Back in 1982 in the 5th form at Reading grammar, my friends and I would play ‘bully the bully’ – if we saw another boy being picked upon we would set about overpowering and humiliating the aggressor. It was a way to pass a lunch break, I suppose. It being exclusively a boys grammar school, perhaps the absence of a female presence meant a different dynamic on the whole than there would have been at a mixed school; no misplaced bravado or mock-heroics to impress the girls, although of course like any other teenage boy impressing my peers was a motivating factor.
The most serious and damaging form of bullying was that of master-upon-boy, and of course went on behind closed doors, corporal punishment being the endgame. The fear of being flayed with that bamboo cane was felt acutely by us all; the sound it would make as it sliced through the dry air of the headmaster’s study something I’ll remember for the rest of my days. Oftentimes boys were made to change into gym shorts so as to maximise the pain and humiliation. I feared a visit to that office far more than being punished by my father, which, up until that point (my first caning), I didn’t think possible. Not that my father was cruel – far from it – but, suffice to say, the words “wait ’til your father gets home” were enough to modify the worst of my teenage instincts along with those of many of my peers when they heard the same, or a variation thereof, from their own mothers.
“Take it like a man, BOY!” my headmaster would cry feverishly from behind me, his vocal chords close to short-circuiting with excitement, as I bent over the leather-topped table in his study, tears stinging my eyes and streaming down my face. How can a boy of 12 be expected to take “it” like a man, I thought, as if a man would put up with this (ahh, such innocence). Quite a comical thing for him to say; comical in its delivery also, but no laughing matter for a prostrate, terrified young boy.
The headmaster in question, nicknamed ‘Bone‘ due to an unsightly bump on the top his combed-over skull, was gone from our lives by the fourth-form, the victim of a shotgun blast to the face by his own hand close to the end of the summer holidays. The school bursar found what was left of him at The Lodge, his nearby home on the school grounds. Later, as my brother and I received this horrifying yet undeniably palliative news from my father on the morning of a new term, I thought us playing football on sun-bleached fields in the days following his violent demise, oblivious to the horror behind that door. Football had become an act of rebellion in itself by then, since my ambitions to “play for England” had been cruelly cut short, Reading School being of the rugby and cricket tradition. I joined a Sunday League team as soon as I could.
Our common nemesis was replaced by an altogether less intimidating fellow for the rest of my time at the school…kinder in nature by far, and possessing a portly frame unlike the towering stick-insect that was Bone. The cane remained an ever-present threat, but I sensed this new headmaster did not particularly relish using it and may well have been aware that I had stuffed an exercise book down the back of my trousers as padding on more than one occasion in an attempt to lessen the sting. Even if he was unaware of my using this age-old schoolboy deception, the strokes were perfunctory and smaller in number…three or four rather than the obligatory six-of-the-best. I realised that the man we had been dealing with previously had in fact been a common or garden sadist…and far worse, so it was rumoured. I did sometimes wonder why that loose change in his pocket would jangle so frantically as he lined himself up to strike. But enough of all that.