Bangkok, 30th August

God may not play with dice, as Einstein claimed, but the Universe surely does. The bombing at the Erawan shrine here in Bangkok two weeks ago brought that home forcefully. I have never been near the shrine, but my wife passes it quite regularly. In fact, the day of the blast she had passed it just a few hours before. If she had been running late, if earlier activities had got postponed, … A colleague of mine in the office should have been passing the shrine on the Skytrain on her way to the gym just when the bomb went off. But it so happened that that day her little boy was feeling unwell so she decided to cancel at the last minute. If her husband instead had stayed with the boy …

It must be the same with every terror attack. No doubt there were people who for one reason or another were not in the Twin Towers on September 11 when they normally would have been, or were closer to the exit than they normally would have been. Or in all those bomb attacks on markets or bus stations or other crowded places which take place with depressing regularity in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, or any other troubled spot on the planet, there must be a host of people who might well have been in the path of the blast, but for some small reason were not. And a host of people who were in the path of the blast who normally would not have been.

The same randomness comes out with painful clarity in War. I always remember a story in the book “The Good War” by Studs Terkel. Terkel wrote oral histories of the American people, based on the stories he collected from ordinary Americans. “The Good War” was a collection of stories from Americans involved in the Second World War in some way. This story was of two young soldiers, buddies in everything since the beaches of Normandy, who found themselves in a fire-fight during the Battle of the Bulge. One dived one way and caught a bullet, the other dived the other way and survived to tell Terkel the tale. He was forever guilty that he had been the lucky one. So many times you hear about this guilt! Men who ran through the hail of bullets and shrapnel of No Man’s Land in the First World War and survived while their comrades fell all around them. Why them?, they wondered afterwards. Why were they the lucky ones? They didn’t deserve it particularly.

Accidents also throw the essential randomness of it all into sharp relief. A few days after the Bangkok blast, a plane at an air show in the UK crashed onto a busy motorway. If those motorists who were killed had been driving a little slower, or a little faster, or had decided to use another route that morning, or had decided to cancel the trip altogether, … The routine accidents of everyday life, the ones that don’t make it to the front page, are no less random. If I had started crossing the street just a bit sooner, I would have been mown down by that tuk-tuk which suddenly made a sharp right. It just so happened that I was blocked for an instant by that other pedestrian who walked in front of me …

Sickness is the same. If that virus coughed out by that person had got wafted that way and not this, I wouldn’t now be sick in bed. Or dying. If that heart arrhythmia had been just a tad faster, or a titch slower, I wouldn’t be alive to marvel at it. If the surgeon’s knife had been a little more extensive the first time, or if that first operation had been one month sooner, the lovely lady we met when we first arrived in Bangkok would not now be dying ten floors above us of metastasized cancer.

And so it goes on throughout life. If I had done this, or not done that, or said it or not said it, or stepped here rather than there, just at that moment, how different things would be now!

Magic has tried to make us believe that we can beat the odds. Hang this amulet around your neck and the spears, or the arrows, or the bullets, will never find you. Religions instead have tried to help us accept the essential randomness of our lives. The Grim Reaper can come to pick you up at any time, so be ready. Be ready. Lead good lives, lead virtuous lives, so that when the knock on the door comes, you will have done everything in your power to go to Heaven than to Hell, to be reborn closer to final Nirvana.

Perhaps such a fatalistic approach is the best. You can be forever on the lookout, dodging and weaving, stepping smartly out of the way of the slings and arrows which life hurls at you, but in the end the dice will finally roll against you. If you have led a good, virtuous life, those who survive you can say, “he was a good man.” What better epitaph can one have than that?


Bangkok, 29 August 2015

I wrote a post a year or so ago where I listed all things French. One of the things I didn’t list, though, was the game of pétanque. Anyone who has spent any time in France will eventually have come across a scene like this

petanques in France

especially if you’re there for the summer holidays; it seems that it’s all the French do during their summer holidays at the beach.


In truth, my memory of pétanque leans more in the direction of the following photo, the game on the village square ringed with those poor plane trees that the French love to massacre, with ten times more spectators than players – and all looking so serious!

petanque old photo

So French is pétanque that it played a major role in that magisterial compendium of all that is French, Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix.

Asterix et le tour de Gaule

The scene takes place in Masilia (today’s Marseilles) – a nod to the Provençal roots of the game – where a Roman patrol is threatened with riot, revolution, massacre, war, in brief general catastrophe, if they disrupt a game of pétanque started specially to let our heroes get away.

petanque in asterix

To further slow down the game and impede the Roman patrol from advancing, the classic question is being heatedly debated: “je tire ou je pointe?” Should the bowler try to knock away the adversaries’ bowls close to the cochonnet (jack in English), or should he try to get his bowl even closer than theirs to the cochonnet? Extremely delicate question, which explains the serious expressions of everyone in the black and white photo above. It was also the object of serious fights between my French cousins when we played the game at my grandmother’s house. The games normally finished abruptly with them running after each other through the garden, screaming.

Yes, so French: a Gauloise cigarette in corner of the mouth, a glass of pastis in one hand, a petanque bowl in the other, and the pondering of that existential question: “je tire ou je pointe?”

Imagine, then, my astonishment when, during a visit a few Chinese New Years ago to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, I noticed a group of locals playing a game of pétanque. So astonished was I that I took a photo to memorialize the scene. Alas! I cannot find the photo anymore, but no matter, others have memorialized the playing of pétanque in Laos on the internet.

petanque in Laos

After some thinking, I concluded that perhaps it was not all that surprising that Laotians should play pétanque. After all, they had been a French colony. No doubt they would have watched their colonial masters while away their afternoons playing the game and perhaps played it themselves in the mother country while there on scholarships and plotting revolution. And it’s a great game for a hot climate, no frantic running around under the broiling sun.

But imagine my even greater astonishment when several months ago I noticed a group of Thai playing pétanque, or petaung in Thai (my transliteration of what my office colleagues called it). I was so gobsmacked that I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo, so I throw in here one that I found on the net. As we can see, the players are obviously debating the question, “je tire ou je pointe?”

petanque in Thailand

How did they pick up the game? Could it have come through Laos? Or Cambodia, or even Vietnam, also ex-French colonies and where the game is played? Or was it brought by Frenchmen in the service of the King or Government? Whatever the origin, the fact is they play it well. In preparing this post, I discovered that there is an International Championship of pétanque which has been held every two years since 1959. The French, of course, have dominated the event, with French teams winning 27 golds, 12 silvers, and 14 bronzes. But, surprise, surprise, the Thai have won 3 silvers and 3 bronzes, all this since 1991. They seem to be creeping slowly up the medal tables; gold no doubt awaits them soon.

Thoroughly intrigued, I did a rapid internet zip around the world, and discovered many more places where pétanque is played. Just in Asia, I found traces of it in India

BAKEA9 India, Pondicherry Territory, Pondicherry, French consulate, Petanque game

although I suspect it may be limited to the old French enclave of Pondicherry


petanque in Kumamoto Japan

the hats are an interesting stylistic addition


petanque en chine

although I never saw it being played in my five years there, and if this picture is anything to go by the Government has infiltrated the game and officialized it: where are the villagers playing in the shade of the trees?

I didn’t find a picture of anyone playing pétanque in South Korea although there seems to be national federation of pétanque and bowls. What the Koreans do seem to have done is to invent a video-game of pétanque – it figures, I suppose, given South Koreans’ passion for video-games.

petanque video game screen

A number of my posts have touched on the issue of globalization. I suppose this is another example of that. I wonder if the French have ever tried making pétanque an Olympic sport? They could win a few more gold medals for a while, until the rest of the world beat them at their own game (like the Japanese with judo).


Pétanque in France: (in
Petanque on the beach: (inétanque)
Pétanque old photo: (in
Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix: (in
Pétanque in Laos: (in
Pétanque in Thailand: (in
Pétanque in Kumamoto Japan: (in
Pétanque in Pondicherry India: (in
Pétanque in China: (in
Petanque video-game screen: (in


Bangkok, 20 August 2015

One of the things I always do when I go to a new country is to inspect the vegetable section of the local markets or supermarkets, to see what fruits and vegetables they have on display which I have never seen before, and then I try to figure out how the locals eat them. I also play this game with fish, where one can see interesting variations around the world. I normally don’t bother with meats, since there is much less variety here. Chicken, pork, and beef probably cover more than 95% of all meat products sold over the counter. Throw in a few other fowl, like turkey and goose, and you’re probably up at 99%. I’ve never seen meat aisles where you can buy camel or llama or hamster or dog (although I was once in a place where I could have bought kangaroo).

In any event, I played the game when we arrived here in Thailand, and one of the things that immediately jumped out from the vegetable aisles was lemongrass – it’s not a vegetable really, more a spice, but it tends to sit alongside the vegetables, so that’s where I saw it.

lemongrass bunch

Anyone who has lived in Thailand for more than a couple of months will quickly realize that lemongrass plays an important role in Thai cuisine. I’ve mentioned in a previous post one Thai dish in which lemongrass plays a not unimportant role, Tom Yum soup.

tom yum soup

There are other Thai soups which have lemongrass in their recipe, lemongrass coconut noodle soup for instance.

Coconut Lemongrass Noodle Soup

It also finds its place in the green and yellow curries which are omnipresent in Thailand and which Thais will eat with various meats and vegetables. Here they are accompanying chicken.

chicken green currychicken yellow curry

Lemongrass also plays an important role in various sauces, in this case as a coconut and lemongrass sauce accompanying mussels.

mussels in coconut and lemongrass sauce

In truth, it is not only in Thai cuisine that lemongrass finds a role. It is common to much South-East Asian cuisine. In Viet Nam, for instance, in pork meatballs the meat is mixed with lemongrass and other herbs.

Vietnamese Lemongrass Pork Meatballs

Or there is Indonesia’s beef rendang, where beef is cooked slowly in a mix of spices which includes lemongrass.

Indonesian beef-rendang

In Cambodia, there’s the national spice-mix paste called Kroeung, which almost always includes lemongrass, and which is used in many dishes, for instance in the fish-based Amok trey

cambodian fish amok trey

For Laos, I cite stuffed lemongrass, the one dish where lemongrass plays a star role.

Laotian stuffed lemongrass

Myanmar gives us as one among many examples Mont Di soup, from Rakhine state

Myanmar Mon Di soup

And let’s not forget the Philippines, from which I’ll cite Lechon Cebu. Lechon, a national dish, is a whole roasted pig. Among its many regional variations there is Cebus’s, where the pig is stuffed with a mix of spices and herbs which includes lemongrass.

Philippine lechon cebu

This enthusiasm for lemongrass is not surprising really. The two forms of the plant which are edible, C. citratus and C. flexuosus, both have their tap root buried deep in this part of the world. Anyway, it’s super for me because I have a great fondness for lemongrass. This affection goes back a long way; I first came across the plant some 50 years ago, as a ten, eleven year-old child. It was in Cameroon, in West Africa. My father had moved there after his stint in Eritrea. One afternoon, at tea time at someone else’s place, I was served this delicious pale yellow infusion, which smelled and tasted softly lemon-like.

lemongrass infusion

After I’d oohed and aahed about it for a bit, I was shown the plant, a rather spiky big grass

Lemongrass Plant

whose leaves gave off this wonderful lemon scent when you rubbed them between your fingers.

I did not consume lemongrass in any other form while in Cameroon, nor did I ever consume it any other way until I came to Thailand. In fact, an exhaustive search on the internet has led me to conclude that nowhere between Cameroon and S-E Asia does any traditional cuisine include lemongrass (I stress traditional cuisine; with the globalization of cuisines many people are now trying S-E Asian recipes, either straight or fusing it with their own cuisines). Everywhere in the world, there is much enthusiasm to consume lemongrass but only in the form of infusions. I had high hopes to find traces of lemongrass in the Berber regions of North Africa, where their traditional form of cooking, the tajine, is very much a form of stewing, which is quite close to the way lemongrass is used in this part of the world.


But no, I found no trace of cooking with lemongrass in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. Not even in India have I found any trace of lemongrass being used in traditional cuisine, even though the subcontinent shares many culinary traits with S-E Asia – curries being the obvious one

south indian curry

and even though the lemongrass plant grows well there (to the extent that C. citratus is known as West Indian lemongrass while C. flexuosus is known as East Indian lemongrass).

I was somewhat astonished by this finding, but also rather disappointed – I had been looking forward to showing pictures of yummy dishes from around the world in which lemongrass plays a role. My first thought was that the consumption of lemongrass infusions the world over was a result of colonialism. In this narrative (a favourite word these days among the chattering classes), Europeans would have discovered the lemongrass infusion (I suspect in India, given the name we Europeans gave the plant)

english lady drinking tea in India

and carried the plant off around the world and hooked our colonial subjects on the drink (the plant’s anti-mosquito properties may also have helped in this diffusion; more on this in a minute).

english lady serving west indians tea

(OK, my pictures show the imbibing of the even more famous herbal infusion, tea, but the general process would have been the same.)

This tidy narrative of mine got a rude shock, however, when I picked up another, insistent, narrative on the internet, which held that already 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians, and through them later the Ancient Greeks and Romans, were familiar with the plant. And there was a big difference. The Egyptians did not eat it, they used it for incense mixes. Incense was big business in Egypt (as it was indeed in all ancient religions). We have here, for instance, Ramses I burning incense as a ritual offering

Rmases I burning incense

and what the Pharaoh did, every man, woman, and probably child, did the length of the country (the country did not have much breadth).

If the Egyptians used lemongrass for incense, I suspect they also used it for their perfumes and perfumed oils. After all, this is also how lemongrass is used today, especially by our friends the aromatherapists.

lemongrass oilI couldn’t find an Egyptian mural showing someone using oils or perfumes, so instead I throw in a picture of ladies using cosmetics more generally.

ancient egyptians using cosmetics

But now the question is, if the Ancient Egyptians were indeed using lemongrass, how did they get it from its place of origin, S-E Asia? I have to think that the answer lies in the spice trade, which was already flourishing in the time of the Pharaohs. Spices like cinnamon and cassia were finding their way to Egypt from Sri Lanka, so it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that lemongrass and other spices were being picked up in S-E Asia and shipped westwards, eventually coming up the Red Sea.

egyptian ship

My personal view is that contrary to many spices, where the product and never the plant was shipped (the plant being treated almost like a state secret), the live plant also eventually made its way to Egypt, perhaps overland through India and Iran, along the Fertile Crescent, and then down into Egypt (and from there I would guess eventually along the coast of North Africa). I say this, because lemongrass has another very valuable use, one which I alluded to earlier, and that is as a deterrent to mosquitoes. The little buggers don’t seem to like the odour given off by the plant, and a strategy still in common use today is to plant lemongrass around a house to keep them away.

lemongrass with mosquito

Where does that leave us? Well, with a gigantic culinary opportunity. The S-E Asian countries should plunge in and promote the use of lemongrass in cooking everywhere where the plant is now growing, which is just about anywhere where there is no frost (the plant is not frost hardy). I’ll be happy to help out, throwing lemongrass into anything I find cooking.


Lemongrass bunch: (in
Tom yum soup: (in
Coconut lemongrass noodle soup: (in
Chicken green curry:×500.jpg (in
Chicken yellow curry: (in
Mussels in a coconut and lemongrass soup: (in
Vietnamese meatballs with lemongrass: (in
Indonesian beef rending: (in
Cambodian Amok Trey: (in
Laotian stuffed lemongrass: (in
Myanmar Mont Di soup: (in
Philippine Lechon Cebu: (in
Lemongrass infusion: 5240254223_8f0879e852_z.jpg (in
Lemongrass plant: (in
Tajine: (in
South Indian curry: (in
English lady drinking tea in India: (in
English lady serving West Indians tea: (in
Ramses I burning incense: (in
Lemongrass oil: (in
Egyptian ladies using cosmetics: (in
Egyptian ship: (in
Lemongrass with mosquito: (in


Bangkok, 12 August 2015

Last weekend, my wife informed me excitedly that she had discovered a restaurant downtown which claimed to serve Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. Goodness me, we chirruped to each other, it had been years since we’d eaten either. We had to go back to the late 1980s, when we lived in New York for a while, for our last Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. The seminal initiation event was in a small deli to the south of Central Park, one of those places with booths where you slide into your seat (although unfortunately it didn’t have the really cool little juke box that you can see in this picture).

diner booth

We had actually gone in there because we happened to be in the neighbourhood and it happened to be lunch time. Since it also happened to be a Jewish deli, we found ourselves scanning a menu listing Jewish delicacies. After some rumination, we plumped for this thing called a Reuben sandwich and this other thing called a hot pastrami sandwich. What an experience! The deli owner looked on amusedly as we oohed and aahed over our two sandwiches. Thereafter, we ate them regularly during the rest of our stay in New York.

So even though we had had a traumatizing experience two months ago with coq au vin, we decided to risk it. This time, we were not disappointed. We were served very creditable Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. I have a picture of the Reuben sandwich we ate.

reuben sandwich

But in our haste to devour the pastrami sandwich we forgot to take a photo of it. Which is a pity, because if I have to choose between the two, I would plump for the pastrami sandwich, and in fact the rest of this post is about pastrami.

No matter, I can throw in here a photo of a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli.

pastrami sandwich katz deli

This deli, which is on Houston Street in New York, is claimed in certain quarters of the internet to be “the keeper of the Jewish culinary flame” in the city.

katz deli

katz deli inside

Strong claim indeed! Never having been to the establishment myself, I can’t tell you if this claim is reasonable (although I will note that my daughter has been there and was not that impressed by their pastrami sandwich – but then, she doesn’t much care for pastrami in the first place).

Before I get into rival claims, of which there are many in this field, let me quickly review the making of pastrami (something which I’d always vaguely asked myself about but had never bothered to check until I decided to write this post). Start with a cut of beef from around the animal’s navel, the so-called plate cut (you can also use brisket – more of this choice in a minute). Cure it with salt and saltpeter and let it dry for several weeks (you can also throw some herbs into the curing mix). Once cured, rub and coat your meat with a mix of herbs (as you can imagine, the precise make-up of this coating is a trade secret, jealously guarded by rival delis, but onion, garlic, black pepper, coriander seed, possibly sugar, all seem to be common ingredients). Once nicely coated, smoke it at low heat for several days (the precise wood used for the smoke being again a closely guarded trade secret).

So far, so good. This is no different from the preparation of many dried, cured meats around the world, and before the advent of refrigeration these methods had been used by human beings in one combination or another for thousands of years to preserve meat. It’s the next steps where it gets interesting. After smoking, you first boil the meat to cook it, and then steam it for some 15 minutes. These last steps seem to have to do with the cut of beef used. Initially, pastrami was a poor man’s dish. People used the plate and brisket cuts because they were the cheapest, and they were the cheapest because they are fatty and gristly. Boiling and steaming was used to soften both the meat and all those difficult-to-chew parts in the meat.

Then you serve it, fresh from the steamer, on rye bread; actually, it’s a wheat-rye bread, of a kind that the not-too-poor people used to eat in Europe (wheat bread was only eaten by the rich, while the poorest people ate horsebread, so called because it was made of the cheaper grains fed to rich men’s horses). The sandwich should always be served with a pickle (or two or three) on the side. To me, this is capital; the sharp astringency of the pickle offsets nicely the fattiness of the pastrami. It’s often served with coleslaw, but frankly that can be left out, at least the kind of commercial gooey coleslaw that tends to be served nowadays. It adds no real value to the dish that I can see.

The alert reader may have noted a stress in the last couple of paragraphs on poverty. This allows me to segue smoothly into a discussion of pastrami’s history. Pastrami researchers have concluded that its roots are to be found in New York’s community of Romanian Jews, who emigrated to the States in the late 1800s. They were escaping from Romania’s increasingly organized and ethnically-tainted anti-Semitism as well as looking for better economic opportunities. Like millions of other people, they would have transited through Ellis Island

immigrants at Ellis Island

and then been sucked into the slums of New York.

Mulberry street NYC

There, like all immigrants everywhere and at all times, they would have tried to maintain their culinary traditions, and one of these was a dried, cured meat called pastramă (in the early days, New York’s version was called pastrama, which was then changed to pastrami so that it could rhyme with salami, the idea being that this would help people remember it – an early form of the marketing jingle). But as is also often the case, they would have had to modify it to fit the ingredients they could find in their new homeland. And here the change was radical. In Romania, pastramă tended to be made with mutton or goose or even veal (but that must have been a rich man’s version; poor people didn’t eat veal). But what Romanians found in New York was beef (pork also, but that was non-kosher), so beef-based their pastramă became. And because they were poorer than poor, they used the cheapest cuts of beef, the plate and brisket. I suppose it was the fact that pastramă made this way was really chewy that led them to take the extra steps of boiling and steaming. The common Romanian way of eating pastramă is grilled. In fact, pastramă sounds to me like the Romanian version of bacon. Bacon, which is also a cured and dried meat (pork in this case), is also grilled before eating, and it is often eaten with eggs, as is grilled pastramă.

pastrama and eggs

Or was it maybe this gentleman (at the back with the white headgear) who introduced the boiling and steaming steps?

sussman volk

This gentleman is Sussman Volk, an Orthodox Jew of Lithuanian ancestry. He is credited with having introduced pastrami to New York, and through New York to the rest of the world. He had emigrated to the States and had eventually opened a small butcher’s shop on Delancey Street. One day, so the story goes, a Romanian Jew came in and asked if he could store a trunk in the shop’s basement while he went back to Romania. Rab Volk agreed, and in return he got the recipe for pastrami. So Rab Volk started making pastrami, and then people wanted it on a slice of bread, and then he put chairs and tables in, and suddenly he was running a delicatessen. And the rest is history, as they say (just to close the circle, the following year Katz’s Deli opened). It could be that the recipe given to Rab Volk already included the boiling and steaming steps, or it could be that Rab Volk – reaching back into his Lithuanian culinary roots, or maybe other immigrant culinary roots – introduced the boiling and steaming steps himself.

Who knows? In the end, it doesn’t matter. This is the way pastrami is made, and that’s that.

If readers were to think that the story ends here, they would be wrong. Because Romanian Jews also emigrated to Canada, settling in Montreal. And there they also introduced Montrealers to another son-of pastramă, in this case just called smoked meat. The two – relatively small – differences between the two products are the cut of beef used (smoked meat tends to use more brisket) and the mix of herbs used to rub and coat the meat (the fact that both boil/steam the meat suggests to me that these were introduced by the Romanian émigrés rather than by Rab Volk). Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal seems to be a good candidate for “the keeper of the Jewish culinary flame” in Montreal, so I’ll throw in a photo of the deli.

Schwartz deli

And here is the product

smoked meat Schwartz deli

Mmm, that looks gooood!

And now the Montrealers have boldly brought the fight to New York. A Canadian couple has set up a new Jewish deli in New York, the Mile-End deli. They’ve opened one shop in Brooklyn and another in Manhattan, in Bond Street.

mile end deli

Well, the next time my wife and I go to New York, we (or at least I) will forget about visiting the Metropolitan Museum or any other worthy institution. First stop will be Katz’s Deli and then Mile End Deli. To compare and contrast the two products.


Empty booth in a diner: (in
Reuben sandwich: our pic
Pastrami sandwich, Katz’s deli: (in
Katz’s Deli: (in
Katz’s Deli inside: (in
Immigrants at Ellis Island: (in
Mulberry street NYC: (in
Pastramă and fried eggs: (in
Sussman Volk: (in
Schwartz deli: (in
Smoked meat sandwich Schwartz deli:×680.jpg (in
Mile End deli Manhattan: (in


Bangkok, 2 August 2015

In a previous post I have mentioned the physical exercise programme which we are currently in the thick of. When I wrote it, I was discouraged by the apparent lack of progress. But now things are better. We haven’t left that vale of tears so dear to the writers of the Psalms, and probably we never will leave it – no pain, no gain, as Jane Fonda used to trill in her workout videos of the 1980s. But we are definitely out of the darkest section of the vale, and our wails and lamentations are not so shrill as they used to be.

However, there is one stretching exercise which defeats me still: touching my toes. It has always defeated me. I can never remember a moment in my life when I could touch those damned toes of mine. And as I strain and heave to touch them, with our trainer urging me on but my hamstrings and every other string and tendon and muscle in my legs screeching to me not to continue, I hear in my memory another voice urging me on, that of Mr Mortimer, the Headmaster at my boarding primary school (prep school in English parlance). This was on those occasions when he was caning me, and I had to bend down in his study to receive “six of the best” (six strokes) or, more rarely, three of the best – I was a rather naughty boy. I was ten-eleven, as I recall.

The administration of the caning was done rather ceremoniously. The boys who were to be caned would get in a nervous, muttering line at the study door at the required time (after lunch, I think), and we would be called in one after the other. The Headmaster would remind you of the crime committed, state once more the number of strokes you would receive for said crime, and then invite you to stand in one particular place, and bend down and touch your toes (“Come on, boy, you can bend down further than that!” was always what I would then hear at this juncture).
Mr Mortimer used this kind of cane, thin and flexible
One of my pals, Glover was his name (after all these years I still remember it … but not his first name; we called each other by our surnames), stole this cane as a memento at the end of our final term. Mr Mortimer hauled me in (I was Head Boy) and threatened to cane me with his spare if I didn’t have the original restituted. I leaned on Glover …

In any event, once you had received the caning, you politely thanked the Headmaster for it (we were English, after all), left the study, and then ran like hell. Running sort of let off the pent-up energy caused by the pain of the caning. I remember that in winter sitting on a radiator after running was also quite soothing. After the pain had dissipated you were normally left with stripes on your bottom, war wounds which you proudly displayed in the communal showers.

All this was happening at a time of great social change and ferment in the UK. We were in the mid-sixties, the Beatles were raging, the Rolling Stones were on the up-and-up, the straightened laces were being loosened: hair was growing, clothes were getting louder, skirts were getting shorter, sex was OK, drugs were coming in from the wild side. Little of this percolated through to us in primary school, buried as we were in the depths of Somerset, but when I moved to my boarding secondary school (public school in English parlance) in 1967, I found the winds of change blustering their way down the school’s corridors. Just as a small example, in my first year the Head of School would march around with a phalanx of school monitors, looking grim and army-like. By my third year, the Head of School was a nice, approachable guy who would actually smile. And beating (not caning; since we were now bigger, a bigger, thicker stick was used), which was already rare when I arrived, vanished within a few years.

But not before I was beaten! I believe I and my pal Mike Wallace (another sign of the changing times; we now called ourselves by our first names) were the last boys in the school to be beaten. It was 1969, maybe 1970. In brief, we were caught sneaking back into school with a bottle of wine which we had bought at an off-license even though we were underage. But that wasn’t why we were beaten. Our real crime was that we had skipped a meeting called by the Headmaster for all exam sitters; it had been especially emphasized that there were to be no excuses for not attending. Our Housemaster was instructed to administer the punishment. He beat Mike and me with a swagger stick, one of those things which British officers would tuck under their arm and … well, swagger about with.
This is what the stick looks like closer up.
I didn’t have to touch my toes this time. An armchair was thoughtfully placed against the bookshelf whose arms we grasped as we leaned over.
imageWe got four strokes as I recall. And of course we politely thanked our Headmaster at the end.

That was my last brush with corporal punishment.

Was I psychologically scarred by my canings and beatings at school? Honestly, I don’t think so. They were not administered in a sadistic, or even in a cruel or vindictive, way. They were not administered in public. They were for crimes truly committed, so they were not unfair. The pain was neither intense nor long-lasting. They were on a par with punishments I received at home – my father used to beat me with a wooden metre ruler when I was extra-naughty as a small child, which seems to have been quite often. But, when I’m there, straining and heaving to touch my damned toes, urged on by our trainer, those memories of the little me bending over to receive my canings do come flooding back, along with the butterflies which fluttered in my stomach during the final moments before the cane came swishing down.


Caning: (in
Cane: (in
Officer with swagger stick: (in
Swagger stick: (in
Beating over an armchair: (in