At Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club this week I bumped into Stanley Johnson, author of the superb memoir Stanley, I Presume and father of Britain’s future prime minister. Mr Johnson and I have an English education in common. Apart from Oxford and Sherborne, we attended the prep school Ravenswood, on the edge of Exmoor. ‘On the whole, I still take a positive view of my time at Ravenswood,’ wrote Johnson — and I agree. His book motivated me to dig out my old school reports. I was astonished to find that the masters seemed kinder than I recall them. The curriculum was more advanced than it is for my two children at equivalent ages today. And my letters suggest I was having fun. For years I had dragged around memories of a cold, brutal hellhole. Perhaps it was better than that.
Naturally, we had ghastly food — what I called in one letter ‘munched-up meat and hardened potatoes’. The headmaster beat us frequently, with a slipper — but only rarely with a cane. When I was ten, Commander Norman, the one utter bastard among the masters, knocked me out with a punch. We had chamberpots, chilblains and ridiculous haircuts. But we also had Guy Fawkes, tobogganing in winter, The Dambusters on a projector, birthday ‘bumps’ and joyous, mass fights after lights-out that involved all the boys from dormitories named after Sir Walter Scott novels, from Ivanhoe to Rob Roy.
But then there are the sexual ‘scars’ that, in Mr Johnson’s words, ‘force you into a re-evaluation of an establishment’. I don’t mean boys jumping into bed with each other. There was plenty of that. Later on in the 1970s, a few girls appeared in class, but we hardly knew what they were. They were certainly a different species from the creatures we saw in the hoards of girlie magazines hidden under our many loose floorboards.
In a display of entrepreneurship I have never managed to equal since, I stole all these naughty publications — which ranged from naturist monthlies dating back to Mr Johnson’s era, to Club International, the impact of which was initially so dramatic on the boys it was like Ruskin’s wedding night. Once I’d cornered the market, I charged the magazines out at so many Jaffa Cakes and gobstoppers per view. I became a porn king at age 11.
In Johnson’s time there was a paedophile master called Major Hunter who came ‘close to ruining’ the life of at least one of his contemporaries. Nothing changed much between 1952 and 1976 — except that in my memory our predator was a female member of staff, we’ll call her Miss X, who, I believe, steadily knocked off a string of senior boys, while grooming younger ones for when their time came. I myself had an encounter with Miss X.
Things started to go wrong. Boys went off the rails. One senior was rumoured to have stolen money from his mother to buy a ring for Miss X. The school authorities must have known, yet it seemed to me that no action was ever taken. A used condom turned up in the woodshed. Under the leadership of my friend M—, we formed a pressure group called the Committee, which had as its secret salute the Black Power fist. The Committee had four objectives: 1) Play the music of James Brown; 2) monopolise the supply of naughty magazines; 3) steal all the roofing lead we could from Ravenswood for sale to some Worzel Gummidge we’d found in Tiverton, in order to pay for tuck and Club International, purchased by the same Worzel; 4) launch a campaign of intimidation to hound Miss X from Ravenswood.
We made her life a misery. We taunted her. We threw things at her. We chanted ‘’Twas way down in Devon’ which has the chorus ‘When I ups and I shows ’er my threshing machine’. For reasons still mysterious to me, I was appointed head boy. I put away childish things — the roofing lead thefts, the girlie magazine monopoly — but not James Brown, nor the campaign against Miss X.
On the last day of my final term, at assembly, it was my job to raise three cheers for every staff member, whom I listed in alphabetical order. When I came to the letter of Miss X’s real name, I paused, stared at the serried ranks of boys in their purple-edged blazers, and then skipped her name and continued down the list. Then I raised my fist and called ‘Hip hip!’ And as Miss X ran weeping from the Hall the boys roared, ‘Hooray!’
As Mr Johnson would say, ‘I don’t want to overegg this Major Hunter business.’ But when I remember Miss X, I cannot decide whether I should be traumatised, grateful — or if I should apologise.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 25, 2012