Monday, 29 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 3 - Commie Wilson
Summer 1958, aged 13, my mother took me to Gorringe’s in Buckingham Palace Road to get my school uniform: two pairs of black trousers, a herringbone suit, a school blazer and tie and six white shirts with detachable starched collars.
I looked at myself in the mirror in my first long trousers. ‘Can I keep these on?’
‘Of course you can and we’ll have tea at Lyons Corner House.’
I felt sure everyone was looking at me as we ate our Maryland cookies.
‘Are you excited about going away to school?’ my mother asked.
‘Yes, but I’ll miss you.’
‘How do you think I feel about you going?’ she said as she removed her lace hanky from her purse.
There wasn’t much to say to that. If she felt it was out of her hands, what could I do?
The school train left Waterloo station on a wet September morning. We drove there from Bromley in the Morris. My father lifted my leather trunk out of the boot and my mother helped me with the birch-plywood tuck box. She had filled it with her homemade strawberry and raspberry jams, Marmite, Ryvita, biscuits and cake and three bottles of her milk-cloudy ginger beer carefully wrapped in the Daily Telegraph.
We followed the porter as trunk and box were taken to a platform with a chalk board marked CANFORD SCHOOL TRAIN. The porter put them into the luggage wagon. My father tipped him while my mother hugged me. ‘Remember to ring every week. Reverse the charges.’
I nodded, unable to speak.
‘And don’t forget to write.’
My father shook my hand, then patted me on the back.
‘You’ll be fine. Come on, Betty. We must go.’ He always brought goodbyes to an end with these words, ‘We must go’, and I never knew whether this was because he had an appointment to go to, or because he had to go before he dropped his guard and joined my mother and me in our damp farewells.
My mother gave me a last hug and pushed me towards the train.
My starched collar was already itching and I was sweating by the time I reached my carriage, the windows pasted with NEW BOYS.
I stood in the corridor, looking back up the platform as the train chugged out of the station. I couldn’t see my father, but my mother was still there, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, getting smaller and smaller.
And then we were on the London to Weymouth line heading for Wimborne, west of Bournemouth, a route that, five years later, would be gone with the decimation of Britain’s railway routes – the Beeching cuts – along with the steam engine that had pulled our train.
Boys in the two carriages ahead were unravelling toilet rolls into the wind. Long lines of paper flew past like white dragons and disappeared into sheets of rain.
To keep myself from choking up, I got out my Eagle Annual to catch up on Dan Dare and the adventures of extra special agent Harris Tweed, while the boy opposite me picked his nose with one hand and flicked the pages of The Wide World Magazine with the other. It was an illustrated monthly which The Times described as ‘brave chaps with large moustaches on stiff upper lips, who did stupid and dangerous things’.
Four hours later, green Dennis coaches ferried us from Wimborne station for the two-mile journey to the school.
Canford Magna had been built as an extension to John of Gaunt’s fourteenth-century kitchen, but John was never there. His son, Cardinal Beaufort, did visit, although I doubt he spent much time in the kitchen.
Five hundred years later, Canford had become the home of Sir John and Lady Charlotte Guest, nineteenth-century iron magnates and owners of the South Wales steel firm, Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds. The Cardiff works were rivals to the Briton Ferry steelworks where my grandfather had been general manager, so I had a tenuous connection with the place.
When I was preparing to go to Canford, my parents had shown me photos of the buildings and its grounds. It looked beautiful, sitting on the banks of the river Stour, with its grey stone walls and manicured lawns bordered with oak, beech, horse chestnut and elm, the old parkland now extensive playing fields. But like the rotting flesh beneath the bindings of a Chinese concubine’s slippered feet, appearances are deceptive.
As I entered the building for the first time, we were asked to report to the prefects who stood holding clipboards. I approached one of them.
‘Name?’ he asked, without looking up from his list.
‘Over there.’ He pointed to a line of boys.
In the 1950s, public schools were run like armies and divided into regiments, known as Houses. There was School House, Franklin, Salisbury, Beaufort, Court, Monteacute and Wimborne. I was to be in School House. My housemaster was a fierce Yorkshireman, Frank Hopkinson, whom we called Hoppy. He was the geography teacher and had a huge world map behind his desk, the fading British Empire in red.
On the first night we were gathered in one of the large classrooms and Hoppy organised a compulsory boxing match. The introduction to my new school friends was not with a handshake, but a punch.
‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘You are privileged to be in School House. We have the best teams, the most cups. I expect all of you to continue this tradition. Life is a test. There will be many tests while you are here. This is the first. Each of you will box one round. Make space. Push the desks back and we’ll start.’
With his clipped language, this man had no time to waste.
After the boxing, the prefects were introduced. ‘This is Thompson,’ Hoppy said, ‘Captain of School House rugby. This is Mitchell, Captain of the House hockey team.’
Mitchell looked friendly and after the introductions were over, I went up to him. ‘Is there a public phone?’
‘I want to ring my parents.’
‘Forget it,’ he smirked. ‘Forget them.’
He put his hand on my shoulder. I thought he was doing this to soften his words, but he was pushing me away.
From the moment I arrived, I hated Canford: the cold corridors, the ox tongue we’d been served for the first meal, a housemaster who looked like Hitler. Then there were the bells. There were bells for everything. For getting up and going to bed, for PT, for starting and ending classes, for meals, for assemblies and, of course, the chapel bell.
In the passageway to the kitchens, where we queued for our dinner trays, there were rows of redundant bells, reminders of the Guest family years. Their numbers and names were on brass plates: BILLIARD ROOM, SMOKING ROOM, LIBRARY, HER LADYSHIP’S CHANGING ROOM, DINING HALL.
That first night, in a dormitory with 20 boys I’d never met before, was terrifying. I lay awake, thinking of my bedroom at home: my mother kissing me goodnight, the sound of the TV downstairs, my father locking the back door, the click as the hall light was turned off and Penny, our dachshund, running up the stairs to her basket on the landing.
Here the strip lighting in the corridor was left on. I remember going to the toilet that first night, frightened I would meet someone. What do you say in the middle of the night to a complete stranger?
The next morning I was given a ‘tutor’, a second-year boy who had three weeks to teach me answers to the School Quiz. Useless information. How many rugby pitches Canford had, the number of oak trees in the grounds, the names of the Masters and their subjects, the distance in yards from the school gates along the towpath to the bridge at Wimborne, the date the school was founded, the number of boys in the school in 1948.
The film maker, Derek Jarman, was at Canford in the 1950s. In his journal, Modern Nature, he wrote, ‘Smarting under this tortured system, the boys tortured each other, imposed valueless rules and codes of conduct, obeyed imaginary hierarchies where accidents of origin and defects of nature were magnified.’
You were never alone at Canford. Never allowed to be alone. But it was a place of loneliness. The only opportunity to be with yourself was in bed at night, feet away from the next boy, both practising the art of silent masturbation. I don’t remember any gay activity in the dormitories. I naively never thought about that kind of sex. The only attention I received from a homosexual was during my first summer term, when a prefect stood before me at the running track. I was hugging my knees to my chest before the hundred yards race.
‘I can see your genitals,’ he said and smiled at me.
I got up and walked away.
Physical abuse at Canford was never far from the surface. Prefects had the role of sergeant majors. There was fagging. For one week every month, each junior had to clean the prefects’ studies. This meant getting up before 6am, shining their shoes, scraping dried baked beans from pans and plates, sweeping carpets with a pan and brush and dusting desks. They would inspect our work and, if dissatisfied, would award the fagger a ‘blue paper’. These were entered into a ledger which was kept in Hoppy’s office. Each evening a prefect would come into the Junior Common Room and run his hands along the window ledges, tops of cupboards and desks. If there was any dust, one blue paper to the boy who was on cleaning duty.
If a boy was summoned to the Senior Common Room or a prefect’s study and failed to fold his arms on entry, or did not go up to the most senior boy in the room, another blue paper.
Three of these papers and you went to bed, shaking with fear, because after lights out, a prefect would come into the dormitory and call out the victim’s name. ‘Douglas-Wilson, upstairs.’ There, in the Senior Common Room, you received six strokes of the cane, delivered by a prefect, while a second attended as a witness. They had cups of coffee they sipped between strokes. We were allowed to put trousers on over our pyjamas, but the wounds left weals.
One evening, sweet papers were found on the gym floor where School House juniors had been watching a film. When Hoppy asked who had dropped them, and in a rare show of student solidarity, we all put our hands up. He then ordered the prefects to beat everyone. All 30 of us were gathered on the stage in the gym and publicly caned, one by one.
For the worst crimes, beatings were given by Hoppy. Dating girls was in this category. We were allowed exeats to go to Wimborne, but these were only long enough to buy a Crunchie bar or a bag of aniseed balls in the sweet shop across the bridge. Not enough time to wander around or date a local girl.
I had fallen in love with the girl in the record shop. She had brush curls and a pink hairband and wore fluffed-out dresses. She was puzzled by my interest in Ray Charles, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. My only diversion into mainstream pop was when she persuaded me to buy Johnny Tillotson’s ‘Poetry in Motion’.
One Sunday afternoon on exeat, she had agreed to meet me on Wimborne Bridge to go for a walk. I don’t know what would have happened, but nothing did because a master passed us. I was so scared I said a quick goodbye and rushed back to school along the 1,245-yard riverside path, the only fact from the School Quiz that was ever of any use to me.
I should have stayed with her because it would have been compensation for what was to follow. That evening I was in Hoppy’s study. ‘You were seen with a girl in Wimborne.’ He pointed to the far corner of the room as he lifted the cane from the top of his desk. After a caning, we were supposed to say, ‘Thank you, sir.’ I never did, and he didn’t insist on the protocol with me.
Canford was High Church and today I can still recite, not only the Lord’s Prayer, but the Apostles’ Creed: ‘I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his only Son ...’
Towards the end of the first autumn term, we were ‘invited’ to put our names down for Confirmation. I didn’t and was summoned to Hoppy’s study.
‘Douglas-Wilson, Reverend Geake tells me that you have not
registered for Confirmation.’
‘I don’t believe in God, sir.’
‘That has nothing to do with it. You are letting the House down.’
They couldn’t force Confirmation on me, but they could harass me. Summoned a second time, I was told, ‘Douglas- Wilson, you’re not kneeling in chapel.’
‘I told you, sir. I don’t believe in God.’
Again I was told this had nothing to do with it.
‘Do you believe in God, sir?’ I asked.
‘My beliefs have nothing to do with you. We are not talking about God here, Douglas-Wilson. We are talking about loyalty.’
The last straw was when I confronted the religious education teacher, the assistant school chaplain, the Reverend Norman Crowder, when he read Matthew 19:24: ‘And I tell you, it is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven.’
My hand shot up. ‘Isn’t that about socialism, sir?’
‘This parable is not to be taken literally, Douglas-Wilson. Sit at the back of the class and get on with your Latin.’
There I remained, isolated, but happily free of the Reverend’s attentions who liked to rub his crotch against the back of our chairs. After that, I was banned from RE. No Divinity GCE for me, but I got a good grade in Latin.
I also got a good grade in history. I couldn’t stand the present so I concentrated on the past. The history master, Basil Rathbone – not the actor – was a large, shambling man who chain-smoked through class. He was the only teacher who left me with love for a subject. He was also the only master who was anywhere close to being a liberal. At the beginning of term I used to bring CND pamphlets and leaflets into school. They went unread by my fellow pupils, although during the Cuban Missile Crisis my opinions were taken more seriously. Rathbone read them all.
He also had a risqué sense of humour. ‘Would you prefer to be in the light with the ten wise virgins or in the dark with the ten foolish virgins?’ he would ask us apropos of nothing.
Our headmaster, Mr Hardie, had two beautiful daughters. Once, when we were discussing the four-minute nuclear warning when sirens would announce Armageddon, Mr Rathbone said, ‘You will have just enough time to boil an egg, but not to eat it.’ Then added, ‘but if I were you, boys, I’d forget the egg, make a dash for Hardie’s house and hope that he was out.’
I was a member of the school Debating Society which was as intellectual as things got at Canford. I had trouble finding a supporter for the debate on ‘Public Schools should be abolished’. And lost that vote. Heavily.
My nickname was Commie Wilson, but there were others far more radical than me. There were boys who refused to be beaten and were expelled. One of my friends ran away and walked the 25 miles to Southampton before he was found, returned to school and then thrown out.
I reluctantly took part in most school activities. I was even a member of the Combined Cadet Force which was compulsory, but I suppose I could have tested the school and said I was a conscientious objector.
There was Army, Navy or Air Force to choose from. I chose the Army because, as a commando, I could swing on ropes across the River Stour. The Navy cadets paddled beneath us in an ancient lifeboat with the school caretaker, Lieutenant Pantlin, nicknamed Plug, standing to attention in the stern as coxswain.
The Air Force had a glider and 12 boys would divide into two teams and pull on two elasticated ropes while the ‘aircraft’, balanced on its ski, would be anchored to a stake in the playing field. The ‘pilot’ was strapped to a wooden block on the nose. On an order from the commanding officer, the pilot released the anchor. A good flight would be 30 yards at three feet off the ground, then a nose dive into the rose bushes. It was rumoured that, in the 1930s, a boy had taken off with a strong tail wind and made it over the school before ditching in the river.
When not swinging on ropes, I was a bugler in the CCF band. Every month there was a parade when a visiting officer from the real Army would inspect us. On these occasions boots had to be spit-polished with blacking, belts, buckles and bugle shined with Brasso. The French teacher, Colonel Kirkpatrick, (aka Wump), a doppelgänger for Captain Mainwaring in the TV series Dad’s Army, would stop in front of me. ‘Ah, Commie Wilson.’ He’d then turn to the visiting officer and say, ‘It’s good to see we have the communists on parade.’
Once a year we had Field Day, which meant going on recce patrols on Canford Heath, a good opportunity to take cover and smoke cigarettes. Back on duty, we’d fire blanks at each other from First World War bolt-action Lee Enfield rifles. I remember stuffing mine with dirt and firing off at the other boys. When new, these could fire 15 rounds a minute. I used to think about the soldiers who used these guns in the trenches. Many of them didn’t survive that minute when they were sent over the top.
Canford was a sports school, not so much for the exercise, but for the development of team spirit, essential in every regiment. So rugby and hockey in winter, but not football – working class – and cricket and rowing in summer. Few boys in School House played tennis, a sport discouraged by Hoppy. He considered the game to be individualistic and effeminate.
If your name didn’t appear on the list of players for that day, you had to stand on the sidelines, cheering on your team in the never-ending inter-house matches. If you were caught studying in the library, you were a third of your way to a beating.
Because I was small, I played right wing at rugby, but refused to run fast or tackle an opponent. My reluctance to engage in sports was most marked with the annual School Run. At the end of the autumn term, 400 boys would run six miles across Canford Heath, a maze of brambles and thorn bushes. Prefects in blue shirts were stationed at every junction to direct the runners and watch for slackers. When they were out of sight, I would walk to make sure I was always among the last 50.
I left Canford in December 1962. I had a plan. In an inter- house rugby match in the last week, I tackled and scored the winning try. That same week I came in at number 20 in the school run.
On my last day Hoppy invited me to his study. Too late now to be summoned.
‘You have been here four years and could have helped your House win more cups. I do not wish you ill, Douglas-Wilson, but I’m glad to see the back of you.’
I stood scowling in front of him, removed my tie, placed it on his desk and left his office. Years later, I found out that Hoppy was sacked for having an affair with a colleague’s wife. His obsession with ‘loyalty’, verged on the tribal. It must have slipped from his mind, along with his trousers. Talk about letting the House down.
I have no idea if that boy reading The Wide World Magazine ever came across the adventures of Sir Henry Layard, son-in-law of Lady Guest. A regular visitor to Canford, he would have rambled though that park with Lady Charlotte and told her of his adventures in Nineveh and how he’d stolen an Assyrian frieze from what is today Iraq, a country of a more contemporary and bloodier theft.
In 1994 this frieze was discovered behind layers of paint in the school’s tuck shop and sold at Christie’s for nearly £8 million. The proceeds went to the school, of course, not to the Iraqi people, from whom it was stolen.
The very name ‘public’ school carries with it the stench of British hypocrisy. Another robbery, this one linguistic. Canford was as far away from the public and their norms and needs as you can get. Yet secession from the life of the rest of the nation was no barrier to the desire to dominate it. This is something I understood and despised from an early age. And wanted no part in it.
The location for Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If was Cheltenham College, but it would have been more authentic had it been made at Canford, although I never went as far as Malcolm McDowell and organised an armed rebellion. There were too few of us brave enough to hate the place and see it for what it was. And even if we had, we would have been overwhelmed in less time than it took to empty the cartridges from those ancient Enfields.
I had only two friends at Canford: Roger Lavers who was in School House and Norman Boyer in Franklin. It’s extraordinary that, during those four years, these two were the only boys I called by their first names. The only two who were real people and in whose company I escaped my loneliness.
When Roger arrived at Canford, his two older brothers were already there, so their names were Lavers Major, Lavers Minor and poor Roger was Lavers Minimus.
Roger was from Westerham in Kent and lived next door to Lord Cromer, the then-Governor of the Bank of England. On summer holidays I used to cycle out there from Bromley to help harvest his Lordship’s wheat. It was great fun to ride on the combine harvester. I can’t remember what my job was. Perhaps I am one of the few people in his Lordship’s life who got a free ride off him.
At Canford you rarely got to know boys from other houses so my friendship with Norman was unusual. Perhaps it was because we shared a hatred of the place and wanted to get out as much as possible, so long as this did not involve the sports field. One of the only ways to do this, when exeat quotas to Wimborne were used up, was to walk across the school fields onto Canford Heath. This was allowed at weekends if there wasn’t a rugby, hockey or cricket match to cheer for from the sidelines.
On these walks we discussed our plans for the future. Norman said he
was going back to Argentina where his father managed an estancia. I said my only plan was to move as far away from Canford as possible. Norman interpreted this literally and told me that if I could get to South America, he would ask his father to give me a job.
‘But I can’t ride a horse,’ I told him.
Norman laughed. ‘Commie Wilson, you’ll learn in a day.’