From idiot to narcissist
My first real school was Cedarhurst Preparatory School in Solihull, Warwickshire. This was run by Mr H.B. Callaghan, whose favorite term for me was "blithering idiot". He once delivered an almighty smack to the side of my head, as punishment for dispo-
sing of most of my school lunch — a ladleful of lumps of gristle — under the dining-room table.
But that was not the first time I fell victim to Callaghan's foul temper. "Princess Elizabeth has just had a son," he had solemnly informed me at Job's Close — his junior school in Knowle, where I was still a pupil in late 1948. "How do you spell 'son'?"
"S-U-N?" I ventured timorously, before being almost blasted out of my seat by his roar of outrage. (Note the "firm jaw" and "don't-mess-with-me" look in the picture on the left.)
Of course, I was neither the first nor the last to endure what is now known as "traumatic learning" — the coupling of a piece of information with such a profoundly unpleasant experience that it is literally never forgotten. Circa 1950, this seems to have been standard practice in Britain.
While researching the history of Cedarhurst School, I found the following comment by Stephen Fox, dated May 28, 2012, at Friends Reunited: "Mr Callaghan once slapped me across the ear for not remembering how many pennies were in 2 shillings and sixpence! I got it right after that, but then everything went decimal!"
So as late as 1971, which was when the country abandoned pounds, shillings and pence, such punishments were still considered appropriate to the process of acquiring knowledge.
If you are looking for the anodyne history of Wennington School — or of Solihull School, for that matter — you have come to the wrong place. This is not a site where veils of silence are drawn over unpleasant matters, or where those in high positions are spared the critical appraisal that they so readily made of others. — Alan Ireland, New Zealand
Others have fonder memories of Callaghan, however. Former Cedarhurst pupil Michael Buerk, who went on to become a BBC reporter, remembers him as "an extraordinary character...a splendid old buffer who drove a Jaguar, had a wonderful handlebar moustache and wore orange suede 'brothel creeper' shoes". Perhaps the quality of the lunches had improved by the time Michael arrived at the school.
Or perhaps he had more experience than I of the "avuncular Callaghan", whom I encountered only once. We had met on the stairs at Cedarhurst, and I was about to pass him when he pinned me to the banister with one arm, saying gruffly, "I've got you now!" I responded to this forced friendliness with what I thought was an appropriate titter, being conscious only of the uncomfortable coarseness of his jacket.
My second school was Solihull School — the local public school, which I entered in 1950 after passing the Common Entrance examination. The headmaster was Harry Butler Hitchens, a former brigadier and friend of Field Marshal Lord Montgomery. He was also a closet homosexual, who committed suicide in 1963, at the age of 53, to avoid the shame of being "outed".
According to former pupil Bruce Hugman, Hitchens killed himself — with an overdose of drugs, I believe — "after what was rumoured to have been an act of gross indecency in a public toilet in Rugby". Hug-
man adds, though, that "the allegation is seriously uncorroborated". The placing of the incident in Rugby is, perhaps, an embellishment intended to introduce a note of irony to the story.
Needless to say, J.C. Loynton's A History of Solihull School, 1560-2010 sheds no light on this tragedy, and contains no information on Hitchens' friendship with Montgomery — another person of highly dubious sexual orientation, whose overwrought description of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 as a "charter for buggery" was, alas, a giveaway.
I still remember sitting in a stuffy classroom at Cedarhurst School, late in the summer term of 1950, and hearing the sound of the bugles from Solihull School, where Montgomery was inspecting the school's contingent of the Combined Cadet Force (1). According to The Shenstonian — the magazine of Solihull School — Field Marshal Lord Harding also attended one of the school's annual parades. The Queen, too, came once, and Hitchens was as pleased as Punch to be able to fly the Royal Standard from the flagpole on Big School. On that day, for an all-too-brief moment of glory, the school was "the centre of the empire".
Indeed, Hitchens' role seemed to be mainly ceremonial. Every morning, the click of a door handle at the rear of the assembly hall was a signal for the entire school — boys in the auditorium and staff on the stage — to stand. Hitchens, wearing mortarboard and academic gown, would then enter the hall, with the head boy beside him, and process down the central aisle to the stage. The head boy would take his position at the end of the front row of chairs, while Hitchens would climb the steps to the stage and make his announcements for the day from a central throne. These invariably began with the ominous words, "I wish to see in my study..."
It was at Solihull School that I started to take an interest in religion, initially by scissoring selected verses out of the New Testament to prove to my astonished classmates that God would not strike me dead for such willful desecration. The downside of this boyish bravado was having to restore my Bible to usable condition for divinity lessons, first with the Rev R.W. Hallett, who was school chaplain from 1951 to 1953, and later with his successor, the Rev C. H. Sellars. On one occasion, I had to read from my Bible while the chaplain stood at my shoulder and watched. I couldn't conceal one of my clumsy repair jobs, executed with Sellotape, and waited for God to wreak His vengeance via the hand of my teacher. But nothing was said, and I was able to finish my reading.
Hallett — who soon acquired the undeserved nickname of "Hallett the mallet" — had a geniality that proved disastrous. After he had introduced himself, he said he liked his classes to be informal.
One of the boys immediately asked, "May we eat in class, sir?"
It was a question that threw Hallett off balance. He visibly struggled to find an appropriate response, in view of what he had said about wanting us to feel relaxed. "Well, er, um, yes, I can't see any reason why you shouldn't have something to eat," he said at last.
If he didn't foresee the consequences of his words, he should have. From the next lesson, the readings from the Scriptures were accompanied by a constant, distracting rustle of paper bags, as boys browsed on biscuits and potato chips ("crisps" in British English). And within a matter of weeks, the hapless Hallett had completely lost control of the class. He would sit and read, apparently unperturbed, at his desk on the dais, only occasionally looking up to identify one of his worst tormentors and to write the boy's name on the blackboard — presumably so that the miscreant could be punished later.
As things turned out, the vengeance of God came in the form of Hallett's successor, the Rev Sellars, whom Loynton charitably describes as "ebullient". After Harry Hitchens, the headmaster, and Guy King-Reynolds, the second master from 1963, Sellars was probably the most feared teacher in the school. In one divinity lesson, outraged by a boy's hesitant recitation of the Lord's Prayer, he administered immediate corporal punishment. Then he started on the next falterer, and the next... To my relief, the buzzer sounded at that point, bringing the lesson to a close.
I was so frightened of Sellars, I feigned illness the next morning — so that I would miss the subsequent lesson in which he had vowed to continue his chastisement of the insufficiently devout. The school accepted the explanatory note I brought from my mother that afternoon, but none of my classmates did. They guessed the real reason for my absence.
Unfortunately, I saw the "flamboyant" King-Reynolds in full cry only once, when I happened to walk into the changing rooms off the old quadrangle. He was, I recall, one of those masters who liked nothing more than putting on his old army uniform and berating the cadets of the CCF, which was what he was doing on this occasion.
As a child, I found his "performance", in which every word was delivered with a sneer or a snarl, absolutely terrifying. But as an adult, I would, I suspect, find it hilarious. The man was either completely mad, or had a role as Richard III coming up and was "getting into character". In view of King-Reynolds' interest in drama, the latter is perhaps more likely.
Hallett went on to become vicar of St Oswald's in Birmingham, King-Reynolds to become headmaster of Dauntsey's School in Wiltshire (1969-1985).
My third and last school was Wennington School, which I entered in September 1953. When I arrived, I was informed that, to be accepted, I had to undergo an initiation rite that involved climbing out of the fourth-floor dormitory window, inching along the ledge below, and reentering the dormitory through the other window. To my relief, this "requirement" turned out to be a joke.
Although my schooldays were not entirely devoid of happy moments, I remember them as the most unpleasant part of my life. First, it was the fear of corporal punishment — which could be meted out for the most trivial offences — that made school so nightmarish. I found, however, that you could evade this. On the one occasion I was summoned to the prefects' common room at Solihull School, I simply made myself scarce. I surmised they caned so many small boys, they probably wouldn't miss one. And I was right: Nobody came looking for me.
Winter, which brought the compulsory concussion of the rugby scrum, was the worst time of year. Everything seemed to be designed to "toughen us up", presumably in preparation for the next world war. Hence the PE in no more than white shorts and plimsolls, even when the thermometer was below zero. In the changing rooms, I would stand as close as I could to the fat boy — to absorb some of his radiated heat.
The summer months, in contrast, were almost enjoyable. When we played cricket, I could usually contrive to have my name placed at the bottom of my team's batting list. With a bit of luck, I could then sit out much of the match — lounging under the trees and swigging the Forest of Arden fizzy drinks to which I was addicted.
Later, at Wennington School, it was the pretentiousness of "progressive education" that grated. I particularly disliked the pseudo-psychoanalysis to which one was constantly subjected. In Parkinson's Law, a contemporaneous work, C. Northcote Parkinson describes such inescapable scrutiny as "ordeal by house party":
"The candidates [for an advertised position] spend a pleasant weekend under expert observation. As one of them trips over the doormat and says 'Bother!' examiners lurking in the background whip out their notebooks and jot down, 'Poor physical co-ordination' and 'Lacks self-control.' There is no need to describe this method in detail, but its results are all about us and are obviously deplorable."
During my six years at Wennington, I was the subject of innumerable observations, both inside and outside the classroom, which were then used to support pronouncements about my personality (or lack thereof). These, in turn, were used to support a series of predictions about my future, which was, I was assured, going to be fraught with "difficulty". At every stage, the conclusions reached were ludicrous, being tailored to preconceived notions of my mental makeup. Thus, the whole exercise went round and round in circles, continually reinforcing itself.
This meant, in effect, that once you were "labeled", the label stuck — and could be used to put you in your place and/or to shut you up. So if you were "maladjusted" (2), you could expect to be reminded of that "fact" from time to time. No dissenter was allowed to assume that past misdeeds, at other institutions, had been forgotten. During one of his "midnight raids" on Pasteur dormitory, after we had failed to measure up in some respect, headmaster Kenneth Barnes acidly noted that we were all at the school "for some reason". In other words, we had all been naughty boys in our previous lives.
More recently, we find Pat Mitchell, of the Wennington School Association, resorting to the same intimidating tactic in response to my criticism of the association's acceptance of National Lottery funding. (See here.) "Perhaps there is something to hide?" she says, referring to my life before 1953. Well, no, there is nothing to hide. This website has been up, in one form or another, since 2006, and has discussed my upbringing, and the consequences of it, in some detail. And let's not forget: All that happened 60 years ago, and is totally irrelevant today.
We "Wenningtonians" are all old people now. It is silly to turn a debate of a serious issue — the probity of a source of funding — into the sort of ad hominem attack one might expect from a petulant teenager. In this instance, the questions of whether I was really unhappy at Wennington School and whether my "moral fervor" was engendered there or somewhere else have no bearing on the merits of my argument. I should also point out that if I were a truly fervid person I would, like Savonarola, be screaming righteousness from every available pulpit.
Readers who are still with me may wonder whether my experience of "progressive education", as practised at Wennington School, was in any way unique. I can assure them it wasn't. Since I created this site, I have received many messages of support and appreciation from those who suffered, far more than I, at the hands of Kenneth Barnes and a few of his associates (3).
One such appreciative message came from Vientiane:
Oh, it brought back memories. I was at the school from 1962-70. The dread of the school report, delivered by post in the middle of the holidays, came flooding back. My dad died earlier this year, and I found he had kept the complete set (8*3)! Reading through the dismissive arrogance of Barnes (and I am sorry to say some of the other teachers) I wonder why my parents persevered for so long. This was progressive education! Corduroy shorts (except when the weather was below zero), endless Sunday assemblies — made terrifying in the face of imminent nuclear Armageddon, pointless outdoor work punishment for trivial ‘offences’ (I did six straight Thursday afternoons of sawing down trees for being caught drinking cider), and so the list goes on. (You forgot the treat of hard-bake.) Everything rings true. But we survived, I guess . . .
Another came from the daughter of a former pupil:
I've just read your article on Wennington and wanted to let you know I thought it impressive. I found it while pootling around on Google after talking to my dad about his memories of attending the school (he left in 1950). He claims he had no friends the entire time he was there, and that he got the impression KCB "hated" him. My dad is the most damaged person I have ever met, fearful, bitter and emotionally dead; a terrified child. He lacks the self-awareness you display in your reminiscences so unfortunately isn't able to shed light on those dark days in the way you have in this piece. I've wondered if he suffers from Aspergers Syndrome because of his communicative and emotional difficulties. Reading your memories, I wonder how a sensitive and damaged child (he admits he had vile parents) possibly shouldering the burden of high-functioning autism would've coped in this environment. For an "inclusive" school, it seems that if you didn't fit, you REALLY didn't fit. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece.
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Yet another came from someone who was, I think, at the school after my time:
Looking for a more dissident forum on the vices of Wennington, which were always — to me — somewhat its virtues, I Googled until I was satisfied...as I often do! No — strike that from the record. | At last it can be told! How refreshing. Obviously everyone’s experience of attending Wennington was different, individual. But I was fed-up with the elimination of much that made Wennington so formative to so many people in the official sites, with their merest kow-tow to ‘coal-face’ experience which rather reflects Barnes’s own ambivalent, word-spinning attitudes. I know what they put me in mind of: An after-the-event prospectus for a school that’s been laundered to the point where I can't recognise the fabric anymore. Forgive the mixed-metaphor.
And finally, here's a comment, slightly edited, from someone who was at the school with me:
I was at Wennington School 1954 to 1963. I was interested by your comments about KCB — it’s rare to see him criticised by former pupils. The man was a self-publicising snob. I remember in one annual report he preened himself over the number of professional people sending their children. What the hell did he expect? A few months before I started at Wennington, I had been living in a terrace house in — with an outside lav. By the time I started, we were in the flat over a shop. My parents sacrificed all sorts to send me there and continued after I passed the 11+. In one school report he referred to my voice having the coarseness of somebody used to shouting over the clatter of a textile mill. Many of my family did work in textile mills, where lip-reading was the norm. I wonder how many of those professional people knew their daughters were being offered the chance to parade naked every morning in front of the great man.
The allegation that Barnes was "a self-publicising snob" reminded me of the day I first met him, during the summer holidays of 1953. Before he interviewed me, he proudly told my parents that his pupils now included the son and daughter of a French count — Eric and Christine de Quincy. Years later, I asked Eric whether he was, indeed, of "noble descent". "Yes," he said, but quickly added, "it doesn't mean anything now".
That interview, which I have described in The 'Maladjusted Child', was one of the three memorable occasions that saw us fumble through a conversation. The second occasion was in 1957, when he stopped me on the second-floor landing. "Are you still raiding the larders?" he asked suddenly.
I was taken aback, and thought I must have left some incriminating evidence in one of the small, dark rooms off the kitchens — as I had a few months earlier, when a hasty exit, via a manhole in the ceiling, had resulted in my leaving a screwdriver embedded in a block of dates. The next morning, the cook had found the illicit implement and taken it to Barnes.
In such circumstances, I thought honesty was the best policy. "Yes," I said. I had, indeed, continued my nocturnal "criminal activities".
As the organizer of end-of-term binges, which were held in the garden shed between 1am and 4am, I supplied such staples as butter and eggs from the school's stocks. Thanks to the munificence of Philip Chau, we could have bought them from the grocery shop in Wetherby — the source of the cider and biscuits we also consumed. But eggs are easily broken, and butter can make a mess of anything you carry it in. Taking these items from the larders, a day or two before a binge, was the simplest option.
"Come into the drawing room," Barnes said, and I obediently followed him into Holy of Holies. "Sit down," he ordered. I noted that he remained standing, as he often did while delivering a lecture to someone who was taller than he was. A fellow male pupil reported that, during an encounter in which they had both remained standing, Barnes had hopped on to the fireplace fender to give himself the necessary psychological advantage. Alas, the cockatoo coiffure, which added an extra two inches to his height, was never quite enough.
Once again, I had to endure the conceit of a man who imagined he knew me better than I knew myself, and who had, in the ludicrous manner of a cautionary tale from Struwwelpeter, plotted the trajectory of my life.
"After you leave school, you might work in a factory," he said. "You might steal something."
What do you say to someone whose obtuseness is staggering, yet impossible to challenge? I remained silent.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Humm," he said, almost reflectively. "We don't have much time..."
So that was it. That was the purpose of the exasperating exercise at Wennington School: To somehow turn the "troubled teenager" around — as though he/she were incapable, without undergoing the "therapy" provided by "progressive education", of acting in his/her best interests.
Did it ever occur to the proponents of this dubious endeavor that the school itself could be a drag on one's development, and that, to be successful in life, one had to leave it — and resolutely shake its dust from one's feet?
"For an 'inclusive' school, it seems that if you didn't fit, you REALLY didn't fit," one the above correspondents writes. It's an observation that reminds me of one of the maxims of the 1950s (and possibly of other periods in the school's history): "If you can't solve your problems here, you won't solve them anywhere." We all parroted that line, myself included. And as far as I know, we all believed it. So if we failed to fit — and, ipso facto, had a "problem" — we tended to blame ourselves. Hence the self-deprecation that vitiated my writing until the late 1960s, when the poet James Kirkup, who befriended me in Japan, set me straight. "If you don't take yourself seriously, no one else will," he said.
Another factor that worked to change my outlook was the fact I fitted in so easily everywhere else in the world. A little over a year after I left Wennington, I found myself returning to the tramways school in Melbourne after a week of on-the-road experience as a conductor. With me, I had a report from my depot manager on my performance. And as the envelope was unsealed, I opened it and read its contents. I expected some critical remarks — a snide Barnesian suggestion, perhaps, that I considered myself too good for the job. But to my surprise, the letter was full of praise for my abilities and attitude, and predicted a bright future for me.
Because Wennington was into "character formation", or "personal development", or whatever you like to call it, the criticism that came one's way was often ontological. In other words, it related to the nature of one's being, rather than to anything one had or hadn't done. This meant it could be leveled at any time, often completely unexpectedly.
One day, while I was waiting in the hall for the bell to ring for tea, Frances Barnes approached me with a tiny smile of suppressed euphoria — as though she had just stumbled on a sublime truth and couldn't wait to impart it to a breathless world.
"I've got a name for you," she declared. And while I wondered what on earth she had come up with, she continued, "I'm going to call you Narcissus!"
She let that sink in for a couple of seconds, and then continued, "Do you know who Narcissus was?" She paused again, although I don't think she expected me to reply.
"He was the young man in Greek mythology who looked into a pool and fell in love with his own reflection." And then, unburdened of her insight, she disappeared in the direction of the kitchen quarters.
In school publications, Frances was described as "joint principal". But during the six years I was at Wennington, her role seemed to be confined to taking the "religious history" classes and precipitating moral panics — occasional crises in which the school would go into lockdown as the boys were railroaded, in shifts, into drawing-room sessions with KCB while the girls were, I believe, subjected to a parallel process elsewhere. One of these crises was reportedly sparked by Frances' observation of a boy and girl (or boys and girls) saying goodnight to each other on one of the landings while wearing only pajamas. These presumably provided totally inadequate impediments to intercourse and pregnancy.
The sessions with Barnes (or the Barneses) could therefore be seen, to some extent, as prophylactic exercises, in which we were encouraged to, ahem, keep a tighter rein on things. In public-school parlance, this was known as "fighting the good fight" (see 1 Timothy 6:12). I recall one session in which, after delivering his moralistic homily, Barnes suddenly said, "I wonder how many of you are troubled by masturbation." (I have italicized "troubled" because that is the operative word in this sentence.)
There was a long, excruciating silence, during which, out of the corner of my eye, I glanced around the circle of seated boys. All faces were impassive. Mercifully, there was to be no blurted confession, no hand-wringing mea culpa, to further blight the evening.
"Well," Barnes said, possibly concluding that we were all avid pursuers of this pastime, "you'll just have to wait until you can use your penis for its proper purpose!"
Dr Sylvanus Stall, author of What a Young Boy Ought to Know (Philadelphia, 1897), could not have put it better.
1. In A History of Solihull School, 1560-2010, J.C. Loynton places Montgomery's visit in 1949. If push came to shove, I would probably have to defer to his superior knowledge on this point.
2. A faddish, nineteen-fiftyish term, which I rarely encounter in my reading these days. In my 40 years of journalism in New Zealand, I can't recall our ever using it.
3. Anyone wishing to add to this website can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Just change the "s" to "z" and the word "two" to the digit "2". Otherwise, leave a comment on this page.
Acknowledgement: The two cartoon characters are from Down with Skool! (1958), by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. "The finished product" is expressive of an attitude, rather than of a physical appearance — though some public school boys did end up looking like that.