A few months before my fifth birthday my parents send me to private school, rather than the Cuffley village school. Keble Preparatory School is recommended to them by friends, I think. Going there daily takes me back to Winchmore Hill, eight miles from home. Disclaimer – this is what the school was like when I was there – I’m sure it’s utterly lovely now. Keble in my day is not a huge school, but boasts all the sub-Greyfriars foibles that a not particularly top rank prep school is known for, including the arbitrary allocation of power to 11-year-old boys, who then proceed to sup deep and get drunk as skunks on it. It is, of course, boys only. The headmistress is an intimidating spinster (as single women are still labelled in the sixties). Miss Swinburne strikes terror into pretty much everybody’s hearts. To begin with I don’t see much of her except at morning assembly, but as school progresses our relations become more intimate and my dread of her increases. Miss Swinburne has been teaching at the school for a long time before I arrived. There’s a record of a Miss M Swinburne being Captain of the Winchmore Hill Hockey Club from 1936 to 1939, and I’m pretty sure that must be her – I dimly recall pictures in her waiting room relating to her sporting prowess. Despite Miss S the start of school is lovely and encouraging – two terms in Kindergarten with the lovely mouselike Miss Moore, very free with her cuddles (mornings only, sums and modelling clay); two terms in Transition (my first of many transitions); then a year in Form One with music teacher Miss Borrowscale (honestly), Form Two with art teacher Miss Roth (lovely). The rougher realities are then introduced in Form Three with Miss Tallent (a name so inappropriate she should be sued for fraud). Firmly in the Gradgrind tradition, I remember her torturing a boy called Simon Coote for using green rather than red pencil in his exercise book, eventually discovering that he is colour blind, and somehow managing to remain as angry about that as about any imagined misdemeanour.
Academically I do very well at Keble, getting high marks for most subjects. Although not terrifying on a daily basis, the school has a punitive, rules-based culture which makes me angry, admittedly mostly in retrospect. There is no selection on the basis of ability – that comes later when boys sit the “common entrance” exam for public schools. The only admission criterion is hard cash so pupils have a huge range of academic ability, just like at a state school but with the added benefit of mostly well-off parents. In the case of a child of limited academic ability, although their parents’ money is seen by the school as being as good as anyone else’s, the child himself is not. This attitude is reflected in the way pupils are treated and also in the way they are encouraged to treat each other. Less academic children are frequently singled out in class by some teachers, as if their low attainment is a consequence of laziness or a bad attitude, rather than ability. We are encouraged to laugh at them and feel superior, and knowing no better at the time I mostly do.
At school we get a lot of ‘prep’ – like homework, but from the age of nine this mostly done at school in the early evening. After lessons there is a brief break followed by an hour of prep. Except on Fridays the end of the school day is at 5.30. For the more senior years, an average is made of each pupil’s prep mark and this is read out at assembly on Mondays. Any pupil whose average is below 50 per cent for more than two weeks running is put on “satis fecit“. From the Latin, I think this means “enough done” or “enough made” – and in the school context refers to a satisfactory academic performance. Pupils on satis fecit are required to wear a red armband and in breaks/playtime have to stand in silence by the white wall at one end of the playground. They are not allowed to talk to any other pupils, nor are we allowed to talk to them. To become free of satis fecit, pupils need to achieve average homework marks above 50 per cent for more than two weeks in succession. As a result, some non-academic pupils (and one or two rebels) spend a lot of recreation time in silence. The injustice of this doesn’t strike me immediately – as I’ve said we are encouraged by certain teachers, and by the school culture, to laugh at such pupils and to regard them as our inferiors. As I become more and more the target of the whims of little power-mad prefects, and see other injustices around me, I gradually recognize it how bizarre this practice is.
I am a shy child in my early years at school – weak, asthmatic and unsporting, and therefore condemned to Division Four in the friends league (Division One children are both smart and sporty – I’m just smart. I also rarely speak up). I find physical education and sporting activity terrifying, and I am thrilled and relieved when my asthma becomes so bad I am given a medical certificate excusing me from these activities. At home I have relatively few friends, partly as my fear of rough and tumble and my wheezing both limit me. My best friend at home is a boy called Dominic Brown, who lives at the end of the street. Although I don’t feel isolated at the time I become happy with my own company from an early age. I draw (badly) I read comics (books later, mostly comics to begin with), watch TV and play records, all fairly obsessively. My sense looking back is that I spend most of my time in these imaginary spaces.
During my early years, my mother doesn’t have a paid job – she looks after the home and me. My father has gone into partnership with his brothers Ray and John and a friend called Simon Poole to start an estate agents business. The firm, which is initially successful, is known as Curson and Poole. Later I discover that my father is bad at managing money, has a skill for alienating friends and colleagues, and is frequently in trouble over his tax affairs, but as a young child I am oblivious to all of this. I look up to the man who cuddles me and teaches me to read, but then suddenly, when I am aged about eight, things begin to change.