Peter Hitchens

No screens, shared bathwater and ugly food: my life in a 1960s prep school

No screens, shared bathwater and ugly food: my life in a 1960s prep school
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We were allowed one phone call, faint and crackling along the many miles of copper wire which connected Hampshire with Dartmoor. In those days (this was the early 1960s) the operator had to connect it. I had watched those wires, swooping alongside the train which had borne me all that way, wisps of smoke and steam drifting past the window. Now, with the September evening coming on, there was time for a few stilted words in the headmaster’s study with my parents. It would in many ways have been better not to bother, as it only emphasised the distance and the separation. Then it was term.

I don’t want to complain about this. I had begged to go to boarding school because my brother was already there and I would have felt utterly left out and left behind if I had not gone too. And while the whole thing no doubt did me harm, it also did me good, and I shall never be able to disentangle one from the other. In my case I found myself living for much of each year in a handsome and commodious 18th-century gentleman’s house on a Devon hilltop, surrounded by some of the loveliest country in all England.

Dartmoor began at our back door, tawny, dangerous and thrilling. It was not just a view. We went there often. In the other direction, lush, silent valleys led down towards Plymouth and the Tamar, England’s other western frontier. A smaller river, the boisterous Tavy, ran past the grounds. On good days you could see Cornwall and its old brown hills. You could never forget the closeness of the sea, which gives so much to the maritime atmosphere of the West Country. I never felt that the Armada was long ago or Francis Drake was far away.

Our dormitories were named after sea-dogs, beginning with the Cromwellian (and so slightly mistrusted) Robert Blake and ending with the glory and seniority of Nelson. You might describe it as austere luxury. The place was sparklingly clean because we, the pupils, cleaned it thoroughly every day after breakfast. The beds were hard, the dormitories cold, the food (apart from delicious breakfasts, on which I largely survived) ugly, fatty and stodgy. I seldom drank the milk which a benevolent state forced on us each morning, but endangered my teeth each Saturday afternoon with Palm Toffee bars, which would probably be illegal if put on sale today. Even then, in the days of Harold Macmillan, they tried to get us to be interested in eating fruit, but with little success. There was custard, thin and pale. Just as it shouldn’t be. There were indeed prunes, as the great Molesworth describes. If they failed to work then there was syrup of figs dispensed by a matron so stern that I actually believed she was called Gertrude. The poor woman’s name, I found half a century later, was something quite different. I fear that we boys wholly misjudged her.

There were incessant sports and a great deal of compulsory jumping, running and exertion, as well as forced labour, clearing woodlands or picking stones out of newly dug playing fields. There were no cold showers, but there was an unheated swimming pool into which we were expected to leap, a lot. We all learned to swim, if only to keep warm. The most squalid practice, viewed in memory, was having to use other people’s bathwater three times a week. But the more worrying thing is that it seemed quite normal at the time. In fact, almost all of what we did seemed normal at the time.

I was neither thrashed nor sexually abused, though I believe others were. One much-liked teacher disappeared abruptly one day, and later turned up in the local police court charged with ‘indecent assault’. The incident caused a kind of revolution in the school, so I’m inclined to think such outrages were rare. Certainly I retained an almost total sexual innocence to the end of my time there. I knew no four-letter words until I was 13, and only discovered the meaning of the word ‘shit’ from a crude inscription on a public lavatory in a park, glimpsed from a train. Yet I could produce a reasonably workmanlike mortice-and-tenon joint and even a dove-tail, and could identify most of the trees and birds in the park which surrounded us, which seems a fair exchange.

As for the cane, I did not want to be beaten, and so took steps to avoid anything which might lead to this. I succeeded, which suggests that there was some sort of order in our ferocious and arbitrary justice system. The closest I came to six of the best was a totalitarian moment when I was given the choice of being whacked or lying that the school food (about which I had been rude) was in fact good. To my lasting shame, I gave in to this terror. I have never forgiven myself.

Really, I was being brought up in the 1930s, by a headmaster whose ideas had been formed before the second world war, when they were thought progressive. There was no television, just the occasional film on a clattering projector. For most of the year, I was free of any screen, a huge benefit.

There was a genteel, well-aged shabbiness about the place which I liked. Where today there would be plastic and chrome, we had wood and brass. We learned a lot from good teachers, some superb. We were supposed to be perpetually busy, and if possible outside, cold and wet. The view seemed to be that if the Devil found work for idle hands, he did so even more skilfully if we were indoors, and more so if we were warm and dry.

Even school skiing trips, supposedly holidays, were preceded by weeks of pre-dawn exercises and filled with organised, supervised group activity. This insistence on being always up and doing was perhaps where the school failed on its own terms, in my case at least. I took quite the wrong lesson from it. I worked out how to disappear when chores were being handed out. I also learned how not to reappear until long after the risk was over. More important still, I did this so unobtrusively that nobody noticed. In the rambling house with its many exits, back stairs and dark corridors, this was quite easy if you put your mind to it, and I did. Hardly anyone ever looked in the library, and even if they did they were unlikely to peer into the deepest corners of it where I sat happily reading for hours as my fellow-pupils toiled or exerted themselves in the drizzle.

One of the many reasons I hated the move, at 13, to a ‘public’ school was that it was too well organised. The bigger school was also more modern, in an unlovable way. It was uglier by far (it looked like a lunatic asylum merged with a waterworks). It was no more comfortable, it was no warmer, and the food was no better. It was just as determined to make me cold and wet and to keep me from my own thoughts. It was obsessed, at the height of the 1960s, with the length of our hair and made us dress in curious garments called ‘sports jackets’, which made us look like miniature bookmakers. But beside all these miseries, it lacked the placid Edwardian calm of my preparatory school. It had instead a feverish, urgent, humourless 1920s feel to it. Bright-eyed prefects would urge us out into the fields to cheer on the House Team. I could not think of any good reason why I should do this. These enthusiasts were as incomprehensible to me as Pacific Islanders.

The school had an actual rule-book (how I wish I had kept a copy) in which the most serious named offence was being late for breakfast. The school line, to be written out 20 times at dawn by malefactors, ran: ‘Few things are more distressing to a well-regulated mind than to see a boy, who ought to know better, disporting himself at improper moments.’ My mind was not well regulated. It never has been, and I did not fit in. We parted company, and I went out into another world, which contained girls but no sports, and where there were no dormitories or dining halls. How I rejoiced.

And yet, more than 30 years after waving a scornful goodbye to boarding school, I found myself in a grey town in Eastern Europe, debating whether to take a dirty, dingy train to a destination I did not especially wish to reach, where things would be a good deal worse than where I was and where phone calls would be hard to make. It was the most important decision of my life, and if I had not done my time at those boarding schools, I think I would have made the wrong choice. I took the train, and it has made all the difference.

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Written byPeter Hitchens

Peter Hitchens lived in Moscow from June 1990 to October 1992. He is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.

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