Chapter 9 : The New Boys' Concert
I suppose there comes a time in every child’s life when the glorious halcyon days are exchanged for the realities of growing up. My time came in 1960.
Up until my early teens – because of the itinerant army life – I’d been to a series of schools, of which Routledge was my main junior school. As for the seniors, there were two secondary schools for boys in Salisbury: Prince Edward (which was the equivalent of the grammar school) and Churchill (which was the equivalent of the comprehensive.) I was reasonably bright and reasonably popular and, like John before me, I got in to Prince Edward.
I’d been a day boy there for about 18 months, when on a fateful day in 1960 my parents were posted to England for a year. It meant that John and I would have to become boarders at Prince Edward, because my dad didn’t want to disrupt our education. He didn’t mind taking Colin to England, because Colin was still at junior school and his academic progress was less likely to be affected. Besides, Jock felt that if John and I were boarding together in the same house, we’d be okay, we’d look after each other. Or rather John would look after me, as I was that bit younger and considerably smaller. As it turned out, John had his own concerns to deal with, and at Prince Edward I was mercilessly bullied.
The first day was okay. John and I were dropped off on the Sunday by Jock and Daph, and we were shown around the boarding accommodation. We’d been put into Jameson House, which was very much an Afrikaans house, which meant that most of the boys were rural – the sons of Afrikaana farmers with names like Kloppers, Buys, Heyns, and van de Merwe. It also meant that most of the language spoken in Jameson House was Afrikaans.
I was 13 – Form 2 – but for some reason, I’d been put into a junior dormitory with about twenty-five other boys who were all aged 12 and still in Form 1. That first night, the Head Boy of Jameson House came into the dorm and told us that there was a tradition at Prince Edward for all the new boarders to present a New Boys’ Concert to the rest of the House at the end of the first week.
‘You’ll each have to entertain us,’ he said, ‘by singing a song or reciting a poem.’ (I should’ve realised at the time that, despite his friendly manner, there was a certain wiliness in the Head Boy’s tone, but I was far too naïve to understand it then.)
I immediately decided I was going to sing Elvis Presley’s G.I. Blues, and for the whole of that first week, I practised and I practised and I practised:
‘We get hasenpfeffer
And black pumpernickel for chow.’
(I was keen to get it right.)
‘I’ve got those Hup-Two-Three-Four
Occupation G. I. Blues…’
And as the week wore on, I began to get quite keyed up. The curious thing was that none of the other boys seemed to be practising very much. Instead, they were growing very nervous about the concert, saying, ‘It’s really awful – apparently they do this…’ or ‘Apparently they do that…’ But me, I practised and I practised and I practised. (John was exempt from this ‘tradition’ because, although he was new, he was older.)
By the end of the first week…there we were…approaching this ghastly entertainment.
That Saturday night, we Jameson new boys were told to congregate in a sort of ante-room to the showers and, one at a time, we were called to the prep room to entertain the House. This was to be the ‘New Boys’ Concert’.
Nervousness struck, as one by one…boys trooped away…like lambs to the slaughter…while the rest of us waited in anxious silence.
At last…it was my turn.
‘Anderson!’ they summoned, and off I went.
I walked out of the darkness of the anteroom into the prep room, and there they were – the rest of the house – with bright lights glaring in my face – all the older boys. Waiting.
In front of me was a table. Not a stage or a platform, but a table. And underneath the table were crouched a hoard of boys who’d already performed their pieces, now all strangely be-smattered and besmirched.
On top of the table was a smaller table, known as the Prefects’ Table. And on top that table was a chair. The older boys were roaring, ‘Up on the chair! Up on the chair!’ And that was what each performer had to do. They had to climb on to the table and then clamber onto the Prefects’ Table, and finally stand up on the chair.
‘Stand up! Stand up!’ they roared like Romans, thirsty for gladiator-blood.
So up I struggled onto the chair. But as I tried to stand upright, I realised there wasn’t any room. My back was already touching the ceiling.
In this cramped and stooped position, I began to sing my song:
‘They give us a room
With a view of the beautiful Rhine…’
‘Yeah! Yeah!’ they roared. ‘Get off! Get off!’
‘They give us a room
With a v–’
BANG! Something hit me on the lip. It was an avocado pear. Someone had thrown an avocado pear. Now, an avocado pear is bloody hard. Had it just been an egg (and there were eggs), that would’ve been fine. But an avocado pear! BANG, right on the lip.
Then WHACK! In the eye. Another piece of fruit.
I carried on singing, regardless.
‘I’ve got the Hup-Two-Three-Four
Occupation G. I. Blues…’
POW! Something else. Then POW, POW!! Whatever they could lay their hands on. I was being pelted by all sorts of detritus.
‘From my G .I. hair
To the heels of my G. I. shoes…’
‘Yeah! Yeah! Roooaaar! Roooaaar!’
I ploughed on through the whole of my song amidst all the chucking and the pelting and the whacks to the lip. Occasionally, there’d be a lull, and I’d look around to see if I could see John in the room. But I couldn’t see him anywhere. I think he’d probably gone.
BANG! Something else thrown by somebody else.
And WHACK! Something else thrown by somebody else.
Then, ‘Okay, okay! Down you get!’
Grabbed by two guys. Pulled off the table. Dragged out of the door. Into the loos, which were next to the anteroom where all the other nervous buggers were awaiting their fate.
‘Give us your face.’
A big cloth was draped over my face. (It was the cloth that they used to clean out the loos.) Then they pulled back my hair, and this big smelly cloth was smeared all over my face.
Then back into the prep room and BANG! Underneath the table with the load of other new boys, all cowering and be-smattered and besmirched. And all of them in shock, just sticks of firewood, these ten small boys in shock.
And this happened to everybody. One by one. And that was the Jameson House New Boys’ Concert.
I later found out what had happened in the other houses. In Selous House, the masters had been invited and the boys had performed by candle light. And they’d had tea. And the masters’ wives had baked cakes. And they’d all had cakes and buns and biscuits. And each new boy had sung a song or recited a poem, and they’d all been applauded. And the other boys had sat there and said, ‘Well done, Roger! Very good, George!’ And Roger had sat down with a smile, and George had felt he’d done his bit. Then the whole house had had a sing-song and played guitars. And that was their New Boys’ Concert. It was a proper New Boys’ Concert. But ours was murder. It was a torture-chamber. Absolute degradation and ritual humiliation. And the worse thing was that I’d learned the whole song! And I’d wondered why no one else had been quite so assiduous in learning their pieces: obviously they’d had more wind of what was going to happen than I had. Granted, in Rhodes House, the new boys had also had to stand on top of a table and they’d been jeered a bit. But they hadn’t been abused in the way that we were in this awful, awful Jameson house.
From then on, school life went from bad to worse, and in the course of time I slowly began to realise what abuse was all about.
* * * *
The day after the New Boys’ Concert – it was a Sunday – Daph came to visit. She was about to travel down to South Africa to catch the boat to sail with Jock to England, but before she left, she wanted to take us out for the day. Colin was with her when she picked us up at ten o’clock that Sunday morning, and she took us out to Mermaid’s Pool, a beautiful haunt where the river flows over a series of huge rocks – hundreds of feet of rocks. And we spent the day bouncing down the cascade on the inner tubes of rubber tyres. But despite our attempts at family fun, my mum seemed to be always on the brink of tears.
The day flew past and I really didn’t want it to end, I just wanted the hours to go on and on and on. But far too soon, the time came for Daph to take me and John back to school, and as the car neared the gates, my heart sunk into the depths of despair.
‘I don’t want to go back,’ I wailed. ‘Please don’t send me back!’
‘Come on, Miles!’ said Mum, and she began to give me all the sensible reasons why I had to return.
I didn’t want to cause my mother any more upset, so I gritted my teeth and accepted my fate. But as we drove in through gates of the school, I knew I couldn’t go back, I just couldn’t go back.
At the school entrance, Daph stopped the car and John got out.
‘Bye, bye,’ said Daph, and John kissed her on the cheek. ‘Bye, bye, Mum,’ he said, ‘bye, bye, Colin,’ and he slung his school bag over his shoulder.
As for me, I couldn’t get out of the car. ‘No!’ I pleaded. ‘I don’t want to go! Please, Mum, I don’t want to go!’
‘Come on, Miles, please don’t do this to me!’ implored Daph.
‘Come on,’ said John, and he grabbed my arm.
‘No! No! I don’t want to go!’ I squealed, wrenching my arm loose.
John grabbed me again.
‘Get Miles out of the car, John!’ said my mother, quietly.
‘Yes, Mum. It’s alright,’ said John, trying his best to sound older than his years and grabbing me by the arm again, ‘Come on, Miles!’
‘No!’ I screamed, yanking my arm again out of John’s grasp and flinging myself down onto the back seat. Colin watched me in awed silence. I clawed at the thin carpet on the floor, as John pulled me by my legs in a desperate attempt to get me out of the car. All the time, my mum was begging, ‘Don’t do this to me, Miles! ‘Please don’t do this to me!’
‘Then don’t make me go!’ I yelled in reply. ‘I don’t want to go! Please, Mum! Please!’ My screams rent the air, as memories of the previous night’s concert pinballed round my head.
At last, John pulled me from the car and he thrust my schoolbag into my arms.
‘You’ve got to go, Miles,’ said Mum quietly. ‘Please – go! Bye, bye.’
John led me, shaking, towards the school entrance, as the car disappeared down the gravel drive, Colin’s silent face gazing through the rear window.
Of course, the scene would have been very different if my dadhad been with us. Jock was disciplined, and he expected discipline in return. ‘Out of the car!’ he would have said. ‘This is what you’re doing, and you’re doing it now!’
But he wasn’t there, and my mum had gone, and I walked into school with John, feeling absolutely awful. There were sidelong glances from the other kids who had witnessed the whole proceedings. But I couldn’t care less. I was angry. And I was sad.
At supper that evening, I felt utterly hopeless. A Form 3 boy, who’d been picking on me the previous week, deliberately bumped into me in the food queue. I grabbed him by the arm and said, ‘You want to fight me, do you? Then I’ll beat your bloody head in! I’ll fight you tonight – I’ll fight you tomorrow – I’ll fight you any bloody time you like! You meet me outside after this bloody dinner, and I’ll beat your bloody head in!’
A couple of the bigger boys pulled me away. ‘Anderson! Anderson! Calm it, why don’t you?’
I sat back down and started to pick at my supper.
‘Hey, Anderson,’ whispered one of the bigger boys, ‘are you really going to fight him?’
‘I’ll fight him any bloody time he likes!’ I hissed. And I knew I bloody would.
After supper, I was still feeling very aggressive. Aggressive and angry, so I sought out the boy. He was a big guy, but I didn’t care. My parents had abandoned me and I didn’t care what I did now.
‘Right!’ I said. ‘I’m going to do you now!’
‘Sorry, Anderson,’ the big boy blathered. ‘Like, I’m really sorry, yeah?’
I looked at this bully now reduced to a pulp, and I almost felt sorry for him. And in that moment I knew that I’d found myself. I knew I could hold my ground. Because on that night I’d learnt about anger and I’d felt the hot power of aggression.
I knew what it was to feel abandoned, and I was utterly alone.