22 December 2017

Brexit: the myth of British superiority

The arrogance behind British nationalism is not supported by facts

One of the nationalistic-xenophobic assumptions of Brexiters is that Britain is in some way ‘better’ than its European neighbours, and, for that reason, should not be in a union with them. How else could the following comment on passports by the pro-Brexit Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell be interpreted?

“The humiliation of having a pink [sic] European Union passport will now soon be over and the United Kingdom nationals can once again feel pride and self-confidence in their own nationality when travelling…”

However, the myth of British superiority is worth probing with a few comparative facts, contrasting Britain with its immediate European neighbours. Let me take these to be Ireland, France, Germany, Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) and Scandinavia, all democracies since the Second World War. It is worth noting that this group of countries, including Britain, contains a majority of the EU’s population and wealth.

Among these countries, according to the IMF in 2017, Britain is the poorest in GNP per head, with $ 43 500 per year – only marginally below France, but well below Germany on $ 49 800. The smaller countries of Benelux, Ireland and Scandinavia are all considerably richer. And by the end of 2017, as a consequence of Brexit, Britain’s economic growth is lagging behind that of Eurozone, exacerbating rather than reducing the difference.

For working people, their situation is even worse than their mainland European counterparts. Britain is the most economically unequal, with inequality at an index of 34, while France and Germany both score 29. (To understand these figures, zero represents complete equality, while inequality in the United States stands at 40.)

In fact, Britain is more unequal today than at any point since the middle of the nineteenth century; And with welfare cuts in a deteriorating economy, inequality is growing further in the UK. In absolute terms, in the period 2009-16, a massive 70% of households experienced stagnation or a drop in income.

Inequality is linked to a dysfunctional society. Just to take one example, in every 100 000 people, Germany imprisons 81, France 118, but Britain a staggering 150.

If the current situation is bad, the future is worse. Brexit is already causing capital investment to avoid Britain, and for business to relocate out of the country. The prospect of trade barriers after March 2019 further impedes the economy. The Tory Brexit elite, with a whip hand in the May government, want to spurn the European social-market model all together and fall into step with the US economy. After the shocks of EU withdrawal, they seek a society of low taxes, minimal rights for workers and consumers, with little or no social welfare - a European America or a Singapore on the Thames.

The outlook is grim.

1 November 2017

Death penality: wrong in all circumstances

The death penalty should be opposed in all circumstances.

I believe that the right to life is the cornerstone of human rights. It can therefore never legitimately be the purpose of the state to take life. There are of course cases where human life is taken as the consequence of other legitimate policies: e.g. the waging of a just war, a police operation to free a hostage, self-defence, etc. but in all these cases the loss of life is the consequence of the action, never its purpose.

It is from the protection of human life (even of evil-doers) that all other rights derive. (NB there are 12 US states which have no death penalty, so the US is not all bad on this issue.). No European country (except the dictatorship in Belarus) has a death penalty, nor does Canada, Australia, or New Zealand.

Of course there are practical arguments against the death penalty: it’s irreversible in the event of mistake, it focuses attention on the criminal and not the victim, it equates the crime and penalty and therefore tells the criminal “yes’ you can kill, if you don’t mind dying, etc. But my fundamental objection is not practical but moral.

Freedom: a couple of comments

Freedom needs to be considered in a social context for it to be fully meaningful.

At the core of the notion of freedom is personal is choice and absence of restraint, but there are three other ingredients to freedom that need to be considered.

First, freedom occurs in a social context, so the freedom of one person can be the unfreedom of another. (My right to play my piano against your right to quiet enjoyment of your property) To resolve this problem, we need the help of J. S. Mill’s rule that one has the maximum amount of liberty consistent with everyone else having the same freedom.

Second, the amount of freedom and the degree of choice one has is dependent on the level of development of society and the resources (wealth, education) available to its citizens. Poverty and ignorance restrict choice and therefore freedom.

Finally, collectives never enjoy freedom, individuals do, so the freedom of every individual counts. We therefore judge the level of freedom in society not by the average, but by the amount enjoyed by the person with the least freedom.

23 October 2017

"British Jobs for British Workers” is a xenophobic and racist slogan

"British Jobs for British Workers” is a xenophobic and racist slogan: the left can debunk it.

In the 2016 EU referendum, opposing the migration of workers from central and eastern Europe into Britain was the key issue for many Leave voters, and one which was highlighted by the xenophobic UKIP party. The Leavers’ arguments were as simple as they were wrong. They said the the migrant workers took away ‘our’ jobs, depress wages and put pressure on housing and other social services. Moreover, they undermine the cultural homogeneity of ‘our’ country.

Essentially this xenophobic/racist argument is the same as the one used to oppose and discriminate against the Catholic Irish in the nineteenth century, Jews escaping pogroms at the beginning of the twentieth, blacks from the West Indies and Asians from Africa and the Indian subcontinent in the post-war period. By contrast, the British moving abroad for economic reasons are never labelled as migrants, but as ‘expats.’

It is completely correct to oppose this racism, to point out that the economy is boosted by young, migrant workers and to defend EU freedom of movement as an essential liberty. But in opposing racist lies, we shouldn’t blind ourselves to truths lurking behind the racist propaganda.

Let’s take a hypothetical case to illustrate the point. What is the sense of school cleaners in an English town commuting monthly from Romania? The workers live in appalling overcrowded conditions and receive no more than the minimum wage, while indigenous people in the town join the lines of the unemployed. At the same time a pressure is put on the local housing stock. Do circumstances such as these prove the xenophobes’ argument?

Not at all. The situation in that English town would be no different if the cleaners came not from Romania, but from Scotland or another part of Britain. The effects on local resources and local unemployment would be the same. The issue for certain jobs is not, as the racists claim, “British jobs for British workers,” but local jobs for local people. There is nothing wrong in principle in offering employment first to people who have lived in the area for a certain amount of time. Nationality has nothing to do with it. If a Romanian has lived in the town for say two years, s/he is at the front of the queue. The Brit from the other end of the country is not.

Once we accept in principle the idea of local jobs for local people in certain limited instances, we solve much of the ‘legitimate’ complaint and reveal the xenophobic and racist character of the slogan, “British jobs for British workers.”

10 October 2017

Should Catalonia declare independence?

Independence for Catalonia is not a principle. It depends on the will of the inhabitants and political realities.

As a socialist I have no fixed principle or view on whether Catalonia should be independent or not. But I do believe two things: first, that Catalonia should have the right to independence if the majority of people living there want it; and second, the behaviour of the Spanish state in violently impeding the October 1st referendum was deplorable.

However, following the chaotic referendum, socialists should not back immediate Catalan independence for two reasons: In the first place,it is far from certain that a majority of Catalonia’s voters support independence. And second, a declaration of independence by the Catalan Parliament would be followed by the forceful suspension of the Catalan administration and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid. Even if independence in these circumstances were achieved, the picture would be far from rosy. No recognition of Catalonia internationally, exclusion from the EU and massive de-investment in Spain’s richest region. There is certainly no public appetite for all this to happen.

If the Catalan government pulls back to fight another day, it is in strong position to win concessions from a Madrid which has no desire to go to war with its rebellious region.

9 October 2017

Zionism: don't leave yourself vulnerable to attack

By banding around the the term Zionism, leftists are being imprecise and unnecessarily leaving themselves open to malicious allegations of antisemitism.

It’s somewhat crazy to deliberately slip on a banana skin just to make the point that somebody else should not have put it there. But that is pretty much what some on the left are doing when they bang on about Zionism, and end up being given the boot by the Labour Party.

Why use the term at all? Zionism was a project, gaining steam around the beginning of the 20th Century, particularly among Jews in the west of the then Russian empire, to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionism was never a majority opinion among Jews. Today, Israel is not a project but a regional superpower, whose dissolution is neither desirable nor realistic. Even if the country is a paradise compared with its neighbours, in contrast to other liberal democracies it has two major shortcomings. Israel is based on the supremacy of one ethnic group and relegates its Palestinian citizens to a second-class status. In addition, Israel occupies territories outside its borders and appropriates land for its own citizens and denies many human and civic rights to Palestinians living under permanent military occupation.

Both these things are worthy of hefty criticism, but it is more precise to criticise the Israeli state and successive Israeli governments than to talk in abstractions about Zionism. On top of that references to Zionism carry two further dangers.

First, you and I know that antisemitism (prejudice against an ethnic group) and anti-Zionism (opposition to a political project) are quite different things. And, of course, those in the Labour Party and press throwing around accusations of antisemitism know that too. But the the distinction is lost on many ordinary people, so people opposing Zionism can easily and falsely be labelled as antisemites.

Second, criticising Zionism is in principle OK, but talking about Zionist conspiracies is not. The latter implies that people who are Jewish are all secretly working together with Israel to advance themselves against the interests of the gentile world. That’s pure antisemitic nonsense. You can distinguish, I suppose, between a conspiracy to promote Zionism and a Zionist conspiracy, but why go there? These muddles can be avoided.

Indeed, why negotiate this minefield at all, when you don’t have to. Remember, the Corbyn leadership is now focussed on winning office. If you step on a mine, they are not going to expend political capital to help you.

2 October 2017

The Nation State: facts and desires

The nation state is the prime unit of focus in politics, but should it be?

Despite talk of globalisation, in the developed capitalist world today the nation state remains the key unit of political organisation and identity. It possesses a monopoly of violence over its territory, supported by its legal system, bureaucracy and has control of the vast bulk of money held as public funds. Neither sub-units, such as regional authorities, nor supranational ones, such as the European Union, come anywhere near to outweighing the political might of the nation state. That thesis was never proved more amply than during the Catalan Independence referendum fiasco on 1 October 2017.

Several other West European states (e.g. Britain and Belgium) contain nationalist and separatist tendencies. While such autonomous movements should not be politically underestimated, it should be noted that not one state in western Europe has been broken up in this way since 1945. The devolved units, such as Scotland and Catalonia, remain very much secondary to the old political states of which they are still part.

Nonetheless, the independent power and room for manoeuvre of the nation state has weakened in the last thirty years on account of globalisation - or to say that more precisely, the free movement of financial capital, the growing role of transnational corporations and transnational political agreements (e.g. the Schengen open borders agreement) Yet, that does not change the fundamental power of the nation state, the real power of which was most clearly demonstrated in the near financial meltdown in 2008. Collapsing banks could only be rescued by subsidies from nation states, while supranational bodies such as the EU proved themselves weak and ineffective.

An entirely different question is: should the nation state be the exclusive focus for the political left? The answer is no for at least two reasons: first nationalism by its nature not only creates a community of "insiders," imagined or otherwise, for those who are deemed part of the nation, but by the same token it also identifies and excludes those who are not deemed to part of the nation. The striving for socialism, tactical consideration aside, can never be based on preference for one set of people defined by citizenship or ethnicity at the expense of others, because socialism is properly anchored in principles of universalism and internationalism.

The second reason is practical. Reformism is about progressive change brought about by the state, nearly always with popular pressure from below. It is indeed true that in the so-called Golden Years, late 1940s to the mid 1970s, the nation state in every West European democracy did bring about meaningful reform in favour of working people. Thus we can clearly see that, though the state is an instrument of capitalist power, it also has the ability to regulate capitalism and can do so on occasion against the immediate interests of capitalists. And today, in so far as globalisation has diminished the power of the national state, the space for progressive reform lost to the nation state can only be taken up by supranational bodies – and in Europe that mean the EU. Such reform is, of course, utterly unrealistic if conceived as the EU alone acting against member states, but is perfectly feasible if it were the EU acting in coalition with several of its big member states - even though, sadly, that opportunity has been lost to the British Left on account of Brexit.

28 September 2017

The Tatras radiate their beauty in autumn

The High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia are among the most beautiful on earth

Trails fan out in various directions from Stary Smokovec, and within a few minutes you have left behind the world of concrete and polluting motor vehicles. It took some time last Saturday for me to expel the dense town air and the stubborn inflexibility of my limbs. But then I was at one with the wonder of nature.

The path was steep. My legs ached, and the heat of my exertion met the cool, moist pine-fragranced breeze that gently massaged my face. An autumnal sun danced between the trees and magnified the greens, yellows and reds of the foliage. From time to time the path crossed clear turquoise mountain streams that battled their way past granite boulders in their descent down the mountain. If I believed in Him, I would have said God had made this paradise.

And then we passed the tree line and entered a bleak but beautiful void. The majestic wonder of rugged mountain peaks, dense valleys and far away villages and fields filled the panorama. But ahead was a chata with its sweet Tatra tea, and if my wife allowed it, mad’arsky gulas a kndede.

25 August 2017

End Labour’s Brexit Incoherence

Opposing Hard Brexit is not issue-number-one for Labour, but we still need coherence

In the June 2017 General Election Jeremy Corbyn was completely correct to emphasise the bread-and-butter issues that impact directly on working people’s lives: eternal austerity, mushrooming inequality, the running down of public services in health education and transport, and the unaffordability of housing - ideas encapsulated in the slogan “For the Many Not the Few.” The Liberal Democrats highlighted opposition to Brexit and flopped.

The reason is clear. The vast majority of British voters are not affected directly by Brexit. Most do not live or work in the EU27, nor did they ever plan to do so. Few have family members with other EU passports.The loss of European political rights is prioritised only by politically conscious progressives; and the negative economic impact of Brexit for most people is indistinguishable from the other failings of British capitalism.

But, because Brexit is not issue-number-one, that can’t justify Labour’s obscurantism. There seem to me to be three possible reasons (none of them good) why Jeremy lines up by default behind the Tory Brexiteers and doesn’t clearly call for retaining membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Remaining in these institutions would remove the economic cost of withdrawal from the EU and keep Freedom of Movement. What are Corbyn’s not-very-good reasons?

First, by not saying anything coherent, Labour keeps the focus on the Tory Government. Brexit is likely to be a disaster, mainly economic, leading to division within, and opposition to, the Tories. Labour, it could be argued, will benefit in the 2022 election.

Second, Hard Brexit will remove any legal restrictions on Britain. A future majority Labour Government could then start implementing ‘socialism in one country.’

Third, that minority of Labour voters, and potential voters, who are ardent Leave supporters, would be so incensed by retaining freedom of movement that they would be able to prevent the election of a Labour Government.

For me none of these arguments adds up, nor do they justify Labour’s muddled messages on Brexit and on freedom of movement in particular.

As things are going at present, from the end of March 2019 Freedom of Movement will exist from Donegal to Athens, from the Arctic Circle to Sicily and from Tallinn to Lisbon, with just the UK excluded. Britons will be locked in - lacking the right to retire to Spain, study in Berlin or work in Paris. The Polish plumber in London may be able to stay with “settled status” as a second class citizen, but his younger brother can’t come to work with him. No socialist should be muddled about opposing such a state of affairs.

Postscript: At the end of August 2017, the Labour leadership let it be known that now Labour would support continued membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union for at least between two and four years after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. The issue of permanent membership would be left open. On the desirability of freedom of movement, Labour's message remains muddled.

15 July 2017

Dialectics Explained Simply

In Marxism the concept of dialectics is often complicated and mystified. It needs stating simply.

Dialectical theory describes and explains the development of systems which exist in the world. Here I will try to explain dialectics as a conceptual tool for understanding society.

What society is: a sketch map

To start, we have to answer another question: what is society? For Marxists – and indeed most other sociologists – society is conceived as a system made up of a complex network of interactive causes and effects. A change in any one element in the social system affects the others. For instance, a rise in unemployment causes an increase crime, which in turn changes the role of police, which has further effects, and so on.

If society is thought of as containing all the causes of change in society, then it follows that change originates from within the social system itself. In other words, at any given point, society contains within itself tensions and pressures (often called contradictions) which are the cause of social change. And when a new situation has established itself, there are yet again new tensions and pressures which lead to further social change, and so on.

A metaphor for understanding all of this is to see society as a huge piece of fungus, constantly changing over time because of developments from within.


The traditional explanation of dialectical change (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) is only a linguistic re-organisation of the points above. The argument is like this. Everything in a social system at any point in time is either a something (i.e. a thesis) or not that thing (i.e. its antitheses). As a result of the interaction of thesis and antithesis a new situation in society (i.e. synthesis) emerges for which the original thesis and antithesis have interacted and merged.

I think, however, that the theory of dialectics is better thought of as a summary or abstraction of the rules for understanding change in a social system. Dialectical analysis identifies pairs of social elements which co-exist, are dependent on one another and which interact with each other. Let us take an example.

Human beings and nature. We can clearly conceptualise everything that exists as either human beings or as nature minus human beings. We cannot imagine society without people, nor could we have a society without things (food, cupboards, water, etc). Nature affects us and we affect nature through building dams, houses, etc. Thus, it is said that the relationship between human beings and nature is dialectical.

Marxists in their analysis do not identify dialectical pairs (i.e. theses and antitheses) on an arbitrary basis, nor do they see the direction of historical change as entirely arbitrary or accidental, but what drives history forward is beyond the scope of this discussion.

To sum up, a dialectical analysis of society recognises that social change comes from tensions or pressures within the existing state of things. And when a new state of affairs has been created, then that too is subject to change for the same reason. When explained like this, dialectical theory can be seen as something which is almost certainly correct, but if not linked to other theories and observations, it is not very revealing.

Why dialectics is a dirty word

The theory of dialectics provides a number of valuable observations about the functioning of a any living system - be it the social system, or of the cosmos itself. But during the years of historical communism 1917-89, and particularly during the years of Joseph Stalin’s rule from the end of the 1920s till his death in 1953, dialectics was misused to explain and justify the decisions and dogmas of the Communist Parties in the World. After that the dialectical baby was thrown out with the Stalinist bathwater and people were reluctant to use the term.

In many instances, to avoid summoning up prejudice unnecessarily, the use of the term interaction will effectively substitute for dialectical; and, in addition, it is more easily understood. Of course they are not quite the same: dialectics implies a whole theory, whereas interaction merely means that X affects Y and vice versa.

5 June 2017

"Post War" by Tony Judt

Tony Judt (1948-2010) created a masterpiece with his history of Europe, Post War, published in 2005.

Though now twelve years old, I couldn’t recommend this book more highly; it should be compulsory reading for everyone who is interested in the society in which we live.

Judt sets out in this massive enterprise to tell the history of Europe (both east and west) from 1945. The book is both thematically and chronologically organised. While the focus is on political, and to a lesser extent economic, history, Judt also covers culture and especially film in some detail, all of which helps give the reader an all-round understanding of period and place. Judt’s approach is not to dryly list facts and dates, but to link events into meaningful narratives.

The great advantage of Judt’s book is that it enables reader to set his or her historical prejudices against Judt’s erudite judgments. As Judt says so much in this book, there will be times when you think his assessments are wrong, but often you will be convinced by his argument. Being persuaded is also a matter of perspective. Most English readers will have become politically and socially aware in the Wilson to Blair years, and Judt enables us to conceptualise and comprehend the period as a whole, not just as British history, but also as a part of a wider European canvass.

The writing is sharp and engaging throughout. The only disadvantage of the book is the weight of its 890 pages which make it hard to read in bed.

Judt, Tony: Post War: Heinemann 2005

11 May 2017

Will Ben Bradshaw support Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister?

Ben Bradshaw, Exeter's Labour MP, is a known opponent of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Will Ben Bradshaw support Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister? Apparently yes – although I am completely sure that Ben doesn’t believe for a single moment that Labour will emerge from the election with a majority. So the undertaking is costless.

Corbyn made a grave error in voting for this election – and without Labour’s votes the two-thirds majority to trigger it would not have been achieved. The vast bulk of the PLP do not support Corbyn and voted for the election not to get rid of the Tories, but to get rid of the current leader of the Labour Party.

The choice for the left is capitulation or implosion. Labour will lose in June. If Corbyn stays on – and I hope he does – it is probable that the Blairites in the rump PLP will defect. If that happens, it happens, but socialists should not capitulate to Blairite threats, and we will just have to pick up the pieces from where we find ourselves.

9 May 2017

John Lloyd (died 7 May 2017)

John Lloyd writing on front page
of first issue of Devon Labour Briefing
John Lloyd (died 7 May 2017) was a Labour Party Activist and Councillor in Exeter.

I remember John from one incident in circa.1984.

At the time I was the membership secretary for the Pennsylvania / St. Davids branch of Exeter Labour Party. On my rounds to collect subs, I called in at a shared house, inhabited by several animal rights activists. To my misfortune, I arrived just as a police raid was taking place. It was quickly established that I had nothing to do with the house, nor the animal rights movement. I was sent away, but all my Labour Party cards and membership lists were confiscated.

I immediately went to the Heavitree Police Station to complain. Again, I was treated extremely impolitely, before being sent away empty-handed. The following morning after explaining the situation at the Clifton Hill Party HQ, I met up with John, and, in his capacity as a Councillor and member of the Police Authority, he made the complaints. The documents were returned later that day, no doubt after having been photocopied.

John even went on to write an article on excessive police powers for the first issue of Devon Labour Briefing.

14 April 2017

Aspects of Haslemere: memories from the 1970s

Haslemere High Street
On this page you can read memory sketches about Haslemere in the 1970s.

Haslemere (pop. circa. 10 000) is a small but prosperous town, which lies in the extreme south-west corner of the county of Surrey, and midway between London and the south coast. Many of its inhabitants commute to London for work, with Haslemere railways station a major stop on the London-Portsmouth train line. The town is surrounded by hills and undulating countryside.

The text on the page is long, so scroll down to the piece of writing that interests you.
  • Haslemere: a sense of place
  • Haslemere Railway Station: a fortress
  • Three hours in Haslemere in 2015

Haslemere: a sense of place

In 1974, aged twelve, I was in the one-room newsagents on the High Pavement in Haslemere, then owned by the kindly couple Rodney and Margaret Raggett. Their son-in-law, Robert Cantan, had become a teacher at Woolmer Hill Secondary School the previous year; and spouting her personal and local gossip in conversation with a customer, Margaret Raggett boasted, “...and he’s head of chemistry up at Woolmer Hill.” The remark struck me as odd because as far as I could see, Mr Cantan was not head of anything, certainly not of the science department, which was led by the eccentric Mr Williams. But there again, there was only one chemistry teacher in the school, so I supposed you could say, in a certain sense, that Mr Cantan was indeed head of chemistry.

But why “up” at Woolmer Hill? In fact, Margaret Raggett used the word perfectly correctly in every sense. “Up” in its base meaning signifies above or higher; and of course Woolmer Hill stood at the top of a very steep hill - so steep indeed that cycling down it was forbidden by Headmaster Anning. In another sense “up” is often used in conversation to refer to places further north, so one went up to Guildford or London; and though Margaret Raggett probably didn’t intend this usage, Woolmer Hill School does lie to the north-west of Haslemere. But “up” can also refer to social elevation, and at Woolmer Hill there was the Upper School building to house the final year pupils. In the eyes of a proud mother-in-law Robert Cantan had indeed gone up in the world by becoming “head” of chemistry up at Woolmer Hill.

Going “up” nevertheless implies a starting point or centre which one goes up from; for Mrs Raggett that centre point was Margaret Raggett, a newsagent on the High Pavement in Haslemere. But on most printed maps of the day Haslemere, lying at the borders of three counties, tended to be found in the corner. Living in Haslemere, I too did not experience the world as it appeared on maps. For me Longdene Road, which led uphill from Haslemere railway station, was the centre of the world in which I lived - at least from the age of seven when my maternal grandparents’ house in Edgware, north London was no more. In Haslemere, I knew the neighbours in my street without exception, but as I moved further away from Longdene Road, my ability to recognise people lessened. Longdene Road had its own mental topography: it is a hill, so one could go either up or down. There were two post boxes, one at the top and one at the bottom of the road - so if you said you were going to post a letter, you’d be asked simply “up” or “down.”

In family language prepositions governed my understanding of the areas around home. Haslemere town centre, about a kilometre away, was conceptualised as a container: we went into town, either through town meadow or along the High Pavement walking past Raggett’s newsagents. If however we went shopping in Wey Hill, it was simply referred to as going down the “other end.” Wey Hill, which we could see from our back windows was considered as under us, so we went down going there. And it was the “other end” because it was a “centre” which was not the town centre. Wey Hill was also seen as lying at the end of a continuum at which Haslemere town centre marked the other end. Beyond the “ends” you were going beyond or out of town. And in this way space was marked out for me as a child.

When I was eleven, in my last year of Chestnut Avenue middle school, Woolmer Hill was unidentified in my mental conception of space. I didn’t know where it was. I knew the Hindhead Road, which the 19 Bus used to take on its way to Farnham. I also knew the junction for Critchmere Hill, so Michael W. was able to tell me that you went down Critchmere Hill and just kept on going until you arrived at Woolmer Hill School. Within days of starting at Woolmer Hill in September 1973, the school and its environs become a clear mental location which you went to or from. For access, there was the route that the 13B Bus took, which I initially used to travel on back and forth. Or you could walk down Woolmer Hill and up Critchmere Hill to catch the 19 Bus into Haslemere - an option chosen by Robert Cantan to avoid the vulgar crush on the 13B which parked only a hundred metres or so from the school. And finally there was the option of walking down to Critchmere Lane and catching the 13A bus from Bordon at the junction with the Liphook Road. New places, mostly roads, made themselves known to me and became familiar.

Where do I come from? Haslemere is a town I was neither born in, nor where I live now. Yet, as the sole location of my childhood, it remains the place about which I have the greatest intimate knowledge of geography and the fullest chest of memory. I am from Haslemere, even though I now hardly know anyone who lives there today. Haslemere is, to use the German word, my Heimat, a place towards which I have a strong feeling of belonging, and a deep-rooted fondness. But could I ever live there again with every street replete with childhood memory? Should one be attracted to return to the locations of nostalgia?

Nostalgia, a yearning which verges on sickness, has two axes: time and place. Time is ephemeral; we live in it, experience events that occur in it, and then the moment in time passes and all that remains is a memory, selective, subjective and fragile. We can yearn for a time in the past and a situation occurring in it, but we can never return to it; it is gone for ever. Places, in contrast, tend to remain. Yes, buildings can be renovated or even demolished and the land itself can be landscaped, like the Little Chef cafe on the A3 Highway a few hundred metres from Woolmer Hill School that disappeared under the Hindhead road tunnel in the 2000s, but that is unusual. In 2015 I can watch a video on YouTube featuring Woolmer Hill School, and despite the repaintings, renewals and rebrandings, I can recognise the same buildings and corridors. Places are fickle; they allow themselves to be possessed by others without a fight. In 1978 I could have wandered around Woolmer Hill School and have recognised scores of people, teachers and pupils, and have been recognised by them. Today, I could still go there but I would know nobody and nobody would know me. I would be merely an impostor.

Haslemere Railway Station: a fortress

Haslemere, where I spent my childhood and adolescence, is not large with a little over ten thousand residents. Growing up in a non-car owning household in the 1970s meant that major shopping expeditions, excursions, and going to college all started and ended at Haslemere Railway Station. Family visitors arrived and departed through the station. Occasionally, we might take the bus to the neighbouring towns of Farnham, Midhurst or Petworth, but the London, Guildford, Portsmouth train route was the main channel of escape and return.

Heavy use by commuters, its three-track facility and being equidistant between Guildford and Havant means that nearly every train stops at the station, both then and now. There is nothing architecturally beautiful about the station: a turn of the century station-house, three lines and two platforms, joined until 2008 by a single wooden footbridge. Arriving in 2009, the visitor would see that the essential geography of the station is fundamentally unchanged; the old buildings are still standing, even if different coloured paint covers the beams. The psychology of the station, though, is utterly transformed.

In the 1970s the station was the property of British Rail. The men who worked there dressed in shabby blue uniforms and we knew them all; a job with British Rail was low paid but it was for life. In theory if you wanted to go onto the platform to meet or say good-bye to granny you needed to put a penny into a machine for a platform ticket, but it was much easier to tell one of the men in shabby uniforms what you wanted to do; and generally they would only be too pleased to do you a favour. I suppose the train spotters who stood at the end of the platforms recording the registration numbers of passing trains bought platform tickets; they weren't threatened with arrest under anti-terrorist legislation in those days.

Then came privatisation in 1993. The men in shabby blue uniforms either got new ones, or more likely they lost their jobs. Ticket control was done on trains and you could walk freely in and out of the station. Fare dodging became easier, but the losses were presumably covered by the reduced salary bill. And that is how things stood for a decade and a half.

I arrived in Haslemere Station in 2009 after not having visited the station for some time, but this time only to change trains. There was an impressive new footbridge with a lift, though through habit I used the old wooden one, still smelling of the tar on the steps. But what was new was the realisation that I was totally imprisoned. Around the station was a two-to-three metre steel fence consisting of connected metal stakes with splayed spikes on the top. At the ends of the platforms a fence topped with barbed wire ran along either side of the tracks. Electronic gates overseen by a single operator allowed entry and exit to the platforms, all of which was surveyed by several CCTV cameras. And every few minutes a recorded voice sounded over the nearly empty platforms ordering passengers not to leave bags unattended in the station. (Strangely you can leave them unattended on the trains in the luggage racks!)

Given the high price of rail tickets (the highest in Europe), I suppose making the would-be fare dodgers pay does indeed fund all that steel and electronics. And in a practical sense, the ticket-carrying traveller is little impeded by the fences and surveillance. In fact today in Britain such things are completely normal, but I hadn't seen them yet in Haslemere. In the mid 1970s, however, I would never have imagined that our railway station would be encased in security metal fencing watched over by cameras; such things, I thought, were only experienced in the vicinity of the Berlin Wall.

Three hours in Haslemere: March 2015

On Wednesday 11 March 2015, a cold, blustery, but sunny morning, I undertook a three hour excursion to Haslemere, my home town in which I had lived from the age of one in 1963 until I semi-permanently left the town in 1980 as a university student. My journey back would be an emotional one for I had not set foot in Haslemere itself since the sale of my parental home in 2006, the year after my father's death. The following day, Thursday 12 March 2015, would be my mother's funeral.

From the YMCA hostel in Guildford, where I was staying, it was a mere stone's throw to the railway station. A ticket for £6.70 allowed me an away-day return to Haslemere, the town which I was now visiting for the first time, rather than returning home to. The train sped through the countryside, and the twenty kilometres or so was covered in a matter of minutes.

Before setting off, I had been very much in two minds about making the journey. Pulling me towards Haslemere was a desire to go home, rather like the pressure that propels the dementia sufferer to stubbornly seek out a past that he will never find. Though Haslemere was home no longer, I could still wander the streets with total familiarity, and allow my mind to float back to memories of childhood and youth. I hoped the visit would it be an act of catharsis reconciling me to the loss of my childhood home and Heimat. Yet might this journey be merely a sentimental excess, and the pointless dragging up of memories which could play no part in my current life? Both points of view had weight, but on this occasion the allure of nostalgia trumped everything else.

Arriving at Haslemere railway station, I felt little had changed. In the middle of the morning the barriers controlling passengers entering and leaving the station were open, and I sailed through undisturbed. The small newsagents once run by Les Hailey in the station yard had vanished, and the cafe and shop run by Joyce and Harry Burchett at the bottom of Longdene Road until sometime in the 1980s was, of course, no more. Then, for the first time in nine years, I crossed the main road and made my way up Longdene Road, my heart pounding, with almost the fear that I was now going to somewhere which I no longer had the right to, rather like the former pupil trespassing on the grounds of his old school.

Yet I was hit by a sense of timelessness. Thirty-five years had passed since Longdene Road was my real, as opposed to only my parental, home. Nine years had elapsed since I was last here. But here I was again walking up my street once more as if I were going home. But now I was the only member left from my childhood family of four who could make that nostalgic journey: my parents were both dead, and so was my only sister, four years younger than me, who had succumbed to cancer six years previously.

In a semi-daze of familiarity and alienation, I approached our former home. But first to hit me was our neighbour's house, once occupied by a childless couple who had been close family friends since 1964. They mainly lived in London and visited Haslemere only during some weekends and at holiday times, yet we had been close. We knew them as “uncle” and “aunt.” No Christmas passed without our visiting each other’s houses. In our childhood they took my sister and me on excursions to summer fetes and to the coast. Summer evenings were often spent on their terrace. At the sale of our own family home in 2006, though elderly, they had still partly been living in the Longdene Road house. Yet on that day it only took a glance through the front window, and a glimpse of the new curtains and modern settee, to know that they lived there no more, even if the rest of the property remained tatty and largely unchanged from its 1960s and 1970s renovations. And a little online research later informed me that the wife had died in 2012 and the house had changed hands for the first time in thirty years in 2014.

A couple of steps further and I was standing outside our former family home. I must confess that I had already seen it on Google Street View so there were no big surprises. Still no garage, but a new drive ran onto the old plinth, where a large rickety wooden shed had once stood. Thomas the Tank Engine branded toys were arranged on the window-ledge of the front room. The back garden retained its three levels with a fierce bank running to the lowest level, but now a wooden fence ran along the length of the lawn. A child's toys lay scattered in the garden. My mother would have been pleased that our old home continued to be a family house, rather than become a conversion into flats as had happened to the other part of our semi in the 1970s. This, here before me, was so clearly the same house which I had grown up in. And though in a deeply emotional sense I had come home, nobody living there today - if indeed there was anyone in at that time - would know me. Why should they? I had no rights there, of course. Though part of me wanted to stand, stare and reflect, practical common sense told me not to, and I trundled on up Longdene Road.

As I made my way onto Courts Hill Road, higher up the side of the valley, the houses became detached and richer. And again little had changed. Drives and the narrow road were crammed with large expensive cars, and a few extensions had been built, but otherwise all was how I remembered it. The changes were cosmetic, and, despite the obvious affluence, there was a tattiness–the dirty windows and unkempt gardens and front paths. Just before the junction with Courts Mount Road stood Haughton House with its two 1960s extensions, elongating the building in both directions along the road. Here had been my grandmother's sheltered accommodation from sometime after the sale of her London home in 1969 till her late re-marriage in 1977, five years before her death. Grandmother’s former ground-floor flat, consisting of a bed-sitting room and kitchenette, had new windows, but was now unoccupied.

Turning left, I made my way down Courts Mount Road, unchanged like everywhere else except for the extensions, big cars, and cut-down hedges. Then something hit me, utterly unexpectedly. I crossed the steep street Sandrock and took the path across the common land on the other side of the road. Immediately to the right of me was a steep bank, now heavily overgrown. In the early 1970s, in my childhood, the sandy soil had been been exposed. Kids could then slide or roll from top to bottom, and the roots of several trees had created small caves and steps to help us climb. It had been a fun destination, where kids could mess around on the high sandy bank. And there, suddenly, tears came to my eyes as I recalled my mother forty-five years or so earlier waiting for me at the bottom of the bank, telling me to be careful and, if possible, not to dirty my clothes too much–yet vicariously enjoying my excitement. It seemed now as if children no longer played on the bank.

Drying my eyes, I carried on till I reached the High Pavement, which ran two or three metres above and next to Lower Street, but with shops and houses on one side. Until the late 1970s the Raggett family had run a small newsagents half way along the High Pavement. They had lived on the premises, but had a separate front door behind a small porch set back on the right of the shop. I stood looking at the building which, despite having been turned into a domestic house years earlier, still looked exactly like a converted shop. What struck me was the grubby dust-covered building. Much of Haslemere, a rich town in one the richest commuter counties around London, just looked grimey in places. The wealth of the area was clearly private and concentrated; affluence was far from universal, even in Haslemere.

Within a couple of minutes I had reached the centre of the town and stood at the top of the High Street. Woolworths, in which I had spent so much of my pocket money in my childhood, had gone some years earlier, and, since my childhood, smaller shops had changed hands and functions, But try as I might I could find no major change in the town. Protected architecture has an enduring quality.

I made my way down the High Street to Darnley’s, the cafe at the Grayswood end of the town, situated in a row of shops set back from the road, just before the Georgian Hotel. Forty-five years ago a cafe occupied the same premises, but then it was called The Forge. And it was here that my grandmother had taken her morning or afternoon coffee. The waitress would put down the cup and then two large glass jugs appeared, one with coffee, the other with hot milk. Granny always requested ‘half and half,’ before opening her handbag and taking out a tiny mock gold-plated container with a shiny emerald green lid. Two saccharine tablets – Granny, not a diabetic, always claimed they tasted better than sugar – were dropped into her coffee. Maybe I don’t frequent enough cafes, but having one’s coffee cup filled in this way struck me as rare. And when, in 2015, I was offered my coffee in Darnley’s just like this, I thought I had entered a time warp.

Time was getting on. Not wanting to return to Haslemere Railway Station the way I had come, I set off along West Street, stopping to buy some take-away food at the supermarket that had once been Somerfields. I still took a delight eating in the street, something my mother had disapproved of. Munching a steak pie, I headed up Chestnut Avenue to the site of the Junior School I had attended 1969-73. In 2015 one part of the building was a nursery, and everything else of the former school looked so much smaller than how I remembered at the age of seven, when my mother had taken me there for the first time. The boys’ playground in front of the school had become a car park. I crossed the tarmac and headed into what had once been the girls playground. A fenced-off area ran along the side of the school building, behind which heavily supervised kindergarten kids were now playing. From there I saw the windows of my third-year classroom, once presided over by the eccentric and sadistic Mr Clark, whose bizarre antics are engraved on my mind–even though I personally suffered little at his hands. I did not know then, but seven months later, my former teacher John Clark, aged eighty, would be sentenced to two decades in prison for sexual offences committed against young boys. Justice took a long time in coming.

So there were bad memories from the past, too. And I could spend for ever, meandering around the town, reflecting on the past, but I had to limit my time in Haslemere. I could not wander everywhere rekindling memories and raking up past experiences. On that day I was like a ghost walking among those who were moving with some practical purpose. Yes, I would have liked to visit the Recreation Ground, the family destination on many a summer’s day - or Wey Hill, the other centre of the town where we usually shopped. And, of course, I was drawn to Woolmer Hill, the part of the town where I had spent my early teenage years at school. But it would have been too much walking, too tiring and an excess of nostalgia. I belonged in Haslemere no longer and I needed to leave to live my life in the present, not the past.

My stroll back to the railway station retraced my daily way home from primary school. From the town fire station, I used the footpath to Town Meadow, the path running beside the small stream which my schoolmate Gavin and I had found so alluring for play. The main changes to the stream and path, such as the canalisation of the stream behind two parallel breeze block walls, or the tarmacing of the path, had all happened in my own childhood. Everything there just looked shabbier and was covered in more moss. The old telephone exchange, rendered obsolete by technical development, still stood, apparently abandoned. How could it be that in the centre of Haslemere, with house prices that reached the sky, brownfield land was left unused?

My last surprise was on Lower Street, just before Haslemere Station. A long lay-by, which earlier had provided the stop for the 268 Guildford bus, no longer displayed a ‘bus stop’ sign, probably because the smaller and less frequent busses could be accommodated in the station yard. Yet, parked in the lay-by, seemingly broken down, was an elderly double-decker bus. Was that the vehicle used in 2015 to transport some of those not fortunate enough to own their own cars? My visit had taught me that inequality in Haslemere was rampant, almost certainly diminishing the town’s unity as a community. And here was further evidence. Of course, inequality had also disfigured the town in the 1970s, the pompous London commuters and the the dwellers on High Lane Estate, yet a larger civic-minded middle had held the town together through a multitude of of societies and clubs. So in the 1970s the extremes seemed not so extreme. But how deep was the change? In 2015 one only had to strip away the house extensions, four-wheel drives and electronic gadgets to see that so little had changed, socially it no doubt had, but in appearance hardly at all. Haslemere was essentially the same in 2015, as it had been in, say, the boiling summer of 1976 four decades earlier. And that led to a sense of betrayal: how could Haslemere remain unaltered when my family had either died, or, in my case, when I had left the town?

Once again the control gates at Haslemere Station were open. This time I used the new footbridge, instead of the old. I was just in time for a fast train to take me back to Guildford. Gazing out of the train window, as Haslemere was left behind, I thought I might have regretted my three-hour visit, but I didn’t. The nostalgia sufferer wants to return to a place and I had done that, but it is really an earlier time he seeks–and, of course, outside the realms of memory, that is impossible. I understood that.

Woolmer Hill School, Haslemere 1973-78

Memories of Woolmer Hill Secondary School Haslemere, Surrey 1973-78

In 1973, Woolmer Hill County Secondary School, as it was then called, catered for the majority of those children, aged eleven to sixteen, who had failed their eleven plus examination and would not be attending Godalming or Farnham Grammar Schools. Haslemere, then as now, was a rich town in the outer reaches of London’s commuter belt, so its ‘secondary modern’ school, Woolmer Hill, took in a large middle-class contingent in addition to pupils from the council estates. The school was streamed into A, B and remedial classes.

I was born in 1962 and from the age of one lived in Haslemere. I followed a set course with my cohort of classmates. I was at Derby Road Infant School (1967-69), Chestnut Avenue Junior School (1969-73) and, after failing the eleven plus, attended Woolmer Hill County Secondary School from the age of eleven to sixteen (1973-78).

There are several pieces of writing here. You may wish to scroll down to the section that interests you.
  • Nostalgia: why these memory sketches were written
  • First lessons: September 1973
  • The rituals of school meals
  • The horrors of the playground
  • The dark cloud of discipline
  • Sports’ Day: an annual farce
  • School trips
  • School Reports
  • Rules and Rebellion
  • No Tuck Shop
  • Vista of a classroom
  • The Last Day: the end of an era
  • Mr Anning goes swimming
  • Going home and the Little Chef Cafe

Friends Reunited and the nostalgia industry

In the spring of 2003 a friend told me about the website Friends Reunited, and like thousands of other people entering middle age I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened to my classmates from school. In those days, before internet social networks, the lives of schoolmates with whom you had lost contact, were unknown, particularly if you had moved away from the area. So the opportunities provided by Friends Reunited were new and exciting.

The site offered a choice of institutions (schools, colleges, universities) to which people could add their name and details. Yet, there no doubt that the main institution of nostalgic curiosity for the majority was secondary school, with a special attachment to the leaving year. And that applied to me too. I left Woolmer Hill School aged sixteen in 1978, and it was my fellow pupils, who had accompanied me in my journey from child to adolescent, that I felt the greatest need to contact and catch-up with. I had lost contact with them all without ever intending to, but now a new window was opening in cyberspace, which would satisfy my voyeuristic curiosity and would allow me a limited means of self expression on a formative period of my life.

Of course I knew that Friends Reunited was not there primarily to reunite friends, but to make money. I, therefore, had to negotiate your way through the flashing banners for dating agencies and get blocked whenever I wanted to say something that fell outside their template for marketable nostalgia. In the spring of 2003 there were themed notice boards on which users were invited to post their memories. On each one I decided to take up the theme and compose a written memory sketch, so the topics of the comments below was decided by Friends Reunited, not by me. No sooner had I finished than the notice boards were reserved for subscribing members (£5 and later £7.50 p.a). I never paid Friends Reunited anything, and nor would it seem did many other ex-students, so my posts for a long time retained their first place position on most of the boards.

At the end of decade the experiment which was Friends Reunited had been overtaken by other social networking sites such as Facebook. Friends Reunited abandoned its attempt to charge fees for ordinary members, made its service free and attempted to expand its social networking functions. By this time, however, most people, particularly the young, had lost interest in the site and new postings became fewer. And in January 2016 the site closed down for good.

I abandoned Friends Reunited in the mid 2000s, but occasionally used it thereafter as a source of reference. I did not stop writing, however. In 2006 I composited my existing material and placed the content on what was then a newly created blog, adding a few words of explanation to the texts. Then, as my own memories flowed, and as memories from fellow pupils were communicated to me, I penned some other pieces, Woolmer Hill teachers 1973-77, Corporal Punishment at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s, Uniform at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s, and A 1970s Woolmer Hill School Romance.

While all of the later written articles have a clear theme, this collection of memories retains its original character and darts from topic to topic.

First lessons: September 1973

On the first morning at Woolmer Hill the father of a friend, who was being driven to school, picked me up. This is what I wrote about the first day.

Yes, I was frightened on that September morning in 1973. After all, what was there about Woolmer Hill to reassure me? Mr Anning, the school’s headmaster, otherwise known as the ‘the old man,’ ‘pop’ or ‘the cunt,’ designed every part of himself to instil fear: dark suit, the sun glasses, and the pat on the shoulder that could signal mocking sarcasm or a prelude to worse. We had to digest a myriad of rules: which grass you could walk on, which doors you could go through and at what time you could join the lunch queue. We scared ourselves with stories of punishments and found fault with each other’s uniforms. Then in military formation in the hall we were separated from our friends and shunted off with our form teacher. For me it was Miss Savage. We sat there as more rules were rattled out while she constantly blinked her eyes. Things could only get better, and fortunately they did.

The rituals of school meals

The lunch hour was an attempt to drill the satiating of children’s hunger into a choreographed eating routine. A long disorderly queue meandered back from the door of the school hall with a bell periodically permitting yet another year to join the throng.

I never tasted the fodder of boiled-to-death vegetables and meat that was handed out at the end of the line because as a conscientious objector I managed on sandwiches. My alienation from school dinners means that I have no idea of whether the school’s culinary delights were created in the school kitchen behind the stage or imported from elsewhere, nor whether the taste matched the foul odour.

The long lines of tables where the pupils sat gave way two thirds of the way up the room to three blocks of tables where the staff sat. Between them and us (in the first couple of years I ate my sandwiches in the hall too) was the teachers’ serving table. Had they spooned out the food to themselves, the image of this collective eating ritual might not have retained its place in my memory. But as if to reinforce a sense of hierarchy, the girls on a rota system were allocated the dubious privilege of acting as waitresses and maids to their teachers.

The boys had their turn too: the dragging, dissembling and piling of tables after the event. Strangely one figure, Headmaster Anning, was absent throughout. Did he unwrap his sorry bag of sandwiches alone in his office, or was he provided with room service at lunch?

At the entrance to the main hall at lunchtime there were two queues. The longer one on the left was for school dinners. The shorter line on the other side of the door was for the conscientious objectors who elected sandwiches over for the fodder of boiled food. We were waiting for a space at the one table allocated to us.

Making my sandwiches was a chore. I had be up in time, cut the bread straight, hope the butter was not too hard and divide the pot of paste equally between the sandwiches. In the early years I staved off hunger and didn't break the rules by eating before lunchtime. Once, somewhere near the back of the queue, I was overcome by pangs of hunger so I slyly opened my lunch box and nibbled away. My jaw motion caught the eye of a passing Mr Anning who despite my fears laughed off my misdemeanour.

By 1978, and in my final year, I had long left the sandwich queue behind. My current penchant for eating mid-morning was firmly in place. I was ensconced in the Upper School building, which accommodated the final year pupils, and was munching away and chatting.

The Playground

Arriving at Woolmer Hill in 1973, I found the playground far more dangerous and threatening than the lessons. Sex apartheid was the order of the day: the girls occupied the tennis court next to the main drive into the school; the boy’s tennis court was beside the gym. The fear was pain and bullying. As you entered the playground from the school next to the tall gym wall, there was a row of boys methodically throwing tennis balls at the new arrivals. If you could make your way onto the few pieces of grass permitted to you, the situation was slightly better.

Staying inside was strictly regulated. A board hung near the back exit of the school saying “in,” “out” or “optional” depending on the weather and Mr Anning’s whims. I even swallowed my life-long atheistic beliefs to attend lunchtime Christian Union meetings to keep out of the cold. By the fourth year a gentle liberalisation (even before Mr Anning’s departure) had set in, and we stayed in more.

The dark cloud of discipline

At about the time I was writing on Friends Reunited there was a group of people whose main interest was discussing and relishing in accounts of corporal punishment (real or imaginary) in various schools. Presumably for commercial reasons, or possibly to prevent libel claims against the site, writing about punishment seemed to become restricted to reminiscing about detention. When I tried to add the entry below it was zapped; and this is the only entry not to appear on the site.

In the mid-seventies at Woolmer Hill detention was not a usual instrument of pupil control because, I very much suspect, monitoring students out of hours was felt by the staff to be unduly burdensome. The repertoire of sanctions included a ragbag of measures most of which involved standing somewhere for a specified time.

Corporal punishment (caning, slippering and slapping) had not yet died, but cast their grim and humiliating shadow over the school. Apart from a cohort of working class boys, who may have danced that duet with the handful of abusers who administered it, such choreographed institutional violence was a background menace rather than daily ordeal. On entering the school at eleven the idea of it conjured up a nightmare of terror, but as a youth of sixteen the notion that one could be assaulted was merely an affront.

The high priest of darkness was Mr Anning. He self-designed every part of himself to instil terror believing that only the meek and terrorised child could become an underling and cog in his England. His black suit and penchant for sunglasses combined with his chilling artificial laugh and pat on the shoulders all cultivated the threat of imminent violence. A group of teachers liked to engage with the pupils in that halo of fear, but to be fair the vast majority did not.

Sports’ Day: An annual farce

Sports’ day meant a silly circus. In my second year the school was divided into six houses named after the wives of Henry VIII. Sports day was about the only occasion when these meaningless entities crawled out of the woodwork. Mr Jimpson and his co-believer in his brand pedagogic machismo, Miss Davis (or was she Mrs Morgan by then?), attempted to inject some enthusiasm into the proceedings by an exaggerated cheering of their Aragon House team. School and staff were unimpressed. While Mrs Blewett practised her elocution over the PA system, the strange couple of Mr Anning and his wife sat watching the proceeding bolt upright side by side both wearing dark glasses. Off the field there was another activity going on: the attempt to escape school, which had Mr MacShane driving the roads near the school to spot possible escapees.

Mr Jimpson was a ‘jack of all subjects’ teacher who specialised in rules and discipline. He normally taught the low level classes and, it seemed to me, if his pupils granted him ‘respect’ he handed out slaps on the back. I had little to do with him.
Miss Davis was a young starter whose lessons were extremely boring for those not in her little favoured group. she was often at Jimpson’s side, but I really think their relationship was platonic.
Mrs Blewett was a heavily opinionated English teacher who was head of the fifth form. She prided herself on having the best English language elocution in the school.
Mr MacShane was the ‘third-in-charge’ in the school. He was also a self-styled disciplinarian, but who, unlike Jimpson, was not on an ego trip. In the 1980s he involved himself in an unsuccessful campaign in the town to prevent the showing of the film The Silence of the Lambs.

School trips: a valued experience (1976)

We went on few – maybe once a year. Of course, there was the excitement of the deadening routine of school life being temporarily suspended, a pleasure somewhat diminished by the teacher’s control of you outside the borders of Woolmer Hill School. Most of these excursions were so unremarkable that memories of them have dissipated like dust in the wind.

I do recall, however, a trip in my third year in 1976, organised by Mrs Christopher, our geography teacher who kept two Alsatian dogs in the back of her van. Nominally for the purpose of teaching geography, it involved a walk along a disused railway line where we were supposed to look at the flowers and stones.

As it was an outdoor venture, we received a dispensation in the requirement to wear school uniform. The ability to decide one’s attire was a right rarely granted to us, so we exploited it to the full. I arrived in my 1970s flared jeans and brightly coloured shirt. Just before the coach departed we had the inevitable inspection from Mr Anning who made his wrath known and then stormed off powerless as he could hardly cancel the whole outing. Yet more than that, it was Jacqui B – very much a girl’s girl – who remains at the centre of my memory. In response to one silly boy’s attack on my clothing, she uncharacteristically jumped in to rescue me, “Well, it looks better than yours, you idiot."

How crazy it seems now, but I really valued Jacqui’s intervention. I cared about my appearance for perhaps the first time in my life, and had I received recognition from the usually razor-tongued Jacqui B.

School reports (1977)

School reports, along with parent-teacher evenings, stand apart as being one of the few connectors linking home and school. I never feared reports much; they seemed to say more about the teachers than they did about you. At the bottom Mr Anning scrawled some inane remark, or ‘meaningfully’ underlined something that a teacher had written. You took it home and brought it back – and that was it.

In 1977 I was in Commander Campbell’s registration group. He was a harmless retired naval officer who habitually picked his nose. The blackboards doubled up as cupboards and in Campbell’s maths classroom the right hand part of the board was secured with a combination padlock. For several days after school we had attempted to crack the combination until someone suggested pi = 3.142. It worked. We were able to go through the whole class’s reports, and thought up a plan – never executed – to take bets on people’s grades. I went out of the room leaving the task of replacing the reports and re-locking the cupboard door to others. Half way down the corridor and coming towards me was the black-suited dwarf, Mr McNally, a strict but effective maths teacher. Ignoring his injunction to stop, I tore back to the classroom and urged haste on my co-conspirators. By the time he arrived, McNally found nothing amiss in the room and despite a full repertoire of threats, nobody would reveal our misdemeanour. We knew that even at Woolmer Hill we could not be punished for an unknown crime which might not even have taken place.

Rules and Rebellion

The years 1977-78 were turning point years. For me my intellectual and emotional drives matured rapidly. In the school Mr Anning was replaced with Mrs Hollingdale who hitherto had been the deputy. The administratively able Mrs Hollingdale was no liberal alternative teacher, but she did achieve two things. First she ended the bleak militaristic cult which lay behind the Anning regime, and second, she re-established the relationship between the staff and headteacher.

The regime put in place by Mr Anning, and still holding on in the mid-seventies, was a myriad of mind-numbing rules. Nothing escaped their grip: the doors you could go through, the type of shoes you could wear and the pieces of grass you could sit on all fell within their grip. Most of these rules were easy to assimilate having become ingrained through several decades of enforcement. Some were undoubtedly functional like the walking on the right in the corridors and stairways, but others served mainly to reflect hierarchy, to humble and to humiliate. What sense lay behind little boys in their sweat saturated shirts being told to put their ties straight, or little girls freezing in winter but denied the right to wear trousers?

Anning’s rule-ridden world invited rebellion. The eternal protest of youth met up in the seventies with the disintegration of the certainties of post-war Britain. A tide was turning that not even Anning’s morning assembly rant against the Grunwick picket line could reverse. The post-war generation of ex-servicemen teachers was being replaced by a more liberal breed. His authority was eroding. In the three-day week and amid power cuts, pupils marched into town to demand the right of the girls to wear trousers. A barrage of graffiti, stink bombs, parent protests and Anning’s overreaction to everything all took their toll. Rules were to remain, but they had to be shifted down a gear and Anning was not the man for the job. In 1977 he said good-bye, characteristically with his black three-piece suit, dark glasses and shaking hands wearing a glove.

No Tuck Shop

During my years of incarceration, 1973-78, there was no tuck shop at Woolmer Hill School. If you forgot your packed lunch, or ate it too early, you went hungry. Water from the drinking fountain was the only refreshment.

The only exception was the small bar open at lunch times in the Upper School Building. It was staffed by fifth formers exclusively for the benefit of fifth formers; it constituted one of the few privileges that were deemed suitable for senior pupils. Its fare was meagre: instant coffee, tea and oxo and several types of chocolate bar. I am not sure whether this refreshment facility was an established institution or whether it was one of the concessions that coincided with Mr Anning’s retirement in 1977. (The other was the relaxation in uniform: the monotone black and grey clothing requirement expanded to encompass dark blue – except for jeans).

The main effect of this bar was positive; it created a temporary zone of comfort in an otherwise uncomfortable institution. My main memory, apart from drinking my five pence cup of oxo, was the opportunity it gave Jill and me to become acquainted just that little bit better.

Vista of a classroom (1978)

Thinking back twenty-five years to 1978 and to my final year lessons at Woolmer Hill, it is not so much reminiscences akin to moving film that retain a place in my memory, but voluble photo stills. The most clearly focused is one of sitting in Mrs Blewett’s English lesson in the Upper School Building. Mrs Blewett distinguished herself in her profession not simply by engaging you in her subject, but by taking on the role of someone who wanted to chisel into your teenage lack of confidence and uncertainties. She claimed for herself the role of gatekeeper who told the secrets of, and set the rules for, entering the adult world.

The architecture of her room with a central block of seats surrounded by a horseshoe has allowed me to retain a vista of the class. In the central block sat Darryl B, Tracey C, Jacqui B, Susan B, Christopher E and Jonathan B. The horseshoe contained Judith M, Diana B, Rosemary W, Frances O, David R, Martin S, John C, Brian B, Me, Una S, Sue T. I know I have forgotten people, so the picture is not complete.

Despite or because of Mrs Blewett, it is that configuration of people and the relations I had with them - sometimes through personal friendship or with others through mere observation – that form an enduring memory in my mind.

The End of an Era: the last day

If the events of the last day at Woolmer Hill were meant to add up to a rite de passage, then they failed miserably. Mrs Hollingdale and Mr Jimpson had made much of the need to turn up for that last rainy day in July 1978, but after the routine-breaking comings and goings caused by the O–level exams in June, the last day was little more than an over-delayed good-bye.

In one sense we were bidding farewell to an era. I’d joined the school as a prepubescent boy of eleven nervously jumping around to the rhythms of school rules. Now as a youth of sixteen, the magic of school authority had vanished. The teachers had already distanced themselves from us, as we had now slipped through their hands. Those, such as Jimpson, who had based their authority on the height of the horse they sat on, fared worst. With their authority now expired, they withered in front of us to become indistinguishable from other late middle-aged people in the supermarket checkout queue.

Yet on that day I remember not looking back, but forward. Much of my Woolmer Hill life would continue into the future. Most of my cohort of friends were transferring to Godalming College. In this new establishment we would leave behind the monotone drabness of school uniform and the daily humiliation of arbitrary rules. But what we were leaving behind was memories, the full meaning of which were not apparent until several years later. My only fear at the time was my daily loss of contact with Jill who had been by my side in my final year and would be no longer.

Mr Anning goes swimming

Whenever former pupils share memories of Woolmer Hill School in the 1970s, either in person or online, one topic more than any other is soon thrown into the conversation: the summer day in 1975 when Headmaster Leslie Anning was pushed into the swimming pool. Let us start by establishing the context of this incident.

The open-air school swimming pool consisted of a raised tank with corrugated metal sides, perhaps some fifteen metres long and three wide. A few metres away, and running parallel along the pool’s length, was the then modern Upper School Building. On the opposite long side was a small grass lawn, normally out-of-bonds, and beyond that a fenced off tennis court used as the boys’ playground. The shallow end of the pool was a few metres from the tall windowless brick wall of the school gym and the entrance to the changing rooms. The deep end faced a sloping field used as a play area for boys on dry summer days.

Most of the year, the swimming pool stood unused with green algae discolouring the water. The pool entered our lives only negatively, as a place that was out-of-bounds and forbidden, one of the several locations in the school grounds that could only be approached tentatively when daring to retrieve a stray ball. Only on rare occasions during the summer term were we able to go swimming, and once a year there was an annual swimming gala.

The swimming gala was an absurd event. Between the long edge of the swimming pool and the concrete path alongside the Upper School Building was a gentle grassy slope of no more than a couple of metres. Perched on this slope were two or three rows of chairs for the school staff to feign interest in their pupils, as they clumsily propelled themselves through the water. In the middle of the front row of teachers sat a suited portly Headmaster Anning and next to him his shrivelled wife, both wearing dark sunglasses and sombre expressions. Their fixed forward gaze was disrupted only by their occasional restrained applause in response to some swimming feat. Around them, the PE staff were busy lining up pupils to get into the water, while other kids, shivering with cold, made their way back to changing rooms.

At the other side of the swimming tank, directly opposite the rows of sitting teachers, was the lawn, normally out-of-bounds, but which, during the swimming gala, served as an enclosure for the non-swimming pupils. It was from here that I, then aged thirteen, had my vantage point on the events of the day. My memories of thirty-seven years ago are disconnected images which, coupled with information acquired afterwards, make up a reasonably coherent narrative of the incident.

At the deep end of the swimming pool, there was a raised concrete platform at the same height as the tank. I think under it were the pumps and heaters for the pool. The gala was over. Anning had come onto the platform to give a formal congratulatory speech to the swimmers. I was bored and conscious of having to stop a conversation with Peter M. who was standing next to me. I did not witness the push itself, but I do recall Anning moving forward with small dance-like steps and then going over the edge, feet first, into the water. At that moment, not knowing the cause, my initial thought was that he had gone mad. It was only a few seconds later that I learnt that he had been pushed.

Although I didn’t see it, Anning must have been pushed from behind. The shove was not powerful enough to propel him head first into the water, but sufficient to cause him to lose his balance. To steady himself in a hopeless attempt to bring his legs under his forward moving body, he made those miniature – and humiliatingly ridiculous - steps forward, hoping with each one to regain his balance. But it was not to be. He faced the stark choice of attempting to stand still before the edge and plunging into the water head first, or else walking over the rim into the pool. He chose the latter.

There must have been a split second when Anning was in mid air awaiting his plunge, a moment no longer than when a hanged man feels the trap door opening beneath him but before the rope breaks his neck. What thoughts would have flashed through Anning’s mind: the physical pain of the cold water awaiting him, unpleasant but probably not more so than the average slippering he administered. More likely, he would ponder his complete humiliation: degraded publicly in front of his wife, his staff and the whole assembled pupils of his school. Or, perhaps, thoughts of revenge against the sixteen year old girl who had pushed him in occupied his mind. We will never know.

And then Anning was in the water. Curiously enough, his head appeared to remain above the surface. And though he fell into the deep end, the top of his suit did not seem to be wet; his jacket rode up like a skirt to his shoulders and floated on the water around him. I have no recollection of how he got out of the pool. But by that time we were laughing too much to take in the details: his pain, his humiliation, but our joy.

Around the pool the reaction from staff and pupils became progressively more animated. Headmaster Anning had been ceremonially degraded and incapacitated, and momentarily authority ceased, as if the cage door had been suddenly and unexpectedly left open for a few moments. Laughing and cheering among the pupil intensified. The teachers for the most part looked stunned, though I remember the pupil-friendly former navy commander, Mr Trench, smiling broadly. He might not have been the only one. Only one more memory has stayed with me: a fifth-form girl - who I later learnt was Gayle W., the culprit - was rushing up the bank to the side of the Upper School Building. She was physically stopped by the near retirement age technical drawing teacher, Mr Pavey. He held her and appeared to be appealing to other teachers, for an answer to the question, What shall I do with her? Adding to the tension in the vicinity were a group of older boys, who seemed to be helping her, at least verbally. And at that point my personal memories of the events finish.

After thirty-seven years some of my memories of the incident may be lost, faded or distorted. And, of course, my memories from that 1975 summer’s day are incomplete; others will recall details which I either never knew or else have forgotten. Yet, the veracity of the essential sequence of events is not in doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of others who observed the incident.

So why is the incident so important that, along with recollections of corporal punishment and other humiliations, it retains a privileged place in the memory of so many? And why at the same time is it so unimportant that it changed nothing – either in terms of the structure of the school or for the persons involved?

Quite obviously, the incident is important, if only because it is remembered and talked about by those who witnessed it. Traces of any number of events stay in the conscious mind, such as an embarrassing moment on a bus, but few are articulated and shared with others – and even fewer are retained and talked about three decades later, especially when, as in this case, none of those reminiscing was either materially or personally affected by the incident..

One key aspect of this event, which served to propel it into a topic of reminiscence, is that it was unusual, unique in fact. By contrast, few ex-pupils would single out memories of events for reminiscing, which were repetitive and mundane, such as the paths that pupils were permitted to use or the smells in the toilets, even though these things had a far greater influence on the daily life of pupils than watching Anning tumbling into a swimming pool. It is the abnormal, something picked out of the daily flow of routine events, which is remembered and remarked on, not what is happening all the time. And that is a perversity of the human condition.

Yet, Anning plunging into the swimming pool is remembered not just because it was out of the ordinary in the sense that one might remember an eclipse, but because it was embedded with symbolism. Most obviously, it was represented the humiliation of man whose raison d’etre almost seemed to be the parading of his arrogance and domination over a school of teenagers. His authority was never negotiated; it was imposed and, therefore, to a greater or lesser degree resented. Thus the puncturing of that authority - however momentarily - was a cause for celebration.

The manner of Anning’s humiliation was important for two reasons. First, it was highly symbolic that it was female who pushed him in. Within limits female violence against males, especially more powerful ones, is always given a degree of licence: the slap across the face or the thrown glass of wine down the suit front. One writer on Friends Reunited expressed the idea thus: Remember the Gayle W. the only one with the balls to...” Had Annings attacker been male the whole ambience of the incident would have been different. Second, the way in which Anning was humiliated played a role. Clearly, that Anning was degraded without being injured in any way was vital; had he been pushed down the stairs nobody would be laughing. Water has always been a tool of non-injurious humiliation from the intention behind the ducking stool to the bucket thrown over drunks and young lovers.

All of this then helped propel the incident into topic of collective reminiscence, even decades later, for those who witnessed it. Yet, in so many ways the incident was merely an amusing blip on the daily routines of school life at Woolmer Hill. One is reminded of the aphorism, einmal ist keinmal - that which happens once never happened at all.

Funny perhaps, but pushing Anning into the swimming pool held out no model for the future. Authority could be ridiculed and dented, but then again it was easily restored. In the winter of 1974 a large group of pupils had marched into the centre of Haslemere demanding the right of girls to wear trousers, a demand particularly pressing given the power cuts and minimal heating. They won the right. By contrast, Gayle W.’s push achieved nothing.

Anning recovered quickly: practically, all he needed was a new set of clothes. Perhaps there was some embarrassment in the assembly the following morning, but if there was, I didn’t notice it. But what of Gayle W? As a school leaver, she was pretty much untouchable: expulsion was an irrelevance. I did hear rumour that Anning’s solicitors demanded the cost of a new suit. But in the years to follow, according to information she put onto social network sites, she made a career for herself at British Airways and now resides in a prosperous Sussex village.

And what of the swimming pool? In the Christmas holidays of 2003 - the last Christmas I spent in Haslemere, I wandered up to Woolmer Hill School and looked around the deserted school site. The swimming pool had gone.

Going home and the Little Chef Cafe

School rules were supposed to grip all pupil behaviour between the home and school gates, a point about which Headmaster Anning never tired of reminding us in morning assemblies. The most severe injunction was against cycling down the undeniably steep Woolmer Hill; cyclists were required to detour on the roads though a small housing settlement. Peddling up Woolmer Hill was never discussed, as it was almost impossible. From time to time, issues arose over rowdy behaviour on the 13B bus, which ran the few kilometres from Woolmer Hill through the centre of the town and on to High Lane, the housing estate which provided much of the school intake. Occasionally, issues of smoking and disorder raised their head, but leaving school did, for most practical purposes, signal an end to Mr Anning’s authority; and, of course, the further from the school one went, the weaker that authority became.

Even today it surprises me that no regulations were in place for the Little Chef restaurant. It was never discussed; and until I was fifteen I didn’t even know of its existence. Its obscurity lay in its location. Most of the pupils going home by bus, on foot or by bike made their way eastwards into the town. Leaving the school and travelling west on the small road that gave access to Woolmer Hill School, one came to a junction after a few hundred metres. One arm ran downhill to the small settlement of Hammer, which lay in the adjacent county of West Sussex. Another, taken by a few students with bikes, headed north and met the main road, the A3, running to Hindhead and then on to Guildford and London. The remaining option was to continue straight ahead for a few hundred metres along a little used piece of road with heathland on either side before intersecting with the A3 a little further south. It was at this junction that one found the Little Chef restaurant.

In the 1970s roadside restaurants were dire: tea, biscuits, chocolate, cheap coffee and fried breakfasts served on formica tables. Little would have attracted me to such a place had it not been a warm refuge. It was a solution to a geographical problem.

I lived in the centre of Haslemere. When I first started at the school, I had made use of the crowded 13B bus, then for a short period I had cycled and finally, after I was about fourteen, I saved my bus fare by walking home. In my last year at school - we remained at Woolmer Hill until we were sixteen - Jill, whom I wanted to be with as much as possible, lived in Hindhead and cycled to school. That gave rise to a major difficulty: the further I walked home with her after school - our intimacy always impeded by the need to push a bike - the greater the distance I had to walk home myself. Occasionally, I did walk all the way to Hindhead and then home, which was a journey of some six or seven kilometres. Such is young love.

In the autumn of 1977, Jill and I could wander onto the heathland, but as the nights drew in and the cold encroached, our options decreased. And that was how the Little Chef restaurant became important to us. Earning at that time around around three pounds a week from delivering morning newspapers, I had a hole burnt in my pocket from purchasing even our two cups of low quality coffee, but it was worth it. Nobody could disturb us; we were our own masters; and we could stay as long as we wished. Why no other other couple from school found this peaceful hideaway remains a mystery. And, in so much as it mattered, we were breaking no school rule.

From the spring of 1978 the Little Chef restaurant became less relevant, except perhaps when it rained. In June we left school, so Woolmer Hill, its environs and the Little Chef were forgotten. My affair with Jill, upset by lack of routine daily contact, took me on an emotional helter skelter journey throughout the long summer of 1978 before withering in the autumn. Times moved on.

A quarter of a century later in 2003, I spent my last Christmas in Haslemere. An urge took me to walk to Woolmer Hill School, quiet and abandoned in the winter holiday. I headed onwards to the Little Chef restaurant which was then still in existence. How strange it was to go in alone and order a coffee; I think I had a latte. The girl who served me would not even have been born, when Jill and I had last sat there. Yet, something else impressed itself upon me on this sentimental re-visitation: the sufferer of nostalgia feigns homesickness and desires to return to a place, but it is not a place that he really seeks, it is a time - and that can never be revisited.

At some point towards the end of decade, the Little Chef restaurant was abandoned and then pulled down to make way for the widening of the A3.

Corporal Punishment at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s

Woolmer Hill Secondary School in Haslemere, Surrey did not have a reputation for its widespread use of corporal punishment, but beatings administered there affected pupils for life.

“I went in first and watched as the horrible Anning selected a slipper from the bottom of his cupboard, made me bend over a chair at the front of his desk then whacked me about 5 or 6 times… It hurt like hell, my face went red and tears welled up. As I left the office I looked at Jinxy, knowing what was in store for him.” Maurice P.

"It ended with me in his study, standing opposite him across his desk. On the desk lay his cane. I remember thinking how thick it was. I'd heard so much about it and there it was lying in front of me." Bob

In the autumn of 2009 I published a short essay on the Internet summing up my memories of the headmaster of Woolmer Hill, Leslie Anning, the man who both dominated and symbolised the school from soon after its opening in the early 1950s until his retirement in 1977. I circulated the piece to a few ex-pupils whom I had contacted earlier though the social network sites Friends Reunited and Facebook; and a couple made comments. A few other ex-pupils - people I don’t actually remember - found the essay though Internet searches and made comments. What interested me most - and all those who made comments were male - was that their focus of interest was on one particular paragraph of the essay. Let me quote it in full here:

"In the Friends Reunited thread, some commentators have talked about corporal punishment with the implied suggestion that the school functioned around canes and slippers. This is not true. Corporal punishment undoubtedly played a role in creating the ambiance of fear and humiliation that intruded into every aspect of the school. Yet by the mid 1970s canings and slipperings, if not the threat of them, were rare. Only a minority of teachers ever dangled over pupils the threat of being sent to Anning for the cane. And I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone who was caned in my years at the school."

The replies threw up three issues. The first was the claim that I had seriously underestimated the amount of corporal punishment at the school. The second was confirmation of a simple fact: the existence of school corporal punishment, whether experienced first hand or not, had impacted deeply on the psyches of former pupils - if not, why had they written to me, or commented, on the topic. And finally, it was clear to me that the meaning attributed to memories of corporal punishment varied considerably among pupils.

Corporal Punishment in the 1970s

When we look back at the past - and here we are talking about looking back at the mid 1970s from 2017 - people are apt to make two mistakes. The first error is the most obvious: people interpret the earlier period by means of the social values and perspectives of the present day. Thankfully, corporal punishment no longer exists in English schools today. The ritualised beating of children and young people is perceived as a humiliating cruelty and is usually interpreted in sexual terms; i.e. the administrator gains sexual satisfaction in carrying it out while the victim experiences a rape-like sexual humiliation and/or exhilaration. Perceived in those terms, and if for no other reason, corporal punishment is now regarded in England to be a wholly inappropriate way of dealing with children. But because that is the dominant view in 2017, it does not mean it represented the official or dominant way of thinking in the 1970s. It did not.

The second error is to unconsciously impute to people in a past period knowledge of what came after their time. Today the world necessarily feels modern and we construct our scenarios for the future in our minds out of trends we spot in our existing society, But so did people living in, say, 1977. To them the world seemed modern and they constructed what they thought was the future out of developments they saw taking place then. Nobody imagined that a decade later in 1987 corporal punishment would be outlawed in English state schools, least of all during a Conservative government enjoying a huge parliamentary majority. In the late 1970s, the Tories led in the opinion polls with their agenda of authoritarian populism and of “short sharp shock” and that seemed to ensure a safe future for school corporal punishment.

So to make sense of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill in the mid 1970s we have to rediscover the thinking of the people of the time, which means considering the attitudes of the educational authorities, teachers, parents and pupils. Beliefs and events don’t make sense, if wrenched out of their time and context.

In the mid 1970s the majority of educational officials, parents, teachers and school pupils accepted corporal punishment in schools, though, of course, there was a significant minority who did not. In state secondary schools, the standard view was that it was a quick and efficient way of making a point and that without it the chance of a school - or at least certain pupils within it - running wild would increase. This way of thinking saw corporal punishment as transactional (If X did Y then a beating was in order) and functional (i.e. it worked). This kind of practical approach stood in contrast to the ritualistic attitudes and behaviours then still lingering in some private schools in which a beating was seen as having a salutary effect per se on the victim and acted as some kind of rite de passage. There were no official provisions in state schools for boys having their bare bottoms caned in the library during afternoon tea.

In the 1970 the degree of pain that school corporal punishment could cause was in practice regulated by opinion and consensus rather than by precise legal definition. At its most severe a cane could be applied to the clothed bottom causing considerable pain at the point of administration, subsequent bruising and discomfort for a couple of days. At the other end of the spectrum, the assault might be only a light slap.

Of course there were sadistic teachers in state secondary schools, who did want to sexually stimulate themselves through causing real pain when they could get away with it, but that was not the norm. In most cases, the pain element was intended to be moderate and ephemeral. Pain itself was not intended to bend the will of the child; it was aura of fear and humiliation engendered by a beating which was meant to be effective.

The system of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill

So what was the situation at Woolmer Hill? Corporal punishment in schools was not uniform across the country. Its existence, extent and nature depended on three factors: first, the policy of the local education authority - in the case of Woolmer Hill Secondary School that meant Surrey County Council. Second, the head teacher could ban or regulate its deployment and finally the staff could promote or hinder its use. As Surrey - as far as I know - put no restrictions on school corporal punishment, the extent and quality of its use was determined by the school itself.

Woolmer Hill did not have a reputation of a great caning school: in fact I recall no discussion of the matter at all at primary school. It was just accepted that there would be corporal punishment, but it wouldn’t be a major part of school life. Woolmer Hill was probably representative of the average secondary schools in the south-east of England in the mid 1970s.

In the spring of 1973 there was an induction day at the school for pupils joining in September. Aged eleven, I had agreed with my Haslemere friends in our final year at Chestnut Avenue Primary School to walk up to Woolmer Hill, much to my mother’s annoyance. She was forced to make her own way there. At the main entrance to the school building, a set of doors that pupils were forbidden to use, was Headmaster Anning. Dressed in a dark suit and dark plastic rimmed glasses, he was surprisingly diminutive in stature. At first sight he seemed less terrifying than I had thought, but his artificially smooth demeanour instilled misgivings.

After a talk to pupils and parents, about which I now remember nothing, a handful of fifth year pupils (aged sixteen) guided us around the school. The parents stayed for a further briefing. And it was indirectly from this meeting that I learnt the first details of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill.

A day or so later, a classmate, Michael W., told me about a question in the meeting. A father had asked Anning what punishments his son would receive if he misbehaved. Anning, according to this third-hand report. had replied that he used a slipper, but if the offence were very serious - and that was rare - he then used a cane. My mother must also have heard this explanation, but was too embarrassed to pass it on to me.

It was never stated, but it seemed to be the case, at least in light of my subsequent experience, that all “legitimate” corporal punishment was administered by Anning personally or perhaps by his “third-in-charge” Alex MacShane. I can recall no instance of anyone receiving formal corporal punishment from teachers in the classroom - or outside it for that matter. Informal acts of corporal punishment no doubt occurred, but I never witnessed any of them. The incidents relating to corporal punishment involving class teachers which I saw were theatrical. Let me recount a couple of these.

Mr Williams, nominally a science teacher and a self-styled eccentric, blew hot and cold in the long teacher-pupil conversations that passed for lessons. After a spout of chumminess he would suddenly pull rank, and make threats. One boy, Jonathan L., recalled an incident which I too remember. Mr Williams “... took pride in the fact that he could chalk a cross on the desk, and one on the bottom of a plimsoll and smack the plimsoll on the desk so hard that the crosses would overlap.” During this absurd demonstration the desk was supposed to represent a boy’s trousered bottom.

Steve M. recalls another incident with the same teacher when in the teacher-pupil banter a boy, Mark S.“ said something to Williams and was taken to the backroom for a beating. (Bunsen burner tube).” I don’t actually believe that Mark S. was seriously beaten - if he was beaten at all - but Williams made the point that he could set the rules and reward and humiliate at will. I never spoke to him in the class conversation and sat there with the majority bored stiff.

Steve M. also mentions another teacher who “had a cricket bat wrapped in sand paper, sandy side out. On this he had written 'WHACK!' in mirror writing, in chalk and he would whack you on the back with it. It wasn't a hard whack and was never going to do you any harm, but he was much pleased with the resultant 'WHACK' written on the black blazer.” I do not remember this latter incident myself, but have no doubt as to its veracity.

These are not, of course, instances of corporal punishment, but of teachers relishing in its symbolism. What they wished to do was highlight the topic and bring it to bear in the atmosphere of lessons. But to be fair these kinds of teachers were not in a majority.

Instances of pupils being sent to Anning for corporal punishment either directly or indirectly (e.g. “Take this note to Mr Anning saying you did X”) were also rare. The majority of believed that Anning’s use of corporal punishment would be excessive or inappropriate. I can only recall two exceptions in which teachers dangled this threat over pupils.

The first incident concerned a pupil Ian B. and a music teacher. I can’t remember what Ian B. had done, but it was some minor misdemeanour, and Mrs Grice asked him whether she should send him to Mr Anning with a request for him to be caned. Interestingly, she referred to the cane, though I have to admit in the years 1973-78 I don’t know of any incident of it being used; though, of course, it may have been, but certainly not in a case like this. Grice’s threat was almost certainly an empty one, but it was clear that she enjoyed toying with the idea. It was not surprising, therefore, that she made other gratuitous references to corporal punishment. Robert Harding was a calm taciturn boy whom one was apt to ignore, but when his name came to Mrs Grice’s attention it sparked a memory. Apparently, in her previous school there was a boy called Robert Harding who had received the cane almost every day.

The second incident involved me. One of the most uninteresting lessons of the week was the afternoon spent doing technical drawing. Ideas and concepts interested me; pointless precision did not. Mr Pavey, a retired naval officer, had two topics of conversation that I remember. One was his crumbling neck bones, hence the need to remove any obstacle from his path that he might trip over; the other was corporal punishment. He took delight in mentioning that “when Mr Anning administers it, he takes the skin off.” which was coupled with a story of a caning that Pavey had apparently witnessed in which after the first stroke the boy “was grovelling on the deck even though he had another five to go.” All that left me wondering: was the caning on the bare bottom or on the hand? Bleeding bottoms or broken hand bones at Woolmer Hill I did not believe. Pavey was bullshitting.

Then one afternoon a couple of classmates and I passed the time writing inane notes to one another. Pavey noticed it and demanded the scrap of paper be brought to him. I didn’t particularly worry because the note contained nothing defamatory or obscene. I was thus surprised when I was told to take it down to Mr Anning. Two other boys were told to join me, Michael H. and Anthony H. Pavey said he would be down shortly. Anning received us in his office although he was in the middle of a meeting with the deputy head, Mrs Hollingdale, who turned to face the window during the whole proceedings. Pavey came in and mumbled a few words about how the whole matter needed to be referred to the Headmaster. He clearly wanted to see some corporal punishment.

Anning asked the three of us whether we wanted the note to be shown to our fathers. We all gave the required negative answer, though given the innocuous nature of the note I didn’t see why not. Anning then took out a gym slipper and a cane. The slipper, he said was for minor offences, and the cane for more serious ones. Yet when I saw the cane, over a metre long and a centimetre thick - something akin to the instruments used in Singapore’s judicial canings - it seemed clear that we were only being intimidated. It was a physical impossibility to be caned in that office with that instrument - and if we had been the injuries would have been terrible. We were sent away untouched, leaving Pavey disappointed.

On another occasion, it was rainy lunchtime in my second year. We were confined to the classrooms and silliness and horseplay were in full swing. Suddenly Anning appeared in the doorway with a slipper in hand and grabbed Brian B. who was running around a desk and administered one or two whacks. I don’t think Brian B was hurt very much; but Anning’s act certainly had a dampening effect on the room, as he no doubt intended. I never saw corporal punishment used in public in that way again.

It would also be wrong to suggest that Anning responded to every disciplinary matter with corporal punishment. I committed two minor misdemeanours leading to his involvement. On one occasion, I was reported to him for a traffic violation committed the previous evening on my way home by bike; and on another for hiding my own valuables in my clothes in the changing rooms during games. In neither case did the penalties involve corporal punishment. Most breaks and lunchtimes also saw boys standing in corridors as punishment. Apart from perhaps rudeness, smoking and “going out of bounds” corporal punishment was administered for “mucking about offences” and then not always.

Corporal punishment certainly existed at Woolmer Hill. For me and for most of my cohort it was something of a background menace rather than a daily fear. It was part of the mental architecture of the school rather than a regular experience. Weeks and months could go by without my being aware of anyone receiving it, let alone with me being threatened by it. Announcements of its infliction were never made; and it was very rare for it to happen in public. Certainly there may have been groups of boys whose defiant and boisterous misbehaviour led to their receiving it more often, but generally you had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to get the slipper.

Before the mid 1970s corporal punishment was more prevalent

Reading through the accounts on the former Friends Reunited pages, and reviewing responses to earlier versions of this article, there is overwhelming evidence that in the decade before the mid 1970s corporal punishment was harsher and more frequent at Woolmer Hill School. As Bob says:

“The fear of corporal punishment was much more prevalent during my time at the school [1966-71] and teachers were frequently threatening us with Anning and the cane.”

Roger Tanner writes:

“I’m sure all the boys who were sent to stand outside his (i.e. Anning’s) study remember those mortal words (as he's about to administer the cane): "This is going to hurt me boy more than it's going to hurt you" - Yea RIGHT!!”

Alan Perry, speaking for the Haslemere Educational Museum’s oral history project, referred to Headmaster Anning apprehending him on his way home from school for having cycled down the steep Woolmer Hill in contravention of school rules:

“I’d have been about eleven by that time, cycling and I got caned by Mr. Anning, the headmaster. For we were not allowed to cycle down the very steep road, I did one day and he was standing at the end. “Boy, my study, morning.” [...] And so I was taken in, put my hand out, had a lash across my hand and that was it, didn’t do me any harm.”

From this we have evidence that before the mid-1970s the cane-on-the-hand was used as a regular punishment, even on the youngest of boys for relatively minor offences. That seemed no longer the case by the time of my arrival at the school in September 1973.

Corporal punishment was also more prevalent in classrooms formerly, as Bob writes:

"Amongst many teachers there was a culture of thuggery. …[Mr A]... for example. I remember more than once seeing boys standing outside his science lab with bloody noses, inflicted by the heel of …[his]...hand. …[Mr B]... was another sicko who delighted in inflicting corporal punishment on pupils at the time.”

Andy Pollard, writing on Friends Reunited recalls a teacher who “kept a "weapon desk," which contained the following, a ruler, a plimsoll (showing my age now) a strap and a small cane, and if you were "in trouble", you picked your chosen "weapon." But this seems to me largely symbolic and theatrical.

In the earlier period Headmaster Anning seems to have exercised more violent abuse against pupils. Bob provides the following account:

“As I walked past him he slapped me across the back of the head. With this the red mist descended. I pushed him back and raised my fist saying words to the effect of 'If you want some, you can have it? I then walked down the stairs to the medical room with Anning shouting about what he was going to do to me.”

Here we see Anning hitting a pupil on the back of the head, but with the unusual consequence of the pupil not meekly accepting the assault but preparing to fight back. Indeed, Headmaster Anning’s penchant for hitting the backs of boys’ heads is revealed in A Chidd Boy’s Memories (2014) by John Bellchamber who attended the school in the early 1960s.

“On my last day at Woolmer Hill School, Hans Weiss and I thought it would be fun to carve our names on a brand new bench that had been put outside of the gym. This was in the morning, silly us; you guessed it; when lunchtime came, the headmaster Mr Anning came roaring into the dining room, and called out our names to stand up; he then hit us both around the back of our heads; we got a right old bollocking.” (Some spelling, grammar and punctuation corrected)

It is impossible to say that these back-of-the-head hittings no longer occurred by the mid 1970s, but I do not recall them - or it might be that public ad hoc beatings diminished and the same thing carried on in private. But the most horrifying account of Headmaster Anning’s violence was the following information which I received anonymously in January 2017. Of course, it may exaggerated or misremembered:

“I remember seeing the headmaster beating a boy with a long widow pole because the boy had opened a window without permission. He chased the boy into the corridor and beat him about the head and shoulders as he cowered against the wall.“

Indeed, if that is true, and the ‘beating’ was more than symbolic, I am surprised. Anning used calibrated corporal punishment to terrorise and humiliate; he never struck me as a violent psychopath who lost self-control. But by the mid 1970s, such violence would be unlikely. The decline in corporal punishment could be put down to two factors. First, in the 1960s criticism from some teachers and parents of corporal punishment was growing, so generally across England it was applied less often and less severely. Woolmer Hill would not be an exception to that trend. Evidence of parental opposition to corporal punishment, at least on their own children, is forthcoming. Jon B. states after his slippering:

“I went home and told my parents and showed them what he had done. Well my mum went apeshit and stormed up to the school and gave Anning the biggest bollocking and threatened him with the police.”

Second, a classmate, Michael W., once told me that, prior to our joining the school, Anning had administered a severe caning which had been reported to the police. Then in January 2017, I realised that this alleged incident was probably genuine when I was informed by someone else:

“There was one case of a boy committing suicide following punishment by the headmaster in the mid 1960s. He was 14 or 15. The whole school, minus the teachers, was called into the assembly room by the headmaster and told not to divulge any details, to anyone.”

As a consequence, corporal punishment had become less severe and slippering had generally replaced caning by the mid 1970s.

The meaning of corporal punishment for its victims

On Friends Reunited and in responses to my earlier essays on Woolmer Hill, nearly all the comments relate to corporal punishment. The fact is that even three or four decades after receiving corporal punishment at the school the psychological imprint is still there for many men; and these men use the net to express their feelings. Why?

A beating, however minor, impacts on and scars the psyche at three levels. First, the whole body, not just the point of impact, experiences pain and tension, which turns the consciousness inwards away from the outer world towards the injury. Nobody has the freedom to ignore pain and to carry on mentally and physically as if nothing had happened. Second, a relationship between pain-giver and pain-receiver is established which has to be processed and interpreted by the victim. Nobody can remain neutral to an abuser. Third, a beating, particularly to the bottom, is likely to produce a sexual response. In other words, taking these three points together, a beating produces severe mental anguish; it is a shock to the system.

The men who experienced corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill and who have written comments about it adopt one of three attitudes. One group remembers the event as a personality destroying humiliation. Maurice P. clearly falls into that category:

"I was given the slipper by Anning and I remember it well. Me and my friend " Jinxy " were caught smoking and marched to his office. I went in first and watched as the horrible Anning selected a slipper from the bottom of his cupboard,made me bend over a chair at the front of his desk then whacked me about 5 or 6 times. Not on my backside but above that, at the base of my spine! It hurt like hell,my face went red and tears welled up. As I left the office I looked at Jinxy, knowing what was in store for him. Nothing was learned by this experience. I didn't behave any better. In fact, for me it was a backward step, it made me more rebellious and I hated Anning with a vengeance."

Jon B gives a similar account, two boys involved in a misdemeanour, both receiving a slippering:

"As for Anning... grrr!, he gave me the slipper the first week I was at Woolmer Hill. Me and Ian B were into drawing funny cartoons of fellow pupils, and that particular day the subject was Tracy L and how her fanny went around the school swallowing people up. hahaha! Mrs Y apparently wasn't impressed (even though she was giggling when she confiscated and read it) and sent us both to Anning. Luckily he was busy, and it was near the end of the day on a Thursday, so he told us both to report back to him the next day. I decided to tell my parents that I felt sick the next day and had the day off school thinking I might get away with it. But over the weekend, I met up with Ian, and he showed me his arse after getting six whacks from the sadistic little Hitler, and boy was he bruised. There was a very prominent outline of a slipper... the bastard had it down to a fine art making sure he landed his blows in exactly the same spot every time. Ian told me that Anning was very disappointed that I was not in school and was looking forward to seeing me on Monday. So I made sure I was prepared on the Monday. I wore three pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, and two pairs of trousers! But it made not a lot of difference, it hurt like hell and left exactly the same mark as Ian had... It didn't make me behave any better, and just made me hate him even more."

Others coped with the experience differently. Instead of humiliation, the experience is interpreted as an ordeal that is survived with honour. Tim writes: “The fear of the slipper was real but also served as a badge of honour amongst a lot of the boys, I received the slipper on one occasion and so did several of my friends.” A parallel situation exists at a fairground when someone goes on a new ride: a combination of terror, exhilaration and a sense of achievement for having survived it.

A third response to corporal punishment was resistance, but this was rare for several reasons. Most boys accepted that corporal punishment, albeit light and occasional, was just part of the normality of school life and was accepted, however unwillingly, on that basis. Boys knew that refusing to participate in the ritual of slippering would just make matters worse: it might simply delay rather than remove the punishment; it might lead to additional punishment such as suspension; it would involve parents who might in the 1970s not have supported their son; it could even potentially lead to expulsion from the school and generate embarrassing publicity for the pupil. For all these reasons it was far easier to submit and get it over with.

Thus, the pressure was psychological. It was highly unlikely that a pupil would be forced to receive corporal punishment through being restrained. But the psychological control was not total: there were cases of boys who refused corporal punishment. These were typically boys in their final year on the verge of leaving the school. One such refusenik was Bob in 1971:

“It ended with me in his study, standing opposite him across his desk. On the desk lay his cane. I remember thinking how thick it was. I'd heard so much about it and there it was lying in front of me. He had calmed down by now, and I remember him saying that the cane probably wouldn't do me any good. I replied that it didn't bother me what he decided to do, because I wasn't going to let him use it. He then told me to be seated, and he gazed out the window for a minute or so. We then had a 10 minute conversation about the trees and flowers outside the school before he let me go to the medical room.“

One point of interest is that in all the cases discussed, Maurice, Jon, Tim and Bob, the pupil only experienced corporal punishment on one occasion. No declared policy limited corporal punishment to one administration, but it is reasonable to suppose that Anning perceived the fear of slippering as the main deterrent, a fear made real in the minds of pupils by having experienced it and having been terrorised by it. Frequent beatings, accepted by pupils as unpleasant but bearable experiences, would replace fear by normalisation.

But the overriding point remains: for all these boys corporal punishment had a profound psychological effect and remained in the memory. For none of them did it play any role in curbing delinquent behaviour.

My personal experience of receiving corporal punishment

In infant and primary school I was never hit or beaten; and any corporal punishment which did exist in those schools was rare, informal and light. In my first school, which I attended until I was seven, I can only recall one incident when a boy received a symbolic slap on his legs from an angry teacher for some misdemeanour. It frightened me though, and I can remember crying.

In the junior school which I attended until I was eleven, the normal penalty for wrong-doing was spending breaks and lunch hours standing in an otherwise teacher-only corridor called “top lobby.” At seven I did not know where top lobby was or what happened there; and when older children were sent to top lobby I was terrified. In later years I stood there myself on a couple of occasions. The only two incidents of hitting that I witnessed in the school were one where a boy, Brian Denman, had become hysterical about not wanting to go into a classroom - and another when Derick R. received a light swat on his bottom with a ping-pong bat from Headmaster Pearson during a dancing lesson. Both incidents, though, were witnessed while I was in my first year and they terrified me.

Yet here too I may have underestimated the amount of corporal punishment. Jon B. recounts the following incident of a slapping given by Mr Pearson, headmaster of Chestnut Avenue Junior School in the early 1970s:

"What a strange man he was, and the first teacher to slap my arse for being naughty. I remember my dad taught me a dirty rugby song, and I wrote it down for you guys to read. Well somebody left it lying around, and when I got back from lunch (I lived very close and went home for lunch... my mother still lives in that house!) he cornered me in the main lobby and slapped me really hard the bastard."

In my penultimate year at junior school, the issue of corporal punishment emerged because of the theatrics of our first male teacher. Mr Clarke would often make reference to the subject and even on one occasion went looking for “his slipper” but as far as I know no one was ever punished in that way. Such antics nevertheless led to a great deal of silly rumour and fantasy, such as kids pointing out a window which pupils were allegedly bent out of while being slippered. But for me, as for my classmates, apart from much silly chatter and rumour, we had little experience of corporal punishment.

Let me now return to the topic of this essay, corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill School. During my time there, I was only ever hit twice by teachers. The two occasions are so different that they have little in common. The first was an instance of formal corporal punishment; the second was a simple assault in rather strange circumstances.

The first incident occurred in my first year when I was aged eleven; it must have been in the autumn of 1973 because strangely I can still remember it was warm outside. One of my least favourite lessons of the week was science with the newly appointed Mr Cantan, a serious young man who insisted that his name be pronounced as if “Canton,” even though his wife, who taught at a primary school and had presumably adopted his name was happy with the pronunciation CAN-TAN. The lessons were boring, not just because they lasted all afternoon, but because Cantan made the mistake - as many young teachers often do - of endlessly trying to explain why science was interesting and relevant to practical life rather than teaching anything of any substance.

Fidgeting and the noise level in the room grew, and unfortunately Brian B. and I were singled out to be made examples of. Brian B. was sent to stand outside that room and I to another one upstairs. No doubt Cantan’s intention was to have us stand there for five minutes or so and then bring us back in. Things turned out differently.

I soon became aware that Headmaster Anning was in the small office for science teachers near where I was standing and I realised he would probably emerge before Cantan called us back into the class. Had I been more streetwise, I might have taken myself off to the toilets, but instead I just stood there and let events take their course.

As expected, Anning came out, saw me standing there and, naturally enough, asked why. In trying to explain Cantan’s decision to send us out of the classroom - I had no precise idea of what I had done - I embellished the situation by saying that Brian B. and I had been mucking around when there were dangerous chemicals in the laboratory. Anning told me to go downstairs with him; we collected Brian B en route. and went to the door of Cantan’s laboratory. What followed is a sequence of events and sensations which I chose not to confide in anyone until writing this essay thirty-eight years later.

Anning opened the door of the laboratory and told Cantan with the whole class able to hear that safety in the labs was crucial. He might just have noticed at this point that there were in fact no dangerous chemicals anywhere, but I don’t know that he did. He then said that he would give “these boys two of the slip.” It took me a second to realise that he meant two of the slipper. I hadn’t been expecting that, so I was a little stunned. Brian B and I were told to go and wait outside his office; he did not follow us immediately, so perhaps he spoke to Cantan about the incident. I don’t know.

The corridor connecting that wing of the school to the main part of the building had two steps next to which there were floor-to-ceiling windows on either side. As I took the two steps in a single leap, a shiver went down my spine to my penis. I had never received a ritualised beating in my life and was now about to experience one; my fear became sexualised.

Anning arrived and told us not to go into his office but to wait outside. He went in alone and came out with a slipper. Thinking back on events, I now suppose there was somebody else in his room. I was standing nearest so I was the one to go first. He asked me whether I denied the offence, which obviously meant he had his doubts about the facts of the affair. He told me to bend over. The look on my face and the slowness of my response led him to comment, “If you do something wrong, then you have to be punished.” Even at eleven years of age I thought of saying - though I did not of course - “well, yes, but not like this.”

Two swipes in rapid succession were delivered to my bottom. What struck me most is that they did not hurt. Of course I felt them, but they did not come anywhere near a sensation of pain. And that led me to hold the false view - never rebutted by experience because I never again received formal corporal punishment - that school corporal punishment did not hurt but was only ritualised humiliation. It was only when I was sixteen that I understood from reading that in some schools - and maybe for other pupils on other occasions at Woolmer Hill - that corporal punishment could cause serious pain.

Physically, I was left unaffected by the slippering. I watched Brian B receive his two and by the look on his face following each swipe he seemed more physically affected than I had been. I had expected to be told to go back and stand in the corridor, but we were both instructed to return immediately to Cantan’s class, so the point when I had to face the humiliation of appearing in front of my classmates was sooner than I had thought. No one commented or paid any attention; I sat down on one of the long wooden fixed-to-the-floor desks that pupils were sitting on to get a clear view of the teacher's desk. On sitting down, I was reminded that my bottom had been hit, but felt over the next few minutes the sensation in my bottom fade away. Of course we were little boys guilty of very little, so Anning hadn’t intended to physically hurt us much, though he probably wanted to hurt me physically more than he did.

The anguish of my slippering was not physical; it was psychological. Something had been done to me which I felt ought not be have been done, particularly by an adult whom I might otherwise have respected. I had been violated sexually. Although Anning is dead and it is now thirty-eight years later I still resent that beating; and like so many other men who have commented on Friends Reunited and Facebook, my memory of Anning and Woolmer Hill School is coloured by corporal punishment abuse.

My humiliation was exacerbated by the fact that the slippering had been announced to the class. Walking back into that laboratory was probably one of my worst moments during my five years at Woolmer Hill. Yet nobody commented on it then or later, not out of sympathy, but because of a sheer lack of interest. What I did not realise is that my opposition to corporal punishment, for me or anybody else, was very much an individual opinion. Brian B. did comment the next day that some second-year girls had teased him about the event on the way home, but how exactly they would have found out about it remains unclear. I expect he told them.

My main fear was of my parents finding out. That my classmates knew of my humiliation was difficult to handle, but for my parents to know would be unbearable. But I don’t think my parents ever knew.

For completeness, I need to include the second incident in my life in which I was hit by a teacher. I wish to refer to the teacher concerned as Mr Z because even though the incident happened thirty-three years ago the man may still be alive. I wish to grant him anonymity not for his sake but because I want to treat the incident as history; and although it is unlikely that he would ever see this essay, I have no desire to open any line of communication with him.

The facts of the incident were straight-forward. I was sixteen and in my final year at Woolmer Hill. Following games, we had a maths lesson with a teacher I liked, Mrs Myall. She appeared to have a free period before our maths lesson, so I often hurried up in the changing rooms so I could chat to her before the start of the maths lesson. There were a couple of other pupils who did the same; however, on this occasion I was the first pupil to reach the classroom.

I suppose I knocked at the door before going into the classroom, but I might have done so in a fairly casual way. Once inside, it became obvious that Mr Z and Mrs Myall had been having a confidential conversation which I had interrupted. Had I been told by either of them to go out of the room and wait, I would have meekly accepted the situation and no doubt have forgotten about it by now. What in fact happened was quite different Mr Z loudly remonstrated with me, and at some point during his spiel decided to punch me on the side of my head.

Quite obviously, this was not an act of formal corporal punishment in the sense understood in the 1970s; it was a simple assault. The pain in my ear and at the side of my face was severe enough, so without asking for permission I went over to a desk and sat down. Despite the pain, thoughts were running through my head about how to deal with the incident. I rightly made the decisions not to hit back and not to disguise how much pain I was in. The look on Mrs Myall’s face showed that, however much she might have wished to show solidarity with Mr Z, she was horrified at what had happened. Mr Z, now reduced to some speechless zombie, left the room.

The punch had the potential to disrupt the rather safe orderly life that I was having at Woolmer Hill in my final year. I could have complained to my parents, but like many victims of abuse I saw that the easiest way of dealing with it was to behave as if it had never happened. Some other pupils arrived, knowing nothing about the incident, and the lesson took its normal course. Mrs Myall asked me during the lesson whether I was all right, and I answered that I was. In the thirty-three years since that happened I have never told anyone else about the incident.

Why did Mr Z hit me in that way? To be fair to him he was neither a psychopath nor a a sadist. In retrospect, I believe that there was an immediate and background cause. The immediate impulse was his understandable annoyance at what he saw as my barging into the room when he was in the middle of a private and perhaps sensitive conversation with Mrs Myall. But why wasn’t telling me to go and wait outside enough?

Mr Z was not a clever man. He tended to teach remedial classes; and in so far as he could be regarded as a teacher his ability lay in building a give-and-take modus operandi with his pupils. I had never crossed him, but I preferred to ignore and sideline him whenever possible because I found his endless diatribes about respect and discipline rather tedious and pointless. What angered him the most, I believe, was the enthusiasm I showed for talking to the much more intellectually able, Mrs Myall. And like a jealous delinquent, he lashed out. He resorted to violence, not because he regarded it as the right thing to do, but because he rightly knew that he could get away with it - if only once.

To some extent my position was a strong one because what Mr Z had done was against the rules. I nonetheless took even more care to avoid him. For his part, he attempted to befriend me by the pettiest of means: e.g. finding some fault - for instance in my clothing - and then “generously” letting me off. He was on a losing streak and had little recourse against my cold politeness and mechanical obedience. In the end he left me alone.

In continuing this discussion I wish to ignore the incident with Mr Z. It was isolated; it had nothing to do with normal school corporal punishment and, curiously enough,it had very little impact on me psychologically. I tended to look at it in the same way as I might as if I had painfully stubbed my toe. In fact when I came to write this piece I had to drag the details from the recess of my mind. Four years earlier, by contrast, the painless slippering - and its public announcement - had punctured my eleven-year-old soul. In my outward speech and behaviour I pretended that it had never happened: inwardly it caused turmoil.

The slippering had no effect on my classroom behaviour, nor could it have done. I hadn’t done anything in particular and I was only slippered on account of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. I never saw my slippering as something that ought to have been and as I grew up and progressed through the school I increasingly saw Anning and his regime as illegitimate. That is a feeling which has stayed with me until the present day.

My internal rage had only one direct consequence as far as I can remember. Soon after my slippering, I chose to insult the young Mr Cantan, when provided with an easy opportunity to do so. Cantan, like most beginner teachers in the mid 1970s, did not have a car and needed to suffer the indignity of travelling to the centre of Haslemere by bus with a crowd of school children. But unlike some other teachers - the elderly spinster Miss Savage comes to mind - he sometimes chose not to pile into the crowded 13B bus, the terminus of which was couple of hundred metres from the school gate, but instead he plodded down Woolmer Hill and up to the Hindhead Road to catch another bus. One evening, knowing nothing of Cantan’s plans, I decided to travel by the same route.

The Hindhead Road bus stop was a small strip of concrete cut into the bank on the far side of the road. Waiting for the bus, he and I were brought into close proximity. I don’t know what gave me the nerve to start insulting him, but I tried to provoke him with any number of trivial and disrespectful questions about his life. He just glared forward across the road without replying. I later regretted my actions, if only because it was never Cantan’s intention for me to be slippered during his class.

One grows up at secondary school. I entered Woolmer Hill as a prepubescent boy of eleven and left as a youth of sixteen, so it would be nonsense to think that my thoughts and feeling about events and issues did not change in those years. In considering corporal punishment - and so much else - I can broadly distinguish two periods: my first two years in the school and my last two. My middle year when I was fourteen was one of transition.

My sole experience of corporal punishment (excluding the incident with Mr Z) occurred in my first year. Although I clearly believed that what had happened was wrong, I was not able to explain or articulate that belief. I accepted that corporal punishment existed for children as an aspect of life which was as certain as the fact that it rained. Had I been slippered again, I would have accepted it with very much the same feeling as the first incident. It never happened; as far as I know none of my immediate circle were ever slippered and I did not think about the subject much.

My attitude did change in my fourth and fifth year at Woolmer Hill. On the one hand it was highly unlikely that I or my friends would now ever receive a formal beating. I didn’t smoke; I was polite and orderly; and leaving school without permission never occurred to me. And in the fifth year - after Anning’s retirement - incidents of corporal punishment became even less common. But on the other hand, I had to contend with the background fact that such an indignity was a possibility. I increasingly felt that if such an incident arose, I would have to refuse the punishment which would have meant suspension from the school, an outcome which in practical terms would have been much worse.

Looking back I can only think of one misdeed of mine that might have led to corporal punishment. My illicit conduct occurred in my fourth year during the last year of the reign of Headmaster Anning. Mark W. from time to time brought “girlie mags” into the school. These magazine containing pictures of naked woman were readily available outside school and raised little interest other than the “dare value” of having them at school. One day, however, he turned up with a German pornographic magazine which his brother who was serving in the British army had apparently brought back and had given to him. At that time (and perhaps still today for all I know) the sale of magazines with actual, i.e. non-simulated sex portraying erections, ejaculations, fellatio and penetration was unlawful. The magazine was passed from one boy to another and handed on like a hot potato. Left alone for a moment with the magazine, I decided to keep it, take it home and read it in more detail. I hid it in my bag, but claimed that I had handed on to someone else. Mark W. was glad to be rid of it.

I took the magazine home without detection and that was the end of the matter. If I had been caught with it, I might well have received corporal punishment. But thinking back now I might well have thought at the time that a private slippering would have been preferable to a suspension or the involvement of may parents. But thankfully the issue never arose.

My slippering at the age of eleven was a source of shame. I felt that when it happened and I continued to feel the same way afterwards. I never spoke about it to anybody and later in life when surrounded by people who could not have known about it, I denied that I had ever received corporal punishment in school. It would be foolish to exaggerate and say that I was traumatised in life by the slippering; I was not, but the incident still called forth emotions of shame and denial over several decades.

I recall another sunny morning: one in September 1978 when I walked down my home street towards Haslemere railway station. I was starting Godalming Sixth-Form College. I was not just happy to be wearing clothes of entirely my own choosing, but appreciating the feeling of dignity that came with the knowledge that I would be attending an educational establishment with no corporal punishment.

Girls and corporal punishment

Throughout this essay, I have spoken about corporal punishment in terms of how it affected boys at Woolmer Hill School, and I think I was right to do so. As a male, my experience, if not my perspective, has a gender bias. In addition, of the tens of comments and emails I have read on corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill School all but one were penned by males.

Without doubt the overwhelming majority of instances of corporal punishment involved male teachers imposing authorised pain on male pupils. Girls and women teachers tended to see corporal punishment as something inflicted by men on boys and not something they experienced at school. For this reason, on-line debates on the subject, and not just that relating to Woolmer Hill School, tend to exclude women, rather like discussion of premenstrual tension excludes men.

One exception is women - or sometimes men adopting the online persona of a woman - who claim falsely to have received corporal punishment, or to have witnessed it, because they regard accounts of the involvement of women in corporal punishment as sexually stimulating. Indeed, many of the searches for this article online have been made for reasons of sexual stimulation.

Yet the question still remains: were girls subject to corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill. Let us take caning and slippering first. In an earlier version of this essay, I wrote the following:

"The cane was either not used or used so rarely that I know nothing about it. The slipper, the only remaining approved instrument of applying corporal punishment was used exclusively on boys. Cultural norms did not permit girls to be slippered on their bottoms."

I still believe those words to be generally true, but in January 2013 I read a comment on Facebook by a woman called Karen (a genuine person not a pseudonym), who must have joined the school circa. 1970. Karen claimed in a discussion thread that she and another girl had received the slipper for misbehaviour. I do not know whether the story is true, or who administered the slipper or in what circumstances.

In January 2017 I received an anonymous comment from a pupil who had attended the school in the 1960s, a decade earlier. She, and I assume the writer to be a woman, stated categorically that “No physical punishment was ever applied to girls at Woolmer Hill.” And indeed that might have been the school policy in the 1960s. But the author goes on to point out that:

“They [girls] were punished psychologically, by public humiliation, by orchestrated bullying, conducted by both teachers and pupils and by sending girls 'to Coventry.'... Girls who seriously transgressed, pregnancy, trouble with the police etc. just disappeared. We never heard what happened to them.“

Whatever the truth of these horrendous allegations, by the mid-seventies official policy, if not practice, had changed, and a clear statement to that effect was made after Mr Anning’s retirement in 1977, when he was succeeded by the former deputy head, Mrs Hollingdale. In response to an outbreak of disorderly behaviour, she informed a morning assembly that culprits risked a slippering from Mr McShane or Mr Jimpson (who had now apparently been delegated the task), or if a girl, “a good slapping”. All I can imagine is that such slaps, if they were administered at all by senior female teachers, were applied to the arms or thighs. It is a close call on the scale of humiliation whether it is worse to bend over and be hit on the bottom or to face someone who is hitting you on your limbs.

The issue of the different treatment of girls and boys in matter of corporal punishment did not figure largely in my own consciousness at the time, mainly because corporal punishment for boys, at least in my cohort, was not that prevalent either. Moreover, most of the corporal punishment which did take place seems to have resulted from cases of boisterous messing around which tended to be a male crime. Major breaches of discipline which might have affected both sexes were swearing, rudeness, smoking and walking out of school. My guess is that if the group of offenders were of mixed sex, the same penalty (e.g. a special detention) would be applied to all of them; only if they were small in number and exclusively male might the slipper be applied.

It was certainly not true that girls had an easy ride compared with the boys in matters of discipline. Most of the incidents of public dressing downs that I can remember were of girls. They were particularly humiliating because they often concerned sulkiness, breaches of school uniform or the wearing of make-up.


Leslie Anning was headmaster of Woolmer Hill School in a period stretching from the mid 1950s to 1977. Decades later, a number of his former pupils used the Internet to make comments on corporal punishment, remembered or experienced at the school. Several turned to the first successful British social media site Friends Reunited, wound up in in February 2016; others commented through my blog or through Facebook. One victim related his experience to the Haslemere Educational Museum’s oral history project; and another, John Bellchamber, wrote up his experience of corporal punishment in a published memoir A Chidd Boy’s Memories (2014). The first version of this article was published in 2012, with small edits made after that as more information flowed in. A major overhaul of the text was undertaken in 2017.

Everything I could find relating to the subject has been included in this essay, but this piece of writing is mainly a subjective response based on my own memories and feelings. I wrote the essay not just to sort out my own thoughts but also to try to put the record straight for all those men (and maybe a few women) who experienced the humiliation of corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill 1973-78. Headmaster Leslie Anning lived until 1990, long enough to see the abolition of corporal punishment in state schools. But though he is now crematorium dust, most of his victims are still living, and living with the psychological consequences of his actions.

One huge gap in the article is what happened to corporal punishment at Woolmer Hill between 1977, when Anning retired, and 1987, when corporal punishment was abolished in state schools. The absence of information is total. Though it is true that the new head, Mrs Hollingdale, made an assembly announcement that slippering for boys and slaps for girls were possible, I guess that few occurred, and corporal punishment withered at the school and ceased to exist even before its prohibition.

On the Internet this article has had tens of thousands of hits. Only a few of these are from people who are interested in Woolmer Hill School, as present or former pupils, teachers or parents. The vast majority of hits are from people seeking sexual titillation by searching for a range of matters connected to corporal punishment. Some examples of words searched for are: real accounts of females receiving corporal punishment, slippered bottoms, corporal punishment in the home, real corporal punishment of females, pictures of black men receiving corporal punishment, girls caned in the 1970s, etc. I don’t mind surfers seeking out material pertaining to these subjects. I am just sorry that those seeking sexual excitement will receive so little of it from this article.