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The Scrivener: Because Or Despite

Brian Barratt recalls the punishments dished out to keep boys up to the mark at his old school, Magnus Grammar School in Newark-on-Trent.

Whether it was the menace of punishment, the quality of the teaching, or a combination of the two, Magnus produced an astonishingly gifted writer in Brian.

In 1532 Thomas Magnus, a friend of Henry VIII, set up a grammar school for boys at Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire. The original stone building still stands but when I started at the Magnus Grammar School in 1947 it comprised a larger group of 20th century brick buildings. I think there were just over 300 boys at that time. It later became a co-educational comprehensive school, and is now called Magnus Church of England School, with 1,100 students.

I helped a bit with their new website, sending details of two of my classmates who rose to great heights: Barry Rogerson, who in 1994 became the first Church of England bishop to ordain women as priests; and Dr Geoffrey Marston, a formidably brilliant scholar of international Law at Cambridge University. I have also had articles published in two books produced by the school in recent years, in which Old Magnusians wrote about their schooldays.

One of my themes was Masters and Punishment. This is an edited version. I have removed the full names of people and restored gory details which the editor deleted.


Detention was the most frequent punishment. If I recall aright, it was used mostly by The Old Masters, namely, those who had served at the school from the 1930s. However, it was often a mere threat, and sometimes cancelled when the time came. It was, after all, just as inconvenient for masters to stay back for half an hour or more as it was for boys.

'Lines' were not uncommon. You know the sort of thing: I must not talk during lessons written 100 times. They didn’t take long and were merely a nuisance.

Verbal lashing was the method chosen by one or two masters. Mr H, senior Physics, was a subtle exponent. I can still feel the pain of his sarcasm about my deafness. I felt a particular pleasure when one of my eight GCE O level passes in 1952 was in Physics. Only a few weeks earlier, Mr H had written on my school report that I would never understand the subject. Well narny-narny-nah-nah to him.

In the hands of Mr L, senior English, verbal lashing and sarcasm were an entirely different experience. He had a way with words which was disliked by students and staff alike, but I loved it. I well remember him strutting into the room one day and launching into a scathing criticism of the whole class. His famous lower lip jutted out in its most threatening way while he told us what a lazy, useless lot we were. We trembled.
He then picked on Pat C (alas, now dead), one of the most popular and handsome boys in the class and well liked by all: ‘As for you, C., sitting there with that smug look on your pretty face...’ and so it went on. We were stunned. Nobody, but nobody, picked on C. The tirade suddenly stopped. Mr L smiled broadly, ‘You’re all taking this very seriously, aren't you? You think I mean it, don't you?’ and we all burst into the laughter of genuine nervous relief.

As far as I recall, he never actually punished any boy. He was too good a teacher for that. However, he did conjure up other ingenious threats. On one occasion, he took a pen-knife and a cigarette lighter out of his pocket, applied the flame to the blade, and walked up and down an aisle describing what he was going to do to any boy who annoyed him. We knew it was a joke, of course, but it served its purpose.

I have very fond memories of Mr L, and have often quietly thanked him when I've been teaching English or creative writing, or working with gifted students, or writing books. Although I was regarded as the class dunce, Mr L was responsible for my being awarded the Novarcension Prize, the school prize for writing, in my last year at school. He is one of the reasons I now have about 1,000 pages on the Web.

Two masters who never administered punishment were Mr C, junior English, and Mr T, senior Maths. If we played up, Mr C simply stood and waited, with a smile on his face. I had great respect for him because he always said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Meanwhile, Mr T's method was to whistle quietly to himself and throw a piece of chalk up and down in his hand while he calmly waited for us to come to order.

Perhaps I should add that Mr V, senior French, once told us that we were the brightest and noisiest class ever to pass through his hands. When I visited him in 1987, he confirmed that. From our ranks emerged a CBE, solicitors, accountants, a grammar school headmaster, a mayor, a town clerk, a parson, a famous bishop and, in my modest case, a publisher and author of educational books.

A full range of corporal punishment was available, take your pick. One of the funniest was Mr W (junior Physics) and his blackboard ruler. He was not much taller than the ruler and hardly had the strength to lift it. Or so it seemed, to us. He would solemnly beckon a misbehaving boy to come to the front, ask him to hold out his hand, and raise the ruler. We knew exactly what would happen next. Mr W. simply let the ruler fall under its own weight and land fairly lightly on the boy's palm. Probably the most painless corporal punishment of all.

Mr W, junior French, carried a small rubber strap which I think he called Blackjack. If it was used, it was certainly more painful than Mr W's self-falling ruler.

I was never the recipient of the Headmaster, the Rev D. C-M's, famous cane. He taught Maths, and came from the Dark Ages when one could use pain to inject knowledge into a boy. He threatened to cane me when I could not understand my Maths homework. I thereafter developed a strong disrespect for him and for anyone in authority.

A much more useful approach to punishment was introduced when the Rev D. C-M retired, thank goodness, and Dr C became Headmaster. He was the first non-clerical head in over 400 years. He had boys go round the grounds, picking up litter and rubbish and disposing of it. Or perhaps he did that simply in his capacity as New Broom. Anyway, he was a good chap.

The most terrifying of all, however, was Colonel T. He acquired his 'Colonel' nickname because of his military bearing and bristling moustache. His real problem, I think, was that he just didn't like boys. In those days, the school had a central heating system which included hot water pipes running down the walls to radiators. The Colonel's usual expression of rage was to grab a boy and bang his head against one of those pipes. He was ferocious.

On one occasion, I turned round to ask the boy behind me what the time was. The Colonel stormed over to me, pulled me up from my desk, and gave me an almighty swipe across the side of my face. My spectacles fell onto the ground, and I staggered under the blow. I fervently hoped that one of us would tread on them — I couldn't even see them, of course — and smash them so that I would have legal grounds to complain.

We got our own back. On the last day of term, we all went round the school field and picked as many wild flowers as we could find. In those days, a small bottle of milk was provided each day for each boy, so we collected a lot of empty bottles and filled them with flowers. These were placed all over the desk, the podium, the cupboard, the blackboard ledge, and anywhere else we could fit them. We then sat quietly and waited. The Colonel came into the room. We anticipated something like a wholesale massacre, with heads being smashed against the walls. He simply stood there, speechless. Eventually, he muttered something like, ‘Very nice... er, thank you... er, now take them away’ and the lesson proceeded quietly. He did not come back to the school next term.

The punishment which caused the most amusement was administered by Mr G, who was Art master for a few years. He was a very nice chap, a gifted artist, but not the most skilled of teachers. At that time, a group of boys came by train to school, and it was accepted that they arrived about a quarter of an hour later than the rest of us. On Thursday, Art was the first lesson of the day, so about five boys would turn up late. Mr G would take the fob watch from his waistcoat pocket, click it open, study it carefully, and solemnly announce, 'You’re late'. Those boys then had to stand against the wall for the first five minutes or so of the lesson. We found that highly amusing because we knew exactly what would happen each time.

There you are, then. As the editor of one of my articles on education wrote, some people succeed because of their schooling; others succeed in spite of it.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012.


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