Wood Interviews Colenutt

Buckland House School was not only the school of our protagonist Chester Bentley, but was also attended by author Mark Colenutt. Below he answers some questions about life at the school.

How true to life is the Buckland House School of the story?

I’d say about as true as it can get in the context of writing an entertaining and intriguing story. I could have gone into the tedious, but the art of writing is to tell the reader something they don’t know while trying to keep them enthralled, and this is in essence the sort of novel we set out to write.

So the reader may be surprised to learn that there are secret passages in the old house, used by some of the Masters at the time. There really was a bamboo labyrinth; the two dens that are mentioned are described exactly as they were and in their original location. The Turkey oak still stands as does the adjoining evergreen used to reach its first branch. We played rugby and cricket on the front lawn, talked after lights and got caned for it on occasion. There are fabulous grounds that we played in, dorms were freezing and we were set loose on our bikes for Sunday picnics in the summertime.

The litmus test of the book’s authenticity though, came when we were contacted by a group of die hard ex-students from their Facebook page who had got wind of the novel. Their love for the depiction of the place was highly important, not for the success of the novel but for my own personal satisfaction, because it was in a very real sense a nostalgic look back, which for many, but not all admittedly, were unique years. I had dearly hoped to catch that atmosphere of the Georgian pile hidden amongst North Devon’s rolling hills, all set out for us to explore.

Jacqueline my co-author at the time of writing this has not yet had the pleasure of visiting the place. She did exhaustive research on its history, and her enthusiasm for the location and the character of the school in those days only emboldened my resolve to do justice to the time I spent there.

What was your favourite lesson and why?

History, with Tommo. He was a real person that appears in the book and was described faithfully in the novel as a mark of posthumous respect for the upright and dignified man that he was. He was a good stabilising model for the children and deserves his fifteen pages of fame, if any teacher ever did.

But the reason why I liked his history classes so much was because he took it upon himself to write an entire booklet of essential British history, bound in navy blue, which was absent from the textbook. I still have the publication. So here was someone that wanted to educate a student and not just push them over an exam pass rate. And so it was, we were given probably the only history lessons on Scotland, Wales and Ireland, which always seemed neglected thereafter, despite me studying history all the way through to an MA. My bookshelves have more than a passing interest in those corners of the British Isles to this day.

And your least favourite lesson and why?

Those that have read the book may be surprised to learn that it was Latin, as the dead language is revived to breathe new life into the mystery. But the reasons were several. I started at a disadvantage as all my classmates had been studying it for a few years before I joined them. Secondly, the teacher made no effort to make it relevant. It just seemed like learning for the sake of learning, and when one is that young there is so much to learn and therefore no time to lose. And lastly, the master brought no fun or lightness to the classroom. But that experience did teach me how I thought a subject could be taught and I try and redress the balance each time I am in the classroom.

Did you have any inspirational teachers? (explain how this influenced you)

Of course, but I don’t think I have enough space or time. From my primary school days the care and warmth of Mrs. Cooper makes you want to ingratiate others with such treatment.

Who else? Well, the stature and poise of my maths teacher who makes his physical presence felt in the novel, namely Mr. Briggs. Faultlessly turned out in RAF fashion, always bolt upright, never forgot a thing and was demanding in the most professional of ways. It is something that makes you want to aspire to, but that doesn’t mean I never forget things and my back is killing me at the moment to be honest. Briggs probably wouldn’t be impressed.

What forms of punishment were used at the school?

Caning was rationed out in two brisk forms. There were four-of-the-best for talking after lights out and six-of-the-best for either climbing up inside the church tower (what a temptation) or for trying to run away (for some an obligation). Cold showers were also used to briefly refresh our memories for lesser misdemeanours. But oddly enough there was nothing particular sadistic due the clockwork nature with which such things were carried out. I dare say any of the masters really knew why these punishments were still in place, it was just the way things had been done since the Norman Conquest and they went along with it. I consider it a form of institutionalised corporal punishment, very different from the individual aggressiveness meted out by some masters of another school I attended, where they overstepped the boundaries on a regular basis. Buckland was nothing like that. Caning at Buckland was the prerogative of the Headmaster alone. Things get out of hand when individual masters are given such power. I was on one occasion caned for ‘talking after lights out’, a heinous crime admittedly, and hold no grudges about it, but please do not leave thinking I believe that I condone such treatment, far from it. I am glad things have changed, but not all things have changed in education for the better.

Were you ever punished and why? (if you dare say)

I refer the honourable reader to the answer I gave some lines ago.

Did you play a sport?

Rugby (my passion), cricket (which I never mastered), shooting (which I loved), athletics in summer (because we had to) and swimming, because you just had to, it was summer!

Was the food good?

I had my first encounter with porridge at Buckland but thanks to that mixture, accurately described in the novel, I may have entered Buckland a portly chap but I was a strapping bean pole when I came out the other side. To be fair to Scotland though, the school didn’t give the best rendition of their national breakfast, which I confess I eat regularly now and even make it for my daughter. Ex-students will call me a traitor to the cause, but maybe I have just seen the light even if my eyesight is fading with the years.

Meatballs, which I love, I was surprised to learn we all used to loathe. However, there are a few things I do occasionally make such as fried bread with plum tomatoes and rice accompanied by mince meat, liver, onion and beans. So, not all bad. However, the hardest moment of the culinary week for all of us was unarguably Sunday teatime, when all we had was a mug of tea and a small piece of cake. Now if you live in the tropics you may leave teatime at that and not want the added strain of digesting a great meal in the extreme heat, but when you’re in the colder climes of a Devon hillside then you’re going to need all the energy you can get.

What was the best thing about being a boarder?

I would say the fact that you were constantly surrounded by potential friends and partners in crime when it came to getting up to no good. You didn’t need a constant drip of social media because something had always happened to someone you actually saw on a daily basis. There was never time to get bored as there was always something going on. But the intrinsic charm of being at Buckland was growing up in such majestic surroundings, something that I think shines through in the novel and the reason why I chose the quote by Churchill about how buildings ‘make us’. It has always been part of the English ethos in Education, although not always enacted in every English school, sadly.

What was the worst?

The first day. There really is very little that comes close to that daunting moment. The only thing that could arguably get close is entering prison or probably the army. That said, once you’re over the threshold things take on a whole new dynamic and very soon your fears are dispelled and a new form of normality takes its place. Apart from that, anyone who likes snacking and is accustomed to eating what they want when they want will find it tough to say the least. If you like your creature comforts, then the sense of frugality and restraint is not for you.

Were you ever homesick?

There were times but I knew my mother worked hard and at home what would I have been doing otherwise? Watching TV? You’re home a third of the year with extended holidays to make up for the time away. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, so it also sharpens your sense of appreciation of things your parents do for you, which is often said to be lacking in today’s modern consumer lead society. So, home time becomes quality time.

How did you feel on your first night?

Restless. It took me an age to fall asleep and I knew the next morning would be torturous trying to drag myself out of bed, because now it would no longer be a case of “All right Mum, I heard. I’ll be up in five minutes!” which was naturally ten. No, there would be none of that. You weren’t the only one in the room now and so there was peer pressure to contend with. I mean, who wants to be last before you have even got out of bed?

How did you feel when you eventually left to go to Blundell’s?

Triumphant, because you felt this was the big league, there was important stuff that went on there from theatre and comedy to sports on a national level to the cadet force and the moment you would eventually choose a path for the future. Just arriving there made a sufficient impression on any young mind. Buckland was beautiful and bucolic, while Blundell’s was seemingly more imposing and challenging.

Would you recommend boarding school? Why/why not?

I would recommend the British ‘independent’ school system to anyone, but that is not the same thing as necessarily being a boarder. Living at the school as opposed to be being a day pupil intensifies that experience by a significant factor, but being away from home for such extended periods at that age is highly questionable. As a parent you must ask yourself what matters most to you, the time with your children or the belief that by making them independent at that age you are doing the right thing for their future.

I for one certainly cherish my time with my daughter, as does my sister with her young lad and neither of us want to relinquish that experience. What can life better than the chance to be a parent? The Mesopotamian kings of the world’s first civilisations understood this point from the very outset. Perhaps for Sixth Form I could entertain the notion, but I would not to be on the other side of the world while she was there.

But boarding can be highly beneficial when parents are constantly away; on the move, or consumed by highly demanding jobs. It not just the upwardly mobile parents who find themselves tied for time to be with their children these days though, it is across the board, whatever the social class or profession. The school then will undoubtedly provide such students with much needed stability and familiar faces for many of the most formative years in their lives.

As for recommending the school system, it is based on the House system which has taken centuries to evolve and is essentially a microcosm of a socialist society where everyone is supposed to benefit towards the common good. Yes, there is a hierarchy, but it is of the oldest sort: that being one of seniority. The House is arguably one of the few places then, in the western world where the ‘elders in the village’ are given rightful place owing to years served and wisdom groomed.

The schools I believe have come full circle from the days when the double agent Guy Burgess, and the writers Thomas Hughes and David Sherwin (to name but a few) went to such institutions. And despite their famous and well versed critiques of their place and time, today’s breed of school Head has much to pride themselves on. There is greater pastoral care than ever and bullying and brutality of literary fame are today up for criminal prosecution. The focus is very much on the student fulfilling their potential and that can only happen if the individual is happy. I teach at a private school in Spain that regularly sees a handful make their way to the UK for a year’s experience at boarding and they all come back thrilled at the time that they spent there. The formidable weather was incapable of dampening their enthusiasm, and they even enjoyed the food!

Many schools aim to inspire their students now, not just through the well kept grounds and ageing buildings within which the young understudies are privileged to spend their youth, but in the bountiful extra-curricular activities on offer. Who wouldn’t want just that for their child: to try their hand at throwing a pot, throwing a javelin and throwing off their inhibitions on the amateur stage? You could go to such a school and transform your outlook on many things having expanded your horizons, learnt music, perfected a series of artistic and sporting abilities and then gone on and failed dismally at your A levels, and still think it had all been well worth it.

In conclusion then, the question is answered rhetorically by simply asking oneself, “Did you have a ‘great’ time at school?” The answered should be yes. Must be yes. This has to be the mission statement of any school before the exam results are totted up and objective measures of success are considered. If the rate for school dropouts is rising then something else needs to be done to make their time worthwhile, and the ‘independent’ school system thinks it fares well in this regard. The majority of their students don’t want to leave the place for the simple reason that they actually enjoy being there.

In my case there are few of my generation from Buckland House and Blundell’s that would answer anything else but yes. We had a laugh, we were challenged, we pushed ourselves and we tried our hand at things we would never have chosen had they not been put in front of us. Hence the different tone of books now coming out that are dealing with boarding schools in a completely different light, most notorious of all being Harry Potter. I feel there will be more to come in the near future and The Last Treasure of Ancient England is but the latest spawning in this well-established, and unique, English genre.