Where The Tough Get Going
Madazine’s roving reporter, Trixie Larkspur, has just visited one of our more unusual seats of learning. Her report is given below:
It is no common occurrence for an outsider to be invited to Hardknock School, so I was pleased to be one of the few. Situated on the North Yorkshire Moors, this establishment was once a Victorian workhouse. The building, of grey stone and forbidding appearance, is referred to by its few neighbours as The Pile. It is just about as remote as a habitation could be in our crowded country.
I was a little disconcerted on arriving at the main gate and seeing above it a wrought iron arch bearing the legend ‘Enter Not, Ye Faint Of Heart’. The words had obviously been repainted recently, as if to emphasise their import. I was greeted by the caretaker, Grampus, so dubbed because of his tendency to snort and wheeze prodigiously. I did not ascertain his real name. With a stream of unintelligible mumbling, he led me along a maze of gloomy corridors – no paint or even plaster in evidence here – to the study of the owner and headmaster, Desmond Bullymore.
Dismissing Grampus with an admonition to smarten his appearance, Dr Bullymore motioned me to sit on a straight–backed, uncushioned chair that would have delighted Frank Lloyd Wright. As many Madazine readers will doubtless know, that great architect was given to equipping his splendid houses with pain-inducing furniture of his own design.
The head of Hardknock School cuts an impressive figure. A former wrestler, he is six- foot-four, massively built, clean shaven and the possessor of piercing light-blue eyes. Though I understand he is close to sixty years of age, there is no trace of grey in his luxuriant black hair. He was standing behind his desk, and after giving me a chance to look him over, he took a seat in a huge swivel chair of studded red leather which nicely complemented the impressive and totally clear acreage of mahogany that separated us.
Before arriving at the school, I was given some details to help shorten the interview – the head is a busy man. I’d learned that Dr Bullymore founded Hardknock three years ago, and that the emphasis there is on physical rigour, with academic achievement decidedly in second place. My questions about the latter were subtly deflected, though I did later manage to sneak a word with one of the senior boys, who told me that as far as general education is concerned, the school has what he called a blank sheet in terms of passes. I have not yet been able to check this. The head has two degrees, a doctorate in Life Appreciation, awarded by the University of the Pacific Isles, and a master’s in Observing International Affairs, conferred by the Polytechnic Institute of Equatorial Guinea Dependencies, Southwest Division. My enquiries into the status of these bodies have so far elicited no information.
The school caters for a hundred and twenty boys, aged from eleven to eighteen, the only female on the premises being the matron, Mrs Broadbody, a stout lady of about the same age as the chief. Each day begins with the pre-breakfast ‘throw-in’, when half of the boys the toss the other half into the school lake, then those who have been immersed get out and do the same for the others, ensuring that everyone gets a dunking.
There are ostensibly formal lessons in the mornings from ten to twelve and afternoons from one to three. These take place in two huge classrooms and attendance is compulsory. However, the boys study whatever appeals to them, or nothing at all, if they wish to remain idle. Apart from the principal, there is only one teacher, the physical training instructor, Malcolm ‘Knuckles’ Magee. Before leaving, I met this shambling mountain of muscle and immediately ceased wondering how he got his nickname. During our very brief conversation, he said that he doubles – or it seemed to me dabbles – in the sciences.
The objective of Hardknock is to turn out tough, independent-minded young men, regardless of their scholastic prowess. Twice a year, once in winter and once in summer, the head arranges what he calls field exercises, each lasting five days. No notice is given of these, the idea being to hold them during particularly vicious heat waves or cold snaps. The boys are required to move at the double around the moors, carrying sixty-pound rucksacks and sleeping in the open air, regardless of weather conditions.
Dr Bullymore suggested that we walk around outside for a while. As we strolled towards the sports fields, he told me that soccer is not played at Hardknock because it is considered too tame. The main sporting activities are rugby and cricket and in neither game is any protective equipment allowed. Not surprisingly, injuries are common. In rugby, damages to various parts of the boys’ anatomies occur almost daily. When we passed a set of goalposts, I saw what was clearly a cartoonlike outline of a spreadeagled human body imprinted in the turf. My host said that this was the result of several boys piling atop a lad who was trying to dive over their last line of defence. Cricket also produces many casualties, especially broken shins and cracked skulls, almost all attributable to the absence of leg pads and headgear. This is part of what Dr Bullymore refers to as the hardening process.
I asked about the diet, assuming that it would be commensurate with the strenuous regimen. The head replied that this was indeed the case, informing me that breakfast is always gruel with a sprinkling of raisins. Lunch is invariably lard sandwiches. There is some variety in the case of the main meal. Mondays to Fridays, this is tripe and onions, weekends barley soup, with whatever roadkill the boys have gathered during the week. When possible, added flavour is provided by fungi from the nearby woods, though this is a chancy matter as the most common ones there are amanita phalloides and amanita virosa. On hearing this I remarked that these are perhaps the two most toxic things of their kind. The head quoted from The Book of Common Prayer, saying that in the midst of life we are in death, adding that the school had indeed had two fatalities resulting from fungal poisoning, but that this kind of experience was helpful in keeping the boys on their toes in such matters.
While walking back to the main building, we encountered a lad coming the opposite way. Dr Bullymore cuffed him around the right ear, telling him to proceed more purposefully. The boy pointed at a plaster cast on his leg. “Sorry, sir,” he replied. “I’m trying. Really I am.” This brought him a clip on the other ear and the rejoinder that his best wasn’t good enough. The head told me that the lad had caught his leg in a gin trap in the school grounds, where the boys try to catch anything that might add to their food intake. That mishap was the second of its kind, the first one resulting in a leg being amputated.
I had hoped to stay longer at Hardknock but after an hour or so there I was dismissed rather brusquely by the principal, who had to deal with a report that a gorilla had been sighted in the orchard. “It’s probably one of the boys,” he said. “Most of them are indistinguishable from the great apes.” He asked me to see myself out, then strode off, bellowing for ‘Knuckles’ Magee to join him.
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