60 years after leaving my boarding prep school, its impact continues to intensify
The interesting thing about getting to be seventy is that one starts to flatter oneself that one has developed a settled longer perspective about what is important and what isn’t; how the world works; how we work. I have begun to see myself as not merely being a part of the changing face of history, but a dynamic agent in it. Yet the more creatively that I have engaged in this role, the more I have found that my consciousness has begun to take on a life of its own, despite myself and all the things I previously thought.
Sometimes, over a period that can be as long as several years, ideas creep up from the margins, accumulate and then quite suddenly assemble themselves into a shift in the intellectual paradigm. Then one is forced to scramble to find out what happened, as if it had been some serendipitous accident somewhere in the software.
The accumulated interaction of a character and their times is fascinating because this process can be complex, unpredictable and likely only to make sense afterwards. And no one is immune from that no matter how old they are.
I get a feeling of almost wonderment that I have become such a conservative man, despite other powerful influences that have held sway for much of my life. It is a conservatism that is so profound, it is bound to offend not just ‘progressives’, but every modern instinct that we have taken for granted since The Liberal Enlightenment and the Utilitarians made their way onto the world stage in the eighteenth century.
I call it ‘The Edgeborough Effect’.
As an early baby boomer, I grew up in my most formative preparatory school years in England, on the cusp of a rapidly disappearing, but still extant traditional world, whose roots extended back into the classical period.
By the time I reached the middle of my secondary schooling in Australia into the ‘60s, it was obviously disintegrating and I found myself becoming orphaned from the world of my forefathers. The Deputy Headmaster of my Australian secondary grammar school made the mistake one day of talking about “turning out Young Christian Gentlemen” in a school assembly. There was audible laughter right round the auditorium. It was all over. Of course the school in its present form could go on for several generations, but it would be just a well endowed social museum full of mounted corpses and ghosts, playing charades for young tourists.
This culminated in events leading to my admission to a university. I had been accepted into the Melbourne University Law School which was and is prestigious, Establishment, built very much in the same Gothic Victoriana style as Edgeborough (but built forty years earlier) and a primary destination for mainly the young men (and now women) coming out of the private school feeder network.
In the tram going up to enroll in early January 1966, I met a just graduated Law student who was about to do his articles year. In the ten minutes we were traveling together, he gave me a run down on the glories of the British Common Law system. By the time I got out, I was convinced that if this fellow was anything to go by, I would come out at the end of four years as pompous and complacent an ideological stiff as he was.
When I went into the Law School Lecture theaters, I sat down and saw my fate if I were to stay there a minute longer. It was almost as if something took me by the scruff of the neck and threw me out of the place, into a very different life.
Instead, I went to a newly built ‘sputnik’ (as a result of the technology panic that ensued when the Soviets beat the Americans into space) university in the far South-East suburbs called Monash and read Arts specializing in history. I had to understand why the children had laughed at their school master, what had gone wrong and what was to be done to fix it. This meant going down into the roots of our institutions and their belief systems and doing a very thorough search.
As my studies progressed, I was confronted by the unpleasant fact that I was as ideologically rootless as a cut flower and that the likely long term global prospects that would arise from the operations of a corrosively aggressive, overwhelmingly successful and increasingly totalitarian consumer society, were extremely bad.
I ‘spiritually’ crashed, in an episode that most people would understand as depression. It took years to recover and most of the rest of my life struggling with the implications of the things that had prompted it.
My first response to this and the ongoing Vietnam War, was to adopt socialism. The second was to adopt environmentalism, which even in the sixties looked to be a serious problem, as well as a good stick to beat capitalism with, particularly as the class struggle seemed to be running out of steam. This was later conflated with partnering and having two children within a socialist collective. It turned out to be as disastrous an enterprise as the larger socialist experiment later proved itself to be.
This collapse in my personal affairs was accompanied by a more global intellectual fragmentation and marginalization of socially critical perspective and practice.
Subsequently, without anything else ready made available within the culture to comprehensively deal with these matters, I had to resort to do-it-yourself, alone. The rest of society was almost completely absorbed by an ever increasingly effective commercial propaganda ‘war’, to justify a socially and environmentally devastating barrage of goods and services onto markets.
In those days it was very easy to dismiss concerns about such things and to consider them either perverse, or eccentric, or just plain boring; eye glazingly boring.
Having started out as an unpopular outsider who couldn’t come in from the cold, I spent the rest of it, at least so far, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, developing that trait as an asset, and staying there because I preferred it. I find certain sorts of lost and unpalatable causes almost irresistible. Yet I have this absolute certainty in my heart, that like the sunburnt mineral fossickers who spend a lifetime looking for that elusive reef, that I will hit pay dirt, and it will be big.
During a break year from uni, I crashed an explosives vehicle full of gelignite and detonators. When I lost control of the vehicle, it was as if I ‘knew’ what to do to minimize the damage possibilities and was being ‘controlled’ to that end. The box of detonators popped out with the side window of the vehicle and landed right side up on the side of the road, on top of the window. The underside of the vehicle was severely damaged, but not the passenger compartment. I walked out without a scratch.
Despite the intellectual absurdity of such a belief, I felt I had been spared for something and have looked for it ever since. I have had at least half a dozen similar subsequent brushes with death and something always ‘controlled’ my escape trajectory.
Even worse in terms of any rational judgment of such things, I ‘know’ that I will not die until whatever it is I have to do gets done and that I shall not linger on when it has been.
I don’t for a second think that this ‘voice’ comes out of the ether. It is consciousness expressing itself at the very deepest possible levels, that we will only understand properly when neuron based intelligence is much better understood, if we ever get that far.
Of course I may never ‘hit’ that pay dirt. But one thing is for sure: If you swim with the crowd in the mainstream, sipping lattes that are values free, in the cafe of the waters of indulgence, as the revelers play in the sea, who will say it’s the last dance, as the clouds roll in with the tide? Who will deny the last tango to give us and our children a chance?
As time has gone by, I have filled most of the gaps in my understanding of the direction and purposes of my life and how that relates to the larger forces around me. However, there has been one last piece that until relatively recently has been elusive, which perhaps is the most important one; the impact on my life of being a boarder in a little eighty-two or three student English prep school, from the Christmas term in 1956 to the summer one of 1958, when I left for Australia with my family.
That particular penny only really started to drop after September 11th, 2001. A form of conservatism that didn’t owe a single thing to the modern world that we take for granted, had just peremptorily marched onto the world stage and it wasn’t in the least boring at all. What connected for me was that my memories of the no excuses hard-line conservatism I found at my prep school, resonated to these events.
Normally one’s later education takes on much greater significance than the earlier periods, because it is more proximate to important life decisions such as tertiary education and career, as well as the formation of a core of lifelong friends. But for me, those two years, through a combination of very dense institutional impacts and pain, pale everything else that I did as a child and youth into insignificance. Much, much more than that, it was the only cultural experience I have ever had where the institution I was in was still fully intact, alive, breathing normally and still possessed of its integrity.
Thus it was that something that my Edgeborough headmaster had beaten into me touched me on the shoulder and said, “There are some things I would like to show you......”
(By way of addendum, I have recently had my attention drawn to the fact that in the 4-5 year period after I left for Australia, that headmaster, Charles Mitchell, deteriorated as a character, probably became subject to alcoholism and eventually started to sexually predate on some of the students, most notably Marc Sinden, son of the then prominent actor, Donald Sinden. In a subsequent article that can be found on the following link, there were a few things I wanted to posthumously tell the wretch.....as well as put his awful behavior and the subsequent pandemic and/or revealment of institutional and domestic sexual misconduct into some kind of perspective.
That perspective draws attention to the increasingly urgent need to make changes in the way we conduct socialization and regulate moral accountability in an indulgence driven society and economy-without-boundaries, that has fetishized deregulatory privatization of the common weal, whether we are talking free markets or libertarian humanism.
The New Boarder:
I remember, as if it were yesterday, going to London by train with my mother, to be kitted out with all the necessary paraphernalia to live in my new boarding prep school, Edgeborough, which was and still is situated near Frensham in Surrey, in a late Victorian Gothic stone and brick mansion, stables block and Gymnasium that overlooked a wide rural valley.
I still have several hundred of the required name tags in a little box that I remember my mother collecting with all the other things. I have kept them because whenever I have needed name identified clothing, they have always been handy. But most of them are condemned to die with me, and my name.
Going to boarding school was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me. There was no trepidation or doubt in my mind that this could be anything but a grand adventure.
So when I arrived, for the third term of 1956, aged eight and three-quarters, I breezily waved off my parents and turned to face my future with brimming optimism.
It only took about fifteen minutes for it to sink in that I wasn’t going to see my parents for a very, very long time. The romantic reverie crashed and burned. Optimism turned to panic.
I found myself wandering aimlessly up the driveway past the conservatory end of the main building, where there was then a hedgerow of pine trees. It was there I stopped and started to cry. Behind these trees was an older student tending to a garden patch. He heard my distress and took time out from his digging to approach me. He re-assured me that it wasn’t as bad as all that and that I would get used to the place soon enough.
His charity saved me from making a general blubbing spectacle of myself, but tears were never far away in that first week or two.
These tears did come again about a week later, but again, fortunately for me, in front of a staff member rather than my peers. The fierce short white haired and handlebar mustachioed Mr Hodgkinson, who barked rather than spoke, caught me out of bounds in the hallway area adjacent to the main entrance. He ordered me to go and stand in the corner for five minutes. I obeyed and wept quietly in my appointed place. At eight and three-quarters, five minutes seemed such an inordinately long time to have to spend in a corner and his admonition for my ‘crime’ seemed to me, so 'angry'.
Mr Hodgkinson was not nearly as fierce as he pretended. On hearing my sobs, he came and stood next to me and said, “It’s alright. I’ll stand in the corner with you.”
When I think of all the acts of kindness that have been shown to me during my life, that is the most luminescent of them all.
My gardening acquaintance was right about one thing. I got used to the place.
The Rest of the Staff:
Mr Mitchell, the senior Headmaster, personally owned this little boys school and its grounds. It was not uncommon in England at the time. I came from a little day prep school run by a retired army major. My great aunt owned a girl’s secondary school called ‘Byculla’ in the next county of Hampshire. It had been willed to her by the previous headmistress, who, like Mitchell may have done from Guilford, moved the school away from the city precinct of Portsmouth into the countryside, because of the possibility of war and bombing.
He was a tall, lean and lugubrious man in his mid fifties. His persona carried the enormous weight of a senior Roman magistrate, whose auctoritas, dignitas and gravitas would bow the heads of ordinary citizens and bring slaves to their knees at his passing. Charles ‘Mizzy’ (short for miserable) Mitchell was ‘old school’ and brought with him an aura and disciplinary regime that my grandfather would have been familiar with.
Being required to go to his ‘study’ was a terrifying experience and could happen for the most trivial reasons, like talking in the dormitory after lights out.
Sometime between the end of breakfast and the start of class, a small line of glum faced students would form in the passage outside and await the almost certain fate of several blows from the sewn and seamed leather covered cane he kept in a glass cabinet between his desk and the bank of windows at its far end.
Those outside, after the first victim had gone in, would strain to hear the almost inaudible conversation through the thick wooden door, but they would unmistakably hear the cane do its work.
There would be no other sound, for any natural audible expression of pain was considered extremely poor form.
The door would then open and an eye wateringly chastened boy would emerge doing his best to appear nonchalant. He would shut the door and hurry as quickly as possible to the toilets to recover his composure and inspect the bruises; damage that would be a badge of honor for at least a week or so, going from cut red to blue, black and browny yellow.
It was then the duty of the next-in-line to wait an appropriate time before knocking, and entering when the disembodied voice inside finally commanded that he, “come in”.
The study was large and airy, with extravagant cornicing around the ceiling. The desk was vast. The miscreant would stand in front of it and answer questions about the nature of his misdemeanor(s), before being informed that he was to be caned and that forthwith, he was to proceed to bend over the overstuffed armrest of one of the Victorian wing back chairs in front of the fireplace, while ‘the instrument’ was retrieved from its place. It was an awful wait, looking down at the brocaded cushions and wondering how many he was going to get.
This would only be announced when the ritual was about to begin. The most I ever got was two.
There were other sides to ‘Mizzy’ Mitchell, such as the endlessly patient teacher. I had a lot of trouble learning long division, for I was a slow learner. For weeks I went up to ‘the study’ to sit next to him at his desk, while we struggled with this arithmetical mystery, until I ‘got it’.
He could be avuncular at times. I still have a photo of me in a dressing gown with him grinning over my shoulder into the lens. I remember the occasion with such clarity, it almost aches. The head matron took it with her little ‘Brownie’ camera a few weeks before I left.
He was our spiritual leader, for our school took this part of its vocation very seriously. Every night there would be a school service and twice on Sundays. Here, the Protestant Ascendancy was a daily part of our lives. When we sang the twenty-third psalm (my favorite), it was as important as anything else that we did in the place. Charles Mitchell wasn’t just a headmaster, but a figure out of the Old Testament, minus the beard and flowing robes.
And then there was the Charles Mitchell that we children could only get the slightest glimpse of. Perhaps it was a single gesture illuminated by the first landing stain glass windows on the grand staircase (out of bounds to students, who had to use the servants stairs near the kitchen at the other end of the house) coming down into the spacious Pompeii style mosaic laid entrance hall.
He was walking down it with prospective parents, joking, laughing and applying lashings of old fashioned charm; so urbane, mellifluous and confidential in his manner, they could almost think they were his equals.
Mrs Mitchell, the headmaster’s wife, was not ‘staff’ as such, but aside from running the school accounts, she did manage the school sweetshop, twice a week. Her trade was conducted after lunch, on a trestle table in the music/recreation room on the far side of the conservatory. The queue was always long and slow, but we were patient and committed. It was here that I acquired my lifelong taste for Mars Bars. I got six pence a week pocket money and it bought me just one.
In the nineteen twenties, in my mother’s time, they had been tuppence. My understanding of inflation is still governed by the standard Mars Bar price.
She was slightly younger than her husband, with black hair that was tightly coiffed and rising to the back of her head. She would have been an attractive young woman, but middle age and a firm and businesslike manner made her seem rather remote. There was nothing maternal about her at all.
I cannot ever remember her smiling, except in that very polite and clipped English way that empties the gesture as quickly as it is made.
Her other main duty was controlling the television watching that was allowed for half an hour on Wednesday and Sunday evenings and an hour on Saturday evenings. ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Ivanhoe’ were standard weekly ‘medieval’ English dramatic fare on the seventeen inch screen that we crowded round in what would have once been the family sitting room off the hall. ‘The Cisco Kid’ (“Eh Pancho.....Eh Zisco....) and ‘The Lone Ranger’ (Hi Ho Silver!....Yes Kemosabe!) brought us a little bit of Hollywood.
Mr Hardy was the less senior headmaster. His position was a rather unclear one. He may even have been a junior partner in the business. He was a ruddy faced, short, slightly rotund and balding man of similar age to Mitchell, but with a terrible stutter. And he would insist on getting his junior share in leading prayers in the chapel.
When I saw the film ‘A fish Called Wanda’, I was strongly reminded of Hardy, when the Palin character tries to tell the Cleese one where the loot is. Getting through the Lord’s Prayer was just such a struggle......for all of us. Even the painted St. George at the back of the altar had to hesitate killing the dragon until it was finally all over.
Oddly, he didn’t have a nickname even though he was a sitting duck for something like ‘Stutters’. Perhaps it was just that his impediment was so obvious and constant that no one saw the need to draw further attention to it. I never saw him teach and simply could not imagine him being able to take a lesson.
Hardy’s study was a little attic room on the second floor. He took care of misdemeanors in dormitories in that part of the house. I was caught talking after lights out and was sent there for the usual punishment. It was not nearly as intimidating going to wait outside his study compared with that of the man downstairs.
He was to give me two strokes of the cane, but broke it on the second one. It seemed so funny. He had a third go with the broken end and the whole episode degenerated into farce.
I left his little study trying to suppress a fit of the giggles. It is fear, awe and distress that gives pain, or the prospect of it, its most ‘persuasive’ leverage.
Years later, I found a pen and ink drawing of the back of the school main building after winter snow, in amongst family photographs. It had Hardy’s signature on it. It was a very lovingly and beautifully executed piece that still brings a lump to my throat every time I find it in the numbered album my mother put it in, when she organized our family photographic records, sometime in the early nineteen sixties.
Mr ‘Pontifex’ Pogson was my Latin master. It must have been a thankless job because I couldn’t for the life of me work out why we needed to learn a dead language. We used to chant a ditty whose lines now escape me, to that effect. Nobody understood why we did Latin. It just was.
It wasn’t until much later that I found out about the Oxbridge Classics ‘Tripos’, that still carried great traditional weight in the English education system. That is why in the fifth and sixth forms, the school also included ancient Greek in the curriculum. It wasn’t just the Head Master and the school who were old fashioned. This curriculum originated in the ancient world, the later medieval cathedral schools and Royal Universities, and on into the more secular Renaissance/Reformation 'public' schools.
Pogson was a teacher approaching retirement. His face was deeply lined and had a prominent ‘Roman’ nose, accentuated by a lean face. He constantly smoked a pipe and had leather patches in the elbows of his ancient tweed jackets. He seemed made of the stuff that he taught, like a wise old tree.
Despite the unpromising nature of his subject, he was an engaging man and a fine sports master. We were all fond of him, for he was a kind of rock who always supported his young charges and talked to them with a ponderous ‘pipey’ kindliness.
When doing oral translations in class, he would help us along, adding interesting bits and pieces of extra information that gave life to what we were doing. He always managed to find something to praise, even if it were just struggling effort. On the sports field, even if one had made a mess of something, he would say something encouraging and make constructive suggestions for next time.
I may not remember much about the Latin he taught, but l later became an avid student of Roman history. My volumes of Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall...’ have his finger prints all over them.
Mr ‘BL’ Legge was my French teacher. He was in his early forties and he dressed just like Pontifex, except that his tweedy leather patched jackets were more greeny-gray to P’s orangey browns. But unlike him, his face was flat, the nose seemingly broken several times and his upper lip was graced by a military style clipped mustache that hid a slightly cleft palette. It could have been a war injury. His French accent was true nasal Gallic and he spoke the language fluently.
Our French lessons were a little piece of France in one classroom. His football training was just as fluent, but he was a lot tougher than Pontifex when it came to getting it right.
Miss Lupton was a fat and soft old woman with hairs on her upper lip, a wart on her cheek, a wheezy chest and a slightly stiff arthritic way of moving. She was the first form teacher and nursed us through our first two to three terms (one didn’t necessarily stay in a form for a whole year). She taught us all the basics for reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. I stayed with her for the full year. I was a slow learner.
I still have a needle pouch, which with her assistance I crudely embroidered with different colored threads as part of a craft project. Miss Lupton sewed a lining onto it and it still forms part of my sewing kit.
Miss Lupton was an earth mother. I remember her most clearly standing in the light of a rising winter sun that shone through the frost encrusted windows of our rear stable block classroom, as she warmed herself next to the heater and checked our spelling homework, in a voice worn by the repetition of the years. Yet she was without rancor or resentment.
We were all safe and warm in the bosom of her care.
Mrs Walshingham was a woman straight out of a Goya portrait of an aging flamenco singer. Unfortunately the voice was very English and plain, her instrument an upright piano rather than a guitar and the songs, a medley of traditional folk numbers out of a book that had been reprinted almost without amendment since the nineteenth century, and then remorselessly circulated throughout The Empire (as I found out when I got to Australia).
Dee Campdown races sing dis song, doo dah...with Uncle Tom Cobley and all, because Boney was a warrior...Oh Shenandoah.... Was a miner, forty niner.... where the skies are not cloudy all day...and I’ll take the High Road and Ye’ll Take the Low Road ...if you ken John Peel at the break of day....or twenty thousand Cornishmen will want to know the reason why...Greensleeves was my delight.....but what to do with the drunken sailor.......
Even in the mid to late fifties, these songs were disappearing from the cultural repertoire of pub sing alongs and were only hanging on inside schools because no one could be bothered to get out and find out what was really going on in the popular musical culture. In those days, it wasn’t considered important to do so. The age of vinyl celebrity and songster hype was only just beginning in England.
But at least she taught us to sing in tune and do a scale both forwards and backwards. Do, Ray, Me, Fa, So, La, Tee, Do, Tee, La, So, Fa, Me, Ray, Do.
The music room (which was adjacent to the shoe changing room/conservatory, with its very own magic shoe polishing service, just like at Hogwarts) doubled as a recreation room with a couple of table tennis tables and a radio.
I remember hearing on that radio, Bill Haley and the Comets doing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ for the first time and thinking how ‘odd’ it seemed; how completely disconnected it was from the chapel and class singing we did.
It wasn’t an earth moving revelation or anything. It was just a straw in the wind that would only later be seen as presaging the complete collapse of the world that I then occupied.
There was a young, slightly overweight and spotty teacher who took me for History, whose name I forget. I memorized every single king and Queen of England from Alfred the Great to Elizabeth ll. King John was a ‘Bad King’. Richard was a Good One who went on a crusade to save the Holy Land. Queen Elizabeth l presided over a ‘Golden Age’. The ‘Black Hole of Calcutta Outrage’ justified Clive taking over India to civilize the natives. General Wolfe won Canada against the naughty French by sneaking up the cliffs of Abraham Heights. We didn’t discuss the Unfortunate American War of Independence very much.
Guy Fawkes was an unsuccessful plotter who nearly blew up Parliament, but we didn’t talk about a Catholic terrorist plot against the Protestant Ascendancy that was so hard nosed, it would have made the early Ian Paisley seem positively moderate. But then everyone was hard-line fundamentalist in those days.
The History text book was a reprint of a reprint of something originally put out in the nineteen thirties and so embodied all the traditional notions of Britain’s place as an imperial society. Like the music and the dead languages, the knowledge base being purveyed was something of a museum piece.
But nonetheless, history became the love of my life, although in fairness, most of the credit for that goes to a couple of my Australian secondary school teachers.
I never had Mr Webb as a teacher as he dealt only with the more senior forms. He was a beaky, sharp faced and humorless little man who made a point of being curt and tough with students. He was to be avoided where at all possible, as was Mr Stone, the senior Latin Master. Stone was also his nickname because it was apposite; a rigid mask of cold indifference. It was said he used to cry at the end of term because there would be no students to bully for the duration of the holidays. More likely, under that mask was a wounded and disabled character who had shut himself off from the pain and disappointments of his life.
The three matrons dressed in crispy white starched uniforms, wore their hair in buns or short and inhabited the upper story dormitory floors. Miss Charlton, the head matron, was known as ‘Chalky’ to everyone. This was because she wore thick white powdered make up, contrasted it with flaming red lipstick and set it all off with jet black dyed hair that was as tightly quaffed as her disciplinary manner. The effect made her look like a retired dominatrix.
In the heroic tradition of Head Matrons, Chalky was as tough as old boots and as stentorian as a Sergeant-Major, but also good humored and fair. However, it didn’t do to get in her black book, because Mizz would inspect it from time to time and come through the dormitories at bed time armed with it and a gym shoe for exacting due punishment. It wasn’t as bad as the cane, but the real punishment was that it might take a week or more from the report, to the retribution.
Miss Webster was a younger woman, in good shape and probably around thirtyish; not pretty, but agreeable. Our dorm captain, Dobson, who was a sixth former and coming into his adolescence, used to banter with Miss Webster in a way that I later understood to be mild flirting. She took it in good humor and we younger ones just thought that she and he were merely ‘getting on well’.
I doubt very much that Dobson knew what he was up to. In those days, the barrier between the world of adults and children was so watertight, his understanding of Miss Webster’s charms would have been entirely instinctive and unconscious, which is probably why Miss Webster didn’t slap him down.
Miss Hogarth was a stout, ruddy and sour faced later middle aged woman who seemed to actively dislike her charges. Everything annoyed her. Her presence in our company always created an ugly atmosphere and trouble. She was widely and vehemently disliked. So when we arrived at the beginning of one term to find that she had died, there was immediate, heartfelt and enthusiastic celebration that led to excited dancing and whoops in the dorms.
There was no convincing attempt by any adult to suppress such wholly inappropriate disrespect for the dead. Obviously they hadn’t liked her either.
Her replacement was some kind of attempt at cosmic rebalancing, for she was without doubt, in the mind of every boy in the school, an angel. She was the most beautiful person we had ever seen and was revered. I don’t remember her ever saying anything because whatever it was that she wanted was keenly discerned before she had a chance to ask for it, or even think of it. Her smile was a light that seemed to emanate from her like some Hindu Goddess.
One can only speculate as to the effect she had on the adults in the place, or wonder what such a dazzling woman was doing as a matron in a boys prep school, but she only stayed a term, much to everybody’s deep disappointment; possibly not Mrs Mitchell’s.
The matrons taught us orderliness and tidiness. If I have to fold a suit, jumper or shirt to put in a suitcase or storage shelf, I still use their method. I still use the ‘hospital fold’ to secure sheets and blankets at the bottom of a bed and I fold unused blankets just the way they insisted it be done and stack them so that all the folds go the same way, in the same aspect.
When my parents came to pick me up at the end of my first term, I announced in my usual sensitive fashion that the food I got at school was better than what I got at home.
There were two reasons for this. One was that my mother, who had been surrounded by servants until she got married, was an unenthusiastic practitioner, with a small and unimaginative repertoire. Two, the school menu was much more diversely programmed and so had more chance of being interesting.
Not all of it was. About once every three weeks we got a lunch pie of hard, dry and thick crust with equally dried out minced meat in it, accompanied by string beans that had been diced, but not destrung and cooked to mush. This made destringing them on the plate more than just a tedious and pointless exercise in frustration. And if one missed some of this coarse fibrous material, one just had to get it out of the mouth or teeth, because trying to swallow it would cause gagging.
There was no question of leaving any food on the plate (except for the fibrous leftovers from the unstrung beans). One ate what one was given and ‘liked’ it. Everyone ate this unpalatable rubbish, including the staff and they couldn’t swallow the stringy bits either.
There was a sweet which was made up of gooseberries and tapioca. I have never seen tapioca again since I left, probably because it looks like frogs’ spawn. Only the most disciplined feeders would dream of eating it because of its revolting appearance. It tasted OK, if one didn’t look.
There was one school culinary memory that even now makes my mouth water. When the blackberries in the surrounding area became ripe, the whole school would go out on a Sunday afternoon, pick them and bring them back to the kitchen. Cook would then bake them in sponge puddings and the following day they would appear for dessert accompanied with lashings of custard.
For a child with all its taste buds still intact, eating this confection made from wild berries that had only been tampered with by birds and insects, was sensational.
Oh, and the single pork sausage we got for breakfast is still something I hanker for. Even now in Australia, butchers still don’t take sausages seriously. They are mostly fat, off cuts and filler; mostly filler. Edgeborough sausages were serious sausages that were made by someone who cared about what they tasted like.
We never went hungry at Edgeborough, but neither were we over fed, for in the fifties we still lived in the shadow of over a decade of war and post-war rationing. Eating for sufficiency and disapproval of greed was a universal attitude amongst the adults who sat at table with us. The menu reflected that.
It was one sausage for breakfast, or one fried egg, or one piece of bacon, accompanied by only half a piece of fried bread. We never saw them all at once, on the same plate, on the same day. We had cereal and plenty of bread, but strictly two butter cubes. There was margarine if one wanted more, but it was pretty unprepossessing gray-yellow stuff that looked like industrial lubricant.
There weren’t any fat kids in the school. The one boy who came even close to being overweight was rather appropriately named Butterfield.
It was only when I got to Australia that I realized how sparing my diet had been and how fast I could put weight on.
I remember being absolutely outraged when shortly after arriving in Australia, I saw one of my cousins mortaring butter onto his bread. I exclaimed that, “You can’t do that!” to which he replied, as he ice cream scooped another dob, “Watch me!”
Manners and Mores:
Table manners were strictly enforced by a matron or senior boy at each table in the two tier dining rooms. The upper one adjacent to the chapel was reserved for the juniors, where I always sat. It had a huge fireplace on the inner wall, covered with coats of arms. The lower and larger one was reserved for seniors. The teaching staff sat at the far end away from the chapel.
There were no elbows on tables or stuck out into a neighbor's space. Nor was there bolting or picking at food. Mouths had to be kept shut while eating, so food and speaking didn’t mix. One always had to pass food, drink or condiments around the table so that no one would have to reach across. Nobody took more than their allotted share of food. If there were seconds to be had, it didn’t do to be always lining up for it first, like I did.
There were other little quirks. For instance, we were not allowed to turn our forks over to scoop troublesome bits and pieces like peas. One had to ‘plan’ a food stack on the fork that these bits would stick to or balance on, so they did not fall off in transit to the mouth. I remember one boy skewering his peas one by one and it took forever.
Even now, I don’t scoop my bits and pieces with my fork.
Yet in amongst this bourgeois civility, was a practice straight out of the East End of London. If we wanted to re-use our knives after a main course, we scraped them off on our plates and then used them for scooping and spreading butter and jam. My very bourgeois mother forbade such behavior at our family table, with wrinkled nosed disgust.
More generally, our training in manners was mainly based around deference towards adults, although embedded in that was also the teaching of formal social decencies and respectful consideration for others.
If one addressed an adult, it always started with, “Excuse me Sir/Madam/Miss.......” And one waited for permission to speak. If in adult company, one generally only spoke when spoken to. If one were seated and an adult came into the room, one had to stand up, and, if there were no other seats, offer them one’s own. One was expected to open doors for them. When passing an adult in the street that one knew, one touched the peak of one’s cap, or even, for the more August, removed and doffed it.
I remember my parents commenting on this (with some amusement I may add) when they attended an away cricket game at another school. There was a path going around the ground my team was playing on, which had bench seats placed on its far side away from the ground. The seats were full of students from the host school. Any adult who walked along that path had to pass in front of them and would cause a wave of children to rise from their seats and doff their caps. There were plenty of adults about, so there was a constant swell of movement, crested with what looked at some distance, like little colored boats.
If any of said adults stopped in front of a seat, the whole gaggle would offer their seats in unison. It presented a scene straight out of Monty Python.
And of course it went without saying, that underneath all this polite and slavish deference was a secret world of peers, whose politics were as ruthless, naked, violent, unscrupulous and little policed as that of any other underworld gang.
However, I still get up when another adult comes into a room in which I am sitting and offer my seat where appropriate. I open doors for people automatically. When I want to break into a conversation, I still ask and get permission from those involved first, whatever their status. If I ever use public transport or a seat in a public place, I always give it up to an older person, or anyone who obviously needs one more than I do (much to their surprise these days). And if I am wearing a hat, which is often, because I am bald and the sun burns my pate very quickly, I will tip it to people I know who I pass in the street.
I do this not because I am a nice person, but because I was trained, most particularly at Edgeborough. It was drummed into us.
And it has to be said, well performed, not too much, not too little grovelling deference can do wonders to get one out of tight spot, or endear one to someone whose dearness is important.
There were equally strict peer group manners and mores. Given names were not used by staff when addressing students. Neither were they between students. The closest we ever got to name intimacy was a nickname. I was known as ‘Naggley Clothesbrush’ because I had brought to school an ill advisedly tatty looking hairbrush in my first term; Naggley for short. I never knew anyone’s first name in the whole time I lived there. Our personal signatures all started with initials, not the given names.
It was very bad form to ‘fish’ for compliments or sympathy. Crying and looking obviously upset was for ‘babies’ only. Queues were regarded as sacred sites into which no one would push, no matter how large or senior, on pain of universal opprobrium. Physical cowardice was unforgivable. And if one had done something ‘wrong' and a person in authority asked who had done it, the offending miscreant was expected to ‘own up’(something that my later Australian peers thought was a hilarious idiocy).
The only bit of this that has gone by the wayside for me is the use of surnames to address people.
My Greek mother in law, who lives with us, is a shameless fisher for sympathy and even though she is eighty-six, I still find it hard to take. I know it is a cultural thing.......
As to owning up, if any public authority asks questions about the affairs of my wife and myself in relation to our properties or businesses, I am told to keep my mouth firmly shut or preferably not be there.
Skirting, editing, shifting or diverting attention from the truth just isn’t part of my repertoire. Owning up is. In these matters, when it comes to deftness, my Helen-the-Greek makes Fred Astaire look flat footed.
Conkers and Yo Yos:
The driveway from the main road to the school buildings continued past the stables and gym into an avenue of horse chestnuts. Every year when they started to drop, the conker games would begin. It was rumored that certain parties, the winners, had hardened their conkers by soaking them in vinegar, or illicitly roasting them.
Most likely they kept specimens from the previous year’s crop, as they always became harder over time, if kept in a dark dry place.
However, one fellow brought an artificial one to school, but it didn’t take long after a few odd looking scratches and questions about its weight arose, for suspicions to form. The subsequent conversations between said party and some of those who had lost their prized ‘naturally’ hardened specimens were reputed to have got a bit ugly.
My conkers never won more than a couple of rounds.
The yo yo is as perennial as the grass. There was at least one craze for them while I was there. Competition as to who could do the most difficult tricks was intense. The constant and ubiquitous practicing with yo yos was so widespread, there was equally intense competition to use the limited indoor space available. Their use was out of bounds except in the recreation room. They couldn’t be banned completely indoors because it was winter.
Big boys did not like little boys intruding on their 'round-the-world' yo yo practice. And it didn’t do for small boys to show off superior skills to their elders and betters either. It wasn’t that the small boy would be castigated for his presumptuousness directly or even immediately. That would be left to later, when no jealousy arising from the fact could be implied.
In the first summer I was there, the school put on an outside performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The garden that ran off from the rear terrace down into the valley, had on its leftward side looking from the house, a flat area that looked as if it might have been purposely built for theater. It seemed too small for a tennis court. The stage ‘wings’ were created by Rhododendron hedges.
Pan was played by Gutch and although I cannot remember much about the performance, there was this overwhelming ambiance of outdoor theater-in-a-garden. The whole place was in flower, including possibly late flowering Rhododendrons, which in the slightly humid atmosphere together with the haymaking across the valley, created a musk scent which was absolutely unforgettable. Whenever I smell it, or something like it, that afternoon with Pan floods back to me, as do the clouds of mosquitoes that came for me and everyone else towards the end of the performance. The final scenes were punctuated not so much by applause as the sound of slapping and restless scratching.
There was also the religious drama, which found its greatest expression at Christmas time. The whole school mobilized for this in the last two weeks of the Christmas term. The atmosphere became less rigid as we all got into the spirit of the occasion. The back of the stables classrooms for the fifth and sixth forms was converted into a stage/auditorium and a nativity play was performed with participation from every form.
This and the impending anticipation of going home for another round of Christmas cheer created a joyous atmosphere that culminated in the final dinner, which was always a sumptuously decorated feast. When I watched the Harry Potter feasts at Hogwarts with my youngest daughter, I revisited those Edgeborough moments.
One of the things that I really miss is the ritual of that time. It had such emotional density.
Sickness and Health:
At the end of one particular term, I and a dozen other fellow students contracted mumps. We were not allowed to go home. The dormitory we were in had the curtains closed because of the photo-phobia that Mumps brings with it. So reading was out of the question.
However, it is one of my fondest memories of the place, for the matrons (even Miss Hogarth) really made an effort to make us feel at home. And the fact was, it was their home.
The usual formality was foregone, to the extent that none of us felt that we had really missed out on the family time we would have had.
When the next term started again, this intimacy quickly dissipated, almost as if it had never happened. Yet I had discovered that behind the authority figure lay an ordinary person who was very different in many respects from what they usually portrayed.
In life there are many masks for the many roles we are expected to perform. The matrons during that ‘holiday’ gave me my first insight into how and why they are held.
One of the blights that afflicted some of us was a skin disease called impetigo, or school sores. These days it is usually treated with anti-biotic, but we got an ointment called gentian violet. I remember one poor devil called Gordon, whose face was covered in purple patches, so that he looked like something out of a cheap sci-fi movie.
The matrons were very rigorous about checking for any signs of this on all of us at bath time.
Oddly enough, I do not recall tinea being the problem that it has become in later decades.
One of my favorite things was getting my table spoon of malt that the matrons doled out every day before we went to sport in the afternoon. In those days it was considered to be a ‘tonic’ and good for ‘digestion’.
And finally, like virtually all schools of the time, there was the polio kid. Ours had one leg shorter than the other and he would either stagger if he walked or skip if he ran. He fitted in OK. Nobody ever made an issue of it.
Most of our washing was done in front of Edwardian wash stands that are now quite fashionable and expensive as antique decorative items.
In the mornings we would strip off our pajama tops and stand in front of our stands while the dormitory captain went and procured a hod of warm water from one of the bathrooms, which he duly poured into each of our wash basins. The same ritual would be done again at night.
Matrons liked to have windows open while this was going on to ‘air out the rooms’, and in winter, it was freezing.
Baths were twice a week and supervised by the matrons. This involved hair washing and a thorough whole of body scrub up. The matrons would check that this was done properly. Their favorite trick was to rub a finger up over the ankle and if any body fat and dirt rolled off our skin, we had to re-soap and wash again, while being tongue lashed for being lazy and inattentive.
Even now, I always wash my ankles with particular care.
Drying hair after a hair wash was a three person affair. The wet hairee would stand in the middle while two people stood each side of him, each with a towel end and alternately pulled the towel across the wet hair until said towel was wet and the hair relatively dry. It was also a highly satisfying scalp massage exercise, but in Australia, with its generally warmer atmosphere and the coming of electric hairdryers, it was a custom that fell into disuse.
The main house and its facilities were originally designed to take a single family and their servants of say all up fifteen to eighteen people. Guest suites might allow for say six to eight couples for short stays. The school was housing over ninety people for blocks of thirteen weeks and so hygiene was a critical issue
The matrons had to run that side of the business in the same way as a military encampment.
If they found a boy hadn’t washed his hands before a meal and cleaned his fingernails thoroughly, or after going to the toilet in the morning, they would go berserk. They checked.
Of course there were showers in the stable block for use after sports training, but that was really just to get the mud off. They were not as closely supervised, so naturally there was room for mischief.
Some people used to deliberately fray one corner of their towel by repeatedly beating it against something abrasive. This made it extremely effective for flicking, especially if it were not too large or with too much nap on it and it was slightly damp. It was a favorite shower sport whose victims were those not sufficiently alert to keep their naked backsides away from sources of possible attack.
The Boat Pond:
Many of the boys brought model boats to school to play with on this pond, which was situated between the stable block and the tennis courts over the drive from the main entrance. I had a very nice sailing model of the ‘Shamrock’, which had competed for the Americas Cup in the interwar period.
Besides the sailing boats, there were lots of electric motor boats from patrol craft, to ocean liners to submarines. It was in constant use. And its partially out-of-ground concrete walls were also used to prop up earth ramps that we built to run ‘Dinky Toy’ model racing cars down. These constructions were quite elaborate, with carefully smoothed road surfaces, cambered corners, sheer ‘cliffs’ to fall off and accident traps that would flip cars that didn’t sufficiently follow the planned track.
This place had its own particular drama for me. One day, a boy called Hamlyn threw a stone at my boat. It missed. I returned fire with a much larger stone and got a direct hit amidships that broke the craft in two and sent it straight to the bottom.
Nothing of a disciplinary nature occurred as a result of this confrontation, either because Hamlyn never reported the matter, or he did and was told that he only had himself to blame for the unfortunate fate of his electric ‘Vosper’ patrol boat.
It was not the end of the affair however. Not long afterwords, I found my boat in its usual storage place with its mast snapped in two. I never reported the damage either.
I still have the hull of that boat and it still doesn’t have a mast. Things have a way of evening themselves out.
The Climbing Beach Tree:
Between the boat pond and the tennis courts, about a hundred yards over the drive from the front entrance of the main building, was a great old beach tree. It had spread its branches in such a suitable fashion that there were up to twenty different climbing activity ‘challenges’ to be had, of varying degrees of difficulty and danger.
These varied from the low risk ‘cat’s cradle’ near the bottom, where one could swing oneself across from one branch to another, to a much higher shimmy-up between two vertical branches called something like ‘Bertrand’s Tunnel’. The latter was manifestly dangerous, and would only be ever attempted by senior boys.
In my second year there, we were still allowed to climb the tree, but after nearly twenty years of unfettered access, all the ‘challenges’ were quite unexpectedly put out of bounds. Green rings were painted on the branches, beyond which, no one was allowed to go.
Somebody must have told Mizz what a massive risk he was running by allowing students into such a ‘high’ risk environment. The traditional world had been prepared to allow for casualties in the process of hardening its young to the much larger risks involved in running an empire and defending it.
The coming of the risk averse, post-imperial nanny state had made itself felt, and it was a sad day in the school.
Leisure Time Games and Toys:
I grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. Our playtime pastimes were almost all war type games, mostly in the Cowboy and Indian genre, because no one wanted to play on the German side.
My parents wouldn’t buy me a toy gun, so I was reduced to using bent sticks and making percussive noises when I fired. No self-respecting opponent was going to take much notice of that, so my ‘kill’ rate was almost non-existent.
On the other hand there was Hodges, an American boy, who was armed with the most authentic looking pearl handled silver revolver. It had ‘real’ bullets that you could break open and fill with gunpowder caps. They not only made the most satisfactory noise, but also smoked copiously and filled the nose with the wonderful aroma of saltpeter. Whenever he fired, willing victims ‘died’ theatrically in hordes.
Hodges was not a particularly attractive character, but being nice to him was considered a small price to pay to be able to handle his exquisite weapon, even if only for a few moments during a recreation break.
I never did get my hands on this Holy Grail of toys, but I was rewarded for my assiduous wheedling and pleading by the loan of a double barreled metal hammerlock pistol with a broken trigger action. It was better than nothing.
Both in secondary school cadets and in the Citizens’ Military Forces, I went on playing those games with real weapons and found them even more exciting. I might have become a regular soldier in the Australian Army, but for the politics of the Vietnam War. And the Vietnamese communists weren’t recruiting for an International Brigade as the movement did in Spain in ’36. So I missed out all round on that one.
The most exciting other toys that came into the school were water and compressed air rockets armed with descent parachutes. The rocket was filled to about one third full of water, put onto its launch mount and filled with compressed air. There was no pressure release valve, so the challenge was to see how much air we could ram in, to make it go even further.
We could make them go over a hundred feet into the air. We were very careful with them as one didn’t have to be a genius to know what would happen to anyone hit in the face with one as it went up. Nobody ever shot these rockets at anything, because to do so would wreck the parachute mechanism, which was half the fun.
They wouldn’t be allowed now of course.
One day some graffiti was found in the downstairs toilets.
The following day, the whole school was required to assemble in the area adjacent to the entrance hall, after lunch. It was then used by the second, third and fourth forms. There were two sets of concertina classroom dividers that could be drawn back to create one space, which had probably been a ball room originally.
Mizz told us what had happened and demanded that whoever the culprit was, they own up, or the whole school would stand there until he did. We stood there until dinner time, but no one owned up. However, Mizz had made his point. This was not tolerable behavior.
Graffiti defacement had never happened before and there was a general feeling throughout the school that some fundamental rule of decency had been breached and needed to be repaired. None of us resented the collective punishment. On the contrary, we felt that the miscreant should have owned up rather than hold his peers to ransom to save himself from the proper consequences of his behavior
It was another small sign of the coming winds of change.
Smell is a powerful stimulant to memory, particularly if it combines with strong emotions felt at the time. Besides environmental smells coming out of the garden and fields surrounding Edgeborough, there were several non natural ones coming from equipment and chemicals that were used in the school. They still transfix me if I ever come across them.
Cricket provided a couple. The smell of cricket equipment bags was a particularly piquant combination of stale sweat and linseed oil. It is getting harder these days to get the opportunity to whiff this specific combination because bats are now mostly synthetic.
What is interesting is that although I have been exposed to those smells before and after my experience at Edgeborough, all the memories it brings up are from there. And they are so vivid that they are almost like waking dreams.
Cricket bags bring up a pipe smoking Pontifex supervising a practice match, with me not doing very well at the crease. I just can’t seem to hit the ball. And he is saying out of the non pipe side of his mouth, “Shtop waving your bat around Nagle and wash th’ ball.” In the background there is a self propelling mower armed not with the normal rotating blades but a row of criss-crossing slicing snipper clippers, droning between the trees adjacent to the ground.
There is another scene of me bowling, trying to do it too fast like the big boys did it. “Shlow down Nagle and get is shumwhere near th’ vicket”.
The smell of oiling cricket bats next to the shower area in the old stables where the sports equipment was kept is another one. I enjoyed doing this and getting them back to good condition with the same methodical commitment I was to later show to army boots and silver.
The leather conditioner put onto footballs was yet another.
But the big mother smellorama of them all was from the floor polish that was used just prior to the beginning of term. For me, it is forever linked to feelings of fear, dread and loss; fear and dread at what the term might bring; loss of the security of home, loss of my childhood and loss of whatever it was that Edgeborough represented as a system of social order.
This type of polish isn’t used any more except in traditional furniture making. When I occasionally come across it, I have to pause and deal with the physical reaction it causes, as the forces of cleaving and sundering struggle with one another
They remind me of just how much the place speared itself into my heart; that part of me has always wanted it pulled out and the other that has wanted it to stay; yet knowing that this a fruitless debate, for the truth is, I cannot get it out. It belongs there. It will die with me.
Because the bathroom facilities were so limited, putting the school to bed had to be staggered over a two to three hour period. And the process had to start very early.
The little eight year olds were packed off at six twenty. This was easier in the winter when it was dark before five, but in the summer, when twilight went on until nearly eleven, it was a big ask to expect everyone to go to sleep when the curtains were closed and the matron said. “good night”, as if night were coming anytime soon.
The most senior boys would go to bed at eight-thirty and be in bed probably by about nine-fifteen. This was about right for their real sleep requirement. But the youngest were being forced into trying to sleep for at least an hour in excess of their needs. In effect they had to spend long periods in wakeful bedtime silence, supposedly.
It was good training in patience, enduring boredom and being with one’s own thoughts. It is a facility that I have turned into the very useful business of meditation.
The toughness in enforcing the after lights out no talking rule was a measure of the ‘unreasonableness’ of the expectation. But then in those days, the world revolved around adults, not children. Children were the ones who had to fit in and obey whatever was required of them. And absolutely no one questioned that until it was seen as profitable to weaken that state of affairs, by recruiting children back into the economic system, this time as autonomous consumers rather than laborers, and then attaching a human rights package to this agenda to re-enforce it and to make it look respectable.
This is a movement that is having analogously damaging effects to the state sponsored Chinese Cultural Revolution that temporarily reversed the power relationship between children and their elders in the 1960s. The Cultural Revolution only lasted ten years. We are blighted by an inter-generational plague that is intensifying in its virulence, showing no signs at all of subsidence and infecting its third generational cohort since it started in the post-war baby boom.
Reading, Writing and Grammar:
Every day, the whole school would sit down after lunch to do supervised private reading for around three-quarters of an hour. Comics were not allowed until the last fifteen minutes. This ensured that we were all reasonably fluent readers and acquired the lifelong habit of regular reading.
Writing was still modeled on the ornate nineteenth century copperplate calligraphy. This writing style and its practice were very slow, especially when used in association with the antique and messy dip pens still in use.
The philosophy behind this was that slowing the learner down would allow for the development of a graceful and stylish writing hand. Ball points, which had been in the market for over a decade, were considered ‘bad’ for good writing style for this reason. They were considered too ‘fast’ and lacked the more delicate refinement and line variation of a nib.
The fact was that the world wanted writing that was convenient, clean, stylistically unadorned and fast. It was productivity that was valued more than style.
The age of elegance was over and had been for quite a while, but this institutional inertia was not just about Edgeborough. In Australia I was made to use those wretched finger inking blob blotting dip pens until the end of my second year of secondary school in nineteen sixty-one, when it was eventually phased out for everybody.
The only revenge one could extract in the classroom (in Australia, for no one would have dreamed of doing it at Edgeborough when I was there) was to use the blotting paper we had to have as pellets, to fire out of illicit Biros that had been converted into pea shooters. Because this paper could absorb so much saliva, the missile gained vital weight and range. And if it hit the back of someone’s ear at reasonably close range, the results were decidedly entertaining.
The really bad boys would soak their pellets in ink and use the extracted Biro ink cartridge as a ramrod to load.
And if one didn’t have a biro, spitballs on the ceiling would do. They would stick for months.
My writing is now scrawl rather than copperplate, although there are still echoes of elegance in it, especially if I use a fountain pen, which isn’t often these days. My signature is pure copperplate and it now looks floridly old fashioned, especially with initials in front rather than the given name. It carries the calligraphic and social values of another time.
I have a sample of my signature at Edgeborough. In all its details, it is a completely formed template for the adult version.
Grammar was still being taught at Edgeborough and like copperplate writing, it too disappeared in the early/mid nineteen sixties. Grammar is the structured ‘public transport’ of language, allowing common procedures, uncongested clarity and standardized routes to transit meaning efficiently and reliably across the system. Its loss, rather like the destruction of the public transport systems in the US over the same period, proved to be disastrous. It was an excellent example of where inertia might have been a good thing. Melbourne, the city near where I live kept its trams so long they became fashionable again, like grammar has.
I understand grammar because I gleaned the tail end of it, but there was a point where the only way one could learn English properly was as a foreign language. I am grateful that places like Edgeborough gave me the privilege of having decent language grounding. Without it, producing writing of any quality is extremely difficult.
Like religion, sport was also taken very seriously at Edgeborough. And watching the senior cricket on a summer’s Saturday afternoon could be exciting. Our two fast bowlers, the towering school captain, Kendrew and his offsider, McKean, would dominate the game with their long run ups and what seemed at the time, frightfully speedy deliveries.
I was not much of a sportsman, but because the school was so small, every able bodied person was involved. And I did have my moment of glory.
The under 10s were playing a school called Ferndowne. Their bowlers were doing particularly slow and short lollipop deliveries and I had a field day. I made eighteen runs not out. It was a never to be repeated performance capped off by an excellent post-game nosh up. In the bus going home, I was as close as I have ever been to being a team hero.
The following week I was at another away game and there happened to be an opposing team fielder in the gully who was the son of some acquaintances of my parents, who I had occasionally played with during holidays. His name was Simon Paine. He didn’t particularly like me and the smile on his face as he caught me after making only two runs, was the most striking combination of malice and joy. And although he was only two to three yards away, he never said a word.
The Rugby field was adjacent to the horse chestnut avenue. We would spend over an hour and half training on these fields every weekday of the season, until it started to get dark at around half past three, quarter to four. We were all very fit.
For me, the most heroic moment of my sporting ‘career’ was playing an away match in the snow. The ground was hard, so we fell hard. And we froze. The effort of the game kept our body cores warm, but extremities like hands, feet, ears and noses got very cold.
The frozen ground was so icy, I was able to drag half a dozen of the other team, sliding and grunting for as many yards, before I was finally brought down.
The biggest problem was re-warming our extremities. Even lukewarm water on the affected parts would cause extreme pain. It was so frustrating, because all we wanted to do was get warm.
As might be expected, Kendrew starred in the senior rugby because even at the age of thirteen, he was almost six feet tall and he would just dominate the line outs.
I was no great rugby player. As with cricket, my hand eye co-ordination was hardly better than my social skills, or my intellectual ones at the time for that matter. I was a slow learner
But the picture of a lone player doggedly running and dragging a group of others over the icy ground towards the try line is a metaphor/dream that keeps returning to me; as if this character is desperately forcing people to accept the unpalatable facts of life; making them come with him even though they cannot bear to abandon the safe and the familiar; yet they cannot let go of him because they have lost traction in a world that is sliding out from under them; and thus they are dragged towards something that still looks absolutely terrifying, even when it has been broken down into bits that look vaguely manageable, one try at a time, until they drag him down before having made the first.
Soccer was played at the main gate end sports fields, on the other side of the tennis courts, where we also played cricket in the summer.
I was never much of a team player and so ended up being a goalie. I liked this role because of the sheer spectacle of the save, or at least the attempt.
There is something appealing to me about being the sole last line of defense. It is the analogue of being the center forward striker, for the fate of the team hangs on the goalie’s performance; even more so, for when the ball gets to him, the back line has at least partially, already failed.
And one has to have nerve, because if it comes to a scrimmage in front of goal, the goalie has to go for the ball with his hands, while everyone else is trying to kick it. It can be bad for a boy’s complexion to get a boot in the face.
In my dreams the goalie is still there. He is the last chance to save the team from its collective and egregious failures. Behind him is the abyss. If he fails, all is lost. It will be the end of the game, at least as we know it. And if he does succeed in making the save in the scrimmage, he will be exposed to the full fury of those who would have it otherwise.
And why is there this sense of violence? Because when everyone is playing for keeps and the implications of actions or inactions are impossibly great; when majority constituencies simply cannot come to terms with what they must do to survive and have forgotten what will happen to their children by their inaction and procrastination; when the barbarian hoards gathering on the frontiers of modern life start to smash their way into an empire that is virtually undefended; then the only possible people who can lead are ones who do not give a dam what anyone thinks, or how many toes they tread on and will unceremoniously remove all that blocks the way of titanic struggle and desperate measures aimed to save the day.
It will come to it that someone will say, “Who the hell do you think you are to try and impose your will?”
And the answer will be, “Who are you to resist what needs be done? How dare you? You time serving denialist swill! Your incompetence has put us here and so obey you must. Now go to it, for your peers, or out of fear, of us!”
People can operate like that for but a while. They pay the rate for risking crash or crashing through, in resolving brave advance or grave retreat. Tis such provocation that is assassins’ drink and meat. And necessary as the action that provoked it might have been, its end may be for best. For once the matter’s won, such actor’s work is done, redundant, ready for the sacrificial feast, to gorge the dogs of war and satisfy the armored beast.
The swimming pool, which was situated down from the back terrace overlooking the valley to the right from the house, was not particularly large and even thirteen year old boys could get down it fairly quickly. Kendrew seemed do it in ten to twelve strokes. He always won his heats in the swimming competition carnival, that for the obvious English weather reasons, always occurred towards the end of the summer term.
I remember the balmy weather during that afternoon in August 1958. The atmosphere was similar to that of the outdoor play the year before, except the humid smell was less of flowers and hay, and more rotting straw and manure. It added fermentation to the excitement and anticipation of shortly leaving for Australia.
I was watching from up near the house rear terrace while Kendrew cleaned up on yet another event, leaving others so far behind, they had to do another two or three laps after he hit the finish.
The water by this time in the season was green. In those days, the then available technology couldn’t balance pool chemistry, so there would be a build up of dead chlorine in the water that would eventually get so putrid, the pool would have to be emptied and scrubbed out. It is a miracle that there weren’t more ear infections, but then we never spent a lot of time in the pool.
Whenever one dived in, one could smell the chlorine coming up as one hit the water.
We somehow managed without a pool fence and our immune systems seemed to handle the bugs.
There have been quite long periods when I have been a swimmer, going up and down the local twenty five meter pool up to sixty times, but in the end it was boring even for me, just looking at a black line down the center of the lane. But what I really hated was having to share with other swimmers, especially ones that wouldn’t give way when I wanted to overtake. I prefer being alone.
I would keep myself occupied on each lap by remembering something about the monarchs of England from Ethelred (one before Alfred) to the present day, which is exactly sixty. Thanks Edgeborough. And when I got bored with that, it was the first sixty emperors of Rome, up to Julian. Thanks Pontifex.
Athletics had its heroes amongst the more senior boys. The big event was the cross country. A boy called Langley, who was very athletic, would win all the sprint and middle distance events, so we all expected him to clean up on this one as well.
It was not to be.
Langley was built like a whippet. He was a natural. But what he and we hadn’t reckoned on was the physical endurance factor; what I later came to understand as the aerobic efficiency of slow twitch muscle over longer distances.
Harrison was a rugger player and had an overall more solid and heavier muscled body built for endurance. It was he who led the field in the last stretch along the avenue of horse chestnuts, with a completely exhausted Langley hanging in behind him. Langley, even though a much faster runner, just didn’t have the reserves left to overtake Harrison, who kept powering out in front of him.
It took Langley over half an hour to recover from taxing himself beyond his physical limits. His mostly fast twitch muscle just could not deliver enough energy in the end. The whites of his eyes had gone red. If he hadn’t hit what endurance athletes call the ‘white wall’, when a rush of endorphins send a distressed body into a semi drugged state of euphoria, he had come close.
Harrison was fine. He didn’t even bend down to catch his breath at the end of the race. But he wasn’t the hero of that day. Langley was, for he had broken himself to come second. It was to him the fans went to commiserate. For Harrison, congratulations were a bit thin on the ground. He must have wondered whether winning was all it was cracked up to be.
The fact was that overall, Langley was a much better athlete who had the inner endurance to run credibly right out of his class, even if he burnt himself doing it.
I am a runner which gives this story an added importance in this stock of memories. I have been one since I was seventeen, when I discovered it both kept my weight down and rejuvenated me from the effects of study tiredness. I have never competed in a race since that time and have almost always been solitary. It has also been part of my meditation and where I get my greatest clarity. The landscape starts to become a blur after my body has settled into its rhythm. I like repetitious rhythm.
The closest I ever got to running fame was in 1968, when I literally ran into the ‘eccentric’ Percy Cerutty, who trained some of the most famous Australian international athletic stars of the 50s and early 60s, while I was doing my then routine run of around thirteen to fourteen kilometres. He invited me for a cup of tea at his training camp nearby. It was a strangely pivotal meeting.
He made an observation that has been a beacon to me ever since. “It doesn’t matter in the end how fast you were when you were young, it is whether you are still running at my age.” He was then in his early/mid seventies. Percy was talking about himself, but this statement resonated in me as one of those light bulb moments. It told me that the real marathon is whole of life; the long haul. It prompted a notion that building and maintaining endurance was going to be very important later in life.
It connected in my mind because I had always known since my time at Edgeborough (because every significant adult other has drawn my attention to it then and for much of my life since) that I was a late developer and a bit slow to learn. Thus my latter days would be the time when I was most likely to come into my prime. I have never doubted that.
While I may have never competed in a race against others since school, I have competed against time in a marathon cycling journey which I had to draw down on the same inner reserves Langley did, all those years ago. It was a six hundred and something kilometer journey from where I live to the home of an old friend with whom I came to Australia. September 7th 2008 was the fiftieth anniversary of coming to Australia and disembarkation in Melbourne. I planned to arrive at his house on that day and had only left myself five days to do it; one day for every week we spent at sea.
Towards the end of that journey there were a couple of ‘red eye’ patches.
Being the inflexible character that I am, I was just not going to compromise and allow myself to be late, and perhaps I should have. As I started to reach exhaustion, I thought of Langley. I had to reach for my own last line of defense; the goalie. He successfully fended off the voices of reason, excuse and weakness.
I made it. When I came in through the front door of John’s beautiful mud brick veranda surrounded home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, like one of those boys who used to come out of the headmaster’s study after breakfast, I never let him know just how much this travail had cost me. My journey was a gift that had to be without blemish.
I remember that a small group of us started to convince ourselves that if we had sufficient faith in God’s capacity to catch us, we could jump out of a tree and fly, or at least not be hurt by the forces of gravity. We actually got as far as starting to plan this exercise; the particular tree, how far we would have to climb to validate it and when we would do it.
We argued about faith versus risk; that if we were not prepared to put our safety on the line, was jumping out of the tree below an unsafe height really an act of faith? And would God test our faith by deciding not to help, even if we did jump from higher up? He might not like it if he thought that we were having the presumption to try and test him.
Fortunately, in these discussions, practical discretion became the better part of ideological valor. It is not that anyone actually said, “let’s not do this” or even, “Ye of little faith...” The matter was just allowed to quietly drop.
I found myself one day all alone in the chapel and thought this would be a good opportunity to talk to God. I stood in front of the altar and tried to put myself in the right state of mind, as you do; as one might when going to a seance.
I emptied my mind of all extraneous thoughts, defocused my eyes into an infinite setting, stood still in a state of listening alertness, and waited.
I quite inappropriately tried to make the haloed saints and angels in the icon pictures behind the altar move, but they wouldn’t. I started to hear more clearly the voices and activities of animals and people outside the chapel. I began to want to shift weight as the static load on my legs started to tell.
God did not ‘talk’ to me then or at any other time in my life. It began to dawn on me that maybe God was something one made up, like the tooth fairy, or Father Christmas, who I had ‘caught’ the previous Yuletide, putting presents in my stocking and looking suspiciously like my own father doing his Christmas sleigh run.
Of course something like that is never that simple or unidirectional. I made a number of attempts to salvage the faith of my forebears throughout my youth, ultimately to no avail.
What that early failed exercise in religious meditation did do, was start a process that leveraged my introspective proclivities, to listen to the quiet internal voice. There is a skill and discipline required to turn down the external data feeds, the ‘surface’ mental chatter, the logical cause and effect rationality of everyday reasoning, the visualized spatial descriptiveness of form and function, and focus inwards sufficiently to hear what it is ‘saying’. It ‘tells’ one stuff that comes out of the very deepest levels of consciousness.
It is a bit like the DOS language that underpins Windows, where thoughts, emotion, dreams and memories interface and bond with one another in readiness for upper consciousness processing. It is the place where emotionally intelligent connections are made and where nothing is considered ‘in’ or ‘out’, but merely 'there'. Some of it is serendipitous randomized thought firing, but when subjected to concentrated inquiry, it dredges up valuable material that is otherwise unobtainable.
I suspect that such inquiry actually sets up small processing routines which act to pre-filter random ‘rubbish’ and prevent the process from being ‘sent upstairs’.
Its value is that it completely bypasses our very powerful capacity to construct the reality we expect and/or want; to rationalize our prejudices and perceptual biases; and to edit out dissonant data. It allows us to go back to the unprocessed ‘foodstuffs’ of thought and feeling. This is where intuition comes from. It maximizes all the possible data that will tell us if something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Neurophysiologists using brain scans can actually see the axon nerve cells progressively turning on as creative ambient thinking starts interconnecting and firing until whole areas of the brain are lit up like a city at night. The metaphoric thought light bulb in cartoons when someone has a brilliant idea, is quite literally true.
Such moments are often as trans-formative as they are exciting. There just isn’t anything in life that comes even remotely close to the feeling, as the inside of one’s brain illuminates. It is the ‘drug’ of choice for history’s greatest actors.
All good creative work in any medium, business, or field of inquiry comes from this ‘voice’. Divines imagine that this is God speaking to them. That is unlikely, but if such an ideological construct ever ‘spoke’ to anyone, that is the ‘phone’ system it would use.
And the thing is this facility can make itself useful in the most unlikely places of endeavor. It finally came together for me as part of an externalized ‘industry’ application when I was in Real Estate.
Every place has its ‘story’. If you listen hard enough to pin point the focus of its emotional iconic resonance, the advertisements you create for it will bring in the right buyers faster than any other way. I became known in my area as ‘the poet’ and this brought me business, awards for creative work and a huge amount of fun.
If the iconic image that is created for a property appropriately picks up on key features of the psychological landscape that it occupies, it will attract people who are looking for that. When they walk onto the property, the created image in the mind of the observer and the actual ‘feel’ of the place that the observer finds there, will coalesce into a moment of deep recognition; a “that’s it!” moment.
The vendors love it because the agent has shown real sensitivity and listening skills to what it was that attracted them into the place to make it their home in the first instance; and/or the values that they tried to build into it subsequently. The buyers love it because it short cuts the mass of visual and descriptive data in the market and selects for what it is that fundamentally drives them to buy, all other things being equal. The industry hates it because it is staffed by features spruikers who just don’t understand why this sort of stuff works, and don’t want to.
It is the constant practice that turns this commonplace intuitive knack into what can be genius if one really ‘gets it’. In Real Estate, I didn’t get it ‘right’ every time, but as I kept doing it, I got more consistent; not waving the bat around, or bowling too quickly or ill timed and directed spectacular goalie dives for the ball in the goal square . The old timers in the industry regarded me as an eccentric, but the flair of my campaigns ripped business off them and they knew it.
The spin off is that doing this stuff consistently makes any other creative exercise so much easier because one is used to drawing material out of the brain in this way. The poem at the end of this work came out virtually complete in one go. It took about fifteen minutes.
This realm is not an altogether secure place. It doesn't have all the safety features that the upper brain automatically provides. The walls between genius, eccentricity and raving madness are much thinner. There aren't as many levers to control the variables as to what comes out. An uncontrolled descent into this place can compound a loss of sense of reality. It is easy to get lost. And there are some quite dangerous things and places in this region of the mind that need to be reckoned with.
I learned the basics of this place while furiously introspecting, in the throes of being overwhelmed by deep depression. I was just raving nonsense at people. I may never have managed to find my way out. That is the risk of it and why more people don’t do it.
What we call faith, real deep down grounded faith, comes out of this region of ourselves and gaining it is not without risk, at all sorts of levels.
The Student Hierarchy, Dorms, their Names and the case of the Successful Bastards:
I can’t remember the name of the Head Boy in my first year. It might have been Gutch Ma(jor). Kendrew had the job in my second one. He was the archetypal Head Boy; gravely handsome, tall, fit looking, an outstanding sportsman and by all accounts, bright in class. He had the kind of charisma that did not require him to say a lot. He commanded universal respect, even though he wasn’t really required to do a lot
The school was not big enough to have a house system. For team sport purposes there were either ‘Greens’ or ‘Golds’ in each age group. The function of house captains was taken by dormitory captains. They ruled their broods with a rigidly absolute authority that paralleled the adult version. No one ever argued with a dorm captain, unless they were bucking for a thrashing from Mizz. I never saw or heard of it happening.
When they said, “jump”, the only possible question could be, “How high”? When I got to Australia somebody made the mistake of giving me similar looking authority very shortly after I arrived. I applied what I had learned at Edgeborough, and made myself very unpopular very quickly.
The then official culture in Australia looked superficially Anglophile, but tucked in behind it was a popular one that wasn’t, and my peer group belonged the latter. Naturally I didn’t ‘get it’, as was my wont.
The dormitories that the captains ruled were all named after Imperial heroes; a mixture of romantics and /or heroic warriors and/or enterprising buccaneers.
My first dorm was a large ‘family guest’ bedroom under the rule of a boy called Tucker, in ‘Wolfe’ (Heroic Warrior), next to the first floor bathroom adjacent to Mizz’s suite. Dobson ruled me in ‘Raleigh’ (enterprising buccaneer and courtier), a female servant’s room on the second floor near the matron’s common room that was once the housekeeper’s room. Hughes ran my life in ‘Drake’ (enterprising buccaneer), a first floor attic room that would have been the butler’s room round the corner from the servant’s stairs. And someone whose name I cannot remember (maybe because it was too small to get a captain) supervised my every move in ‘Gordon’ (Romantic Heroic Warrior), a small lower ranked male servant’s room, right next to the servants’ stairs, on the way to ‘Drake’.
The names of the dormitories were representative of an Empire that no longer existed and a history no longer connected to the present except by feelings of sentiment and the politics of inertia. The business of trying to find new and more appropriate ones had not begun, nor was that in contemplation. In a sense all of England was like that, living off its past and palpably running down. That was the very reason my father left the British army to try his luck in the Antipodes.
And the collective Imperial memory was so gilded and romanticized that it was little better than propaganda. Personally, I like my political bastards without garnish of any kind. Queen Elizabeth 1 may have ruled over a Golden Age, but her security service was every bit as pervasive and ruthless as the Gestapo. Her law courts executed people by public torture, merely for being atheists. Her leading naval personnel were pirates. A single false move in her court meant death. Attendance at church on Sundays was not optional. Catholics were treated like enemy aliens and were systematically and mercilessly persecuted. Her capital city was a rat infested, plague and fire prone sanitation nightmare. Her ordinary subjects were desperately poor, their lives hazardous and their life expectancy around 40 to 45. A Golden Age? Give me a break!
Perhaps re-naming the dormitories after Imperial Losers like Admiral Byng (go gently with the enemy), or General Cornwallis (fighting colonial militia was hard. Losing America was easy) and General Percival (Japanese soldiers are too short and short sighted to threaten Singapore) might have subliminally created the right humiliation therapy for the spirit of renewal and redirection.
Later, ‘Wellington’ could have been replaced by ‘Thatcher’. Both had ‘Iron’ as an epithet, were very similar kinds of arrogant bastards, achieved much in their lives, were not generally ‘liked’ and ended up being universally unpopular; my sort of heroes.
My Peers and I: A Case of ‘Outsidership’
I have left this subject to last because I would not wish it thought that this had completely colored my memory of that time and because I wanted to put any negative experiences that I have had at Edgeborough into some sort of perspective.
‘Doing it really tough’ is something that has almost fallen out of living memory in affluent societies. The war and the depression that led to it have to be a reference point to get any meaningful grip on what that means. The rest is just ideological cliche and mendacious excuse making for laziness, weakness, poor values and being allowed to get away with second and third rate behavior.
Anyone who tries to claim that their misfortunes are entirely the fault of others is in all likelihood lying, most particularly to themselves. Nobody is helpless. If all else fails, there is always courage and fortitude to resort to as a barrier against fear and surrender to it.
There is absolutely nothing that can happen to person that they cannot steel themselves against.
My relationship with peers at Edgeborough, almost to the end of my stay, when it became known I was going emigrate with my family to Australia, was awful. I was mercilessly harassed for over eighteen months. And being in a boarding school meant that I endured bullying in all parts of my waking time and even, on some occasions, when I had gone to sleep. I was friendless and at the mercy of my antagonists.
When things got particularly bad for me, I went to Mrs Mitchell for help and advice. She was completely unsympathetic and told me to “sort out my problems for myself”. She just wasn’t interested.
I don’t think she said that necessarily because she was a completely selfish, insensitive and heartless woman.
My mother’s father had been an Assistant District Commissioner in the Sudan. Towards the end of his first year in the job, while working in a remote part of his territory, he was speared by one of a group of herder tribesmen he was trying to tax. He was only saved from being finished off there and then by his Askari guards, but, being heavily outnumbered, they had to rapidly retreat to get re-enforcements.
He got the spear out of himself, made it back to his base, recovered sufficiently to ignore his doctor’s advice and, still bandaged, went back to collect the taxes, arrest the miscreants who had defied the law, and in particular, the one who had attacked a British Magistrate.
This Cambridge classics scholar, who thought he was a latter day Roman, caught them, made them pay their tax, plus fines, imposed floggings and terms of imprisonment, and sent the man who had speared him to a superior court on a capital charge. He was duly hanged. Taxation in that locale, from there on in, ceased to be a controversial matter.
From that perspective, one does not produce characters of such stern caliber by giving them much quarter as they grow up. As much as anything else, Mrs Mitchell was simply continuing that tradition.
Her lack of sympathy and retort didn’t mean that she necessarily thought I would be able to externally change my situation. She was demanding that I show courage and inner resourcefulness to endure, which I duly did. She demanded I get my eye on the social ball or take the knocks, which I did; the knocks that is.
My mother was no more sympathetic a couple of years before when I fell over on a gravel path and grazed my knees. I lay on the ground and screamed. Mother, who was close by, turned on me and furiously demanded, “Christopher! Stop that ridiculous noise immediately! Now get up!”
Mrs Mitchell was also indirectly telling me that there was very little that adults could do to intervene in the secret world of children, for even if they tried, they could not stay there indefinitely to guard a single unfortunate that had fallen foul of the flock; that such a strategy would simply increase hostility and return it in more subtle forms; that the reality is it is ten times harder to regain respect than it is to keep it; that whatever the weakness is that turns a group against one of its number, the problem can only be solved by growing strong enough to win it back under fire; that such group behavior is extremely primitive, unreasoning, common to herds and flocks throughout all strata of primates and closely linked to survival instincts.
What was she going to say? “There there darling, here’s a hanky. Let’s have a values clarification conference in accordance with our bullying policy”. Aside from the fact that they just didn’t do stuff like that then, even now, given that the worlds of children and adults have become more permeable and policy as proliferated, school bullying is still pandemic.
A nephew of mine who is much like I was, was recently forced out of a very reputable Queensland regional boarding school, because the authorities there just couldn’t stop or even stem the entrenched hostility towards him, or alter his self defeating behaviors, or get the necessary full support and confidence of his parents to accomplish this.
To succeed at all, anti bullying policy (and socially inept individual group tolerance) has to be everyday proactive, procedure intensive and completely integrated throughout every aspect of the life of the school and parent community, so that bullying/lack of tolerance becomes family/school/peer group ‘no-buts-very-uncool’. It is resource intensive and run by people with endless patience, a lot of training, accumulated credibility throughout the school and parent community, and, able to run group restructure therapeutic regimes and individual survival and behavior modification coaching programs. Anything short of that is an almost guaranteed waste of time and money that leaves potential victims worse off than they were before.
Even then, it doesn’t always work. More, it is expensive in all respects; money, time, effort, and other priorities. And it is a strategy that really only works well where its application is easiest, amongst communities of affluent liberal intelligentsia and their children, who have the appropriate family values and practices to deal with such matters already in place at home. They do tolerance. It's their thing.
The school of hard knocks may seem rough and ready, but it is cheap and available to everybody in equal measure. It can facilitate some nasty casualties and create some very unfortunate behavior modeling. But it can also knock people into shape and temper them, even if a bit crookedly. It can also endow them with the courage both to endure, and, where possible, stand up to harassment and threats later in life, of a much more serious kind.
I could have collapsed in a heap I suppose, and born my scars like an emotional invalid, and blamed everybody else for my problems, which I could have done if I had been allowed to. In the event, it made me into a stronger and more independent character, who didn’t and doesn’t need company or anyone’s approval to maintain self esteem, . Mrs Mitchell made me into a robust social outsider. Even now, I only have two close friends. One is my wife and the other is John, who came out to Australia with me. And that is the way I like it.
More than forty-five years passed before I got to the bottom of the vehemence of my unpopularity while at school and not just at Edgeborough.
I show some symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. I am slightly autistic; not able to read social sub-text easily and so can be quite insensitive to others. I tend to talk rather than listen, like to be habitual and am most comfortable in a rules based environment with settled beliefs, as well as strongly established lines of authority. I am not a good adapter to new situations and need help in being directionally ‘repointed’ when change is required.
As an adult, long before this was properly clarified, I knew there was something about my social behavior which wasn’t quite right and had made substantial attempts to improve my social skills, like doing a post-graduate counseling course. Although these efforts were only patch ups, they enabled me to function better in the company of others, most of the time.
And by a stroke of sheer genius, I eventually married a woman for whom rules, habits and lines of authority are an anathema and who resolutely refuses to listen to anything I say for much longer than thirty seconds.
It would be pointless to go through the litany of indignities and pain that I was put through at Edgeborough, but there is one character who stands out in my memory as the face of most of it; Franklin.
I have a school photograph taken in the summer of 1957. I am sitting cross-legged in the front row and right next to me is the egg headed Franklin. Of all people, what was that bastard doing sitting next to me?
Franklin was the alpha male who led the pack that sometimes chased me around the school with threats of being dragged down to ‘the bamboo forest’ for a sexually humiliating work over. He led the constant put downs and pushing around. He and his mates never actually beat me up, but they kept me in constant fear of it, for many months.
I remember one time cowering in the out-of-bounds designated corridor adjacent to the front door while Franklin’s gang waited for me to come outside for my ‘just deserts’.
Even after all this time, if I ever ran into him, I would have to resolve these matters with him. I am still angry with him. I have never forgiven the Franklin of fifty years ago. I am sure he has long since forgotten who I was, because the bully doesn’t need to remember his or her victim(s). The victims do that for them. They carry the baggage.
Back in the middle eighties, while doing the counseling course, I spent a weekend in a group dynamics exercise with the other members of the course. During this exercise, I ‘relived’ that scene in the hallway annex. My whole seat became so wet that it started to drip underneath. People thought that I had lost control of my bladder. I hadn’t. It was sweat.
The odd thing is that I didn’t tell my parents what was happening to me. I just thought being given a really hard time was one of life’s little inevitabilities.
The negative interaction with my peers went through several stages:
The first one was hostility to a stranger who was perceived as obnoxious. They thought I was just a nasty fellow who needed to be punished by being ‘taught a lesson’.
The second stage, which began to emerge after months of no response to the ‘lessons’, was an attempt at hostile ‘re-education’. They started to suspect that my inability to do ‘the right thing’ was less about nastiness and more about stupidity. This still made me a social pain, so ‘punishment’ remained the preferred re-enforcement.
Finally, in the last months when it became known I was leaving for Australia, they decided that Naggley not only didn’t ‘get it’, but needed to be ‘helped’ when he ‘got it wrong’, in ways that were more tolerant and indulgent.
There was some kudos in going on a glamorous overseas adventure. After all, this was well before the age of cheap and easy air travel, when traveling to Australia meant a five week sea voyage. There was also a sense of impending closure that cut off the need for a final resolution of the Naggley ‘question’.
In the last few weeks, people started giving me little farewell gifts. There were quite a lot of them. It was really odd and very touching because I had been so universally disliked. One would have thought that there would have been more of a good riddance sentiment. I suspect that part of the lack of that was some kind of final consensus that they had been a bit hard on me
Cassels, the most popular boy in my age cohort took me under his wing. I felt so grateful. Even Franklin left me alone. The boys who had tried to engineer my ‘re-education’; Trowsdale, Todd, Hugo, Hawkins and McLeod allowed me into their company on a friendly basis.
Yet I could hardly wait to escape. I had had enough of Edgeborough. It had worn me down. When I left for the last time, an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders.
The Outsider as Bully:
One of the problems of bullying that goes unchecked is that for the victim, rather than being a form of aversion therapy against it, it becomes the dominant model of behavior. This is how inter-personal abuse becomes inter-generational, whether we are talking about families or, as in this case, a boarding school.
The bullying at Edgeborough, which was routinely used against new boys had a sexual component to it that involved genital play and ritualistic beating. I was as guilty of inflicting this as anyone else. I cornered a boy called Sykes and did it to him.
Sykes got his revenge by making a fool of me in my dormitory by pretending that I could hypnotize him. He kept the charade going for weeks, to the enormous amusement of the rest of the dorm. It was a just payback.
My younger sister was not so empowered and more helpless. I got my opportunity when my mother went to help my father in their new business when we arrived in Australia and she was left alone with me for some hours after we got back from school. My parents eventually found out and mother stopped working in the office.
My sister and I never spoke of it for nearly fifty years. When I broached the subject with her to tell her how ashamed I still felt about what I had done, it turned out she had long since forgiven me. The fact that I had had to carry the burden of that guilt for so long was itself a kind of justice.
My time at Edgeborough over fifty-three years ago, left a very powerful signature across my life in ways that I think neither well nor ill of. Of all the institutional settings in the formative part of my life, its influence easily eclipses all others before and since. It continues to do this in ways that are still tangible in the day to day, even the hour to hour events of my life. Its memories form one of the richest veins within my imaginative world. It has taken the best part of all those years to resolve the issues that it raised in terms of how it shaped me and the kinds of views I now hold.
It took so long because the elements of this now unpackaged display were so dense, multi-leveled, knotted and conflicted, unpicking and straightening them out required endless patience, intellectual effort and above all, time.
Our language is designed to be tidily linear, sequential, and indivisibly and impermeably solid in its parts, when in fact experience is a holistic onion, whose layers are potentially infinite and constantly seeping into each other.
The increasingly divergent and disconnected narrative lines in this work are an attempt to demonstrate this principle in the relationship between the here and now and the historical world of logical cause and effect, and the non rational world of metaphor and collateral narratives that intrude themselves wherever they happen to surface. Connecting the two creates intellectual 3D that joins the worlds of reason and intuition.
Converting what I understood intuitively into language that is commonly understood and not swallowing itself into convolution, was an absolute nightmare. There is an overwhelming prejudice built into our popular language that everything should be made to look simple, even when it isn't. There were times I despaired that I could ever bridge that gap. That project is still a work in progress.
Edgeborough was not a place that had much tolerance for weakness or faint hearts and that lesson drove itself through mine. Thus despair, while it at times slowed the progress of my work, it never stopped it. In the worst depths of depression, when I was trying to finish my honors degree, I simply drove myself through it, one foot in front of another, using the discipline that I had internalized at Edgeborough to somehow get me through. And it did, eventually.
The school amplified and intensified my natural proclivities as a slightly autistic person. It made me a poorer social adapter than I already was. As one gets older, one has a tendency to get more conservative anyway, but I now feel the rigidifying influences that emanate from that time washing over me and driving me in ways that are relatively new and quite dynamic.
In ordinary, more stable business-as-usual times, this might be a problem. In more seismically disturbed times, it moves closer to the ‘solution’ end of the life challenge and answer continuum. In a secular sense, I am going through something rather analogous to what is currently happening within Islam, which was why the 9/11 date was so significant.
The ‘backward’ looking desire to clean off the modernizing barnacles of Islam and take matters back to where the prophet left them, is also exactly what much of the Reformation was all about, which was to remove the accumulated non Biblical accretions of the medieval period. One was conflated and amplified by the rise of modern times, the other, in all likelihood, their decline.
Despite their ‘forward’ looking orientation, the secular revolutions of the modern period have also been about cleaning off barnacles, in the form of aristocrats and the bourgeoisie.
For me, the ‘barnacles’ are consumer driven economies that have bloated and metastasized all over the ship and threaten to sink it and us, both in the psychological software and the biological infrastructure that keeps us alive, existentially and physically.
When one really comes down to it, when one takes away the ideological posturing, what is ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ anyway, other than a simple description of our relation to time? If ‘progress’ turns out in the end to be a suicidal march of the lemmings into ecological oblivion and the voices of the ancients happen to encapsulate some of the timeless truths of living with ourselves, each other and the environment, what does ‘progress’ and ‘reaction’ really mean?
What binds all these movements of social disturbance and change together, is the resolute will to say NO and really mean it so deeply, it cannot be shaken. It is powered by a fear of damnation, sense of outrage and the need to save ourselves from unsustainable behaviors and the intractably destructive social forces arising from them. These are so threatening and/or sacrilegious that they can no longer be ignored or temporized with.
Characters like Wycliffe, Huss, Savonarola, Luther, Calvin, Oliver Cromwell, Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Khomeini and bin Laden have something of this sensibility in common, even if some of them were (and are) almost as problematic and self defeating in their behavior as the things they have fought against. But this was also a reflection of the times they lived in and the nature of what they had to struggle with.
These characters are not diplomats or compromisers, nor are they tolerant or flexible. They don’t indulge people, or make or accept excuses. They demand rather than ask. They play for keeps against awful odds and unforgiving timelines. For them, politics is not the art of negotiation and gradualism, but confrontation and solutions now at any cost. They know what they want and will go for it even if it means death, which it frequently does.
They have served a purpose in the terrible circumstances they have found themselves in, but only for as long as what brought them into play continued to block the perceived road ahead. They or their successors, where they have been successful, have either been removed, or been re-invented into more ‘normal’ behavior, eventually.
Conservatism that does not look to its past, but builds from brand new foundations using conservative principles, to meet and solve a fundamental crisis within modernity itself, is something not many people have thought about, yet. It may be the only way to cope with the end of modern times and the transition to something else, that a post-modern period will augur.
Reformationary Islam carries with it the hope of a global Caliphate that will enforce the will of Allah and his prophet, as he originally intended, everywhere.
Secular Reformationary Conservatism will not be all that dissimilar, but it will be without the baggage of ancient superstitions. It will try to conserve as much of the best of modern times as is portable into an apocalyptically disturbed and violent time, that is consistent with sustainability and defensibility criteria. It will involve massive recapitalization of individual character and community building to secure our system of social and sexual reproduction against disintegration and chaos, which is the product of long term neglect and systematic looting of this ‘capital’ account.
Ecological capital reconstruction and the genuinely profitable use of its assets will also come into the accounts to tell us whether our balance sheets are still hemorrhaging from protracted looting, or beginning to recover, and that our profit and loss statements actually reflect living within our real means.
This effort will be a major wealth building ‘economic’ enterprise that will in some measure replace the system of overproduction and consumption that is now our religion and gospel. ‘Religion’ and economics will coalesce around social institutions whose authoritative command position will look very similar to societies that run under Sharya Law, except updated and secular. Women would not be excluded from leadership, but children would return to their real place in the hierarchy of human society; that is, they do as they are told, or else.
And the liberal apparatchiks who have unleashed upon us a plague of rights will be purged in a process not all that dissimilar to denazification. This would involve disempowering and morally discrediting an old order that has brought out the worst in people and led to disaster, and then rebuilding its ideological values through repentance and a willingness to adopt a clean start with untarnished new practices.
These 'Libertarch' servants of social dissolution and the cancerous economics that their ideology has masked, will see their agenda folded down into not just a more balanced relationship between rights and accountability, but the overriding requirements of governance during major social restructure; somewhat analogous to wartime. What is more, wartime could well be a pale metaphor for the intensity of what is coming.
Wars come and go. Ecological disasters can last for millenia and can keep getting worse for centuries, despite the best efforts of restitution and recovery. We will have to invent words to replace 'tough' because it just won't be up to the job of describing what will have to be done to survive such a period.
My sexuality was shaped at Edgeborough. The school culture of punishment and the way that reflected back into the politics and practices of the student world it dominated, indelibly tattooed itself all over my sensibility, as if I were some kind of Yakuza who, one finger short and sworn by blood, is condemned to never leave ‘the gang’ alive. There is no escape or ‘cure’ and it never leaves me alone, but I have learned to live with it with equanimity.
I have been married to my present wife these last 35 years and have abjured that part of myself with her or anyone else, mainly because she was not comfortable with it, I wasn’t sure about it and I didn’t marry her for her sexual tastes. No regrets. Wistfulness perhaps, but that is all.
Desire must find its proper place in the heart. I never underestimate its capacity to disrupt and destroy the order and tranquility of my life. I am always vigilant against being seduced against my better judgment, for the hormonal swill will offer anything to get its way. I know its promised mountains soon turn into mole hills. I never allow it to dominate my thoughts for too long, for this reveals an idle and insufficiently occupied mind. I always remain faithful to my commitments, even in dreams, for they betray my real intentions.
I never mistake the difference between fantasy and reality. Fantasy figures for me are creatures that are not facsimiles of people I presently know. They are my own creation in their entirety and their fate is inconsequential. Real people belong to themselves, with their own needs across the entire panoply of consciousness, and whatever happens with them has consequences. I never allow myself to look at a woman in any other context without stopping myself through internal dialogue. And if I get beaten on that despite my best efforts, I withdraw.
In short, I am, for the time being, the master of my heart. I keep the sensual beast within that lives in the base of my brain as a semi-domesticated and potentially dangerous companion creature. I allow it its due ration and moderate exercise, but put it in a safe place when it spots a possible mate. I train it to obedience when it is amenable and always keep it on a short leash. I pay attention to the signs that it may attack me and muzzle it first. I know that although it is a thing of great beauty, it is a powerful carnivore that I cannot shoot it if it turns on me.
If all this in the end fails and I and others are possibly savaged by the beast, I trust I will have the courage to take responsibility for what I have done and not done, to honestly ‘own up’ to those who I have hurt and injured, to accept the perhaps harsh consequences that follow from that and try to repair what can be repaired to the utmost of my ability.
Edgeborough may have delivered me the form of this beast, but it also gave me the basics for constructing a morally disciplined and responsible life and the humility to know I am not invulnerable.
My ‘religion’ is firmly secular, yet the intensity of that religious feeling goes straight back to Edgeborough. I am a pilgrim on the road of life because even though the religious content I was taught there and subsequently elsewhere seemed to fail the most basic intellectual tests, the things it was attempting to do were enormously important. The intuitive sensibility that we sometimes call the human spirit cannot be completely abandoned to the cult of the market; Baal.
To put it into pseudo biblical language, in the fifty plus years since I left Edgeborough, I have watched as Baal and his dark angels progressively fed the planet and the souls of his slaves into his furnaces, and there is going to be hell to pay. Our only defense in the end will be a capacity to be resilient, fearless and resourceful in the face of despair and disaster. Edgeborough gave me the template to build that kind of defense, not just for myself, but others.
The conventional wisdom and practice that we are currently surrounded by has put us in this hopeless position. And it seems bent on finishing the job of completely wrecking what is left of our collective future. Leadership against this will not come from within, but from without; from outsiders. Edgeborough consolidated me as a conscious outsider who owes as little to the New Order that arose after World War ll, as Charles Mitchell did.
The coming world disorder will need re-ordering, discipline and a will to enforce it, sternly if necessary. It will recognize the limitations of all our enterprises, the need to be frugal in our demands on the world, the need to accept the wisdom of accumulated experience and the hierarchy that it establishes for itself. It will assert that rights are not nearly as important as the obligations that service them, and that freedom is meaningless license without conservative roots to hold it fast against the undoubted storms that will assail it. All these things Charles Mitchell and his staff taught me.
Edgeborough taught me the value of tradition even as it disintegrated before my eyes. Retraditionalization may look very different in its details, but its spirit is the same. The value of the wealth that is tied up in the software construction in our heads is just as great as any other form of it. We have to treasure, measure, regulate and capitalize it in exactly the same way. And when all else is lost and sinking, it will float. Charles Mitchell would have understood these things as obvious truisms that needed no further elucidation. It is a humbling measure of our collective ignorance and egregious losses that we shall have to learn these things again from scratch, in the very likely not too distant future....
And as I said in the introduction, Charles Mitchell's betrayal of the trust of everyone around him and the things he purported to stand for, require more than just an outraged post-obituary admonition, but also a reinforcement of the demand for a root and branch reset in in the way we and the now crumbling broader society within the old affluent west, capitalize and run our social commons.