Soon after I arrived at Crossgates (not immediately, but after a week or
two, just when I seemed to be settling into routine of school life) I
began wetting my bed. I was now aged eight, so that this was a reversion
to a habit which I must have grown out of at least four years earlier.
Nowadays, I believe, bed-wetting in such circumstances is taken for
granted. It is a normal reaction in children who have been removed from
their homes to a strange place. In those days, however, it was looked on
as a disgusting crime which the child committed on purpose and for which
the proper cure was a beating. For my part I did not need to be told it
was a crime. Night after night I prayed, with a fervor never previously
attained in my prayers, 'Please God, do not let me wet my bed! Oh, please
God, do not let me wet my bed!' but it made remarkably little difference.
Some nights the thing happened, others not. There was no volition about
it, no consciousness. You did not properly speaking do the deed: you were
merely woke up in the morning and found that the sheets were wringing
After the second or third offense I was warned that I should be beaten
next time, but I received the warning in a curiously roundabout way. One
afternoon, as we were filing out from tea, Mrs. Simpson, the headmaster's
wife, was sitting at the head of one of the tables, chatting with a lady
of whom I know nothing, except that she was on an afternoon's visit to
the school. She was an intimidating, masculine-looking person wearing a
riding habit, or something that I took to be a riding habit. I was just
leaving the room when Mrs. Simpson called me back, as though to introduce
me to the visitor.
Mrs. Simpson was nicknamed Bingo, and I shall call her by that name for I
seldom think of her by any other. (Officially, however, she was addressed
as Mum, probably a corruption of the 'Ma'am' used by public school boys
to their housemasters' wives.) She was a stocky square-built woman with
hard red cheeks, a flat top to her head, prominent brows and deepset,
suspicious eyes. Although a great deal of the time she was full of false
heartiness, jollying one along with mannish slang ('Buck up, old chap!'
and so forth), and even using one's Christian name, her eyes never lost
their anxious, accusing look. It was very difficult to look her in the
face without feeling guilty, even at moments when one was not guilty of
anything in particular.
'Here is a little boy,' said Bingo, indicating me to the strange lady,
'who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you
wet your bed again?' she added, turning to me. 'I am going to get the
Sixth Form to beat you.'
The strange lady put on an air of being inexpressibly shocked, and
exclaimed 'I-should-think-so!' And here occurred one of those wild,
almost lunatic misunderstandings which are part of the daily experience
of childhood. The Sixth Form was a group of older boys who were selected
as having 'character' and were empowered to beat smaller boys. I had not
yet learned of their existence, and I mis-heard the phrase 'the Sixth
Form' as 'Mrs. Form.' I took it as referring to the strange lady--I
thought, that is, that her name was Mrs. Form. It was an improbable name,
but a child has no judgment in such matters. I imagined, therefore, that
it was she who was to be deputed to beat me. It did not strike me as
strange that this job should be turned over to a casual visitor in no way
connected with the school. I merely assumed that 'Mrs. Form' was a stern
disciplinarian who enjoyed beating people (somehow her appearance seemed
to bear this out) and I had an immediate terrifying vision of her
arriving for the occasion in full riding kit and armed with a hunting
whip. To this day I can feel myself almost swooning with shame as I
stood, a very small, round-faced boy in short corduroy knickers, before
the two women. I could not speak. I felt that I should die if 'Mrs. Form'
were to beat me. But my dominant feeling was not fear or even resentment:
it was simply shame because one more person, and that a woman, had been
told of my disgusting offense.
A little later, I forget how, I learned that it was not after all 'Mrs.
Form' who would do the beating. I cannot remember whether it was that
very night that I wetted my bed again, but at any rate I did wet it again
quite soon. Oh, the despair, the feeling of cruel injustice, after all my
prayers and resolutions, at once again waking between the clammy sheets!
There was no chance of hiding what I had done. The grim statuesque
matron, Daphne by name, arrived in the dormitory specially to inspect my
bed. She pulled back the clothes, then drew herself up, and the dreaded
words seemed to come rolling out of her like a peal of thunder:
'REPORT YOURSELF to the headmaster after breakfast!'
I do not know how many times I heard that phrase during my early years at
Crossgates. It was only very rarely that it did not mean a beating. The
words always had a portentous sound in my ears, like muffled drums or the
words of the death sentence.
When I arrived to report myself, Bingo was doing something or other at
the long shiny table in the ante-room to the study. Her uneasy eyes
searched me as I went past. In the study Mr. Simpson, nicknamed Sim, was
waiting. Sim was a round-shouldered curiously oafish-looking man, not
large but shambling in gait, with a chubby face which was like that of an
overgrown baby, and which was capable of good humor. He knew, of course,
why I had been sent to him, and had already taken a bone-handled riding
crop out of the cupboard, but it was part of the punishment of reporting
yourself that you had to proclaim your offense with your own lips. When I
had said my say, he read me a short but pompous lecture, then seized me
by the scruff of the neck, twisted me over and began beating me with the
riding crop. He had a habit of continuing his lecture while he flogged
you, and I remember the words 'you dirty little boy' keeping time with
the blows. The beating did not hurt (perhaps as it was the first time, he
was not hitting me very hard), and I walked out feeling very much better.
The fact that the beating had not hurt was a sort of victory and
partially wiped out the shame of the bed-wetting. I was even incautious
enough to wear a grin on my face. Some small boys were hanging about in
the passage outside the door of the ante-room.
'D'you get the cane?'
'It didn't hurt,' I said proudly.
Bingo had heard everything. Instantly her voice came screaming after me:
'Come here! Come here this instant! What was that you said?'
'I said it didn't hurt,' I faltered out.
'How dare you say a thing like that? Do you think that is a proper thing
to say? Go in and REPORT YOURSELF AGAIN!'
This time Sim laid on in real earnest. He continued for a length of time
that frightened and astonished me--about five minutes, it seemed--
ending up by breaking the riding crop. The bone handle went flying across
'Look what you've made me do!' he said furiously, holding up the broken
I had fallen into a chair, weakly sniveling. I remember that this was the
only time throughout my boyhood when a beating actually reduced me to
tears, and curiously enough I was not even now crying because of the
pain. The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame
seemed to have anesthetized me. I was crying partly because I felt that
this was expected of me, partly from genuine repentance, but partly also
because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to
convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked
up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the
rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.
I knew that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The
second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question.
It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you
committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to
avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be
something that happened to you. I do not want to claim that this idea
flashed into my mind as a complete novelty at this very moment, under the
blows of Sim's cane: I must have had glimpses of it even before I left
home, for my early childhood had not been altogether happy. But at any
rate this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a
world where it was not possible for me to be good. And the double beating
was a turning-point, for it brought home to me for the first time the
harshness of the environment into which I had been flung. Life was more
terrible, and I was more wicked, than I had imagined. At any rate, as I
sat on the edge of a chair in Sim's study, with not even the
self-possession to stand up while he stormed at me, I had a conviction of
sin and folly and weakness, such as I do not remember to have felt
In general, one's memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one
moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones
have to drop out to make way for them. At twenty I could have written the
history of my schooldays with an accuracy which would be quite impossible
now. But it can also happen that one's memories grow sharper after a long
lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can
isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed
undifferentiated among a mass of others. Here are two things which in a
sense I remembered, but which did not strike me as strange or interesting
until quite recently. One is that the second beating seemed to me a just
and reasonable punishment. To get one beating, and then to get another
and far fiercer one on top of it, for being so unwise as to show that the
first had not hurt--that was quite natural. The gods are jealous, and
when you have good fortune you should conceal it. The other is that I
accepted the broken riding crop as my own crime. I can still recall my
feeling as I saw the handle lying on the carpet--the feeling of having
done an ill-bred clumsy thing, and ruined an expensive object. I had
broken it: so Sim told me, and so I believed. This acceptance of guilt
lay unnoticed in my memory for twenty or thirty years.
So much for the episode of the bed-wetting. But there is one more thing
to be remarked. That is that I did not wet my bed again--at least, I did
wet it once again, and received another beating, after which the trouble
stopped. So perhaps this barbarous remedy does work, though at a heavy
price, I have no doubt.
All this was thirty years ago and more. The question is: Does a child at
school go through the same kind of experiences nowadays?
The only honest answer, I believe, is that we do not with certainty know.
Of course it is obvious that the present-day attitude towards education
is enormously more humane and sensible than that of the past. The
snobbishness that was an integral part of my own education would be
almost unthinkable today, because the society that nourished it is dead.
I recall a conversation that must have taken place about a year before I
left Crossgates. A Russian boy, large and fair-haired, a year older than
myself, was questioning me.
'How much a-year has your father got?'
I told him what I thought it was, adding a few hundreds to make it sound
better. The Russian boy, neat in his habits, produced a pencil and a
small notebook and made a calculation.
'My father has over two hundred times as much money as yours,' he
announced with a sort of amused contempt.
That was in 1915. What happened to that money a couple of years later, I
wonder? And still more I wonder, do conversations of that kind happen at
preparatory schools now?
Clearly there has been a vast change of outlook, a general growth of
'enlightenment,' even among ordinary, unthinking middle-class people.
Religious belief, for instance, has largely vanished, dragging other
kinds of nonsense after it. I imagine that very few people nowadays would
tell a child that if it masturbates it will end in the lunatic asylum.
Beating, too, has become discredited, and has even been abandoned at many
schools. Nor is the underf ceding of children looked on as a normal,
almost meritorious act. No one now would openly set out to give his
pupils as little food as they could do with, or tell them that it is
healthy to get up from a meal as hungry as you sat down. The whole status
of children has improved, partly because they have grown relatively less
numerous. And the diffusion of even a little psychological knowledge has
made it harder for parents and schoolteachers to indulge their
aberrations in the name of discipline. Here is a case, not known to me
personally, but known to someone I can vouch for, and happening within my
own lifetime. A small girl, daughter of a clergyman, continued wetting
her bed at an age when she should have grown out of it. In order to
punish her for this dreadful deed, her father took her to a large garden
party and there introduced her to the whole company as a little girl who
wetted her bed: and to underline her wickedness he had previously painted
her face black. I do not suggest that Bingo and Sim would actually have
done a thing like this, but I doubt whether it would have much surprised
them. After all, things do change. And yet--!
The question is not whether boys are still buckled into Eton collars on
Sunday, or told that babies are dug up under gooseberry bushes. That kind
of thing is at an end, admittedly. The real question is whether it is
still normal for a school child to live for years amid irrational terrors
and lunatic misunderstandings. And here one is up against the very great
difficulty of knowing what a child really feels and thinks. A child which
appears reasonably happy may actually be suffering horrors which it
cannot or will not reveal. It lives in a sort of alien under-water world
which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is
the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to
forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely. Think for
instance of the unnecessary torments that people will inflict by sending
a child back to school with clothes of the wrong pattern, and refusing to
see that this matters! Over things of this kind a child will sometimes
utter a protest, but a great deal of the time its attitude is one of
simple concealment. Not to expose your true feelings to an adult seems to
be instinctive from the age of seven or eight onwards. Even the affection
that one feels for a child, the desire to protect and cherish it, is a
cause of misunderstanding. One can love a child, perhaps, more deeply
than one can love another adult, but is rash to assume that the child
feels any love in return. Looking back on my own childhood, after the
infant years were over, I do not believe that I ever felt love for any
mature person, except my mother, and even her I did not trust, in the
sense that shyness made me conceal most of my real feelings from her.
Love, the spontaneous, unqualified emotion of love, was something I could
only feel for people who were young. Towards people who were old--and
remember that 'old' to a child means over thirty, or even over
twenty-five--I could feel reverence, respect, admiration or compunction,
but I seemed cut off from them by a veil of fear and shyness mixed up
with physical distaste. People are too ready to forget the child's
physical shrinking from the adult. The enormous size of grownups, their
ungainly, rigid bodies, their coarse wrinkled skins, their great relaxed
eyelids, their yellow teeth, and the whiffs of musty clothes and beer and
sweat and tobacco that disengage from them at every movement! Part of the
reason for the ugliness of adults, in a child's eyes, is that the child
is usually looking upwards, and few faces are at their best when seen
from below. Besides, being fresh and unmarked itself, the child has
impossibly high standards in the matter of skin and teeth and complexion.
But the greatest barrier of all is the child's misconception about age. A
child can hardly envisage life beyond thirty, and in judging people's
ages it will make fantastic mistakes. It will think that a person of
twenty-five is forty, that a person of forty is sixty-five, and so on.
Thus, when I fell in love with Elsie I took her to be grown up. I met her
again, when I was thirteen and she, I think, must have been twenty-three;
she now seemed to me a middle-aged woman, somewhat past her best. And the
child thinks of growing old as an almost obscene calamity, which for some
mysterious reason will never happen to itself. All who have passed the
age of thirty are joyless grotesques, endlessly fussing about things of
no importance and staying alive without, so far as the child can see,
having anything to live for. Only child life is real life. The
schoolmaster who imagines he is loved and trusted by his boys is in fact
mimicked and laughed at behind his back. An adult who does not seem
dangerous nearly always seems ridiculous.
I base these generalizations on what I can recall of my own childhood
outlook. Treacherous though memory is, it seems to me the chief means we
have of discovering how a child's mind works. Only by resurrecting our
own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child's
vision of the world. Consider this, for example. How would Crossgates
appear to me now, if I could go back, at my present age, and see it as it
was in 1915? What should I think of Bingo and Sim, those terrible,
all-powerful monsters? I should see them as a couple of silly, shallow,
ineffectual people, eagerly clambering up a social ladder which any
thinking person could see to be on the point of collapse. I would be no
more frightened of them than I would be frightened of a dormouse.
Moreover, in those days they seemed to me fantastically old, whereas--
though of this I am not certain--I imagine they must have been somewhat
younger than I am now. And how would Johnny Hall appear, with his
blacksmith's arms and his red, jeering face? Merely a scruffy little boy,
barely distinguishable from hundreds of other scruffy little boys. The
two sets of facts can lie side by side in my mind, because these happen
to be my own memories. But it would be very difficult for me to see with
the eyes of any other child, except by an effort of the imagination which
might lead me completely astray. The child and the adult live in
different worlds. If that is so, we cannot be certain that school, at any
rate boarding school, is not still for many children as dreadful an
experience as it used to be. Take away God, Latin, the cane, class
distinctions and sexual taboos, and the fear, the hatred, the snobbery
and the misunderstanding might still all be there. It will have been seen
that my own main trouble was an utter lack of any sense of proportion or
probability. This led me to accept outrages and believe absurdities, and
to suffer torments over things which were in fact of no importance. It is
not enough to say that I was 'silly' and 'ought to have known better.'
Look back into your own childhood and think of the nonsense you used to
believe and the trivialities which could make you suffer. Of course my
own case had its individual variations, but essentially it was that of
countless other boys. The weakness of the child is that it starts with a
blank sheet. It neither understands nor questions the society in which it
lives, and because of its credulity other people can work upon it,
infecting it with the sense of inferiority and the dread of offending
against mysterious, terrible laws. It may be that everything that
happened to me at Crossgates could happen in the most 'enlightened'
school, though perhaps in subtler forms. Of one thing, however, I do feel
fairly sure, and that is that boarding schools are worse than day
schools. A child has a better chance with the sanctuary of its home near
at hand. And I think the characteristic faults of the English upper and
middle classes may be partly due to the practice, general until recently,
of sending children away from home as young as nine, eight or even seven.
I have never been back to Crossgates. In a way it is only within the last
decade that I have really thought over my schooldays, vividly though
their memory has haunted me. Nowadays, I believe, it would make very
little impression on me to see the place again, if it still exists. And
if I went inside and smelled again the inky, dusty smell of the big
schoolroom, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the
swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only
feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How
small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in