A reasonably entertaining read from Norman Friskney, with this mix of sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic, but always readable war stories and grammar school memories, plus some rather good poetry. Norman also clears up some of the common misperceptions about him – including, I should say, some of my own.
But the headmasterly memory is selective, and the choice of material is interesting. His views on the sixties, on his being an “educational coelacanth” (his words, not mine), school uniform, and corporal punishment, are all superficially covered, with the sort of one-sided depth of analysis you’d expect in the pages of the Daily Mail. I wonder if he had a defensive, or at least a responsive agenda in mind ? Perhaps he felt that a previous critique of his other book “A Short History of Wilson’s...” required a reply? The topics are uncannily similar, right down to his inclusion of one fleeting and, in the context of his eventuful life seemingly insignificant, conversation with the departing head boy of Wilsons, back in September 1958 (a conversation, incidentally, remembered very differently indeed by its other participant, reported elsewhere).
Unfortunately most of the unanswered questions from the time, remain unanswered. Eg. just why did it take seven years for him to get rid of a housemaster he now rightly describes as “psychopathic” ? How much defending of this man (not to mention others) did he do at the time, whilst only now, when the evidence of that housemaster’s brutality has piled up and is indisputable, does he admit that maybe the victims had valid cause for complaint? The shortage of teachers he mentions is surely no excuse for subjecting a generation of young children to this abusive and dangerous man’s disgusting “discipline”. And why were the Dept of Education guidelines on corporal punishment so systematically ignored during his time at the helm? Norman does not say. But he does finally admit, that for seven years while he was in charge, he employed a psychopath (at least one) as one of the most senior staff at his school, which is something, I suppose.
“Miscarriages of justice” (read: “unquestioningly supporting unqualified and incompetent staff resulting in his ritualistic infliction of pain on defenceless schoolboys), were, we’re informed, “cheerfully accepted” by the victim in lieu of something which he had (undoubtedly) done previously, but had got away with. Perhaps he shouldn’t be the one saying this – macho bravado notwithstanding, I doubt that anyone was honestly “cheerful” after being on the receiving end of one of his vicious canings. Even if he didn’t know his own strength, this simply will not do. Neither will his silence on why, at a time when such punishments had been abandoned all over Europe, as well as in the country’s borstals, approved schools, armed forces and prisons, only ordinary schools such as his, felt they simply couldn’t keep order without such brutality.
And the sixties ? A decade which he describes as “unfortunate” might not be seen in such simple terms by, for example, women, who at that period’s outset couldn’t open a bank account without a husband’s permission. Ditto black and Asian people in the UK and beyond, homosexuals and others similarly disempowered who, thanks to the willingness of the youth of the day to challenge the status quo, began to improve their lots.
But who is to begrudge Mr Friskney his story, and his views ? I certainly wouldn’t. As I’m sure he realises, all of us have stuff to get off our chests every now and again.
By the way, it was Edward II, not Richard II, who died in a manner reminiscent of Norman’s medical examination in wartime Italy. Fail. Go to the headmaster and get the cane !