We had grand field days with the O.T.C. Two platoons would be marched some few miles away to protect, say, a farm. The other two platoons would attack in an attempt to “take the objective”. We were provided with a dozen rounds of “blank” ammunition. We smaller boys realised and seized the opportunity this provided. Skilfully, we plugged the top of our barrels with mud. Then at the appropriate moment, when espying a sergeant, we took careful aim and fired! The usual result was “six of the best!” Fair enough.
Of course we worked too. The school curriculum was very comprehensive for those far off days based as it was on “Maths”, Geography, History, Divinity, French and Latin. I was usually “top” in Maths- thanks to my sister who, years before, had managed to explain and get into my rather thick head, the intricacies of simple fractions. She managed this with apples and a knife, cutting them into physical sections. Knowledge, my Prep School masters had tried to instil by screaming at me. (‘Prep’, officially preparatory, schools are the primer institutions for the public schools. Both of these are fee paying schools independent of the State school system). As it happened Maths was the subject taught by my later Housemaster, which many of us were so anxious to please. One is encouraged to work harder for fine and honourable men.
One day he was taking Maths and did a rather complicated sum on the blackboard, explaining a problem previously set for us. “Has anyone got this correct?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir,” answered a boy, “I have”. His paper was examined revealing that he had cheated by altering a figure.
“Cheating?” said my Housemaster.
Without a word more, the ‘Old Bird’, as we affectionately called our Housemaster, left the classroom and, a few minutes later returned with his ‘bargepole’, his cane, and there and then gave the offender the inevitable ‘six’. Some two weeks later, much the same thing happened. The Old Bird set a problem; we did it as best we could. He in turn did it on the blackboard. His final figure differed from mine. I hastily altered my figure. “Has a boy obtained this result?”
“Yes, Sir.” I said. Then our teacher noticed he had made an error, then altering his total, which, to my consternation agreed with my original result. He looked at my paper.
“Yes, Sir.” He did not retire to get his bargepole but carried on with the lesson. I thought, being in his house, he would call me to his study at evening prep. The evening came, I was not called. The next day I passed him in the Cloisters, just before breakfast time. He ignored me completely. I was totally ignored for the whole day and so went to his study in the evening and knocked on his door. “Come in”, said his sing-song voice. I entered. “Get out”, he said. I don’t think I have ever felt so low in all of my subsequent life. Suffice it to say that I could stand it no longer, so I went to his study again. I was bid to enter. “What do you want?” he said.
“ Sir, you caught me cheating two days ago and I cannot stand being ignored.” He realised I was very upset.
“You know”, he said, “you’ve no need to cheat, but I think I know why you did. Now you want me to give you six and thus pay your debt don’t you?”
“Well, I’m not going to. Instead I want you to promise never to cheat again- now shake hands.” He gave me a chocolate. I never did cheat from that moment. How he knew our characters. I now began to understand what Public School education was all about.
I didn’t shine at games, although I was in the School Shooting VIII, pretty good at swimming, and quite useful with the ‘gloves’. Now, during our ‘long runs’ I was getting a severe searing pain in my lower abdomen- possibly the start of an appendicitis which blew up years later, bursting and leading to serious complications that were to last me, I can now be certain, for the rest of my life.
Now came winter term of 1917. It was three weeks before ‘Break-up’ for Christmas. One Sunday the Head came into Hall and called for me to attend his study immediately. I naturally wondered what I had done. When I arrived the Head said to me, “Sit down, my boy, have a chocolate”. I sensed what was coming then, for my dear father had been ill for some time. “I want you to go to your dorm and pack, you’re father isn’t very well and has asked that I send you home.” He put his hand on my shoulder- that was enough. I burst into tears.
“Is he . . .” I asked.
“No no,” said the Head, “but he is very ill. A car will be ready for you in an hour”. Then, after a pause he added, ”God be with you.” I returned to pack- all my dormitory friends waiting to help me. My dear Housemaster came up and I was escorted to the Cloisters where the school car, an old “T” Ford, was waiting for me. I left my school, looking through the rear window of that car, to see the Old Bird and my friends waving me away. I was very sad at this moment, but deeply grateful for their kindnesses.
My dear father died some four weeks later.
The Head wrote what I can describe as a wonderful letter to my mother, offering a school exhibition in my favour to help with the school fees. But, alas, family circumstances did not permit acceptance.
How grateful I am for my time at the School, to my Head and Housemaster- to all my alma mater. They were happy, happy days. Tough though life in boarding schools was in those days they only reflected tough life in general. Occasional upset aside, I really was extremely happy there and immensely respected most of my then betters. So how should this essay end?
How about, Arthur Callum lived happy school days, whilst those born just before him died on the Somme.
(Found in my mother’s bottom draw. The author, my grandmother’s brother, lived long enough to help me grow up. I have lightly edited the story, fully respecting his words. The understatement of difficulty common to his now passed generation shines through, a hundred years from the depicted events and I guess at least fifty since the writing. This story is first published here.
Written by Arthur Callum, edited by Richard Bunning).
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