Chapter 11 - Boarding School

When I was ten years old the discussion was made by Father and Mother that I should go to a boarding school.  I have an idea that as I was so backward they considered I would be completely left behind if I went to Bradford Grammar School, which was very large and catered for bright boys.  The Bradford accent also may have had something to do with it.  It was all too easy to pick up.  Whether they also thought my puny physique might benefit I don’t know; if it was so then they were to be disillusioned.

Two Bradford boys, one a doctor’s son, were already at the school which had been suggested and it no doubt seemed reasonable, though I was younger than they were, that I would do well there.  There was a certain amount of excitement buying clothes:  an Eton suit and stiff collars for Sundays, a black jacket with silver buttons for week days.  I was worried about the amount of money being spent.  The sheets, pillow slips, underclothes, spoons and forks and quantities of things on the list of requirements was truly formidable.  But Mother saved finance on one thing which had she known it, might have made life just bearable for me; it was a play-box in which boys could keep some of their dearest possessions.   But she probably did not know what it could be and so left it out of the purchases.

Both Father and Mother came to see me off at the station.  I was to travel with the two older boys who promised to look after me.  The parting was terrible.  I had never been away from both home and parents before.

The journey was a long one but the autumn of 1913 was a beautiful one.  The landscape with windmills, lots of them, looked at its best.  I looked at it all from the railway carriage window while the two elder boys, seemingly without a care in the world, talked about their concerns.  One of them, John Little the doctor’s son was a tough good humoured Scot, Tom Humphries was delicate and thoughtful looking. They looked after me all right but once they had seen me safe in school they naturally cast me adrift.

Landscape as seen from trains reveals itself in quite an unusual way.  For one thing the embankment on which a train runs is raised so that the elevated view enables one to look down on to fields and buildings and see much further than from roads.  Then the movement giving a peculiar rotation to the earth’s surface, the distance seemingly travelling with you and in those days, telegraph wires looped along the track kept up a regular rhythm in the picture; down and up, down and up, and the regular beating of the wheels on the metals had a hypnotic effect on the senses, reinforced by the strange smell of the gas used for the lighting of the compartments.

In some fields miles from anywhere, there were boards advertising a northern newspaper which became ominously less frequent, their place was gradually taken by one informing me that we were only so many miles from London.  Animals in the fields ran away from the train in those days, now they stand and stare.

We had to change at Leicester.  It was a filthy station covered in dirty white glazed tiles like a gigantic lavatory.  Seeing the train we had been in glide away severed my connection with home and the unknown loomed larger.

The scenery became flaccid.  The trees no longer stood up proudly on their own; they looked more like growths suspended in an aquarium.  The ground was covered with flint and gravel and the houses were covered with gravel too.  They looked like boxes.  In the north they grew out of the rock.  There were no walls, nothing durable.  I was terribly homesick.

The introductions were far from reassuring.  The Headmaster was a small dark bearded person.  He was forbidding and at the same time appeared to be on the defensive.  His study was in a passage of darkness and the room itself was one of the gloomiest and most ill proportioned rooms I have seen.  It was stuffy and oppressive with heavy furniture and books and showed no signs of life. I found myself later always holding my breath whenever I had to pass that door.

The Headmaster’s wife must have been older than he was.  She was kind and broad beamed and had a moustache.  They had no children.  She read to some of the juniors on Sunday nights - Kipling - and we were presented with one sweet.  The readings were restless affairs intended to be homely.  All I remembered afterwards was the large open fireplace with logs of wood for fuel, which was new to me.  There was a picture of a sunset and several prints after G.F. Watts, a lot of brass trays and leatherwork.  The floors were polished and had mats at intervals which slipped away under one’s feet.

After having introduced myself to the Headmaster I went to Matron.  She was hatchet-faced, almost a dwarf, and had a club foot.  Her hair was packed into a hair net.  She was hard and proud; she asked after my 'people', which made me wince.  She had not met them and they would mean nothing to her.

I found that everything was worked like a machine.  My trunk had been unpacked and all the linen put away.  Some of it which was down on the list I never saw again.  I was shown my bed in the dormitory, my name stuck on a label at the foot.  I noticed the name of one of my neighbours.  He too was a new boy and apparently we were to share lockers by the bed.  There were quite a number of new boys fortunately so some would be feeling much as I was.  I was informed that the dormitory was out of bounds in the daytime and there appeared to be no common room for small boys.  We had to make the best of a changing room next to the bathroom.

I went outside on to the drive in front of the main door.  Here I was discovered in tears by a tall woman with a flushed countenance and thick pince-nez which gripped her nose so hard that the flesh was pulled away from the bridge and made her eyes look very narrowly set.

She asked me my name.  I replied 'Eurich' (I had been warned that my Christian name would not be recognized officially.)  She drew herself up in a haughty manner making a hissing noise as she sucked air up her nose and replied 'Oh I thought Eurich was a big boy' and I said 'No, he isn’t'.

I found mixing with the other boys difficult.  They all knew how to make plenty of noise and seemed happy.

The lavatories were far from clean and I found that even here there were all kinds of taboos.  There were about ten cubicles but boys in Form 2 must only use the first two and so on. .  But also you were not allowed to shut the door so that all that you did from morning to night was open to the public.

I was told to write a postcard to my people informing them of my safe arrival.  My pocket money was taken away, likewise my stamps.  I wrote 'Please take me away from this beastly place'.  Mother cried.

After being ordered about with herds of boys for the remainder of the day we went to bed under the supervision of a prefect.  As we undressed I became increasingly embarrassed for I noticed that all the boys had pyjamas.  I remembered that on the list of clothes required 'Pyjamas three pairs' was specified.  Mother made most of the family clothes.  She made my nightshirts.  I also noticed that the others wore pants and vests.  I wore combinations.  I was able to conceal the latter for the moment but when it came to the nightshirt there was a moment of stupefied silence and then hoots of laughter.  The prefect asked me what this meant. 'Did I really sleep in such a garment?'

A year or so later when Mother decided that perhaps the laundry had minced these nightshirts up more than home washing would have done and showed signs of making some new ones, I tentatively explained that I wanted some pyjamas and told her what they were like.  She set to work to make some.  But alas!  My description was inadequate; the trousers were held up by elastic and there was no fly.  My shirts were also home-made and did not fit very well at the collar.

The prefect put the gas out.  It had two small mantles and a by-pass and turned on and off by pulling down two separate chains.  We were not allowed to talk after lights out but I had already made friends with my neighbour and it gradually developed into a close friendship which was unclouded for a year.  He was a strange looking boy with a large bony head, his hair being brushed straight forward into a kind of fringe over the forehead.  He was taller than I though two years younger.  He was an only child and precocious.  A curious cynical smile lurked about his mouth and it became evident through his talk that he had listened to much adult conversation of a cynical nature.  But we were drawn together by a love of nature, of the collecting of butterflies and moths, and Father’s beetles contributed to our conversations.  It was also partly an attraction of opposites; he was pugnacious and I was not; he was good at games and athletics, I was not.  But in the following summer we found a link in our love of cricket and spent what spare time we had in bowling and batting to each other.  I was the only one in our year who played the violin or any other instrument.  He was inclined to make fun of this accomplishment but was ready to brawl in my defence if anyone else took the same line.

I drew a portrait of him which was unmistakeable and we attempted to write and illustrate a magazine together but it was impossible to organize our small abilities and it came to nothing.  His reading was already fairly extensive whereas mine was negligible.

Next day we assembled in our form rooms and text books were given out.  I noticed that the arithmetic book cost three-and-sixpence.  I was horrified.  Such a waste of money! The history book was full of portraits of Kings and Queens and plans of battles.  There appeared to be no plan to the teaching, no sense of continuity.  Latin was a nightmare almost as bad as arithmetic, and geography which interested me, consisted in learning the counties of England.

When I try to think what I learned in the five years between the Kindergarten and going to the Bradford Grammar School, I always find that what I remember was gleaned at the former and that I was awakened to history, poetry and geography at the latter.   Nothing remains between.

One day I was told that the Headmaster wished to see me.  I had forebodings as I never heard of any pupil being summoned to that gloomy den for any pleasurable session.  My conscience was quite clear and in answer to my knock I was bidden to enter.

He remained seated at his desk and I was made to stand by him.  I found that my arithmetic exercise book was before him.  What he said I don‘t know.  I never did know because his reasoning, if it could be called such, was incomprehensible to youth.  He punctuated his sentences with little coughs and darting glances sideways.  He never looked at one squarely.  He put sentences in the form of questions which one was not expected to answer.  Though the subject was arithmetic he gave no sign of being able to do it himself or help me or find out what the difficulty was.  All the time he was drumming his effeminate fingers on the desk and with the other hand clawing and twisting my arm.  He had one unfailing solution to the problem, a good 'bumming'.  I was most shocked at this treatment and was still more bewildered when listening without comprehension to his sermon the following Sunday in Chapel to hear some reference to a boy who could not do simple arithmetic.  I had not mentioned my predicament to anyone so probably only the teacher, a woman, who had submitted my exercise book to him and so had acknowledged defeat, can have known to whom the reference was made.

These sermons were never discussed by anyone.  It was inconceivable that any child or youth could understand their clamour and fury. Every sentence was accented by a springing movement on the toes, the rhythm being exactly that of a water wagtail bobbing on coming to rest.  His hands were nervously clutching and smoothing out a fancy bookmarker all the time.  He never smiled or relaxed.  He had apparently nothing to offer.  It was difficult to imagine him as being human at all.  I could not see him seated in an armchair with one leg over the arm or with his hands clasped behind his head - that most valuable of attributes a sense of humour was lacking.

The boys who were hardened off to his treatment of crimes or misunderstandings made no attempt to listen to  his jawbations but made use of the opportunity to have a good look round whenever possible.  The canes were numerous, they reported.  There was a particularly springy black one hanging beside the mantelpiece.  There was a confusion of rather heavy ones behind one armchair, some of them made from golf clubs.  They seemed to be stacked in some receptacle by the manner in which he had to draw them out like a walking stick from an umbrella stand.  One of the most fascinating parts of the performance was the skill he employed in folding up the tail of a jacket over the posterior and the instructions given to put one’s hands on the arm of a particular chair and stand sufficiently far away so as to get one’s pants tight.  It was all skilfully planned in that overcrowded room so that he could get the maximum amount of swing into his strike.  His accomplishment must have been effected by long practice and careful preparation.

On Sunday nights he instituted a ceremony of shaking hands with all pupils just inside his study door.  We gathered in a queue outside in the dark passage.  When the handshake came it was like being offered a piece of plaice off a fishmonger’s slab.

There were two Scripture lessons a week.  One was taken by one of the women teachers and I remember nothing outstanding about them.  Even drawing the chair Eli fell off or the monkeys in King Solomon’s menagerie remind me of the scriptures studied at the Kindergarten.

But the second lesson was put down on the timetable as H.M. Scriptures and was a terrifying experience.  Waking up in the morning and realizing it was ‘his day’ was enough to infect every meal and every lesson.  It may have been strong meat for divinity students at college but what could this ranting and storming mean to ten year olds?  The lesson usually ended with some boy having to go to his study.  The school was co-educational and it was noticeable that the girls were never in trouble - or were they punished in some way behind the scenes unknown to us?

In the dormitory at night the 'pansies' on backsides were carefully studied.  There might be one which indicated that the aim had not been too good.  It was understood that the art of education by caning was to hit the same place every time.  Every evening the colours changed on the seat of understanding.  The prefects, whose experience in educational methods was encouraged, also practised on the boys.  Even though the third bath in the bathroom was the traditional block, allowing the freedom of the executioner’s arm, their technique was not as fundamentally sound as their master’s.  Acknowledging their lack of practice, they invented ways for obtaining greater perfection such as dislodging a junior’s football socks from their lockers or a cap from its peg.  So jealous did they become that one senior boy decided that so much education out of school could not be good for the seat of learning and that the Headmaster was in danger of being deprived for a time of his privilege, and the Headmaster demonstrated his supremacy by an orgy of caning.  He also instituted a religious society of which one could only be a full member if the Sermon on the Mount was learned by heart.  It was rumoured that only two pupils, one boy and one girl, had qualified for the distinction.

Once a month there was a special service in Chapel.  This was dedicated to Sweet Sister Sorrow.  At the close of the service we all stood up and listened to the organist grinding his way through Handel’s Largo.

Visits were also encouraged from a member of a certain brotherhood who sported long flaxen hair and a blue cassock.  He preached extraordinary sermons behind a small moveable pulpit which was trundled along a sort of railway line from a transept behind the choir stalls by two senior boys during the singing of the hymn prior to the sermon.  Why this piece of furniture could not be put in position at the altar steps before the service commenced I do not know.  No doubt there was some deep significance behind it.  But the squalls and groans during the last verse of the hymn caused by this act of reverence were noted by everyone in the congregation.

The worthy brother, an enormous figure of a man, would then wade through a flowery sermon full of platitudes ending with a panegyric on the power of music and suddenly, whisking a violin from the folds of his cassock would burst into the playing of Home Sweet Home, accompanied by deep breathing exercises.  I became a member of the choir after my first year and had a grandstand view of these performances.

My great consolation during these interminable days and weeks being hunted and haunted was the beginning of a regular correspondence from Mother which she kept up for the rest of her life.  She was very much alive to all that was happening in the world.  We saw no newspapers so she kept me in touch with what was going on.  The Women’s Suffragette movement was in full swing both militant and otherwise.  The phrase that kept turning up in her letters was the insistence that we were living in very historic times.  How right she was!  Towards the end of my first school year things were moving with increasing momentum towards the catastrophe of the First World War.

I was slightly cheered by some recognition of my drawings.  We only had one drawing lesson a week but the drawing master was a heaven sent blessing.  He was like an archangel to look at, albeit with spectacles and a heavy tweed suit.  Over six foot tall, with heavy bushy hair standing up like rays from the sun, he inspired confidence.  He told me that he knew an uncle of mine by marriage and at the end of the Summer Term just before Speech Day, he said 'I hope you will enjoy your prize'.  This was the first intimation that I had been awarded a prize for drawing.  It was, of course, Southey’s Life of Nelson, superbly bound and with the school crest on the cover in gold.

Wilfred Walter, who became a fine Shakespearian actor, was my first drawing master and we are both proud of the fact.  We did not meet again until many years later as he joined the army at the outbreak of war.

A Rugger Match (c1943)

There remains in my mind a picture of a Rugger match which ended an epoch.  It must have been played at the end of the Spring Term of 1914 but the feeling I have was that it was played on the eve of the outbreak of war but as war was declared during the first week in August, it cannot have been so.  Now like everything else in the school, cheering at school matches was compulsory.  Small boys like myself were kept under the vigilance of a prefect who herded us up and down the touch lines like a Nazi cheer leader exhorting us to shout 'School'.

The question as to how far a game exists for the players only or as an entertainment for onlookers or a participation involving both performers and spectators, is a difficult one.  How far a game of Rugger or Soccer can be kept going without a crowd of excited partisan onlookers is doubtful.  Perhaps an orchestra cannot perform to an empty hall.  But chamber music came into being for the delight of performers only and games such as tennis and cricket exist in the same way.  The give and take between rival tennis players is a matter involving art and beauty of style, as a bowler to a batsman appreciates a classic stroke as much as the batsman acknowledges a beautifully flighted delivery.  This is shared by the fielders who take a ball from a beautiful strike with that easy negligence and grace which conceals virtuosity.  Anyone who has participated in a game of village cricket with only the opposing batsmen as onlookers know how the heart warms to individual skill and prowess used unselfishly, and the mixed feelings of triumph and regret when an innings by a doughty opponent is dismissed.  

The moments of skill amounting to beauty in a rugger match played by amateurs appear to be few and far between and whether the players themselves are in a fit state of mind and body to appreciate a fine tackle, pass, or even a place kick of exceptional judgement is doubtful.  The onlookers try in vain to find some meaning in the dreary scuffling in the mud and lack of organisation.  The everlasting scrum down with only an occasional unusual oath emerging from the struggling mass of mud and sweat to amuse small boys soon bored by the proceedings.

It was on these occasions of compulsory manning the touch line that many of those schoolboy stories which delighted our unformed sense of humour came to the surface.  It was the first time I heard the story of Moses being an austere man (Moses was an oyster man).  He made atonement for his people's sins (He made toe ointment for his people's shins). You are a fool, you’ve gone and spoilt it all (He was a fool and went and spilt it all) and many others.  The little huddle of delighted boys rushed from group to group telling the good news, occasionally remembering themselves enough to bleat 'School' in high pitched voices.

The match in question was between the school first fifteen and an Old Boys fifteen.  It started soberly enough, each side getting gradually warmed up.  The drama was in the surroundings as the sky was glowing with stormy light.  A strong breeze was getting up and the cries of 'School' drifted plaintively about the ground.  The game gradually gathered momentum, a series of swift rushes through the players from one side of the field to the other and then openings were probed by the three quarter line and a number of runs  the length of the ground brought the full field into action.  This rapid fluctuation never eased up for the rest of the game.  The light deteriorated until all we could see were the silhouettes of the players against a brilliant band of light low down in the sky.  The scrum could have been moving about like an elephant and a figure recognisable as human would occasionally be seen against the sky.  White shirts would detach themselves from the darker ones.  There would be a mad rush and from some faint cheers on the other side we gathered that someone had scored over in the far corner.  The try was not converted owing to the high wind, a violent collision of the forwards brought the game back into a mad scramble and then the storm broke.  Rain stung our faces and a loud roll of thunder and flashes of lightning gave the scene a look of the Last Judgement.  The game went on in the darkness we could not penetrate, only the lightning flashes suddenly picked out running figures crouched against the rain and wind.  There was one last rush and a figure which once had been white raced across the line and touched down under a sprawling mass of filth and steaming bodies.  The game was over.  No one knew the score.  Tea seemed a feeble affair until the heroes of the afternoon trooped in after their baths, looking pink and strange.  We looked our last on most of them, their names being inscribed in the Roll of Honour.

I was no good at rugger.  I was far too small and was just simply 'in the Way'.  I ran about in a hopeful sort of feigned enthusiasm, really praying that the ball would never come my way in the line out at touch as I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it.  As time went on it became clear to me that there was something wrong with my legs. I found that when we were playing about with a ball in our spare time that with all the strength at my command I could hardly get it to rise off the ground from a place kick. The ball nearly dislocated my knee and ankle.  We were only medically examined once in the four years I was at school and then in a very perfunctory manner.  So it remained for Father to suggest that I played no more football and played fives instead.  There was only one other boy to play with and we soon got bored with it and turned our minds to other things.

Many of the boys had bicycles and I learned to ride.  So even though we were not allowed outside the school grounds without very special permission, we borrowed bikes, sneaked out by the back entrance and went visiting local churches in the hope of finding something interesting. There was no encouragement of any kind in the school to form groups or societies for the study of natural history, geology, etc.  One of our private passions was the collection of organ specifications.  This is not very easy as organ consoles are usually under lock and key so that small boys cannot tamper with the various stops and other mechanisms.  The modern method of having glass shutters so that one can see without touching is a good one.  Anyway, we made one journey to St. Alban’s Abbey and the sight of the fine stone work and spaciousness was like a tonic to boys who were herded together like sheep and hounded about by prefects to carry chairs and desks from one room to another just to keep us occupied and to assert their authority.

We occasionally found a friendly vicar at the churches we visited and if he couldn’t open the organ there and then he would send us the specification by post.

We got very hungry on these trips as we were decidedly underfed and we would sometimes eat part of a swede or turnip from a field, cutting it into small cubes with our penknives.  I am surprised we were never caught as it is not so easy to get through hedges and take cover with a bicycle.