Saturday, June 04, 2011
In the thistle field, at dawn
This bedroom is the cosiest refuge you could imagine. My beloved sleeps peacefully alongside. As insistently as a rooster, or a bugle playing Reveille, the sun rouses me to full wakefulness. Like a soldier in barracks, I’m ready to leap up and out, but I stay in bed, motionless. Only my imagination goes wandering, down a corridor of decades to a jukebox of old scenes, a database of memory snapshots. I don’t need to press any button. It operates automatically. When something here and now triggers it, the jukebox retrieves images of the first time I encountered that thing, like magic. I don’t know if that happens for you too.
So I’m taken back to a dawn long ago, when I found freedom in the midst of bondage. I’ll try and tell you about it, but it won’t make much sense until I tell you more of the story.
I was sent to boarding school at the age of six—six and a half to be more precise. I remained there, at Merrion House Preparatory School, Sedlescombe, Sussex, from September 1948 to March 1954. My parents, I mean my mother and stepfather, were newlyweds. They lived a mere seven miles from the school, but it must have been convenient for them that I should be out of the way. In my grandparents’ view, I needed to learn the speech and manners of a young gentleman. My half-sister must have been born around the time my grandfather delivered me to Merrion House for the first time. I have hardly any memories of ‘home life’ from that time. I suppose school was my real home, Matron the nearest thing to a mother.
The monotony of school routines makes it hard to arrange my snapshots chronologically. But it’s important to try, so that I can date each memory and know how old I was. Nobody is alive who can help me in this. (My sister was too young.)
I know that from January to March 1949 I missed my second term, being in hospital on a penicillin drip to avoid amputation of my leg. So it must have been in my first term that the headmaster first tried to rescue me from original sin. I was the youngest child in school then, still a little wild from having spent my earliest years in Australia in a ladies’ lodging house, my mother often absent. Then we came to England, my mother a war widow looking for a wealthy dashing replacement husband—her main concern being a father for me, as she carefully explained. This was why I was sent to Holland at the age of five, to lodge with her sister-in-law, whilst she went to Switzerland on a man-hunt—where, I imagine, she could have met some fugitive ex-Nazi, holed-up and incognito. This didn’t happen, of course.
So one night in the dormitory after lights out, instead of story-telling relays beginning “It was on a dark and stormy night” and going on to encounters with highwaymen or ghosts, the conversation diverted to matters new to me. In principle I knew about sex since the age of four, when a five-year-old girl, whose mother had just told her, had told me, and we had tried to do it there and then. It proved impossible standing up, and then my grandfather caught us before we could try an alternative position. That was only memorable as an embarrassment. I can’t remember anything of our dormitory discussion, only my utterance of four incriminating words, in which I offered to do something, though slightly repelled by it. I must have spoken from curiosity and bravado. No sooner had the words left my lips but the headmaster, who had been listening outside the door, burst in, red-faced, trembling with anger, to give me a sound thrashing. This at any rate earned the other boys’ respect. Sympathetically they explained to me as a new boy that thrashings were inevitable once in a while.
Six strokes of the cane on bare buttocks was no big deal, after the pain wore off. What hurt most was the disapproval and suspicion that never went away afterwards. I had no idea about sexuality, let alone homosexuality. I just had an instinctive attraction to whatever was forbidden, like Adam and Eve. The headmaster was on my case, and must have worked on the principle that Original Sin could be cured by punishment. His religion was more Old Testament than New.
As time went on, I moved on from being the youngest boy, until I eventually became a Senior. I have no record of it but can deduce from memory snapshots when that transition occurred. For example, I recall a boy running up the little boxed-in servants’ staircase on 6th February 1952, to tell everyone that King George VI had just died. It was the staircase used by juniors. So I must still have been one. In June ’53 we were taken to the Gaiety Cinema in Hastings to see the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and—exciting double bill!—the first ascent of Mt Everest, by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing. By then I was certainly a Senior, with all corresponding privileges, the most exciting ones being to use the Pond. It was a muddy affair, surrounded by chestnut trees which dropped their conkers and leaves to decay in the pond till it smelt sulphurous. But it was stocked with varies types of fish, and in the summer we would make our own rods from bamboo, and buy line, weights and hooks from the school tuckshop. The floats we had to make ourselves, from corks and matches. We used white bread for bait, kneaded into a paste.
The other thing we did in the pond was make rafts, using small oildrums as floats lashed under a platform of old planks. There were always two rafts and the thing was to fight with them. One crew tried to board the other’s raft and push all the boys into the water. For me, the fishing and rafting were the ultimate fun you could have at school; because I was no good at football and cricket; and disliked the entire concept of organised team games.
But I think I became a senior first in the summer of ’52, for it was then that disaster struck. I had formed a one-to-one friendship with a boy of my age, whose skin was strangely dark, though not brown or ‘olive’. He was disapproved of like me, and I wondered if it was connected with colour. He used to talk about Burma and ayahs, but it was much later that I learned that his father had been a British officer, killed in World War II (like mine, I thought, not discovering till forty years later who my father actually was). His mother was Burmese and I deduce his birth was considered a scandal. So at the end of the war his relatives arranged to take him away from his mother so that he could be brought to England and learn to be an English gentleman. We seemed to have a number of things in common. Now, he was living with a widowed aunt in Sedlescombe village, having been rescued from a succession of ayahs (nannies). I believe (guessing in retrospect) that one of them had played with him “inappropriately”, as we say these days, for he was precocious in certain ways. One day we were both reported to the Headmaster for an offence recorded as “filthy language”. The description was accurate insofar as it clarified that no deeds were involved. I was ready for another thrashing but this time the punishment was more fiendish: no pond privileges for the rest of term. In addition my half-caste friend and I were not allowed alone together.
I’m quite sure that dreadful summer was ’52, because the following June was joyous. The dawning of the second Elizabethan age was merely the backdrop. I was particularly happy because my mother was happy. She had fled from my stepfather (leaving my half-sister with him) and was in love again. When the divorce came through, I’d have a new nice stepfather and we’d go to live in the Isle of Wight. Aged eleven, I suddenly had the prospect of a home and a future.
Since my afternoon was to be thus occupied, one Saturday I was woken at dawn to take my punishment. I was to pull up all the thistles and nettles from a potato-field. I felt myself akin to a Negro slave, cotton-picking for a cruel master. The thought gave me strength for secret resistance. And it wasn’t so hard. I discovered the literal meaning of the adage ‘grasp the nettle’: it can’t sting you then. Or perhaps I had been provided with gloves.
What I do remember was the long shadows cast by the potato-plants in the early sun; the jewelled glint of the dewdrops caught in the spines of thistles; and my determination, as I wiped the sweat off my face with a dirty hand, to finish the weeding before I came to breakfast. But I was called in after an hour. I volunteered to complete the job on other mornings, but it seems the task was only available as punishment. To show signs of enjoying it was a disqualification.
These are the records which the dawn sun played for me on memory’s jukebox. I The more I think about him, the more I remember of Monty Brummell-Hicks. Maybe I’ll write a whole post about him.
Coming back to this piece after publishing it earlier today, I realize that its significance for me is not how I was affected by several years of punishment and close scrutiny. On the contrary, it reveals to me that I was the same then as now: impulsive, disobedient, ungregarious; and other things I shall not list. What I discovered for the very first time in the thistlefield, that makes it stand out in my memory, that made me volunteer to go back each morning till the weeding was finished, was not a propensity to masochism or slavishness, but a love of Nature that still inspires me 58 years later.
And when I say ‘Nature’, I can’t describe what aspect I’m referring to. A potato field choking with thistles isn’t what you’d imagine as something to fall in love with. So I don’t really know what I mean. The mystery remains intact.
Posted by Vincent at 8:03 am