Let me start with a confession. I too had visited the mobile shop beyond the school gates. I too had crept along the hedgerow into the back of the school, clutching a bulging brown paper bag. I too had stashed away its contents, to be enjoyed in the dorm after lights out.
The mobile shop was, as you would expect, strictly out-of-bounds. Parked at the bottom of the drive of a rural Shropshire prep school, it enticed us with the allure of sweets and the adventure of breaking bounds. The sweets must have been cheap, for our pocket money wasn’t more than half-a-crown a week. We stocked up on chewy toffee sticks, pink spearmint, fruit salads – four a penny – and black jacks at the same price. This went on for a fortnight or so, but at some point we must have been spotted sneaking back into the school.
The headmaster stormed into our classroom during prep and made us open our desks and empty our lockers. Now my sweets were zipped up in the ball pocket of a golf bag, which was propped up in the corner of the classroom. As we stood by our desks with the lids up, and as the headmaster examined each desk and emptied each locker, I remember thinking: ‘He’s sure to look in my golf bag, he hates me playing golf. He thinks I play cricket badly on purpose (and that it’s my fault we lost to Abberley last Saturday), and if he does find them, he’ll give me more than the others, six at least, for being sneaky . . .’ But he didn’t look in the golf bag, and I escaped the cane.
My conscience still pricks me when I remember the beatings received by my fellow adventurers, and now, as a housemaster in a boarding school, my understanding of hypocrisy and irony is sharpened every time I deliver a gentle, but I like to think firm, homily on the importance of being honest. And should any of the boys in my house read this, then I suppose it will have to be a case of ‘Do as I say and not as I did.’
For those who have travelled the English boarding-school r
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