The Independent Archive: Schoolboys sobbing their hearts out

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The Independent Culture
4 June 1990

The film director Hugh Hudson talks to Danny Danziger about life at boarding school during the Second World War and the night the school burnt down

THIS IS something which has remained in my mind, being sent to a middle-class boarding school - horrendous institutions of torture - being ripped away from your beloved family, your mother, at the age of seven. It's kind of early, isn't it?

It was the middle of winter - I must have started in the winter term for some reason or other. It was wartime, so everything was screwed up anyway. I was dragged down the platform of Waterloo station by one of the masters, struggling with one of those awful great trunks, and bundled into a ghastly train with other boys. All the mothers were kept behind a barrier; mothers weren't allowed on the platform.

Down to somewhere in the depths of Devon. At six in the morning you were thrown into a freezing bath - literally, if you didn't get in you were thrown in, and that was considered right. A kid of seven?

It's ridiculous, barbaric really. I mean, what's it meant to do? Theoretically, it's to teach you how to be a good Englishman - a ruling Englishman - to run the outposts of the Empire in the most hardened and uncompromising way, without any kind of human emotion; that's what it's meant to teach you.

Of course, the English are tough, the Americans all say that: there's nobody tougher to do a deal with than the British man who's had this kind of classic English education.

Tough, emotionless. Not able to relate to other people, not wanting to. Of course it makes most of us emotionally stunted, doesn't it? Certainly as far as our relationships with women are concerned . . .

A week later the whole place was burned to the ground. If you looked in the archives you'd find it: 1945, it was a famous fire.

After seven days and seven nights of misery - you know, going to bed each night sobbing one's heart out, clutching a little stuffed animal - and all these other kids in the same boat, crying for their mothers in their sleep, I remember waking up in the middle of the night. There was this noise of tinkling, breaking glass; it was the glass dome of the mansion which had been taken over by the school during the war. There was this incredible smell of smoke and burning; absolute chaos ensued.

There was snow on the ground, and as we were on the top of a hill the fire engine had difficulty getting there. Gradually, the place started to disintegrate with these 150 little boys inside and no night watchman.

I remember being pushed out on to a tiny ledge, clutching this little purple elephant, and seeing kids jumping. There were no fire precautions, so ropes were made out of sheets to climb down. Some boys fell. I remember the young matron, who was quite pretty, coming and saying, "Don't worry, don't worry", as she ran back in. She was never seen again. One boy had had measles as soon as he'd arrived, so he was in the sanatorium at the top of the house; he jumped, and impaled himself on the railings. I remember jumping from one storey up. Luckily, a heavy drift of snow had built up in the night.

Eventually, the fire engines struggled up the hill and put out the fire, but the place was gutted and 14 boys and the matron were dead.

The memory is still vivid, although it's a long time ago. The smell is the thing I really remember, the sweet, sickly smell of burning flesh. And then all the parents came down, and that was the end of the term, and we all went home, back to our parents. We were free for months.

It was assumed I would go to the school - I wasn't given any option - that's what I find intolerable. Perhaps a lot of people feel like I do, but it's something I've carried through into my adult and professional life. I happen to be a film-maker, so I've made films about these sorts of places and this kind of upbringing. Chariots of Fire is about these things, Greystoke is certainly about that and so is Revolution.

Being sent away, the misery of leaving my parents, that was the worst time of my life, and, although the fire was horrifying, it was a great relief to come home. So, ironically, probably the best day of my life followed the worst a week later, that day of the fire.

`The Worst of Times', from the `Living' page of `The Independent', Monday