Goodbye, Mister Thwackum

It's barbaric, unfair and it can scar you for life. But caning is also an integral part of British culture. As new legislation banning the birch comes into force in classrooms, John Walsh wonders if there can really be life after The Pookah?
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Along with the mad-eyed cartoon Snow Queen and the stories I was told about an Irish sprite called The Pookah, the most frightening thing in my childhood was the electric cane. I couldn't work out exactly how it was employed, but it was clearly a considerable implement of pain.

It stood against the wall of the headmistress's study at the Ursuline Convent in Wimbledon, where, between the ages of five and eight, I was taught by nuns. You could see the horrible thing as you sneaked past her room; two inches thick, at least six feet long, and with a nasty, curly-metal bit at the top. We would shudder at the sight and tell each other it was for extremely bad boys (certainly far too savage to use on girls) who stole money or murdered people. But we believed we were always just one small transgression away from being electrically flogged to oblivion.

How ridiculous we were. It was not a cane at all. It was a device for opening the tallest of the study windows. But we believed it because we wanted it to be true. Many children, unlike most adults, absolutely love the idea of the cane. It's so simple, so elemental, so unsophisticated, so impossible to dress up in grown-up ambiguity. It's a perfect object with a single basic function, about which it's impossible to have any confused or unclear thoughts (those come a bit later). It's the villain of the costume drama that is school, the presence of the Devil in a well- upholstered room, the torture chamber in the handsome modern castle. It's a thin but effective emblem of Gothic barbarism among the bourgeois soft- furnishings, a tiny symbol of the Counter-Enlightenment.

And it's just been outlawed. The School Standards and Framework Act, which was passed last year and comes into force today, bans the use of corporal punishment in independent schools. If you feel a certain deja vu, it's because caning was banned in state schools way back in 1986, after the House of Lords amended the Conservative government's Education Bill.

Britain was the last country in Europe to outlaw school-sanctioned whacking, and one of the last in the world. That's why caning has been dubbed by nose-tapping, suspicious Continentals "the English vice". And, for a society fixated by the psychology of moral growth, and politically correct treatment of children, we have a peculiar history of savagery masquerading as virtue.

Caning was enshrined in British law in 1860, when one Chief Justice Cockburn ruled that: "By the law of England, a [parent]... may for the purpose of correcting what is evil in the child, inflict moderate and reasonable corporal punishment." But in schools it had been recognised for centuries as a normal, indeed essential, cornerstone of discipline. The comically apoplectic fictional cane wielders this century - Mr Quelch in the Billy Bunter stories, Teacher in The Bash Street Kids of The Beano comic, Will Hay in Good Morning Boys, Jimmy Edwards' whiskery headmaster in the Fifties comedy Whack-o! - are figures of fun essentially unchanged from the appalling Wackford Squeers in Dotheboys Hall, who is thrashed by a furious Nicholas Nickleby (how we cheered) the eponymous hero of Charles Dickens' 1838 novel. Squeers is himself a relation of Mr Thwackum, the brutish, hypocritical chaplain from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), using the much-uttered bromide voiced by Samuel Butler in Hudibras (1663): "Then spare the rod and spoil the child".

If the school floggers of the British imagination were mostly secular figures with a dubious relish for tight trousers, buttocks, weals, and the different levels of whippiness in the different types of wood (a friend recalls his former headmaster's habit of giving his canes nicknames, and saying "I'm going to give you six of Beelzebub tonight, Davies..." while drawing the slender rod meaningfully through his cruel fingers), the Church can always be relied on to play its part too. Flogging children has always been an important part of muscular Christianity. In my Catholic school, the Jesuit fathers' most preferred implement of chastisement was a ferula, a whalebone encased in leather - the "pandybat" Stephen Dedalus fears in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist. They hit you on the hand rather than the bum, and it tended to stun you for a few minutes, rather than hurt terribly; the real pain and torture lay in the waiting for your appointment with sudden death, the paraphernalia of giving your name, the date you were "sentenced" and the number of "strokes" you required, for all the world as if you were claiming a prize. The surreal element of walking up to an adult clergyman and inviting him to hit you several times did not escape our baffled notice.

Today, after a series of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, all corporal punishment of children, whether at home or at school, has been banned by Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Croatia, Cyprus and Latvia; while Ireland, Belgium and Spain are poised to follow suit.

In this country, the NSPCC and over a hundred other groups are campaigning to give children the same rights and protection under law as adults. The only dissenting voices in the UK come from a group of religious teachers at 40 independent Christian schools, who insist on the right to whack children as an aid to moral induction: "If it's done in the right context, then children know that for somebody who loves them to smack them, something must have gone really wrong", explains Phil Williamson, of the Christian Fellowship School in Liverpool, where girl wrongdoers are still hit with a strap and boys belaboured with a wooden bat. "It's vital to instill their consciousness of right and wrong and moral questions," the argument goes.

How interesting to find that there are still parts of the known world where people believe that moral questions can be settled by thumping an unbeliever with a club (a notion that mostly died out after the Third Crusade); and who further believe it's a good idea to have children associate love with violence. The rest of us bade a cheerful farewell to the swishy cane and the antediluvian Mr Thwackum a dozen years ago. Only the most feeble-minded bullies (and a few children with peculiar imaginations like my younger self) will mourn their passing.

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