Bluebells and bruises

Jilly Cooper and Frederick Forsyth had very different experiences of boarding school. For one it was bliss - while the other endured years of 'hell'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jilly Cooper recalls her school days as a "mix of heaven and Holloway". Heaven was the sight of Leeds railway station as she neared home after another term away from her family. Holloway was her seeming incarceration at Godolphin School, in Wiltshire, where she spent six years as a boarder.

"Can you imagine as an 11-year-old being sent 300 miles away from home to go to boarding school?" she asks. "To be fair to my parents, I think I chose Godolphin myself because we were allowed to keep rabbits and guinea pigs. The headmistress was young and so pretty, and I remember the first time I met her she was wearing a lovely summer dress."

As a little girl Cooper had been steeped in Enid Blyton and expected school to be full of midnight feasts and protective older girls. But the reality was not like that. She was homesick and didn't see her family at all during the first term. But she received a brilliant education and the teachers were wonderful, though she says she was often vile to them, which is probably why she was never made prefect. The teenage Cooper was usually at the centre of mischief and tomfoolery.

"On one occasion a group of us de-bagged poor Miss Harris down to her petticoats. She wriggled about like a fly and was completely distraught, the poor thing. We weren't allowed to have any cake for tea as a punishment."

Another time Cooper sewed her slippers to her pyjama bottoms, stuffed them with clothes and hung them out of the window while the girls shouted that she was about to commit suicide. Miss Harris raced into the room to save her only to find her crawling out from under the bed laughing.

For the future writer of bodice-ripping block-busters, such as Riders and Polo, the absence of boys was the biggest disadvantage of a single-sex education. The closest the girls got to a man for years was the local flasher, she says.

"We used to have crushes on older girls too. There was one I saw in a school play playing an angel and I thought she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw. Cupid's arrow hit me and I couldn't speak for days. I would leave bluebells in her locker."

The teenager who would later pen such modern classics as The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Fourth Protocol, spent his formative years being flogged in a school that considered brutality an inherent part of a young gentleman's education. In the mid-Fifties Tonbridge School, in Kent, had a reputation as being one of the harshest schools in the country.

Frederick Forsyth would volunteer to do jobs such as cleaning the bell-tower so that he could get away for some solitude. Or he would go for a cross-country run, which he hated, and take his books with him. He would run for only 500 metres but would be gone for two hours.

A scholar and highly able pupil who passed his O-levels at 14 and A-levels at 15, the young Forsyth was easy prey for the bullies. The misery began at 14, in his first year, when new boys - known as novi - would be expected to pander to the every whim of older pupils in a now outlawed practice known as fagging.

"Often they would send us out in the pouring rain to run for half a mile to the shop because they fancied a bun for their tea."

Prefects also had the authority to physically punish younger boys for offences as innocuous as leaving a door open, or not folding towels properly.

"This sort of boy-on-boy punishment was given after three transgressions, known as impositions, and always administered after evening prayers.

"You would go in your pyjamas and get strokes with the cane on your back-side. I think I amassed 76 strokes in my three years. It was hell.

"The flogging was relentless and extremely brutal, and sanctioned by the school as part of the regime. I absolutely hated it.

"The whole system was Spartan, with cold showers and lots of compulsory sport, which I did not enjoy and was not good at.

"It drove me into myself and made me solitary. When you are relentlessly punished unjustly and cruelly you grow up cynical and you grow up having little respect for authority.

"I have always been a loner and anti-establishment since then. I hate the concept of corporal and capital punishment.

"I can be gregarious at parties but also quite a solitary fellow. I think that goes back to my school days.

"I know that boarding schools are so much more human and politically correct these days. In my time these were not phrases you attached to my type of school."