lessons learned

Posted: February 23, 2014 in memories, thoughts

if patterns are not just contrivances
then one of them running intermittently throughout my life
has made me a part of and a witness to
the ending of days

an era_ an institution _ a way of living _
not that i see myself as a harbinger
although others involved_ indeed more than i
might argue with the certainty of my assertion _
i suppose their opinions have reasons which belong to themselves
but perhaps it’s because i seem to depart the stage they’re still standing on
just before the final curtain

when we returned to England
i took my son to visit my old boarding school _
a friend offered to organise him into being a boarder elsewhere
and though the decision to stay or go was his
it provided a good enough reason to show him Midhurst

here was the block-cobbled yard and the huge chestnut tree standing over
there were the steps outside the double oak doors
i’d first been greeted on by the housemaster and his snuffling Pekingese_
now leading to the public waiting area for the local council
whilst our dormitories had all become offices

so we didn’t go in
and my son never saw the oak hall
nor the dark wooden staircases we pupils weren’t allowed on
sweeping down the curved walls to meet half-way_
below the vast latticed window with the stained-glass school badge and motto_
then descending to the hall with all that double-width grandeur
reminiscent of a bygone age

instead we stood outside and he patiently listened
while i recalled those heydays of the summer of ’76
when we’d acted as guides to US tourists
and i took pleasure in congratulating them
for the bicentenial of their nation
before politely noting that our school was somewhat older

then_ no doubt waving my arms_
i pointed to the rooves we’d gotten into trouble for exploring
and to half a dozen windows as well_
trying to remember the ancient cities
whose names were ingloriously revived
as labels for the rooms we had slept in _
Carthage Thebes and Troy_ even mighty Rome itself !

but above them all
and it seemed to me_ on a floor of its own
was the tiny window looking in and out of the space
shared by the prefects of ‘upper 6th’ _
behind those panes of glass were most of my memories

as ‘4th years’ we were forbidden by the staff to be in there
however for a group of misfits and miscreants this was our bolt-hole
so exclusive it was that it was rarely visited even by masters
Mick Stephenson Clive Rowley Duncan Waltham
Kevin and Nigel Stokes who were not related
some 5th formers too_ i’m sure _ but no-one below 4th _
it seemed to me that anyone who was frowned upon
was allowed to knock and gain entrance on most days after school_
but why on earth did Burfield and Gregory and Trussler decide upon us?

the first time i was admitted i was simply following Mick
because he had a cigarette we could smoke before tea _
but as more visits happened it gradually dawned on me
i was allowed in on my own as ‘persona grata’
and the hunt for tobacco became less and less important

i was introduced to David Bowie in there
and his ‘Five Years’ bid me confront myself
in a scene from The End Of The World
Tull’s ‘Aqualung’ was the first LP i ever bought
after reading and listening to the lyrics in that room _
for the very first time in my life
the wings i had felt for so long in my mind took flight _
i don’t think i said very much
(the maik who i am today was only beginning)
but i listened to everything
enlivened intelligent intellectual conversation
that made us soar a whole mountain’s peak higher
than the pretentious and banal dictatorship
lorded over by the masters below and the bullies of my own year

we had just that half hour to escape before tea_
then unwillingly we descended
down narrow precipitous stairs designed for servants_
into the purgatory of that system _
and i remember now as i write these words
how with innocent enthusiasm i’d invited one or two friends to climb up with me _
they declined hastily and i sensed they were suspicious or afraid
which surprised me because i never felt anything like that

i think i saw Martin Burfield act out his role as head boy only once _
at six every week day we would cross the oak hall
to arrange ourselves in rows on old wooden benches _
the masters who chose to attend
would stand at the back or sit in chairs at the front _
and there we would wait in near silence for the housemaster
accompanied sometimes by his wife and the Pekingese

if his wife was there then he was sober and the meeting was usually short
we could breathe a collective sigh of relief
before returning to our own affairs on the other side of the hall

but when he was drunk it was comedy _
he would slur his words and repeat them
while we looked at each other and sniggered
more alert to the masters behind us than what he was trying to say _
but when he picked on boys_ making them stand while he harangued them
then it was no longer funny and we wondered who would be next

i don’t remember the cause but one night he picked on Burfield
and Martin refused neither to stand nor remain silent _
with a quiet but relentless insistence
he exposed the weakness of the argument_ and of the housemaster
who even drunk recognised he was losing_
so he told us all to get out
but Martin looked over and said without any emotion ‘stay seated’
which is what we did _
the masters behind us said not a word
until finally the housemaster left the room first and alone
with his Pekingese snuffling along behind him

it would take a story to tell how much i learned that evening _
my admiration for everything i witnessed became a foundation
upon which much of my life has been drawn and built _
after a moment taken up by the masters_
to stare bemused at each other
we were told to leave quietly

i wanted to stay and listen to the conversation behind us
between Burfield and the other masters_
i wanted to hear every word of what he was telling them

Martin Burfield and John Gregory left at the end of that year _
John Trussler was moved to a dormitory_ in charge of the younger boys _
whatever happened to the room at the top_ i wasn’t any part of it
for the rest of my time at Midhurst Grammar
i found every valid reason and excuse that i could
to not be there at all

  1. maik says:

    what i like most about this little story
    is that all the names i mention
    are the ones they’d most like to forget!! >; )

  2. jenniragrugs says:

    I believe there are courses for boarding school survivors. I told a psychotherapist, who was on a recent residential rag rug course, that it took me 50 years to get over boarding school (at a very young age). She said (kindly, I thought) “Are you over it?”

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