Rites of spring
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