THE FADING MARGIN: serial 2Posted: November 21, 2012
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.*
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When he enlisted in the army in October, 1941, Nigel Buxton was still at boarding school. A year and a half later, following six months at the University of Glasgow on a special War Office course, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery for almost five years during which he was a junior officer on active service in France and Germany, a light aircraft pilot, an assistant adjutant in India during the last days of the Raj and ADC to the general commanding Special Force 401 in Iraq. Demobilised in 1947, soon obliged to abandon a fancy for becoming a film director, he became successively an employee of a major oil company, an Oxford graduate in history, tutor in South Africa to the son and heir of one of the world’s most powerful industrialists and deputy press officer with a leading UK manufacturer of drugs and chemicals.
While still an undergraduate he had articles published in The Spectator. Later, other successful freelance writing led to his living and working in Mallorca under the aegis of Robert Graves before joining the Sunday Telegraph at its inception in 1961 as regular columnist and travel editor. His published works have included the Penguin Guide to Travel In Europe, America, and the award-winning Walking in Wine Country, a consequence of five years exploring the vineyards of France on foot. He has been a contributor to numerous publications, was a founder member of the International Consultative Committee for the French National Tourist Office and belongs to the Circle of Wine Writers.
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Bertie & Co.
After only two years as a grammar school puppy dog I moved yet again, this time far beyond the village boundary. During the war of 1914-1918, my father had soldiered with a unit of cavalry founded and ofﬁcered largely by British expatriates in South Africa. One of my earliest memories is of veterans marching past the Cavalry war memorial at Stanhope Gate in London’s Hyde Park. When the regiment came to be disbanded in 1919 a substantial accumulation of regimental funds which had been proﬁtably invested were used to ﬁnance a bursary enabling selected ‘sons of the regiment’ to be educated at The Imperial Service College. What the criteria of selection had been I never knew, but on an autumn day in 1937, when Hitler’s Germany was building the Siegfried Line, after a heady visit to Barkers in Kensington the week before in aid of a new wardrobe (I especially remember the grey flannel trousers —an exciting change from an elder brother’s hand-me-downs —and elastic-sided ‘house’ shoes) my father drove me to Windsor and a new life.
The ISC was the direct successor to the United Services College at Westward Ho!, Devon, the school immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in Stalky & Co., a story with which I was already very familiar, as I was with his Jungle Books, Just So Stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Kim, and Rewards and Fairies. The ‘Stalky’ stories had not been my only introduction to boarding school. In the 1920s and 1930s the fictional depiction of public school life was one of the most prominent of all subjects in literature for boys and I feasted on it as eagerly as upon James Fenimore Cooper (The Pathfinder,The Deerslayer,The Last of the Mohicans) or Percy Fitzpatrick’s Jock of the Bushveldt, those other classics of the time. As a consequence, the news that I might be going to the ISC filled me with eager expectation. Village life had been all very well, but one in which I would be a member of a society as rich in action and friendships as those in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Under Ringwood’s Rule or Cock House at Felsgarth would be fiction-inspired fantasies come true. It was not homesickness that subsequently afflicted me for my first few days at Windsor but an excess of excitement. Less agreeable emotions were waiting in the wings.
AN ANATOMY OF FEAR
The United Services College at Westward Ho! was founded in 1874 to provide the sons of serving officers with an education not only less expensive than the older public schools but expressly focussed upon the recently-instituted Army Exam. Appropriately, its crest, now that of the ISC embodied an anchor crossed with a sabre and the motto “Fear God. Honour the King”. The fears that govern the life of the very small boy, feet and arms crossed, sitting on the ground in the front row of a group photograph, taken during the Michaelmas term at Windsor, stem from neither God nor the King, the most and the worst being products of the structure of discipline that pertains in the school. Known generally as the ‘prefectorial system’, it is a structure at this time common to the great majority of public schools, where in Arnoldian tradition it is regarded simply as an aid to “a sense of responsibility”. Here at Windsor, however, developed to an uncommon severity, it is part of preparation for a career in the armed services, where unquestioning compliance with even conspicuously idiotic regulations or orders is indispensable and the main reason why the ISC is reputed to be the “toughest” (some say most brutal) public school in the land.
Clearly, discipline must rest upon an edifice of rules. There are school rules, such as that against smoking; house rules, such as when and where outside footwear must be removed in favour of ‘house shoes’, and other rules (more accurately, conventions) the derivation of which may be obscure or unknown and which have the authority of neither the headmaster nor the house masters, but which nonetheless also govern the pupils’ lives. Of course, responsibility for the maintenance of discipline resides nominally with the headmaster of the entire school, but just as in the army the authority of the colonel of a regiment is delegated downwards through officers and non-commissioned officers, so at the ISC that of the headmaster descends to school prefects and house prefects, known as ‘house officers’. Power, and a good deal of unofficial responsibility, is also exercised by merely senior boys. At the ISC, as in the armed services, seniority is all.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
For a proper appreciation of what our small boy is suffering it is necessary to have an idea of the sort of offences for which it is possible to be called to account. Smoking. Going into town without permission. Failing to turn up when listed on the school sports notices board for a game or a practice or a run. Failing to give sufficient notice of being excused from games on account of sickness or injury. Failing to report for a ‘corps’ (Officer Training Corps) parade. The many other delinquencies include, for example, failure to attend chapel without good reason, or attending with dirty shoes or whilst being otherwise dishevelled, or talking during a service, or being late for a school call-over or talking in the course of it. Anyone not in his proper line in the quadrangle before the bell stops is deemed to be late. All these might be considered as ‘official’ rules.
Then there are the conventions that have the force of rules. It is an offence to cause an ‘affray’, which is to say to appear to be the instigator of a fight or other disturbance. Being scruffily dressed anywhere outside the school premises – in town, for instance, or when walking in Windsor Great Park – is an offence. A boy is ‘scruffy’ if in such a place he fails, inter alia, to wear the school’s regulation boater, or straw hat. No one except a prefect, house officer, or school ‘colour’ (awarded for representing the school at some sport or other) is allowed to have his jacket open and the flaps behind his wrists when his hands are in his pockets, or to have the collar of his overcoat turned up. No boy other than the above-mentioned grandees are allowed to walk on Big Side, the expanse of turf round which the main school buildings are mostly situated and on which activities such as 1st XV rugby (which we called “rugger”) matches take place.
Three times a day a junior may be driven to crime by an instinct for self-preservation. At meals, boys sit from the head of each long refectory table to the bottom in order of seniority determined by the date of their joining the school. A call for a charger of bread, say, or a jug of water, to be passed “up table” must be obeyed instantly and regardless of equitable distribution and consumption. At the lower end of the table, failure to comply is often a consequence of urgent hunger, but is no less an offence.
SIX OF THE BEST
So much for the rules. What of their enforcement? When the birch for the punishment of criminals has long been discontinued as barbaric, parents are threatened with prosecution for smacking their own children and corporal punishment is banned by European law, it must be hard to believe that there was once a time when the beating of boys by other boys was a daily practice in public schools, yet with little dissent it was widely regarded as a necessary aid to education. Masters apart, at the ISC, as largely elsewhere, prefects alone are allowed to beat, but they do so at their own discretion, and since an appeal against a prefect can at best end in no better than a pyrrhic victory, such appeals are unheard of. Acceptance, not protest, is a fundamental constituent of the right military stuff.
Which is not all. At the ISC, the prefectorial beating process is distinguished by a ritual which has been established without wickedness aforethought but which could hardly be more painful for its victims had it been devised by Torquemada himself. It takes place at lunchtime every day except Saturday and Sunday. School meals are eaten in the Victorian Gothic dining hall, which was formerly a chapel. What used to be the organ loft is now the prefects’ room, reached by a spiral staircase from a vestibule. At the end of lunch the prefects range themselves up the spiral, thus commanding a view of everyone leaving the hall. When a prefect sees someone who has committed, or is to be charged with committing an offence (it amounts to the same thing) the individual’s name is called and he is required to wait in the vestibule until the general exodus is complete, at which time the prefects assemble in their room at the head of the stairs and the supposed transgressors are summoned one by one to face them. If guilty as charged (it is almost unheard of for anyone to succeed in establishing his innocence in response to a formal “What have you got to say?”) the boy receives on his backside any number from three to six strokes of a long, pliant cane, the end of which is usually bound with insulating tape not merely to prevent the bamboo splitting, but to increase the area and weight of impact, and thus the degree of pain. The technique of beating is for the arm that holds the cane to be held wide of its owner’s body, and as far behind it as possible, then swept forward with a final wrist movement (as when throwing a stone or cricket ball) and with the bodily momentum of two quick, short, forward paces, thus delivering maximum power. Blood may be drawn.
A WAR OF NERVES
All of which is bad enough when a boy knows that he has been guilty of a transgression, or is to be so charged. The exquisite peculiarity of our small boy’s fear is that he lives in daily dread of being called out for offences with which he has not yet been charged and which he is not aware of having committed. Already in the first five weeks of his first term he has been beaten once for walking on Big Side, once for being late on call-over, twice for the jacket flaps behind hands offence and once for failing to go on a Copper Horse run. (The Copper Horse is an equestrian statue of George III at the top of the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park.) Actually, the boy has never trespassed on Big Side and would never dare to do so. Once, however, walking on the gravel neighbouring the grass, he was so deliberately jostled by someone senior to him, and much bigger, that he fell over the low iron hoops which border the grass and before he could regain the gravel was seen by the captain of Camperdown House. “Arguing” when accused (i.e. trying to establish his lack of guilt without accusing the other boy) was deemed only to have compounded the crime. The call-over beating was a consequence of his falling on the quad gravel while racing to be on time, thus arriving several seconds after the bell and with a badly grazed knee. He had not reported for the Copper Horse run because his name had been added to the list posted on the notice board in the quad after he had looked at it.
In the cases of the Big Side and call-over incidents he was “booked” on the spot and told that he would be called after lunch next day, which gave plenty of time for his peers to regale him with colourful previews of what awaited him. On both occasions of his being named for the jacket and flaps breaches of the rules the after-lunch summons to the organ loft came without warning. The offences had been seen on the previous days and reported. Was he now denying them? Since he had not been aware of committing them he had been unable to deny them. Three strokes of the cane. As for the Copper Horse run: here, a day later, was the list; here was his name. Had he or had he not reported for the run yesterday? Three strokes of the cane.
He is now in the grip of a neurosis. So far as he can remember he has not again walked with hands in pockets and the flaps of his jacket in front of his wrists; but he may have done so, and been seen by a prefect who was in too much of a hurry for an on-the-spot accusation. He thinks he was just in time in getting to place on call-over this morning; but could the prefect on duty have thought otherwise? So far as he knows he has not missed any game or practice for which he was listed, but is it possible that he has scanned the lists too quickly and so failed to see his name?
A SELF APART
That the schoolboy is the self of decades ago there can be no denying, but he stands in relation to me now not as a juvenile version of myself today, but as my own son used to do: body of my own body, yet an individual quite apart, so that as the concern that a father may have for his son cannot sensibly be called self-interest, so the anguish that I feel for the boy cannot fairly be called self-pity. I see him running down Alma (sic) Road, vainly trying to race the bell that clamours from the College quad, desperately striving not to be late for an evening call-over. I feel the nauseous dismay that possesses him when told that he would be summoned after lunch the next day, so that on the rugby field that afternoon he muffs his passes, and in late class earns reprimands, or worse, for “inattention”, and in the dining hall that evening is incapable of eating so that the jokers among his peers, though well knowing the cause of his condition, remark that he is “looking peaky” and with mock solicitude suggest that he ought to report to Matron.
I observe him, too, in a scene that might be comical, but for its essential pathos. It is a Sunday morning in autumn. Just inside Windsor Great Park, at the side of the road which comes from the south-east and runs through the park before entering the outskirts of Windsor town, he is standing with his hands in his overcoat pockets, but not with the collar of the coat turned up, watching the traffic coming from the direction of Ascot. He has been there for about an hour and in all that time has not missed a car. The one he is expecting will be like no other that is likely to come along. Which is just the trouble, and the reason why the boy has chosen to wait for it here and not inside the main gates of the school, where other boys are waiting for the arrival of whoever may be coming to take them out. Here in the park, no one will witness the meeting. No one will see that his father is driving a high-off-the-road, khaki-coloured, long-bodied Humber Tourer with a brass radiator and a faded, folding canvas top; an antique of a car which one day will be worth a small fortune, but which on this Sunday in 1938, in contrast with the smart saloons (the Wolseys, the Rileys, the Alvises, a Rolls or Bentley or two) that the parents of other boys will arrive in, will not fail to be remarked on to the increase of a considerably more serious discomfort from which the child currently suffers.
In our present era of cultivated upper class cockney, the heyday of the glottal stop, is it believable that a child who arrived at a minor public school speaking in the lightly muddied accents acquired by his years as a village boy should have been an object of unkind curiosity? “What prep school did you go to Bertie”? In years to come, the disparaging appellation for a boy of questionable background will be “Charlie”. Now, it is “Bertie”. Much too late; when he is worldly wise and able to laugh about it, Bertie will reproach himself for not having boldly and truthfully answered “Saint Peter’s”, which was the name of his village school. His tormentors should mind their own business, he says. Which according to one of the more senior and larger of them (a Flashman look-alike) is “bloody rude”, coming from “a new tick”.
And so on. And so inevitably forth in a self-perpetuating process of provocation, reaction and retaliation: fights and punishment for fighting; some inflicted on Bertie alone and conspicuously unjust (“Cet animal est très méchant. Quand on l’attaque, il se défend”.); some, imposed by higher authority, undiscriminating and so far as Bertie is concerned no less inequitable. In telling his parents to meet him in the privacy of Windsor Great Park Bertie is not being cowardly, but playing safe.
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NEXT FRIDAY, 30th November. Chapter Two, part II.
Home for Christmas at the end of his first term, Bertie is not interrogated about beatings or any other disagreeabilities, but his mother wants to hear about the fagging. Twenty years hence fagging will be on its way out. Now, at the time of Bertie’s boarding school début, it is a long and well established convention, approved of by the great Dr.Arnold himself. What it entails varies infinitely from school to school. In general, it is roughly true to say that it is junior boys acting to a greater or lesser degree as the personal servants of significantly more senior ones. Duties may include almost anything from cleaning dirty rugger boots to making toast for study tea……………………………….
The last house photograph in which he appears shows him stern of face, arms folded, sitting beside the House Master on the other side of whom is a future captain of Royal Marines who will be killed near Arromanches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. On his right is Martin One, who will die in a Cromwell tank on the outskirts of Bremen and whose brother, Martin Two, will fly a Lancaster to Berlin, but will not return.