Saturday, February 23, 2019

WAGBAI: PREP SCHOOL


WINDLESHAM

            It’s far from my intention to malign today’s version of the school I attended three quarters of a century ago. It has changed a great deal since my day. For some time now, the school has been admitting girls, and I’m sure their presence has had a much needed humanizing effect; and there are day students as well as boarders. Then too, it is no longer owned and operated by the single family, the Maldens, whose ancestor founded it in 1837; fresh ownership must have breathed some new life and new ideas into the ancient institution. There have also been radical changes in educational philosophy since 1944. Discipline—and punishment for lack of it—are no longer the sine qua non. In particular boys’ boarding schools have become more accountable to the education system generally; perceptions about them have changed, and with them, surely, their practices. Corporal punishment—I was about to write “capital”!—is viewed in a different light than it once was. And finally, a caveat: as I write them down today, my memories should not be read as objective assessments but rather colored by the fears and misery and pain of a seven-year-old boy—a boy who was not particularly well adjusted to the rigors of private school. You are encouraged not to rely on their accuracy.
Let’s posit, then, that Windlesham today is a fine school, and that boys and girls are the happy recipients of a wonderful education. Why not? The images I have found online show the faces of many happy children, boys and girls. That is now. This was then…
The head master at the time was Mr. Chris—Mr. Chris Malden, that is, but he was universally known and addressed as Mr. Chris...

 Here he is, in a picture with his family before the time I'm writing about. Mrs. Chris is on the right. Mr, Roger has to be the boy at top right and Miss Anthea the girl at bottom right. The girl at top left must be the Miss whose name I have forgotten. I also forgot the younger son. His name, I now recall, was Mr. Charles.

Mr. Christ was a short, swarthy, and distinguished-looking man with silver hair and intense dark brown eyes, of the kind that looked right through you and saw all the errors of your ways. His dark study, with its heavy drapes, its brown, leather-covered furniture, and its sweet smell of the pipe tobacco that he smoked, was the heart center of the school. We would be invited there for one of two reasons: a school meeting on matters of importance, or a caning. For the latter, it was no use to put blotting paper in your pants—a strategy rumored to reduce the pain; with Mr. Chris it was trousers down, shirt tails up, to reveal the bare bottom, and bend over the arm of one of those leather chairs. I suspect that Mr. Chris enjoyed the spectacle of more small boys’ bottoms than most men do. Whether or not he actually enjoyed the infliction of pain on them remains an open question.
While Mr. Chris was the nominal headmaster, we all knew that it was Mrs. Chris who ruled the roost. She was a formidable woman, a dragon lady, fierce-eyed and ruthless when it came to the maintenance of order in her domain. I remember her as being more masculine than feminine in appearance, and with a manner to match. She was not the person to whom a small boy ran for comfort—no mother figure, then. Rather, she was to be avoided whenever practicable. Passing her on the stairs or in the hallway, you were careful to avert your gaze lest you attract her always critical attention. Perhaps, to Mr. Chris, she was a tender and loving wife. Perhaps, to her children, she was a tender and loving mother. To us boys, she was to be as feared as any harridan.
She did have children, already grown-up children who were also active presences in the school. The one I remember fondly was Miss Anthea, who inherited both her fathers’ dark skin and the kindness that he kept mostly hidden from us. Come to think of it, Miss Anthea’s role in the activities of the school remain a mystery to me. Perhaps it was she who oversaw our swimming lessons in the indoor pool, down past the changing rooms, because I do recall, stripped naked as we were required to do for swimming, feeling intensely bashful in the presence of a woman who was not my mother. Or perhaps this was her older sister, a Miss something, the one we all knew as her mother’s daughter rather than her father’s, another dragon lady, whose name I have thankfully erased from memory. This Miss was as tall and angular as Miss Anthea was comfortable and round, and we feared her as we feared her mother, Mrs. Chris.
There was one other Malden, the most mysterious of them all, because he rarely appeared on our horizon. His name was Mr. Roger, and he was an officer in the English army. When he made his rare appearance at the school he would be resplendent in his military uniform, with a stiff-peaked army cap, medal ribbons on his chest, and a swagger stick tucked underneath his arm. His face was bronzed, like his father’s, and he wore a prickly military mustache on his upper lip. Whenever his name was uttered in our hearing, it was with reverence. He was held up to us boys as the epitome of courage and endurance, a man to be honored and, should we be able, emulated. My lasting impression of Mr. Roger was of the occasion when he gave us a lecture on the Battle of El Alamein, in which he had played a prominent role in beating back German tanks and liberating Egypt from the Nazi occupation. He used a hot and humming projector to show maps, creating sharp shadows on the screen as he pointed to the arrows designating critical movements with his swagger stick. We were never so impressed as we were with Mr. Roger, one of Monty’s heroes on the desert battlefield.
So these were the Maldens, to whom our parents had entrusted the education and the direction of our young lives. They were intent, I’m sure, on doing their best to turn ungovernable young scalawags into men of upstanding moral caliber and disciplined intellect; men of whom their native country could be proud, and on whom she could rely in times of peace as well as war; men destined to lead and rule over those less fortunate than we privileged few. There were a handful of us, though, myself included, who did not fit into the picture, and who either felt chronically uncomfortable and out of place… or who rebelled.

Friday, February 22, 2019

WAGBAI: CONFIRMATION


I still call myself  today "an aspiring Buddhist" because I'm not quite there. But as readers of The Buddha Diaries will surely know, I was brought up in the tradition of the Anglican "Church of England." What follows is the story of my confirmation.

*****

CONFIRMATION

            I was confirmed at the age of twelve. Confirmation in the Anglican church is akin to the bar mitzvah for Jews. You go to confirmation class for several weeks before, in preparation, to learn certain things about the dogma of your particular religion. I already knew most of the New Testament stories from growing up—the Christmas story, the Easter story, the story of the Ascension, and so on. I knew the parables—the story of the Good Samaritan, of Lazarus rising from the dead, of the loaves and fishes. I knew, particularly, about Peter, my namesake. I knew how, as a simple fisherman on Lake Galilee, he was recruited by Jesus to become a “fisher of men”; how he denied knowing Jesus “before the cock crowed thrice”; how he went on after Christ’s death to preach the gospel, ending up in Rome. He was persuaded by his followers there to flee the city to save himself from persecution, but on his way out—the spot is recorded to this day—he was waylaid by the risen Christ to whom he addressed those well-known words, Quo vadis, Domine? Where are you going, Lord? And when Christ shamed him by saying that he was going back to Rome to be crucified a second time, Peter was so remorseful for having contemplated this second betrayal that he turned and went back to face the certainty of execution. He chose to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy of the same death as his savior. Caravaggio re-imagined the brutality of that moment in a magnificent painting which I saw once, years later, in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. And Peter went on, of course, after his martyrdom, to become the first “bishop of Rome”.
            I knew these stories. The purpose of the confirmation class that I attended in my father’s study with a handful of other children of my age was to initiate me into the other rituals and dogmas of the Anglican church. I learned, for example, about the sacraments. We Anglicans did not subscribe to the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation—the belief that the bread and wine in the communion service actually become the body and blood of Christ.  For Anglicans, they remain a symbolic value, not a real one. But we were all in awe at the prospect of approaching the altar rail and kneeling to receive the slim wafer and the sip of wine, consuming them for the first time. In order to be worthy of that honor, though, we had first to kneel before the Bishop and receive his “laying on of hands.”
            (I came to believe much later in life, by the way, that “confirmation” is a pale substitute for initiation. The transition from boy- to manhood has been traditionally marked, in societies other than ours, by more rigorous and demanding rituals. In order to become a man in tribal societies, boys might be sent off into the forest or the jungle for days on end, to encounter real, life-threatening dangers; or face excruciating rituals at the hands of elders in their village. In Western society, we long ago learned to condemn such practices as barbaric, but failed to find truly challenging, life-changing alternative ways to mark that big step forward into manhood. The result, I came to believe, when I myself was challenged to experience a rigorous form of initiation only in my fifties, is that we are surrounded—even led—by men who have never made the transition from boyhood and who for this reason remain, in important ways, little boys. The drunken rituals of American fraternities, to my mind, are nothing more than a mockery of true initiation).
            The day of my confirmation was nonetheless an important one in my young life. The Bishop came in a big, black motor car. This was in itself an event that inspired awe. The Bishop, to us children of the Rectory, was a distant and exalted eminence. Unlike my father’s black cassock, his office was distinguished by splendid purple robes; his church was the ancient cathedral at St. Albans, and he answered only to the Archbishop of Canterbury. His arrival was the cause of great celebration in the village and meticulous preparation at home. In the kitchen there was much baking of cakes and making of delicate finger sandwiches, with Gentleman’s Relish and cucumber and home-made jams, for the afternoon tea that was to follow the confirmation service.
            I remember little of the service itself. It must have surely pleased my father, who had worked so hard to prepare us for the sanctification that the Bishop bestowed. What I remember instead is my father’s gift to me that day. It was a copy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but no ordinary copy. Bound in soft, pliable red leather—I can still feel the touch—and embossed with gold lettering, it was a St. Swithun’s prayer book, which contained not only the liturgies found in every other version but also an exhaustive guide to the “Sacrament of Penance”, or Confession. It listed every sin imaginable—and every sin beyond my child’s imagination—in unsparing analytical detail, along with the correct verbal formulations in which they should be presented to your confessor. There were sins of omission and commission, sins of gluttony and greed, sins of concupiscence and rage, sins of pride and sins of sloth. The most appealing and also the most mysterious to me were sins of lust, which I could already recognize as the most wicked of them all but had, as yet, no notion how to commit them.
And yet, as I can now to confess without the shame that I was once obliged to feel, it was not long before I acquired the skill to perform the most basic of all the sins of lust, the one the good St. Swithun, with joyless sanctimony, was pleased to condemn as“self-abuse”; the one known to most of the rest of us as the delectable art of masturbation.

Monday, February 18, 2019

WHAT A GOOD BOY AM I: THE STORY CONTINUES


AMBLESIDE

I would be wrong to suggest there were no happy moments in that first year at Windlesham. Were I to able to be more consciously in tune with my surroundings, as a little boy, there could be no place in the world of greater natural beauty than Lake Windermere and the hills and dales surrounding it. The village (town, now?) of Ambleside nestles at the northern end of Windermere, and Croft House...


.... the temporary home to Windlesham during the war years, was perched a short distance away, on the northwestern corner of the lake, up the hill from the main road. Behind the big, white house, the woods stretched further up a long, steep hill, ending—so far as I remember—at a stacked stone wall of the kind that is ubiquitous in the Lake District, defining the grazing areas for the farmers’ flocks of sheep. It’s perfect country for the annual sheepdog trials, where border collies (like our dog Hank, but trained for this work) go chasing up the hillsides at a whistle from their owner and herd mobs of reluctant sheep across to different grazing lands, or, every year, down into the valley to be shorn. The hillsides are dotted with the shepherds’ crofts, and the almost daily mists that rise over the lake and the frequent, mostly gentle rains bestow the landscape with that limpid look of watercolor paintings.  The climate is mostly temperate in the three seasons other than winter. The winter, though, can be quite brutal, bringing with it an assault of frigid winds and snow; and gusty squalls can roil the lake at any season, endangering boaters with their unpredictable arrival. I was caught once on Windermere, some years later, by just such a squall in a small sailboat and can testify to its terrifying intensity.
As a grown-up you can perhaps imagine no place more idyllic for a boy to go to school. For this small boy, however, the grand house with its strict rules felt like prison; only outside, in the woods, at play, did I escape that feeling for moments that seemed all to brief and ended, always, in the clang of the bell that called us back  to school…
We played war. It was wartime, after all. Running off with shrieks of delight into the woods, at break time or on a free afternoon, we boys would search for sticks of the right heft and length to serve as swords or rifles and, thus armed, scatter to hide behind the trunks of great chestnut trees or outgrowths of rock to ambush our enemies. Sometimes you might be lucky enough to be chosen to be on the English side, and you could fight the Hun or the Jap (yes, we did need the denigrating insults to belittle the enemy and assert our superiority) in often hand-to-hand combat. At other times, in the role of the Hun or the Jap yourself, you’d be forced to succumb to the victorious Allies. It was “Bang, you’re dead”, and you’d have to lie there in the mud and the mulch of rotting golden leaves while the battle raged around you. The not unpleasant tang of moldering foliage stays with me to this day.
And there were walks. They were group walks, to be sure, but they took you away from school. You’d have to choose a partner and walk in pairs, down across the main road to the path along the lake, with the trees on one side and the silver waters of the lake on the other. The woods to your right are filled with fiddlehead ferns, a luminous green in the spring and summer and crushed to a withered brown in autumn. Once in a while, you cross an old stone bridge that straddles a stream...


... its waters cascading down from the hills to meet the lake. Along the way, you’ll have to negotiate a series of stiles, constructed of grey slate slabs between two lengths of wall...


... and you’ll need to be careful not to lose your foothold on the slippery, moss-green step. With luck, down by the lake, you come upon a boathouse pier reaching out over the glassy surface of the water, and from its worn wooden boards you might catch a glimpse of a brown trout darting in the shallows from the sound of your approach.
So, yes. I would be wrong to say there were no moments of contentment in that first year at Windlesham, moments of escape from that aching, hollow feeling of loneliness and alienation with which the experience of boarding school can afflict the child who is not, like some others, a good fit. While I had no way to know this at the time, I am convinced it was the solace of this kind of escape into nature that shaped my consciousness and left me with the understanding, at the age of twelve already, that my life’s mission was to be a writer and a poet. A romantic notion, perhaps, but one that emanates from the landscape that was the inspiration of the Romantic poets themselves.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

WAGBAI: EUSTON STATION


     Imagine yourself at Euston Station in September, 1944, at the beginning of school term. It feels safe now, much safer than it would have felt a couple of years ago. While the threat of buzz bombs is still real—but more sporadic and more widely scattered—the nightly carpet-bombing of the city is long past. The allied armies are still fighting the Nazis in Europe, but here at home things are relatively quiet. You’ll still see those barriers of protective sandbags in front of buildings, but the normal activities of life proceed. There are black London taxis and big red buses everywhere. There are endless streams of people on the city streets. And the trains still leave from the railway stations, taking children off to school.


            Our train is waiting at the platform...


... a massive, hissing hulk of steel that puts out bursts of steam and clanks ominously with metallic sounds. The station reeks of oil, and grease, and coal. Whistles shriek. Vast spaces extend all around you, making you feel yet more insignificant and tiny than you might already feel, your hand grasping urgently in your mother’s or your father’s. All around are porters’ carts and towering stacks of trunks, some of them ringed with black and white bands like your own. And all around there are, mostly, boys, some of them as small as you but others bigger, more confident, noisy, shouting out gleeful greetings to the friends they already made in previous years at school.
            You are on your way to boarding school for the first time. You are seven years old. You want to be brave but there is a big lump in your throat, because you know there are only minutes more before you have to leave your mummy and daddy and join the dozens of other boys, all strangers, who are already piling into the carriages; before the train leaves, before you have to say goodbye. You recognize deep down the feeling you always have when you know you need to cry, but you also know you’re not allowed to, not in any circumstance, not here, not now, with all these other boys around you. You know that crying would only invite ridicule and contempt, and you can’t start out that way. You know you have to be brave because all the other boys are brave and you don’t want to be marked out as a cry-baby from the very start.
            And yet… the time comes. You father offers you his hand to shake. That’s the man’s way of saying goodbye. Does your mother dare to hug you? Does she want to? Does she even want you to leave? These are agonizing questions that go through your mind—questions you don’t even dare to ask yourself. Your mother’s blue eyes, so familiar to you, refuse to fill with tears. If she is unhappy to send you off to school she will not show it. Must not. Stepping off the platform and into the carriage, you can’t even remember if she hugged you.
Not our station, but a similar scene
            Your parents are standing there, a blur, nothing more than pale faces in a crowd of other faces, with a forest of hands waving at you as the train jolts into action and begins to move slowly away with a great burst of noise, steel wheels clanking on steel rails, a hiss of accumulated steam. As the train gathers speed you realize just how alone you feel, the smallest of boys in this caterwauling crowd of other boys. Just how alone you’ll be feeling for what looms like an eternity ahead.
            Once past the end of the railway platform and out into the full grey, misty light of day, you know you’re gone for good. Raindrops streak in diagonal paths across the grimy window. No way to turn back. And hours to go, and hundreds of miles ahead.

Monday, February 11, 2019

WAGBAI: THE CHOICE


          I fear the time has come to leave behind those days that were, for a child at least, carefree and innocent, despite the war that continued to rage in Europe. My last memories of that war were Yanks in endless columns of Jeeps...


 

... and military trucks passing through our village, with sticks of chewing gum for eager children running alongside, packs of Lucky Strikes for smokers like my father, and silk stockings for our Bletchley girls. It was my first glimpse of the happy denizens of the country that was to become my home.
But those days of innocence came to an end when I was seven years old and my parents decided to send me off to boarding school. In one of our serious talks in his study at the Rectory, my father made at least the pretense of including me in the decision. I could choose, he said, to join the boys at the local school. But it was made clear to me in the subtlest of ways that the “local boys” were not the most desirable of classmates and that boarding school would offer an infinitely better education. If I wanted to make something of my life the “choice” was not in question. I chose to go where I knew my parents wanted me to go. Even for a seven year old, the signals were not hard to read. And “prep school” sounded somehow exciting, somehow manly, somehow… the right place for a young boy. (Prep school in England, unlike in the United States, is the elementary school that prepares you, not for college, but for entry into the “public school” system. For “public,” or course, read “private.” Prep schools take children from roughly seven or eight to twelve years of age. Public schools, from twelve to eighteen).
We went shopping in London. We shopped at the grand Gorringes department store...


... on Buckingham Palace Road, near Victoria station, where they sold uniforms for almost every prep and public school. For all I know, they still do. That was the tradition, and it was part of the excitement. We bought what I’d need for my school uniform... 

(Something like this... I remember a lighter grey)

...a grey jacket and matching grey shorts; a black and white striped knit tie; knee-length socks with black and white trim at the top; a black cap with white ribbing; shirts and underwear, “vests”—undershirts—and underpants; and black lace-up shoes. We bought a big brown steamer “trunk” to pack things in, reinforced with wooden bands and protected by brass corners...


... and ringed with black and white stripes for railways porters to distinguish it from trunks destined for other schools at the train station, at the beginning of school term.
I was to go to Windlesham House School. Flora was to go to Upper Chine. Her uniform was cornflower blue...

(Here they are! Not in glorious color, I fear. My sister could have been in this picture--but I don't think she is...)
As I recall, Upper Chine was evacuated from the Isle of Wight to a location close to Aspley Guise for the duration of the war, which meant that she could start there as a “day girl.” Windlesham was also evacuated from the south coast, not far from Brighton, but to a location in Ambleside, a small town in what was then Cumberland, now Cumbria, in the far north of England. Which was a very long way from home.
And boyhood began to take a darker turn…