a sense of order and filter out our duller, more stupid, more blood thirsty contributions. And somehow she stimulated and steered us towards moulding a form and shape from the chaotic raw material called out to her.
By half term the play was supposed to be written. We noted strain in Dora if it wasn't, trying hard to give the play an ending as soon as we could think of one.
Then she would type the whole play and give us carbon copies of our parts. Rehearsals had begun. We rehearsed with copies in our hands until we knew the lines well enough to do without; I cannot remember formally memorizing my lines.
At this stage the dancing mistress began work on the musical numbers. Not all our plays had musical numbers (the political play about the League of Notions with Highly Silly-Assie, as I remember, did not) but most did. The one with Greek gods gave plenty of scope for musical numbers; semi-naked nymphs in laurels leaping. We liked doing the musical numbers.
Props were made in the carpentry shop or art lab. For The Feast of the Gods, in which I played Poseidon in the mould of a tough British sailor, the art mistress (the one before Greta; I don't remember her name) made a goblet. She soaked a hard brick of clay until kneadable, then threw a beautiful Greek goblet on our potter's wheel.
We had a wheel but no kiln; there was no hope of firing and glazing the goblet. When it had dried she painted it with poster paint in Greek colours; it looked wonderful. But on the day of the play, when she took it from the art room cupboard, it was all furry and green with mould. She painted over the mould just in time for the performance, and the goblet looked wonderful from a distance, but the gods were unhappy sipping from the wet edge and wiped their mouths with painty hands.
The whole of this play was recored by Dora in Volume 2 of The Tamarisk Tree.
At the end of Ponty's term there was no drama; not even reading parts in class. Parents did not collect their sons during the war years – there was no petrol – so there was nobody for us to entertain. On the last evening of term we entertained the reluctant and long-suffering staff of South African Railways instead. We walked to the station, about a hundred in all, scanned semi-legible lists posted on the station notice board to find our allotted sleeping berths, dumped our rugs and suit cases in them, then ran shouting up and down the corridor to see where our friends were berthed. We confused and infuriated the ticket collector, and gave adult passengers a foretaste of the long noisy night to come. Two nights if you were going to Cape Town.
During my final year at Ponty's there was, suddenly and for no declared reason, an evening of drama. It was not organized by Ponty; I believe it was good old Bitch who had the idea and made it work.
The drama evening was held in the dining room, attended by all pupils and most staff (not Ponty), and watched through an open window by several domestics.
Bitch produced two plays, one in English and one in Afrikaans. The play in English was modelled, I think, on a theme sometimes used in games of charades; the boy next to me said he had seen it before and knew what was going to happen. The play in Afrikaans was based on a story in the reading book we used in class. Bitch produced these plays with more humanity than I had seen her display ever before.
She invited individual turns: We heard Berrington sing to his ukelele in a style made popular, years later, by Burl Ives. She invited one of the boys who could speak Xosa (a farmer's son), with the help of three lesser Xosa speakers, to produced a play which nobody could follow except the shadowy figures watching through the open window. Their natural belly laughter infected the rest of us and the Xosa play was a huge success.
I was given a small part in Bitch's Afrikaans play as the clerk in a village shop. Afrikaans is strong stuff; my longest line went as follows:
‘Ag! Nee, Meneer de Bruin, di's mos nie 'n dorp waar daar roewery en inbraak plaasvind nie!’
This was to reassure the owner of the shop, who had just missed the bank and so had to leave money in his safe, that this wasn't the kind of village where break-ins and robberies took place.
There was, of course, to be a bit of inbraak and roewery; it involved a pair of burglars transporting the small safe (called a ‘brandkas’) through a window, at which point a gun would go off and people rush in.
Bitch had, in fact, consulted us about the necessary bang (a rare thing, at Ponty's, to be consulted about anything) and we contributed several ideas, like setting off a Chinese cracker (you could buy them in town) or slapping two plywood paddles together. Bitch thought our suggestions too dangerous or too complicated; she preferred someone with a loud voice shouting ‘Bang!’ off stage. (If Ponty had done it we should all have jumped out of our skins.) In the event, and being busy with production, she forgot to organize anything at all.
When the moment for the gun shot arrived the actors froze: the burglars holding the brandkas aloft by the window, the policeman in the wings wondering when to rush in, Meneer de Bruin crouching behind him, all waiting for a bang and wondering what sort of bang it would be. They closed their eyes and clenched their teeth.
After several seconds Bitch volunteered a rather embarrassing bang from the front row of stalls but it was not convincing; the audience thought it was a prompt or stage direction. The policeman rushed in, sort of.
The play proceeded to its conclusion, and was generously applauded, but few had understood what had occurred. Most blamed their incomprehension on the inadequacy of their Afrikaans.
The English play was altogether more relaxed. It was set in a Turkish bath. The receptionist was John Malcomess in convincing drag. He was afterwards importuned by some of the rawfs who said She was shit hot, man!. He never lived it down; it followed him to St. Andrew's College.
That was the limit of drama at Ponty's.
A special ritual at Dora's was also worthy of the name ‘drama.’ It was begun before my time by Paul Gaillard – Dora's lover whose unexplained death, a few years before, she recounts in her autobiography. His ritual was enacted every midsummer night.
During summer we slept in tents on the lawn, on a bag filled with straw unless you were lucky enough to have your own camp bed and sleeping bag as a few of us did. On midsummer night Dora or Juliet or another of the staff would call round the tents to wake us at about eleven o'clock. We would run to the lavatories to retrieve the floral or laurel wreathes we had made during the day and left in cold water in the hand basins to keep fresh. The drips ran icy down our backs and fronts as we put the wreaths on our heads; the idea was to be as unclad as possible and this was the worst part of it. We later warmed ourselves in front of an enormous bonfire kindled earlier in the day and now past blazing so we could cook dough sticks, potatoes and sausages in the glowing coals and ashes.
At midnight Dora had us hold hands round the fire and dance round it singing. On the stroke of midnight we would fling our wreathes into the fire.
Dora organized three-legged races, tug-o-war, and Dora-like games I have not seen or heard of since, all in the middle of the night. Then we would go back to our tents and try to sleep.
Midsummer night at Dora's had a wonderfully pagan feel to it.
My Auntie Jean was a piano teacher; a gold medalist at the London Academy of Music. She would play and sing whilst I sat in her lap and contribute arbitrary notes with a forefinger. I could name all the pieces she played, but never imagined I would one day play the piano myself. It was something others would do – not me.
That attitude seems to me as tenable now as it did then. We admire buildings without wishing to become architects, paintings without dabbling in oils, so why not music without learning the piano? Because I could march in time to music, and sing in tune, I was made to learn the piano – which I did not want to do.
At Dora's this was tedious but no problem. An old-fashioned lady came to give piano lessons. She was pleasant; probably frightened, initially, when asked to teach barbarians in a mad school, but we soon grew to like each other. She took the whole class for ‘theory’ which was extremely easy if you could remember a few terms and do simple arithmetic. ‘How may quavers to a minim?’
Piano lessons were individual. She would say I hadn't practiced – which was true – but I would say I had. And so it went for another week. I didn't go near the piano in the interim.
At Ponty's my piano teacher was ‘Aunt Nonie’, Ponty's elderly, jovial, rotund and spinster sister.
Few of us took piano lessons. Of those of who did, nobody except Reg Gasson could play anything. He came to the school with a small repertoire, and left, two years later, with much the same. It included a hymn which he played for the school on the only occasion Aunt Nonie was absent from morning prayers.
Taking music was mostly disadvantageous. In the magical weekly period when Ponty read us ‘The Call of the Wild’ by Jack London, or similar novel about brave manhood, the classroom door would open and half of Aunt Nonie come in. She would smile at her brother and ask ‘Can I have Alcock?’ and so destroy my vicarious heaven.
But there was one advantage to having music lessons. Aunt Nonie had a bicycle which she was able to ride only down hill; the school was up the hill.
She lived in a wondrous house of thatched and interconnected rondavels. The house was half a mile down the hill in a vale. When you had an early music lesson you would get up early, walk down the hill to her house, have the lesson, be given a mug of sweet hot coffee by her smiling – and equally rotund – Xosa maid, then ride her bicycle back up the hill to school so it would be there ready for her evening free-wheel home. The early lesson was a treat.
For music lessons at Ponty's I adopted the same tactics as at Dora's: not going near a piano between lessons except to play chop-sticks or ‘In the Mood.’ She always said I hadn't practiced and I always said I had.
The lesson was often physically painful. She was proud of her technique of making her pupil play the right notes by gripping his hand and squeezing his fingers onto appropriate keys. I would watch, fascinated, the writhings of mating octopus; hers a maze of blue and magenta veins under a hump of old transparent skin; mine a squashed, pink and defeated creature shooting out involuntary tentacles to strike the notes.
I never watched the dots on the music sheet.
Yet Ponty's was not without music. Every morning we sang a hymn, several on Sundays. Aunt Nonie at the Piano, Ponty next to her, singing a fine bass part, perfectly in tune. We, treble voiced, were graded in rows of ability.
Once a week we had secular singing. An archaic song book with ‘Hearts of Oak’ and ‘The minstrel boy’ and ‘Early one morning.’ A professional music teacher came to play the piano and coach us. This lesson was taken seriously. If you wanted to be beaten by Benjy, the surest course was to rawf during singing.
Of dancing there was none; the idea of Ponty condoning dancing lessons is absurd. Marching, certainly, but not dancing.
At Dora's singing and dancing were part of life. We sang at birthday parties and we sang when we felt like it. The songs I remember were the revolutionary ones like Ubunti Popolar (or was it Avanti Popula? Populi?) of which more elsewhere. Our school song had words written, I think, by us; it was sung to a tune by Prokoviev. The lines were much like those of the revolutionary songs: for example, ‘A school in which we are free!’
Dancing was fun too. Harriet and I did a very lively polka to the rhythm of ‘One-two-three-hop, one-two-three-hop’ during which we covered a lot of ground.
Miss Biggs came to teach dancing. Her name accurately defined her figure. To coach us she would sit on one of our tiny van Goch chairs which she overflowed copiously. One day someone (one of the girls, not me) put a drawing pin on the chair and Miss Biggs shouted ‘Ooh crumbs!’ when she sat on it. That's all she did. It shows what a good sort she was.
Dancing and singing got into nearly all our plays; they were part of life.
Dora said religion was nonsense and most of us were happy to agree with her; she enjoyed our efforts to make fun of it. Sunday at Dora's was a day off like Saturday except there was no walk to High Littleton to spend pocket money.
Not everyone agreed with Dora on matters of religion. I did, but Mary was Roman Catholic (it was from her I first learned the term ‘Roman Catholic’) and told us about godmothers who gave presents, and about church in the holidays. She made it a profound feminine mystery, prayers under the bedclothes (I could hear her devotional mutterings; she was in the next bed) and talking of saints and feast days.
Mary gave us instruction in the matter of prayer: whisper the names of those in your family, one by one, and ask God to bless them, then ask for something for yourself. It always came true for her, she said.
That impressed us.
Harriet and I tried it. Harriet told me, in the manner of someone carrying out a scientific experiment, that her prayers had often come true. Mine never did, despite fervent blessings on all I knew and the modest – sometimes meagre – measure of my request, like finding a lost nut or bolt from something I had taken to pieces and wished I hadn't.
After one or two weeks of fruitless praying under the bedclothes I gave up religion and went back to sexual fantasies.
One holiday I was billeted on a family where Peter, my own age, actually believed in God! He was shocked when I said I thought it was all nonsense: ‘NO! It's true! It's true!’
His parents made me go with Peter to Sunday school and it was the most embarrassing thing I had ever been made to do. More embarrassing, even, than church itself, because at Sunday school you got personal attention. Horribly personal. A man with a damp mouth told me to read aloud a passage from the Bible.
How could I do such a thing? I pleaded I hadn't brought my glasses – which was technically true but far from honest because I never bothered to wear my glasses at that time. I strenuously maintained I wasn't allowed to read without glasses. He said it was only a short passage – just five short lines – and then we would all discuss it. But with the authority of medical science behind me I would not be deflected from my elected silence.
Somebody else read the passage.
Furthermore I stayed silent during hymns (someone might hear me – how embarrassing can you get?) because I wasn't allowed to read the small print in the hymn book.
At that Sunday school I could find nobody to share the current absurdity with; nobody to wink at or giggle with; Peter was taking it seriously; they were all taking it seriously. It was not until the next term at Dora's that I was able to get the experience off my chest; how I was made to go to Sunday school in the holidays. Yaaaa!
At Ponty's, things were different.
Religion was imposed from above like the cold shower before breakfast. Like the shower, religion was authoritarian, unchallengeable and unkind. Only once did I ask a friend if he believed in it and he said ‘Of course!’ without enthusiasm but in a tone that warned against further probing. An admission of my own disbelief would have been dangerous at Ponty's.
Ponty believed his religion deeply. He watched over us as we knelt at the ends of our beds to say our prayers, said grace before every meal he took with us, intoned prayers every morning at Standing Order, sang the bass part of the morning hymn sonorously and accurately in tune, marched us down the aisle of Grahamstown Cathedral on Sunday mornings in our blue suits and carrying our straw hats, took prayers on Sunday evening at which he not only intoned the prayers but also read the lesson and preached a sermon (always inspiring, never boring) built around manly metaphors. In all these devotions his expression reflected the massive foundation of his belief. He projected no doubts; he simply knew what was right and true.
At first the things I had to say and do at Pony's embarrassed me; I spoke the words of the Lord's prayer in the manner of a ham actor so that nobody listening would think I meant it. But after a while, saying prayers and singing hymns became mechanical and unthinking, as it had ever been for those all around me.
I began to ask myself if Dora had been wrong after all. I would have stood so upright, appeared so wholesome, in striving to conform to Ponty's ideal instead of being the sniveling wet that I was. Life cast in Ponty's mould would have been altogether easier.
Yet a certain puzzle I could never resolve: At Dora's, where there was no religion, where ‘love’ was never mentioned, the staff seemed to like us, we liked the staff, and, for the most part, were kind to each other. At Ponty's the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost were fed to us every day, but the staff were, at their best, discouraging of original thought – and we were horrible to each other. I cannot count the times I heard quoted, by Ponty and most other staff, the bit about Jesus not being a sissy because he got angry and made a whip.
Religion featured not only in punishments, in grace, in prayers; it was strong in Ponty's academic curriculum.
A regular item of homework was ‘Cat’ which began as a mystery and remained so until my second dose of muscular Christianity at the senior school where I learned about ‘confirmation.’
‘What is “Cat” please?’
It was explained to me by the boy whose job it was to write our homework tasks on the blackboard that cat was short for ‘catechism.’ That was no help because I had not heard of catechism either. He said we had to learn a set number of lines off by heart from our cat books. When we reached the end of the cat book we would start again. I had arrived at Ponty's towards the end of a term, but by coincidence the class I joined was just starting again. Tonight's homework was lines 10 to 20 so I thought it best to start at line 1 to get the feel of it.
‘What is your name?’
‘N or M’
‘Who gave you that name?’
‘My Godfather and my Godmother in my Baptism wherein I was made a child of Christ (or something like that, long forgotten) and an Inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven.’
‘What did your Godfather and Godmother then for you?’
‘They did promise and vow three things in my name...’ And so on, and so on. (I could easily check the above, but prefer to leave it as I remember it after half a century.)
I learned it, and next day regurgitated every word. On the instruction ‘Write out your catechism’ we dipped our pens in the ink well and wrote what we had memorized; questions, answers and all, just as it was in the cat book. It had no meaning, nor was any meaning explained. (The bit I never resolved, through three and a half years at that school, was the N or M. Whose name could possibly be N or M? I was happy with x in algebra but remained unable to apply the same principle in a divine context.)
Prayers and hymns were a daily ritual, learning and regurgitating cat was a weekly ritual, but the religious extravaganza of the year was held on Good Friday.
We had no holiday on Good Friday, Ponty gave us an all-day scripture exam instead. A biblical Marathon.
As when I learned the news about compulsory cold showers, I didn't believe the boy who first told me what would happen on Good Friday, but soon discovered he was telling a truth as chilling as the shower.
After said cold shower, standing order with the chance of watching someone being beaten, breakfast, parade, inspection of hands and caps, after roll call – the whole school crammed itself into the three front classrooms, dividing doors folded back to make them one.
And Ponty began.
The form and structure of the scripture test was the same as for all Ponty's examinations:
Ponty: ‘What did Adam do when God called to him?’
Number the question and write ‘He tried to hide’ legibly in ink.
Seconds later, the immediate post mortem.
Ponty: ‘What have you got, Jones?’
Jones: ‘He covered himself up, sir?’
Ponty: ‘Yes, he tried to hide himself. Mileson?’
Mileson: ‘I didn't put anything, sir.’
Then raised hands, ingenious variants on the correct answer, petitioning for a mark.
‘He was frightened, sir?’
‘Yes, van Tonder, Adam was frightened, and understandably so, but the question was what did he do. Sorry, no mark, son.’
Some appeals were successful, some awarded half a mark, some nothing.
Write R against your answer in ink, X if you got it wrong, and don't cheat by filling in the answer to the previous question which you deliberately left blank. (Ponty would often tell us that this was the way to cheat if we really wanted to, but I had seen him bruising the buttocks of those who were caught at it and never dared.)
Anyone would think our Good Friday would last eternally, a long and miserable tedium, but it was not so; Ponty generated magic more than fear. Tedium comes from inattention and disruption; Ponty's lessons were never in danger of disruption; a little inattention or shuffling had someone out in front of the school, bent over, sent back to his place frantically rubbing his buttocks under the kindly spoken ‘Give it a good rub, son.’
Ponty was never boring. He made the scripture examination interesting by finding modern parallels to biblical passages, explaining why Christianity was the one true religion, explaining how we could live fine moral lives if we understood the meaning and followed the Church's lessons on the Bible, telling us of the fine things he had seen Christians do in the last war, what fine things they were doing in this. And to us it never sounded trite or pompous.
By mid morning we had done the Old Testament and launched into the New. After dinner, after the rest on our beds (during which only enthusiasts swatted up on the New Testament) there was a further hour or so of questions. I can't remember when or where they stopped: I think we reached the resurrection at about three o'clock, omitting Paul's missionary journeys, though we might have covered his blinding light.
Then we took stock.
‘How many questions did we have, Richman?’
‘Two hundred and seventeen, sir.’
‘Anyone over two hundred?’
Slight stirring and giggling. Did he expect anyone with that many?
‘Over a hundred and fifty? Yes, Richman, how many? A hundred and seventy three. Anyone beat that? Nobody. You're top this year again Richman, come and stand behind me.’
And so on until the whole school formed a disciplined line, starting behind Ponty and curling almost completely round the walls of the three joined classrooms. Ordered from the pious and bright, through to the slowest and most stupid. From the holy to the damned.
Our eyes scanned the lengthening line (it was unwise to attract Ponty's attention by leaning out of line) to see whom we had beaten and who had beaten us. ‘Beat’ was the word. Poor Mileson, as expected, in his accustomed place at the bottom, beaten by all of us.
Even in my first year, when reading the Bible was a new and unwelcome experience, I managed without cheating to stay well clear of the end of that line. My parrot-like memory for euphonic cadences, especially of biblical English, supplied many right answers to Ponty's articulate questions.
But I knew it was all nonsense.
There are many definitions of ‘religion’, some based on divine belief, others on secular ideals. Dora's school lacked the divine, but her belief in certain patterns of social behaviour was as deep as Ponty's faith in God. How, indeed, could either of them dare offer to house and educate other people's children, twenty-four hours a day, without the sustaining belief that she or he would impart to those children only what was right?
At Dora's we had plenty of secular religion but never as a lesson, never as formal education. We absorbed her religion from activities and general atmosphere. Uncle Joe Stalin was a good man who looked after his people; you could see his kindness in his twinkling eyes. On May day we took red paint and brushes from the art lab and daubed a hammer and sickle on every window pane.
I knew by heart several revolutionary songs, one of which was written by, or for, the Soviet Air Force which went:
Fly high-yer, and high-yer, and h-i-i-i-igh-YER!
The ham-mer, the sick-le, the star,
For ev-ree propel-ler is r-o-o-o-a-ring,
Defending the U. S. S. R !
In the third line of the verse, some were supposed to sing ‘r-o-o-o-a-ring’ and others to keep the ‘roaring’ short so as to fit ‘RED FRONT!’ very sharply and very loudly at the end of the line. But eventually we had all defected to the explosive RED FRONT camp, leaving nobody to do the background roar. It spoiled the effect.
And we sang ‘Ubunti Pop-alar’ with its refrain of ‘The scarlet banner! The scarlet banner!’ And there was, of course, the good old Red Flag with cowards flinching and cravens fearing. ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ came nowhere near these for inspiration.
Secular religion provided embarrassments too. When we went to the cinema to see ‘The good earth’ I did as Dora and the others did; remained seated during the national anthem. Those near us stared, muttering things about disgusting behaviour and what an example our teachers were setting. It was unpleasant, but we told each other afterwards how much we had enjoyed it. Precisely what we were declaring by this behaviour I never understood, but Dora obviously did, and that was enough. We were brought up in her faith.
After twelve years of my life in boarding schools I consider I have done my porridge. But at Ponty's, porridge was the best part of the day. There was plenty of porridge, always a choice of two; oatmeal and another. The other might be wheat meal, mealie meal, malted mabela,... South Africa is rich in porridges. And there was a choice of brown or white sugar. The brown was dark, fine and soft with lumps of molasses.
There are things to be said against Ponty's school, but it would be churlish to malign the breakfast. It was good. After porridge there was something hot; scrambled egg, or a mash of kidneys on fried bread. And a choice of tea or coffee.
The dinner at midday was good, too. A choice of meat, with rice or potato or both, a choice of four vegetables from which you were obliged to include one of the green ones. And the pudding was usually good. That was it, really. Supper was a meagre let-down: bread, jam, tea. Or a dry cake and bread but no jam. The long fast gave a good appetite for breakfast next day.
Ponty's organization of the dining room was meticulous. Waiters were appointed in rotation by the boy responsible for appointing waiters, some to wait on the staff table, others to wait on the rest of us: ‘Max oatmeal, brown sugar and milk!’ and off your waiter would stump round the one-way system between tables, first to Ponty who ladelled out the porridge, then to the boy whose job it was to sprinkle the sugar, then the one who slopped on the milk. The waiter would complete the circuit bringing, with luck, what you had asked for.
Next day you would be a waiter yourself, remembering other boys' orders.
The system ran with precision. If the waiters stumped the lino on their heels (the human animal seems to have a tendency to fall into rhythmic step) Ponty would chant ‘On your toes, waiters!’ and they were. Immediately! If conversation grew too loud there was a similar call from Ponty. And if his call was ignored, a bottom got bruised; Ponty was not particular whose it was.
Not like at Dora's. Lily, or another staff, would call out ‘Smalls queue!’ and all the Smalls dashed up with their plates, pushing each other to be first. When their food had been ladelled out it was ‘Middles queue!’ then ‘Bigs queue!’ Not quite so much pushing among the Bigs.
Dora's biography says how good the food was, but I have no recollection of goodness, or of particular badness except for greens boiled to submission. The unique feature of Dora's cuisine was ‘hard bread.’ This was bread cut in chunks from the loaf and baked in the oven by Walter. (Walter was the cook, also Lily's husband, but I was not aware of their relationship at the time; they were never together as far as I knew.) The hard bread was kept in a huge square biscuit tin in the dining room cupboard; it was never washed, it smelt musty and sharp. We didn't like hard bread much; a recurrent motion at council meetings was that we should have ‘soft bread.’ It tells much about Dora's method of government that we would all have preferred soft bread yet never voted in favour of having it. Dora told us hard bread was good for us, that our teeth would fall out if we had soft bread, and we believed her.
To get your hard bread at tea time you walked up to Lily who stood by the tin. You were allowed to select your own hunk of rock and Lily would scrape butter and jam on it. Back you would go to smash up the thing with your teeth.
When the tin was empty, Walter would fire a new batch. If we finished a batch very near end of term it wasn't worth Walter firing a new one so we had nothing but soft bread for the last few days. Wonderful! To bring this about we would, towards the end of term, crunch and grind our teeth through what remained in the tin with vigour and determination, usually to find we had miscalculated and brought down a new tin of the hard stuff to grind and crunch through until the very end of term.
There was no particular standard of table manners. People who displayed particularly nasty manners could, of course, be brought up in Council but I have no memories of this happening. We behaved much as we liked, and we liked to be relaxed.
One of the tea-time rituals was decorating the chandelier; a fine crystal chandelier that dangled bright icicles on chains from the centre of the ceiling. Kingwell Hall had been a grand mansion in its time.
The pendant crystals we garnished with polony skins. On Fridays we had polony for tea, about three slices each, the red skins of which we would peel off and hand to someone tall who stood on a chair to hang them. The skins didn't stay red for long, they curled and turned brown, but I don't remember them ever being taken down. (It's hard to imagine the effect of decorating Ponty's light fixtures with polony skin.)
Dora's food must have been adequate because there was no sickness in the school; nobody ever had to stay in bed as far as I remember. And I have no recollection of being hungry except when oversleeping breakfast and missing my herring roes (the accepted chant, when they appeared at breakfast, was ‘Rows and rows of herring rows!’). And I'm sure the hard bread was good for our teeth.
Towards the end of my time at Dora's, and shortly before the demise of Beacon Hill itself, the number of pupils had shrunk very low. Tea time was then held family style, a cloth on the big table, Lily seated at the end of it, pouring tea and eating with us. There was even a loaf of soft bread. I enjoyed the homely atmosphere, and think we behaved with more decorum than formerly; nobody decorated the chandelier during this era. But children remain children; one or other would blow a silent, odiferous fart and we would await Lily's response, delivered in broad Gracie-Fields Lancastrian. It was always the same: ‘SOOM-body needs to go to the lavatory!’ We would giggle ourselves silly.
After morning prep when Ponty came to take prayers, having first bent over (or given lines to) the odd transgressor sent to report, we would call ‘Happy birthday, Berrington’ (or whoever it was). Ponty would hear this and ask Berrington to confirm it was his birthday, then say ‘Many happy returns, son!’ Then prayers, then breakfast. But for Berrington it was a special breakfast; after the porridge he would be called to the staff table and given a large slice of buttered toast to eat with his scrambled egg. I felt very sorry for those whose birthdays fell in the holidays; the toast was wonderful.(If his mum had sent a cake, it would be cut up by the kitchen staff and the portions put in a basin. The birthday boy was required to offer his cake to the school at large during morning break. His expression would change from pride to dismay as the cake disappeared from between his hands. I never suffered this agony because I was never sent a cake.)
At Dora's we did exercises on the lawn about mid-morning; swinging arms, touching toes, jumping up and down, all the traditional calisthenics and none too strenuously. Dora, or one of the other staff, called out what to do next and did it facing us. Then we all ran inside for a glass of lemonade which we drank with noisy exhalations.
That was the extent of organized sport at Dora's. There were no ball games. In fact there were few balls. Those given by visiting relatives or brought back from the holidays were played with in various disorganized ways before being carried off and chewed to bits by the dogs.
The nearest thing to an organized game was one we invented and called ‘Seen.’ It was based on two giant elm trees in the woods behind the house. They were about a quarter of a mile apart. A team was picked to guard each tree. The aim was to reach the other team's tree without being seen. If, on the way, you saw an enemy you would call ‘Seen, Harriet!’ (or whoever it was) and Harriet had to go back to her own tree before setting out again.
Some of us liked to do the crawling forward, lying flat behind small bushes and in shallow depressions in the ground. Others preferred a defensive role, climbing one of the high leafy trees, finding a comfortable spot in the foliage, shouting ‘Seen’ at enemy scouts and sending them home. It was difficult to eradicate scouts high in trees; they would usually see you first.
I don't remember if we ever counted the number of goals (touching an enemy tree before being seen) scored by opposing teams.
Much too wet and sissy for Ponty's school.
At Ponty's, balls were everywhere: tennis balls, cricket balls, rugby balls, squash balls, marbles. Your ability to manage a ball determined much of your social status. By those of acceptable status (and that implies the majority at Ponty's) time out of school was devoted to various balls.
On Sundays there were no organized games but that did not hinder the ball-minded; games were improvised and played throughout the day, from after Cathedral in the morning to prayers in the evening, stopping only for dinner. In winter every rugby pitch and every set of posts was in demand for kicking practice. In summer, wickets were chalked on walls or assembled from planks and sticks for interminable games of ‘little cricket’ at which new boys had to ‘fag’ the balls without the compensation of an innings.
On Saturday were house matches, and matches against other schools. On weekdays were formally organized games of cricket or rugby according to season.
No other pastime was encouraged or provided; the sole approved activity after school was chasing balls.
I found, to my shame, I was incapable of catching a ball, throwing one any distance, kicking one straight, hitting one squarely with bat or stick or racquet. I was hopeless with a ball. My uselessness assured me my place as a ‘wet.’
When teams were selected, captains appointed by Ponty took turns picking from a line of boys along the wall. I was always left cringing against the wall until almost last – but never quite last; there were several wets wetter than me.
One of these was Harcus and we all despised him. Thinking back, I believe Harcus held a fundamental secret of survival for a wet. He escaped! Flew out of school bounds, rose above school smells. He did it by the simple ruse of reading. He always carried a book; his nose was always in it. We saw Harcus as a podgy and useless wet; I think I know now what he thought of us.
With so much emphasis on ‘in corpore sano’, one might reasonably assume we would be taught the rules of rugby and cricket so as to exercise the ‘mens sana’ aspect of our education.
We were not.
It was assumed we were keen sportsmen, and keen sportsmen assimilate rules instinctively. But a few of us were not keen. In all those interminable afternoons of compulsory cricket I never learned its rules or the names of the places you had to stand in.
‘Go cover point.’
‘Where's that, please?’
‘Over there, you stupid drip!’
I did, however, know where long-stop was, having been sent there so often.
There was one thing worse than having to play cricket; that was to umpire. It was intensely boring, people expected you to count the number of balls bowled and know things that demanded familiarity with the subject, and you were supposed to give constant attention to the game. It was almost impossible to concentrate on one's own thoughts.
I remember most of an occasion when, as umpire, I looked up from a reverie to see a ball coming straight at my head. It laid me out cold for an instant but I feigned unconsciousness for at least twenty minutes whilst being carried to the dormitory. There I woke up with a display of ‘Where am I’ that apparently convinced everybody.
Ponty thought it most amusing that the umpire didn't see the ball coming: ‘Weren't you watching it, son?’
I employed the ‘laid out’ ruse in subsequent difficult circumstances but few believed it after the third time.
I never learned the rules of rugby either. I was terrified of touching the ball after once doing so at great personal risk and actually scoring a try. I was amazed at myself and grinned. The referee (one of the masters) blew his whistle and shouted with considerable anger: ‘Off sides, you idiot, Alcock!’ and everyone found it a huge joke.
I developed a technique for rugby that must have been developed independently by countless unhappy souls through generations of public school life. It was to look lively; look supporting; be behind people to back them up; calling ‘Yes, here!’ (not too loudly in case they heard); always, always keeping away from the ball itself. Where the ball was, there was the danger.
Balls mark one of the profoundest horrors in my transition from Dora to Ponty. Had I enjoyed a natural eye for a ball I would have fitted Ponty's procrustean bed with less pain, but would ball games have become a pleasure thereafter? Probably: but it is impossible to say for certain. Having accepted my inability to handle a ball I developed a dislike of games which lasts to this day. I still cannot truly understand why anyone would want to spoil a potentially enjoyable walk by hacking at a golf ball and tapping it down holes in the lawn. If you want it down the hole, why not put it there?
Sports without a ball did exist at Ponty's. There was sports day and there were dormitory races, both events reflecting Ponty's genius for organization; had he been a General rather than a Major during the first world war we should have won it sooner.
There was no preparation or training for athletics. A few days before sports day the track was marked out and soft earth imported for the jumps. It all happened on the one day: heats leading relentlessly to finals. Ponty had us sitting on the grass in different age groups. While one group, five at a time, ran 100 yard heats, another was lolloping round and round the high-jump assembly, scissoring over the bar on each circuit. When everyone had jumped it or hit it, the bar was raised an inch. More and more contestants were eliminated each time the bar went up. No question of deciding what to enter for, you were automatically entered for all events, to be eliminated or survive to the final event.
The walking race was the only event I did well at; a gruelling four times round the field.
The long-distance run (440 yards; a long way for small boys) was held during morning break the following day. Ponty's theory was that if your muscles got stiff on sports day, a 440 yard dash the following morning would loosen them up. Some of us were so stiff we couldn't make it as far as the sports field, let alone compete. Aunt Nonie would try to motivate the laggards, assuring them they would enjoy relief if they would only start running. She shamed one or two into entering the race but their muscles seized up completely the day after.
Dormitory racing was something exclusively Ponty. It was held, as the name implies, in the dormitory; the main dormitory, about sixty feet long, called ‘Lions.’ The races comprised, in order of increasing velocity: backwards-forwards, backwards-backwards, monkey, walking, running. The track was down the central strip of linoleum, a ‘lap’ starting at the bed at one end of the dormitory, up to the bed at the opposite end and back again. Each race was a team relay, four to a team.
To do ‘backwards-forwards’, sit on the floor, raise body off the floor until supported entirely on hands and feet, then proceed feet first. ‘Backwards-backwards’ requires the same posture but opposite progression; you don't see where you're going. Backwards-backwards is a mode of locomotion fundamentally faster and more dangerous than backwards-forwards. It often aborts in a sprawling skid, and consequent danger of a River Nile (ibid). Backwards-forwards is dangerous in a different sense; in this race pyjama trousers tended to work themselves down the legs, to the embarrassment of competitor and Ponty's visitors alike.
‘Monkey’ is racing the way a baboon runs, using a galloping or trotting action according to one's nature or genetic makeup. Well coordinated trotters can beat gallopers. ‘Walking’ and ‘running’ are what you would expect.
Two or three times a term Ponty would bring visitors to watch the spectacle. It was run as an inter-dormitory event, between Lions and Tigers. Ponty kept order and started each race with ‘Set, Go!’ Supporters from both dormitories, wrapped in dressing gowns, sitting or kneeling (never standing) on the beds along the track, would put up a shrill and wild encouragement throughout the race. There was no better way to finish the day than with dormitory races. In my last year I had the honour to walk second last for the Lions team.
Every night at Dora's we had a good soap and soak. The bathroom at Kingwell Hall had four tubs in a row, short cast iron tubs with claw-and-ball feet and the enamel chipping off. A parallel line of hand basins along the opposite wall was where we cleaned our teeth. We shared the basins, irrespective of sex, and often shared the bath tubs, soaping, soaking and chatting until the water grew tepid. Then we would grab our towels with crinkled washer-woman's fingers and run to the linen room next door where a galvanized water tank gave up the remains of its warmth to us. Dora could afford little coal. We shivered in damp towels until Paul or someone came and made us get our pyjamas on.
There were two dangers to bath time. One was Lily with scissors. Squeezing and twisting hands and fingers she cropped off our nails, exposing areas of deep red and tender skin beneath. The moral code was to support victims during their ordeal (Oh Lily! Be more careful! It's hurting her!) and commiserate afterwards. The other danger was not painful, just revolting. After joining someone in the bath she might tell you, very brightly and only afterwards, that she had peed in it.
We had clean clothes once a week at Dora's. On Saturday morning Lily issued a clean set of clothes: shirt, shorts, underpants, socks, and corresponding things for the girls. By Friday we must have looked like refugees, but I never noticed clothes. We were the same, as far as I could see, on Friday evening as on Saturday morning.
At Ponty's, ‘cleanliness’ was based on the cold shower. Every morning we had to have one. A shower was cold by definition; the boarding house had no hot water supply. There was a row of four tubs in a bathroom similar to that at Kingwell Hall but with a shower rose suspended over each of them. Unlike the bathroom at Dora's it reeked of piss and Lifebuoy soap.
On my first morning I was told about the shower and didn't fancy trying, but a nice chap came with me to the bathroom and showed my how to stand clear of the downpour and dip my head under. We came back towelling briskly all over.
I didn't care for this ruse, it made me feel guilty. I decided to ask the staff if I could be excused the shower because I was not used to it, especially first thing in the morning, and that I was not, after all, an ordinary member of the school, being there only out of necessity and for the duration. (‘Duration’ in those days meant duration of the war.) When I explained this to Bitch the noise she made sounded mad and strangled, something between a laugh and a cry of pain.
A few mornings later she caught me returning from the bathroom. She rubbed her hands over my shoulders and told me I hadn't been near the water (which was not strictly true because I had been near enough to put my head under it). She pronounced me a ‘water funk’ and other disagreeable names I cannot remember in detail. She assured me I would get a beating from Major Mullins.
As it happened I was excused the beating on grounds that I hadn't been at St. Andrews Prep. very long. Instead, Ponty lectured the entire school on the delights and healthy benefits of cold morning showers, inspiring us to manly resolution.
‘...so remember, sons, put your hands under first, rub them together, that makes you ready, then in you go! Now, let's see who's going to have a proper shower tomorrow!’
Up went all hands.
For the next few mornings all of us showered like mad, boisterous jumping up and down, splashing of friends in range, wet lino down the centre of the dormitory. But soon all slipped back to normal. During the late rush from the dormitory (last out had to report to the staff and put all the vagrant shoes away in the boot room) a queue would form next to the only tub having a shower that poured evenly. Each would spend somewhat less than four seconds under the shower (I timed it by counting) and thus became ‘clean.’ The whole nonsense had nothing to do with hygiene; everything to do with manly principle.
At Ponty's we did have baths; everyone had a turn once a week. John, the old Xosa odd-job man, lugged four-gallon petrol tins up the stairs, two per journey. The tins contained water heated to near boiling point on the kitchen range. The water was an opaque magenta soup smelling pungently of rust. Half a tin was poured into each tub, to be topped up with cold from the tap. There was no question of soaking; you had about a minute sitting on a bed of sharp rusty scale. You emerged chilly on top and with a hot and reddish bum, but at least the Lifebuoy soap made you feel a little bit clean. Cleaner than a four-second shower could.
But at least we had clean clothes. By a well organized system, every two or three days (I forget the precise timings) we dropped our shirt, socks and vest (nobody wore underpants) into a laundry box on the landing and collected a clean bundle from our personal shelf in the linen room. A staff of Xosa ladies sorted the clean laundry, sewed on missing buttons, and left on every shelf a clean rolled bundle of shirt, socks and vest. These were the ladies who also made our beds and mopped up the odd River Nile.
I mentioned the absence of under pants. I'm sure I went to Ponty adequately supplied, but have no memory of wearing them. I wore a vest in winter, but not under pants. They were considered sissy, I think. Nobody wore underpants.
An essential ingredient of life at Ponty's was the jerry. Every second bed had an enamelled jerry under it; white bowl, purple rim, coin-sized circles of black steel where the enamel had burst away, recording a history of abuse and impact. If you were challenged by the head of dormitory (he slept at the end, at right angles to the rest of us) for being out of bed after nine o'clock you immediately knelt down and reached for a jerry. This gave undisputable immunity.
‘Are you out of bed, Alcock?’
‘Using the jerry, Markie.’
Knocking over a jerry was called ‘making the river Nile’ and it was a reportable offence: ‘I made the river Nile, sir!’ A punishment seldom followed because Ponty was evidently embarrassed by it. His obvious question should have been, and would have been in situations non-lavatorial, ‘What were you doing at the time?’ But interrogation about an offence involving a jerry might have made sex rear its ugly head (to use a cliché of that era) so the source of the Nile would be let off with a recommendation to be more careful in future.
Despite all the romps and fights on the lino on sunny mornings, and the brimming levels to which jerrys had been filled during the night, the river Nile seldom broke its banks.
Jerries were off limits until we were in bed. So during teeth cleaning time the single lavatory pan was aimed at, though seldom hit continuously throughout delivery, by four or five jets of urine at once. The resultant dispersion accounted for some of the bathroom smell.
At Dora's there was no lavatory in the bathroom, but even if baths were sometimes peed in, no smell of it pervaded the bathroom. There was nothing horrible about lavatories at Dora's except when Brenda was having trouble with sanitry (ibid).
Kingwell Hall had once been a boys' school, as evident from the lavatories along the corridor near the art lab. They had a tiled urinal against one wall and a row of cubicles, with half doors for semi privacy, along another. We used these facilities irrespective of sex. Julie mastered the urinal; spreading and bending her knees, leaning back a little, she would squirt her jet almost straight into the trough. She would say afterwards, and we would all agree, ‘I'm good at that!’
At Ponty's the lavatory pan in the bathroom was for peeing before bed or gastric emergencies. The main lavatories were in an outhouse fifty yards from the main building. It had a brick wall screening the door, narrow open vents at the eaves, one low-wattage light bulb for illumination. One wall was a urinal into which, on occasion, someone would drop the hunk of bread issued for morning break. The soggy yellow odoriferous dissolving sponginess of the thing towards the end of the day is a memory I do not treasure.
Four diminutive lavatory pans were installed at right angles to the urinal, screening walls between them, no doors in front. Shitting was a public act. The seats did not lift; a strip of hardwood bolted to the rim on each side of the bowl kept thigh from porcelain. The art was to keep the bare parts of your anatomy from brushing the wet white porcelain between the hardwood strips.
Although four pans were installed there were seldom four available. At least one would be ‘man trapped’ in a manner feasible only to a contortionist (how on earth could they get it upthere?) So a queue would form in front of each incumbent, slowing him down by urging him to hurry up.
It must have been poor old John's job to hose away those man-traps.
Discipline & Rubs with Authority
At Dora's we had council meetings. We were told (though I never believed) that we made the rules. True, every rule was properly proposed by one of us, seconded by another, passed by a genuine show of hands, but Dora was always able to sway the decisions of the council towards the realistic. Stupid proposals never reached the vote – except on the memorable occasion on which Pat proposed the motion that we ‘abolish the time table forthwith.’
Our council was properly constructed; president, chairman, secretary and so on – advised by Dora. The staff attended, sitting on the same tiny rush-seated van Gogh chairs as we did. Council meetings were solemn occasions. Anyone could bring up anything: what time we should have breakfast, whether we could bath once a week instead of every night, could Andrew be moved to another room because he teased Angela, should we stop having German lessons because of the Nazis, could we have more pocket money.
Anyone could air his or her opinion on any matter. Lily seldom spoke at council meetings, but when she did she missed the point. She only had to hear the words ‘pocket money’ to hold forth, not catching the chairman's eye, straight out, delivering her standard pocket-money theme in honest Gracie-Fields Lancastrian: ‘It's ridiculous! Going into the shop and asking for a ha'penny worth of this and a ha'penny worth of that, then the next shop for a ha'penny worth of this and a ha'penny worth of that, why can't they spend their twopence on a bar of chocolate and be done with it?’
After Lily's harangue the business of the meeting would be resumed; no one commenting.
The most awful, shameful thing at Dora's was to be ‘brought up in council’ but it seldom happened.
The longest-standing rule forbade teasing. So when one teased another, the other would shout ‘I'll bring you up in council! Teasing's against the rule!’
This form of defence was partially effective. Although the victim probably wouldn't bring the tormentor up in council, the threat was worth heeding. It could be days or weeks to the next council meeting, by which time others would have teased others and the current pattern of hostilities and loyalties shifted. But it may not have shifted, it may have intensified, in which case the threat of being brought up in council could be real.
There were many council rules besides the teasing one but nobody could itemize them; they were mostly common sense.
So what had Pat meant by ‘abolish the time table’? None of us had any idea. But he stood up in a council meeting promising blissful anarchy; no lessons, no bed time, cold food (Pat said) to be put out for us to eat when we liked. It was one of Pat's mercurial ideas made up as he went along; it gathered strength and detail in sudden incongruous lumps.
We seconded his motion and voted for it unanimously (with the possible exceptions of Lily and Dora) and rushed outside without bringing the meeting to a formal close.
The next few days were wonderful adventure. We raided the larder and spent much time preparing to defend ourselves against attack. For this we devised a bomb. It was made by setting light to a whole box of matches (we had stolen several packets of these) and throwing it, streaming flame and smoke, out of the window. Practice was so assiduous we soon had no bombs left for defence.
I knew how to remove door handles, and this I did from all the doors we used, keeping a door knob and shaft in my pocket as a key. I allowed similar keys to those I considered responsible enough. Enough for what, I cannot remember.
We grew more and more convinced the Police – or at least Pat with reinforcements – were coming to get us. Much listening at keyholes and scuttling down corridors with rumours.
Eventually we were convinced the attack was imminent, so we assembled in the library to plan our strategy. Half of us would make for the conservatory and escape through that door, the other half from the library window. Two lines of children running like mad for the safety of the woods. Splendid!
Dora wrote of the event (though not of the fire bombs, missing door handles or mass escape) putting a moral point on it. She reported we all grew tired and bored with having no rules, but this was not so; we would have had it go on indefinitely.
We were assembled for a special council meeting and told we were tired of it, realized that it must come to an end sooner or later, that it would be pointless to hold out for more, so we gave in without a struggle.
I asked Jeremy what we should call these few days. They were worthy of a name; we would speak of them often. He suggested ‘the abolishment.’ I have remembered that time ever since as ‘the abolishment’; it was one of the best times of my life.
At Ponty's things were different. There was no council; Ponty made the rules and delegated their enforcement through a hierarchy known as ‘Standing Order.’ The order ran from head boy all the way down to the newest, smallest and lowliest. You were invested with authority, or not, according to your position in Standing Order. No boy in authority was allowed to administer any punishment, but did hold the power to utter the single word ‘Report.’ And that meant report to Major Mullins before morning prayer. And that might mean Benjy.
‘Benjy’ was short for Sergeant Major Benjamin, the pet name Ponty used for the stick he cut from a japonica bush. When it splintered (its life was a week or two) he cut another.
I had been at Ponty's only a few days when I learned the ritual of Benjy and its infliction as I have already described. Most punishments were less vicious. The staff were often content to award you ‘25’ or ‘50’. This meant lines. Lines were copied from a page of the history book, always the same page, always the same lines: ‘How the power of Parliament had grown. We have now come to the end of the great struggles that beset the people...’
I remember no more mow, but knew the first twenty-five by heart at the time. Lines were no bother.
The best punishment was ‘copy’ which required a page to be torn from a ‘copy book.’ Copy books were a Victorian institution; exemplary copper plate to be copied into faint guide lines printed below. The copy books were graded. Grade 1 comprised rows and rows of enormous pot-hooks, rounds, dashes and strokes. Grade 10 comprised pages of quaint English – to a smaller scale than the Grade 1 pot-hooks on the grounds that your writing gets smaller as you grow older – ‘...was asked to walk through the fields with Mr. Hamley, the Vicar,...’
Years before the war Ponty had, presumably, laid in a great stock of copy books; by 1941 he was running out. The page you got for your punishment might be anything from Grade 1 to Grade 10. On one occasion you would be walking through the fields with Mr Hamley, the dubious Vicar; on the next you would be back to the pot-hooks. But I loved doing copies; they were no pain to me.
Discipline was kept taut by the awful command, from any member of staff, from any boy by virtue of his position in Standing Order, to ‘report.’ That meant walking up to Ponty before breakfast, when the school was assembled for morning prayer, and telling him what you had done wrong. The outcome might be anything from the award of ‘25’ to an immediate and painful encounter with Benjy – to the delight of everyone else present. No teacher was ever troubled with discipline at Ponty's; ‘Report to Major Mullins’ was all she had to say.
Ponty organized on military lines. He imposed a Standing Order, from head boy to the lowliest. When we stood for prayers we stood in Standing Order. Duties followed from this order; the head boy being sergeant major on parade, the next in line being right markers and inspectors of hands and caps, and so on. Standing Order was also the order of seating in the dining room; the spot on the bench your bottom landed on determined your duties at meals. The whole thing ran as a well lubricated engine, nobody stepping out of line, nobody petitioning for special treatment, nobody asking to sit next to a particular friend. Such things were unthinkable; your place was your place until you were required by Ponty to go up or down.
Being moved down a place in Standing Order was a punishment more humiliating, in some minds, than Benjy. But once or twice a term Ponty decided to have ‘a Standing Order’ in which he would cast his eye up and down the line and reward a few lucky ones with enhanced status – by moving them up several places. It followed, logically, that others were thereby moved down a place, fortuitously and without having transgressed in any way. I considered this the utmost injustice, but it was something we were required to accept. There was no such thing as consultation.
Despite my respect and admiration for Ponty there was a side to him that gave me the creeps (similar to the creeps I got from the scout masters who took us camping on Sundays). The following should illustrate.
After an hour and a half of evening prep we would go for a pee, return to the school room, and assemble round the wall in Standing Order for prayers. The general disorganization at the end of an hour's prep. often stimulated minor rowdiness, but Ponty had a trick for dealing with it. He would single out a pair of boys punching arms, or tripping each other up, and stand them in front of him. One would be sent to bring Benjy, the other to bend over. The one who brought Benjy would be told to give the other a good cut. This he would do with utmost delicacy, fearing for his own turn. But Ponty would then take Benjy and say, with some menace, ‘Now you. I'll deal with you myself. Bend over.’
The hush was electric. Up went the cane and Swish, Crack! Down it went on the adjacent desk, splitting into slivers. The usual croon of ‘Give it a good rub, son’ was then modified to ‘Did you get a fright, son?’ which I believe he did.
I watched this ritual several times during my years at Ponty's. The upsetting part was the intense atmosphere generated by beating, or mock beating, and Ponty's croon.
Women, we are told, care less about rules than men. Dora would speak of rules only as ‘Council’ rules – which were rules we had made for mutual benefit. But at Ponty's we were cloaked in rules, all to be obeyed without question.
I questioned Ponty's rules (in a spirit of innocence) during my first term but soon gave up. Bitch's reception of my request to be excused the morning shower evoked such a flood of derision I wondered if she were completely sane. I had to find other ways of avoiding the things I did not like.
My first rub with authority, though, was not at Ponty's but at Dora's when I was not yet seven. I planned an escape with William. My idea was to find Auntie Jean, but he wanted to go to his own auntie who, he said, cooked better potatoes. Which auntie we would go to remained unresolved.
Getting away was unexpectedly easy; we fell behind on our walk with Lily and turned off along the road sign-posted to London.
The road ran a long way through woods, then out across a heath of scratchy gorse smelling of pepper. We walked and walked. Cars whizzed by and we felt happy, but began to get thirsty, then rather tired. We found ourselves walking past a parked motor bike and side car. By the side of the road was a man and woman reclining, a table cloth spread on the grass, tea and cakes laid out on it. We asked the man if this was the way to London, but what we really wanted was some of the cake; we knew we were on the road to London.
He said we would have to walk all night to get to London. The lady asked where we had come from. We explained we were trying to get home, but neither of us could give a proper address for ‘home.’ After more questions we could not answer properly the man asked if we would like a ride in the side car. We thought it a good idea and climbed inside, William grinning. He was biggest so got in first; I just managed to get in along side. The man drove us away, leaving the lady by the side of the road with the table cloth and all the tea things. He took us to the local police station.
The police sergeant (three stripes) had trouble finding the telephone number of Beacon Hill School – said he had never heard of it and it wasn't in the telephone book – but got it eventually. We heard him speaking to Dora about us. When the sergeant had finished on the telephone, the man with the motor bike said he would drive us to the school (country policemen had bicycles in those days, not cars). So he drove us to the front door of Boyle's Court, said he had to hurry back to find his missus before it got dark, and drove away. I think we said Thank you.
Dora met us on the stone steps showing no anger – nor any warmth. She sent us to the dining room where our tea of polony, hard bread and jam, and a glass of milk, had been saved for us.
Dora never mentioned the incident again. We never ran away again; it was obviously a long way to London. I did not openly rebel again until I was a Big and organized a strike. The strike was something Dora probably remained unaware of unless Harriet confided.
A strike was not an original idea; the Bigs had done one when I was a Small some three years earlier. The strikers had taken bottles of water with them and this precaution impressed me profoundly. When I found a box of medicine bottles in the apple room (a room with shelves that we found full of rotten apples at the start of our first term at Kingwell Hall) I decided it would be a good idea to wash out the bottles and organize a strike.
We chose a Saturday for our strike, poured our eleven o'clock lemonade into our newly washed bottles, and walked to High Littleton, as usual, to spend our pocket money – but not to come back. You had to buy bread rather than sweets if you were on strike. Julie asked in the sweet shop if they had bread and they said No so Julie said Bugger and we all bought sweets. When it came to not coming back there seemed nothing else to do, so we came back.
I ran up against authority again at Dora's when accused of stealing half a loaf of brown bread. Not something I would particularly covet, let alone steal. Lily accused me in public. I denied it, blushing hot in my cheeks, and she shouted ‘I can see by the colour of your face you have!’
Strangely, I was later absolved. It was discovered (I don't know how or by whom) that Debbie stole the loaf and ate it in the lavatory on the first floor landing where she left crumbs. Lily never apologized for publicly accusing me.
Transgression at Ponty's was altogether different because it implied inevitable punishment. Possible transgressions were being late, mislaying your school cap, having ink on your fingers, having uncombed hair, having a dirty face, standing on your bed, talking after nine o'clock, talking during prep, and many more trivia. Or something unusual like ‘flicking ink.’
The most horrible transgression was cheating in class. I did cheat several times during my first term, by the simple device of altering a ‘u’ to an ‘o’ and marking the answer R for right instead of X for wrong, and similar alterations. Doing so caused me no guilt feelings; I looked upon it as a test of ingenuity. But once I had seen someone have his bottom bruised in front of the school for this offence, and the resultant ignominious walk back to his seat rubbing his buttocks, I never cheated again!
My serious rubs with authority were about ‘bunking’ as I have described. I still have more nighmares about that period than any other in my passage from Dora to Ponty.
No matter how we try to separate them, education and training are inextricably linked. Free education in Britain had much to do training the computers and other office machinery so much in demand towards the end of the nineteenth century – human machinery. Public schools trained our Colonial administrators to be uncritical of the vilest food and impervious to pain and humiliation. Ponty's curriculum was founded on these.