I do not know if I was born with a passion for spending all day alone in the wildest parts of the countryside. I suspect it was due to circumstances, such as the start of my school life. When I was seven I was sent off to school at Ellerslie, about 7 miles away. My parents used to drive me there in the family buggy. During my first term, the senior boys of the school were having a game, which was to prevent some of them from entering the building.
I was standing on the concrete floor of the washplace at the time, with a row of basins round two sides of the room, and above the basins a row of oblong windows, hinged at the top, which pushed outwards. Through one of these windows appeared the head and shoulders of my brother, trying to get into the building. I picked up a handful of sawdust from a box on the floor and threw it in his face. It was a silly, thoughtless thing to do, but certainly not done from malice, only excitement. A bit of this sawdust went into his eye, and I can remember his bending over the basin and bathing it.
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As a result of this I was ‘put in Coventry’ for three weeks, and for the whole of that time not a single boy in the school spoke to me. My brother, who was four and a half years older than me, was one of the senior boys. I do not know if he had any part in the ‘Coventry’ punishment, but he never spoke to me during the period of it. It seems hard to believe that senior boys would do such a thing to a seven-year-old new boy, just because of a stupid joke that went wrong. I can assume only that I must have been very objectionable, perhaps precocious; I don’t know.
This episode turned me into a rebel against my fellows; every boy was an enemy unless he proved himself to be a friend. I seemed to have to fight for everything, and the school appeared as tough as a prison. To make matters worse, I was often in trouble with the headmaster. My first term I was up for a beating seven times. The headmaster, who was a big, powerful man, sent one up to one’s dormitory at a fixed time. Here, one waited beside one’s bed. Being kept waiting was the worst part, and I couldn’t stop myself from trembling. He made us strip off our trousers, and beat us on the bare bottom. But not always. Sometimes he made us strip off and bend over, and then didn’t beat us. Outside the windows of that dormitory there were creeping plants like Cape gooseberries with bobbleshaped fruit dangling in the wind. Waiting there, I used to see the sparrows flitting amongst this creeper, and this stayed in my memory as a picture of misery. After a year or so my parents took me away from this school; but not because of the tough conditions, only because I was always ill there, which was a nuisance.
I made no friends at that school, and I had none at home. I had two sisters, but the older, Barbara, was five years younger than me, and we hadn’t much in common in the way of adventure. I gradually drifted into the habit of setting off on my own into an escape world of excitement and adventure.
By the time I was transferred to another preparatory school, the Old Ride, at Branksome, Bournemouth, I must have been a thorough savage, a rebel against everybody, including my parents. But I loved the Old Ride. I liked the boys, I liked the masters and I liked the place itself with its strong, pine smell, and the sandy soil covered with pine needles. In summer we used to go down to the sea through a chine in the cliff, and bathe every morning. The salty water and the hot sunshine made one feel so languorous that it was difficult to struggle back up the chine. I usually found time to scan some of the silvery-sided leaves looking for puss moth caterpillars, with their tapered green bodies and huge, dark-faced heads with two horns. We would be quite content to get a little brown egg or two on the underside of a leaf, and rear the caterpillars ourselves, until they made cocoons in a piece of pine bark. The headmaster, S. A. Phillips, with his stubby, round figure, walrus moustache (off which he would suck drops of soup) and big round spectacles which he pushed up his forehead, made his mistakes, but who doesn’t? Perhaps one of the worst that I got involved in was when our dormitory was caught after Lights Out with everybody visiting some other boy in his bed. There was the most frightful hullabaloo about this, and we were brought up for questioning one at a time for week after week, and finally all flogged. We were told we were very lucky not to get the sack, and I believe that if we had not all been involved, we would have. No one mentioned the word ‘homosexuality’, and I would not have known what it meant if it had been mentioned. And as we used to visit every other bed in turn, I am quite sure that I must have known if any of the boys were interested in this vice. I don’t think any of them knew anything about it, and that we merely used to go and swop yarns, and the whole spice of the matter was that it was forbidden to talk after Lights Out. Later, I nearly got expelled from my public school for the same offence when I was caught handing back a piece of india rubber that I had borrowed from another boy, and which was suspected of being a note. At that time I still did not know what homosexuality was, and was not in the least interested. Maybe this was unusual at a public school. My view is that only one or two boys went in for it, though the masters seemed to think that every boy in the school was at it.
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