This article first appeared in the Oakhamian, a magazine for present and past pupils of Oakham School, in 2006. It has been slightly modified here to remove irrelevancies.
Were you ‘blogging’ back in the 1950s and 60s? Because I was, but it may not be quite what you think .
Today’s blog (‘web log’ in full) is, as readers will appreciate, a recent arrival, only made possible by rapidly developing Internet technology. But in terms of Oakham School slang, the word had another meaning when I was there. To ‘blog’ was to misbehave, to fool around, and ‘blogging’ was inappropriate, mischievous, even bad behaviour. I don’t know how widely the word was used, or for how long, but it was certainly currency when I entered the Junior House in September 1958. And out of nostalgia I thought it would be interesting to ask what other school slang might still remain in OOs’ memories behind the cobwebs of dimly recalled youth.
In 1958 Oakham was a small direct grant school, recovering from the war years and right at the end of the spartan regime that characterised the public school system. I was sent to Junior House at the age of just nine and my earliest memories there are of ‘new bugs’, ‘bear leaders’, ‘senior’s orders’ and punishments ‘officially’ meted out by the big boys (the eleven and twelve year old ‘prefects’), who gave us ‘bicycle rides’, ‘crumps’ and ‘clouts’ as the whim took them. I remember that one of the prefects had an electric shock machine which was used to administer shock therapy. (Later on in school life my study mate, a budding chemist, stored nitroglycerine in the roof, an equally horrifying memory now that I reflect on it, but that’s another story). But as for the shock machine; I can only give thanks to my guardian angel that it never occurred to the young tormentor to connect it to the mains. ‘Sneaking’ was out of the question and we bore our grief stoically.
‘Senior’s orders’ was a particularly galling experience. At its simplest, it meant that a ‘new bug’ had to do whatever a senior (i.e. a boy with longer time at Oakham than he) told him. Anything. I can remember in my first term being forced to lie in the old dyke that once ran across what is now known as Farside. It was the middle of winter and I was obliged to lie down in the freezing mud and slush because another boy – who was all of nine and three-quarters – so wished. This was senior’s orders.
Oakham in the late 1950s was Corps, Cricket, Chapel and the cane; fagging, cold showers and cross-country runs; the town largely out of bounds save a permitted visit to Tom Froud’s store in Choir Close where we could buy pomegranates and sherbet, and a little later to Stricklands, by the castle entry. At the age of ten I broke bounds to go to the only ‘record shop’ Oakham then sported, to buy Eddie Cochran’s ‘My Way’ (not the Paul Anka version made famous by Sinatra, but an earlier and earthier number) and was spotted by a member of staff. I guess he must have liked Eddie Cochran, because he let me off with a lecture, the main point of which seemed to be that the crime of being caught was more serious than the crime of breaking bounds.
Some of my school memories have a quasi-military flavour. I was senior scout in the school troop (not that there were that many of us) and with huge pride carried the flag at the County Jamboree. Some years later, dressed in paramilitary uniform (tracksuit top and CCF beret with cap badge removed) and carrying a lighted torch in one hand and an oak swatch in the other I marched under the banner of ‘Rutland fights for minority rights’. But my crowning military glory was raising the flag at the Annual Inspection, my colour sergeant’s red sash mirroring my flush of embarrassment when the flag looked like it wasn’t going to unfurl (fortunately it eventually did).
Why it was me raising the flag was a curious blend of laziness and nepotism. One of the best sinecures in school life was to get the coveted position of CCF Quartermaster. This involved little work other than convincing smaller boys that the ill-fitting kit and boots I issued them with were fine and should be accepted with thanks and forbearance but it kept me out of the rain and afforded me a key to the QM stores – fortuitously across the road from Chapmans – and thus a bolt hole for whatever mayhem occurred to me at any time of day or night. In hindsight, this prerogative was not abused as much as it might have been and was mainly a chance to go for a peaceful cigarette without having to look over my shoulder all the time. The fag ends found their way into a convenient screw top bottle.
I’m not sure now quite how I got this post but I sense that Jack Cox, master i/c the CCF, had a hand in it. He had been in the army proper with my father and it was in part Jack’s coming to Oakham that persuaded my father to send me there. Certainly he ‘looked out’ for me from time to time – on one occasion he told me to kindly hide the bottle a little more carefully; this at a time when being caught smoking was ample grounds for expulsion.
This generosity of spirit was missing when I was ‘gated’ for two weeks for the ‘offence’ of being seen talking to a girl in the town (Cathy Rxxxr of Manton, if she remembers). Actually to be fair it wasn’t exactly in the street but in the ‘tin mines’ where we used to go at weekends, on the road to Brooke as I remember, so there may have been some due cause, but it still rankles. So too does the fact that Oakham didn’t have female students when I was there, but for different reasons.
There were traditions too – although one never knows how much they grow with the remembering. Does anyone I wonder now remember the ‘Burley bum-basher bed walk’, a ritual in which one had to walk or jump on every bed in every senior boarding house in the space of one hour? I last performed this somewhat pointless feat, the logistics of which posed a serious challenge as I remember, trampling my way a little drunkenly through the dormitories of Deanscroft, Wharflands, Chapmans and School House on my last night at Oakham in June 1966. My colleagues in College House (in 1966 in its first year under the brilliant Chris Dixon, to whom I owe so much) were spared.
Looking back at all this now, it was another world. Why I was not unhappy defeats me, but on the whole I wasn’t. But I must return to my topic: the Oakham vocabulary of the 50s. Latin was still very much on the curriculum in 1958 and active in the schoolboy’s vocabulary too. Earnest preteens would call out cave (beware) whenever a teacher approached, while those with goods to dispose of would call out quis? (Latin for ‘who’, and for some reason pronounced ‘quiz’) to which the standard reply was ego (I, or me). If the article was undesirable the acquisition could be negated by retorting d, and to avoid this the person calling quis could qualify with no d’s – the whole point here being to get rid of (and avoid receiving) unwanted chattels.
These Latinisms would have been common to many schools. I would very much like to know what words (like ‘blog’) were peculiar to Oakham or used more widely. Did boys and girls in other schools used to say ‘bags I’ to claim something? Or ‘fains’ to exclude themselves? Were these expressions common in other schools, or are they native Oakham slang? If anyone ever gets to read this entry it would be fun to share memories and see what we can reconstruct.
As for the ‘Burley bum-basher bed walk’, I can’t be the only one now prepared to own up after almost fifty years. Or did I dream it all up?