Every speech day at Boy’s prep school for the last five summers I’ve watched the Year Eight leavers and their parents troop off to the dining room for their final farewell lunch with the headmaster and staff. This year it was our turn and I didn’t enjoy it one bit.
In fact, I was so cut up I had to nip off for an uncharacteristic daytime fag round the back of the dustbins with the only master (‘Why do you call them “masters”? They’re called “teachers”, Dad!’) I knew smoked. ‘This is it,’ I thought miserably to myself. ‘The last time I’ll ever come to Papplewick. Probably the last time ever I’ll see most of these faces I’ve come to take for granted, all these strangers who became my friends. And now they’re about to fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day….’
Boy, of course, wasn’t troubled by any of this stuff. Like most school-leavers, all he can think of is where he’s going next and how totally brilliant it’s going to be in the world of nearly-men. But the other parents felt much as I do: I could tell by the way none of us was meeting the other’s eye, avoiding social interaction pretty much altogether in fact. Children don’t feel this stuff because — quite properly — they’re callous and they live in the moment. By the time you’ve hit your forties and fifties, though, landmark events like this take on an awful significance. It’s not as bad losing a parent or having a friend die of cancer, but it’s definitely another of the signs: your boy is no longer a chirpy little thing in shorts and there’s another five years of your life gone — bang — without your scarcely even noticing.
Really, it seems like only yesterday that we were being shown the school for the first time by the headmaster and I asked if I could hold the rainbow boa in the science class and it bit me so that blood ran down my chin. That was when I fell in love with the school — I do like a flagrant breach of elf ’n’ safety regs, me — and knew by hook or by crook we’d have to send Boy there. When I come back in another life I want to be a prep-school master. It seems to me about the most perfect life imaginable: long holidays; free trips to exotic places; a licence to be eccentric; proper church services with a decent choir and all the old hymns sung with the right tunes; the chance to live and work in a magical realm, a parallel universe almost, where the old virtues — pluck, decency, sportsmanship — are still prized and into which the horrors of the modern world are rarely allowed to intrude.
As a prep-school master, too, you really can make a difference in those key formative years in a boy’s life before he’s crippled with cynicism and self-consciousness and a yearning to be cool; when, furthermore, his brain is like a sponge, capable of absorbing any quantity of information you care to throw it. Almost every historical date in my head, every mathematical formula, almost every hard spelling word I learned and retained before I was 13; the stuff I learned afterwards hasn’t stuck anywhere near as well.
I imagine that being a prep-school headmaster must be quite fun too, especially when it comes to the business of balancing your intake. Clearly, in these uncertain times, you need to have a fair smattering of sons of Russian oligarchs, Nigerian princes, Korean industrial magnates, Chinese new rich and so on. But not too many or it completely defeats the object.
Rich foreigners, after all, want their children to grow up like proper little English gentlemen, not like the ghastly little tiger princes they’re allowed to be in their palaces back home. And the only way that’s going to happen is if they’re surrounded mainly by the offspring of the Anglo-Saxon middle and upper classes. This, I’m sure, is one of the reasons why good prep schools are so generous with their bursaries to the children of distressed English gentlefolk. Boy, for example.
It’s something, I think, we’re going to find ourselves increasingly grateful for as the West becomes more and more marginalised, and the powers of the East finally take over the world. While the natural instinct of our new insect overlords will be to crush us and oppress us like the worthless unproductive scum we are, it will be tempered by their civilising memories of being forced to abide by the rules of cricket, and of learning not to sneak, or queue-barge, or throw your weight about, or whinge, even if Daddy does own half of Seoul or Shanghai or Uzbekistan.
So thank you, Papplewick, for all you did for my Boy: for teaching him how to charm the pants off his friends’ parents; and how to look visiting dignitaries straight in the eye as he shook their hand and collected his prize; and how to witter on in that sweet little posho prep-school drawl; and how to care for a corn snake, a leopard gecko and a royal python; and how to really care about sport; and how — when I was lucky — to accidentally call me ‘Sir’.
But thank you, even more, for the civilising influence you have had on the despots, dictators and trillionaires of the future. Without you, our bread rations in Penal Colony No. 1 (formerly Britain) would surely not have been nearly so adequate, unstale or maggot-free.