A well-known television presenter, invited to address
the pupils of her old school, used the occasion to tell the audience what she
thought of the place, a former comprehensive recently converted into an
academy. “It was a school rampant with
hormones and no discipline, no aspiration and no encouragement,” she told a
shocked audience that included a number of former pupils and several school governors. “My mother couldn’t believe that this
constant pupil had turned into this vile teenager.”
Top marks for honesty, I say, but none for good
It got me wondering what I might say in the unlikely
event my old school offered me the same opportunity. I say unlikely because Sir Henry Raine’s Foundation Grammar School for Boys expelled me, for
being a disruptive influence. My alma
mater was no ‘benign mother’ but a stern Victorian father, an academic
anachronism determined to propagate the old-fashioned ideals of duty and
patriotism, a bastion of devotion to the Church of England and the British
Empire, the creed imposed by liberal application of corporal punishment.
I could start my address by questioning the methods of
the resolutely Christian headmaster, the aptly named Doctor Goode, whose idea
of education was the frequent administration of the cane, the whacks invariably
accompanied by a lecture on the virtues of penitence and worship, replete with
references to relevant passages from the Bible.
I might wonder aloud about the curious state of mind
of the German master, Don Lyons, who instilled the language into his classes with
regular ministrations of ‘six of the best’ upon the buttocks of miscreants,
bent over his desk. His weapon of choice was an item of footwear we used to
call a slipper, also known as a plimsoll, what we would nowadays call a
trainer. He had taken the trouble to sew
the slipper into the hem of his gown, presumably to keep it handy when he was
away from the classroom. One former
pupil in later years recalled in a blog that he and three other boys had once
been ‘slippered’ when naked, after emerging from the showers next to the gym. The private predilections of Lyons, a
lifelong bachelor, naturally became a topic of much feverish speculation.
My chief Nemesis, though, was my form master, Wally Spooner. He too was adept with a slipper, and I was among
his most frequent victims. ‘The way to a
boy’s head is across his backside’, might have been his motto. He and I found ourselves in more or less
permanent conflict, a long-running battle of wills from which only one winner
I felt estranged from both teachers for reasons
unrelated to their regular infliction of beatings to my posterior. They made a habit of carelessly dropping remarks
that could only be construed, even in an age less sensitive to ethnic insult,
as anti-Semitic. The comments were usually
made when Jewish pupils were excused from morning assembly – known as church
assembly – or when they were absent on Jewish holidays, and took the form of
snide references to ‘The Chosen People’, or ‘Sons of Abraham’. They were all more jarring given the school’s
significant minority of Jewish pupils. (There were seven Jews in my class of 32.)
Looking back, I can readily concede that I was far
from blameless in my lack of affinity with the faculty and its curriculum. I may have been the television presenter’s
‘vile teenager’. But if I were guilty of
the truculent rabble-rousing of which I was frequently accused, it never
amounted to much more than, in Spooner’s coinage, ‘dumb insolence’, or an
occasional indulgence in playground horseplay.
And if I’m honest, I’ve been guilty of occasional lapses into bad behaviour
in adult life – as my friends and work colleagues can attest.
But not once in all the intervening years have I
looked back at my wasted schooldays with much more than token remorse. I despised the saintly and ineffectual Dr.
Goode. I disliked most of the teachers
for their cynicism and for their antiquated social mores. I scorned the whole damn
spare-the-rod-spoil-the child culture. In
truth, I deplore them still. (So, too, I
learned, does Steven Berkoff, the actor and stage director, an Old Raineian,
who wrote of his distaste for the place in his autobiography.)
The school song’s ultimate and defining verse began,
“Sing that Raine’s may live forever under God’s all-guiding hand”.
That God’s all-guiding hand was often represented by a
divine instrument of torture speaks volumes.