Don’t blub

Michael Hofmann

  • Stand before Your God: Growing up to Be a Writer by Paul Watkins
    Faber, 203 pp, £14.99, August 1993, ISBN 0 571 16944 9

In his slightly overplayed beginning, Watkins says:

  I swear, I thought I was going to a party.

  I had a new suit made of blue corduroy and new black shoes that came with a free pack of playing cards. I was seven years old.

What he was actually going to was the Dragon School (his new suit was its uniform), he had just – through inattention, or distracted by TV – missed the parental announcement. In my own case, there was no possible confusion, but then I was twice Watkins’s age, and my father put me through an elaborate maastricht of public information and consultation, describing Winchester to me. When he had finished, I said, ‘It sounds just like prison,’ and he had to laugh, because it did.

My father came by Winchester in an Education Which. Now, with the family on the point of going back to the German-speaking world, the German Sprachraum, he proposed sending me there. Actually, I quite fancied the Sprachraum and a little more family life, but of course the decision had already been taken. He accompanied me down to Winchester for the scholarship exams, like a peasant taking his prize heifer to an agricultural show. For three days, he went for walks round the grounds, while I sat the exams in the denims he had cunningly prescribed (his Continental football manager’s guile, his shot at pushing his foreign coinage into the British slot machine!). In the evenings, I briefed him in restaurants, and together we rubbished the mouse-grey opposition, with their mothers or prep-school masters chaperoning them. It was the last intimate time I had with him. I knew I was there to make good something in his life. When he’d been my age, in East Germany, with the war just ending and the Russians in occupation, he had dropped out of school, and even spent a couple of months in proper prison, with real murderers. He was trying to ensure that nothing of the kind happened to me. A while later, I came upon the term ‘projective narcissism’ (an aggressive, high-tech version of ‘wanting the best for your children’), and that nicely covers his behaviour.

Watkins wasn’t obvious Dragon and Eton material either. He was put down for them at the fabled six months, but by a father who ‘quit school at 17, and went to work in a factory that made aeroplane engines’. Watkins père left the factory, which he hated, studied, emigrated to America and became a geophysicist (he has a range of undersea mountains named for him). Ex of Wales, then of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, himself once the tallest schoolboy in Britain at six foot seven, he must, to his son, have seemed like Oceanus or something; an altogether more convincing mastery of the world than most fathers. Sending his son (both sons) to Eton was a bridge to home, a social leap, but also, the son feels, a kind of betrayal, as ‘the people who had most intimidated my father were the Old-School types that Eton produced in more refinement than perhaps any other place.’ It does seem oddly defensive – if setting up a life in absolute opposition to one’s own can be described as defensive.

For my father, it was less calculated than that. It was a whim, a bet in passing, a bit of opportunism. Either it would fail altogether, or its consequences would be a. a good education for me and b. curious. I saw all that, of course, and the error of it, but the school still demanded to be interpreted and scrutinised as an expression of my father’s will. I might be the first member of my family ever to fetch up in England, but I had to be as serious about it as umpteenth-generation Wykehamists or ‘founder’s kin’, whose claims to a free education were tested by smashing the wooden slabs we ate off over their thick skulls.

Whether the boy coming into these institutions was seven like Watkins or 14 like me, he was innocent and a mug. Still believing he’s at a party, Watkins asks when he’ll be allowed home. ‘In three months,’ comes his housemaster’s helpful, barbarous reply. ‘Nightingale, where are we?’ he asks a couple of pages later. And then, the following morning, his first observation: ‘I didn’t see any girls.’ These moments of pure astonishment – Cortez-moments – are some of the best things in the book. There is a character called Bukovik (who again might be a god, a minor, malign Loki), only ever met with by the riverbank, a wildman, a rural terrorist, a trapper of rabbits and blower-up of rats. Watkins knows that the forms of victimisation are as variable and beautiful as a rainbow: anything may fall into the hands of his enemies – a teddybear, his name – and anyone may be his enemy. He and his chums contemplate self-defence against a teacher who likes to grip their balls while asking them questions – but what’s even the One-Two Punch against someone who’s got you by the balls? His dissertation on conkers says everything about the ruses of seniority in these establishments:

In winter, you brought out your radiator-hardened, two-year-old Conkers. You drilled holes in horse-chestnuts and hung them from pieces of string. You found yourself some Little Man with a big fat, new and shiny Conker and challenged him. He’d hold up the string and let you take a swing. You watched his face as your shrivelled rock-hard Conker blew his prize into white chips across the playground. When he cried, you’d tell him – ‘Don’t Blub, Little Man.’ But then you’d meet a senior whose Conker looked strange and transparent. He had hollowed out the middle and filled it full of glue which hardened into something stronger than rock, but you didn’t know that yet. Your Conker disintegrated when he swung at it.

And having worked his way to the top of the Dragon, Watkins is in a position to realise his lowliness when he begins again at the bottom of Eton: the chicane of fagging, the angry roaring of all the broken-voiced boys, the guerrillas in the underbrush of rules, his necessary gullibility in buying the Farrah Fawcett Poster, and with it (because that’s how it goes) the undying hostility of the man (boy) who sold it to him.

Watkins proceeds like a novelist, by incident and anecdote. In two or three-page instalments he talks about food, games, crazes, half-term. He doesn’t luxuriate in nostalgia or misery, he gets on with it. His brisk, commonsensical coverage is most unlike his subject: time at public school stood still. His readers will thank him. He doesn’t analyse or generalise, and when he does, he’s often wrong. I don’t believe, for instance, that Dragon faces at Eton soon looked like all the rest. When he makes a good point, he doesn’t take it far enough: ‘Sometimes war seemed to be everything at the Dragon School. We were all still fighting the Japanese and still fighting the Germans.’ It was probably true at Eton too, it was true at Winchester – it probably applies to the whole of English upper-class/nursery culture.

As a German, I was of course foredoomed to war-taunts, but Watkins wasn’t spared them by being American. When ‘our colonial friend’ was driven to point out that Britain wouldn’t have won the war unaided, it riled even some of his teachers. I would have supposed that his association with the dominant culture might have stood him in good stead with the boys; not so, it appears. He learned to mask his American accent, to try and minimise the difference. Even then, I think he got something from it. Stand before Your God is written in quite ostentatious American: Watkins is given to sentences such as ‘If you screwed up, he’d put a black mark next to your name’; the most unpublic-school-like word ‘butt’ seems to appear on almost every page. These Americanisms represent a kind of posthumous revenge over the British system. At the time, too, Americanness afforded certain consolations: Watkins once went back to the Dragon with a tape he’d made of American TV jingles, which he played to himself in bed (until it was detected and confiscated). American holidays, too, were a magnificent antidote, half television and half wilderness. The two best passages of the book are away from school: one chapter of the ‘mad-dog summer heat’ of Rhode Island, with his father dying of cancer; and a half-term at Eton in which Watkins goes on a private pilgrimage to the First World War battlefields of Flanders.

The other broad stroke of this memoir is the subtitle ‘Growing up to Be a Writer’, a subject about which Watkins again has little to say. Writing was a source of comfort to him, and he kept at it in a determined way, but that’s about all. He says nothing about what he wrote at school. (Has any of it survived? Was it about school, or was it – as his wish to meet ‘the Real Action Man’, the prototype, might suggest – fantasy? What does he think of it now, did he show it to anyone?) He seems to me to have used his writing as aspic for his privacy. Given his impressive commitment to it – tying a pencil to his bedframe with a piece of string, so as to be able to scribble down dream words on his green walls – and the fact that the present book is his fifth and he’s not quite thirty, Watkins seems like a born writer.

The second half of Stand before Your God is mostly unsatisfactory. His approach to his boyhood and the Dragon, all freakish passivity and mute, comic suffering, isn’t really suitable for Eton, where he should understand something of what is being done to him. He says he has a reputation for thinking too much, but the book won’t bear this out. Perhaps he grew too institutionalised; perhaps his writing safeguarded him too well. For me, the crux of public school was the moment of changing sides at 17: the profound dither I went into on being told I had ‘leadership potential’, the moral crisis of leaving my rebel past and rebel friends and taking the school’s shilling. Watkins sees the early rebellion, but nothing beyond that; and his account of his school endows it with a most surprising wisdom. ‘I came to see that in a way Eton expected us to rebel against it. It was a necessary stage of our time at the school. They knew that in the end we would rebel against ourselves and the way the school had made us, and this was also necessary.’ I see little sign of this further rebellion. Rather, Watkins tries hard to be a good Etonian. His later pages are very official-line, and full of sentimental loyalty. I am a little shocked at his professions of faith in the place, from over the water. He has no patience with Etonians against Eton: ‘they were mostly the Fakes.’ Some boys slummed it in London at weekends in donkey jackets and Doc Martens: ‘I heard some people say it was Doing-The-George-Orwell-Thing.’ (The intolerance of other styles, the quick, slick condemnations are among the worst characteristics of public schoolboys.) With Etonians, says Watkins, ‘there was no grey zone. You either were or you weren’t. It was as clear as the black and white of our tail-suits. And even out of school uniform, I heard people say that you could spot an Etonian at a hundred yards just by the way he carried himself. Usually it was true.’ It is a little depressing for an American to espouse this: why Etonian? Why not Iroquois or Ukrainian? At least there wasn’t a Winchester bearing, and if there was it was probably slope-shouldered and wall-hugging.

Winchester, Eton and the rest of them inculcate in their boys two things: a patience – even an appetite – for infinite hierarchy (famously, they make good civil servants); and a capacity for secrecy and dissembling – the espionage talked about by Auden, and practised by so many of his contemporaries of the Thirties. For me, as an entryist and a German, the school was the price in unreality and antiquity and custom that I paid to become English. It cracked me up at 14 to hear my first psalm; the rotten apple sermons and poisonous C.S. Lewis readings in chapel; the half-hourly staggered bedtimes; the sardine bathtubs and lavatories-named-for the-seven-birthplaces-of Homer. My best memories are all to do with solitude and truancy (we had no studies, lived fifteen or twenty to a room; time by myself was and is my deepest longing). Unwittingly cutting Chapel the first few weeks, walking along the Itchen to St Cross (where Keats wrote his ‘Ode to Autumn’). Missing lunch and eating smoked cheese and toast. Getting up early, and striking Spanish wax matches for a light for a cigarette on the flint and cement walls that were, respectively, too rough and too smooth.

And the rest of the time? The memories are a form of blackmail of self and others. My mother visiting in a blush suede suit, so over-plausible and over-presented that she was thought to be a Universal Aunt (we probably needed our mothers so much, we didn’t have much use for them). Becoming paralytic on a small quantity of apricot brandy. A boy pulling a hair soaked in his urine across his eczema to keep it inflamed and himself on the infirm list. Indignity and indignation. Another boy writing in seven instalments on the aforementioned seven lavatory doors, word for word, a feat of the suffering memory, the tirade the ex-Olympic games master had delivered against his cowardice when he refused to jump off the top board. (Was that really what we were there for, to risk our brains in such light-headed pursuits? Yes, it seemed.) Our pathetic cravings for space and privacy, hanging blankets across our ‘toyes’ (the doorless cubicles where we worked – my poor parents can’t have been alone in supposing it was something to do with playing, perhaps with a quaint Old English ‘e’), or extending them with tables and bookcases if we were a little more senior. Occasional restorative spells in Sick Bay, where the little matron’s little dog rubbed herself back and forth all along the landing. A rigid hierarchy set within absolute unreality – rules as in a space capsule. Fear of the universal aptitude for phrase and censure. The two gramophones circulating among five rooms (surely the Walkman spelled the death of the place, or of the spirit of the place, as much as the bypass or the M3). The four elements of coal, milk, biscuits and bread combined to form chaos in a bottle by nightfall.