You can have enough Laurel and Hardy.
If the world is divided into those who appreciate their comedy genius, and those who believe their films to be annoying, repetitive and patronising, I belong so far into the second category as to be virtually invisible from the first.
Back at my curious prep school near the cliffs of the East Sussex coast, Saturday night was film night, which meant that we would all troop into the gym, sit on the disinfected floor and watch something that the headmaster thought edifying enough for our young, impressionable brains. The main feature would always follow a couple of Tom and Jerry cartoons, and would normally consist of something suitably violent and British, like Zulu, or the Battle of Britain. But as often as not, it would be Laurel and Hardy, and I can credibly claim to have seen them all.
As far as I remember, the only way a boy could absent himself from this ordeal was if he was a ‘modeller’, in which case he could go to a tiny workshop elsewhere in the grounds and create Airfix models of Messerschmitt 109 fighters or the pre-iceberg Titanic. Given that I was to modelling what Diane Abbot is to applied mathematics, it simply wasn’t an option.
So I would sometimes bunk off at the halfway point of the film and just do what bored ten year old boys do best, which is to hang around and kill time. And it was in one of these moments when I was accosted by an English teacher and asked what I was doing. For delicacy’s sake, I will call him Mr Salmon.
‘I was bored of the film, Sir’ I replied honestly.
‘You should fill every minute of your life with learning,’ was the gist of how he came back. ‘Being bored isn’t an option.’
‘Okay, sir,’ I said, which was designed to mean as little as possible, and leave me with the option of continuing my prowling.
‘Why don’t you come with me to the music room and have a crack at the piano?’ he suggested. ‘Better than Laurel and Hardy, eh?’
My young brain mulled this over and thought that it was, on balance, probably better, and so I followed him down the path to where the discordant school piano lived out its uncultured days.
Mr Salmon drew up a stool for each of us and, well, you can guess the rest. Although it turned out that I was as good at the piano as I was at building model Spitfires, my embryonic musical skills were not entirely what I had been invited down there for.
Oh, don’t worry too much on my behalf. It was all pretty low key stuff, revolving around where his left, and my right hand situated themselves when they weren’t on the keys. There was some talk of loneliness and of how he had always thought me a bit special, and off it went. To be honest, I may even have appreciated the attention for a while, a commodity that I struggled to achieve anywhere else, and it went on like this most Saturday evenings for the rest of the term.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. A curt note in the envelope containing the school reports explained that Mr Salmon had left the establishment. When we returned for the Spring term, it emerged that Mr Salmon had also been ‘lonely’ with a few other boys, and he ended up serving a few years at her Majesty’s pleasure.
Still I never told anyone and, to be fair, no one ever asked me. Equally, I never gave it a moment’s thought until, 45 years later, I was driving through Petworth and some item on the radio brought it all roaring back to that part of my brain that is easily accessed at times of stress.
For the sake of people who have really suffered abuse, it is important not to play down the effect it then had on me, and had presumably had in the intervening, sub-conscious years. For a few nights, I couldn’t sleep for all the anger in my head, couldn’t even work out who I was most angry with. When my feelings settled down, there was a residual cold fury reserved for the old and curiously admired bachelor headmaster of the school, who hadn’t taken enough time out between caning recalcitrant boys like me and impressing titled parents to remember that he had a duty of care to every one of us. He is long dead, and sadly I was unable to confront him.
But life moves on, and that re-awakening of the memory has been almost entirely positive. Because of it, I accept far more who I am, and how I came to be that person. In deciding not to hide it any more, I have found that I am one of countless thousands. In confronting it, I can move on.
Every now and then it knocks on the door even now, but when it does, I let it in, make it a cup of tea and talk to it. Its presence in my life enables me to be far more sympathetic than I had previously been with people whose lives had been blighted by abuse for ever. At the same time, whilst the brave new world is not perfect, my God it is Utopian compared to those unthinking days of deference.
In 2009, I was invited back to the school to do the speech on its open day after a year working with a high profile charity. I thought long and hard before accepting the invitation but then went along anyway and found it utterly, delightfully changed. The young idealistic headmaster and his wife explained the plans they had for it, and the head boy and head girl showed me round light and airy classrooms and dormitories full of colourful duvets, family photographs and sports kit. It looked like a small branch of heaven, and continued to do so until the Educational Trust (the italics are deliberate) that owned it, sold it off for housing development because it wasn’t making enough of a return on capital employed.
So all is fine in the best of all possible worlds, but it may just explain why I am still quite unable to play the piano.