One morning in Manhattan, when fall was still holding winter at bay, my daughter Daisy called from London in some excitement. The casting director for a TV movie had been holding some auditions in her school in Hammersmith; she and two schoolmates had been selected for major parts; filming would begin almost at once. Then my former wife came on the phone. She had read the script. Certain scenes could, in the hands of an unscrupulous director, exploit the thirteen-year-old child. Vigilance was necessary. Besides, there was the matter of what Daisy should be paid…
A few days later Daisy called again to report. With the help of a lawyer, proper safeguards had been established and adequate sums guaranteed. It turned out that the director of Secrets, one in a series of films generically entitled First Love, was to be Gavin Millar. He had been at Oxford at the same time as I had and in my recollection had not seemed then to be an embryonic pornographer.
Daisy added that filming would start in ten days at a recently closed prep school near Ascot. My heart tripped. What was the name of the school? ‘Hold on while I find the address.’ The wind outside was stripping golden leaves off the trees in Central Park and I waited, foot poised on the threshold of memory. Daisy picked up the phone again. ‘Heatherdown. It’s called Heatherdown.’ The past welcomed me in.
In the hard winter of 1947 we moved from London to County Cork, Ireland, and after several months my parents decided that I had better start going to some sort of local school. I would have been happy to go on spending my days playing with Doreen French, the sexton’s daughter, and my evenings listening to my father read Don Quixote. I was shy and already felt awkward in Ireland, where social divisions were much more transparent than in London. To walk out of the gates of my grandparents’ big house and walk along Main Street where the unemployed men lounged all day in front of Farrell’s was bad enough. Staring idly at everything, they stared at me too. School meant ridicule at closer quarters.
But my parents were adamant. I was seven and it was time to retrieve the education abandoned when we had left London. They proposed to send me to the Loretto Convent, a large red building overlooking Youghal Bay. My grandmother was horrified. The Loretto Convent was a Roman Catholic institution and we, as members of the Anglo-Irish class were, however notionally, Protestant.
My parents pointed out there was no Protestant school in Youghal. My grandmother was scarcely a bigot but in the late 1940s the gulf between Protestants and Catholics was still fixed and deep – as it is in our town no longer. Brought up in the government houses of varying British colonies from Jamaica to Hong Kong, she took certain social and religious proprieties absolutely for granted. She discovered that there was a tiny parochial school for Protestant children. It was about to close since attendance had just dropped below the quorum of seven children which the Church of Ireland reckoned as the minimum its budget would permit.
There had been, before the achievement of Irish independence, a substantial British garrison in Youghal. St. Mary’s Church, whose ancient bell tower loomed behind the wall of my grandparents’ equally ancient Tudor house, could hold a congregation of three thousand. Back at the turn of the century certain tradesmen, eager for the business of this garrison, had thought it opportune to convert to Protestantism. They changed ships on a falling tide. The garrison left in 1922 and a quarter of a century later we could see the descendants of the apostates, beached on the shoals of history. Their stores were ill favored by the overwhelmingly Catholic population of Youghal and they had the added misfortune, as members of the shrunken congregation of some sixty-odd souls attending St. Mary’s, to have to endure the Reverend Watts’s annual Christmas sermon. Peering down from his pulpit at the shopkeepers who were making a couple of shillings out of the Christmas buying spree, Watts would savagely denounce the gross commercialization of a holy festival celebrating the birth of the Savior. Then he took to attacking the atom bomb too and the shopkeepers saw their chance. They complained to the bishop and Watts was demoted and became curate of Watergrass Hill, a desolate hamlet twenty miles inland.
The shopkeepers had children, still officially within the Protestant fold, and these were the cannon fodder in my grandmother’s campaign. Their parents were told firmly that attendance at the parochial school was essential. A few weeks later a donkey and trap, purchased by my grandmother, made its rounds, depositing me and my new companions at the parochial school, a grey stone building just down the road from the Loretto Convent. In the last months of my sojourn at the school workmen erected a little shrine across the street. There was a statue of the Virgin and under it some lines, the first of which read ‘Dogma of the Ass’. The next line continued with ‘-umption of the Virgin Mary’. The shrine and plaque celebrated the dogma promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950, which asserted that Mary had been bodily assumed into the bosom of the heavenly father. We used to wonder what archaeologists of the future would make of the plaque, if it got broken and only the top line survived.
My grandmother rejoiced that I had been saved from priestcraft and the donkey groaned as he dragged us through the town. A few months later my parents bought a house of their own five miles from Youghal, a distance beyond the powers of the donkey. A pony, trap and gardener’s boy took me to school in the morning and then would return home. In late morning my mother would drive the trap in again for shopping and to take me home for lunch. The gardener’s boy would drive me in again to school after lunch and at the end of the afternoon make the final trip to take me home once more. Blackie thus trotted or walked twenty-four miles a day. Once the gardener’s boy forgot to fasten Blackie’s reins to the bridle but buckled them to the shoulder collar instead. It made no difference to Blackie, who started, stopped and swerved left or right at all the proper points. A photograph of Main Street in Youghal in 1948 would have shown that eighty percent of all the transportation was horsedrawn. Fifteen years later the proportions were reversed. We got our first car in 1958 when I turned seventeen, got a license and was thus able to chauffeur our family into the twentieth century.
Secure from popish influence, my education did not noticeably improve. The problem was that though Rome was held at bay, the Irish state played an important part in our instruction. It was mandatory that we be taught Gaelic and much time was set aside for that purpose every day. Thus after two years I was the regional champion in Scripture knowledge and could say ‘Shut the door’ and some other useful phrases in Irish.
My parents pondered the alternatives. They could send me – over my grandmother’s undoubted resistance – to the Christian Brothers school. Its reputation was bad aside from the brothers’ savage recourse to the pandybat. Besides, it would be of little help in the overall strategic plan of my education, which was to get me into Oxford.
Though only recently disengaged from the Communist Party and – as always – of stout radical beliefs, my father held true to his class origins in pondering the contours of his plan. The route march to Oxford or Cambridge was well established: at the age of eight the raw recruits would go to preparatory – or prep – schools and there obtain the rudiments of an education sufficient to get them, at the age of fourteen, into a ‘public’ (that is, private) school such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster and so forth.
The alacrity with which parents of the recruits dispatched them from home at the age of eight has often been noted with bemused concern by foreigners. From that year forward the child would be at home for only four months in the year. Of course many parents are far happier to see the back of a son than they may care to admit and boarding school was as good an excuse as any. Besides, these schools allowed the recruits to the system to cluster with members of their own class rather than go to a local school where contact with the lower orders might be inevitable: in sum, these prep and public schools were – and are – the training camps in the long guerrilla war of British social relations.
The form was to put down your child for a prep school as soon as he entered the world. (Girls were less of a problem and might never, at least in those days, be put down for anything at all.) My parents and I had spent a portion of 1941, the year of my birth, sitting in St. John’s Wood under ground station as the German bombs and rockets rained down overhead. My father was on the Nazi blacklist and in the event of an invasion they certainly would have shot him if his plan to escape by boat to Ireland had failed. The British authorities, scarcely less hostile to Communists than t the Nazis – and in many cases more so – were vacillating on how to deal with Reds. At first they reckoned it best to draft them, sending them to the front and hope that the first Panzers they met would do their duty. Bu then, amid the stunning exhibitions of British military incompetence, it was feared that the Reds would foment discontent and even mutiny. In accordance with this dogleg in government policy my father first got a set of peremptory call-up papers and then, almost at once, a countermanding set o instructions. Later a German V-2 rocket landed on our house and reduced it to rubble. Perhaps understandably my father had not got around to the business of putting me down for a prep school. One way or another it did not seem, in the early 1940s, that there would necessarily be prep school to go to.
But of course the prep schools survived and the ‘public’ schools survived and the British class system survived. For that matter, many of those who had engineered the destruction of our house in Acacia Road survived too. My brother Andrew found one in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. He was called Dieter Schwebs. He had been one of the designers of the V-2 and had gone to work for the U.S. after the war. By the time Andrew met him, Schwebs was in the General Accounting Office, rootling out fraud and waste in the Defense Department. Andrew told him about our house and Schwebs was full of concern: ‘Oh my heffens, nobody hurt I hope?’
I was nine, already one year late for prep school. It was July 1950 and the start of the school year was menacingly close. No suitable place willing to accept me had been found. Old friends to whom my father had not spoken in years were pressed into action and that filiation of patronage and mutual back-scratching called ‘the old boy network’ was shaken into action. One midsummer day my father dismounted from the bicycle he used to go into the town of Youghal to dispatch articles, make telephone calls and have pleasant conversations in one of Youghal’s quiet, dark bars. ‘Well, we’ve got you into Heatherdown. It’s supposed to be one of the most exclusive and expensive prep schools in England. In a couple of weeks we’ll take the boat train to London, and then go to Ascot and have a look at the school. If it seems alright we’ll get the uniforms and so forth and you’ll start there in mid-September.’
The inspection trip was pretty bad. There were no boys about, naturally, but the headmaster described the amenities with a relentless glee which was unnerving. He tried to show my father the cricket pitch of which he was plainly very proud. My father, who had no views on cricket pitches, tried to offset his lack of interest or knowledge by asking to inspect the kitchens and dormitories. The headmaster, confronted with this aberrant scale of priorities began to form what became an increasingly dubious opinion of our family’s values. There followed an expensive trip to Gorringes, school outfitters, and I was fitted out in the black and red colors that were Heatherdown’s motif.
On a grim September morning I stood on the platform at Waterloo Station. Prep schools were clustered thickly around Ascot, perhaps drawn by the magnet of Eton in nearby Windsor, and there was a rainbow of other school uniforms, of Earlywood, Scaitcliffe, Ludgrove and Lambrook. I kept my eyes alert for the red ties and caps of Heatherdown and soon saw these colors adorning a small boy who was sobbing quietly. His equally stricken mother made a lunge to cover his tear-stained face with kisses but he fought her off. Excessive displays of emotion by one’s parents were a matter for great dread. In fact any display of originality or character by them, apart from a humdrum sort of parentness or hitting a six at the father’s cricket match, was thought to be bad form. The train whistle sounded, my mother began some final gesture of valediction which seemed ominously tinged with sentiment. I scuttled into the same compartment as the sobbing child, the door slammed and we chugged into the home counties.
Daisy called. They had started filming and, ‘Daddy, we’ve found your photograph.’ Every boy leaving Heatherdown had his photograph taken. It was then framed and put up in the corridor outside the classrooms. There were all the boys who had ever been to the school, right back to Hely Hutchinson, who had his photograph taken in 1914, which meant that he may just have escaped being killed on the Western Front by 1918. About a thousand boys had gone through Heatherdown since his time. In any given year about fifty-five noisy little creatures inhabited the place, along with masters, matron, maids and gardeners.
Daisy reported that my photograph was on the top row, near the music room. I could see in my mind’s eye where it was. Next to me there was probably Miller-Mundy and next to him maybe Piggott-Brown or Legge-Bourke. Legge-Bourke’s father was a Conservative member of Parliament who once flipped a coin at Prime Minister Attlee during question time, shouting ‘Next record please.’ By the time I reached Heatherdown the first postwar Labour government was slipping from power and no one at Heatherdown was particularly upset about this. Parents of boys at Heatherdown were very conservative; masters were very conservative and the boys were very conservative too. Word got around that my father was a Red. This was not quite as bad as being identified as Irish, even though I had no brogue. Six years after a war in which De Valera had kept Ireland neutral, feeling still ran high. In argument the ladder of escalation was soon well known to me: ‘Cocky’s Irish, Cocky’s a dirty pig. … Cocky helped Hitler in the war…’ and so on.
The Attlee government had just survived the election of 1950 but when another election loomed in 1951 excitement ran high. There were endless jocular references to groundnuts – the well-intentioned but ill-fated scheme of the Labour government to cultivate peanuts in west Africa, thus providing employment for the locals and nutrition for British schoolchildren. Cost overruns and mismanagement brought the scheme low and the word ‘groundnuts’ could be guaranteed to arouse derision at any Conservative gathering between the years 1949 and 1964.
The night of the 1951 election a large electoral map of the United Kingdom was placed on an easel in the doorway of our dormitory. As the results came in over the radio a master called Hall would color the relevant constituency blue in the event of a Conservative victory and an unpleasant puce if Labour won. Legge-Bourke was in our dormitory and we naturally rooted for his father Harry, who carried the Isle of Ely by about six thousand votes. When we awoke in the morning an extensive portion of the map was colored blue – some of this being because Conservatives tended to win the large rural constituencies. A rout of Labour and of socialism was proclaimed. Actually Labour won the popular vote by about a quarter of a million, but gerrymandering saw the Conservatives win a clear majority of twenty-six seats over Labour. Thus began thirteen years of Tory rule which lasted clear through the rest of my education and ended only in 1964, just after I had left Oxford. More people, nearly fourteen million, voted for Labour in 1951 than for any British political party before or since, though this was not at all the sense of the situation one got at Heatherdown.
The headmaster was very pleased. At that time the entirely groundless fear that the Labour Party would somehow attack private education was still very great. At each Labour Party conference the rhetorical thunder against it outstripped even the tremendous bellowing against ‘tied cottages’, the feudal system whereby farm workers dwelt in their cottages only at the pleasure of their employers and, at the end of a lifetime of ill-paid labor, were evicted to the local almshouse to make way for younger muscles.
Jokes about the Labour Party were a staple among boys and masters. I was a supporter of the Labour Party – partly because I had the reputation of being Red hellspawn to maintain and partly because it seemed sensible to oppose anything favored by most of the people at the school. But I felt – amid my support – the disappointment of a fan who knows that his team is making, a bit of an ass of itself and that improvement is unlikely in the near future. The innate conservatism of British school boys in private institutions was always impressive. At my next school sometime in the late fifties, there was a mock election.’ My friend Freddy Fitzpayne ran as the Communist and got one vote. I ran as the Labor candidate and got one vote. The Scottish Nationalist got eighty-three and the Conservative ninety- five.
Fitzpayne and I represented that school in debates. Each team had its own topic on which it spoke throughout the debating tournament, no matter what the other team was talking about. Fitzpayne and I used to speak to the motion, Great Britain Must Leave NATO Now. When I sat down after proposing the motion, our opponent would rise and, depending on what school we happened to be debating, would reel off a speech about the monarchy, Scottish independence or, in the case of one debate with Dollar Academy, a spirited defense of some controversial form of pig breeding. Fitzpayne and I got as far as the semifinals with our seditious topic before losing to some polished orators from Edinburgh Academy. We were photographed in the local Blairigowrie paper toasting each other with pints of beer and narrowly escaped being expelled.
The ground squelched wetly underfoot as I walked across Central Park, brooding about groundnuts, Heatherdown and the autumn reek of Berkshire bonfires. The idea of a quick return flight to yesterday, courtesy of trans-Atlantic standby, was growing on me. If the premise of the voyage was commonplace in one respect – to see how exactly the child had become father to the man – there would be the unusual twist of being there as father of the child.
Three days later I was standing on Waterloo platform, just as I had with my mother over thirty years before. Daisy had been nervous of the idea and I knew well her familiar fear: I would somehow make a fool of myself, embarrass her in front of her friends and the entire production crew of Secrets. She reminded me of the Poppy Day Affair, a tale I occasionally told to show what I had had to cope with when I had been a boy, worried, just like her, about the embarrassment parents can cause. Even now the memory causes me to sweat and stamp about a bit.
Back in the early 1950s Armistice Day – or Poppy Day – was taken a great deal more seriously than it is now. At precisely 11 A.M. there would be two minutes’ silence in memory of those killed in the two Great Wars. The service in the little mock Tudor chapel at Heatherdown had an extra piquancy because the headmaster would bring in a small radio, just to make sure that we all fell silent at exactly 11 A.M. We didn’t associate God with radios, machines that contradicted the high-toned nineteenth-century flavor of our Anglican observances, in which diction was so etherialized that very often it was hard to tell whether we were praying for peace or for good weather on the sports day coming up next week.
As we gathered in the chapel upstairs waiting for the Greenwich Mean Time pips, parents who had traveled to Heatherdown to take their children out for the afternoon would assemble downstairs in the headmaster’s study. Since my parents lived in Ireland they rarely appeared. Other boys would occasionally invite me out for tea in Maidenhead, or to their homes if they lived relatively close by. These were the very early days of television and often the parents’ idea of an uplifting yet amusing afternoon was to assemble in front of the TV on which the BBC would run a dignified Sunday afternoon quiz show called ‘Twenty Questions.’ The contestants were the usual British salad for such enterprises, containing a couple of academics, someone known to be waggish, and a socialite in relatively decent moral standing. At the beginning of each round a voice, audible to all but the participants, would give the answer. It was a deep voice, tranquil with the power of absolute knowledge, and it would intone, ‘The answer is porridge; the answer is porridge.’ I always thought the voice of God would sound like that; unruffled and awful as He asked me why I did not believe in Him unreservedly.
On Armistice Day in 1953 my father, in London on business, traveled down to Heatherdown to take me out. He arrived downstairs just as we heard the GMT signal on the radio and fell silent. Obliged to remember and revere the fallen in war, I would think of my Uncle Teeny who had died of malaria in Italy in 1944. I had never known him but I would do my best to imagine him fighting bravely; then, after about thirty seconds, I would just concentrate on dead British soldiers generally and say thank you. Along my pew, past Walduck who was fat and who claimed his family name was Valdrake and had come over with William and Mary, I could see out of the corner of my eye MacLean, whose father had been killed in the war. Each year, about fifty-five seconds after eleven, MacLean would start crying. I think he felt he had to. There were about six boys whose fathers had died in the war and usually they all cried, chins tucked in and shoulders shaking a little. Though ‘blubbing’ was normally despised, it was regarded as fine for MacLean and the others to cry on this particular occasion.
A few minutes later the service was over and I went downstairs to meet my father. He lost no time in hurrying me into an ancient taxi waiting outside and we rattled off to Great Fosters, a ghastly mock-Tudor establishment not far off, where we would while away the rest of the day. Even before we got into the taxi my father seemed to have a furtive, slightly hangdog air. Other parents seemed to be glaring at him. I surmised with a sinking heart that he had somehow attracted unwelcome attention – not perhaps as bad as the times he would barrack the actors in London theaters (‘Perfectly sound tradition, Elizabethans did it all the time’) but still alarming.
In the taxi he confessed all. He had arrived at about ten to eleven and had joined the other parents in the headmaster’s study. ‘The conversation was a bit stilted and after a bit I thought I would try to jolly things along by telling them a couple of funny stories.’ My father was a very good storyteller, throwing himself into the anecdotes, which were often long. He used florid motions of his hands to accentuate important turns in the narrative. ‘After a bit.’ he continued, ‘I noticed that the other people didn’t seem to be following my story with any enthusiasm. When I got to the punch line they were all looking down and no one laughed at all.’
‘Oh Daddy, you didn’t!’
‘I’m afraid so.’ So he had told jokes all the way through the two-minute silence – a silence no other parent would break even in order to ask him to shut up, and meanwhile MacLean and the others were weeping upstairs. Most of the parents knew by now that Cockburn’s father, Claud, was some sort of a Red and here were their darkest fears confirmed, with the scoundrel polluting the memory of the dead with his foul banter.
The train ambled along and the conductor cried, ‘Next stop Ascot!’ The station looked relatively unchanged. On the far side of the main London road was Ascot race course. Ascot race week loomed large on the school calendar. Fathers, magnificently arrayed in morning coats and top hats, mothers with amazing summer confections on their heads, would arrive to take children for picnics of cold salmon and strawberries in the enclosure. All morning long on the Saturday of the big weekend we could see those great summer hats of the women as they drove in open cars to the race course a couple of miles up the road.
But now it was October, the track was bare and the enclosure empty. My taxi driver said that he had heard that Heatherdown was to be sold for real-estate development once the film crew had gone. The driveway, fringed with fateful rhododendrons, looked much the same and at last I entered the front door. Heatherdown had actually been built as a school just before the First World War, unlike many of the prep schools round about which were simply converted Victorian country houses with maids’ rooms converted into diminutive dormitories. All such schools were divided into the boys’ zone of activity – classrooms, dormitories and the like – and the headmaster’s private quarters. The room of concern to us was the headmaster’s study, thickly carpeted, fragrant with tobacco and terror. It was here that we were summoned for interrogation and punishment. In exact evocation of Freud’s essay on Haemlichkeit – ‘homeliness’ with a sinister and uncanny core – the study was both the closest echo of distant home and a parent’s love but also the Colosseum for the unleashed superego. My own father never beat me. The closest he ever got to it was saying once that had any other father endured such injury (I had let down the tires of his bicycle to stop him from going into town one evening), this other father would have thrashed his son savagely. But here, hundreds of miles from the security of my own father’s study, was this ersatz study, inhabited by the father-substitute who did indeed – on a few occasions – beat me with a clothes brush, once for repeatedly trying to conceal from Matron the fact that I had again wet my bed.
It was here too that the headmaster – a bouncy, bantam cock of a man called Charles Warner – interrogated me fiercely about the reason for my father’s lateness in paying the hefty school bills. I knew the reason: not enough money. But this seemed a humiliating confession and I blubbed copiously as Warner plowed on remorselessly about the need for financial promptness. At least he didn’t beat me for that, unlike Mr. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby: ‘I have had disappointments to contend against,’ said Squeers, looking very grim, ‘Bolder’s father was two pound ten short. Where is Bolder?’ ‘Here he is, please Sir,’ rejoined twenty officious voices. Boys are very like men to be sure. ‘Come here, Bolder,’ said Squeers. An unhealthy-looking boy, with warts all over his hands, stepped from his place to the master’s desk, and raised his eyes imploringly to Squeers’s face; his own quite white from the rapid beating of his heart.
When I read accounts of the early explorers surrounded by natives who seemed friendly’ but who suddenly ‘attacked without warning,’ I know just how those natives felt and I sympathize with them. To this day I have only to hear the words ‘X wants to see you in his office’ to be thrown into the state of hatred and fear with which I used to approach Warner’s study, knock on his door and hear that falsely jocose voice cry, ‘Come in.’ Some- times as I entered to my doom his wife, Patsy, used to scuttle out, giving me a cheery Hello, though she and I both knew the sombre nature of the occasion.
This fear and hatred has colored my relationship with authority, both privately and officially vested, and I count it as one of the major consequences of my education, just as my father’s Micawberish struggle, pursued with heroic tenacity to virtually the very moment he died – he dictated to my mother a column for the Irish Times almost with his last breath – to keep clear of financial disaster greatly conditioned my attitude to credit.
Photo: John Scaglioti.
Early in life in Ireland I learned to appreciate the color of the envelopes containing the day’s mail. White envelopes were good. Brown ones weren’t and my father would leave them up on the mantelpiece unopened. Over the months they would gradually get demoted from this high station to his study and then to the bottom drawer of a desk in his study. We would all laugh heartily over the form letter to creditors my father threatened to send: ‘Dear Sir, I am in receipt of your fourth communication regarding my outstanding account. Let me explain how I pay my bills. I throw them all into a large basket. Each year I stir the basket with a stick, take out four bills and pay them. One more letter from you and you’re out of the game.’
The whole school seemed silent as I walked towards Warner’s study. Presumably they were fuming elsewhere. I pushed open the door of his study. It was bare. Two film electricians were sitting on milk crates, drinking out of beer bottles. They said that the company was having lunch in the canteen out back.
I wandered upstairs and found myself facing the door of the school chapel. It used to have a thick curtain in front of it, as if to separate spiritual affairs from the coarse business of an English prep school. The curtain was gone and the door was ajar. Here I had begun my career as a choirboy, nicely done up in a sort of long red tunic and white surplice. I had a reedy alto. As the years progressed I rose to become a bass in the choir in Glenalmond – my public school. Thus, from the age of nine to the age of eighteen, my schoolmates and I had about thirty minutes of prayer each morning and each night – about three hundred hours of public worship a year. On Sundays, at Glenalmond, we had at least an hour each of matins and evensong. During these prayer-choked years I acquired an extensive knowledge of Scripture, of the Book of Common Prayer and of Hymns Ancient and Modern. It is one of the reasons I favor compulsory prayer at schools. A childish soul not inoculated with compulsory prayer is a soul open to any religious infection. At the end of my compulsory religious observances I was a thoroughgoing atheist, with a sufficient knowledge of Scripture to combat the faithful.
There was a hymnal still in one of the pews and I leafed through it. ‘As pants the hart for cooling stream/When heated in the chase …’ This had always been popular, owing to the fervor with which one could hit the D in ‘cooo-ling.’ ‘Eternal Father strong to save …’ wasn’t bad either, with its mournful call to the Almighty: ‘Oh hear us when we cry to thee/For those in peril on the sea.’ But the big hit each term was undoubtedly ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s pugnacious tune. ‘At the sound of triumph,’ we sang vaingloriously, ‘Satan’s host doth flee;/On then, Christian so-o-oldiers,/On to victoreee!’ The general religious line at Heatherdown was that Victory was more or less assured for one, unless very serious blunders let Satan squeeze in under the door. We did not spend much time worrying about damnation, except after a serious bout of cursing God’s name on a dare to see what would happen. I had once got a tummy ache after cursing God and believed in Him for at least a week. I went on leafing through the hymnal. Here was a particularly chipper one, ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ with its reassuring verse – omitted from most American hymnals, as I later discovered;
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
He ordered their estate.
The class system was never far away. My father said that his own radical beliefs had come as much from the words of the Magnificent as from the works of Marx and Lenin. You could see why. Even when chanted dolefully as a canticle the words carried a serious charge:
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He hath put down the mighty from their seat
And hath exalted the humble and meek;
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he hath sent empty away.
At Heatherdown Christ was depicted as a limp-wristed pre-Raphaelite with tepid social democratic convictions, urging a better world but shunning any robust means to achieve it. Habituated to this version of Christ, I was startled at Glenalmond when the Bishop of Dundee, preaching for an hour one Sunday evening, reported on his own personal conversations with Christ from which it had emerged that He had powerful revolutionary views. ‘He meant what He said,’ the Bishop roared. ‘The furrrst sh-aall be last, and the last sha-all be furrst!’ I was all for this in principle, though the town boys – who presumably would go to the front of the line while I dropped back – frightened me greatly.
I went downstairs and found Daisy and the others in the canteen, which had once been the carpentry shop. I had half-expected coarse film hands, rabid with cocaine and intent on debauching the girls temporarily at their mercy. To the contrary, they seemed a proper and restrained lot. To make up for lost school time a teacher had been imported and she would barely allow Daisy to talk to me before hurrying her away to her books. Daisy quickly steered me back to the main school building, along a corridor, and then pointed up. There I was in my farewell school photograph, looking rather like Daisy and exactly the same age as she was now. My eye wandered along the row: Piggott-Brown, who later founded a fashionable clothes store called Browns in South Moulton St., Walduck, Cordy-Simpson, Miller-Mundy, Lycett-Green. I gazed along the corridor and saw another, slightly less familiar face; that of Sebastian Yorke, Daisy’s mother’s first husband, who had gone to Heatherdown some five years before me.
Daisy was full of gossip about the school. It had closed very suddenly. Boys going home for the summer holidays had fully expected to return. Mr. Edwards, who had taken over from Warner, had suddenly decided to sell up. A rescue bid mounted by another master and parents had only just failed. Now local real-estate interests were about to take over and had already announced the school’s closure. Heatherdown would cease to exist – unless perhaps as a private nursing home. The photographs – the institutional record, as it were –would be thrown on the garbage heap.
It was the work of a moment to take my own photograph down, along with Sebastian’s and one of the art dealer and historian Ian Dunlop, of when I had no memory at Heatherdown but who was a friend of mine in New York. ‘Daisy to make-up,’ a voice shouted and she hurried away. I wandered along the corridor. A cupboard door was ajar and I peered in. The books were large and dusty and after a moment I realized with a shock that I was looking at the collective sporting memory of Heatherdown across half a century: the detailed record of every game of cricket played by Heatherdown’s First Eleven between 1952 and 1978. The records of soccer and rugby went back to 1935.
I pulled out The Unrivalled Cricket Scoring Book covering the years 1952 to 1956. A note on the cover said that Heatherdown had played 52, won 22, lost 11 and drawn 19. I opened it and stared down at two pages detailing a game played between Heatherdown and Ludgrove on June 26, 1954. Ludgrove had won easily, by eight wickets. I remembered the game vividly. Ludgrove had a very fast bowler. Here he was in the book – Jefferson. He was vast and hurled the cricket ball down the pitch with horrifying speed. Our champions went out to bat and trailed back almost at once, out for 0, a ‘duck.’ Then our captain, Watson. Out for a duck too. I was last man in, and walked out slowly. There was a thunder of Jefferson’s feet, a hard object swooped like a swallow down the pitch, hit my bat and spun away. ‘Run,’ screamed Lawson-Smith from the other end and I scampered to the other wicket and safety. Lawson-Smith was out next ball. Here it all was in the book, Cockburn I not out; Heatherdown all out for nineteen. ‘Lost by 8 wickets,’ Warner’s notation across the page said gloomily.
The Queen’s second son, Andrew, had gone to Heatherdown in the early 1970s and I turned to the score book covering 1971 to 1974 to see how he had done. The prince, flanked in the First Eleven by such revered names in British financial history as Hambro and Kleinwort, seems to have had his best game against Scaitcliffe on 19 May, 1973, when he had bowled and got three wickets -at a cost of four-teen runs. But in a needle game against Ludgrove on 7 June of the same year he was bowled by Agar for a duck and Ludgrove won by four runs. I dare say the memory haunts him to this day, and – should he ever assume the throne – will no doubt affect his overall performance. I found his brother, Prince Edward, battling for Heatherdown four years later. He doesn’t seem to have done much better.
I turned to the book filled with soccer and rugby scores. Warner had started filling in the exercise book in 1935. His writing did not change in over thirty years. His last entry was for 1965 at which point he must have dropped dead, because another, more childish hand starts with the Michaelmas term of that year. I was good at rugby football, being left- footed and thus having an inbuilt advantage if I played in the position known as ‘hooker.’ Here was our great season – the Lent term of 1954 – when we lost only one game. Because I had this aptitude for being a hooker in the ‘scrum’ I could be regarded as ‘good at games,’ which was a great help at school. At my next school it meant that every other week we got in a bus and went off to Edinburgh or Aberdeen to play. At the age of eighteen I stopped playing rugby, stopped hunting at home in Ireland and never took any exercise ever again. It is as though having had cold baths and gone for early morning runs for nearly ten years, one has paid in advance the physical rent check for the next thirty years.
Daisy came back from make-up in the school uniform called for in the script. It slightly reminded me of the uniform worn by the girls at Heathfield, a well-known prep school for girls right next door. My aunt had gone there in the early part of the century and almost the only other fact I knew about it was that David Niven had been expelled from Heatherdown – or said he had – for climbing over the Heathfield wall to steal a cabbage out of its garden. It seemed an odd piece of flora for a person who relished the reputation of a lady’s man to pride himself on having stolen. I suppose he thought that no one would believe him if he had claimed to have taken a rose. Heatherdown had absolutely no contact with Heathfield all those years I was there. Our school was very definitely in the non-coed tradition, holding to the view that juxtaposition of the sexes would lead instantly to debauch. Aside from the Heathfield peril, women were successfully kept at bay. Heatherdown was not as purely masculine as Mount Athos. There were Patsy Warner and Matron, a steely creature who maintained an insensate interest in our bodily functions but who – perhaps for reasons of what Herbert Marcuse later called repressive desublimation (rare was the week in which she did not seize my private parts in a chill grip as part of some diagnostic test) – did not inflame our imaginations. There were the older sisters who came and were ogled on Visitors’ Day, and that was about it.
Daisy reported that Gavin Millar had agreed that I could watch a scene being shot and that although my presence might make her feel awkward she did not really mind. I followed her up to the old school library, where the technicians were setting up the next scene.
I had read the script of Secrets. It was about bonding rituals among teenage girls, and a great many scenes consisted of Daisy and a couple of her schoolmates parodying Masonic rituals. The scene in the preparation was simple enough. It involved the same girls making moderate nuisances of themselves during a Latin class. I waited, eyeing the film crew. As always with movies, the setup went on interminably, and my attention wandered to the shelves of the library. The books seemed to be mostly the same as in my day: G.A. Henty, W.E. Johns, Baroness Orczy, W.W. Jacobs, Sapper, Jules Verne, John Buchan, P.G. Wodehouse, and for more sophisticated tastes, Nevil Shute and A.J. Cronin.
So far as politics goes these authors were all stoutly counter-revolutionary, whether it was some lad in Henty trying to thwart the Indian Mutin, a Buchan hero heading off a black nationalist upsurge in Prester John or Bulldog Drummond and his ‘Black Gang’ murdering Bolsheviks. Drummond could break a chap’s neck like a twig and laugh while doing it. He dropped Henry Lakington into an acid bath, telling him as he did so that ‘the retribution is just.’ No author in our library had much time for the French Revolution or for Napoleon. Henty did not care for them and neither did C.S. Forester. The Scarlet Pimpernel devoted his entire professional life – if ‘professional’ could be linked to so quintessential an amateur as Sir Percy, who yawned a lot and laughed down from under lazy eyelids – as Sir Perc, who yawned a lot and laughed down from under lazy eyelids – to the outwitting of the Committee of Public Safety and the stalwart revolutionary M. Chauvelin. And then there was Dickens too, with A Tale of Two Cities and the great sacrifice of Sidney Carton. In my case this ideological saturation bombing did not have much effect. One did a form of double-entry political bookkeeping – hoping for the victory of Sir Percy, Hornblower, Hannay or whoever, while simultaneously approving the deeds of St. Just, Danton, or Napoleon.
And of course the library permitted us to seek in literary guise the woman we were denied in bodily form. In Henty and Verne, women barely existed. Orczy tried harder. Sir Percy Blakeney concealed beneath his foppish nonchalance the tenderest emotions towards the Lady Marguerite and would after she had swept away, lower his lips to the stone balustrade and stair where her hand and foot had rested but a moment before. In Sapper and Buchan women had literary utility as good little troopers – like Matron, only younger. The moment of greatest sexual tension in Buchan is when Hannay realizes from the effeminate nature of the furniture that Von Stumm is homosexual (‘I was reminded of certain practices not unknown in, German General Staff’) and, in a panic bordering on hysteria, knocks him down.
Nevil Shute and H.E. Bates, powerfully represented in the school library, permitted certain intimacies. There was a strong scene in the latter’s The Purple Plain in which the hero nearly persuades the Burmese girl Anna to bathe naked with him. In the end after many sufferings he gets into bed with her, with the imprimatur of Mrs. McNab. I wandered along the shelves and found the book – no doubt the same one I fingered excitedly thirty years before. Here it was: ‘Go in and lie down and sleep with her. Nothing will be said in this house about that sort of sleep together.’ What sort of sleep? I spent a lot of time puzzling about this. Couples in those sorts of books used to embrace, then there would be some tactful punctuation and then, ‘Hours later they awoke.’ I used to think sex and sleep were indivisible, just as everyone at my next school thought that one’s virginity would expire just as soon as one contrived to be alone with a French girl. Words would be unnecessary, given the torrid and impulsive morals of these women, though just to be on the safe side we would complacently rehearse the words Voulez-vous coucher avec moi. It was curious, in the late sixties, to meet French adolescents rushing eagerly the other way, certain that Swinging London would be the answer to their problems.
It’s hard to know where these illusions about French morals started. There was the French kiss and the French letter. Brothels were legal over there too. In Ireland there were no legal brothels, no legal French letters and the rules of censorship prevailing at that time did not permit French kissing in films. The great heads on the screen of Horgan’s cinema would approach with lips puckered and then suddenly spring apart, lips relaxing after raptures excised by the scissors of the Catholic hierarchy. It was all very frustrating and I would retire to the adventures of my great hero, the shy, brilliant, and – to women – irresistibly attractive Horatio Hornblower. Who could forget the long-delayed embrace with Lady Barbara Leighton in Beat to Quarters or the spasm of passion with the Vicomtesse Marie de Graay in Flying Colors? There were three copies of this book still on the Heatherdown shelves and soon I found the well-worn page: ‘It was madness to yield to the torrent of impulses let loose, but madness was somehow sweet. They were inside the room now, and the door was closed, There was sweet, healthy, satisfying flesh in his arms. There were no doubts, no uncertainties; no mystic speculation. Now blind instinct could take charge, all the bodily urges of months of celibacy. Her lips were ripe and rich and ready, the breasts which he crushed against him were hillocks of sweetness … Just as another man might have given way to drink … so Hornblower numbed his own brain with lust and passion.’ C.S. Forester wasn’t much given to this sort of thing, but he knew how to lay it on when he had to.
Sex was mostly literary at Heatherdown. Homosexuality, at least in my cohort was unknown. My own psychosexual development was erratic. I liked to dress up in the holidays and would occasionally come down to dinner in long dress and carefully applied make-up. Years later David McEwen described to me the screen in some grim Scottish fortress when the son and heir of the house, then in his twenties, swept into dinner in long dress and white gloves. The aged butler muttered apologetically into the ear of the stricken father, ‘it’s no’ what I laid oot for him, my lorrrd.’
Whatever unease my parents may have felt at such appearances would, had they known it, been balanced by the news of my engagement to Adrienne Hamilton. At the age of ten I proposed and was accepted in the course of a stay with Adrienne at Blarney Castle, owned at the time by her mother. Next term at Heatherdown Adrienne’s cousin Henry Combe made a laughing stock out of me by publicizing the fact that I was ‘in love’ with Adrienne. This was thought to be very ridiculous. Our engagement was cancelled. I never forgave her for the betrayal and the experience no doubt has powerfully colored my relations with women ever since. When next I met her, thirty years later in New York, she laughed prettily when I reminded her of her treachery. No matter. They laughed lightly at the Count of Monte Cristo too, when he reminded them of a long-forgotten fellow called Dantes.
I put down the Hornblower. By now the technicians had set up the scene. My daughter was sitting more or less exactly in the position that I was long ago when Warner had announced that all boys in the school – some fifty-five – were doing well, except for one. This one was slacking. ‘Cockburn,’ Warner was a great finger-crooker, and his finger now crooked horribly. ‘Come here, boy.’ He had a habit of getting one by the short hairs right behind the ear and pulling up sharply. ‘Some of us aren’t working hard enough, are we?’ Jerk. ‘No, Sir.’ ‘Some of us are going to work harder, aren’t we?’ Another savage jerk. ‘Yes, Sir.’ A final jerk and Cockburn, blubbing with pain and humiliation, stumbled back to his place.
Gavin Millar kindly gave me a script. ‘Miss Johnson’ is teaching a Latin class and the girls are not behaving. Millar cries ‘Action’ and the girls, Daisy included, start making furtive animal noises. Amid their snickers Miss Johnson tries doggedly to explain the structure and importance of the Latin grammatical construction known as the ablative absolute. Finally, peering irritably at one fractious girl, she says with heavy sarcasm, ‘Louise having been blessed with such talent, we don’t have to bother to teach her,’ and goes on to outline the benefits of a classical education. ‘Ablative absolutes could be the key to your whole future. Think about it, Louise.’ Louise tries to look thoughtful and Millar says, ‘Cut.’
Could it be that my classical education, commenced at Heatherdown, is at last going to be of some immediate, practical utility?
I raised my hand and saw, out of the corner of my eye, Daisy freeze with horror and embarrassment. It was clear to her that I was about to make public ass of myself and, by extension, of her too.
‘Gavin,’ I said quietly, ‘I don’t suppose it matters, but your scriptwriter doesn’t know Latin.’ I saw a tough-looking young woman bridle at this and realized that Noella Smith, scriptwriter, was in the room. I pressed on. ‘The clause “Louise having been blessed with such talent” is really in apposition to “her,” which in turn is the object of “teach” – all of which makes it a participial accusative construction, not an ablative absolute. You could make it better by omitting the final “her,” which would sequester the Louis clause as an ablative absolute.’
Millar recognized superior fire power and ‘Miss Johnson’ was instructed to drop the final ‘her.’ She kept forgetting and the scene was reshot five times. Miller pointed out the substantial sum my quibble had cost them Daisy, having concluded that I had not made a major fool out of myself or her, hastened away to make-up and wardrobe, and the room emptied. Still pondering ablative absolutes, I looked along the library shelves till I found Latin Course for Schools, Part One, by L.A. Wilding, first published in 1949
‘The study of a foreign language,’ wrote Mr. Wilding in his introduction ‘is an exciting matter; it is like a key that will open many doors. … By a knowledge of Latin we are introduced to a great people, the Romans. The Romans led the world as men of action; they built good roads, made good laws, and organised what was in their time almost world-wide government and citizenship. At their best, too, they set the highest examples of honour loyalty and self-sacrifice.’
I leafed through the book. Exercise 65: “‘By means of justice and kindness Agricola wins over the natives of Britain.” Translate.’ This must be Tacitus. Tacitus, married to General Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s daughter wrote a toadying biography of his father-in-law. Wilding’s textbook was strewn with what I could now see was heavy propaganda for the benefits o imperial conquest, whether Roman or British. Exercise 171: ‘Render into Latin, “It is just,” they say, “to surrender our city to the Romans: such men know how to keep faith even in war. They have conquered us, not by force but by justice, and we and the Roman people will hand down a good example to the human race.”‘ Exercise 65: ‘Render into Latin: “By mean of justice and kindness Agricola wins over the natives of Britain. He then hastens beyond Chester towards Scotland. He rouses his troops to battle and to victory. At first Agricola wastes the land, then he displays to the natives his moderation.”‘
It is summer in 1952 and Mr. Toppin has us penned in, even though the bell has gone for morning break. We are in Latin class and Mr. Toppin is trying to give us a sense of occasion. ‘This is the speech of Calgacus to his troops before the battle at Graupian Hill in A.D. 84. Calgacus is the name Tacitus gives the Scottish general. “Hodie pro patria adhuc libera …‘ Cockburn? “Today…”’ ‘Today you will fight for a country still free against the Romans….’ ‘Good “Patriam vestram in dextris vestries portatis”?’ ‘You carry your country in your right hand….’
Wilding left it in no doubt, in his simplified and polite version of Tacitus, that the Roman victory at Mons Graupius was a good thing. Ten thousand Scots fell that day, the blood of kerns flowing in the heater near Inverness, not so far from where I was born. The Romans slaughtered till their arms were tired. Night, as Tacitus put it, was jubilant with triumph and plunder. The scots, scattering amid the grief of men and women, abandoned their homes and set them on fire. The day after, bleak and wet, disclosed more fully the lineaments of triumph: silence everywhere, lonely hills, houses smoldering to heaven.
Resolute to favor Roman imperialism over British nationalism – Viking imperialism was a different matter – Wilding suppressed the eloquence of Calgacus’s appeal to his troops, as conceived by tacitus. Back in London the next day I looked it up in the Loeb translation: ‘Here at the world’s end, on its last inch of liberty, we have lived unmolested to this day….’ Calgacus gestures down the hill to where the Romans – in actual fact Provencal French, Spaniards and Italians – stand with their German auxiliaries: ‘Harriers of the world, now that earth fails their all-devastating hands – they probe even the death: if their enemy have wealth, they have greed; if he be poor, they are ambitious; East nor West has glutted them; alone of mankind they behold with the same passion of concupiscence waste an want alike. To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.’
Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They make a desolation and they call it peace. The phrase has echoed down the ages as the tersest condemnation of Rome. Nothing of this in Wilding.
Those were the days in the early 1950s when the British Empire was falling rapidly apart. On Sundays boys at Heatherdown had to write a weekly letter home (‘Dear Mummy and Daddy, I am very well. How are you…’) and many of the envelopes at our school were addressed to army posts in Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus and other outposts of shriveling empire. At school I would hear grim tales of the Kenyan Mau Mau and then go home to hear my father consider such events in a very different way.
Both my father and I, forty years apart, studied classics. A significant portion of this study was spent considering the birth and practice of democracy in Athens in the fifth century B.C. It seemed to be the consensus of our teachers that between fifty-century Athens, at the senate under the Roman Republics and nineteenth- and twentieth-century West minster, nothing much of interest by way of political experiment had occurred, and that the virtues and glories of ancient Greece and modern Britain were essentially the same.
There was a problem, of course. One of the first words to be found in Wilding was ‘servus,’ meaning ‘slave.’ In our Greek primer the word ‘doulos‘ soon obtruded itself. Our schoolmasters could not conceal from us that Athenian ‘democracy’ was practiced on the backs of hundreds and thousands of these servi or douloi. The fact of slavery was acknowledge but with that acknowledgement the matter was closed. Thus the statement ‘Athenian democracy was a great and noble achievement’ was accompanied by the footnote, ‘Athenian democracy was based on slavery.’ But the footnote remained a footnote and two people being given a ruling-class education in Britain at either end of the first half of the twentieth century were taught that democratic achievement and slavery were not mutually contradictory. This sort of instruction was helpful if one was to continue to run the British Empire with a clear conscience. (Twentieth-century British classics teachers were not the only people to remain somewhat silent on the matter of slavery in the ancient world. The great classical historian G.E.M. de Ste. Croix has written that he knows of no general, outright condemnation of slavery inspired by a Christian outlook before the petition of the Mennonites in Germantown in Pennsylvania in 1668.’
I left the library and walked down to the old dining room, now changed by the set designers into a school laboratory. Daisy was hurrying through, on her way to another bout of tuition. At her London day school she had decided against Latin and in favor of German, despite some dutiful lecture from me on the merits, even if only from the vantage point of etymologic comprehension, of a classical grounding. This was, for the second time in my life, my last day at school, though devoid of that immense spiritual and physical rapture connected to ‘ends of term’ back in the fifties. In those days I would go up to London on the school train and there be met by father who would take me off to a treat, usually lunch at some restaurant such as Rules, Simpsons, or Chez Victor. Once we went out with Gilbe Harding, a noted radio ‘personality’ of the day. This ‘personality’ was the choleric Englishman, perpetually raging against poor service and so forth. We were never able to get through lunch because Harding, in order to keep this income-yielding ‘personality’ at full stretch, would burst forth after about ten minutes with curses at management and waiters and we would have to leave. Then, later in the day, my father and I would board the boat train at Paddington in the company of about four thousand other Irish passengers. It was so crowded that once my father could not even get his hand into his upper pocket to get out a whiskey bottle and had to ask the man on his other side to help him.
In these more sophisticated times Daisy and I discussed our Christmas rendezvous in New York after her term was over. I had hoped to persuade the set photographer to take a picture of her standing in front of the same rhododendron bush as I, when I had my farewell photograph taken. But by now the novelty of the old-Heatherdown-boy-with-daughter-in-film was wearing off. I remembered how revisiting fathers, trying to find the initials they had carved in their school desks, had seemed vaguely ridiculous to us and decided not to outlast my welcome. The taxi took me off down the drive past the empty swimming pool, and I had carefully on my knee the old portrait, saved by my daughter from the wrecker’s ball.
— Grand Street, 1985
Alexander Cockburn’s latest book, Guillotined, is now available from CounterPunch.