The place: Worcester
The man: A.N. Wilson (Author)
FOR many years I thought my old school was an evil dump which ought to have been closed down by the police.
It was a pleasant looking building on the edge of the Malvern Hills, where there were lots of little boarding establishments for the middle- class child, each with about 80 pupils. Although not seedy from the point of crumbling paint work, the people who taught there were quite another matter.
I didn't directly experience what we would now call sexual abuse; but I was very aware of it. We thought that the masters who touched our bottoms were funny and there were a few matrons who were paedophiles - the headmaster and his wife certainly both were. He was a fumbling creature, but she was a sadist who liked torturing, whacking and locking us in cages.
I was never exposed to anything truly frightening, like so many poor children are, but my best friend at prep school was terrified. The head master made him take all his clothes off and stand in his study for an hour.
It was just assumed that if you were called there that was the sort of thing that could happen, or he would come round and help you have your bath! I'm told he would often masturbate the boys, this is rather unflattering, I don't know from personal experience because it never happened to me!
The intensity and the wildly improper nature of the attention finally got to my friend. Another teacher found out and told him to run home to his mother. Nothing happened, there was no investigation. I still do not known which is worse for a child, something like that or having to go into the court and repeat everything.
I loathed the headmaster during my twenties, feeling he had ruined our lives, but now I think he was a character and not an entirely bad teacher. His wife knew and therefore hated children and took it out on us.
The food was dreadful and, slightly unforgivably, it was deliberately dreadful because she loved watching us be sick. It is extraordinary - but if you were sick she used to make you eat your own vomit. Once I saw her do this to a new boy, it made me so angry that I picked up my porridge and hurled it at her. It splatted all over her face and her cardigan. I was taken off to be walloped and locked in the sanatorium. My parents were rung up, although I did not hear their angle of the story until I was 30, my father thought it was a disgrace and pleaded to let me stay. I missed my mother and father terribly but I suppose there was an air of adventure - like being in a prisoner of war camp.
However this school will always be fondly remembered because it was here I discovered a child could fall in love. When I was about ten, I became enraptured with our art teacher and it was the full works. She was wonderful with a small brown bob, a beatnik, and wore men's v neck jumpers back to front so I could see her slightly freckley but very beautiful back - which looked just like Horlicks.
It was a defining moment and although we did not have an affair - it was just like falling in love as grown-up. In those days I wanted to be an artist, far more than a writer. She must have been about 22 and had been to Spain and met Salvador Dali. The area was ultra-conservative and would make Tunbridge Wells seem pink and these boarding schools were bastions of tradition - our curriculum could have been pre-war. So to have someone like her walking in and telling us about abstract art was extraordinary.
She had such a lovely little boyish face, was kind and took me seriously. I'm sure she knew what had happened, but she did not mock me.
We spent hours and hours talking to each other, and I would help out in the art room by clearing up. She also let me paint a huge modernist mural in the art room too, which was rather brave, but she was rather anarchic and against the system. I'm sure you could see the lust in my work. Although, I would have liked to have held her hand I did not want to possess her. In those days, I thought there was a distinction between love and lust.
It was a heart breaking experience - a mixture of intense joy because I loved her so much but knowing I would never achieve what I ardently desired.
I have drawn on these themes of childhood sexuality when I came to write my latest book Dream Children. I didn't set out to write a book about paedophiles, but I feel that what is missing in the tabloid treatments is the feelings of children. It's assumed in a sub-Dickensian way that they don't have any. Rather than tackling it full frontal, I've taken a rather oblique path, but it is a disturbing subject and therefore impossible not to write a disturbing book. If you're interested in human character something murky does often rise to the top. I hope I will never censor myself because of fear, particularly about this subject because I feel we have turned into rather an ugly lynch mob. The whole plot came to me at once, so I think it must have been drawing on my forgotten subconscious but I don't know which bits come from my own childhood thoughts of lusting about an adult and how much it refers to what I've read recently in the papers.
When I was an school having my pre-adolescent "love affair", I didn't care what people thought. It was too important. I didn't mind being teased. My parents gave me enough self confidence not to worry about being different from other people - but this was my first experience of it.
There were one or two matrons who had a gaggle of admirers but I was alone in my admiration of the arts teacher. She drew out my individuality which has been a core part of my personality ever since. It might take courage not to run with the pack, but in my profession that is hopeless.
Leaving that school was probably the worst day of my life. I was sobbing and sobbing. My parents came to take me from somewhere about which I had nothing kind to say and found me inconsolable! It was worse than the day they dragged me in crying!
Looking back, I realise my art teacher opened a little door, through which I was longing to walk, into a new area of perception and experience of knowing about art and, by extension, music and literature. School life had tried to thrash out my feelings or make me put a lid of them, but falling in love made me realise that this was neither possible or desirable.
I hardly knew any girls of my own age and didn't have a girlfriend until I was about eighteen. But everybody I have fallen in love with since has echoes of my art teacher. I have a certain physical type and because she had a very strong sense of humour that characteristic is important too. I've also learnt that my path is going to be punctuated by all these little epiphanies, rather than finding out about life in a rational way. Humans are very odd and can't be explained ideologically, theologically or scientifically; that's why I'm glad to be a novelist.
Dream Children by A.N. Wilson is published by John Murray at pounds 15.99
Interview by Andrew G MarshallReuse content