An eternity changing beds

Nov 5th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Fighting to insert the duvet into a quilt cover that had a mind of its own, schooldays were evoked.

Were the housemaster to have undergone Freudian psychoanalysis, terms like ‘anally retentive’ would have arisen.  There was an obsession with things being done according to each and every detail he stipulated’; this included the making of beds.

Beds came with cotton sheets, heavy woollen blankets and heavy, dark counterpanes.  Beds were to be made according to the exact instructions he set down.  The bottom sheet was to be folded back over the blankets at the point where the blankets met with the space occupied by the pillow.  The counterpane was to be tucked in at the foot of the bed with 45 degree hospital corners.  At night time, the counterpane was to be folded back at exact right angles to the line of the mattress.

Perhaps the obsession was defensible in terms that it kept the rooms looking tidy, there being an almost military air about the stern lines and exact angles.  What was completely absurd was the requirement concerning the changing of the beds.  Every week, a clean sheet was left on each bed; the bottom sheet was to be removed, the top sheet transferred to the bottom, and the fresh sheet put on top – all of which would have been reasonable, were it not for the requirements concerning the bottom sheet.  Instead of simply throwing it into a laundry basket, it had to be folded into a neat rectangle, no more than a foot long, and placed at the bottom of the bed, where it would be collected.  Failure to fold the sheet according to the prescribed dimensions, or to ensure that it did not appear unduly creased, resulted in some absurd and arbitrary punishment.

The sheets were part of the absurd and arbitrary control of our lives.  Our school was a special one for people with asthma and frail health.  It was not cheap, back in the mid-1970s, fees were around £2,000 a year, as much as a working man was earning.  Fees were paid by local authorities, who deemed a special education necessary because each of us had missed so much time at ordinary schools.

The school was run by fundamentalist Christians who regarded it as their duty to educate us in their faith.  Morning assemblies, evening epilogues, worship twice every Sunday, no opportunity was missed to preach to us their version of the Christian Gospel.  Their work was presented to us as charitable, we were reminded of the generosity of those who had established the trust that had founded the school; there was never any reference to the fact that it was the taxes of working people that were funding the whole operation.

In the first decade after leaving, I had a very benign view of the school, I might not have agreed with their theology, but they sought to do the best they could.  Thirty years after leaving, it is hard to be so sanguine.

I recall no real physical abuse, the odd staff member might have been over-enthusiastic in punishments, but there was nothing systematic in the way that occurred in some Irish schools.  There was persistent bullying, to which the staff mostly turned a blind eye, as was normal in the 1970s.  More seriously, there was an ongoing emotional and psychological battering.  Staff considered it reasonable to have strange and arbitrary rules, like the folding of dirty sheets – I once had to clean the gym for three days because a friend lent me his football boots to play in a match.  They considered it reasonable to subject us to a borstal-like regime.  They considered it reasonable to constantly preach a version of Christianity that regarded even most Christians as doomed to eternal damnation.

Since those days, changing sheets has seemed always evocative of eternal damnation.

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  1. You make me laugh, Ian – though heaven knows your school can’t have been a laughing matter at the time!

    I also remember lines of identical beds and chests of drawers, and rules about how they were to be made. I remember much hilarity when the House Matron, a Miss Hugolyn Pigott, publicly ticked off a friend with the words, ‘Ross, if you don’t make your bed properly you and I will fall out!’

    The school itself was in the Woodard group and high Anglican – daily chapel with fine music, but not oppressive, and disciplinary arrangements were designed to minimise bullying. After a couple of terms of misery, being unused to boarding, I settled in and remember my time there with affection. It was a privileged existence, which moulded me to be selfconfident with high expectations of myself, but cut me off from most of my fellows – it takes a lifetime, they say, to live down a public school…

  2. I think the sense of isolation is what persisted after leaving the school – the feeling of belonging nowhere; the world at home had moved on and people had grown up and changed and the friends from school were scattered far and wide (and there were no mobiles and Facebook!)

  3. I’m assuming the housemaster is the same one that came searching our room on the night of the fire. Looking back I can see your description as being accurate, nowadays I would probably just tell him to f*** off. The sense of isolation is something I can sympathise with, as I felt much the same. It was not so much that people at home had moved on, more that we had moved in different directions. A fine distinction perhaps but it was the way I felt at the time. I enjoy the pieces you write about school days, your memory seems to be a lot better than mine!

  4. How old was he in our scholdays? 40? I heard he died of cancer back in the ’90s.

  5. You are spot on with the bullying Ian, the comp that I went to (you know where) was run on a regime of bullying where once you had moved up a year the younger ones were bullied and all the kids thought this normal behaviour !!!!!!…the teachers..yes turned a blind eye…I remember for the third year no-one bullied me anymore!!!!!

    The bedsheet thing I guess was an attempt at some type of discipline????………….thank-goodness now for duvets, fitted sheets and duvet covers……..

  6. There’s a novel called ‘Engleby’ by sebastain Faulks which is scary in its insights into bullying at school. I don’t know why everyone put up with it for so many years.

  7. He died of cancer on 31 December 1995 aged 52. That puts him in his early 30’s when we knew him. Very young for the position he had, looking at things from nearly 50 years old. I’ve come across very few people since with quite such an explosive temper.

  8. There is a picture of the gravestone on the school Facebook page. Looks like it’s in Manaton churchyard. I went to Becky Falls about 10 years ago and his wife was working in the gift shop.

  9. Extraordinary, he seemed so old, those middle aged jumpers and trousers and sensible shiny shoes.

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