It turns out that my mother kept all my school reports. I’m sure that I didn’t see them at the time. Those from my primary school are dutiful and of little interest. They detail my pleasing and early literacy and my enthusiasm for making things out of old eggshells, which is what we did in those days, finger paints still being rationed. What I mainly remember of my primary school is the enormous girls. Boys were taken out and sent to their prep schools at the age of eight but girls by and large were considered not to merit an expensive education and stayed till they could be shipped off to a state school or dodgy convent at the age of twelve, so the playground was at the mercy of these giants. There was only one boy I remember who stayed until he was twelve. He was called Oliver. He was an honorary girl.
The reports for my secondary school are too agonised to make easy reading. They are conscientious, often going on to a second piece of paper. They document with increasing desperation my total inability to write Greek poetry that looked as if an ancient Greek person had written it. My teachers had very high standards. There was no question of all must win prizes. They railed against my habit of playing the saxophone when I could have been learning Latin vocabulary. There is an enormous sigh of relief when I finally achieve a place at one of the Universities, albeit Oxford and not (thank God) Cambridge, for which I had been intended.
There is more pleasure in my prep school reports, when nothing really mattered. They detail my career from the age of eight to thirteen. These were undoubtedly the most miserable five years of my life. My parents didn’t want to send me off to boarding school at that age (thank God, again), but the school that they chose was a boarding school and I was one of only a handful of day-boys. No one is treated worse than a day boy at a boarding school. Maybe it is different now, when children at these institutions are encouraged to go home for weekends, but that is how it was then. Day boys were thought of as having access to the treats of the outside world, such as chips, and out of envy they were bullied. Even if they weren’t bullied they missed all the social life of the school which took place after the end of Games, mid-afternoon, when I was collected and went home.
And Games themselves were a nightmare: endless Rugby matches of being thrown about in the mud and sat on; boxing, the worst, standing there in front of a crowd of assorted ill-wishers and hoping to achieve a state of Zen mindlessness at least until the end of the round, while another boy, more inclined to play the game, drew blood all about my eyes and nose and one of the masters shouted, ‘Blood! I want to see more blood!’.
I had a group of friends who conceived a tactic for procuring some of the treats of the outside world. The manual work of running the school was consigned to a group of men who were of orc-like intelligence and foreign. I worked the foreign aspect out when one of them, called Reg, shambled up to me in a corridor one day fingering his penis and muttered confidentially, ‘Saucisse’. I realised at once that he was either French or had a background in catering. It was this Reg to whom my friends offered a deal: hand jobs for sweets. I was allowed to share in the Smarties, which were less highly valued than some others: but only Smarties, since they and not I had had to manhandle the man’s sticky but, they said, surprisingly firm member. They took this obligation strictly in turns, regardless of Reg’s own preferences.
This was not the point of view from which I was assessed in the termly reports. My attempts at sport, for example:
Swimming: Cannot swim.
Hockey: Jumps well.
Games: His appearances on the sports field have provided him with the necessary exercise and others with a great deal of humour
Rugger: Played in the end-of-term matches much to his consternation and astonishment
But it was work that mattered, and here I had a fundamental problem. I made a flying start at the school expressing myself, as I tend still to do, with a pencil. But when I was nine it was decided that I would have to use a pen instead. That meant a dip pen, a nib on the end of a stick dipped into an ink bottle. I never mastered the art of conveying the ink onto the page in the form of words to the exclusion of blots. This meant that I was:
One of my teachers thought that he discerned literary ability in me. He encouraged me to write and I shall always be grateful to him. This was clever of him because the official archetype of imagination at the school, as in my senior school later, was a florid affair involving adjectives and feelings, and not what I was best at. But it was one of his colleagues, another English master, whose reports I cherish more now:
He is sparing of effort.
He veils flashes of intelligence under a bashful nonchalance which the unimaginative might take for laziness.
His imagination is a poor limping thing…
Quiet endeavours below the blots
They took trouble with reports in those days. Mr Marshall, English teacher whose precepts I have entirely forgotten, cricketing umpire endlessly innovative with the LBW rule (which I suspect he never mastered), Mr Marshall with the languid manner, the refusal to take seriously anything since the War except his Austin Healey, Mr Marshall, dead now I believe these many years: with my poor limping imagination and the dogged remains of my long-term memory I salute you.