Cressida Connolly

Between pony club and the altar

Ysenda Maxtone Graham delights in the jolly-hockey-sticks world of girls’ boarding schools — where the chief lesson learnt was how to survive a dull marriage

Between pony club and the altar
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Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939—1979

Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Slightly Foxed Editions, pp. 272, £

If you were to take a large dragnet and scoop up all the shoppers in the haberdashery department of Peter Jones in Sloane Square, your catch would be a group of women of the kind given voice in this marvellous little book. Readers old enough to remember Joyce Grenfell will know the type.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham characterises them as people who sleep with the window open in all weather; who know how to cast on and off in knitting; are thrilled by the arrival of a parcel, even if it’s just some Hoover bags bought on Amazon. They haven’t done up their kitchens since the early 1970s and they always feel homesick on Sunday evenings, even though they’re at home. The mainstays of Riding for the Disabled and the church flower rota, they have names like Bubble Carew Pole and Gillian Charlton-Meyrick. The word gumption doesn’t appear in these pages, oddly enough. But that’s what comes to mind: these women have gumption.

It may seem almost absurdly niche, but this is a book which deserves a wider audience than its title suggests. Like Dear Lupin and its sequels, it finds comedy and a touching sort of home-grown courage in the rather narrow social group it describes. Ysenda Maxtone Graham has an eye for the drollery of detail and an abundance of wit, which helps. She is good at keeping a straight face. Describing the horrors of school food, she writes: ‘Putting pilchards into one’s pocket was a risky business.’ When interviewing one cluster of women whose school had been especially lax, she asks if, between apricot crumble and hockey, they’d had any afternoon lessons, or learned anything much: ‘They weren’t sure but thought probably not.’

Apart from Cheltenham Ladies’ College (always a bastion of intellect), many of the schools were pretty hopeless. There was folk dancing and needlecraft and lacrosse, but most of the teaching staff had not been to university. Science was especially scant: as Nicola Shulman notes in her very funny introduction, the word ‘lab’ meant labrador, not laboratory. This didn’t matter too much, since the schools were essentially holding-bays in which to keep the girls during those awkward years between pony club and getting married. Indeed, one might posit a strong causal link between the demise of such establishments and the burgeoning divorce rate. What better training for long-haul marriage could be devised? Kindness and service to others were inculcated. Girls learned to put up with being cold and with sharing a bedroom; they learned to forgive the bathroom habits of their fellows. Soppiness was to be discouraged; tedium borne. ‘Boredom was really the essence of our existence,’ recalls one former pupil, ‘I actually resorted to reading Solzhenitsyn and Henry James: you have to be very bored to read Henry James, in my opinion.’

Say what you like about internet porn, at least today’s young people know roughly what goes where. For these young women, sex was ‘(a) purely a medical matter and (b) dangerous’. Even regarding their own bodies, information was in short supply. Artemis Cooper found a packet of white shiny pads in her drawer at school and thought, ‘How useful! I’ll use those for cleaning my shoes.’

All of this is amusing, but the occasional glimmers of racism and exclusion are not. Snobbery was rife. The headmistress of St Mary’s, Ascot, began a Latin lesson with this ice-breaker: ‘Now, hands up those of you whose house is open to the public.’ The young Judith Kerr (author of the children’s masterpiece The Tiger Who Came to Tea) had left Germany in 1933. At boarding school, she was asked whether she was a Cockney, ‘because we’ve all been discussing it and we’ve decided your vowels aren’t pure’. One dark-skinned old girl met up with a schoolfellow years later: ‘It wasn’t that we didn’t like you: we just didn’t know what to do about your skin colour.’

Such examples are mercifully rare. Mostly these pages abound in memories of chilblains and the waft of overcooked cauliflower, of hard loo paper and hymn books and linoleum. Teachers wore long cardigans over their shelf-like bosoms and had nicknames like ‘Jellybags’ and ‘the Turnip’. The girls under their care seldom saw a Bunsen burner or even attempted maths O-level, but many of them grew up to be pillars of the community — loyal, courteous and stoical. They’re a dying breed, now. Terms and Conditions is a fitting tribute.