Goodbye and Good Riddance
So 30 years and more after I slouched away one fine May afternoon in 1969 from a school which had probably despaired as much of me as I had of it, I find all these fine fellows who both know and believe in the school song. Perhaps somewhere there are some of my approximate vintage who can let me know if my memories play me false or if perhaps that foreign country which is the past was not quite the garden of Eden painted by so many. Anyway here goes with the recollections:
The Royal High School didn’t know what it wanted to be, or what it was supposed to be. It had some of the finest buildings of any school in Edinburgh, if not in Scotland, with pillars and frontage borrowed from ancient Greece and an impressive central chamber where seven hundred boys circled the central pit of headmaster – or Rector, this being the Royal High School – and masters. It had its history, its tradition and its own language.
I was ready to be impressed by it all on day one. The moment I entered the gate, the sheer scale of this new world hit me. This wasn’t a school as I knew it. These people striding around in blazers were men, not boys. They all knew what they were doing, where they were going. They belonged. I didn’t know what I was doing, where I was going. Dare I hope that one day I might belong?
All the new boys – around 120 of us, Neil was the only one I knew – had to report to the main hall for a special assembly. There we learned that, for the first year, we would be known as guytes – a Scottish word, the wide-eyed 12 year olds were told, indicating one who had much to learn, a novice. We were told too of the history, how the school had been founded by the Abbot at Holyrood in the early part of the twelfth century.
The intervening years were somewhat skated over until the establishment of the school in the present grounds in the lee of Calton Hill in the mid-nineteenth century. The spurious history was built upon by a ritual reading of some 100 year old school rules and a call to us all, during our careers within these illustrious walls, to build on the ancient traditions.
The trouble was just what were these ancient traditions? The Royal High was no centre of academic excellence, being a division or more beneath the major public schools of the Edinburgh Academy and Fettes and well down table of Heriots, George Watsons or the other nearest equivalents. In my first year the rarity of such achievements was marked with the educationally suspect award of a half-day holiday for the whole school to celebrate Oxford accepting our then Dux for a place.
Ronnie Robin and Conmen
Our sport was average, so too was our involvement with the community. Great men did not emerge from the Royal High – although many years later a fraud squad inspector did assure me that my old seat of learning produced more than its fair share of confidence tricksters. Ronnie Corbett was a famous old boy; I glowed with schoolboy pride when I was able to hold the door open for him when he came to address the school one year. Four years ahead of me was another RC who would achieve some fame – Robin Cook whose credentials for the Labour Party never seem to include the several years he spent at the old school by the Calton Hill. Perhaps he wants to forget his sweeping victory in the mock elections of 1964 when his impassioned oratory swept the board for the Scottish National Party. A smattering of boys swam or ran for Scotland.
But the school thought a lot of itself – whatever it was had rubbed off on my parents and they were clearly delighted at my choice of senior school. The janitor probably summed it up. Just as the head was the Rector so the janitor had some ancient title – lost in the swamps of my memories but, anyway, never used by the boys: he was always “the jannie” – but, like many pointless titles, an outfit came with the territory. He wore a gigantic blue serge coat, waisted and swirling near to his ankles with a double milky way of brass buttons running from neck to knee. He had powers too. “Hands out of pockets!”, or just “Hands!” would bellow out ceaselessly in best parade ground style from before registration to final bell whenever a guyte was seen with so much as a finger edging towards a pocket.
1B Knew their Place
The oddities and traditions, the expectations and responsibilities explained to us, the guytes were ready for their first taste of the education this institution was there to provide. First a roll-call by classes with our form masters where we learned precisely where we stood in the pecking order. The year was split by ability into four classes, individual status brutally spelled out by the class codes. 1X was the top class – all the scholarship boys, topped up with the cream of the rest; 1A1 for the bright boys; 1A2 for the – in Royal High School terms – average and 1B for those who were lucky to be there at all.
Rosa Kleb and the Joys of Algebra
Then there was the ritual copying down of timetables: Maths and German, English and History, Biology and Chemistry, Technical Drawing and Latin, Geography and Music – I felt the foreboding knotting in my stomach. I was used to reading and writing…in one classroom…with an eternally patient mumsy teacher who thought I was clever and entertaining. I sank from lesson one as Flossie – one of only three female teachers at the Royal High School, but as mumsy as Rosa Kleb – introduced us to the joys of algebra. Virtually all the boys in the top two classes came either from the Royal High junior or from other preps where they had already been taught this strange new language and mimicked the organisational structure. German, history, music – the forty minutes periods followed one on the other, the words and orders clattering meaninglessly around a skull which had never felt so empty. And that was day one. Day two was worse, and day three was worse than that and day four….
But the academic was just one part of it
Who Wore Short Shorts?
Our uniform was surprisingly straightforward. Black blazer, black and white striped tie – prefects got plain black – white or grey shirt and grey trousers. There were official school suppliers but acceptable uniform could be bought in virtually any chain store. The grey shorts were the one problem for our mothers.
Oh these shorts! Most of the world had moved on – perhaps not the Academy and Fettes, but they breathed a rarefied air there – and even by 1963 shorts were reserved for little kids and seaside holidays. Not at the Royal High. Shorts it was in the first and second years. Murder it was in the streets around going to and from school. The frozen legs in winter weren’t fun, but were bearable compared to being a walking target for every other schoolboy in town. Mockery was daily, scuffles, fights and bloody noses often followed. I suppose it helped toughen us up and even formed a team spirit among the oppressed guytes and second years united by their badges of shame, but it confirmed – if confirmation were needed – that rule one at the Royal High was to show the boys who was in charge and what better way than making them bend a naked knee?
Spare the Rod? Fat Chance.
The school was wedded to a slapdash and arbitrary sense of discipline – a system the street wise or sly who might have needed the discipline could buck most of the time; a system that broke the meek who didn’t need it. Probably I needed the discipline. I became street wise and sly.
The belt – we never called it the tawse; why glorify that crude instrument with a romantic name? – and the slipper – in practice a gym shoe – were the enforcers. Miss Fairley at my primary school of Wardie had occasionally – when even her sweet reason was exhausted – tapped a hand or two with her strip of brown leather; it hurt little more than giving a hearty round of applause but made the point. The men at the Royal High had a different agenda.
I’d been at school a couple of weeks when our class was huddled in a segment of that inspiring central hall taking a music lesson from Mr Bowie. Bowie was a tall, florid faced man with a small but developing carbuncle smack in the middle of his forehead. He epitomised the teaching staff with an impatient and didactic teaching style combined with a demonstrated contempt for his charges. We all felt relief when Jocky, the Deputy Head, came in to talk to Bowie and we were simply ignored as the two discussed their business. After all why should two masters be concerned about 25 boys sitting idly on rows in front of them? They’d get attention when the time was right.
We kept silent. Then there was a whisper or two. I was next to Neil, who was sitting, slightly short of space on the very end of the row. I squeezed against him, trying to slide him off the bench; he pushed back, jamming me against the next boy. Back and forth a couple of time, playing, smiling. Then he was almost off the bench and we both let go with muffled giggles.
“What’s this?” Bowie boomed in his voice of cultivated threat, “can’t you see we’re talking?”
Neil and I mumbled apologies.
“Not very good discipline, Mr Bowie”, said Jocky, a smaller man with an affected twinkle in his eyes.
“Indeed not, Mr Cunningham. I think they need to learn a lesson”
“An excellent idea, Mr Bowie”
We knew what was coming. But I couldn’t believe it. What right did these two have to play these games with us – to mock and abuse those who were totally within their power?
We were called down to the front. Bowie went to the drawer in his music stool and took out his belt. It wasn’t like Miss Fairley’s little tickler. This was two and a half feet long, nearly half an inch thick with a gently tapered tongue split centrally for the final eight inches or so.
“Put your hands out…no together” That was the approved method. No just stretching out one hand as we had done at Wardie – and letting it drop down as the belt slapped across the palm. No, both arms had to be outstretched, one palm on top of the other, making it more difficult to ride the blow and above all offering up the sensitive skin of the inside of the wrists and forearms.
Bowie stood square ahead of us, swung his arm up and over his shoulder so the belt tip hung down to his waist then, straightening his arm, swung the brown leather in a swift arc. There was no great force but plenty of speed. Neil was first. I couldn’t take it in. There was a crack and Neil was crouched, his hands pulled into his body, his face twisted and eyes screwed shut. It couldn’t be as bad as that.
My turn. The arc repeated. My hands, my palms, my fingers, my wrists all screamed in pain. I kept my mouth to a gasp. I crammed my hands under my armpits trying to squeeze the pain away, I bent almost double, my teeth clenched trying, unsuccessfully to stop the tears welling in my eyes. Oh my God, I thought, there’ll be more. I can’t take this. I’ll die.
But Bowie and Cunningham had had their fun.
“I think one will be sufficient on this occasion, don’t you, Mr Cunningham?”
“Indeed, Mr Bowie, I think they’ve learned a lesson”.
We crawled back to our benches. The rest of the class were silent as tombstones. Our hands hurt for the rest of the day; I had red weals and swellings on my wrists for three days. But no-one mocked. I had feared they would. This had been just one stroke – I knew two or even four was not unknown with other teachers – so how had I collapsed under just one? Perhaps it was just that awful novelty, perhaps Bowie was a master of the art. I was to be belted half a dozen times more in my time at the Royal High – although never by Bowie – and even these multiple strikes never achieved a half of what I suffered that day. Painful, for sure, but the belts were shorter, the arc never so pronounced , the speed never so terrifying. I don’t know. But I soon learned that Bowie – had I known it before – that Bowie and his belt were feared throughout the school, even though – of perhaps because of, that fear – he hardly ever used it. Certainly I can never remember anything except absolute obedience from that day on in my classes with him. Neil and I must just have had the misfortune to have been the example he would make with a new group of boys. Perhaps it works. It certainly achieved what he wanted.
Learning through Pain
The slipper sounds cosy and harmless. As a hefty gym shoe wielded with a strong right arm on a taught adolescent backside it is anything but cosy. As an educational aid it was valued at the Royal High School. Gym teachers were sure I could haul my puppy fat up a rope or stand on my hands if the alternative was a crack across the backside and seemed so genuinely surprised at my continued failing that they abandoned even that tried and tested method. But in Latin it was an integral part of the learning process.
Badger was a little, well… badger shaped character with a nose which on its own gave the nickname credibility. He was a leading light in House rugby – or rather, this being one of the Royal High’s uncertain traditions, Nation rugby, as all the boys were allocated on arrival to be Scots, Picts, Britons or Angles – and could often be drawn off the subject of the day to discuss the finer points of the offside laws or the first 15’s chances on Saturday. And always we tried to draw him off the subject as, whatever else might happen, whatever scraps of Latin might inadvertently lodge in our brains, we knew that in every period at least one boy and probably several would feel the encouragement of his size ten on their buttocks.
Vocabulary was a guaranteed harvest. Whatever we’d been set as homework, he’d go round the class calling out words for the Latin or English translation. Get one wrong and you had to stand up. Standing up then increased your chances of more questions being fired at you. Any more wrong answers and you had to make a note.
It was simple really. At the end of the little oral test those standing up said how many they had got wrong (and don’t try lying, he kept a note as well) and that was how many strokes of the slipper you got. As many as eight boys could be lined up touching their toes (keep the legs straight, it makes for a nice tight target and a tensed buttock is a tender buttock) after a particularly poor performance.
Strange, isn’t it, that despite it all, Latin and I never got on and I dropped it the moment I could.
Prefects were allowed to use the slipper as well for minor misdemeanours and boys being what they are it was a privilege they ensured did not die out through lack of use – besides it gave them something to do in the prefects’ common room at breaks. The first time they picked me out was only a month or so after my meeting with Mr Bowie’s peacekeeper; I’d been scuffling with some friends in the playground and didn’t show the proper respect to the prefects who told us to break it up. I was picked up bodily by three of them, carried up the stairs to their common room and stretched across a table, one bracing a foot against the edge while holding my wrists to keep my arms stretched while two other held a leg each and an unseen fourth hit me six times. They weren’t so expert, their enthusiasm for the game took away the power and the pain wasn’t so great. But the humiliation and powerless rage wiped even that pain away.
I was 12, I was in my first term at this school. There were probably another 17 terms to go. Things could only get better.