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 believethe 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 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.
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.
To continue reading Rod Madocks' memoir of Blundell's School, click here
Rod Madocks is a UK-based writer. This piece is the opening of his memoir of his life in boarding school. Also published by Memoirist is an extract from his yet unpublished memoir about his African childhood: ‘The Last Rhodesian’. His latest book is ‘Our Tan: Memoir of a Destroyed Life’ by Shoestring Press: a lament for the loss of a young woman and a savage critique of the institutions that failed her. Other writings include the novel 'No Way To Say Goodbye' a book of short stories about his career as a forensic specialist in maximum security hospitals, 'Ship of Fools' , the crime novel Babbicam and The Rising Flame a memoir about the WW2 poet, Sidney Keyes.