“Bend over,” said the head. It didn’t quite hurt him as much as it hurt me

WHEN “THE HM”, my old headmaster, beat me, after I had been waiting outside his door for half an hour, I was relieved. I was not shocked or mentally damaged. The physical pain was not great. The beating marked the end of the period during which I was waiting to be beaten; I just wanted to be beaten and then change into my games clothes. Also, the beating made our relationship, mine and the HM’s, meaningful; it created a necessary context. He had humiliated me in public, and made me wait, alone, outside his study, for half an hour. After the beating, I cried. That’s one of the things that was good about it; it gave me a chance to cry.

I hated the HM for beating me; I hated him much more for almost everything else he did to me on that day. Another good thing about the beating was that it gave me an official outlet for this hatred. After the beating, I had something concrete to rail against; it made my relationship with the HM appear less complicated than it was, even to me. I was not yet a teenager.

I don’t think he was trying to hurt me. It was not a beating situation as depicted, say, in the Beano, with the teacher actually angry at the moment of hitting.

The HM’s motive for beating me, far from being a reflex, or a moment of bad temper, was the fulfilling of a contract. I don’t think he was a man who actively wanted to beat people; he just wanted to maintain his image as somebody who would, when necessary, beat people. He was a bulky man and, I thought at the time, slightly self-loathing and unpredictable, in my mind the worst kind of headmaster to have.

The HM had not been the headmaster when I first arrived at the school; he had replaced a tweedy old chap who, in my memory, resembled John Le Mesurier. But how reliable is my memory? The two men, in any case, were a contrast. The HM, younger and more visibly religious, visualised our small prep school as a place of discipline and prayer. He had played in the scrum for somebody goodish, but not top notch. He liked the manly discipline of the scrum. Mind you, I liked the manly discipline of the scrum, too.

The HM instituted some hard and fast rules where, under the previous regime, there had merely been customs. There was a rule that when, during lunch, the HM banged the tiny gong he kept on his table, everybody else had to stop talking. Then the HM would start talking, and people would listen, not because the things the HM was saying where intrinsically interesting, but because he spoke into a void of silence. To break the silence was to be ejected, publicly, from the refectory, and, under duress, to make the lonely trudge towards the HM’s “study”.

The day I was beaten, I fell foul of the “gong” rule by precisely one word. We had just settled down to the first course. I had eaten three or four forkfuls of food. I was telling a joke. The gong went. My punch line was one word long. I was not going to hold back, not when I’d got this far. I said the word. People laughed. It was a great moment. If people had not laughed, my one word might have been overlooked.

I knew what my fate would be. The second-worst thing was being told to get out of the refectory and having nothing to do but obey. I held back tears. Flushed, I walked between two rows of chair-backs. I did not turn, heroically, at the door.

The worst thing was the waiting. I arrived at the study. Nobody was around. That was it. I spent half an hour, still hungry, doing nothing. I wanted to cry with frustration, but did not.

After half an hour, the HM came to his study. He was bustling. He did not appear to be absolutely sure of himself. He was trying to act as if he were still angry with me, which he was not.

For about five seconds, we looked at each other. He was scanning the room for something to beat me with. He picked up one of his own tennis shoes, still laced, an item he must have pulled off hurriedly, in a recent sweaty moment.

He said something like: “Bend over that chair.”

There was a tone of weariness in his voice. He was a man about to beat a boy, for what must have seemed, even to him, an unconvincing reason.

This was corporal punishment. It didn’t hurt much. After everything else, it came as something of a relief. I jogged off, bottom smarting, tears of righteous hatred in my eyes.