Friday, 20 February 2009

Potted Blog Biog: Part two – off to Merrie England!

I was rudely inducted into the native (as opposed to colonial) English way of life when, having arrived after a six-week voyage round the Cape of Good Hope (Suez Crisis) with my tan wan from Yellow Fever, post-recovery I was packed off to another boarding school near Battle, East Sussex.
Here I discovered, among other things, the meaning of the cane and the other use for the cricket bat, before settling into a routine of overt compliance with the many regulations that ensure the smooth running of an hundred or more boys.
Loyalty to one’s ‘House’ was instilled by naming them after the warring city-tribes of ancient Greece and tested on the playing fields below. I was a Corinthian, blue, and certainly more elevated (we had our own columns, after all) than the warlike Spartans (red) or wet Athenians (green).
Naturally, we learned Greek as well as Latin, the better to learn English and for the sheer discipline, through good offices of our Latin, and Head-, Master, the redoubtable Mr. “Shere” Kahn (correct – not Khan) and a well-aimed chalk or board rubber.
There the obligatory midnight feasts under the floorboards of the gym were hosted by those Epicurians whose fathers smuggled bottled chicken and pickles in the boots of their Bentleys to instil in their offspring early the art of entrepreneurial domination through largesse and favouritism. In the weekly tuck-shop grab we all queued eagerly craning our necks to see as our lockers containing a half-term’s supply were opened, one by one, under the eagle eye of the moustachioed Matron Crabtree, and their rationed treasures extracted, followed by the inevitable bartering sessions in which we discovered the relative value of different confections and altered our holiday orders to secure the maximum exchange-rate-benefits the following term.
Whether officially sanctioned or not, I fail to remember, but we boys brought to school mementoes of our, or other, former lives and other cultural treasures, for many and varied were our origins. My collection included World War One German field-glasses (later cunningly disassembled by my brother to access the lenses and prisms), my grandfather’s World War One brass army compass, a parang (Malay jungle knife), Kukri (Ghurka knife), Kris (Malay ceremonial execution knife) and a jungle saw (two loops and a sawed wire which one tensed across a knotched stick bent over like a bow) to complete the ‘jungle-shelter’ building equipment for use on ‘frees’ deep in the four hundred acre woods. But my pride was the six-foot long Semang (or Sakai, I forget which of the indigenous peoples gave this to my father) blowpipe with its bamboo darts that could penetrate solid wood.
Our inspirational Maths master, the (seemly) eighty-year-old Colonel “Pepperpot” Pearson, with his shiny freckled pate and white Nietzschean moustache tinged with tobacco-juices, and his “have a Mintoe, boy” response to every correct answer, could often be seen out of school hours galloping full pelt across field and hedge on his huge cavalry charger.
I learned to run (faster), to play rugger (rougher), and cricket (harder) and I was all set on a career as a leg spin bowler (tested by bowling onto an hand-kerchief, moved ever further from the stumps) for the second eleven when an unfortunate accident put paid to my joining the lower ranks of that elite band of demi-gods, the sporting heroes.
It was the Easter of my final year there when a group of doughty lads set out to climb a local chalk quarry under the vigilant gaze of my neighbour, a doctor. (Easter and accidents go together in my life: apart from this accident, it was Easter when, after leaving the Daily Telegraph, I collapsed with a catastrophic bacterial spinal infection; it was Easter when my unfortunate mother conceived a baby who shocked her, after being extracted with a pair of tongs, with its tadpole-like long body and large head, flat on one side, a facet explained away by the doctor as merely a consequence of my cork-like extraction.)
I succeeded in climbing the walls of this quarry and descending again first. I was busy minding my own business, gloating at my prowess, some ten feet away from and with my back to the base of the cliff while watching the barbecue preparations and waiting for the sluggard above to complete his ascent, when, as if reading my thoughts, the swine triggered an avalanche of pebbles skittering down the face.
One particularly large and athletic rock outleaped his fellows and bounced, with a dull squelch, upon my skulltop. I watched him leap away in triumph as I felt a slick stickiness where my smooth hair used to be, followed by trickling sensation down my left temple and a queer heaving sensation in my stomach.
Walking slowly, whether casually or groggily I don’t remember, over to the doctor in charge, I unnecessarily showed him my bloody hand. Taking stock of the wound, he took out a pocket-handkerchief (before tissues became common), laid it upon my head and tied it gently under my chin.
In this disguise (a Russian peasant-girl) I sat and waited patiently in the car as the barbecue party got under way, ran its course, sputtered out and packed itself away, kicking out its embers some three hours later. I sat and waited as our troop drove happily home. I sat and waited as the doctor’s mother made to swab my cut before sending me across the fence, home.
My sudden attempt to disappear under the kitchen table alerted the doctor to new possibilities in my wound and we set off for the local hospital, 15 miles away, for an x-ray. My being sick all over the dashboard confirmed his tentative diagnosis, and I passed through the x-ray room straight into an ambulance for the fifty-mile dash to the Atkinson-Morley Head hospital in Wimbledon.
I arrived just in time to wave hello to Stirling Moss, who beat me to Casualty by minutes after his big Easter crash at Goodwood, and goodbye to my blood, most of which seemed to have deserted me, prefering the starched white covers of the ambulance bed.
My next memory of this Easter was that of the voice of a swarthy matron, “Be quiet! Stop making such a fuss. You’re disturbing the other patients.” After drifting between coma and complaint for several m and sucking hot Bovril through a straw while laid on my good side, it was finally time for a dressing change.
Whimpering as she unbuckled the nappy-pin with which my voluminous head-bandages were fastened, I selfish made more noise as she placed her hand on my head and tugged, drawing the hefty pin through the layers of bandages sandwiching my right ear. With the sudden flowering of that pink rose it dawned on her that she had been forcing me to sleep on my pierced ear!
(next week - more boarding, more boredom)