The day that remains clearest in memory from my four years at West Downs is the first. I can see that bland sunny September day in 1934. Dressed in my new suit of tweed knickerbockers, I am standing by the clump of trees at the edge of the playing-fields near the green-painted wooden building known as “N-Room.” Other small boys are running about and playing games on the grass where the late afternoon sun picks out the white puff-balls and glints on cobwebs.
Upstairs in the school, my trunk, tuck-box and Gladstone bag are doubtless being unpacked as May and her maids emerge from their warm lairs in the airing-rooms to make up our beds with the obligatory tartan rungs we have brought with us. Everybody is friendly and I have as my “pater” a charming boy, David Ackers, the son of friends. I have been looking forward to this day for many months and all is as happy as could be expected, so I am surprised by my own reaction to it.
As I look at the animated scene, I make up my mind and think to myself: “I do not want to stay here, so I will go home.” On reflection, this was prompted not so much by simple homesickness but by the realisation – acute in an only child, accustomed to the familiar streets of London – that he was in exile and that his life would be arranged and dominated by those he did not know.
I did not burst into tears – unlike the little boys already blubbing in matron’s room – but remained cool and determined. Indeed Mrs. Tindall was to tell my parents that she had never known a child of nine show such control. I did not make an immediate plan of escape but simply a decision to do so. Once that was taken, I could consider the options and so remained calm and outwardly content, even sending the compulsory postcard home with the news, “I got here all write, (sic) Write soon.”
I have forgotten the later events of that day, except that presumably we all had our temperatures taken then and again next morning. But while the other boys were engaged in exploring the school, I was quietly assessing the more practical means of escape. There would, I realised at once, be no point in asking my parents for help: they would only urge me to “settle down” and, in any case, I did not know how to make a telephone call and an exchange of letters would take too long. So it had to be a lone action by myself. It had to be a fait accompli achieved by my arrival at the house in Chelsea to announce in a perfectly friendly way that I had decided that I did not want stay at West Downs after all. Instead, I would prefer to resume my education at Mr. Gibbs’s day-school in Sloane Street, where I had already spent a year and at which boys could stay until the age of thirteen.
But how was I going to reach London? The railway was the obvious answer. We had walked up to the school from Winchester station that day and I could probably find my way back. When I reached Waterloo, I could take a taxi to Chelsea. It seemed simple.
There was one problem. The single, third-class ticket to London would have to be bought and would almost certainly cost more than the sixpence or half-a-crown in my trouser pocket. So how could I find enough money? The answer came quickly for I remembered that in the days when I was taken about London by a nanny, she had sometimes gone into the Post Office near our home for this purpose and, after a brief consultation at the counter, had come away with a pound note or two in her hand. If she could do that, so could I.
Just how I discovered the whereabouts of the Post Office, I cannot remember. Probably it was an apparently casual question to a master, matron or maid, but I do remember the sudden leap of excitement when I learned that it was just across the road from the entrance to the drive. I decided to go there next morning.
That first night at West Downs was happy. It would not only be my first night there but, I assumed, my last. The following night would be spent in my own bed from which I could see the frieze of sailing ships my father had painted on the wall. I was, I remember, deeply content in this knowledge and sorry for the other boys who would have to remain in these alien surroundings.
Exactly what time of day I made my escape, I do not recall. But I do remember dodging through the laurel bushes beside the drive until I could not be seen from the sash windows of Mr. Tindall’s study and finding myself beside the road that runs down the hill into Winchester. Opposite stood a row of little houses and a shop that did not look like the Post Office in the King’s Road. However, I ran across and entered. Behind a wire lattice on the counter was a pleasant, middle-aged woman, who smiled at me and asked what I wanted. I enquired whether this was the Post Office and was told that it was. In that case, I replied with all the nonchalance I could muster, I would like some money please.
How much did I want? She asked. This was wonderfully easy, I thought, and told her that I only wanted enough to buy a railway ticket to London. She gave me an odd little look, then asked me to wait and disappeared into a back room, there doubtless to count out the money she was going to give me. While waiting I idly wondered when the London train would leave and whether I would be home in time for tea. Gazing through the glass panel of the Post Office door, could see the entrance to the drive leading to West Downs and it was odd to think that I would never walk up it again. Just then, very suddenly, Mr. Tindall appeared at the bottom of the drive, running.
The headmaster will be remembered as a large man but light on his small feet, like a salmon balancing on its tail (as Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Charles Laughton). These little feet now propelled his bulk swiftly across the road and into the shop. He was not so much angry as stern as he led me back to school, I showing the stoicism I was later to recognise when actors such as John Mills and Jack Hawkins played brave prisoners of war whose escape tunnel had been discovered by the Gestapo.
My frustration was exceeded by my outraged sense of betrayal. The postmistress had been acting upon the instructions of a customer but, while pretending to carry these out had telephoned the school. I am not sure that I ever forgave this treachery.
Once back at West Downs, Mrs. Tindall’s relief and rehabilitation service went into action. There were telephone calls to my worried parents, who were summoned to visit me. Meanwhile I was accorded individual attention by the headmaster’s wife, usually in the private dining-room where she would read aloud my letters from home.- as I could not read my parents’ handwriting – and give me the enclosed slip of paper on which my mother would have written a private message in capital letters. I was allowed – on condition that I did not try to run away again – extra visits at weekends provided my parents waited for me in their car parked outside the entrance to the drive, opposite the house of the treacherous postmistress, as it happened.
Some boys at West Downs were regarded as “delicate” and allowed extra cream with their puddings and dosed with that glutinous and rather delicious “tonic” called Virol. Others were thought to be “highly-strung” and their special privileges might include a standing reprieve from beatings – both those delivered vigorously with a cane and those administered with a slipper in a bathroom after the offending child had been plucked from his bed under the soft-focus gaze of his parents obligatory photographs in their leather frames on his little chest of drawers – or a recommendation that the boy be taken to be seen by an expensive psychiatrist in Harley Street.
I suppose I was regarded as highly-strung for I was never beaten by Mr. Tindall. During that first term, I came to realise that escape was impossible and decided to settle down and serve my time. Although I never really enjoyed West Downs – in retrospect, the place seemed to lack heart – some vaguely happy memories remain. Several are connected with friendships but most relate to an approaching end of term when we could chant:
This time next week, where will I be?
Out of the clutches of K.B.T.!
Was the pure ecstasy of the ending of term ever to be experienced again? It was, of course, but one has to think for a moment and then try to equate it with the major moments of happiness in adult life. As one looks back after half a century, West Downs seems as insubstantial as an uneasy, recurrent dream. We can never forget it and, for better or for worse, it made us the men we became. Now that it has gone, there is only sadness to be felt for a part of us has gone with it. West Downs deserved a better fate.