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School CP - October 2003
Daily Telegraph, 28 October 2003
I held the record for being caned
Schooldays for Sting – then known as Gordon Sumner – were a sometimes painful experience, beginning at a Catholic primary, where the seeds of his lifelong problem with religion were sown. In the second extract from his memoirs, he recalls how, after winning a place at a Newcastle grammar school, his appearance, family background and musical ability soon made him stand out from the crowd...
My mother is accompanying me as far as the school gates. It's not that she's worried about me - I'm used to travelling alone, far and wide - she's just curious to see the place. I know this is a mistake, as is her insistence that I wear short trousers and a ridiculous school cap. I am furious with her all the way to Newcastle on the train, and even more so on the 34 bus, where everyone apart from my mother is in the claret jacket and striped tie that is my new school uniform. Like most of my fellows, I have been culturally conditioned in the unconscious mores of our society that this ritual rejection of the mother is an essential requirement of becoming truly male; that a man must not be tied to his mother's "apron strings", and that the consequences of such a connection for one's burgeoning "maleness" would be dire. I stare fixedly out of the window, doing my best to dissociate myself from the pretty blonde woman to my left who insists on paying my bus fare and talking to me incessantly. By the time the bus reaches the Fox and Hounds pub, which is where we alight for the short walk to the school gates, I am insane with fury.
Being accompanied by my mother on my first day of grammar school is the very least of my embarrassments. I am a head and shoulders taller than everyone in my year, taller even than those in the year above. I look like a third year, and these short trousers make me look preposterous. I will suffer weeks of embarrassment over this, mainly from the older boys, who see me as some kind of Neanderthal throwback and an affront to their own manhood. I bristle awkwardly under the unflattering soubriquet of "Lurch", the lugubrious giant butler in The Addams Family.
I somehow manage, through a combination of wit and diplomacy, to avoid beating the crap out of these morons or being beaten myself. It isn't until winter that my mother agrees to shell out the money for some long grey flannels and I am grateful and relieved. But by then I have, after all, managed to assimilate myself quietly into this strange, eccentric place.
There are more than 2,000 boys at the school. The catchment area is unusually wide, as pupils are drawn from the parish schools as far north as the border hills. Some of my new classmates live in Darras Hall, a well-heeled enclave to the north-west of the city, where at weekends I will be invited to large detached homes surrounded by landscaped gardens, with two-car garages, walk-in refrigerators, paintings and books, stereo systems, and all the accoutrements of the burgeoning middle classes. But while being taken out of the back lanes of my childhood and deposited on suburban lawns was, I suppose, an encouraging metaphor for the opportunities that my education would provide for me, it also made me feel inadequate and alienated, not quite good enough, marginalised and resentful both of where I came from and what I was being led to aspire to.
St CUTHBERT'S is run by a group of priests; the headmaster, the Reverend Canon Cassidy, is as fearsome a man of God as ever walked in a black cloak. A bald head and thick black eyebrows beetling over dark impenetrable eyes and a sunken, cadaverous face give him an expression of permanent, theatrical anger, like a villain in an opera. I know of no one in the school who isn't deathly afraid of this man. I have absolutely no doubt that he is essentially a good and decent person with our best interests at heart, but the school is controlled by the threat of his demeanour and with an unyielding and harsh discipline.
The headmaster's deputy is the Reverend Father Walsh. Father Walsh, as far as I know, does not teach, and his only apparent function in the school seems to be the caning of those boys unlucky enough to be sent to his office for offences as minor as turning up late, excessive blotting of an exercise book, or the rare instances of cheek, swearing, smoking or fighting. In one year, I would hold the record for sustaining 42 strokes of the cane on my rear end, in seven agonising bouts, that for the life of me couldn't have been justified by my behaviour. I just seem to have put myself in the way of trouble, been in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong friends and the wrong look on my face.
"Six of the best" is a quaint euphemism for the ferocity of this excruciating torture. One is normally "sent up" to the main building after lunch. On the left as you enter is the school chapel, where a lingering trace of incense from Wednesday's Benediction gives the air in the narrow corridor an unmistakable fragrance: it is the sanctified odour of ritual sacrifice. There is usually more than one victim waiting in a sorry line outside the office. The school settles into an eerie silence as afternoon classes begin: the clock in the hall is ticking slowly; we wait like the condemned, not daring to speak. We continue to wait, and wait, and I know from past experience that this is quite deliberate psychological torture.
I project myself into an imagined future, years hence in the urbane security of adult life, where I can look back upon this trial and others like it with a detached and amused nostalgia. "One day, this won't seem so bad," I tell myself, and this trick will work for me in a number of stressful situations, but only up to a point. The school clock is still ticking and the office door creaks open slowly. Sometimes, I'm called first, sometimes in the middle, sometimes last. Perhaps it's best to get it over with, or then again, if you delay, there's always the chance that the good father may be called to a telephone and cancel the whole disciplinary session because his mother has just died, or perhaps an earthquake will shake the school to its foundations, and I imagine rescuing a grateful Father Walsh from the rubble of his office.
But despite my imaginings, it's a heroism of a different kind that is required here.
"Take your jacket off and put it over the chair.''
The study looks out over the playing fields, where I can see a football being lobbed into the air and a straggling line of cross-country runners. No one seems to have a care in the world out there.
"Bend over, facing the window.''
Sometimes, with some foresight, you can be wearing an extra pair of underpants beneath your grey flannels, but this is as rare as it is unlikely, and an exercise book down your trousers only works in the comics. There is a sudden swish of air in the room behind you and then what feels like a cut from a rapier across the cheeks of your arse. The shocking pain reflexively has you standing bolt upright and winded.
The man on the crucifix by the window averts his eyes from the torture; is this really being done in his name? Whish! Up you go.
That even the threat of this barbarity is effective in keeping us compliant, quiescent and largely obedient is not in question. It is brutally effective. I just wonder whether those who suffered this painful indignity ever turned out the way they were supposed to. My suspicion is that, if we were to evolve into responsible and law-abiding citizens, we would do so despite this treatment, not because of it. Any idea that I would become an unquestioning and uncritical follower of the church's wisdom flew out the office window as the final swipe found its target at the seat of my resentment.
© Sting 2003
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004.
Daily Telegraph, 30 October 2003
21 times a term
Sir - Sting writes that he had 42 strokes of the cane in one year: I was caned 21 times in one term, between two and six strokes a time, usually for fighting my classmates, who took my name as an invitation.
Daily Telegraph, 31 October 2003
Tail of woe
Sir - Forty-two strokes of the cane? Shouldn't Sting have been called Stung?
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