The Age of the Cane

THE VICTORIAN façade of my old primary school greatly impresses Clara, whose taste in architecture tends towards the turreted. “It’s very grand, Mum,” she says. “Like Malory Towers. Did you have tuck and play lacrosse?”

“Not exactly,” I tell her. “We had sherbet dabs and toffee like they do in Enid Blyton, but we didn’t call it ‘tuck’.”

“And what about the lacrosse?” Clara is vigilant for signs of social distinction in our family tree; she is sure that if we go back far enough, we will find princesses swapped at birth with peasants, and the lacrosse would at least be a start. As so often, however, she is disappointed. “Sorry, darling, no lacrosse either. The boys played football and the girls played endless skipping games. But,” I add, keen to provide a hint of exoticism, “there were strictly separate playgrounds for boys and girls, and if you strayed into the wrong one, you got whacked with the cane.”

“Caned?” says Clara. “You mean the teachers actually hit you?” Things are looking up. Possibly the only point of contact between my Northern Irish state primary school and the English public schools Clara loves to read about was a shared passion for corporal punishment. When I was my daughter’s age, I tell her, I was beaten almost every day of my school life.

“Mum!” Clara’s tone is admiring. “Imagine you the Naughtiest Girl in the Form!” “But I wasn’t,” I protest, truthfully. “I only ever got whacked for talking or eating in class. If anything, I was the teacher’s pet. And I thought he was the best teacher I ever had.”

In many ways he was. The most cane-happy teacher in the school was also the one who would spend entire afternoons reading The Moonstone aloud because neither he nor we could bear to close the book at the end of the chapter. We were also made to learn and recite epic poetry by the yard, with an encouraging tickle from the cane if we dropped a line, and none of us thought it a cruel or unusual punishment. By contrast, my bitterest school memories are of the teacher who spared the rod but humiliated the child with sadistic precision. (“Sit down, Edith Evans,” was her icy comment on my affecting rendition of “Horatio on the Bridge”. I wasn’t sure who Edith Evans was; much less were my classmates. But it didn’t stop them calling me “Edith” in sniggery tones.)

I would, of course, be horrified if Clara or her brother came home from school with weals across their hands because they slipped up on spellings or times tables. On the other hand, I don’t think that my own education left lasting scars. But then, I reason, more to myself than to my daughter, I’m probably the person least able to judge.

“I expect,” says Clara, who has inherited her mother’s dramatic tendency, “you will take the Memory to Your Grave.”

“I’d rather take it to the sweetshop I used to spend my dinner money in,” I tell her. “Let’s see if they still do sherbet dabs.”

“Rather,” says Clara in her best Blyton-ese. And, foaming sweetly at the mouth, we head home to Granny’s for tea with lashings of Sprite Zero.