From age 11 to18, 1961-68, I was a pupil at Harrow County School For Boys, a traditional state grammar school on the outskirts of London. It was hell.
…It wasn’t so much that I made friends at school, it was more a case of finding a group of boys prepared to tolerate me. After many lonely weeks I became determined that I would belong, somewhere, somehow, tolerating any insult or threat, or outright demand to just piss off, to shoulder my way into a group. And I did.
I made sure that my insults were ruder, nastier and more hurtful than theirs. If I was told I was “That thick northerner with the horrible lower class Coronation Street accent” then they were told “My Dad works in an office overlooking Admiralty Arch. What building site’s your Dad on today?”
Deep inside, I knew I was gay – and trying terribly terribly hard not to be. There was no-one I could talk to about it at home: I knew my father’s views on “jessies”, as he called them, and mother followed father in everything. Nor could I tell my schoolmates. And being gay was illegal. Partial decriminalisation only came in 1967.
In this way, incredibly, I eventually cemented friendships, of a sort, with a small coterie of other misfits. I could be a thoroughgoing nasty little git, but I was an amazingly loyal nasty little git, and could put down anyone who looked like trouble with a few well-chosen words. But I could never tell them I was gay, in case I lost them. They were my only defence against complete isolation.
Unfortunately I am cursed, or blessed if you prefer, with what the Victorians called a “speaking countenance”. I cannot hide my feelings. I would be hopeless at poker. So despite constant denials, I still became labelled as a poofter.
The boys I could pretty much handle. A few tried to bully me, but most of them were afraid of my biting sarcasm and willingness to say anything to wound. Often pre-emptively, just in case. The teachers, however, were another matter. You can’t talk back to a teacher. I was defenceless. A few samples:
Item: I was play-wrestling with one of my mates as we waited in line to be let into the Chemistry lab, when the teacher appeared.
“Stop making love to Rappaport, Pollard, we’re not interested in that sort of chemistry.”
I protested that we were fighting.
“Oh come off it Pollard, you were practically climbing down his throat.”
Item: At a mass casting call for the school play, Julius Caesar, the master/director offered me the part of Cinna the Poet – the one who gets mistaken for Cinna the conspirator and is immediately murdered. He called me up on the stage to give me the news.
“Since I want the part played high camp, Pollard, for some reason I thought of you,” he purred.
When I turned the part down he angrily declared I would never appear in another school play. And I didn’t.
The gay ones were, if anything, the worst. It was as if they had to be mean to me to demonstrate they weren’t like me. Which of course they were.
Item: The Latin master, swanning around the halls in full academic robe, mortar board, and immaculate patent leather shoes. I was frequently sick with fear before his classes, but did not dare to miss them. He would have noticed. He was relentlessly harsh on me, but invited favoured pupils to his home, where he wore a toga and they wore tunics, lounging on couches and conversing in Latin.
While invigilating my Latin O Level exam, he appeared at my shoulder, reading my answers, making little chuckles, tuts and exclamations of “Oh dear”, before leaning down and muttering in my ear, “No chance. No chance at all,” before swanning off again, gown billowing, with a satisfied smirk on his face.
Item: The gym and rugger master who hung about the showers, ostensibly to make sure no hanky panky went on, inviting especially favoured pupils to use his private facilities instead. And to go on holiday with him to Sitges. He picked on me regularly – I was hopeless at all sports, so my efforts were always good for laugh – to make sure there was no suggestion he was in any way favouring that nellie boy.
I forged and contrived sick notes as often as I could to avoid gym and rugger. And if I couldn’t, I conveniently ‘forgot’ my kit, and endured another slippering – a beating on the bare backside with a gym shoe.
Item: One of the chemistry masters was an outright sadist. He sprang surprise tests on us, with a beating for anyone who didn’t get 100%. Just to make sure he got his fun, he would include trick questions. When he didn’t have a ruler or a cane handy, he used a retort stand, or the rubber tube from a Bunsen burner.
Other teachers would grab you by the hair and bang your head repeatedly against a desk or the wall. I’m thankful I was never beaten up, or sodomised, though it came close a couple of times.
Whenever it all got too much, I feigned sickness, sticking my fingers down my throat after breakfast so Mum would let me stay home. I became genuinely ill, with a host of vague symptoms. Facing an especially stressful class, I would make myself vomit in the hallway. I stopped bathing and taking care of my appearance. I lived in a constant state of fear almost the entire time from 1961 – 1968.
In my final year I did almost all my studying at home, and without the constant fear, I flourished, surprising all the staff by passing my “A” Levels with excellent grades, and securing a place at uni.
“Well, you ARE a surprise,” drawled the head of English, as I picked up my results from the school office. “None of us ever thought YOU’D pass. Have you thought about staying on and trying for Oxbridge?”
No I bloody well would not! No way was I staying in that place a moment longer.
If only there had been some understanding, some acceptance, someone to tell me I was OK at that school. One sympathetic teacher. Just one.
But I wasn’t OK. From age 11 to age 18, I was this horrid despised thing called a homosexual, whether I would or no. No-one must ever know, I thought, I must never ever admit it. But no matter what I did, it seemed to just leak out of me anyway, where everyone could see.
Years later, I told my mother what it had been like. “But you should have told us,”, she cried, “We had no idea. Why did you never tell us?”
Because I couldn’t admit I was gay back then. And even when I did (much later), you cried and asked if I wanted to see a doctor, while Dad told me “Don’t you go getting your name in the papers. I started out a nobody, I’ve made myself a small somebody, and I’m not having you and your funny friends spoiling that.”
When I got away to uni, away from home and family, it was such a relief that I soon cracked. I sought out the campus psychiatrist, and blurted through floods of tears, “I’m a homosexual.”
“Well, you don’t seem to be having much fun with it,” she replied. “We’d better see about that.”
“You mean, you think you can cure me?” I stammered.
“No,” she replied, “Don’t be silly. But I think I can help you learn to enjoy it.”