Why the Lawrence Five take me back to public school

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The Independent Online
Two apparently disconnected events last week have set my mind churning with painful thoughts. The first was Salman Rushdie remembering his - my - old school. The second was the interview between Martin Bashir and the five young men from Eltham associated with the Stephen Lawrence case.

Rushdie was a big boy at Rugby when I was a little boy. We were in different houses and never knew one another. Questioned about the dear old place recently, Rushdie said, "I'm not in touch with anyone I was at school with. Clean slate. Jump off a cliff and die. Broadly speaking, I hope they die".

Rushdie has become an absurd figure, no doubt about that. The nightmare of the fatwa has locked him up away from friends or wives who would offer friendly criticism. He has been walled up with sycophants and admirers. At the same time, the terrible sequence of events since 1989 made him into a significant international figure. If he were not previously mad with self-importance, he sure is now.

So one doesn't leap to his defence very quickly. Over the question of Rugby School, however, Rushdie is for once understated. I do not doubt that, in common with many other Indian boys whose parents trustingly dispatched them from Delhi or Bombay to enjoy the "best education that money could buy", he had unmitigated hell at the place.

During the course of Bashir's interview with the Eltham Five, we were shown again the video footage of the lads playing with their knives in what they deemed the privacy of their rooms, feigning stabbings of imaginary black people whom they hoped to reduced to mere "stumps". Neil Acourt claimed that "all children go froo vat phase. I'm not sayin' that extreme. But it was jus' messin' abaht". He opined: "If you was to stick a camera in a room with a teenager", you would be likely to get pictures of him indulging in violent and racist fantasies. How preposterous, all kindly, middle-class viewers will have exclaimed. Is it?

In the flickering grey video of my memory, I see Rugby School, Warwickshire, during the 1960s. Our boarding house contained about 50 boys aged between 13 and 18. In the spring term of 1966 a new boy arrived from Bombay. A 16-year-old, he was to pass straight into the sixth form. For some reason he started three months late. There were therefore all sorts of reasons why he was marked from the beginning as an outsider. Nearly all the boys at the school had started out together aged 13 and formed their friendships and enmities from the first day. To dip, quite "cold", into this alarming world of shared banter and bullyism aged 16, and straight from India, would have required extraordinary self-confidence. And even if poor A R Bh---- had possessed such gifts, would they have saved him?

From his first day, he was bullied without mercy. His new clothes were spoilt with ink and boot-polish. His study was invaded and messed up. His written prep was vandalised and spoiled. No one befriended him. When he left the school a year or two later, I am certain that he had made not one friend. Why did one stand by and allow this to happen? Why did I do so?

People said that there were other Indians in the school who were not bullied. I had a great friend, in another house, called Babul S----. He was a brilliant fencer, a pianist of near-concert level. I thought at the time that everyone was a little in awe of him, as well they might have been. But now I wonder how many hurdles he had been forced to leap before he achieved this Olympian position of strength. Perhaps he lashed out, either physically or with some withering remark. He spoke "posh", whereas poor A R B---- spoke with a mockable Indian singsong.

There were ten times as many Jews at Rugby as there were Indians. If one translated that into the language regularly used by even the nicest boys at the time, one would say there were many more yids than wogs. Jews were regularly beaten up. Rugbeian Jews, like the women in conquered territories, were especially prone to what we would nowadays call sexual abuse.

I remember my amazement at discovering that L---, a Jew in our house, was the lover of the bully who most frequently punished him in public with flickings of towels, kicks, punches or tongue-lashings.

Some years ago my wife and I revisited Rugby and were given tea by a master. We fell to discussing the fact that in my day special synagogue services were laid on for the large numbers of Jewish pupils. There were almost no Jews now, said the master a little sheepishly. He took a sudden interest in his well-polished brogues.

"Shall we tell him?" asked his wife.

They then confided to me that they had two Jewish "refugees" living in their attic. They were a pair of boys too frightened to live in the boarding houses to which they had been assigned on entering the school. Bizarre to think of their heedless parents paying something like pounds 12,000 a year so that their sons could live an Anne Frank existence in Warwickshire in the 1990s.

No Jews or Indians have to my knowledge been stabbed in any of our public schools in recent years, though there was a dreadful case of an Indian girl at Marlborough College, stripped and beaten in the gym in front of a baying crowd.

It would be intolerable to compare the murder of Stephen Lawrence with the behaviour of public school bullies. But for one privately educated middle-class Englishman, there were some awkward moments when I heard those five oiks talking to Martin Bashir.