Friday, May 27, 2011


We called him Joe behind his back, but to his face he was Sir, or Mr. Jones. In my whole life I never met a colder, more detached man. Even now, seventy years later, I get a little catch in my chest at the very thought of him.
         His name (well, I've changed it to be honest) was Frank Jones, a burly, broody, balding and remote Welshman with a Roman a centurion’s nose and a head like polished pine. He was my boarding school's deputy head, and my housemaster, and had been in charge of Crowden House as long as anyone could recall.
Joe’s very appearance instilled dread in us, striding purposefully into his Latin class in his black gown; berating us in his captain’s uniform on the drill square, or bearing down on us angrily, his whistle shrilling on the Rugby field. Boys from other houses thanked God they weren’t at Crowden, for Jones, in his late forties, was a bachelor, and ran the place like a fiefdom. His fellow housemasters had wives and children of their own, and this made life in those houses a little more like home.
Crowden, a three story, early 19th century building with two beamed gables and lattice windows, loomed across the street from the headmaster's warm red brick Queen Anne house, the school's handsome assembly hall, and the classroom block. Years on, I see Crowden House as though I’m peering into the hinged, open front of a doll house. There are its three floors covered with mud brown linoleum, and its walls in two-tone green matte paint. Down in the gloomy hallway to the right of the front door is Mr. Jones' study. That’s the prefects' room to the left of it and, over on the right, running the depth of the house, the spartan, echoing day room, where the rest of us made friends and feuded with our foes for seven everlasting years. Behind all this lie the bare-boarded bathrooms and sports changing rooms, with their overflowing boot lockers, and black iron hooks on the walls, festooned with sweaty Rugby gear. Up on the two upper floors, above lino-covered staircases, are the five dormitories, each housing about a dozen boys who sleep in open-fronted cubicles. There are no pictures on the walls, and there’s no heating. The windows – like all windows in Britain in wartime – are draped with blackout curtains, though the windows, whatever the time of year, are always wide open at bedtime.
Life was much rougher at Crowden. Beatings were a routine, conducted either by Jones himself, or by his house captain. Punishments, usually for laughably venial sins, such as having untidy hair, or being late for chapel or a class, were meted out in increments of thirty minutes, and called detention. Anyone awarded more than ninety minutes detention in a single week would be given four strokes of the cane, while six strokes were reserved for mortal sins, such as lying or cheating.
Later in World War II, in the early 40s, when there were labor shortages at the school, we had an option of manual labor instead of detention or taking a beating. This would consist of heaving coal for the boilers, sawing logs, or working in the school’s vegetable gardens. At about the same time, a national scarcity of food forced the school to plow one or two of its sports fields to grow crops of sugar beet. After this we spent rainy fall afternoons, armed with machetes, topping and tailing beets like overgrown turnips, piled on rough trestle tables,.  
Mr. Jones had rules of his own. Not until we were sixteen were we allowed to wear brown (as opposed to black) shoes, or to put our hands in our trousers pockets. Nor could we walk across the parade ground, enter the house by its front door, or ride a bicycle without permission. These were the privileges of boys in their last years at the school, and once you first exercised these dubious privileges you knew the end was in sight.
Very rarely Mr. Jones, failing to identify a culprit, penalized the entire house for some misdemeanor. One winter weekend, someone cracked a mirror in one of the bathrooms and, an hour or two after its discovery, prefects rounded up everyone to a hastily summoned assembly in the day room. The duty prefect counted heads and, when he was sure that everyone was present, turned to Joe.
Jones, his face dark with anger, invited the person responsible for the broken pane to reveal himself, and for a minute or more glowered at the silent gathering. But no one stepped forward to admit the blame, and Jones and his prefects went into a huddle outside the room. When they returned, he announced that, since no one had accepted responsibility, the whole house must pay the penalty.
          That afternoon about sixty boys set off on a walk to and from the village of Hawkhurst, five miles away. Over the next hours the column of twelve to seventeen-year-old walkers, mostly in twos and threes, stretched out over the hilly course, the younger boys falling back slowly while the older ones, pulled ahead. Throughout the afternoon Jones and his prefects glided to and fro on bicycles to make sure that no one took a short cut. It was dusk and raining when the last stragglers returned to the house, and the true villain never revealed himself.
There was an incongruous and rarely seen side to Joe Jones; a trait entirely at odds with his stern everyday character. From time to time he would try his earnest best to entertain us. This alter ego sprang from a secret passion. Often, late at night, passing his study door on the way to bed we would hear high-pitched chorus of “Three little maids from school are we,” or perhaps more appropriately “Behold the Lord High Executioner.” Joe was alone in there, lost in a haze of pipe smoke, listening to his favorite music.
And once or twice a year he would invite a chosen handful of boys into his study for a recital, always of the same collection of operettas: The Mikado, The Yeoman of the Guard, and HMS Pinafore. The conversation during these gatherings was hesitant, respectful and one-sided, as we sat grouped around Joe’s ancient, wind-up phonograph. The music seemed to me tinkly and frivolous, and I confess that, ever since, I’ve had an almost phobic loathing of anything by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Evans took his passion one extraordinary step further. At the end of every summer term, the boys and masters would put on a revue, consisting of sketches and solo acts that often made fun of the life and routines of the school. And every few years, maybe once or twice in any boy’s time there, Joe and some other master, dressed as London bobbies and wielding truncheons, would sing another Gilbert and Sullivan piece, the comic duet “We’re the bold gendarmes.” Their faces were appropriately earnest, and their footwork nimble in their hob-nail boots.
At the end of this act, in response to a roar of amazement and admiration from the audience in the packed assembly hall, there was a look on Joe's face that all at once bespoke a spectrum of emotions: the unexpected thrill of total acceptance and appreciation, an almost infantile excitement, astonishment at his warm reception, and perhaps the realization that just for this moment he was something he could normally never be – one of us.
Only then, in my last few days at the school, after seven years that were in some ways more a sentence than a sojourn, did I ever ask myself what might be the tragic truth about this man. Even at the end, as one of his prefects, I’d never knew him at all. Was Joe Jones, with all his solemn, sullen power, a lonely, friendless man, a man apart? His only home, as far as I could see, was that dark smoky room on the ground floor of Crowden House, with its empty coal-burning grate, its framed, faded photographs of long-ago cricket and rugger teams, its cases of fusty leather-bound books, and his phonograph and records. His bedroom lay behind a locked door among the upper dormitories, and every evening, very late at night, we’d hear him labor up the stairs, fumble with his keys and close and lock the door behind him. He seemed always to dine at night across the street with the headmaster and his family and other colleagues. No friends or relatives of either gender were ever seen to call on him, and we never heard of people and places seen on the long summer recesses. What kind of life was that?
He died in the 1970s. A former head boy wrote to tell me about a memorial service in London.  I didn’t go.



1 comment:

  1. What a life that man must have led, built on petty excuses to torture young boys. What a trivial existence, in the end.

    "I didn't go." That says it all, John. A perfect end to your story.