One day in 1966 I ran away from boarding school. I was eight at the time. It was the beginning of my second term. I'd been sent there with the best of intentions. I'd been having problems at my previous school and my parents were at their wits' end. In their position, had I been able to afford it, I may well have done the same thing.
The first term had not been easy but my teachers had reassured my parents that things would get better. All boys take time to settle in, they said, some longer than others. To the adults in my life, things, understandably, didn't seem to be as bad as they really were. One had to accept that teachers knew what they were doing. What the teachers played down, I suspect, was the way violence was normalised inside that institution. For myself, as soon as I got back, I realised that the coming term was going to be at least as awful as the one before. For ten weeks, I'd been beaten at least four times a week and, at the end of term, the headmaster told me to remind him next term that he 'owed me a whopping'. Needless to say, when I returned, I didn't.
One morning, soon after the start of term, me and another boy who'd also had enough just walked off. I remember it vividly. It's a slide-show I can replay in my head at will. Chapel, which was held every morning, after breakfast, was over. We were walking down past the sports fields to the block where the classrooms were. As I remember it, he and I were talking about how fed up we both were. We'd never really spoken to each other before that day or been particularly friendly, but that morning we found common cause. Perhaps we gave each other the strength we needed to do what needed to be done. As we passed the rugby pitch we simply turned off the path and walked across it towards the fields and woods beyond. We had no plan. Like so many great rebellions, however many times it'd been dreamt of, when it actually happened it was a spontaneous act. I remember the other boys stood and watched us, jeering and laughing at us as we walked away. Looking back now it strikes me as curious that they thought they had something to laugh about. After all, they were the ones left behind on the inside of a violent neglectful institution, looking out. We were the ones on the outside, walking away. We were the lucky ones.
We just kept walking. We held out for a whole day. The school, as I remember it, was in the middle of nowhere. We made our way from field to field, furtively crossing the occasional road when we had to. I remember once peeping round a hedge to see a queue of police cars waiting at a crossroads, all, we presumed, out looking for us. Looking back it was probably one of the most exciting days of my life. We were wanted men. As we travelled we made a vague plan for the immediate future. The other boy knew the area slightly as his family home was not that far away. We decided to head for it as best we could but I've no idea whether or not we were ever actually travelling in anything like the right direction. He said we'd get a telling off if we made it but, knowing his mum, she'd at least give us a plate of beans on toast. As the day wore on, we began to get hungry. The thought of that beans on toast spurred us on. I have a vague memory of coming across an apple tree at one point and taking a few bites from a sour apple, but I might've imagined this.
By the evening, it was obvious we were getting nowhere. We didn't relish the thought of spending the night out of doors, or huddled in the corner of some farm building. Not only would it be cold, scary and uncomfortable but it would raise the whole episode to a different level. We decided to give ourselves up. The next road we came to, we simply waited on the verge for the next passing police car.
I have no memory of the journey back. What I didn't know at the time was that the police had been to the school for another reason that day, to arrest the headmaster for taking indecent photographs of children. When we got back I did get the sense, though, as you do sometimes as a child, that the adults around us were preoccupied with important things we knew nothing about. I remember hearing low voices involved in earnest conversations, too far away to hear what was being said.
We were taken to the headmaster's study and given a stern lecture. Apparently, our crime was so grave that, for once, we were not going to be beaten. We were to be suspended. We should understand that this was the height of indignity, far worse than six of the best. Our parents were coming to collect us. I remember feeling disappointed that we'd not been expelled. Perhaps, I thought, we should've stayed out all night after all. But that was only a passing thought. It was immediately followed by the realisation that, although I was only suspended, my parents would surely never send me back. All through the lecture I remember standing there, staring impassively at the adult in front of me while feeling, inside, a sense of complete triumph, a feeling which he, had he been able to read my mind, would've described as insolence. I viewed him with complete contempt. We had broken the rules, yes - his rules. He viewed what we did as misbehaviour. In fact, looking back, I find it hard to think of a day during my childhood when I behaved better, right down to our decision not to worry our parents unduly by staying out all night.
We were sent to collect our trunks from the cellar. My father came to collect me. I remember the tug I felt when the boy I'd run away with was whisked away. I knew at that moment I'd never see him again. As I expected, I never went back.
There was no barbed-wire fence around the school. There didn't need to be. Most boys more-or-less happily adapted to the regime of cod-tradition, bells, beatings and rough team games. There were prizes to be won, one could become a good cricketer, even captain of the First XI. One could make a life for oneself there. Those who did, erected barbed-wire fences in their minds and rarely if ever felt a desire to cut through them.
My time at that school and especially the events of that day certainly played a part in shaping my life and, in particular, my political opinions. As an adult, I've always found complacency tiresome. I tend to feel more at home among misfits. I'm still intrigued by how people develop loyalty to institutions that abuse them. For example, I don't understand how anyone can feel patriotic towards a country that lets its most vulnerable citizens suffer, die needlessly, or sleep on the streets. When I look at the world's political institutions, authority figures and the public's response to them, I'm often reminded of Tom Waits' observation that we're 'monkeys with money and guns.' And then there's the business of having to choose between breaking the rules and doing the right thing. As people often point out, those who shielded Anne Frank and her family were breaking the law. Those who killed them were upholding it. When Rosa Parks, quite rightly, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person she, too, was breaking the law. I've come to the conclusion that doing the right thing trumps the rules. The more people think for themselves and set off across the rugby pitch the better.
Looking back, I'm not sure what memories from that day have left the deepest impression on me. Was it the impotent finger-wagging of the authority figures? Was it the jeering of the boys we left behind? Neither. I think, on reflection, it was the epiphanic moment, after we'd given ourselves up, when I realised I was free. There was a downside, though. I'd made myself into an outsider. As Camus said: The outsider is not sure who he is. He has found an “I” but it is not his true “I”. His main business is to find his way back to himself.
I can relate to that. For years afterwards I felt lost for words. I was painfully shy in adult company, never sure of what I should say. I didn't make friends easily, although the next school I went to provided me with the safe, caring environment I needed. They also taught me to play an instrument and began turning me into a musician. In retrospect, it's obvious that Camus' project, the journey back, the search for my true “I”, was my project back then. Come to think of it, I'm still working on it.