BOOK REVIEW / In the school of hard knocks: Stand Before Your God: Growing Up to Be a Writer by Paul Watkins: Faber, pounds 14.99

THIS IS the chronicle of an American boy who used a Boeing 747 to get to school; of how, from their home in Rhode Island, Paul Watkins's parents posted him across the Atlantic to an old-fashioned English preparatory school, followed by Eton: 10 years in a couple of hundred pages. You expect a sad catalogue of bewilderment and pain, rounded off with a backward curse. What you get is something a good deal more informative.

The wall between children and adults was nowhere higher than at the traditional prep and public schools. At the age of eight Watkins was cast, without notice, into the care of adults who seemed hideously transformed. Until that moment, he'd imagined grown-ups existed only for him. Overnight, he was forced to grasp how marginal he was in his teachers' lives. With impartial violence, they enforced one basic rule on him: obedience. But he was already too sophisticated to be a happy slave. So he and his peers made for themselves a whole culture, complete with its honours and justice system, its rules of exchange, its argot - all the necessary institutions of a society. The rules of this society followed no coherent rationale; they were observed because they existed.

Watkins takes the reader to live in that society. For the uninitiated, it may well be a fearsome experience - all the more so because of the author's windowpane style.

Arriving at the Dragon School in Oxford, Watkins found his previous identity under immediate threat; even his name could now be turned against him. Other pupils, almost ceremonially, 'took your last name and said it to themselves a few times, rolling it over on their tongues. They found out if it sounded like another word, or an animal, or a part of your body . . . You could be born with a name that you thought sounded fine, until you came to the Dragon School. Then someone would spit that name back in your face in a way that would change your whole life.'

Every pungency of that life steams from the pages of this compelling narrative - boot polish, carbolic, boiled cabbage, coal tar soap, socks, matron's thermometer. So do the daily imperatives: crazes, alliances, bullying, conformity, envy, prejudice, sentimental friendship, moral cowardice, courage, fear.

As he proceeds to Eton, Watkins makes it clear that, though England turned him suddenly upside down, he adapted fast. Having already cast off the accent, being an American was no real handicap, because this was a place which bound you to itself, teaching you to be 'a stranger in parts of your own country'. Etonians, like US Marines or Jesuits, are indelibly stamped with the mark of their institution. Like Cyril Connolly, who covered the same turf 55 years earlier, in Enemies of Promise, Watkins skilfully describes the stamp. But, standing before his God, he doesn't disown it.

Not yet 30, Paul Watkins has four novels to his credit, yet the subtitle of his precocious autobiography gives a misconception. We are told that he wrote juvenile stories as a partial reclamation, or defence, of himself. So do many children not destined to become writers. We are, however, told nothing of the stories' content, nor of the author's reading, and Watkins makes no effort to signpost the growth of an Artistic Sensibility. Of this I am glad. Such an attempt might have muddied the beautiful clarity of this memoir.

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