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

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

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