Another brown envelope
For those of you following the episodes of this blog, and I know there are a few, you will no doubt wonder if I have received another mystery donation, (all except one of you who will know it wasn’t them!) but, no, it wasn’t the kind that arrive in the post. This one had been sitting in an old box file for several years since my mother had died with her (or maybe my father's) handwriting on it with the daunting words ‘David – Christ’s Hospital’. I was prompted to open it as a result of recently looking through the parcel of old photographs my sister sent me.
Those who have read my previous scribblings will also know that Christ’s Hospital was the school I was sent to. I always used to say ‘was sent to’, not just because it is deliberately ungrammatical, but also because that what it always felt like. The school felt like a punishment for a life crime, although I was too young and far too immature at the time to understand the nature of the crime I may have committed. Perhaps CH was the place I would find out. It was certainly Jesuitical enough to be that for many, and why not me? It took me seven years to begin to realise and now almost seventy to fully realise it was just supposed to be a great school. It wasn’t. I hit my knuckles time and time again on the regime and the school hit me back. Forty strokes of the cane on my pink behind during my incarceration and endless ‘miles’ and ‘loops’, the running punishment older boys (strangely called ‘Grecians’) could impose on the feckless and frightened ‘squits’ as the first years were unaffectionately called.
A memory returns. I am offering a boy a Quality Street chocolate on what may have been my first day in the place. The large tin had been a going away present from the little old lady (she was probably in her forties) for whom I worked on Saturday morning delivering flowers from her flower shop on the High Street. We are standing in the Day Room waiting for the bell. (Even that sentence sums up the regime.) I am feeling desperate and alone. I open the chocolates and offer the tin to a stranger who might have been a year older than me. “You don’t offer us chocolates. You don’t even talk to us.” His curt reply laid the first brick in the foundation of the walls I built around myself from then on.
Don’t misunderstand me. Those walls have had their uses over the years. Without them I would not be the self-sufficient eccentric show-off you see today, emerging from the shadows of my subconscious to amuse and entertain! And I have a strong in-built scepticism about religion and the power of the Church to do good. I also think I have, by default, a real sense of what a good education can be. But overall I hated every aspect of what the place was and I don’t think any of the positives outweighed the terrible negatives.
So what did the envelope contain? A selection of the finely crafted letters I wrote home every week for seven years? Some reminder of an excellent piece of learning I had achieved? No of course, you guessed. The envelope contained letters from the Headmaster saying I was in trouble, eventually expelled (‘asked to leave’ he called it), Richard’s (my father’s) appeal to them to have me reinstated, and a few of my letters all dealing with all the occasions on which I was in such deep trouble there and my apparent shame and contrition.
So, once again, the fact of my past crimes and misdemeanours return to haunt my present and my memories of ‘what might have been and what has been Point toward one end, which is always present’ (TS Eliot). No wonder I had strange dreams last night!
The moral is burn all boarding schools, confine them with Mr M'Choakumchild to Room 101 or rather confine them to history so we don’t forget them and their lasting legacy. Raise your children at home, however hard it is.
All the best from a road near you,