Thursday, November 29, 2018

SCHOOL DAYS

I woke this morning thinking of my school days in England, many years ago. Tracing the line of my thoughts back, I conclude that they were prompted improbably by the death of that misguided Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, at the hands of the Sentinelese islanders a couple of weeks ago. He had rashly stepped uninvited into a culture fiercely isolated for centuries from the rest of the world and well-known for its peoples' aggressive desire to keep it that way. He was killed as surely by their "primitive"--and clearly very effective--weapons, bows and arrows, as those who are killed by technologically advanced firearms in our presumptively civilized society here in the United States of America. Alas, men have murder in their hearts, it seems, whether "civilized" or not.

This reminded me, though, of a school friend, Richard Mason, who was not really a school friend. He was the head prefect at the public (read "private") school that I attended, as perhaps a couple of years his junior. Mason--we only used surnames at boys' boarding schools in those days--was a senior in the same "house" as myself, a cross-country runner like myself, and the head prefect of the entire school. It was he who administered the brutal caning--"six of the best"--to which I was sentenced for having been caught in the act of smoking and drinking in a pool room half a mile from school. (The caning was a ritual involving a dozen of Mason's fellow prefects lined up to form a gauntlet of authority, through which he pounded at full tilt to administer each blow, made that much more painful by the speed of his approach...)

I was reminded of all this because Mason was attacked and killed just a few years later by the darts and arrows of Amazon tribesmen previously uncontacted by the outside world. He was leading an expedition to follow the length of the hitherto unexplored Iriri river when the attack occurred and, if memory serves, his body was cannibalized. With this vague memory in mind, I strolled back yesterday through cyberspace to remind myself of what I had learned some time ago: that Mason's small group of fellow adventurers included another former classmate from our boarding school, one Kit Lambert, who survived the expedition and later became the man who, with his partner, Chris Stamp (the brother of the actor Terrence Stamp), went on to discover, promote and manage the initially ragtag rock group of musicians that was to become The Who.

Adventuring further (the Internet is the closest I come to the Amazon!) I discovered that a film had been made about the pair long after Lambert's wild and self-destructive path had led to his absurdly mundane, untimely death from an alcohol- and drug-induced fall down the stairs at his mother's house in London. I rented Lambert & Stamp, as the film is titled; it proved to be a fascinating documentary that reconstructs the early years of The Who through interviews with the principals (Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Chris Stamp himself and his brother Terrence) and historical footage of film and television interviews with Lambert--amazingly fluent in both French and German--as well as of live performances, travels, recording sessions, and so on...

All of which led to my waking up, this morning, with thoughts of school days on my mind. Who were these school mates, Mason and Lambert, and how could I not have recognized them for who they were to become? The two could not have been more different, Mason straight-arrow, disciplined and--despite the seeming rashness of his last adventure--eminently responsible; and the brilliant but unstable Lambert descending through a long spiral into a crazed, if highly creative world of addiction, sexual excess and self-destructiveness. Watching him on screen, I could not help but think of Oscar Wilde--a genuine British eccentric whose rebellion against social norms ended up costing him dearly.

And what about me, who have led what I judge to be--by comparison, at least--an unadventurous, even bourgeois life? I thought about what I had learned through the experience of twelve years of boy's boarding school--not the brash, outgoing courage of a domineering Mason nor the boundless, unselfcensored creativity of Lambert. Their response to that oppressive environment was, for Mason, to master it; for Lambert, to rebel against it by breaking all the rules. Looking back on those days, I believe I learned a different lesson--the dubious art of self-protection. I learned that it was safer not to expose my vulnerable young self to boys who were stronger and more aggressive than myself, nor to the ever-present danger of mockery and ridicule. I learned the value of self-restraint, of holding back, of deference and civility, the safety of the low profile.

I have to admit there is still some part of me that harbors a certain envy for men like Mason and Lambert; a part that teases me with what "I coulda been" if unrestrained by those values that I learned too well at school. The wild man that I learned to keep so adamantly chained inside me, I tell myself, might have done great things if unshackled and let loose in the great, wide world. The doppleganger to the well-mannered, thoughtful, deferential Englishman I was brought up to be--and the one so many feel free to like and even admire today--is the inner beast that roams freely, if secretively, within my soul.

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