“If”

During the Cultural Revolution, I remember some conservative idiot pointing at a photograph of Chinese schoolchildren drilling with rifles, and pontificating about how this demonstrated that the Communists were militaristic monsters. And yet the Chinese schoolchildren drilled with wooden pretend-guns; at the same time, some British schoolchildren, those outside the state sector, were drilling with real ones. For most non-state schools then supported what they called “Combined Cadet Forces”. (At my school the “combined” referred only to army and air force, as we were a long way from the sea.) From the age of 14 or so, all boys who were unable to extort parental certification for conscientious-objector status had to spend at least two afternoons a week doing squarebashing, route marches, parades through the town, firing exercises with real infantry weapons and so forth. I believe that all the shooting on the school playing-fields was with blanks, but that live rounds were used elsewhere. The Air Force was a joke with a mission of launching a one-man glider by ropes and boy-power, and I never heard of them actually succeeding; the school Army was a perfectly serious warlord militia of child soldiers that the UN unaccountably failed to suppress.

In addition to the two afternoons, there was an awful lot of uniform-cleaning, boots-polishing, whitening, buffing and so forth, lest the devil find work for idle hands to do. The masters, several of whom thought it amusing to assign a whole evening’s homework (four hours) to pupils who had already been assigned their four hours by rival masters, found more work for idle hands than the devil ever dreamed of. For the whole theory behind the British public school was not only to educate the future rulers and soldiers and exterminators of uppity natives in the Empire, but also to make the real Army seem like a nice cushy number.

The masters acted as the commissioned officers, each of them sporting the rank he had attained in the Second World War, regardless of position in the academic hierarchy. And so the C.O. was a junior science master, dim but fairly amiable, who had made Major. The sixth-form Classics master was a dapper bantam who revelled so gloriously in his captain’s uniform and in all military ritual that I strongly suspect he had held a desk job during the war. In contrast, the junior Classics master had been a Lancaster bombardier, and very clearly suffered from what would later be called post-traumatic stress disorder; I do not think he enjoyed having to be an air force officer again, but was not given a choice. Those masters who, by virtue of youth or incapacity, had not been in the wartime forces enjoyed far less prestige. Both masters and parents of that generation could give the impression that the main reason for wanting to have or teach children was to recapture the sensations of power and authority they had so enjoyed in the war.

The NCOs were the prefects. That is, most of the senior boys got to enjoy legal authority over the junior boys both qua prefects and qua corporals and sergeants. Such authority extended to outside school hours, a prefect could punish a junior he caught in the town in the evening; for polluting the soil of the town centre by schoolboy feet was forbidden by school curfew, even if he was a local day-boy and lived at home, see the foregoing. Despite being studious and well-behaved, I myself was never a prefect, probably because I was not in the CCF. The school bullies, of course, were NCOs; and they enjoyed themselves immensely.

At my school, prefects could give Lines, and Detention, but not corporal punishment. This was a relatively liberal policy, and indeed, it was the right of prefects in more conservative schools to flog small boys – more severely than in any Taliban videos we have seen – that inspired the school revolt in the film If….. Gunning down the school sadists, masters, governors and stuffed-shirt parents at Speech Day was, in all probability, meant to be a dream sequence. But such schools had perfectly real armouries, so it could in fact have been done. Indeed, it could only have been done that way, since at that time and place there were no firearms to be had outside the school.

Posted on February 10, 2011 at 10:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: PARENTAL STATUS TECHNOLOGY, Hugo Grinebiter's Schooldays

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