“The ribs and thigh bones of the young man’s desire to impress himself lying dark in the mist of his flesh.” Virginia Woolf, ‘To The Lighthouse’.
“Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these…” ‘Philippians’ 4:8, K.J.V.
Girls! Feminine giggles and shadowy shapes in the October dusk. There I was in the quadrangle between the old library building and the chapel. Back after 46 years, those female pupils were the first new Blundellians I’d encountered. They seemed incomparably strange to me although apparently the first female pupil arrived only four years after I left the school. In my memory, Blundell’s had been almost exclusively a male world. The women we did see in the 1960s were master’s wives, matrons and San nurses — unromantic figures remote from the claustrophobic scrimmaging of our testosterone-soaked school life.
Girl pupils were clearly now part of the shape of the school. Yes, their presence must soften the asperities a bit, I thought. I could still hear them calling to each other as I passed the classroom block where Mr. Japes used to preside over his Latin classes. Other dinner -jacketed figures emerged from the dusk, ageing returnees like me. We peered doubtfully at each other, a crowd of Rip Van Winkles trying to discern some resemblance to our former selves. The dress collar chafed my neck; it was the first time I’d ever worn formal evening wear. I had worked hard over the years to avoid the apparel and the sort of functions that went with the garb. My patent leather shoes glistened as I progressed along the path that used to crunch under our Corps boots but which now was smooth macadam, past the familiar scarp of the masters bar and common room. So funny that I should return to the school as a dapper, bald, 66 year old man. My house master, D.J. Park, wrote angrily in my final school report: “his appearance at speech day was not up to the standards he should have learnt here.” He’d taken exception to my long straggling hair, tattered school tie, cowboy boots and hippie bangles. What battles we had fought over the length of our hair. All gone, like leaves from an autumnal tree. Devon night drizzle now prickled at my bare scalp.
Old Blundellians, old boys, ‘OBs’ sounded more gender neutral I suppose, names I recognised, the same Blundell’s names tended always to reappear at the school. One of my fellow OBs told me he had sent his children to the place. ‘Unchilded and unwifed,’ I had sprung from a careless cohort, too selfish and chaotic to have kids and a settled life, not needing to ever consider whether to send my kids to Blundell’s.
We entered the Colin Beale Centre a new building on the edge of the Big Field cricket grounds, built on the area where we used to have archery butts and long jump pits. I remember him, Mr Beale, our energetic little bursar with his OB tie, often with bundles of squash rackets under his arm, buzzing around in a Robin Reliant. Fiercely dedicated to the school, he regarded us long hairs with evident disfavour yet I have Colin Beale to thank for me remaining in touch with the school at all. I still have the letter he wrote to my father shortly after I had left telling my Dad that he had signed me onto the OB register despite my failing to fill in the requisite papers at the correct time — I expect I’d been in too much of a hurry to quit the place and couldn’t think of wanting to stay in touch in the first place. My poor parents, Mr. Beale’s letter must have been yet another reminder of my abjectly disastrous school career.
Introductions, more OBs, then a member of the board of school governors. He said he was a farmer and had not attended the school. His inclusion was part of the school policy of “engaging local business”. I told him I’d probably crawled through his fields as a wild teenager in my night forays to Tivvie. Then, a pleasant woman from ‘the development team’, so odd to be spoken to nicely by school staff and next, the head master. She proffered her hand. Yes a she! A calm elegant woman. Incredible! I tried not to stare. It was all such a far cry. The H.M. in my time was the Rev. John Stanton I remember him in his study, pointing sadly to his cane rack,
“Must I beat you, Madocks, to get you to understand?” He’d said. A decent godly man but my relations with him were clouded by my near permanent disgrace. He had the habit of slowly elevating himself to stand on tiptoe whenever he addressed us. We used to call him ‘Jimbo’ and imitated his strangled speech by speaking without moving our teeth as if we were clenching a pipe between our jaws. Another OB interrupted my thoughts. He asked me if I had been in the Lower Sixth. I didn’t remember, never really cared about that sort of thing. It was all so weird, it had been such a long time since I’d been with Blundellians. I was amazed by their speech, their type, their self-belief. These were men with ordered lives who ran things: soldiers, bishops, civil servants, lawyers, architects, diplomats. The headmaster in a speech at the end of term once remarked: “In the great ship of life as it embarks with you on board always remember as Blundellians you are free to serve as crew not passengers.” Odd to once more re-encounter such self-directed Blundellians for one such as me who has long lived on the margins. I moved to another table to find two faces I recognised. The cobwebs of the past were quickly brushed away. It was good to see them, Dave West and Rodney Hill, my former companions in North Close through five years of incarceration. Ishmaels, we few, we few ‘alone have escaped to tell thee’.
Speeches after dinner, from the headmistress and an OB retired ambassador. They spoke of Blundell’s in the sixties and early seventies, about school achievements and great sportsmen like Vic Marks and Charles Kent and about the construction of new buildings during that period: Big School and the dining hall and the occasion of the Queen Mother’s visit. These were the years that built the school’s reputation to establish the powerhouse it had now become. Words also about how supportive and happy the place was, a privilege to serve it. Needless to say this was not the ’60s I remembered. There was nothing of the mayhem that we knew and lived through. I turned to my confrères,
“Was it really like that?” I whispered to Rodney and Dave. They smiled and shook their heads.
The real ’60s at Blundell’s? The official life glided on I suppose, the one that our dinner speakers described: the great events, the memorable sporting occasions. Vic Marks was a few years younger than us, his cricketing star not shining yet in a school that venerated rugby. Charlie Kent, was in our year and lived with us though already a rugby demi-god and a handsome kindly lad — he was very nice to us groundlings unlike so many of the sports jocks.
No, the life we knew was the underbelly life. My set lived in millenarian, fanatical times. I remember Tony Cherry and I, hooded by wool balaclavas, running back over the Milestones hockey pitch having thrown our I.E.D.s (fireworks jammed into empty baked bean cans) into the fives courts. Stunning concussions and shrieks from our targets —a group of hated persecutory monitors. Or hashish in Paradise Woods. I’d bought the stuff in Tiverton youth centre; it might actually have been dried cow manure. Whatever, we smoked it avidly, tamped into a meerschaum pipe belonging to my Dad. I was lavishly sick afterwards and could barely stand for house evening prayers. Or the look of perplexity and even fear on the faces of masters with a huge reputation who had given their lives to the school, Ted Crowe and Ted Chanter, facing a disturbance in the evening dinner hall: a seething mass of boys hissing, booing and stamping, some sort of group protest after two boys had been rusticated for tipping sugar into the Westlake house master’s petrol tank. Or, us running from the forbidden precincts of the Electric Theatre cinema where we had only been able to see the first five glorious minutes of ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’. We were pursued out of the fire exits by raiding masters wielding torches, their gowns flying behind them as they rushed down. Heaven knows what the ordinary cinema goers thought of it. Or, Mr. Park confiscating the air rifle I’d hidden in the study ceiling saying, “What’s going to happen to you, Madocks? One day I’ll be walking in the street and there you’ll be: a common workman digging up the road.” Or, Niall Henderson, Chris Graham- Hogg and I toasting world revolution with illicit cider in our senior study under a large poster from the film ‘Easy Rider’, Barry McGuire’s hymn playing loudly on my old Garrard Dansette, ‘but ya tell me tell me over and over my friend, ya don’t believe the we are all on the eve of destruction.’ The intensity of those years, the fierce world-changing energies of that era that drove us to be seriously intent on torching the old order.
Back at the dinner, we rosy-faced, dickie-bowed ones toasted the school and the Queen. Strange. I love those rituals now but was never part of them. My rodent generation worked so hard to destroy all tradition, both civic and spiritual. I once felt I belonged to that generation but I abjure its causes and curse its inheritance now.
Farewell handshakes with our friendly hosts then back through the school buildings, smell of wet leaves and damp Devon earth. Standing by the new Ondaatje building, looking north, there was a mass of orange lights where there had once been seemingly endless fields that held no light at all. Fragments of the old market town spun past under forests of new street lamps as a Polish taxi driver careened at breakneck speed through the rain back to The Fisherman’s Cot. Ashley, Collipriest, Bickleigh, places I’d visited on my bike on dreary Sundays when all other entertainments were forbidden. The headlight beams shot into the wet woods on either side of the road as we lurched around bends. ‘Ya, selva oscura,’ in cold thicket the past awaits. So hard to trace a path through the underbrush.
Back in my room, I shed the constricting evening wear. Memories came crowding, the Fishermans Cot, the pub and hotel by the river where my parents once stayed on term visits. We used to be served meals there by girls in black and white pinnies. One remaining segment of thatched roof line was the only recognisable remnant of the place. Sense of the nausea of the unrequited past, picked up the old paperback of Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’, Penguin Classic still marked with ‘N.C. House Library, June 1968’ in Park’s handwriting. I loved the book in my schooldays and had purloined it from the library, wanting it all to myself. I had brought it with me on my return to school as some sort of protective talisman. When I was a troubled teen, the book gave me hope that the painful present could be transcended, I reread my favourite passage – the ‘Time Passes’ sequence. Woolf’s depiction of the processes of pitiless, heedless nature taking over an abandoned house has always consoled me in a strange way. I read on, sometimes looking up from the page to listen to the thudding roar of the Exe foaming in spate under Bickleigh Bridge where Colin Beale’s three-wheeler had plunged fatally. Sleep, beckoned and retreated. The dead came to me in the night, memories clung to my face…
Past the towering limes fronting tall white rugby posts, rust-red stone buildings same colour as our jackets, arrowings of jackdaws from the school tower, sherry-coloured autumn light, glittering of dew on North Close lawn, the walls of our house close-matted by crimsoned Virginia creeper, the bells ringing for breakfast and boys from all the distant houses would come running. Our detachable collars were a devil to manage with cold fingers and many of the lads pounded along with their collars sprung free like small white wings to each side of their necks. Woe betide you if you did not get to the breakfast hall in time. Mind you, Dave West, my friend at the OB dinner, once memorably woke the whole house one hour early in error and we all ran wildly to the hall to find the doors locked. We passed a strange dislocated hour waiting for our regimented school life to get back on track. Thanks, Dave. You gave us an extra hour in which to experience the world. I’m still trying to get the most out of it.
1966, ready for the fray in my new school uniform.
Those days of 1966: in the mornings the unheated dorms could be so cold our bath towels became crisped and stiff on their runners. Monitors flicked the laggards with wet flannels and slammed open the sash windows to dispel the frowsty night-reek of twenty boys together, Breakfast was a fried egg skidding in a puddle of grease, avidly gobbled, for we were always hungry, washed down by an anthracitic tea dispensed from giant metal tea pots. We filed into chapel under the brass plaque ‘In Pious Memory of Peter Blundell ’, sang from ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ and listened to the wonderful prose rhythms of the ‘KJV’ and ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ then out again under the Toc H lamp and the gold-lettered lists of the Blundell’s war dead, columns of us russet-jacketed ones, accompanied by the rumbling and pealing of the chapel organ.
Bells began to ring insistently and we speeded our way to classes lest we got six blue sides for lateness. Masters followed behind us, wrapping their gowns around themselves to ward off the cold. Each school day was bound about by arcane rules: first year boys may not have any jacket buttons undone, only seniors could walk on certain strips of grass, monitors alone could have hands in trouser pockets. We were also introduced to strange new words: lessons were ‘periods’, if you were ‘in a bate’ you were angry, ‘to gribble’ meant to touch or grasp the testes; it had a passive and active sense: both the leisurely voluntary activity known as ‘pocket gribbling’ or violent attacks when other boys tugged and twisted at your genitalia. You had to mind out if you got caught fighting for then you were in danger of a ‘swishing’ (the cane) .The school introduced us to a Darwinian cosmos where we were a lower order of life known as ‘ticks’ and we were preyed upon by senior boys called ‘nobs’. The use of Latin also gave us the feeling we were caught in a retro Tom Brown existence: the master called out ‘aeger?’ when asking if anyone was absent due to sickness, exeats, you got six a term permission to visit Tiverton on a Saturday, absit was for a longer period of time; I got one for going to Exeter for an x-ray after injuring myself falling from a bicycle. Aegrotat was a coveted sick pass that got you off games. The words ‘Benedictus benedicat’ resounded before each meal, ‘may the blessed one give a blessing’.
We treated each other with few blessings though. No-one dared show weakness that would attract vicious taunting and could get you a dreaded nickname that could scar your school life forever like poor Rodgers who became ‘Skunk’ Rodgers due to the smell of his rotten socks or McGuffie who got the name ‘McGurk’ due to a slight stammer. If someone coughed in class others made noises in their throats in ironic salute. If you had a touch of teenage acne known as a ‘shag spot’, it was supposed to indicate self-abuse. Boys would point to it and make a gagging noise,
“Shag spot! You dirty bastard, you’ve got a shagger!” they’d yell, drawing out the word ‘shagger’ and rolling the final ‘r’ in an exaggerated way.
Other strange rituals: at beginning of classes, boys lifted their desk lid with one finger and let it fall when we rose to attention as the master entered the classroom. Thus the beak’s entry would be saluted by the sound of drumming thunder, the weaker the master, the louder the noise. On those same desk lids, our fingers traced the carved inscriptions and gougings of legions of boys gone by. Our olive-green Latin textbooks were similarly inscripted and many had their Latin Primer title emended to form that age-old schoolboy joke: ‘Kennedy’s Shortbread Eating Primer’. There were so many ways for the bored pupil to misuse their tin of Oxford Mathematical Instruments with its blue picture of Balliol College on the front. The tedious classroom hours were eased by using the compass point to bore holes in the desk top and plenty other instruments were useful like the wooden ruler handy for flicking pellets of spit-hardened blotting paper. Sometimes, we were issued with wooden-handled dip pens with nibs like a bird’s beak. You could dab these into your Quink bottle then covertly flick droplets of ink onto the necks of your rivals in the next row.
Lunch was a godsend for roiling bellies although you had to try not to sit next to a master or his wife with their accompanying stifling conversation. ‘Benedictus benedicat’ then peering at your plate to see what had been offered up,
“What the dickens is it?” I heard one new boy exclaim. It could be Irish stew with stranded dumplings caught in the greyish slick on top or charred curlicues of liver and onions followed by a block of synthetic yellow ice cream or pudding made of a length of dough speckled with raisins known as ‘matron’s leg’. I don’t think it occurred to anyone to actually complain about the food. I’m sure they’d have been squashed quickly. It didn’t matter about individuals, nails that stood out were generally hammered down for we were being given a new identity as Blundellians. For example, we were each paired with a second year boy whose role was to tutor us in preparation for the school knowledge test. If you failed the test, you and your mentor would get a beasting from the monitors. Questions would be fired at you like, “Where will you find a school squirrel?” (answer: in the school chapel window and on the C.C.F. badge) or, “Who was Peter Blundell?” (answer: ‘of this town, sometime clothier, 1604’). I failed my tests to the dismay of my mentor and we both had to scrub floors as penance. I knew the answers fairly well and I think I flunked it out of contempt for the sneering monitors. It was already the first intimation of my stubbornly rebellious nature.
There was a brief respite after lunch when we went back to our houses. There, mail was laid out on a long table. The older boys sometimes received perfumed letters which they carried off with cries of triumph. Here, we could also read from newspapers put out on the battered common room armchairs. This was the time to go to the tuck shop and stock up on Swizzells Lovehearts — each fizzy lozenge gave an amatory message to lift the heart of the most hideous schoolboy or yellow and brown bags of Peanut Treets which you could eat quietly in class. I used to line my pencil box with their glossy eggs. Those deathly endless afternoon periods. It was a relief if you could sneak into Mr Panther’s biology classroom where there was much to divert you: mounted animal horns on the wall, a stuffed crocodile and cases of Victorian taxidermy, even better were the giant Kilmer jars in a cabinet. These contained ghost-white salamanders and toads floating in preserving liquid and most fascinating of all: the suspended waxy form of a macrocephalic human foetus resembling Dan Dare’s alien enemy, The Mekon, that featured in our weekly Eagle comic magazines.
Dinner known as ‘tea’ was at 5.50, often sausage and beans and bread and jam. Occasionally, you got cake or a bowl of greyish semolina into which you dropped a bleb of jam then stirred mightily to turn the whole concoction mauve. Back in our houses, evening bells rang out the changes, fags rushed to their masters’ commands,
“Fag! Go and warm my bog seat.”
“This milk is sour. Get more, squit-face!”
“Burnt the toast again you, infernal tick!” Thud of a flying Corps boot.
Quiet hour then ensued, muttered conversations, low radios. Juniors often wrote home at this time but you knew not to leave letters lying about because cruel boys liked to scrawl jocular comments on them like, “Dear mater and pater, all I can do is blub, blub, blub.” At this hour, boys mooched, the great Victorian hulks of the houses often shrouded in autumnal Devon mist. Come 7.15p.m., the main door of the house was locked and we were sealed in for the night. First prep began — a period when we were supposed to do homework. We juniors sat in our common room, one wall lined by shelved wooden tuck boxes, on the other: a large map of the world to which we had stuck on the reverse a poster of Raquel Welch in an animal-skin bikini from the film ‘One Million Years B.C.’. We liked to flip the map around during prep and gaze upon the Amazonian form of Miss Welch, although argus-eyed Mr Park eventually discovered and removed it.
Evening Prayers broke the monotony, boys gathered together, the house master read prayers and we sang, “The day thou gavest, Lord has ended,” accompanied on the piano by the prodigiously talented Charlie Kent in later years. Then, second prep until 10p.m., followed by wash time and ‘lights out’ at 10.20. Darkness in the dorm released muted sobbing from the homesick new boys under blue blankets. Anyone caught with a teddy bear had its head ceremonially removed with a penknife. Monitors opened the dorm door from time to time and uttered dire warnings about no talking. More darkness. I’d furtively click on my Pye transistor press my ear to the speaker and listen to Radio Caroline or boxing matches like Cassius Clay against Mildenburger. Sometimes, we’d have a dorm conversation and each would take turns to describe their favourite thing. The only answer I could remember was Ian Newton-Jones saying his favourite activity was ‘farting in bed’.
Often, there were rougher dorm activities, like the ordeal called ‘doing the rounds’ where each boy in a new dorm had to obey the unwritten rule that you must complete a circuit of the dorm without touching the floor. I was an old hand from previous schools and knew that it was essential to complete this initiation rite. So, in the first nights at the school before the tougher boys had mobilised, I bounded along the rows of beds in the dark, swung along the coat hooks on the back wall then traversed the creaking monitor’s wooden partition then back down the bed rows along the opposite side, fisting off any opposition, then across the rattling sash windows and back to bed. You hoped all the while that monitors would not be roused by the racket and beat you with plimsolls or make you do house runs across the frosted grass of Milestones pitch in bare feet or worse could happen if the house master caught you. It was OK for the sporty and strong or for maniacs like me but the plump, unhandy boys would still be trying to ‘do the rounds’ weeks later, getting caught time and again and taunted for weakness and for being a ‘spazz’. We could get to midway through term and they would still be hanging on to the dorm coat hooks while someone wrenched their pyjama bottoms down. Annoyance rather than pity usually prompted someone to eventually say, “For fuck’s sake, let him get round. We need some sleep,” and the dorm would begin to settle although there could be other alarums like dorm raids when another group would rush silently along the cold corridors burst in on their rivals and batter them with pillows and steal trophies like wash bags. Victims of the defeated dorm would have to beg for their possessions back the next day.
Darkness pooled and weighed on us, gradually silencing even the most rambunctious ones. I’d press my Timex to my ear and listen to its faint tinging and imagined my life slipping away. 11 pm: moans, furtive movements, a call of, “Madge! Stop whatever you are doing!” We were once roused one full moon midnight by a terrible clang when a troubled boy suddenly rammed his head through the rungs of his iron bedstead (the school handyman had to release him). Usually, the dorm would eventually subside, there’d be whimpers, sighs, far- off laughter from senior studies, subsiding to sleep, dreams of escape.
It had always been a roaring school. R.D. Blackmore’s John Ridd learned at Blundell’s that: the principle business of good Christians is, beyond all controversy, to fight with one another. It is said that the original 16th century school was made from spars of the wrecked Spanish Armada, the detritus of war. The school hero was Parson Jack Russell, flogged during his time at school for putting a ferret in a cage of a monitor’s pet rabbits, I liked him for that although my favourite old Blundellian was Bamfylde Carew who fled the school in 1708 after terrible misdemeanours and became a dedicated ne’er-do-well titling himself ‘King of the Gypsies’ and known all around as a ‘rogue, vagabond and dog-stealer.’
The rise and fall of the turbulent Lowman set the school pulse both in the Old School when the pre-Victorian school used to pack up all activities on flood days and in an unconscious way the river still seemed to effect the mood of the modern school even in its new location further uphill at Horsdon on Blundell’s Road. Most days, I liked to wander out the back of N.C. and sneak off downslope to watch the changeful Lowman. I’d smoke minty Consulates usually sitting on a willow branch by the bank, sometimes I’d fish its low pools for brown trout at other times rain on Exmoor would make it come ‘foaming down like a great roan horse’ as described in ‘Lorna Doone.’ I remember seeing a farmer weeping after the river had gone through his chicken house leaving his hens stuck to the wooden walls like white feathered patties.
We scrapped, brawled and mock-wrestled throughout this supposedly progressive period of the 1960s. Even good friends tried to trip each other up unexpectedly or dealt out ‘dead legs’ by kneeing in the thigh or giving numbing ‘noogies’ where you punched your victim’s pressure points with pointed knuckles. We were keen on knife-throwing games with bare feet on Milestones pitch. You had to place your naked foot wherever the knife stuck in the ground. The art of the game was to get your opponent to stretch his legs out further and further until he toppled over. Occasionally, the knife hit flesh then it was off to matron for some swabbing with permanganate. We’d also ride out in packs on our drop-handle bikes up Tidcombe Lane or cross-country, jinking and weaving, often trying to unseat each other. Our swift silent approach and sudden bell-ringing on country lanes made the occasional local jump with alarm,
“You blasted buggers!” would be yelled in our wake.
My memories of the place carry a rusty tinge. The rows of rufous jackets bent over their school work as I daydreamed out the classroom window. Thick red mud dropped from our boot studs onto the changing room floors after rugby, four boys to a bath wallowing in chestnut water, sanguinary snot trails from the bigger boy I hit in the face with a bike chain wrapped around my fist after he’d made the mistake of trying to bully me, not realising I was a veteran of years of tough Rhodesian schools.
We also fought with outsiders. I was riding down Post Hill on my bike when a missile shot from a departing bus containing the sports team from another school. The projectile was an apple given extra velocity by our combined speed, it hit my head with the seeming force of a cannonball, unseating me and necessitating a trip to Exeter Hospital. Our rivals’ bus gave out a great cheer as I tumbled off. We gave as good as we got though and tried to do the same to them. Fighting with the Tiverton local lads brought the additional rancour of a class war. There was the so-called ‘neutral mile’ of Blundell’s Road leading into town however after you had passed the stranded G.W.R. steam locomotive that used to be mounted at the road junction with Fore Street, you were in their territory. After that, it was wise to go about in groups. In the annual parade from Old School to St. Peter’s a great column of us in boaters marched into town while an escort of the local lads made jeering sounds and wanking gestures and we gave covert V signs back. Paradise Woods, the old mill leats there and the grounds of Gornhay was our front line with them. We had many a stick fight there with the denim-jacketed Tivvy boys come trying to swing on our tree ropes.
Paradise Woods, 1969: a rooty, dangerous yet alluring place. That shrouded car belonged to the Rev. Noble and was parked at the back of the fives courts.
I think the fighting ebbed as we got older or maybe no-one fancied tangling with me in particular. Especially after word of my knuckleduster got round. I also managed to break a boy’s arm in a scuffle outside the dining hall in my second year. He was from School House. To his credit, he didn’t squeal on me and it was a great satisfaction to see his plaster cast glimmering in the opposite rows of chapel each morning for the whole of one term.
Sergeant-Major Cyril Munday, late of the Army Physical Training Corps, once stopped me scrapping with a boy and ushered us to the gym and made us put on boxing gloves. My opponent boxed far better than me and swiftly pounded my face to slathering jelly. I could barely see out from watering eyes and stalactites of slime swayed down from my nostrils. Munday got us to shake hands afterwards but I waited and grew my wrath. In time, I caught my opponent off-guard when we were returning from games and ground his head with my studded rugby boots until he squealed, “Pax!” Africa had taught me that when it came to fighting only idiots respected the rules. They gave me the nickname ‘Herman’, after the Herman Munster character in a TV show of the time called The Adams Family. Not a bad moniker. I think I got it because I was a tall ugly kid with jut ears, brush hair and a high forehead. I also shared some of the comic menace of the TV character and I was prone to lurching into combat while uttering a Munsterish growl. In a fight, I wouldn’t let go and I made sure I kept on punching whatever was done to me in return. A hardened indifference settled in, as long as no one messed with me then I looked on calmly as new boys were dragged past me to be ‘bogged’ (head thrust down the lavatory pan) or when ticks were thrown into the Lowman although ‘the little boys, falling on their naked knees, blubber(ed) upward piteously,’ as R.D. Blackmore described Blundellians also so doing more than a hundred years earlier. Some say N.C. was a tough house and not typical of the school. I don’t know. At the time, I realised that Vietnam and the Rhodesian bush war was consuming thousands of young men like me and I was preparing for things to get a whole lot worse.
“Madocks! You spastic piece of turd, you freak-faced nit, you un-ressurected shag spot, you scrophulous insect!” That’s how the monitors and fag-masters were wont to address me. I wasn’t too bothered as they treated everyone like that. There was one in particular though who remains an enemy to this day. A languidly malevolent 6th former and house monitor, who tormented me through two whole years. I won’t bore you with the seemingly endless tortures he tried to inflict on me. He decided to get personal on me and all I can say is he’ll be sorry if I ever run into him. There was a time in the ’70s when I used to flick through the OB register trying to find his home address, luckily for him he did not appear there.
Whacking, whether from monitors’ plimsolls or masters’ canes, made little difference to me. I was already used to so many tannings by the sinewy arms of Rhodesian school masters, unlike the feeble English, those Rhodesians would beat so hard that your backside would often be welded to your underwear with a blooded crust. I still carry a scar on my lower back from a misaimed cane. Corporal punishment at Blundell’s was on the way out and had virtually vanished by 1970 although our own cruel habits did not change. At Blundell’s, I developed a masochistic party trick of burning my initials onto my forearm using sunlight focussed by a magnifying glass, perhaps I was signalling I couldn’t be hurt by conventional means. I was sadistic to my own kind and to enemies certainly although I didn’t have much taste for bullying. Mainly, I disliked the crowded nature of our school life. Africa respected loneness. I’d spent my childhood and pre-teens roaming the wild bush. I was solitary by nature. I never really got used to the milling close quarters of school life: the communal showers and baths, the doorless lavatories (prevention of vice, I think doors finally appeared before the ’60s had ended)), the peeing sessions in the urinals when boys vied with each other as to how high they could get their stream and the termly school medical parade in the gym where we stood naked in a mass to be examined by the school medical officer. As the Blundell’s years rolled, emotional isolation and a growing resentment began to harden my character and a surly mutinous dissonance began to manifest. I kept playing the first 45 record I ever bought: The Who’s ‘My Generation’ —a stuttering call to arms. I loved its bolshie rebarbative stance.
1969, smoking by the Lowman, my ringed finger circling a Consulate.
Dylan sang about how your sons and your daughters were beyond your command and the old road rapidly changing. We were not very picky in our radicalism. Tony Cherry and I flirted with the N.F. for a while and I painted swastikas on my tuck box then later we wrote to the Chinese embassy and got a parcel of Little Red Books and Chairman Mao lapel buttons. Scruffy, madly rebellious, I dug in for a long war against almost all institutions apart from the military whom I continued to revere. Those oppositional times, fed my native insurgency. In 1968, I had failed most of my ‘O’ levels except for English and History. During Geography ‘O’ Level, I wrote a jocular letter to the examiner instead of answering the exam questions. Malcom Moss (later to become a Conservative M.P.) told me that the examiner thoroughly enjoyed my piece but failed me anyway. I also failed French although I went to the library most days to read Paris Match back numbers and I had been inspired by my paperback copy of Phillipe Labro’s ‘Les Barricades de Mai’, an account of the 1968 Paris insurrection. I liked to write Situationist tags in my journals of the time, punchy slogans like: ‘ni dieu ni maitre’ or ‘soyons cruels’. My extreme politics was wrapped around a conventionally morose adolescent romanticism and I liked to listen to Janis Joplin sobbing and wailing about losing another piece of her heart while watching rain carried on the westerlies from Exmoor cloaking the Lowman valley from my junior study window.
Page from my school scrapbook 1969, that brick thrower c’etait moi
The thunder of desk lids at the start of class seemed to get louder as the turbulent ’60s progressed. Once, in a chemistry lesson, the master made a mistake and a retort spat caustic soda into his face. He reeled back with a scream and most of the class laughed and made no effort to help him as the blinded beak fumbled to get out the classroom door. Clearly, the generational conflict in wider society was already manifesting in the school. The school prided itself on contributing to meteorological reports using data from their weather station which was placed within range of NC study windows. I sniped the hell out of the anemometer and the white wooden casing holding the barometric instruments using a scoped .22 BSA air rifle. There were many attempts to find the phantom sniper but I was never caught though Mr Park did find the rifle in the end. There were other revolutionaries like the unknown hero who climbed the façade of the Big School and placed a jock strap around Peter Blundell’s neck, and the Westlake boys who sugared their house master’s car and Tony Cherry who teamed up with me to bomb the NC monitors. My war against the school remained essentially a lone one though and I gradually became more extreme. I left a cruel note on Mr Chanter’s desk saying that it did not matter what he said because in a few years he’d be dead and we’d still be alive (that one makes me shudder to confess). I also noted at the time that the school seemed to depend on lists. Lists for punishments, sports activities, academic plaudits and all manner of other essential arrangements. These were posted on green baize noticeboards in the main school buildings near to the head master’s study. I used a bulb pipette filched from the science labs which I filled with inky water to covertly spray those lists from time to time. This caused chaos, and gave me immense satisfaction, for to my mind, the school culture as a whole was an attempt to repress me through its tyrannical processes as the Parisian Situationists would say, “la culture, c’est l’inversion de la vie.” The school never understand the ferocity of my revolt. They often tried punishing the rebellion out of me and at times trying to cajole me out of my mind-set. In 1970, D.J. Park writing in my termly report wrote mildly of me: “He should think more before rejecting that which is of good report.”
I think now that my fury sprung from some sort of adolescent depression egged on by the drum-beat of the zeitgeist. Logged with sullen rage and feeling as ugly as Caliban, there seemed no end to my appetite for trouble and I was definitely heading for expulsion. I managed to semi-deliberately shoot an arrow into a cow on Amory Field during archery practice and was interviewed by the transport police at Waterloo after I let off fireworks inside a carriage on the school train. I began to conceive of myself as a stunt man training myself by leaping from higher and higher branches of the giant cherry tree at the back of NC. I also enjoyed climbing out onto the window ledges of our dorm after secretly attaching myself to the cable fire escape apparatus. I’d wait for an innocent passer-by on Blundell’s Road then scream out that I was going to jump then leap out the window to the terror of the onlookers only to be sedately lowered by the ratchet system on the cable. Park gaited me for that crime and wrote to my long-suffering parents expressing concern. I ended up with a year’s ban on ever leaving school grounds and I had to report at hourly intervals during my free time. My sister has given me a letter I wrote to her during that period — a hectic scrawl on orange and pink paper:
8th November 1970. Dear Sis, More of the Rake’s Progress …if I don’t get out of here I’ll go insane or manic depressive or a latent suicide. I’m planning to put a detonator and 15 lbs of TNT under the headmaster’s seat in chapel and rocket him to glory. That’s your lot from your loving and supremely bored brother. love r. ps have bought a pair of groovy red velvet trousers. This letter seems to mark a high water mark of my active dissent. Something shifted in me quite suddenly in late 1970 and I turned from open mutineer to an apathetic non-contributor to school life. I stopped trying to fight the system and instead poured my energy into masses of secretly-written poems inspired by my reading of Yeats, Hopkins and Auden. I’ve found evidence of this retreat from external school life in a file of dismal school reports that my father kept in his files. Malcolm Moss wrote of me: “His general lethargy does not encourage one to predict success, second from bottom, he wastes his quite considerable abilities. In Geography and Current Affairs he makes virtually no contribution in class. What are his priorities? The future has a great question mark suspended over it.” Moss was a likeable master, youngish with a Northern accent, he sported side boards and wore modish Hush Puppies. I sensed his concern about me but I had retreated too far away to make a response.
Mr Connor also a pleasant teacher, unaligned with institutional orthodoxies, young, Byronically handsome, he liked to hang upside down from the classroom heating pipes, his gown hanging like bat’s wings while he called out to us to enumerate the chief reasons for the start of the Thirty Years War. He wrote about me: “I’ve been wondering if he will ever get round to doing some work. He has the best English style in the school yet he is bottom. Can’t he just do a little bit of work? With him, apathy has become a way of life, a considerable pity.” Even the Rev. John Stanton pleaded with me, though I despised him for it. He wrote to my father: “He needs to form a more mature judgement for things that matter most. Of course there is a good side to him but if he hides it then you cannot expect us to praise him. He has given a very convincing performance of one bent on academic suicide.” Shameful now to contemplate my careless self-destruction. Mr Patrick, an English teacher seemed to sum up the school view on me, telling me once, “You are a world class nut, Madocks. Everyone knows it.”
CCF 1970, a scene mirroring Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If’. Pic taken where the Colin Beale centre now stands. I’m on the far left preparing to shoot the ticks or maybe it’s the masters I’m after.
I came alive during any military activities and enjoyed wonderful nights out on night exercise wearing my Dad’s parachute regiment camo Denison jacket. On one night patrol, we were creeping along a road near Uplowman and arrived at a lover’s lane area. We crouched with our rifles next to a parked Ford Zephyr to see the frightened moon faces of a courting couple peering back at us from the steamed windows. It seemed a terrific adventure to drive out with Mr Wellesley at night in the rattling, jolting C.C.F. Landy visiting local Devon cadet units. I taught the young lads .303 SMLE rifle-stripping and naming of parts, finding a purpose and pleasure in that which I found nowhere else in the school years. By sixteen, my name was down for Welbeck Infantry School, an army career beckoned. It was the best place for a wayward son doing poorly at school. Dad was relieved. Lympstone Barracks, Royal Marines training base, cadet intake days, crawling through flooded water pipes on the assault course, muscles screaming with the weight of wet equipment combined with the dread of getting sucked under the black water, running along the seashore with pack and rifle, white caps out on the Exe estuary, gull spume behind the fishing boats butting a March gale. Firing the SLR, bap bap bap into targets of a screaming soldier, yellow flicker of the ejected casings spilling over our boots or letting rip with a tripod-mounted GPMG, shredding targets at 750 rounds per minute. The buttoned-up faces of the marines instructing us, their fierce bright eyes. I admired them tremendously, their precision, their commitment, the tight nap and rake of their green berets, the way their uniforms moved with their compact bodies. I wanted so much to be like them though barely a year later I was to throw it all away and take my name off the army lists. Obeying the call of the hippie revolution, I swerved into another way of being. Maybe it would have been better for me to be a soldier, then I’d have really got to know who I was. Meanwhile, in 1970s Rhodesia, my old school chums were doing it for real. I now think meanly of myself for not joining them, better to fight any cause than have no cause at all.
The flip side of toughness at school was a yawning terror. Even the hard nuts feared being mocked or ostracised and the worse fear was to be at the bottom of the pecking order. Boys with a stutter, limp or mild imperfection had a terrible time, some were so bullied and tormented that they simply vanished from the school without explanation. One lad hurled himself from NC windows only to land on a heap of cricket nets, another went to the nearby railway line and laid his head on the track hoping for extinction but no train came because Dr. Beeching had just made the line redundant. There was a boy called K who had epilepsy. As soon as the others had noticed his condition then they were on him like a pack of hyenas. Many was the time they upended his bed while he was still in it and jumped up and down on him chanting, “Fit! Fit! Have a fit!” Once, I found him pinned to the floor in the junior kitchen while someone heated a kettle. They said they were going to pour hot water over his head, of course he went into convulsions because of the stress of it before they had really set to on him. K deteriorated in front of us becoming staring-eyed and jumpy, his lips dried and puffed out because he was always licking at then in fear and his skin broke out in eczemaic patches. Shamefully, we kept clear of him lest his pariahhood infected us. He left after a couple of years of hell. The school seemed not to want us to grow or nurture our private selves, maybe that was why there were no mirrors anywhere and the doors were removed from the lavatories and the showers and baths were open and public. We fell back on clichés and age-old prejudices to explain each other. Anyone showing themselves as weak or inadequate were “spastic” or “spazz”. If you were careful with money you were casually denounced as a “Jew”. Oddly, in this maelstrom of baiting and tormenting, ‘gayness’ as such did not carry much opprobrium. There were a few boys who were out gay. If you carried it off with style and bravado and a clenched fist then you were accepted. Really pretty boys were vied for as fags. They seemed to enjoy flouncing around with their proud masters. Maybe we unconsciously accepted that we were all polymorphous perverse and our constant wrestling and scrapping was a pathway to our emergent sexual selves.
North Close house photo, Blundells School 1968, my friends and enemies
Not so much gilded, privileged youth but sons of hard working farmers, soldiers, businessmen, civil servants, middle class strivers mainly who went without to send their offspring to the school; also many of us had overseas parents The house photo like the one above was taken every summer. Before lining us up, Park would give us a lecture about us not pranking or messing about. You can see Banks, a grinning, dark-haired boy sitting cross-legged at the middle front. Tough, insouciant, born in Africa like me, Banks managed to defy Park’s wrath and make a V sign in the house photo of the following year. I am in the middle of the top rank, glaring out from under a strange sloping fringe. Neil Surety leans to my left, to my immediate right is Dave West, further to the right of him, my particular chums: John James, Chris Graham-Hogg and Tony Cherry. Jon Mills is sitting at the centre of the bottom row next to Banks and two to the right of him is my friend, Derek Thomas, who now lives in South Africa. Also cross-legged in the right-hand corner is the endearingly eccentric Dave Falconer who would complete my science projects for me for the price of a walnut whip.
My enemy, the monitor, is there next to David Park, our housemaster, who is seated centre with his wife, Jennifer, to his left. We called Mr Park — ‘Beep’ echoing his staccato speaking style. An intense, stressed man, somewhat of a martinet, his hands constantly tapping and fiddling nervously. He was usually clad in a dark green hairy tweed jacket. Most at ease in his class room among cased boxes of instruments and an immense wall chart of the Periodic Table, he made us laugh in physics telling us about James Joule measuring the temperatures of Swiss waterfalls on his honeymoon. Mr Park was driven by a rigid sense of duty that encrusted a defensive shell around an essentially kind man. He told me once, “You’ll probably be a decent human being once you leave this school.” I saw him as naturally shy as was his wife. It must have been so excruciating to have to sit with us throughout all those endless meals. He hated to beat us and overcompensated for his essential mildness by constant vigilance. He seemed to hardly sleep and was always creeping about NC with a torch in the night. He told me he studied at Giggleswick Grammar and liked to walk the Yorkshire Moors. He was keen on outward- bound activities and led groups of walkers on Dartmoor. He knew that I received monthly climbing magazines and climbed in the Lake District and Wales during the holidays and he often invited me to join him on his expeditions but I mulishly declined all taint of group school activities. I would not sip from a common cup, preferring to go alone to wild places. He wrote on one report about me: “A tendency to opt out of society is a dangerous one to follow.”
Derrick Denner is seated to the left of the monitor in the full colour striped jacket. He was our house tutor, a really wonderful teacher and a cultured, sensitive, urbane man. He recognised my innate ability even as I kamikazed my way through school. In my last year, he asked me to baby-sit for him one evening at his house. It was a surprising thing to do since this was at a time when I was a freakish, distrusted creature on the edge of rustication. Mr Denner and his wife left me in their house to go out for the evening and told me their children were asleep in bed. I wandered their home looking in wonderment at all the books and records then his eldest daughter appeared followed by the other kids, they ranged in age from about 11 downwards and they all seemed charming and clever. They talked with me for hours asking me if was happy and what would I do when I left school. I sat in their bedroom and read them a story – of course I chose ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It was a blesséd interlude. I talked to them honestly of my hopes and fears during a horrible time at school. I felt at peace spending time with the Denner kids and I was comforted that they were not afraid of me. They all rolled into bed when their parents returned, fingers to lips to sign mutual silence. I never spoke to them again. I felt so thankful to them, it was one of the happiest evenings of my school career.
A meteorite used to reside in a cabinet in Mr Moss’s classroom that overlooked the War Cross. The space rock was a round shot that had been fired from some unknown tract of the universe, I liked to run my fingers over its bronzed pitted surface imagining its fierce journeyings and unknown purposes. Maybe the projectile reminded me of my own odd persona. I’m curious now to contemplate my strangely fearless teenage monomania that kept me going in the face of near universal adult disapproval. Maybe it was all good training to be a writer for the true artist is a lonely fanatic. I wrote down a quote from Einstein in my school journal, ‘Only in the extreme of every case is the general law found’. I think the words meant that it took only the most challenging conditions to reveal the essential secrets of life. I’ve never again found the source of the quote so maybe I invented it at the time. To think of all those marvellous school activities and learning opportunities, Mr Park’s expeditions, and those clubs: debating, history, music, literary, sailing and shooting that I turned my back on, preferring instead to squat like a dragon over the abyss of my lonesome experience.
There were compensations, music for example. I often risked being late for class while I stopped on the chapel steps, listening entranced to Mr Suddrick playing Widor. I also armed my mind by reading tremendously. Malcolm Moss once caught me covertly reading during class. He snatched up the book, “What’s entertaining you, Madocks? Trash mag is it?” He said. He then saw I was reading a Penguin edition of ‘The Poems of Wang Wei’. Moss returned the book with a look of puzzlement, “My God! What are we going to do with you?” He said with a shake of his head. Two films were screened in Big School every weekend sparking a lifetime enjoyment of cinema. The natural world also compensated for the claustrophobic scrimmaging of school life. Memories still come to me, a family of hedgehogs that came squeaking past my nose as I hid from Mr Park’s torch beam on Milestones pitch, the times I went nymphing on the Exe, trying to tempt the salmon that lay like black logs in the shadows of the weirs or crouching on the flat roof over NC bogs following the orange flickers of winter Leonids in the night sky.
I read Robert Lowell poems a lot in my late teens —a rich diet for a starveling adolescent mind. Lowell wrote of : “The great / subjects, death and friendship, love and hate.” I tended to reject groups of boys but bound myself tightly to a few in particular. My first close friend at Blundell’s was Anthony Cherry, slight, cherubic-looking but with a character of steel. He was utterly fearless and we shared a common interest in militaria, Sven Hassel books, weapons, Nazis, executions and torture and indeed anything outré and considered by others to be beyond the pale. Tony could be extreme. He produced a set of walkie talkies by which we communicated secretly, reporting on monitors and others on our hit list. We hatched terrible revenges on our enemies and cultivated wild and dangerous ideas. He egged me on to get a spike bayonet to fit onto a C.C.F. rifle so we could jab our foes during cadet exercises. I located a suitable weapon in Exchange & Mart magazine and duly ordered it. Park identified the resulting parcel as suspicious and stood over me as I slowly unwrapped it. More punishments ensued but had the effect of only reinforcing our fanaticism. We also tried to smuggle bits of a Bren gun out from the C.C.F. armoury and attempted to reactivate dummy .303 rounds. He once showed me a list of the sadistic tortures he was going to inflict on one of our enemies. I searched his face for a sign that he was joking but his choir boy features betrayed no sense of irony in fact I don’t think that Tony had any real concern for conventional morality. He looked unthreatening with his slight build and his neat childish features but his eyes shone coldly like green diamonds and few bullies actually stood a chance against him. One afternoon, we cycled up Post Hill and fished the stretch of canal by Halberton. We caught a hefty pike and I struggled to control it as it flapped wildly about. Tony nudged me aside and swiftly snapped its neck without a flicker of undue fuss. I was sure he’d have done the same to any human who bothered him. Something shifted eventually. Maybe I became tired of his intensities. I started being friendly with other boys. I remember noticing him waiting for me, hunched in a duffel, by the edge of Paradise Woods. I passed on by with my new set of chums and felt sick with betrayal. He shrugged his shoulders and seemed unconcerned. I should have thanked him for the gift of his friendship when few others would offer it but we never spoke again. He left school suddenly shortly after in 1969. There was a whisper that he’d been caught in a great crime against the school but we never found out what terrible thing he had actually done.
Buddies: Chris Graham-Hogg and me 1971.
It took a few years to grow strong roots of friendship with Chris Graham-Hogg then we became inseparable. In my early days at school, I was confined to isolation for weeks in the San with a chest infection. I thought I had been forgotten by the world until I heard a tapping on the window. It was Chris illicitly climbing a drainpipe to come and see me. He was thoughtful like that. Chris had a warm and sunny personality. He was actually a model schoolboy when I first met him. In such contrast to my school career, he excelled at sports and won prizes and house colours. His father had also been a well-known Blundellian before him. Chris told me he had once won first prize as a kid in Singapore where he had come on stage at a musical contest dressed as a grasshopper singing the Burl Ives hit, “The Ugly Bug Ball”. He had a theatrical bent like his father and swept us along with his infectious good humour, often coming back at the start of each term with a spray of freckles on his arms and shoulders from visiting exotic places with his globe-trotting family, his slanting oriental-seeming eyes crinkling with amusement as he recounted tales of his adventures with the local girls. Chris always seemed so unafraid and undaunted at whatever challenges life kicked up. He managed to get punched in the face at rugby and nearly bit off the end of his tongue but it did not trouble him at all and he amused us by exhibiting his wound and waggling the blackened stitched gristle for our entertainment. Indeed, nothing much seemed to daunt his good spirits and he was certainly not frightened by my extremes. A strange alchemy drew us together, I was his ‘ugly bug’ and in many ways we were opposites but we dreamed together of the freedom we would enjoy once we had said goodbye to school. Gradually, over time, my ingrained anarchism and hostility to institutions began to rub off on Chris. He slacked in class and began to miss games. Some began to mutter that I was a bad influence since I could always claw something out the bag in exams but Chris needed to study to get results
Holidays and half-terms were often spent at Chris’ parents place called Kandy Lodge at Hampton-On-Thames. Their home was named after his father’s birthplace. Denis Graham- Hogg worked for Shell. A remarkable man, he’d been at Blundell’s in NC from 1934 to 1937. He was the youngest of 3 brothers from a family of tea planters in Ceylon. Denis was the only one of his brothers to survive the war. He was a polo player, fisherman and a crack shot. A Squadron Leader in the RAF, he took part in the 1941 epic 16th July 1941 low-level raid on Rotterdam docks and was shot down two days later in a Blenheim bomber while strafing enemy shipping. He pressed home his attack through a hail of fire from flak ships then rode his crippled aircraft into the channel off Ostend. He told me he placed his boots on the instrument panel when they smashed into the water so he could exit more easily. He tried to save his crew but lost one in the welter of sea water pouring in through the flak holes but calmly helped the other survivor into a dingy. He was captured and sent to Stalag Luft 111, the P.O.W camp for aircrew. I remember meeting him at a steak house in Leicester Square and while we were talking he pulled a piece of old aircraft cockpit glass out of his face. His work for Shell took him to Thailand, Greece and Malaya, he had the same hooded eyes as his son, he was often steely and reserved his judgement but at other times he was good fun bringing us brimming G&Ts as soon as we arrived. He treated us as adults but didn’t suffer fools and I could tell he was always scrutinising us for signs of weakness of character. I had already formed the view that conventional families tended to be pathogenic and repressive yet Chris’ parents overturned all that. My own family were cool and reserved and it was a pleasant shock to be woken in the mornings by Gillian Graham-Hogg who would give me a hug and ask, “How are you, darling?” I fell in love with the whole family and was swept along by their joi de vivre. If they worried about their son’s friendship with me, they didn’t show it, though in private there may have been unease that their golden boy had fallen into bad company.
That last year of school, Chris and I would bunk off school and cycle to the Exe towards Bolham and Broadclyst. When we tired of fly fishing, we’d go swimming in the river, letting the current take us for miles. We had a fantasy of swimming all the way to the sea that summer. It was the last time I ever played cricket; I can still see the red ball spinning for ever in the air, rising to meet my bat. Swifts kept scything and screaming round the library buildings interrupting our exam revision, not that I did much of that. I preferred to hang out in the booths of Clapp’s Café on Gold Street, where the giant silvery Gaggia breathed out steamy shots of espresso and the juke box kept playing the hit of that year, Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’. Chris had inked the word ‘WHY?’ on the back of his RAF greatcoat. I think it was his comment on the Vietnam War. It drove people wild. They often barracked us in the streets and youths yelled, “Why effing not you cunt.” Such was the trouble it caused us, I begged him to remove it but he never would. On our last half term, Chris and I went to Guildford where he had a girlfriend and she brought along one of her friends as a double date. We saw John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers at the Civic Hall and afterwards we walked in Stoke Park. My girl was called Sarah, a gamine lass with a spiky fringe, very forgiving of my awkwardness. Chris disappeared into the trees with his date and I plucked up the courage to say to Sarah, “Can I kiss you?” From somewhere in the bushes I heard Chris and his girlfriend choking with supressed laughter. Waiting at Waterloo for the train back to Tiverton Junction, we spent 2 and 6d in a Voice-o-Graph booth where you could make your own sixty second 45 r.p.m. record. Elated by our Guildford adventures, we crammed into the booth and spontaneously sang our favourite song, “When I die and they lay me to rest you’re gonna go to the place that’s the best. Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky…” The little metal disc clattered out that captured our voices, our urge to live, our joy in life, a moment of true gnosis when our bodies and our spirits were in absolute accord. I think Chris kept the 45 as a memento of our friendship. I realise now he was the first to teach me the great truth that “to be lovable one must be loved.” We were set to be friends for life.
Chris Graham-Hogg watching the Russell 1969, the white figures in the distance are runners heading for Cowpat Farm.
The end of our last term neared, we all attended the ‘sex talk’ delivered by the school doctor. He scrutinised our expectant faces then tapped the bowl of his pipe against a desk and said briskly, “I have only three things to tell you boys: cut your toe nails straight and your fingernails rounded and don’t go with dirty women.” Armed with this pithy advice, a group of us 6th Formers attended a disco at St Audrie’s School, West Quantoxhead on the last weekend of term. I think it was the first ever Blundell’s school dance with a girls’ school. They had set it up with whirling lights under what looked like camouflage netting. A few teachers were supposed to supervise us but they soon disappeared. A girl came up to me and told me she was going to look after me for the night. I didn’t argue. Her name was Nikki B. She led me by the hand in the moonlight through the school grounds and I had the feeling then after all the travails of my teen years that everything was going to turn out OK. The shirt I wore that night was impregnated by Nikki’s spicy scent, I kept it under my uniform the whole of that last week of school.
At Blundell’s Fête that year, I had been asked to help with the launch of a hot air balloon on Big Field. I was issued with thick gloves and told to hang on to stabilise it as it went up. I clung to the rope for too long and shot skyward along with the ascending balloon while the pilot screamed at me to let go. Everything roared in my ears and the ground became a rapidly departing green blur. Fortunately, a stiff breeze was blowing that moved the craft sideways. We swayed over Old House gardens and I released my panicked grip and landed unhurt in a compost heap and the balloon rocketed upwards. It seemed somehow that the savage surge lifting me up and away was a portent of what would actually happen when we finally left school and I wondered what life had in store for us.
Winter, 1970, Chris Graham-Hogg in his RAF greatcoat hockey stick in hand he greets the morning sunrise over Milestones.
We useless, untidy, ne’er-do-wells, the ones not getting prizes, were grouped together on the last day of term and told we had a job to do. I think it was the school’s way of keeping us out of trouble one last time. We were confronted by an old Bedford army surplus lorry parked on Big Field where they were making preparations for the formal ceremonies. Around the lorry were stacked intimidating heaps of canvas, rope coils and a pile of 20 lb sledge hammers and metal anchoring stakes. A huge man stood above us; he was tanned a teak colour and tattoos writhed up his thick arms. He shifted his weightlifter’s belt, studded with British Army cap badges and regarded us with shrewd eyes in a slab face.
“I don’t know what you young lords have learned at this ‘ere school of yorn,” he growled, “But I’m going to learn yer how to put up a marquee proper that at least you’ll know how to do something right …”
Strangely unafraid and looking to the future, the year I left Blundells.
Time courses over and through us and there are so many versions and explanations of the self. Sometimes, I see the past as being a succession of moments, instants of light. I never went back to the school since the day my Dad drove me away in July, 1971. Not in an official sense anyway. Chris and I hitchhiked together to the Weeley pop festival near Clacton in Essex in the August of that year. A big event, it was our version of Woodstock. We joined one hundred thousand other hippies and for a moment we were living the life we’d dreamed about for so long. Then I took acid during the King Crimson gig, went haywire, lost Chris in the crowd and ended up in the Jesus Tent where a wild-haired man convinced me I was going to hell unless I joined them. It took me five days to reassemble my wits and escape from them. We met up again that autumn and went to a party in Torquay, staying at the Tivvie motel on the way down. We wore poshteens and red waistcoats, a hippy style already dying. We drove slowly past the school in silence, lost in our thoughts. A year later, while I was at university, I hitched down to Tiverton on my own, an impulse journey, I wanted to check my bearings. I arrived in night drizzle and walked up to the school. Everything looked small in the shadows. There was a thrumming on Blundell’s Road and there was the ever-alert Mr Park’s blue Morris Minor Estate. He stopped 50 yards away and seemed to be watching me. Did he recognise me with my long hair and wrapped like a monk in a Moroccan djellaba? I like to think so. I raised my arm in salute to him and he dipped his lights in return.
Time tracked and I lost my links to the school. I completed university; Chris had helped me with my UCCA entry form. I was too apathetic to do it myself but he failed his own exams. He seemed to drift after leaving school and ended up working for his Dad’s firm, Shell, for a while. I kept up a correspondence with Nikki but our paths diverged. Bits of school news reached me through the OB magazine. I heard NC burned down in 1980. In the next decade, I rode with a girlfriend on a motorbike tour of the West Country and stopped the Triumph Trident at the school. I was pointing out things to my companion when someone came out of Milestones and said, “What do you want? This is private property.” I’ve been by Tiverton a few times since then. I struggle to orient myself there nowadays, the immemorial deep lanes and pastures that seemed set to last forever when I was a teen now carved to bits by new roads, estates and business parks.
There was this dangerous game at NC. We’d take deep breaths then a strong lad would seize you from behind, cross his arms over your chest and lift and squeeze mightily at the same time. This would usually result in a swirling faint. We’d collapse then get up again to cheers and laughter from the onlookers. We did it once to K who had epilepsy and he fell into a comatose state and couldn’t be wakened for ages. We all got punished for that. I used to think of those little deaths and resurrections we inflicted on each other when the early obits began to arrive. It didn’t take long for news of the first car crashes and farm accidents to whittle away our friends. Only this time there would be no laughing return to life. We should have anticipated it. After all, our young rock heroes, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, were gone before we had left school. I’d even been allowed to do a house prayer memorial for Jimi. Many simply vanished and I knew nothing of them for good or ill. The ones I got to hear about: Charlie Kent, Ian Newton-Jones, Tony Cherry (rumour was he joined the army then someone told me they had seen an obit notice for him), John James also, one guy got killed by a tree falling on him in the great 1986 storm, another flew a light plane into Cartagena harbour in Colombia; Nick Mutungi, the only black boy in school, died on a Canadian glacier. I only have old newspaper clippings and hearsay to go on. I didn’t go to any of their funerals and I hope I’ve got it wrong and they really are still somewhere out there.
Then there was Chris, my address books are full of crossed-out entries for him: Esher, Muscat, Norwich, London, Algiers. He got arrested at the 1974 Red Lion Square demonstrations and I met him after he was bailed out. He seemed a bit lost, not as vivid and jolly. I left shortly after that for a job teaching and researching at the University of Houston. Texas. Before flying out from Heathrow, I went with a girlfriend to Wimpole Street in central London to say farewell. He’d set himself up in a ridiculously up-market address and he looked as if he was trying to reinvent himself. He had gone for a young fogey look with a Harris jacket and yellow cravat. He gave us a mock blessing standing in the doorway as we left. We wrote regularly while I was in the States and during that period he suddenly changed course and went to Algiers to teach English, living in a one bed flat near the Boulevard Mohammed IV. His letters carried a flat tone. He didn’t much like Algeria. He described how upset he was about news that our old English teacher, Mr Patrick, had died of a heart attack while playing squash. I think he also told me that something bad had happened to John James on his Norfolk farm. I returned to England in February, 1975 and soon after my mother showed me an announcement in the Daily Telegraph that Chris had died. I rang his mother but she was too incoherent with grief to explain anything. Weeks passed and I finally got to speak to Denis Graham-Hogg. He told me that Chris had been drinking at night, had returned to his flat, boiled water on a gas stove and fallen asleep. The water had overflowed and put the flame out, gas had seeped all night, killing Chris in his bed. Denis further made me swear faithfully never ever to get in touch again. The loss went “through me like a spear” and everything was made worse by the terrible promise I had to give to his Dad. No funeral, no memorials, no explanation of what had really happened. I suppose now it will never be known. I lost Chris’ last gloomy letters in the confusion of leaving the States. I really don’t think it was a suicide. I think he simply became careless about himself, some of his usual drive and purpose had left him and a stupid accident claimed him. In the years that followed, few days passed when I didn’t think of him, his loss running out through my life. I had that abiding sense in the following rackety years that I had to live for the both of us.
What was it? The usual erosion of human lives that is well-known to actuarial science or perhaps we were particularly accident-prone, our generation wanting to live too directly and taking too many risks? I read a newspaper article about a Cornish farmer called Sloman who drove his Land Rover by accident down a 200 foot hill. The thing bounced end-over-end and went through a cottage at the bottom. Sloman survived unscathed. I saw his picture, yes, it was the same tousle-haired schoolboy, Sloman, I used to know at Blundell’s. So, at least some of us got away with it. I could easily have joined them. I was sleeping rough in Paris in the ’70s when I was attacked by un voyou. A savage fight ensued and I just managed to get the better of him, thanks to skills learned from Sergeant-Major Munday. In Texas, I insisted on walking everywhere and often had to run from dread-locked muggers. I survived two bad bike crashes and fell from a galloping horse, fracturing my spine. There were crushing losses in love that made me not want to go on and I got addicted to heroin in the ’90s and only just managed to wean myself off the stuff. I emerged through all that somehow, battered but still functioning. We really were a careless generation, busy smashing up the established order and smashing up ourselves. It reminds me of that film ‘Easy Rider’ we saw in 1969. We should have paid attention to the final scene and the one around the campfire when Peter Fonda says, “We blew it….”
The Lindsay Anderson film ‘If’ appears on TV from time to time. To the uninitiated, it seems a fantasy but I know it faithfully depicts our 1960s state of mind. My feelings still roil about whenever I see it and I often pass a sleepless night after watching it, thinking of Tony Cherry and I and the Bren gun, the thunder of desk lids and boys chanting, “Fit! Fit! Have a fit!”
The passing years settle over our secrets and mysteries until there comes a moment when those things lose their power and no longer matter. Chris’s enigmatic death still troubles me though. I used to kid him about how I thought his Dad worked for MI6: it was something about his sudden foreign trips and his hooded minatory gaze when you dared probe him too much on what his job actually entailed. Chris laughed it off but his own life seemed mysterious and somehow hidden like his Dad’s. For years, while I was at University, I used to receive strange letters. The letters and envelope addresses were made on some sort of office teletype machine. The typing was on thin strips of paper that were glued on. They comprised just my address then a short message usually of one sentence. I no longer have these missives and can only try and reconstruct them – they were usually gnomic and teasing and sometimes slightly scary like: We see but cannot ourselves be seen or Near or far, I follow your star. I was in no doubt that Chris had sent them, the address line always carried the same slight misspelling that I found on his ordinary letters to me. I tackled him about the mystery messages but he denied it and looked almost stricken when I tried to press it. What could he have meant by those communications? Was it a way of asking for help? Or, was he was letting me know he was caught up in something he could not control? I was approached by Intelligence recruiters while at University, they were interested in a Russian speaker with no family ties and an appetite for the unusual. I reluctantly turned them down but I wonder now if Chris got mixed up in something that was bigger and more lethal than he could have imagined or was he simply lonely and lost?
Sometime in the 1980s, in search of lost turnings on the road of life, I tracked down Nikki, last seen at the school dance in 1971. She was living in Canada and came to see me in England. We met one Saturday afternoon at my flat. She told me her school had closed down entirely. We were both overwhelmed during our brief meeting. She spoke of a horrible divorce and the accompanying heartache. We both spent that time weeping for our losses and never communicated again.
Denis Graham-Hogg took his name off the OB Register and left Kandy House. The family seemed to want to disappear. A military historian doing research on wartime R.A.F. squadrons operating out of Manston tried and failed to track him down and noted in his book, ‘Mast High Over Rotterdam’, that he imagined that: Somewhere in Sri Lanka, an immensely popular ex-Blenheim pilot is probably sipping the occasional gin and tonic in his tea plantation, and reminiscing about the hazardous yet incredibly lucky days of his youth. I noticed that Denis brought out a book on wood pigeon shooting in 1977. I scoured it for some clue to my missing friend. It’s a practical work with precise instructions and military-style diagrams on how to shoot the birds. It contains black and white photos of a fair-haired lad with a 12 bore. It could be Chris but isn’t. There are flickers of his dry humour in the text (“keep your eyes open for signs of vermin this includes poachers”), the whole book seems to reek of loss though but maybe that is because I read it with grief-haunted eyes. I’ve often wondered why he told me never to communicate again. For a while, I used to blame myself and think that Chris would never have become lost and alone in Algeria if it was not for my influence pushing him off the path of safety and a settled life and I thought that his father held the same opinion. I think now that Denis simply wanted to protect his wife from further upset that contact with me might stir up. Also, he’d probably learned to seal off loss after his brothers had been killed during the war and after he’d tried and failed to save his drowning observer in the shattered wreckage of his Blenheim cockpit when they were shot down into the sea. I used to worry about what sort of life the Graham-Hoggs led after Chris died. My gloomy perceptions were dispelled when, while writing this memoir, I plucked up the courage to finally disobey Denis and contact remaining members of the family. I managed to speak to his grandson who told me that the Graham-Hoggs retired to Cyprus and had happy times with family and grandchildren. Dennis died in 1997 and Gillian the following year. They were cremated and their ashes scattered at a family property at Hathersage, Derbyshire, a place where, by coincidence, I often walk. It was strangely comforting to know this.
How odd that the boy at the bottom of the school got a good degree within four years of leaving the place. A Fulbright grant followed and an assistant professorship at a Texas university, then studying Russian and a Ph.D. gained on Vladimir Nabokov’s work. I abandoned academe altogether in the early 1980s. I hated the claustrophobic, over-protected university world. Hard days followed, working as a furniture restorer and builder’s labourer, proving D.J. Park’s prediction nearly right. I felt cleansed by the toil though and went on to work as a jobbing gardener for six years then retrained in mental health, seeking truths of life in the more extreme human experiences. I went into the work out of curiosity and a wish to help people and held down a twenty year career in secure psychiatric units and teams specialising in forensic mental health. I enjoyed those institutions: the dust suspended in sunlight along echoing corridors, the sound of chinking keys and the permeating cabbage smell of dinner cooking somewhere. I felt at home there and only now I realise that at a deep level that they must have reminded me of school. I left salaried work early, sold my house to fund a new career as a writer. I’m no more satisfied with my writing than with anything else I’ve done. I usually abandon each published book and move on to the next, toiling to make each new text better than the previous one.
I still don’t belong to groups, movements or clubs, neither do I have much time for the conventional libertarian orthodoxies of the literary establishment. David Park told me once that rejecting the social is dangerous. Yes, it is but you find truth in schism. My essential nature favours the role of outcast and witness bearer. My inner space is still brutal, still contesting, still hostile to generalist notions of the truth. I feel I’m followed by “the pale perfect faces” of my lost companions. I walk on stolen ground I seem to live in liminal space like the empty house of Mrs. Ramsay in ‘To the Lighthouse’. My parents, my friends, my kin all gone, “Ich bin der Letzte”. Freed from the future my dead friends accompany me. I don’t have exaggerated notions about my worth. I carry futurity on their behalf and I possess a self-sustaining momentum, that’s about it.
There was a time when I was always trying to look behind the curtain, searching for Chris. I secretly messed with planchettes and ouija boards, read books on the survival after death like ‘Raymond: Or Life and Death’ by Oliver Lodge and went to spiritualist meetings in draughty halls. Odd happening occurred there despite my sceptical gaze. Once, a globe of light whizzed around the room having apparently emitted from a physical medium’s head and occasionally mediums singled me out with messages from the dead but I could recognise nothing in what they were saying and often I was filled with such a strange perturbation that I was simply unable to speak. One medium stood over me and shouted, “You! You! I have a line coming through to you.” Someone accompanying me on one such occasion told me, “Someone is trying to get through to you,” but I had no words to respond. Still, I yearned to hear from my dear friend yet he seemed to remain silent. He gradually attained a symbolic presence for me, the golden youth, too full of life to survive. As I grew older I began to write about his loss in my life then I realised that not even art brings immortality. Chris lives on in my dreams where he still sometimes comes to me with his rumpled schoolboy’s hair and began to speak as if on the verge of explaining everything but all I can sense is that he is telling me to “Live… live…”
My old school friends, I hope the love they felt in life is carried with them in death. I seem to see their pale figures running ahead of me, gone to seek out the way. Like Russell runners they have forded the turbulent Lowman and have achieved the far bank. My mates now in the Valley of Sheol. I want to write their names and thereby hold them. I think of them as waving to me from the other side. After setting down these words my land line suddenly rang and I heard a creaking hoarse voice on the answer machine, the unknown voice said, “I have a message for you …” then everything was lost in static.
March, 1969. Russell runners plunging across the Lowman
It cost my Dad £132 a term for me to go to Blundell’s. For that, I got to carry the school with me always. Blundell’s is in me and memories of my friends as they once were. I am history, I carry it pointing all ways, even now as I’m getting older and life is beginning to turn away from me. There was a time in my forties when I held leadership positions, hired and fired and took heavy decisions. I became then the man that my school masters would have wanted. I thank them now. I borrowed power from them. Maybe the school really did form my thinking. Aristotle says the mind is identical to the thing it knows. I can still find my way in the dark over every inch of the old school grounds. Though it is getting late in the season, I can also still turn my hand to most anything. School gave me much of that adaptability and resourcefulness. Mr Moss has ensured that I can decipher an O.S. map with ease and I am able to translate the Latin on memorials and monuments thanks to Mr. Japes and I feel deeply fond of the ‘Book of Common Prayer’, ‘The King James Bible’ and the Anglican hymns. All the English rituals in fact, those things my generation sneered at and tried to break up for firewood. We were the failures, the sub-average skulkers, the mutinous, the manqué, those not quite up to it. We threw away the larger narratives, the traditional vehicles and the healing rituals and instead embraced self-satisfaction as a goal and favoured the profane over the sacred. I shudder to contemplate the endless dérèglement of the ‘60s. I think now schools like Blundell’s should be preserved and want them to believe in themselves more. They must try not to please those who will hate them anyway. I want them to preserve their oddities, even the cruel traditions that make them essentially English.
I often watched the housemaster, Major Chris Reichwald, from my study window, stomping back from the fives courts with his bent leg across Milestones pitch, his massy jaw set and determined. He’d been severely wounded in Italy in World War Two and had won the M.C. What amazing things he could have told me yet, to my shame, I never spoke to him. There were many impressive men teaching at the school like David Park who must have found my hostility unfathomable yet he still stuck with me to the end, trying to see the good in me. I salute those men of a previous generation of whom we were so contemptuous with our crude understanding and our frightening simplicity.
CCF parade, 1970, me extreme left, my friend, John James, farmer’s son, between the two LCs in the front rank.
I agree with John Fowles that it is the writer’s duty is “to summon up the inscrutable and the uncanny”. I reject any pedestrian view of the past like that voiced by the speakers at the 1960’s Blundell’s Reunion OB dinner. I wish I could have read this piece out to them at the dinner that October evening. Ça fait rêver! I would have wanted to talk to them about John James in particular: a nobody, yet kind, wise, cautious, a bit of a tortoise, ruminative, accepting, steadfast, most sober of my friends. He shook his head at our antics but went the utmost to help out. He was really kind, “The first to go early away”. He never did much in exams but a sterling person. He shook my hand at the end of our last term together at school saying I was welcome at his farm anytime, so decent, so thoroughly English. I think of him often and want to rescue him from whatever bad happened to him. I keep on trawling back through lucent memories from the impenetrable past. I realise I came to the Reunion not to say ‘hello’ but to say ‘goodbye’ in a peaceful way. There seems to be no-one to write an elegy for those like John except me. I feel like Lily Briscoe in ‘To the Lighthouse’, trying to place the lost ones in my picture.
“Floating in the unfathomable dark alone.” That is also a phrase from ‘To the Lighthouse’. It captures how my thoughts and memories of Blundell’s lasted within me for years. Many of those memories seemed like a poison. Good writing is often a purgation, an expulsion of that which festers and blocks. I remain an outsider though I have entirely got rid of my old mind-set. I now hate the innate intolerance of the liberal consensus that was born of us baby-boomers and which now relies on largely rhetorical expressions of virtue. I recognise the school helped me form my fabula , my reinvention as a personality, the rebirth necessary for all writers. I want to seek out Mr. Park and say sorry for being so unnecessarily horrible. He told me, “One day you will be a decent human being when you leave this school.” I hope I’ve achieved that now and I’d like to affirm to him that I now hold to things that are “of good report”. I also want to say ‘thank you’ to Mr. Denner and his sweet daughters.
I’m going to have a backyard auto-da-fé, and burn my school reports, ancient OB magazines, my old school diaries, the full colour jacket and boater and my tuck box covered with Maoist and fascist slogans. I no longer need them now I’ve written this piece. I only want to keep a portable history that is ready to hand on to others. The one thing I wish I still had in my hand is that little metal disc that Chris and I made when we sang “Spirit in the Sky” on Waterloo Station.
I doubt if the school will last another 400 years. Mind you, I also doubt whether humanity in general can keep going that long. I don’t think the lives of the present day pupils are as raw and intense as ours were, we live in softer times nowadays. I think they should pay attention to their fellow pupils for you never know which of your companions will haunt you for the rest of your life. I hope also that some of the lads there still keep up some of the rough sort of games that R.D. Blackmore described and which we also practiced. The real world is still a gnarly old place and that sort of training comes in handy sooner or later. I don’t expect they’ll take any advice from me I am not the same as them not in any way. The young, they are on their own poor things.
2019, The Prodigal who remains despite everything, a Blundellian.
And so, this former troublesome, restive pupil would like finally to speak up for the school and say, “Blundellina floreat!” Yes, I also want to give true tongue to the past. I’m resolved on “being not idle with what remains of my time”. My words in the face of loss are live coals. I’m doing it in memory of all my pals and those strange times we lived through.
And for the rest? “Well, we must wait for the future to show” (To The Lighthouse).
Thanks to Rodney Hill, Dave West and Jon Mills for helping Mnemosyne along.
Authors indirectly quoted: P.3, Herman Melville. P.4, Charles Olson. Pps.8 +10, R.D. Blackmore. P.20, G.K.Chesterton.P.23, John Keats. Pps 24, 25 +27, Geoffrey Hill. P.25, Wilfred Owen. P.24, Primo Levi. P. 26, Sina Queyras. P.24, Lionel ‘Rusty’ Russell. P.27, R.M. Rilke.