Fighting Words

Fragments From an Education

I often have difficulty convincing my graduate students that I really did go off to prep school at the age of eight, from station platforms begrimed with coal dust and echoing to the mounting “whomp, whomp, woof, woof” of the pistons beginning to turn, as my own “trunk” and “tuck box” were loaded into a “luggage car.” Not only that, but that I wore corduroy shorts in all weathers, blazers with a school crest on Sundays, slept in a dormitory with open windows, began every day with a cold bath (followed by the declension of Latin irregular verbs), wolfed lumpy porridge for breakfast, attended compulsory divine service every morning and evening, and kept a diary in which—​in a special code—​I recorded the number of times when I was left alone with a grown-up man, who was perhaps four times my weight and five times my age, and bent over to be thrashed with a cane.

The strange thing, or so I now think, was the way in which it didn’t feel all that strange. The fictions and cartoons of Nigel Molesworth, of Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and numberless other chapters of English literary folklore have somehow made all this mania and ritual appear “normal,” even praiseworthy. Did we suspect our schoolmasters—​not to mention their weirdly etiolated female companions or “wives,” when they had any—​of being in any way “odd,” not to say queer? We had scarcely the equipment with which to express the idea, and anyway what would this awful thought make of our parents, who were paying—​as we were so often reminded—​a princely sum for our privileged existences? The word “privilege” was indeed employed without stint. Yes, I think that must have been it. If we had not been certain that we were better off than the oafs and jerks who lived on housing estates and went to state-run day schools, we might have asked more questions about being robbed of all privacy, encouraged to inform on one another, taught how to fawn upon authority and turn upon the vulnerable outsider, and subjected at all times to rules which it was not always possible to understand, let alone to obey.

I think it was that last point which impressed itself upon me most, and which made me shudder with recognition when I read Auden’s otherwise overwrought comparison of the English boarding school to a totalitarian regime. The conventional word that is employed to describe tyranny is “systematic.” The true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not its regularity but its unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not. (The only rule of thumb was: whatever is not compulsory is forbidden.) Thus, the ruled can always be found to be in the wrong. The ability to run such a “system” is among the greatest pleasures of arbitrary authority, and I count myself lucky, if that’s the word, to have worked this out by the time I was ten. Later in life I came up with the term “micro-megalomaniac” to describe those who are content to maintain absolute domination of a small sphere. I know what the germ of the idea was, all right. “Hitchens, take that look off your face!” Near-instant panic. I hadn’t realized I was wearing a “look.” (Face-crime!) “Hitchens, report yourself at once to the study!” “Report myself for what, sir?” “Don’t make it worse for yourself, Hitchens, you know perfectly well.” But I didn’t. And then: “Hitchens, it’s not just that you have let the whole school down. You have let yourself down.” To myself I was frantically muttering: Now what? It turned out to be some dormitory sex-game from which—​though the fools in charge didn’t know it—​I had in fact been excluded. But a protestation of my innocence would have been, as in any inquisition, an additional proof of guilt.

There were other manifestations, too. There was nowhere to hide. The lavatory doors sometimes had no bolts. One was always subject to invigilation, waking and sleeping. Collective punishment was something I learned about swiftly: “Until the offender confesses in public,” a giant voice would intone, “all your ‘privileges’ will be withdrawn.” There were curfews, where we were kept at our desks or in our dormitories under a cloud of threats while officialdom prowled the corridors in search of unspecified crimes and criminals. Again I stress the matter of sheer scale: the teachers were enormous compared to us and this lent a Brobdingnagian aspect to the scene. In seeming contrast, but in fact as reinforcement, there would be long and “jolly” periods where masters and boys would join in scenes of compulsory enthusiasm—​usually over the achievements of a sports team—​and would celebrate great moments of victory over lesser and smaller schools. I remember years later reading about Stalin that the intimates of his inner circle were always at their most nervous when he was in a “good” mood, and understanding instantly what was meant by that.

And yet it still wasn’t fascism, and the men and women who ran this bizarre microcosm were dedicated in their own weird way. The school, Mount House, was on the edge of Dartmoor—the site of the famously grim prison in Waugh’s Decline and Fall—​and haggard, despairing escaped convicts were more than once recaptured after hiding in the sheds on our cricket grounds. Yet the natural beauty of the region was astonishing, and our teachers were on hand all day and at weekends, many of them conveying their enthusiasm for birds and animals and trees. We were all of us compelled to sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity as well, and nature was sometimes enlisted as illustrating god’s design, but I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern on Sundays. In fact, as you have perhaps guessed, I was getting an early training in the idea that life meant keeping two separate and distinct sets of books. If my parents knew what really went on at the school, I used to think (not being the first little boy to imagine that my main job was that of protecting parental innocence), they would faint from the shock. So I would be staunch and defend them from the knowledge. Meanwhile, and speaking of books, the school possessed its very own library, and several of the masters had private collections of their own, to which one might be admitted (not always without risk to these men’s immortal souls) as a great treat.

This often feels as if it happened to somebody else yet I can be sure it did not because I can recall the element of sadomasochism so well. Awareness of this is no doubt innate in all of us, and I suppose a case could be made for teaching it to children as part of “sex education” or the facts of life, but I had to sit in a freezing classroom at first light, at a tender age, and hear my silver-haired Latin teacher Mr. Witherington approach the verge of tears as he digressed from the study of Caesar and Tacitus and told us with an awful catch in his voice of the way in which he had been flogged at Eastbourne School. And that same brutish academy, we thought as we squirmed our tiny rears on the wooden benches, was one of those to which we were supposed to aspire. I think I wish I had not been introduced so early to the connection between obscure sexual excitement and the infliction—or the reception—of pain.

Again come the two sets of books: I would escape to the library and lose myself in the adventure stories of John Buchan and “Sapper” and G.A. Henty and Percy Westerman, and acquaint myself with imperial and military values just as, unknown to me in the England of the late 1950s that lay outside the school’s boundary, these were going straight out of style. Meanwhile and on the other side of the ledger, I would tell myself that I wasn’t really part of the hierarchy of cruelty, either as bully or victim. I wasn’t any use at sports, I didn’t have the kind of “keenness” that made one even a junior prefect, but on the other hand I did need to protect myself from being a mere weed and weakling and kick-bag. Sometimes there was a fatso or freak toward whom I could divert the attention of the mob, but I can honestly claim to have become ashamed of this tactic. There came a day when, without exactly realizing it in a fully conscious manner, I understood that words could function as weapons. I don’t remember all the offenses and hurts that had been inflicted on me, but I do recollect exactly what I said as I whirled on my playground tormentor, an especially vile boy named Welchman who was a snitch and a stoolpigeon as well as the embodiment of the (not invariably reliable) maxim that all bullies are cowards at heart. “You,” I said in fairly level but loud tones through my split lips, “are a liar, a bully, a coward, and a thief.” It was amazing to see the way in which this lummox fell back, his face filling with alarm. It was also quite something to see the tide of playground public opinion turn so suddenly against him.

Looking back, it is the masochistic element that impresses me more than the sadistic one. It’s relatively easy to see why people want to exert power over others, but what fascinated me was the way in which the victims colluded in the business. Bullies would acquire a personal squad of toadies with impressive speed and ease. The more tyrannical the schoolmaster, the more those who lived in fear of him would rush to placate him and to anticipate his moods. Small boys who were ill-favored, or “out of favor” with authority, would swiftly attract the derision and contempt of the majority as well. I still writhe when I think how little I did to oppose this. My tongue sharpened itself mainly in my own defense.

Hugh Wortham, my huge and dominating headmaster and introducer to the dark arts of corporal punishment, was a lifelong bachelor, but some of the local mothers found him handsome, and Yvonne gaily said that he put her in mind of Rex Harrison. His huge, brawny, furry arms and his immense horseshoes of teeth made him seem almost gorilla-like to me and a bold contrast to the rather slight figure of the Commander. His rages would shake the windows and make small boys turn white: his “good moods” were a hell to endure and a challenge to manipulate. Heaven knows what he’d been through sexually: he himself didn’t stoop to “fiddling” with any of us but if you were occasionally favored, as I occasionally was, you would be given a copy of David Blaize or one of the Jeremy novels and asked if you’d care to read it “in your free time.” Though I didn’t have the vocabulary for this in those days, I now know quite a lot about E.F. Benson and Hugh Walpole and I sensed even then that this was the world of the smoldering and yearning and repressed adult homosexual, fixated on his own schooldays and probably most attracted to those who are themselves blithely unaware of the intensity of the attention.

There were also some masters, twitchy and sad and at the end of their tethers and the close of their careers, who by the same herd instinct we knew to be fair game. Poor old Mr. Robertson—​”Rubberguts,” with his decrepit Austin car and his equally decrepit wife Lydia—​could not keep order and made the fatal mistake of trying to curry favor with the boys by little acts of kindness and bribery with sweets. He was childless and pathetic and he taught the unmanly subject of geography, and we somehow knew that the real authorities in the school didn’t respect him either, so we felt free to make his life a misery. There was more satisfaction to be had in teasing and torturing a feeble member of the Establishment than there was in cornering some hapless and pustular bedwetter of our own cohort. Rubberguts eventually left the school and for all I know died in poverty in some seaside boardinghouse, but before we broke him the poor childless chap swooped on me one day in the changing rooms, caught me under the armpits, held me up and gave me, or to be exact my forehead, the most chaste possible kiss. Then he put me down and silently, sadly mooched away. At first I thought I had a good tale to share with my fellow gloating little beasts, but then I found myself admitting that there had been nothing so creepy about it, merely something melancholy, and I never said a word to a soul. It is strange how the boundary between the knowing and the innocent is subconsciously patrolled: one may be apparently quite “wised up” while being in reality quite naïve, or entirely unaware of the grosser aspects of existence while yet possessing some intuition of what lies on the other side of the adult veil. I couldn’t make this encounter seem dirty while there were boys more advanced than myself who could make even the word “clean” sound suggestive. I suspected that they sometimes pretended to know more than they really did.

And this is partly why I can’t entirely second or echo his own great memoir of prep-school misery. For me, the experience of being sent away at a tender age was, at any cost, finally an emancipating one. I knew I hadn’t been dispatched to boarding school to get me out of the way (an assurance that I don’t think the young Orwell shared). I knew it was my only eventual meal ticket for a decent university: that undiscovered country to which no Hitchens had yet traveled. I knew that I owed my parents the repayment of a debt. True, I did get pushed around and unfairly punished and introduced too soon to some distressing facts of existence, but I would not have preferred to stay at home or to have been sheltered from these experiences, and it was probably good for me to be deprived of my adoring mother and taught—​I can still remember the phrase—​that I wasn’t by any means “the only pebble on the beach.” Why, I once inquired, was the school boxing tournament into which I had been entered against my will called “The Ninety Percent”? “Because, Hitchens, the fight involves only ten percent skill and ninety percent guts.” This seemed even then like a parody of a Tom Brown story, and I had the socks knocked off me in the ring, but why do I remember it after half a century? The school motto was Ut Prosim (“That I May Be Useful”), and when one has joined in the singing of “I Vow to Thee My Country”—especially on 11 November by the war memorial—​or “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended” (“To sing is to pray twice,” as St. Augustine put it) then one may in fact be very slightly better equipped to face that Japanese jail or Iraqi checkpoint.

I have just looked up the gleaming new website of Mount House, and realized that if I have set all this down in my turn, it is because I was among the last generation to go through the “old school” version of Englishness. The site speaks enthusiastically of the number of girls being educated at the establishment (good grief!), of the availability of vegetarian diets and caterings for other “special needs,” and of its sensitivity to various sorts of “learning disability.” Now I cannot say I am completely sorry to think that there will be no more “eat that mutton, Hitchens” or “bend over that chair, Hitchens,” or “shall we call him Christine, boys, he’s so feeble?” but something in me hopes that it hasn’t all become positive reinforcement, with high marks constantly awarded for mere self-esteem.

Buy  Hitch-22.

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