Saturday, July 1, 2017

Banana Split

There was something almost ritual and ceremonial about it all, and even though there were fewer than two hundred of us, it seemed like some kind of re-enactment of the biblical Feeding of the Five Thousand.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start at the beginning. The year was 1942, and Britain was in the third year of World War II. The place was Cranbrook School in Southeast England, and I was eleven years old.
The most frequent topic of conversation at the school during those dark days -- and especially during our dull school meals -- was food. We were, well , consumed by it! Later on, of course, the subject changed to girls, but we hadn’t discovered them yet in our non-co-ed school. We talked wistfully about food because it was severely rationed. Nazi U-boats and battleships were attacking and sinking our merchant ships bringing food from countries in the British Empire. They destroyed an incredible 3000 cargo ships during the war. Besides this, during the enemy occupation of Europe, we were deprived of food or anything else from other countries.
What we missed most were commonplace things that we'd blithely taken for granted before the War, but were now in short supply, such as cheese, sugar, eggs and chocolate. Then there were all the fruits that don’t grow in Britain’s sun-deprived climate: oranges, lemons, tangerines, pineapples, dates, figs and, missed most of all, bananas. We hadn't seen or tasted a banana for nearly three years. We yearned for banana fritters, sherry trifle with bananas on top, bananas and cream, banana sandwiches in the carefree days when you could simply pick up a banana, peel it and chomp on it.
Then, out of nowhere, a boy called Lou Taylor came into our lives and, just once during the six years of the War, enabled us to savor the taste of bananas – and in the oddest circumstances.
Lou Taylor was a shy, gangling, floppy-haired beanpole of a kid in my class, the son of an American diplomat. We took to him at once, but mimicked him mercilessly, and nicknamed him Long Island Lou. Unlike the rest of us, he often received parcels from his grandparents, aunts and uncles in America, and I have to admit that he owed a part of his popularity to the fact that he always shared these goodies with us. For the first time we discovered such trans-Atlantic wonders as Twinkies, Hershey bars, Oreos, bubble gum, Pepsi and Coke.
One morning, a Studebaker with Diplomatic Corps insignia drew up outside the headmaster's elegant Queen Anne house, into which a chauffeur carried a big cardboard box. Lunch was nearly over a few hours later in the big dining-hall, when two kitchen maids brought in an armful of bananas, and set them on the table in front of Dr. C. Russell Scott, the headmaster and his wife. Immediately, Mrs.Scott – known to us all because of her bird-like appearance as The Crow – began to peel them and heap them around a chopping board that was by now on the table in front of her husband.
What was going on here? Scott rose to his feet and, grasping his coat lapels with both hands (a habit that had always made him easy to imitate) announced that the bananas had been sent by Lou Taylor's parents, who’d suggested they be shared with all the boys in Lou’s house. However, the headmaster told us, Lou had generously suggested that this rare, unobtainable fruit be divided not only among the sixty or so boys in his house, but with all of the school's nearly two hundred boarders.
While everyone watched, intrigued, Scott and The Crow began slicing up the bananas into pieces about one inch thick and, in a few minutes, bowls of these were passed around the tables. The headmaster, his wife and the staff at the top table seemed to have made a generous and selfless gesture, because none of them partook of this divine dessert.
It's surprising how long you can take to eat a one-inch slice of banana when you put your mind to it. Some of the boys sliced each little portion into four or five smaller slivers, while others chopped off tiny pieces with a teaspoon. A few less impressionable boys gobbled down their share in a single mouthful.
When we'd all finished, the headmaster led a round of applause for Lou, who shrank, blushing in his seat.
Anyone hearing this story about 70 years later must think it weird that so many people of any age would share so small a collection of bananas in such an earnest and solemn way, as though receiving some sacrament. But in wartime even the most everyday thing becomes a luxury. We’d all grown a little obsessive and fixated about our long lost pleasures.
Look at it this way – what little daily luxuries do you enjoy most? Coffee, perhaps, or cognac, chocolate chip cookies, champagne, caviar or Camembert? Now, whatever it is, imagine you’ve been deprived of it for three whole years, and have absolutely no idea when or whether you’ll ever see it again. Then you’ll begin to fathom what that nostalgic ritual was all about.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Familiarity Breeds, well, Contentment

Patrick Shannon, a bespectacled, timid school-teacher, was convicted of the second-degree murder of his mother-in-law in 1969. He served twenty-eight years of a life sentence in a prison in upper New York State, and was released in March, 1997.
By then he was sixty-seven, with neither relations nor friends. Suddenly, though free to go where he pleased and to do as he liked, Patrick was in an unfamiliar city surrounded by strange faces, with no one to talk to, and no looks of recognition from passers-by. After nearly thirty years under one roof, he was reacquainted with wind, rain and snow, on streets where the traffic was denser and more snarled than he’d ever seen before.
Four days later, he hanged himself in his tiny rented room in Buffalo. A note he left behind told the coroner that he found life in the world outside jail “solitary and soulless, and changed beyond recognition.”
I wonder whether this tragic figure knew that if he’d found even a menial job, made a few new friends and taken one or two easy steps to integrate himself into the community, such as joining a church, a reading group, or even a chess club, he might still be alive and contented, and looking forward to celebrating the New Year, a new century and another millennium in a warm room with friends.
Patrick’s suicide may have been caused by a bout of depression, but it’s very likely that trigger was the absence of familiarity. Whatever his life was like in prison, he had become accustomed to it. He was the jail’s librarian for the fifteen years before his sentence was reduced for good behavior. He made many friends, sang in the choir and had become an unofficial counselor and father-figure to more than one generation of inmates. Even the prison’s daily routines, the plain but regular meals, the walks in the exercise yard, and every year the prison’s Spartan but still humane celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas, were familiar and comfortable.
So what’s all this about?  It’s about the fact that, whoever we are, whether we live in relative luxury in Connecticut, or in a convent or a barracks, the shanty towns of Calcutta or Rio de Janiero, or a cardboard box under Grand Central station -- and sometimes even a jail -- after a few months or maybe a year we become comfortable with those surroundings, the routines and the people we know. It’s simply because we are accustomed to them.
There’s ample documentary evidence of this. After the slums of the East End of London had been devastated in World War II, the new Labor government rebuilt thousands of new homes, with far more living space, and improved heating and plumbing, yet huge numbers of cockney Londoners were vociferously unhappy in their new, state-of-the-art homes, and it was a long time before many of them acknowledged that their lives were better.
This ‘familiarity thing’ has been my experience, too. Once my chairman sent me from London to Malaysia, to run the Kuala Lumpur office until he could find a replacement general manager there. I had only four days to get my shots, do some tropical shopping, pack and fly out. At first this assignment in an office only seven degrees north of the equator, where the staff spoke Cantonese, Bahasa and Tamil at home, and where only one member considered English his first language, was as different and unfamiliar as anywhere you could think of in the world. It was steamy, with temperatures of ninety degrees and eighty per cent humidity and the food was, to say the least, exotic. But when the time came to pack up and return to London, I was reluctant to go. I could have stayed there and made the place my home, and the same happened after much longer stints in Australia and the island of Cyprus.
My son, Graham, too, when in his thirties and married with two young boys, found the same thing when he was transferred to Hungary after several years in Dubai where, incredibly, he and his wife had a thoroughly contented life after the inevitable familiarization period. When he first took up his assignment in Budapest, Graham and his wife found the place sprawling, drab and run-down, the language impenetrable, and the people unusually alien. A year later they were experiencing the comfort that only familiarity can bring. By then the boys were happy at the Little Mozart School, and the parents had made friends, become opera enthusiasts, and were beginning to appreciate the city’s easy access to such places as Prague and Vienna. And then, Graham’s firm decided to close down its plants in central and eastern Europe, and he and his family returned to London.
So what can we learn from this?  The sum of it is that we like what we know. Nobody does the Thanksgiving turkey like Mom did. It’s the same with the software you use on your computer; what you like for breakfast; TV shows; the kind of books you enjoy most, and the tooth paste you use. You’re used to them, that’s all.
It’s even so of spouses and lovers. Why did Professor Higgins miss Liza Doolittle when she ran away? Quite simply, he’d grown accustomed to her face.



Monday, May 1, 2017

Duty Dog

It wasn’t a lot of fun being duty officer. On call during weekday nights or whole weekends, we spent our evenings sitting alone at a desk in the adjutant’s office, and sleeping near a phone, fully-dressed, on a camp bed in a room that was often as cozy and commodious as a broom closet or a kennel. It’s no wonder that the duty officer was nicknamed duty dog.
          On a quiet night you might handle a routine phone call from brigade headquarters, or deal with a minor fire caused by a drunken soldier falling asleep while smoking in bed. But on one occasion I had to confront an abusive street-walker  who was causing a scene at the barrack gate, complaining she’d been wronged by one of our troops.      
          Among the duty officer’s routines was keeping the sentries on their toes. Once every night, some time between midnight and six in the morning, we’d make a surprise visit to the eight soldiers who, woken while snatching a nap in the guard house between their turns on sentry duty, would tumble out under the dim yellow lights, yawning and tousled, their weapons ready for inspection.
          An even less popular function as duty dog was accompanying the duty sergeant-major to the cookhouse, to inspect the mens’ meals and invite complaints. The food was terrible, yet this routine of asking for complaints had been a tradition in the British Army since long before the battle of Waterloo, and both officers and men knew it was a pointless exercise. But it did give even the most lowly ranking soldier an opportunity for a joke at a junior officer’s expense.  The duty officer would approach each table and ask: “Any complaints?”  Normally, old soldiers, knowing the score, would grin and shake their heads, but from time to time some barrack-room comedian would say “Well, since you asked, Sir, the caviar’s not too fresh today.” The sergeant-major would growl something on the lines of   “That’s enough from you, you cheeky young bugger!” and we’d pass on.
          But some nights there were real dramas. One of my first spells as duty officer was at Ballykinlar camp in Northern Ireland, a remote spot where the Mountains of Mourrne really do sweep down to the sea as it’s said in the song. I had a call from a corporal’s wife in the battalion’s married quarters. Her husband was away on a posting somewhere, and she was bellowing with pain, calling for a breast pump. I was a few weeks short of my twenty-first birthday, and had no idea what a breast-pump was, nor why she’d ever ask for such a thing, but her need was clearly desperate, and I dispatched a driver the twenty or thirty miles to the nearest hospital.  Meanwhile, her voice growing more hysterical, the unhappy woman called me every few minutes until the mysterious gadget arrived.
In a more poignant episode in the British Zone in occupied Germany, I had a phone call from the adjutant at our regimental depot back in England.
“Tricky job, John,” he said. “Corporal Randall’s mother’s died. Heart attack. ‘Fraid you’ll have to see the chap and give him the bad news.”
          It was about seven in the evening on a Friday nightt, and the camp was deserted. I went down to Randall’s barrack room, where I found a lone soldier lying on his bed, reading a newspaper.
          “Have you seen Corporal Randall?”
          The man jumped up and shuffled to attention.
          “They’re all out, sir. It’s pay day, see?”
          “All right,” I said. “When he gets back, tell him to see the duty officer, will you?”
          It was past midnight when there was a knock at the door of my room.
          “I’m Randall, sir. You wanted to see me?”
          “Yes, I said. “Come inside for a moment.”
          There were several hundred men in the battalion, and we’d never seen each other before. He entered a little hesitantly, removing his beret. I offered him a seat, clearing my tunic and belt from the only chair in the cramped little room.
          “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, Randall.”
          I held out an open pack of cigarettes. He took one and I lit it for him.
          “Bad news, sir?”
          “Yes. I . . . I had a call from the depot tonight.” I told him. “It seems your mother was taken ill. They asked me to tell you she . . . well . . . she died this afternoon. I’m very sorry.”
          Randall said nothing. He lowered his eyes and took a deep drag on his cigarette. Then he said “She ‘ad one of them attacks before, See? We was always afraid she might ‘ave another one.”
          We talked for a while about his family, and then he stood up, preparing to leave. A little self-consciously I put an arm round his shoulder. “Listen, it’s late,” I said. “Try to get some sleep, and tomorrow we’ll make out a travel warrant and send you home. OK?”
          The next morning, just as I was going off-duty, I had another call from England.
          “Morning, John,” the adjutant said. “I say . . . awfully embarrassing thing . . . turns out it wasn’t Randall’s mother who died.”
          I found it hard to hide my incredulity.
          “Well, who was it?”
          “It’s an odd business. Seems it was his girl-friend’s mother. Not quite the same thing, what? Awfully, sorry, old boy.”
          It was just before seven in the morning, and I sent someone to fetch Randall. Again, he knocked on the door.
          “I hardly know how to tell you this,” I said.
 But to my astonishment, he actually grinned when I told him the true story.
          “I didn’t like her a lot, to tell the truth, sir” he said. “And she’d have been a freakin’ awful mother-in-law.”
There was a genuinely tragic incident a year or two later, when I was duty officer on the island of Cyprus. This time my visitor was another corporal, but unlike Randall – who’d been a fresh-faced draftee of about twenty years old – this man, with two rows of campaign medals on his chest, was a sun-shriveled veteran in his late forties, or older.
          Corporal Benson was an armorer in one of the rifle companies. Each company had its own armory, where its weapons and ammunition were stored. The armories were stone buildings without windows, whose doors, like those in stables, were in two halves, so that the top section could be opened independently. Each armorer slept in his own dingy store room.
          Benson was shaking with emotion when he came to see me. As he told it, a few evenings earlier he’d been sitting alone, naked on his bed doing something to himself that it’s impossible to define with any delicacy. While he was engaged in this solitary act, and unaware that he had an audience, some of his comrades had apparently peered into his shadowy quarters and taken a photo of him.
          “They took a picture of you?”
          “They did, sir.”
          “How do you know?” I asked.
          “They’re showing pictures of me . . .   well . . . doin’ it, around the canteen.”
          “Have you seen these pictures? Actually seen them?”
          “Well, no, sir. Not the pictures themselves.”
          “Tell me this,” I said. “Did you see a flash go off when they took the pictures?”
          Benson thought for a moment. “No. There wasn’t no flash. Not as I noticed. But I did look up and see them there.”
          “Did you see the camera?”
          “No, Sir. Can’t say I did.”        
          As I had done with Randall, I offered the man a cigarette. I weighed-up the story in my mind. The armories were dark inside and, by his account, Corporal Benson had been all of twenty feet from the doorway. Without a flash bulb it would have been impossible – absolutely impossible – to take a picture. I was convinced that he was being fooled by his comrades, and I told him so.
          We talked for a while, and slowly Benson seemed to become as sure as I was that, embarrassing though his situation was, he’d been the victim of a mean practical joke, and no photographs were really being passed round to shame him further.  He returned to his armory relaxed and encouraged. Or so I supposed.
          But back in his room, Benson took a revolver, inserted a single round in the drum, stuck the weapon in his mouth, and killed himself.
          At the subsequent enquiry it turned out that there had, indeed, been no photographs. But even now, even more than half a century later, I can still see the anguish in Benson’s tired old eyes, and I can’t help asking myself what else I might have said to him, and what further comfort I might have offered.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Lazy Saint

1860 was a vintage year. Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and Annie Oakley was born. In Europe the year marked the birth of Chekhov and Mahler, and Britain’s launch of HMS Warrior, the first iron battleship. A far less celebrated person was also born that year in England. She was Mabel Harris, my grandmother who, though she may not have made it up there among those notables, would rate a few pages in anyone’s family history.
Besides being a devoted mother, Mabel – everyone called her May -- was a painter, author, musician and a bit of a mystic. She was deeply religious, with a devotion to which only converts to Catholicism can aspire. Many people said she was a saint but, when I was about eight, I looked her up in Volume I of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and was disappointed not to find her there.
As a young woman, May was a startling beauty -- part Wagnerian diva and part Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model -- tall, with wavy, braided brown hair and an hourglass waist. So it wasn’t surprising that John Harris, a mustachioed realtor, fell deeply in love with her and, in her 30s -- late in life for those days – married her and presented her with seven children in just over ten years: Margaret, John, Eleanor, Isabel, Katherine, Andrew, and my mother, Peace.
But the marriage wasn’t to last for long. John Harris, who had a lifelong passion for port wine and pretty women, vanished one night around 1905, leaving May the house they lived in, but no money and no income. Shortly after her husband’s disappearance, Andrew, who had been born stone deaf, was killed in the street by a runaway horse. A year later, Eleanor was crippled by polio.
May was distraught with concern for her family. To feed them and pay the doctor’s bills, she sold the large house in a prosperous section of the beautiful cathedral city of Winchester, and the family moved to a smaller, less expensive one near the North Foreland lighthouse outside Broadstairs, a little seaside town overlooking the English Channel. This move realized enough money to cover the necessities of life, but there were seven children to feed and educate. May’s father-in-law, who was fond of her and the children, came to the rescue. Ashamed of what his son had done, he not only provided financial security for May for the rest of her long life, but also put his many grandchildren through private schools.
There’s an intriguing legend about May’s conversion to Catholicism. Late one winter afternoon, she was playing the organ, alone, at Minster Abbey, a remote, marshy place on the Thames Estuary, where a monastery was founded in the 7th Century. She looked up and saw a monk in a shadowy gallery overlooking the choir stalls. He was beckoning to her, but though she searched for a door or staircase, there seemed no way up to the gallery. A few days later she met Minster’s Abbot, and told him the story.  He shook his head. There was no way up to that gallery, he said, because it had been closed-up for more than three hundred years.
The result of this phantom summons was that May, an Anglican, very soon became a Catholic. Perhaps buoyed by her new faith, and by the unexpected generosity of her father-in-law, she experienced an upsurge of creativity in her middle age. She took up painting, producing pious Renaissance-style pictures, and sometimes huge flower-pieces as much as six feet wide. One of these, I remember had a none-too-well-disguised patch in one corner after her son, John, had poked some sharp-edged object through the canvas in a fit of temper.
In the 1920s, in her early sixties, May wrote and self-published a novella, First Line of Defence (sic), a 17,000 word story about a woman widowed during World War I. The little book, dedicated to her parish priest, has vivid scenes of air raids by Zeppelins over the town of Broadstairs. Her scenes in the communal air raid shelters deep in the town’s chalk cliffs, are grippingly realistic and evocative, though the story is almost painfully devout.
May was 71 when I was born. I never remember her wearing anything other than black. A call on her was not so much a visit as an audience. When we met, she was nearly always propped up on pillows, dressed in her day clothes on her big bed upstairs. She spent a great deal of time there, and it would have to be said that, if she were indeed a saint, she was a somewhat lazy one. Outside, through the windows, lay the cliffs and, beyond them, the sea, and the room seemed to me like some holy reliquary. There was a large black crucifix over the bed, and statues were everywhere: the Blessed Virgin, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony, Saint Theresa, and others. Rosaries dangled from both bedposts on hand for instant use.
Sometimes she’d descend and entertain us on the piano in her elegant Victorian drawing room. Her favorites were the Three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, though sometimes she’d tackle short virtuoso pieces by Chopin and Lizst.
I never heard my grandmother raise her voice. My aunts told me that, when they were teenagers, and the Zeppelins came over the Channel in the First World War, they’d all run to her for comfort as the bombs fell and the shrapnel clattered on the roof of the house. Unflappable, and exuding calm, she’d smile and say soothingly “It’ll pass, dears. It’ll pass.”
The only occasion on which anyone recalled May losing her temper was when her children found hefty crates of Belgian chocolate washed up onto the beach from a torpedoed tramp steamer. They arrived at her door, grinning with chocolate-smeared faces, proudly presenting their loads of foil-wrapped chocolate bars. But their mother, who feared the chocolate might have been deliberately poisoned and floated ashore by the Germans, flew into a rage and chided them for their lack of caution.  
May Harris died in her sleep in the spring of 1946. She was 86. Peace Birch -- née Harris -- my long-widowed widowed mother, died in Broadstairs forty years later at much the same age. I’ve never returned to the town, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, and where the mansion that inspired Bleak House broods on the cliff tops. Nor have I ever seen a ghost, but it would neither surprise nor frighten me if, along the narrow path near her house, I were to meet that lazy saint, rosary in hand, on her way to Mass.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mr. Evans Wants You

Kevin couldn’t stop glancing at the clock.  It was already 8:17, but they hadn’t come for him. This was Tuesday, wasn’t it?
Every Tuesday it was the same. Crowded in the stuffy homework room under dim yellow lights, they’d wait for the messenger to come over from the house. First, they’d hear his scrunching footsteps in the gravel on the parade ground outside. Then, when he entered, he’d evade all eyes in the hushed classroom, stoop to the prefect’s ear and whisper the names of those to be called.
          Kevin sat at his desk near the back of the room among some twenty-five others, bent over his history project.  The duty prefect, Michael Stafford, a much older boy than most of them, with a grave, acne-scarred face and bloodhound’s eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses, sat facing them on a dais at the front, doing his own ‘prep,’ but keeping a wary eye on his underlings, alert for furtively passed written notes, or hissed conversations behind the backs of hands.
          Trying to concentrate, Kevin dipped his nib in the inkwell and wrote: “Hengist and Horsa were the leaders of the Jutes, who landed in England at Ebbsfleet, Kent, in AD 449. Horsa was killed in battle around AD 455, but Hengist, his brother, went on to rule South Britain . . .”
          Outside, wind-driven rain beat on the classroom windows, but Kevin still heard the approaching footsteps on the gravel, and tensed when the messenger entered. The whispered conversation was longer than usual, and Stafford was making a penciled note of the names.
          A minute or two passed after the messenger left the room.  Wasn’t Stafford going to call anyone?  But when he did look up and speak it was not Kevin’s surname he called, but someone else’s.
          David Griffiths, known as ‘Scruffy,’ looked up, an unkempt, curly-headed boy with a distinct Welsh accent, who always looked as though he slept in his crumpled school uniform.
 “Yes, Stafford?”
          “Mr. Evans wants to see you.”
          Friends exchanged amused glances, and exaggerated coughing broke out around the room.  Scruffy, always in trouble, was called to Mr. Evans’ study on several Tuesday nights each term. The misdemeanors for which he was about to receive four strokes of the cane would, everyone in the room knew, be much the same as they always had been: thirty minutes detention for an untidy locker; another thirty for an unlaced shoe at morning chapel; another for forgetting to bring his French dictionary. For Scruffy Griffiths, like everyone else, an accumulation of ninety or more minutes of detention in a single week meant a beating. Punishments of six strokes were kept for more venal sins: a lie; a swear word, or damage to school property. 
          Scruffy stood up with a sudden jerky movement, his chair making a harsh scraping sound as he pushed it back on the wood-block floor. So Kevin wasn’t going to be first? Somehow that made the ordeal harder to bear. He’d now have to wait, pondering what was to come while the other boy walked over to Mr. Evans’ house, took what was coming to him, and returned to the classroom. If he knew Scruffy, he’d be blubbering when he came back and took his seat. 
Kevin listened as Griffiths’s unhurried footsteps passed the window. Then nearly ten minutes dragged by. When he returned he wasn’t crying after all, though his eyes were swollen and his face flushed.
          On the dais, Stafford consulted the scribbled note beside him.        
          Kevin swallowed. “Yes, Stafford?”
          “Mr. Evans wants to see you.”
            There were a few wry grins around the homework room, but otherwise there was less reaction than when Griffiths had been summoned. Unlike Scruffy, Kevin was not the butt of the jokes and jibes the Welsh boy endured. Kevin rarely if ever found the legs of his pajama pants tied in knots in the dormitory, his bicycle tires deflated, or his toothbrush clogged with carbolic soap.
          Out in the corridor, passing empty, darkened classrooms, he stepped into the wind outside, pulling up his collar against the rain. At the bottom of the parade ground, across the street behind tall, dim street lamps, stood Crowden House, Mr. Evans’ house, with its high, leaded gable windows. The building was totally dark, and yet the front door was wide open.  But Kevin was not allowed to enter through this door, because it was only for the use of Mr.Evans and his monitors, and visiting parents.  Kevin and others, the hoi polloi of Crowden House, went in and out of the building only by its back door. He climbed the stone steps and through the shadowy changing rooms, with their overloaded clothes hooks, draped with muddy Rugby shirts and shorts and grubby towels, past the boot lockers, the echoing white-tiled bath and shower rooms, to Mr. Evans’ oak study door.
          Kevin knocked. There was a chink of light under the door. Beyond it he heard Evans cough. A smoker’s cough.
          The housemaster’s study reeked of pipe tobacco. Evans sat upright, reading a book in a shiny brown leather armchair in front of a hissing gas stove, seeming not to notice Kevin’s entrance.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
          Evans looked up feigning surprise, and eased himself out of his chair. He was an immensely tall man with drooping shoulders, an ivory white face, a beaky nose and mournful eyes. In the school library there was a life-sized marble bust of a lesser Roman emperor that bore a remarkable resemblance to him.
“Yes, Fitzgerald. I did indeed. And I expect you can imagine why.”
          Kevin shrugged. “No Sir. I can’t,” he said.
          “I think you can, boy. Reflect on it.”
          Kevin reflected.
          “It’s . . . is it because I’ve gone over ninety minutes this week, sir?”
          “Precisely. And what does that mean to you and me, Fitzgerald?”
          “That you’re going to beat me, Sir.”
          Mr. Evans smiled. But the smile was only on his thin lips. There was no warmth or friendliness in his sad eyes.
          “Exactly right.” Evans opened a closet door beside the fireplace that seemed to overflow with sports equipment. A golf bag, cricket bats, tennis racquets, hockey sticks. Reaching in behind these he drew out a long, thin bamboo cane.
“Alright, then,” Evans said, “I’ll meet you in the common room. You’ll find the chair down there somewhere.”
          Outside the housemaster’s door, Kevin groped his way along the darkened corridor. In the common room he switched on the lights and gazed round the big, dingy hall. On two unvarnished wood tables lay the disordered remains of the day’s newspapers. Around the room, against the walls, stood some forty upright wooden chairs. At the far end was a worn billiards table.
          And in the middle of the common room, standing alone was a single chair quite different from the others. It had a circular plywood seat on four spindly legs, and it’s back was made of two pieces of brown-varnished doweling, secured to the seat in an inverted U-shape. 
          “Well, we’ve been here a few times before together, haven’t we Fitzgerald?” said Evans, standing in the doorway.
Kevin stood by the chair, with one hand resting on the curve of its back. “Yes.”
“Yes, sir.”
“That’s better. Now take your position, if you will.” He closed the door behind him.
Kevin knew what he had to do. Turning his back to Evans, he faced the chair, grasped its seat with both hands, lowered his head and locked his neck under its curved cane back. Behind him, Evans made swishing practice strokes in the air with his cane with the nonchalance of a Sunday morning golfer.
Bent over in this strained position, Kevin’s back hurt. Why didn’t the bastard get on with it?
“Are you ready, boy?”
“Ready, sir.”
Kevin tightened his buttocks, bit his lip and held his breath. But Evans seemed not to be ready. Kevin could hear him pacing the floor behind him, and involuntarily relaxed a little.
Facing the floor, his head clamped under the chair back, Kevin looked down at the linoleum two feet below. What was that by the leg of the chair? An old sneaker. What was that doing here?
It was at that moment, while Kevin was off-guard and his muscles not tightened in readiness, that the first stroke fell. It cut across both buttocks, perfectly parallel. It didn’t hurt so much as it numbed him. This wasn’t too bad, he thought. He could take this.
          Evans has stepped back a few paces, and as he did so made a few more switches in the air. Nothing happened for a few moments and Kevin lowered his head a little, withdrew it from the chair back, and half turned to look at his housemaster. Evans was standing maybe eight feet behind him, immobile, the cane lowered in his right hand. His eyes seemed to be on Kevin’s buttocks, and he’d have been hard-pressed to interpret the distracted look in the man’s eyes.
“Look to your front,” Evans snapped.
          Kevin took a firmer grasp on the chair seat and squeezed the cheeks of his bottom together as tightly as he could. He heard the little run as Evans approached and the second stroke came slashing in. His body jerked upward with pain, jolting the back of his head against its wooden restraint. Tears welled into his eyes. He braced himself for the third stroke, and it came quickly, this time at a sharp slashing angle to the first two strokes. His feet twisted and his toes curled downward in reaction to the pain. One more, only one more.
          There was another long pause. He could hear Evans walking farther away this time, making little wheezing, breathless sounds between his teeth. Kevin tensed again, and heard the four quickening paces as he braced every muscle in his body, his head stiff-necked, twisting sideways, his jaw locked.
          So great was the force of the fourth, final stroke that Kevin stumbled forward a pace, his head still locked. He stood upright, lifting the chair off the floor, and raised it a little to disentangle his head. Then he lowered it to the ground and turned toward his housemaster.
          By now his eyes were so full of tears that he could barely see Evans. He wiped his eyes with a sleeve of his shirt. Evans said nothing.      
          “Can I go now, sir?”
Evens looked down. “The question’s not whether you can go, Fitzgerald. It’s whether you may go.”
“May I go, sir?”
“Indeed you may.”
Kevin made for the door.
Kevin turned. “Sir?”
“Good man. Well taken.”  He was smiling. The man was smiling!
“Thank you. Sir.”
          Outside, in the darkness of the changing rooms, he loosened his belt and slipped his hand down the inside of the back of his undershorts. He felt the four tender lines, not yet swollen into weals and, where the strokes had crossed, the smallest sticky trace of blood on his fingertips. He withdrew his hand, sucking the rich, iron-tasting blood from his fingertips.
          On his way back to the classroom, on the edge of the parade ground, he passed the lighted red telephone booth on the sidewalk. Feeling in his pocket he took out a florin, hauled open the heavy door, slipped inside and dropped the coin into the slot. He dialed his parents’ number.
          They often had dinner parties on Tuesday nights, but he was sure they wouldn’t mind. He thought of his mother and father at either end of the table in the warm, dark paneled dining room, their faces and those of their guests lit by the three candelabra. 
          It was cold in the phone booth, and there was a smell of stale tobacco smoke. His mother answered the phone. He’d hoped she would.
“Faversham 783”
“Hello, Mummy.”
“Oh, It’s my birthday boy. Happy birthday, Kevin, dear. Did you have a nice day?”
          “Not bad.”
          In the background he heard a roar of laughter, and his mother said, “I can’t talk too long Kevin. We have people to dinner.”
          “That’s all right,” the boy said.
          “Oh, by the way,” his mother said, “I’m afraid your card and present will be a day or two late. I only remembered to post them this morning. But don’t worry; it’s on the way. Really.”
          “That’s okay. It’s doesn’t matter. I expect it’ll come tomorrow.”
          There was a pause, then his mother said: “Well, I must go now, dear. Daddy sends his love, too. You’re all right then, are you?
          “Yes, Mummy, I’m fine.”
          “That’s all right then. Kiss kiss.”
          “Mummy, I . . .”
          “What’s that, dear?”
          Was there any point? “Nothing, Mummy. It’s nothing.”
          “Bye then.”
          A hundred and thirty miles away the line went dead.
          He was limping a little, and it hurt, but it would soon be all right again. Everything worked out all right in the end.
          In the classroom, waiting his return, they heard his footsteps on the gravel.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017


They came in the dark, 73 years ago, when I was 13. One evening, towards the end of May, 1944, a column of British Army trucks roared into the grounds of our boarding school in South East England.
Within hours a whole infantry battalion, its cheerful, foul-mouthed soldiery and their vehicles, weapons and supplies had taken over the grassy spaces around our school’s ancient stone buildings, classrooms, library and gymnasium. For several days, while the school tried hard to carry on as usual, the troops were hidden under trees and out in the open under camouflage netting.
          More soldiers poured into the area on their way south to the coast in the rural counties of Kent and Sussex, bordering on the English Channel. There was no doubt about it -- the invasion of Europe was coming.  We knew it, and the Germans knew it. But for us, in our early teens, it was all a schoolboy dream. Friendly fighter planes swooped and dove over our heads, while tanks, armored cars, anti-aircraft guns and heavy field artillery rolled through the village streets. The summer term at school had begun, but it was too hard to concentrate on dreary Latin and chemistry and algebra when there were such distractions on our very doorstep.
          Then, in the first few days of June we woke to find the troops gone and shortly afterward, on June 6, BBC radio news announced the invasion of Normandy. Suddenly the war seemed far away, though we were well within range of German fighters and dive-bombers, based only 21 miles across the English Channel. But the Luftwaffe stayed away from us for the rest of that month, otherwise engaged by the D-Day beachheads. Instead, shortly afterwards, we encountered the first of Hitler’s most terrifying secret weapons, 8,500 of which rained down on London and its surrounding counties, killing about 9,000 civilians.
          It was late at night when they came for the first time. They flew out of the southeast, low over the school buildings, with rowdy, rattling jet engines like huge, poorly-silenced motorbikes, and tongues of flame pouring from their tails.  We hung out of our dormitory widows, craning to see them as they careered overhead. No grown-ups came up to reassure us, and we had no idea what these noisy, mysterious aircraft were. But of one thing we were sure, they were hostile.
          On BBC radio next day we learned what they were. They were flying bombs, V1’s (“Vee Ones”), crudely built, pilotless, rocket-propelled aircraft launched from railroad lines only 21 miles across the English Channel in Nazi-occupied France. Each contained a ton of explosive, and when the fuel ran out, after fifteen or twenty seconds of unnerving silence, they crashed and exploded. In daylight, RAF fighter pilots quickly learned to deal with what were soon nicknamed buzz bombs, or doodle-bugs. Some pilots intercepted them by flipping them over with their Spitfires fighters’ wing-tips, causing them to veer off-course and crash, but the most effective way to stop their passage on their fixed courses was for fighters to shoot them down with cannon shells. Whatever the method, the result was the same – a massive explosion in a ball of fire in the fields and woods around our school.
          Soon after the first buzz-bombs plunged into London, more than 2,500 anti-aircraft guns were moved into the counties southeast of the capital, mainly to Kent, our county, and Surrey and Sussex.  A battery of these guns, 40 mm Bofors guns, that had already more than earned their keep during the Battle of Britain quickly dug-in on the edge of our school cricket field, a grassy plateau that looked down on the school in a river valley below. In their sandbagged emplacements the guns were right on the course the buzz bombs followed from their launch pads in the extreme north of France to London, their ultimate target.
          Sixty-nine years on, it seems incredible that on one hot summer afternoon in 1944, following a shrill warning whistle signal from the umpire, we schoolboys lay flat on our faces under the wooden benches around that cricket pitch, while the guns blazed away at a passing flying bomb.  Hot, jagged pieces of silver shrapnel pattered down in the fields and farmland around us.
          Oddly, none of us sensed real terror at that strange time in our early lives. Even in the darkest days of the early 1940’s, though we sometimes stumbled on the grisly wreckage of German and friendly aircraft in the dense woods around the school, and looked up to see the sky black with high-flying formations of enemy bombers heading for London, we somehow felt detached from the reality of it all. It was a dreamscape, like an over-long Saturday morning movie show.
          Unlike the Jews, The Poles, the Russians and millions of children in many occupied countries, we had enough to eat, and we stayed warm in the winter. No one took our parents or friends away, and we never actually met the enemy face-to-face.
          We were the lucky ones. For us, oddly, it wasn’t an ordeal, butt sheer adventure.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lucy, Soapy and Dogs

       It took many years for me to realize that the best teachers in my schooldays were the ones who taught from their hearts rather than their heads.
       I enjoyed languages, and Latin, French and German came fairly easily. I also felt comfortable enough with biology, chemistry, geography and history. The people who taught these were competent enough, but what I learned about art, music and literature has lived with me forever, simply because these were taught with a transparent passion for their subject matter.
        But math? Forget it. Mr. Griffin, the math master, taught only from his head. As a result I'm arithmetically challenged. I count on my fingers under restaurant tables to work out how much to tip. I can’t read a balance sheet to save my life, and making change is always a puzzle.
        At the time I thought I was a dunce at math because I was plain dumb, and later that it was to do with being a right-brain person. But now I’m convinced it was because Mr. Griffin, our fast-talking Welsh math master, was all brain and no heart. Gray-haired, short and irascible, he galloped through his lessons, scrawling illegible equations and proofs on the board, laboring under the wrong assumption that everyone in the class was keeping up with him. At almost every lesson he lost his temper, shouting and hurling sticks of blackboard chalk into his bewildered audience. It was only then that he displayed any passion or emotion. Griffin died halfway through my time at the school, and for me the only sad thing about his demise was that although his successor – Mr. Hawkins – was patient and paternal, it was too late to start again. By then the die was cast.
        World War II was raging for the first few years of my days at Cranbrook, a boarding school in South East England. Most of the masters were either too old to be in the armed services, or had some physical or other reason not to be in uniform. Oddly, there was not a single woman on the teaching staff. It seems it occurred to no one then that a woman might be capable of explaining the difference between an equilateral and an isosceles triangle to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds.
        Mr. Lockett was one of the masters whose love of his subjects – art, fine arts and workshop – endeared him to his students. He was a gangling, bony man with hugely thick horn-rimmed glasses who we nicknamed ‘Lucy’, after the character Lucy Lockett in a nursery rhyme. He was a Communist and also a conscientious objector, but never preached about his politics or pacifism. He was impassioned about art in all its forms. In his painting and drawing classes we inherited his love of the Post-Impressionists and Surrealists. It’s no wonder that visitors touring the art room on the annual Parents’ Day were puzzled to find the pervasive influences of Cezanne, Matisse and Dali in our own efforts displayed on the art room walls.
        But it was Lucy Lockett’s fine art classes that affected me for life. He'd amassed what seemed to be hundreds of color postcards of paintings. They ranged from the nativities and crucifixions from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the Romantics, the Realists, Dada, and contemporary work that included Kandinsky, Klee, Ben Shahn and Homer Winslow.
        With a contraption called an epidiascope, Lockett projected these images on the whitewashed walls of the art room. So profound was his knowledge that he held us spellbound while he explained the artist’s intent, the focus and symmetry of each picture, its balance and the minutiae of the painter’s life and environment. Sometimes we’d discuss a single picture for the entire forty-five minute period, while over a month we’d study, say, the Florentines, the Pre-Raphaelites or the Cubists. So, through the history of art, with Lucy’s help, we dissected the astonishing detail of Vermeer’s interiors, recognized the social messages in Daumier’s grim portrayals of peasants at work, witnessed Van Gogh’s craziness creeping into his pictures, and the threat of Nazism looming over the German painters of the 30s. We weren't only learning about pictures hanging on walls in dusty galleries, but also about the artists themselves, history, psychology, religion, human nature, and life itself.
        It was Lockett who brought bags of broken Lucite into the workshop, fragments of the cockpit covers of enemy and friendly fighters and bombers that plunged from time to time into the farmland and woods around the school. These we cut and polished, fashioning them into useful objects – letter-openers, signet rings, paperweights and napkin holders. Later, we carved figures of humans and animals that bore an almost passing resemblance to pieces from Lockett's treasured collection of Japanese netsuke, exquisite miniature ivory sculptures.
        And then there was Mr.Hudson, the music master who also, like every one else – except the late Mr. Griffin – had had a nickname. ‘Hudson’s Washing Soap’ was the best-known brand of laundry powder, and so he was labeled ‘Soapy’. A darkly handsome man with a perennial five-o’clock shadow, he played seventy-eight-speed records on an ancient phonograph. Much like Lucy Lockett and his artists, Soapy Hudson knew his composers and their lives as though they were members of his own family.
        In the 1940s, the world’s greatest composers were believed to be Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Brahms. Soapy Hudson taught us their names in order of birth with an impossible-to-forget mnemonic – Please Bring Half a Hundredweight, Mother, Because Sister Wants Bananas.
        These nine, and many others’ works, were played again and again during my seven years at Cranbrook. We became so familiar with the great symphonies that we could hum along with them. We felt we’d been there when Beethoven was composing his ninth and final symphony, angrily pressing his ear to the lid of the piano in a vain attempt to hear the notes, even though by then he’d been stone deaf for seven years. We all but heard Schumann, a chronic manic-depressive, whistling softly to himself, facing the wall in his favorite coffee shop before his early death in an asylum. We felt for lonely Brahms, a lifelong bachelor who, even when well off, lived in a rented room in Vienna. He rose every day at five a.m., brewed himself cup after cup of pungent black coffee from a samovar, and smoked equally strong cheroots. How, Hudson asked us, could such a man write music that was so heartfelt, so romantic? But he never told us about Brahms’ curiously profound relationship with Clara Schumann for thirty years after her husband, Robert Schumann’s death.
        And then there was ‘Dogs’ Saunders, who taught English Literature. Larger than life, he was as different from Lucy Lockett and Soapy Hudson as chalk is from cheese. Since he had fought in several campaigns in the trenches in World War I, he was probably in his sixties, as much as thirty years older than his arty and musical counterparts.
        Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, before his blondish hair had grayed, earlier student generations had called him ‘Sandy.’ But by the 1940s, because he could be ferocious at times, and actually bared his teeth when he was upset, he had become ‘Dogs.’ Yet it didn’t take us long to discover that his bark was worse than his bite.
        Dogs Saunders was florid-faced, gravel-voiced, and corpulent, and had an oddly distinctive walk. Seeing him hurrying to a class, or heading down the village street for one of his all too frequent visits to the bar of the George Hotel, even on the calmest summer day he walked as though he were wading into a strong wind. Besides teaching English lit., he was also the school’s deputy headmaster, and the commanding officer of its highly active wartime unit of the OTC, the Officers’ Training Corps.
        Dogs’ classes focused almost entirely on three playwrights, whom he called ‘The Three S’s: Shakespeare, Sheridan and Shaw. These weren’t remotely representative of the whole compass of English letters but, luckily, two other masters more than capably handled the real gamut from Chaucer, through Milton and Wordsworth, to Joyce and Woolf. There are ample reasons why Saunders belonged up there with the two other memorable teachers; he had an abiding and infectious passion for Shakespeare, and taught it superbly, if idiosyncratically. As a student himself, he must have studied the plays and sonnets with almost the same labored devotion with which an Imam learns the Koran. For me, a thorough grounding in Shakespeare turned out to be a perfect foundation for a later, broader study of English. Like Lucy Lockett and his postcards, Dogs unveiled insights that formed the beginnings of an early understanding of human personality and behavior.
        It certainly wasn't the major’s ability to read aloud that endeared us to Shakespeare's plays. In fact, he read them terribly badly, with a total absence of feeling for the words. His reading of Richard III's impassioned plea for "a horse . . . my kingdom for a horse . . ." had all the fire and pathos of someone reading a telephone book. And when he read the lines of Ophelia and Cordelia – two of the Bard’s most tragic and feminine characters, he made no attempt to alter or soften his voice. His pitch and key were no different from his voice for Hamlet and Lear.
        Where was the magic, then, the fascination, the thrill? Strangely, Dogs’ monotonous tone didn't matter. It was his self-interruptions, his asides and translations of the language that made him the wizard he was. There seemed to be nothing he didn't know about the characters, their motivations, the different facets of their personalities and the actual construction of the plays. But for him, when seeing As You Like It on the stage, we’d never have known that melancholy and philosophical Jaques (whom Dogs correctly pronounced ‘Jaqueez’ and not Jacques) was there to inject some gravity and reflectiveness into what would otherwise have been little more than a saccharine Harlequin romance. In the same way he explained comic relief, showing how the bawdy nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the wisecracking grave digger in Hamlet and the lewd Porter in Macbeth were inserted at exactly the right point in the plays to offset these tragedies’ stark horror. Here was one of our first lessons in the craftsmanship of writing.
        There was no doubt that Saunders’ favorite play was Henry V. He was, after all, a bemedaled, battle proven veteran who profoundly believed that King and Country came before all else. Henry V is an enactment of war, courage and loyalty to the Crown, and probably the most patriotic play ever written, so it’s not surprising that the old man became watery-eyed, and his voice sometimes cracked when he read Henry’s rousing speeches. Is it too fanciful to believe that, in his mind, he was not a spectator at Agincourt, but back at war in France himself? Instead of the chaos of Henry’s battlefield in France, was he hearing the chatter of German machine-gun fire at Ypres, or on the Somme, the sudden bursts of flares in the night sky, the silence before the charge? Could he see and hear the writhing, unattended wounded, or smell the first pungent whiff of poison gas?
        Dogs could become fiercely loquacious whenever anyone dared suggest that the superhuman outpourings of Shakespeare, a mere glove maker’s son and a grammar school boy, were written by someone else. He scoffed at the suggestion that more worldly, university-educated men such as Bacon, Marlowe, an earl or two or even the well-educated and studious King James I might have been responsible. He took the side of the ‘Stratfordians,’ who were equally dismissive of the theory, but whose case these days holds as little water as that of the Flat Earth Society, or the Creationists. Even then, half a century ago, I found his rebuttals over-defensive and unconvincing.
       Dogs’ other playwrights – both Irishmen , Sheridan and Shaw – received short shrift compared with Shakespeare. But during our study of two of Sheridan’s plays, The School for Scandal and The Rivals, he seemed to become a different person altogether. The sheer zest of these two Regency comedies, with their racy tales about marital infidelity, fraud and mistaken identity, seemed to bring him beaming out of his shell. He was tickled by the very names of the characters such as Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour in School for Scandal, and Lydia Languish and verbally-inept Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, and he positively chortled at their antics.
        When it came to Shaw, the major unexpectedly revealed his true political colors. Who would have thought that this dyed-in-the-wool, stiff upper-lip Englishman was not a staunch Conservative but instead leaned somewhat to the left? There was no hint of this when we were immersed in Saint Joan, but when we got to Pygmalion there was no doubt he was a latent lefty. Unlike My Fair Lady, Shaw’s play is almost a political tract, a parody of the idle rich, an attack on class distinction and a billboard for the cause of feminism. Dogs made no secret, at least in the classroom, that he, too, was a champion of the working man and woman.
        Lucy, Soapy and Dogs were three men with uniquely different personalities and beliefs. They shared their passions and played a part in making me whatever I‘ve become. In their way they were the lions of my boyhood – a pride of pedagogues.