I have been motivated by these reminiscences from other old boys to make my first contribution to this site. It is an adaptation from a book I first published nearly 20 years ago. It was titled "Pizzles in Paradise" which links it to my career, mostly spent as a veterinarian in rural New Zealand. I boarded for two years, firstly under "old man" Pritchard in the Junior School and thence to School House under ... well you will find him here. I endorse what others have written about their boarding days. After my parents removed me from School House I rejoined the day boys and entered Selwyn's (under Peter Stott, a truly inspirational teacher IMO.
public school, noun. in England, traditionally, an independent, single-sex school open to the paying public with an emphasis on a classical education, physical activities and administration of discipline by senior pupils. A system of education designed to expose its recipients to the worst aspects of human nature at an early age, constrained only by antediluvian concepts of honour.
The boys queued up at the quartermaster's store for their dung-coloured uniforms ('khaki' is a euphemism). Woollen shirt, woollen trousers, woollen jacket – for the wearing of. Canvas belt and gaiters with brass accoutrements, beret with fiddly brass badge– for the cleaning of. From now on, Thursday afternoons would never be the same. We had joined our school's CCF (Combined Cadet Force) and were destined to play soldiers.
We had been sucked in by the promise of playing with real guns on the playground, rather than pretend ones. It would be a long time before we would use them for their intended purpose rather than as props for endless parade ground drilling, or as instruments of punishment. Holding nine-pound Lee Enfield rifles at arm's length for the requisite time was enough to thoroughly disenchant fifteen-year-old victims with these remarkable relics of the First World War. Even in this not-so-modern world eccentrics were accommodated, and those who eschewed violence (or were unlucky enough to have pacifist parents, like MB) were effectively on display, to be seen weeding the flowerbeds or cleaning the school toilets, while we strutted around in our regalia. MB carried his supposed debasement with style and, after we had had a year or two of hoisting heavy Lee Enfields around, he even succeeded in making some of us envious of his choice.
Wednesday nights were spent sprucing up our uniforms. This was not so demanding for those boarders in School House who had the luxury of having the sprucing done for them by a fag. I had spent two years as a boarder and understood the hierarchical culture, a culture that dovetailed beautifully with army philosophy. The Duke of Wellington declared that the battle of Waterloo (a mere 150 years earlier) was won on the playing-fields of Eton and Liverpool College had yet to abandon this proud tradition of institutionalised bullying. It continued in many public boarding schools. What else would you expect when boys of seventeen have the power to beat and otherwise discipline their younger peers? Flashman was here, but I was a late developer and I couldn't rely on Tom Brown being around when I needed him. I learned not to be noticed and developed a severe distrust of peer pressure. I learned not to be a victim; I was to be nobody's fag. That was the bottom line.
I learned to distrust the establishment, for they had implemented the system. I learned to distrust organised religion, because their representatives had sanctioned it. Boys selected as prefects (usually on the basis of their prowess on the sports field) had sworn on the Holy Bible in the school chapel that they would uphold their duties with divine assistance 'God being my helper'. When one such snake-in-the-grass swore this oath on the lectern with angelic face and unctuous tones, it may have deceived the masters who had elected him to office; however, I suspect that very few of the boys present were surprised when he was implicated in a major government scandal some thirty years later.
And that, dear reader, was the glory of the British public school system. It made you or broke you. The playing-fields of Eton spawned centuries of Empire-builders. They shaped the world. They made or broke countries. New Zealand would undoubtedly be a very different place without the influence of generations of their old boys. Without that fiercely contested game developed at Rugby school, there would be no All Blacks.
The boys in School House were as Spartans, emotionally and physically hardened, by comparison with the soft day boys. During my boarding years, I became inured to strange and eclectic hardships such as ironing my trousers without - on pain of detention - creating tramlines, to wearing uncomfortable detached and stiffly starched collars, to avoiding bullies and to navigating long periods of boredom. Ideal preparation for an army career?
After a staff shake-up in the boarding school the incumbent housemaster, a minister of religion, decamped to Lahore. I had been inspired by his Christian charity on the occasion of a prolonged and alarming nosebleed I had incurred during a snowball fight. 'I don't think you understand how much inconvenience this has caused me Hicks. I may even have to call the doctor.' When the extent of his mismanagement was revealed, my parents once again made me a day boy and I swapped the golden dragon badge of School House for the less imposing red porcupine of Selwyn's which, symbolically, suited my frame of mind: I identified with the cult of the anti-hero. A pink hedgehog would have been even better.
By this stage, my two years of conditioning as a boarder were well ingrained, and I felt a real sissy in the presence of my parents. Part of the survival strategy for children abandoned to such 'care', where parental access is strictly denied throughout each term, is to ruthlessly suppress any sentimental parental attachment. If you didn't your mates would sneeringly root out that weakness in you. No one wants to be seen as a mummy's boy. Besides which, most parents encouraged their boys to be independent, disdaining overt displays of affection. Anything more than a paternal handshake would have been acutely embarrassing for both parties. Hugging your mother? Well, certainly not in public. Looking back, I am amazed how difficult it is to break down these psychological barriers. Eight or nine years later, at my university graduation ceremony, I was totally unwilling, even unable, to let my proud parents film the moment. But, thirty years on, the ceremonies for our own daughters were recorded with the love, shared pride and gratitude such events should be accorded.
Back to the uniforms. Emphasis was put on presentation. Badges were Brasso-ed, belts and gaiters Blanco-ed. Keen types played around with warm teaspoons, smoothing polish into their leather boots, and then spat-and-polished them till they glowed like mirrors. We were all keen types to start with, but for most of us the novelty wore off and some of us started to manifest signs of precocious cynicism. A prefect in School House could make his fag prepare the uniform repeatedly if the task wasn't completed satisfactorily. Or he could go the whole hog, deliberately dirty it, and make the fag repair the damage again and again and again. Power corrupts – a very valuable lesson.
The New Zealand Wool Board has since done a lot of research to remove the itch factor from wool, but as the shirts and trousers with which we were issued pre-dated the Second World War and had the consistency of tweed, those of us with sensitive skin were destined for several hours of purgatory a week. Another remarkable property of this material, shared with sphagnum moss, was its ability to hold up to ten times its own weight of water. Even when dried, a good ironing would release noisome clouds of steam. A bus full of boys in wet CCF uniforms was excellent preparation for me in later life when visiting poorly run dog kennels.
I felt the weight of history when I donned that uniform. Though we never had television at home during my school years, nor indeed in the boarding school, a defining moment in my education was an epic BBC series on the Great War. As a special treat I was permitted to watch the weekly episodes at a friend's house. Here were harrowing black and white pictures of trench warfare. Miserable, haunted faces peered out of desolate, body-littered mudscapes. I felt doubly for those soldiers in their damp, itchy and vermin-infested clothing.
Apart from the parade ground drilling, we did learn a few skills in the CCF. Unpleasant experiences can be enlightening and there were occasions when we positively enjoyed ourselves and actually pulled a trigger or did a field exercise.
One such was the annual 'Gallipoli Shield' competition contested by the six houses. On the day, each house embussed at 0800 hrs for the trip to the chosen area. There we duly leopard crawled, completed right flanking attacks, had blanks fired over our heads, did an assault course, stripped and assembled Bren guns – the works. Day's end (1630 hrs) saw teams of tired boys slowly assembling in the car park beside their respective buses.
At this juncture I happened to notice that some of the buses had a tap recessed into the side panel with a clear label << Fuel Line – on/off >>. This seemed like an open invitation. My friend, John Watson, had a mechanical bent (and has subsequently enjoyed a distinguished career in aeronautical engineering) and I aroused his curiosity. While I acted as decoy and lookout, and the harried masters checked their registers for the slow and indolent, John investigated. He spurned the opportunity to turn the tap off completely. Some innate empiricism drove him to see what would happen if the tap was turned to a three-quarters position.
That bus was carrying the successful School House boys who, once again, had prevailed on the field of battle. Soon after our Selwyn's bus started along the twisting lane for home, John's question was answered. Boys in the back of our bus, who had no knowledge of what had preceded their observations, reported that the bus behind was having trouble keeping up. Sometimes it seemed to surge forwards and nearly catch us up, but increasingly it fell behind and eventually it was a mere dot in the distance as we proceeded merrily on our way. As John and I glowed with the inner satisfaction of a job well done, it did dawn on us that the ramifications, should we be rumbled, would be severe. We had the discipline (courtesy of CCF training?) to keep our lips sealed, as they have been till this day.
Meanwhile, on the School House bus, tired and hungry boys were starting to realise they would be late for tea. Even army discipline has its limits and on their bus they must have been breached. As a result, their Gallipoli Shield points were reduced for poor behaviour.
Anyone looking in the school record books will now know the true story behind Selwyn's wresting of the Gallipoli Shield from School House in 1965. John Watson and I had served our house well. Life is so unfair.
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