Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Children's Stories' Stories of Childhood

Upon my mountainously messy desk has lain a copy of Roald Dahl's "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More".  I read it sometime last year (maybe as far back as last spring?), and it has resided beneath heaps of other intended projects, awaiting my inspiration and patient determination.......until tonight.

Dahl has been one of my favorite children's authors since I was very small, listening as my mother read "The BFG" aloud to my brother and I at bedtime--although she'd previously read "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" in this manner to my brother, this was the first time I can recall having this endearing experience (I think she may have continued for one more book, "James and the Giant Peach" before this practice perished permanently).  Being a consummate collector, I have copies of nearly all of Dahl's books.  This one, however happened to be my least favorite.

Among the encompassed short stories is a non-fiction tale entitled "Lucky Break; How I Became a Writer".  Having already been disenchanted by the book as a whole by this point, I was doubly astounded to find this short story begins with a description of what it was like to be caned at the boarding school Dahl attended as a boy.

I know I've stated this before (probably multiple times), but I'm not a big fan of caning, in large part because caning did not exist even as a concept during my childhood (i.e. I'm enticed most by paddles & wooden spoons because I knew about them as spanking punishment tools that I'd not experienced, but had never even heard of caning until muuuuuch later, let alone explored the idea with my over-active, enormous imagination).

Nevertheless, I found this to be a fascinating story, almost lending me experienced knowledge of such an occurrence. here it is.  I've typed it out (as I've intended to do since I read it, whenever that was), verbatim (barring any typos I didn't notice), despite my OCD-ish disagreeing with quite a bit of the editing:

            Let my try to tell you how I myself slid in through the back door and found myself in the world of fiction.
    At the age of eight, in 1924, I was sent away to boarding school in a town called Weston-Super-Mare, on the southwest coast of England.  Those were days of horror, of fierce discipline, of no talking in the dormitories, no running in the corridors, no untidiness of any sort, no this or that or the other, just rules, rules and still more rules that had to be obeyed.  and the fear of the dreaded cane hung over us like the fear of death all the time.
    "The headmaster wants to see you in his study."  Words of doom.  They sent shivers over the skin of your stomach.  But off you went, aged perhaps nine years old, down the long bleak corridors and through an archway that took you into the headmaster's private area where only horrible things happened and the smell of pipe tobacco hung in the air like incense.  You stood outside the awful black door, not daring even to knock.  You took deep breaths.  If only your mother had been here, you told yourself, she would not let this happen.  She wasn't here.  You were alone.  You lifted a hand and knocked softly, once.
    "Come in!  Ah yes, it's Dahl.  Well Dahl, it's been reported to me that you were talking during prep last night."
    "Please sir, I broke my nib and I was only asking Jenkins if he had another one to lend me."
    "I will not tolerate talking in prep.  You know that very well."
    Already  this giant of a man was crossing to the tall corner cupboard and reaching up to the top of it where he kept his canes.
    "Boys who break rules have to be punished."
    "Sir...I...I had a bust nib...I..."
    "That is no excuse.  I am going to teach you that it does not pay to talk during prep."
    He took down a cane that was about three feet long with a little curved handle at one end.  It was thin and white and very whippy.  "Bend over and touch your toes.  Over there by the window."
    "But, sir..."
    "Don't argue with me, boy.  Do as you're told."
    I bent over.  Then I waited.  He always kept you waiting for about ten seconds, and that was when your knees began to shake.
    "Bend lower, boy!  Touch your toes!"
    I stared at the toecaps of my black shoes and I told myself that any moment now this man was going to bash the cane into me so hard that the whole of my bottom would change color.  The welts were always very long, stretching right across both buttocks, blue-black with brilliant scarlet edges, and when you ran your fingers over them ever so gently afterward, you could feel the corrugations.
    Then came the pain.  It was unbelievable, unbearable, excruciating.  It was as though someone had laid a white-hot poker across your backside and pressed hard.

    The second stroke would be coming soon and it was as much as you could do to stop putting your hands in the way to ward it off.  It was the instinctive reaction.  But if you did that, it would break your fingers.


The second one landed right alongside the first and the white-hot poker was pressing deeper and deeper into the skin.


    The third stroke was where the pain always reached its peak.  It could go no further.  There was no way it could get worse.  Any more strokes after that simply prolonged the agony.  You tried not to cry out.  Sometimes you couldn't help it.  But whether you were able to remain silent or not, it was impossible to stop the tears.  They poured down your cheeks in streams and dripped onto the carpet.

    The important thing was never to flinch upward or straighten up when you were hit.  If you did that, you got an extra one.

    Slowly, deliberately, taking plenty of time, the headmaster delivered three more strokes, making six in all.

    "You may go."  The voice came from a cavern miles away, and you straightened up slowly, agonizingly, and grabbed hold of your burning buttocks with both hands and held them as tight as you could and hopped out of the room on the very tips of your toes.

    That cruel cane ruled our lives.  We were caned for talking in the dormitory after lights out, for talking in class, for bad work, for carving our initials on the desk, for climbing over walls, for slovenly appearance, for flicking paper clips, for forgetting to change into house-shoes in the evenings, for not hanging up our games clothes, and above all for giving the slightest offense to any master.  (They weren't called teachers in those days.)  In other words, we were caned for doing everything that it was natural for small boys to do.

    So we watched our words.  And we watched our steps.  My goodness, how we watched our steps.  We became incredibly alert.  Wherever we went, we walked carefully, with ears pricked for danger, like wild animals stepping softly through the woods.

I have to be honest; this account almost makes me wish I'd had this experience as a child, although, as now, it would be more powerful and intimate for me were the disciplinarian to be a woman.

I can finally put the book away now.

*Note:  I've now tried 5 times to remove the spaces between paragraphs during the second part of the story, but blogspot just won't do it.  It sucks when computers actually are stupid!

1 comment:

  1. Hi P&P,

    I enjoyed that recollection of schooldays. David Niven recounts similar horrors in hi autobiography, 'The Moon's a Balloon", as does Sir Lawrence Olivier in his autobiography.

    the reason you were having trouble with the spacing in the excerpt is because you copied and pasted from MS Word. Word formatting fights with Blogger formatting.

    A better way to do it is to type the passage in Notepad, or type in Word then copy to Notepad to strip out formatting. What you can do here is edit the post, select all, then click the Remove Formatting icon (Tx). Then apply the courier font from the Blogger editing screen.