Rites of spring

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

Jan­uary is surely the cru­ellest month: a vast, bare Ever­est that we have to scale each year in a state of postchrist­mas self-de­nial. It seems to take ages even to reach the mid-teens of the month, let alone the twen­ties. In a fairer world, it would be Jan­uary that had 28 days, not Fe­bru­ary.

at this time of year, I’m par­tic­u­larly glad to not be go­ing back to a girls’ board­ing school of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, a world all too vividly re­called by the women I in­ter­viewed for my re­cent book on the sub­ject. I went to one in the 1970s and al­ways felt ‘spring term’ was a mis­nomer.

‘In a fairer world, it would be Jan­uary that had 28 days, not Fe­bru­ary

Wrenched away in the dark from home, par­ents and pets, we shiv­ered in un­der-heated dor­mi­to­ries and hogged the sin­gle ra­di­a­tor. Some of the older women I spoke to showed me chilblained fin­ger­tips that had never re­cov­ered.

This was the term of in­ter­minable af­ter­noons on the lacrosse or hockey pitch, risk­ing life­long in­jury to nose, calves and teeth. It was the term of the flu bug, when half the school was felled—al­though that, ac­tu­ally, was quite fun be­cause at least you got a rest. The sick room quickly ran out of beds, so nor­mal dor­mi­to­ries were req­ui­si­tioned as makeshift wards. Prospec­tive vis­it­ing par­ents would glimpse rows of pale, lan­guish­ing girls, each with con­gealed, un­eaten por­ridge on a tray and a metal­lic sick bowl.

For me, the af­ter­math of that ex­is­tence is an ob­ses­sion with home­li­ness, par­tic­u­larly in early Jan­uary and on Sun­day evenings, the dreaded time of be­ing wrenched away. If you visit me this month on a Sun­day evening at my ab­surdly cosy house in Ful­ham, you will think that here is a woman who is not go­ing back to board­ing school this evening or, in­deed, ever.

roar­ing log fire, car­pets ev­ery­where, home-cooked car­bo­hy­dratey sup­per, cheer­ful Bach on the CD player, dog curled up be­side me, youngest son (a day boy) not get­ting on with his home­work—it’s the an­ti­dote to board­ing life.

On Mon­day, I take my dog for a walk around the Barn Elms play­ing fields and bask in the fact that I’m not one of the left­wingers stuck on an icy pitch, hav­ing to look in­ter­ested. noth­ing in­duces more plea­sur­able Schaden­freude in the for­mer board­ing school­girl than the dis­tant sound of a ter­ri­fy­ing games mis­tress is­su­ing com­mands to other girls, only 10 min­utes into their hourand-a-half-long games af­ter­noon.

In the 1980s, I was a sube­d­i­tor on Harpers & Queen, where I be­came adept at the art of pun­ning head­lines. When I thought of the ti­tle Terms & Con­di­tions for my book about girls’ board­ing schools, I was chuffed. It would have got a nod of ap­proval from my H&Q boss, an­thony Gard­ner.

I do re­alise, how­ever, that ‘terms and con­di­tions’ is per­haps the dullest phrase in com­mon us­age to­day: so dull, in­deed, that our eyes glaze over when we read it, which we do ev­ery sin­gle day when buy­ing or book­ing any­thing on a web­site. It’s al­most be­come in­vis­i­ble, it’s so bor­ing.

We never read those terms and con­di­tions, do we? We just tick the box and hope for the best. My pub­lish­ers came up with the in­spired idea of putting an am­per­sand in the mid­dle in­stead of ‘and’. That raises the tone. It cer­tainly works for Fort­num & Ma­son.

Ears still ring­ing from the carol-singing sea­son, dur­ing which I rel­ished the pro­gres­sive deci­bels in O come let us adore him (quiet, bit louder, re­ally loud), I’ve been think­ing about the bliss of things in threes. Why do we love them?

Chil­dren adore ‘ready, steady, go’ and are fas­ci­nated by ‘red, yel­low, green’ for traf­fic lights— to this day, I dis­dain for­eign traf­fic lights that go straight from red to green with­out that all-im­por­tant mid­dle one. I love ‘go­ing, go­ing, gone’, ‘hip, hip, hooray’, the Fa­ther, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and, in the Olympics, the pleas­ing hi­er­ar­chy of bronze, sil­ver, gold.

Fairy­tales are full of pro­gres­sions of three: ‘The first was too hot, the se­cond too cold, but the third one was just right.’ Jokes about an English­man, an Ir­ish­man and a Scots­man would not be as riv­et­ing, some­how, if the miss­ing prin­ci­pal­ity was in­cluded, tak­ing the tally to four. I even love the down­ward pro­gres­sion of a mo­tor­way exit: three ver­ti­cal lines, then two, then one.

I think this crav­ing for pro­gres­sions of three ful­fils a deep need in us for a sim­ple, com­pre­hen­si­ble story that has a be­gin­ning, a mid­dle and an end.

Terms & Con­di­tions: Life in Girls’ Board­ing-schools, 1939–1979

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