The Happiest Days of Your Life

In September 1980, at the age of eight, I began attending boarding school after a long summer holiday. That summer was a hot one, and I was readjusting to a different culture; after the socialist austerities of Bulgaria, life in England was bright and fast and confusing. Children’s television – in colour, too – was something I had not experienced before, other than occasional Eastern European cartoons on a borrowed set that always seemed to be steeped in melancholy looming through a sepia fog. Shops in England groaned with produce, I remember – the bewildering array of sweets at the counter of a newsagents was enough to produce a rising sense of panic in me; however would I choose which ones to buy? Toys were extraordinary; I had had a toy missile launcher in Bulgaria that was made in Yugoslavia – a caterpillar-tracked vehicle made of some sharp-edged metal that took chunks out of your shins which had two sprung rockets on the back which rather feebly fired themselves a few feet across the carpet. Here, in England, one birthday my uncle gave me a submarine. A submarine! I was delighted. But imagine how wild my excitement when he explained that it actually worked: a battery powered the engine and it was waterproof. I spent days crouched over the bathtub watching it power its way up and down. I had never seen anything like it.

The school my parents had chosen was considered a fairly liberal and enlightened sort of place, as these places go. It was situated in acres of pastoral woodland in the lee of the South Downs, which were so cold in winter it made you wonder what the North Downs must have been like. Even so, it was part of a system unchanged in England for hundreds of years, designed to take the offspring of a certain class and turn them into little leaders, off to rule the world in an empire that no longer existed. Colonial officers, district commissioners, army officers, diplomats… all the venerable institutions of Britain’s imperial past were staffed by the products of this system. Outside the gates it was 1980; inside it might as well have been 1908. In the chapel where assembly was held each morning, regimental battle flags were draped from the rafters. A plaque on the wall commemorated “old boys” who had lost their lives in both world wars. And each morning a child was chosen – girls as well as boys, as the school was co-educational (an interesting euphemism, as if male and female ought by default to be educated separately) – to walk to the front of the chapel, stand at the tall lectern shaped like an eagle with outstretched wings, and read from the bible upon it: “Here beginneth the first lesson…”

Many of the other children had parents either in the military or the diplomatic service, due to a subsidy on fees for government employees. Civil service salaries were low in comparison to the private sector, and the school fees high. This ensured a continual production line, staffing Britain’s government institutions with the same elitist people that had always run them. But the school also reinforced a cultural narrative in other, subtler ways. The school was divided up into “houses” which were named after the famous public schools: Eton, Harrow, Stowe, Wellington and the like. The dormitories were named after British imperial heroes and explorers: Drake, Raleigh, Cook. The whole premise of boarding schools was to sever the tie with family and replace it with new loyalties: to one’s house, to the school itself in matches against other schools, to Queen and Country. There was an underlying patriotism to everything – but an archaic one, expressed in the hymns sung in chapel such as “Jerusalem”, with its extraordinary, jingoistic lyrics:

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England’s green and pleasant land…

Nevertheless, despite the pupils being overwhelmingly English – and judging by the names of some of the boys: Piers, Gervaise, Humphrey, old Norman stock at that – diversity was creeping in to England’s venerable institutions. Many of the pupils were from well-heeled foreign families in search of the best education for their child. The sight of Chinese, or Kuwaiti, or Nigerian children singing along to hymns in a chapel that was a monument to Britain’s imperial past strikes me now as bitterly ironic. But as good children they did what they were told to: running cross-country over the freezing hills; tackling each other on muddy rugby pitches on grey afternoons; sitting uncomprehendingly at desks in dingy, crepuscular classrooms trying to decline Latin verbs, and scraping away at their “prep”, as homework was known, with a fountain pen and royal blue ink.  (Black was not permitted; nor were biros, which were held to be atrociously modern and somehow bad for the character as well as the handwriting.)

My grandparents would come and take me out for the day sometimes, down to Brighton, and we’d go to the pier, and then The Ship hotel on the seafront, for tea and sandwiches in the lounge, under the tick of the grandfather clock and the smell of furniture polish, in a room full of other old people pretending it was some time between the wars. But outside it was 1981. Duran Duran and The Cure were in the charts – we were allowed to watch Top of the Pops once a week in our “house” – and we gawped at the modern world, jeering at men wearing make up. Boy George was a particular threat, as I recall, with his ambiguous gender-bending appearance. I remember one weekend a boy coming back with his hair a mess of gluey spikes – he had discovered hair gel – and the matron marching him to the sinks and making him wash it all out. I remember the entrance hall where we were returned after a weekend out, and Miss Beeston – a squat, muscular woman not much taller than the children she was in charge of – barking at the returning pupils: “Line up and turn out your pockets!” She was searching for contraband sweets. A boy was found to have stored a Wham bar in his socks, and was duly sent to the headmaster. The sheer insanity of this only dawned on me years later, when I went to visit a friend in prison. We were patted down by the guards, who all had a matey, disarming banter which nevertheless brooked no argument, and I had one of those dizzying moments of deja vu. But they were all day-schoolers, clearly – mere amateurs – because they never found the £10 note I had in my underwear, and which I deftly palmed to my friend in the visiting room. I learned something at boarding school after all.

Within the confines of our prison, though, we ran relatively wild when we could. I recall riding down the back staircase, three flights of spiral stairs down, sitting in a laundry basket together with a friend… until he spilled out and broke his wrist. And, being boys, we dared each other to do things – seeing how close you could hold your hand to a lit match, for example, or carving letters into your skin with the blade of a pencil sharpener. One friend discovered that not only could you huff aerosol deodorant through a folded towel to get a massive buzz that gave you ringing in the ears, made you warm and tingly all over and wrapped you in a dizzying high for a minute or two, but also that by holding the nozzle an inch from the bare skin of your arm, that it produced the most fascinating freezer burn. I recall one swimming lesson stripping off in the changing room and the PT teacher spotting giant weeping blisters all over my arms. His expression was one of horror – perhaps he thought I had caught the plague.

“What happened to you?” he demanded.
He was a bit dim. And I was quite cunning. “I just woke up this morning and my arms were covered with them.” Well, it got me off swimming.

Unfortunately it also got me an appointment with the school nurse, who had been in the army. She took one look and said: “Who did that?”

“I did.”

I never heard any more about it. But let’s face it, this is all the textbook definition of self-harm. Getting high and cutting yourself. It’s what prisoners do.

With acres of woodland surrounding the school we spent most of our free time outside, climbing trees of a terrifying height, building dens in the woods and generally getting as far from the institution as possible. My “gang” had a den built of corrugated iron and bits of linoleum we had scavenged from the farm next door (technically out of bounds), up in the woods to the left of the main drive. A rival gang had their base in the woods on the other side of the playing fields, and we would periodically launch skirmishes against one another, playing war. Sometimes these assaults became quite brutal – I remember one boy getting a broken nose from having been hit in the face with a stone. And after one pitched battle which somehow spilled out of the woods and onto the playing fields, we were halted by the appearance of a “master”, as teachers were known. It was the Latin master – a draconian figure clad in duffle coat, wellies and pipe as if he were on the prow of a battleship circa 1943, who had been walking his dog. And I may be misremembering the exact words, but in a cut-glass accent he barked out: “What the devil do you think you are playing at?”

“We were just playing, sir.”

He turned to point at the cars coming up the driveway – families returning children to school on a Sunday evening, who had just seen 30 or so boys knocking lumps off each other in a mass brawl.

“And what sort of impression do you think this gives of the school, eh?”

“Don’t know sir.”

“Well, if it’s exercise you want, you shall have it. You’re all on fatigues. Report here at 0700 tomorrow in your PT kit.”

At seven o’clock the next morning we all slunk down to the rugby fields in our kit, shivering in the cold. He was waiting for us, in his duffle coat again.

“Now that you’re all here… run to the front gate and back. When you get back here, do it again. Keep doing it until I tell you to stop.”

We set off jogging towards the front gate, which lay perhaps 200 metres away. I can’t recall who reached it first – it certainly wasn’t me, though I was a good distance runner. I settled in to pace myself, knowing this might go on for some time. It did. Back and forth we went, on and on, until heads were drooping and knees sagging. On our return to the pitch where he stood, as one we developed a sinking feeling. A tall, gangling figure was jogging down towards the field. He wore a cricket sweater, shorts and rugby boots. It was the headmaster. He looked us up and down with disgust. “Right – compulsory PT. Get on your faces and start doing press ups.”

We duly did so. I was good at press ups – I knew I could do more than 20 – which was more than the boy next to me, who sagged in the middle like a sack of potatoes. The headmaster barked at him and he stiffened up. Sure enough, at 20, he said stop. Then, sit ups. Lots and lots of sit ups. He judged it – and I can tell this now, having later been an instructor myself – to just before breaking point. Some boys were trying and failing to crack out one last sit up. Then, suddenly, “On your feet!” Small arm circles – arms outstretched and tracing small circles in the air. After 20 seconds you start to feel it. After a minute you think your arms will drop off. Then, burpees. Then lying on our backs with our feet held a few inches off the ground. More press ups. More small arm circles. Then we did squats, hopping up and down the field like frogs until our thighs were burning. A couple of boys couldn’t get down and bend their legs any more and were stooping and hoping he wouldn’t notice. They got sent off to run to the gate and back a couple of times. Eventually, long after we had all passed into a state of mind consisting of nothing but pain, he called a halt. We lay around groaning on the pitch. Some boys were snivelling. We were a very subdued bunch heading back up to the school that morning.

The headmaster died a few years ago. I read his obituary in the paper. In it the article revealed that he was one of the founders of Britain’s Special Boat Service – the Navy special forces. I had to laugh. Why would you treat a group of 9-year-old boys like marine commandos? Why? But he was doing what he thought was best, and what, no doubt, was also done to him. He was not a bad man, and I have no ill-will towards him. This is not some bizarre form of Stockholm Syndrome – I reserve my ire for other, broader targets, and I have plenty of it. Indeed he was quite astute when it came to reporting to my parents on my progress at the school. I was very bright, cunning, dysfunctional, a loner, didn’t fit in and never would. I would, in his view, fight the system every step of the way until I broke it or it broke me. It seems there was a general resolution to leave me alone, since the system clearly wasn’t going to change.

I suppose these things toughen you up. But at what cost? Many children I know who went to boarding school are extremely resilient individuals outwardly – they survive third-world jails, take command in disasters, and generally thrive in adversity – but equally have great difficulty in their personal relationships, in actually allowing anyone close. In his book The Making of Them (2000), Nick Duffell dubs boarding school pupils “artificial orphans”, dissociating themselves emotionally in order to survive the trauma of separation from their parents at a young age. He claims “an extreme hardening of normal human softness, a severe cutting off from emotions and sensitivity” takes place as a result, and this is certainly borne out by my own experience. I know countless men and women who, with great personal courage, set out to undo the damage that they internalized at boarding school, learning sensitivity again, learning how to allow themselves to feel, and to love. David Thomas, in a review of the film of The Making of Them, describes it thus:

Herein lies the great flaw in the public school system. In many ways prep schools are idyllic places. They are usually in the country. You can play football and cricket and make huts in the woods. But what you cannot do is love. You can’t love your parents because it hurts too much. And you most certainly can’t love your fellow-pupils because there is an overriding taboo against any hint of homosexuality. So, after a while, you just get out of the habit of loving… and getting back into the habit can be a very difficult task.

Each night, at the start of term, there came the sound of muffled sobbing from the dormitories, as children cried for home. In shame they would bury their heads under the pillows to try to avoid disturbing the others and being the subject of mockery. I have seen children so distraught on the first night back at school that staff had to be fetched to remove them from the dorm and calm them down as they were upsetting the others. And, given that children can be a ruthless bunch, mercilessly quick to turn on another who shows weakness, there was a shameful conspiracy of silence, where we all lay in the dark listening to someone else crying, becoming complicit in their misery while simultaneously despising it for fear that it might bring out our own. This bizarre form of cognitive dissonance was necessary to survive in the environment, where you had to separate yourself from your feelings by outright denying them – even to yourself. As Frazer Harrison outlines in his autobiography Trivial Disputes (1989), his parents had sent him away for his own good, wanting what was best for him. How could he then repay that by telling them how miserable he was? It would only cause them misery themselves: “I was frightened of losing their love by telling them how much I needed it.”

I remember it happening myself. One night, inconsolable with the weight of grief that homesickness brought about, the duty master, who was new, and kind, came and sat me on the staircase and tried to cheer me up by telling me all the things there were to look forward to that term: “Look here, what’s your favourite subject? English? Jolly good. Well why don’t you write an essay or a poem perhaps, about home? Have you got a dog? Well a hamster then. You like football, don’t you? Well there are all kinds of matches this term. We’re playing St Ranulphs in two weeks.” Images of home came to mind, the thought of Mum and Dad dutifully looking after a hamster for god knows how many months of the year until my return, topped off with a vision of myself being struck in the face by a soggy football as St Ranulphs cheered like a victorious army. I wailed afresh. But worse still was his clumsy attempt at solidarity. I somehow felt even guiltier for letting him down by refusing to be cheered at the prospect.

And in trying to relate your unhappiness to outsiders – grown ups who themselves may have been through it, you were inevitably told of the virtues of self-reliance that you were learning, of how it was the best preparation for life in “the real world” (a sick joke), or the sickest joke of all, that these should be “the happiest days of your life”. As Royston Lambert says in The Making of Them:

Boarding schools cannot officially provide their children with an emotional life… Hence some boys grow up with an inability to communicate real emotion, a fear of it in many forms, an acute sense of embarrassment at the sight of it in others, and a preparedness to accept relationships with others only within certain limits. Some have an inability to make deep affective relationships, and are keenly aware of this. It can cause them considerable distress, as does their ignorance of how to handle deep emotional situations.

My parents did what they thought was best. And it was a rational decision, compared to a series of different schools in different countries every three years. My father had been at boarding school too – his own father was a master at one, and his mother a matron – so it was a perfectly natural progression for someone of my background. What I didn’t know at the time, and which they confided years later, was that it wasn’t just myself getting tearful at the prospect of going back to school. They always held it together until they had dropped me off then welled up on the return journey. Whether they were in England, in which case we drove with me snuffling and choking down my misery in the back seat while listening to the top 40 on Radio 1 (what they must have endured), or abroad – in which case we drove to the airport, and they handed me into the care of a stewardess – a series of nice Home Counties girls called things like Felicity or Fiona, who did their best to console me, in an aspiring supermodel kind of way. The one I liked best was actually Scottish, probably about 20 years old, and she spotted me eating a Cadbury’s Cream Egg. “What’s the most you’ve ever eaten?” she asked. “Two,” I mumbled. She looked at me balefully and said “I ate three once.” I will always remember her.

And such dysfunction is engendered on a broader scale. In a society, Britain 2015, which has had to reappraise its place in the world – with limited success – the only outlet for the type of elitism that these institutions foster are those institutions that mimick them: the large corporations where people are seen as disposable resources and are ruthlessly dismissed to improve profitability; the hierarchical structures of government departments; the military. All the people I’ve met who’ve either smoothly moved into such organisations as if they were groomed for them (they were), or who have fought and struggled against it every step, and who are often dubbed as failures by their peer group for having the courage and strength of character to go their own way, are products of this system’s values. Looking at the people who make up the latest government in this country (and the one before that, and the one before that), a huge proportion of them went to boarding school (and then a smooth trajectory into a select few universities) – the elitist and obsolete institutions that were designed for another era, but which have now recalibrated their priorities to reflect modern times: neo-liberal economics where the poor are blamed for being poor, and penalised in consequence, or where our creakingly overstretched military continues to embark upon a series of post-colonial wars as a form of gunboat diplomacy “for our own security”. Imperial values.

But there was another side to boarding school where the brittle veneer of outwardly coping with deep-seated emotional issues began to crack. The subconscious. The clearest manifestation of this was with the large number of children who began wetting the bed. I was one of them. What should have been a habit cured in early childhood began to manifest itself again at the age of eight. In the dormitories – the largest of which had 36 boys in bunk beds – every morning two or three would be guiltily stripping the sheets from their bed. There was a shame-faced parade of small boys each day who made their way to the laundry baskets under the eye of the matron. It was an epidemic.

In his essay on his own experiences at boarding school, Such, Such Were the Joys (1947), George Orwell describes exactly such a scenario. Orwell was at prep school before the First World War, and although there have been many changes in such schools since that time, the individual reactions of the child are identical. He recalls praying at night: “Please God, do not let me wet my bed”. And yet, on waking in the morning he would inevitably find that his prayers had gone unanswered, and his heart would sink as he lay in sheets that were sodden.

After the second or third time this happened, he was warned he would be beaten if it occured again. And this warning happened in a curiously roundabout way, in a conversation between “Flip”, the headmaster’s wife, and a strange lady who was attired in riding clothes, to whom Orwell was introduced:

“Here is a little boy,” said Flip, indicating me to the strange lady, “who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet the bed again?,” she added, turning to me. “I am going to get the sixth form to beat you.”

The strange lady put on an air of being inexpressibly shocked, and exclaimed “I-should-think-so!” And here there occured one of those wild, almost lunatic misunderstandings which are part of the daily experience of childhood. The sixth form were a group of older boys who were selected as having ‘character’ and were empowered to beat smaller boys. I had not yet learned of their existence, and I misheard the phrase “the sixth form” as “Mrs Form”. I took it as referring to the strange lady – I thought, that is, her name was Mrs Form.

I merely assumed that “Mrs Form” was a stern disciplinarian who somehow enjoyed beating people (somehow her appearance seemed to bear this out) and I had an immediate terrifying vision of her arriving for the occasion in full riding kit and armed with a hunting whip. To this day I can feel myself almost swooning with shame as I stood before the two women. I could not speak. I felt that I should die if “Mrs Form” were to beat me. But my dominant feeling was not fear or even resentment: it was simply shame because one more person, and that a strange woman, had been told of my disgusting offence. (Orwell, 1947)

Orwell was too good a writer not to be unaware of the subtext to all this. But it would be trite to read too much obvious psychology into it. I am awed by his relentless honesty – that he can so clearly recollect and relate such an incident, with all the consequent shameful emotions he felt, told in a tone of clear moral outrage. He almost swooned, he could not speak, he felt that he would die. And as a child brought up in that system, he swallowed his emotions, hardened his shell, and stored the memory away.

By 1980 you didn’t get beaten for wetting the bed – not at my school, at least. Instead there was a very modern solution – one which fills me nonetheless with similar outrage, and which gives this memoir a veneer of journalistic respectability. Imipramine.

Imipramine, also known as Tofranil, is a tricyclic antidepressant. It is used in the treatment of major depression, particularly depression combined with anxiety. One of its side effects happens to be an interruption of the delta wave pattern of sleep – or Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep – which is the most common period when enuresis, or bed-wetting occurs. Imipramine has a very strong reuptake inhibition of serotonin, which – in bipolar patients – can cause a high rate of manic and hypomanic reactions. From the case notes:

A small number of children, teenagers, and young adults (up to 24 years of age) who took antidepressants (‘mood elevators’) such as Imipramine during clinical studies became suicidal (thinking about harming or killing oneself or planning or trying to do so).

Current NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) guidelines state: Do not use tricyclics such as Imipramine as the first-line treatment for bedwetting in children and young people.

Side effects of Imipramine: mood or behavior changes, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, or if you feel impulsive, irritable, agitated, hostile, aggressive, restless, hyperactive (mentally or physically), more depressed, or have thoughts about suicide or hurting yourself.

Some people who take Imipramine hydrochloride and have depression may find that it intensifies depression and suicidal feelings in the early stages of treatment. These people have an increased risk of self-harm or suicide in the early stages of taking Imipramine hydrochloride. As Imipramine hydrochloride starts to work these risks decrease.

If you are taking Imipramine hydrochloride, or you care for someone who is taking Imipramine hydrochloride, you need to look out for changes in thoughts or behaviour that could be linked to self-harm or suicide.

Each night a queue of children in slippers and dressing gowns with their name tags sewn in by dutiful parents formed outside the “San” – or Sanitarium – to see the school nurse. Each had their own prescription on the chart: the asthmatics got a puff or two on an inhaler; the scrawny or undersized had a shot of Minadex “with Vitamins”. And the bedwetters were handed a small plastic cup inside which nestled one or two oval maroon pills. Imipramine. I don’t know the exact dose I was on, but as a serial offender I remember my dose being increased to three pills. Between the ages of eight and perhaps eleven or twelve, I took a large dose of powerful antidepressants every night, which according to its own guidelines, interrupts a key stage of sleep. We all did. Just as a rough extrapolation here, if there were say, three bedwetters in every dorm of around 30 boys, that’s ten percent. (My maths, despite this ludicrously expensive education, has always been awful.) So ten percent of the school – these young and unformed, still-developing childish minds, on antidepressant drugs that can cause anxiety, panic attacks, self harm, hyperactivity, depression and suicidal thoughts, for years and years? I thought it was normal to feel suicidal. Nobody ever told me it wasn’t.

There is nothing more I can add to this. There have been a spate of what are termed “mis-mems” in the publishing industry – misery memoirs. This is not one of them: indeed it’s a little galling, given that my background is one of extraordinary privilege, that I have to overcome a certain self-censorship in order to document it without appearing unaware of the fact of that privilege. I did not grow up on the streets of Bombay, or survive on a Lagos rubbish dump. We are all dealt different hands, and it is how we play them that counts.

Nevertheless, I cannot, and will not, hide the fact that I had a history of drug and alcohol abuse as a young adult. I have struggled with depression my whole life, and have, in the past, had tremendous difficulties in forming relationships due to an inability to emotionally engage. I couldn’t even hug someone without flinching away after a few seconds. I don’t seek to prove cause and effect – whether this was exacerbated by adoption, or boarding school, or autism I cannot say. I merely mention the facts as they were, and are. But what I do know is, I have overcome drug and alcohol addiction. I have faced up to a strong dislike of crowds and noise that have triggered sensory overload in me since childhood, in order to travel the world and see places and have experiences that I shall never forget. I am not afraid of emotion, and these days I have deep and affecting relationships. There are people that I love, and who love me in return. There’s a woman who I can hug forever and never feel stifled in her embrace, nor get the urge to escape from it – just connecting together in peace.

What do you do with such freedom, once you have gained it? It can be hard to know. I met a man one night in a doss-house in Bangkok who was lying on a mattress on the porch. He was thin, in his 50s, with matted hair and missing a few teeth. Hearing me speak to the receptionist he raised his head and called out, “What school?” His accent was unmistakeably English public school.

I told him. He laughed mirthlessly and gave the name of his own. “And here we are,” he said, waving his hand languidly at the surroundings. “Got anything to smoke?” I expect he’s still there.