By Harvey Burgess
Jeremy Titchman is a boy who knows what he wants and invariably takes it. A rapacious alley cat, he is fifteen going on twenty one. You, on the other hand, are thirteen going on nine, stuck in an antechamber for the under-developed. Within weeks of arriving at your new boarding school, Titchman has you sitting on his lap, one hand thrust down your pants, the other around his own member. You have never seen an erect penis before but somehow, you instinctively know that Titchman is well-hung. You are not aroused but you do not resist. He is a piece of work this Titchman. All skin and bone, he has a sallow complexion, wavy, chestnut-brown hair and a crooked grin. He is unctuousness personified.
He possesses a slave from Liverpool called Dennis Jackson who he actually calls “slave” in public. “Slave, run and get me a knife,” he says to him in the school canteen. And Jackson scuttles off dutifully. In his half-lit basement den, Titchman has just started running a hi-fi business. He must have thirty items for sale. You are his first customer, purchasing a warped turntable for twelve pounds. You see the defect and meekly try to question the item’s effectiveness but he soon talks you round. Titchman, a relentless juggernaut with dollars wrapped around his DNA, will go on to build up one of the biggest electronics businesses in the country.
You have been at all-boys boarding schools for five years before you meet Titchman. In 1969, when you are eight years old, your parents divorce and your father emigrates to Canada. You stand at the top of the stairs at night, listening to shouting, sobbing, apoplectic rage and glass shattering. You are packed off from your native London to a boarding school on the Kent coast. You, a cosseted middle-class boy, who wears white gloves and black patent leather shoes to family tea parties, is unceremoniously cast out of the nest. The solitary Jew in the school and tiny as well, you quickly develop a Napoleon complex. You fight with your peers a good deal of the time, and usually come off second best. You shudder when you remember the excruciating pain from a severe kick you received to the testicles.
At thirteen, dad, back in London, gives you a customized, “facts of life” talk. “You will need to have your wits about you at the new boarding school, son. There will be older boys who will seek to take advantage of you. They might, er…how can one put it, try to touch your private parts and arouse themselves. You must be strong and tell them to leave you alone. If they persist you will have to report them. Maybe within a year or so, you will reach what is called puberty and naturally feel aroused. There is something called masturbation. Do you know what that is?” You do not. “Not to worry son, it is a normal biological response to the changes that will happen to your body.” There is no mention of girls or the subject of how babies are made.
- You are a member of Polack’s House. Founded at the tail end of the nineteenth century, it is the only Jewish student boarding house at Clifton College, an English Public School in the city of Bristol. Seventy Jews and seven hundred Christians. The fees are around £3000 a year, an astronomical sum. Your mother secures a grant for you from an educational charity. The Public School system, which traditionally caters for boys of between thirteen and eighteen, is one of the sacred cows of the British class system. Conservative governments in the UK are invariably top heavy with public school boys.
Public schools, where many of the sons of the officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated, will forever be associated with the ruling classes. The title of “public” school was legally enshrined in the nineteenth century and indicated that access to them was not restricted on the basis of religion, occupation or the area you lived in. During the second half of the twentieth century public schools were increasingly perceived as anomalous, both in terms of their name – as elite, fee-paying schools they could hardly be more private and selective – and their place in society. The question boils down to whether they still have a role in a country which aspires to be a multicultural meritocracy.
Aside from Titchman, there is one other older boy, John Baxter, who does the same thing with you. It must be rife because the Housemaster, Ernie Polack, calls an assembly and warns everyone that there is a lot of “mutual masturbation” going on, particularly where older boys are taking advantages of younger boys. Polack wants it to stop and will severely punish any offenders who are caught. For weeks, the only words on boys’ lips are “mutual masturbation.” Polack is short, rotund and ruddy-faced. He looks like he will burst as violently as a balloon if you prick him with a pin. He speaks with a lisp and an odd, high-pitched voice and is mimicked ad infinitum.
In the ensuing years at boarding school, you realize that you do find some boys attractive. You have homosexual relations with three boys, all your own age. There is no penetrative sex involved. It is straightforward mutual masturbation, and apart from with one boy who occasionally uses his mouth, it is all by hand. Word gets out and you are called “a poof, a bender and a homo” all the time. You are made to feel terrible and told that you are disgusting. There is something wrong with you. You offer nothing by way of a defense. How could you? You have no proper perception of self and no ability to rationalize and articulate moral arguments. Whenever the subject of homosexuality comes up in your English literature classes, you blush and feel desperately uncomfortable.
You may not be Jeremy Titchman’s slave but, in your first year at Polack’s, you are very much Martin Woolf’s maid. He is a very tall and very camp seventeen year old. You make his bed, tidy his study and bring him tea and biscuits. He calls you “Maid”, makes you wear a frilly apron and cackles like an old hen. Woolf pays you a pound a week and enjoys smacking your butt vigorously. Surprisingly, he never makes any sexual advances towards you.
When you are fifteen or sixteen, at one of the occasional disco parties that Polack’s arrange with local girls schools, you French kiss a girl for the first time. You perform appallingly, knocking your teeth against hers and dribbling. But you know you like girls.
There is a whole array of physically big, alpha-males in your peer group. Practically all of them make you suffer in one way or another. You are very short, homosexual and have no pubes. Not a day goes by without you being reminded of those defects. “Pubeless Wonder” is one of your nicknames. And then there is a fourth complex that causes you to have sleepless nights. You are poor and everyone else is rich. Nearly all the dads are wealthy businessmen but yours is a struggling actor. When the parents come to collect their sons at the end of term, there are Rolls-Royces and Jaguars galore parked in front of the house. Dad has some thespian friends in Bristol who drive a beaten-up old van. They are coming to collect you on one occasion and you beg dad to get them to park a few hundred yards away so that nobody will see you climb into the back of the van. Another time, you know dad is going to be in a TV program and you ask the other boys in the TV room if you can change the channel. They ask why but you are too embarrassed to tell them.
They call us Yids do the Christians. Us Jews call them Yoks. Yids and Yoks. Yoks and Yids. “Why are you all so rich?” a Christian classmate asks me one day. “Is it cos you’re mean?”
“I’m not rich, I’m actually quite poor”, you say. He refuses to believe you. Just as well that you have limited contact with other Christians. Coping with the cruel environment of Polack’s is hard enough. It is a place where any sign of weakness or perceived abnormality is ruthlessly seized upon. There is an epileptic student called Edward Rose, with whom you get on quite well. Tall and ungainly, he is baited mercilessly. Once or twice a month he has a fit. It is frightening to watch him flail around on the ground like a huge fish out of water, gurgling, tiny white balls of saliva froth appearing at the edges of his mouth. You are always transfixed while those who are assertive enough make sure he does not swallow his tongue. One day, during a ceremony in the Polack’s synagogue, an overweight bully called Heidelstein reads out William Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose” which starts “Oh rose, thou art sick.” Needless to say, there are quite a few sniggers.
You befriend the nut jobs and rebellious types who have problems of their own. There is one guy you hang out with called Phillip Levy who goes around boasting that he has not cried since he was five. Levy attaches parachutes to gerbils and drops them out of windows.
There is a huge, intimidating guy called Lance Roberts who is directing a play by David Storey called “The Changing Room.” It is about a semi-pro rugby team in the north of England. You audition and are given the tiny part of Moore, a rookie who has been selected for his first ever game. You only have two words. In the build up to the game, a team mate asks you “How are you feeling Moorey?” and you reply “Pretty good, alright.” Roberts picks you up on your delivery at every single rehearsal, suggesting a different intonation each time. It is pure sadism. You wish you had never got involved but say nothing. There is only one performance in front of an audience. You miss your cue and fail to say your line. To this day, it feels like a sweet act of revenge-even if it was not done wilfully.
You are sniped at unremittingly. Softened up until your self-esteem evaporates into the ether. You return to London at seventeen; a naïve, thin-skinned, angry, violent, socially inadequate, non-entity.
You have an education but you have no soul, no substance and no depth. You have a violent temper and fight with your brothers and others. But you are middle class and have a safety net that stops you from crashing and burning. You remain socially inadequate. You are frightened of women and do not lose your virginity until you are twenty-two. You are heterosexual but cannot sustain a relationship for more than a few months. You live the unexamined life for fifteen years but then, out of adversity – a failed business and an apartment foreclosure – you go through a metamorphosis.
In your thirties, you find yourself. You enter therapy for the first time and successfully unlock the seeds of rationality and self-awareness that are trapped deep in your psyche. You begin a life of enquiry and exploration. You learn how to love. Both yourself and others. You live overseas. You go to University. You begin to write and discover that it is your métier. It all comes late. Very late. But, from nowhere, you re-invent yourself and you flourish.
And yet, it is never plain sailing. The scars of those formative years are still there, hard-wired into the deepest recesses of your consciousness. Every now and again, anger and resentment due to a perceived lack of recognition, a belittling or a slight will enrage you. Pierce your outer carapace all too easily. You are not a nobody and will have to prove it. You act out of all proportion, and end up destroying a friendship or hurting a loved one.
The wrong side of fifty now, you have never wanted children. One thing you know for sure: if you did have any, you would not send them to an elite, religiously segregated, boys only boarding school.
Harvey Burgess is a British writer who lives in London. He is the author of two books: “Political Asylum From The Inside” (non-fiction) Worldview Publications, Oxford, UK, 2000; and : “Tucson Tales, Bohemians, Bolsheviks and Border Rats.” (Fiction) Sunstone Press, New Mexico, USA, 2013. He has also published short fiction and non-fiction (Sarasvati magazine (UK) and Inkapture (UK) and Tucson Citizen and Tucson Weekly (Tucson, AZ, USA).