To this day, I don’t know what my parents were thinking. And in the more than three decades during which I’ve been a parent myself, it’s become more mysterious to me, not less.
We’d lived in England once before, for a year, my 5th grade year. My sister and I had attended the American School in London during that year. But now, two years after having returned to California, we were moving to England again. My father, blacklisted in Hollywood and for some years virtually unemployable, had by this time succeeded in working in television under a pseudonym — he now had all the work he could handle — but he wanted to write movies, not television, and that market was still closed to him in the United States. In England, when we’d lived there before, he’d been able to write movies, admittedly uncredited and for a pittance, and we’d returned to California flat broke. But I suppose he now thought it was worth another stab. This time, as planning for our second expatriation commenced, my parents suggested that, instead of the American School, my sister and I attend Dartington Hall, a boarding school located in South Devon, far from London.
When people think of English boarding schools, they’re apt to think of something draconian and Dickensian, like Dotheboys Hall, the academy in Nicholas Nickleby. Or of something as traditionally starchy and elitist as Eton or Harrow. But to be fair to Dartington (and I’m not at all inclined to be fair to Dartington), it wasn’t remotely like that. Indeed, its boast was that it was the diametrical opposite. Dartington was co-educational. Dartington was what was then called a “free school.” Dartington prided itself on its radical approach to education, and to life in general.
The Dartington Estate, occupying a 1,200 acre plot of land, lies in Hound of the Baskervilles country, near the moors. It originally belonged to the Earl of Huntingdon, half-brother to Richard II, and boasts a central hall dating back almost six centuries. The estate was said to be the largest intact piece of privately-owned land in Britain. After Richard’s deposition at the end of the 14th century, the property reverted to the Crown, and subsequently, in the mid-16th century, was given as a gift to Sir Arthur Champernowne by Elizabeth I. The Champernowne family kept possession of the estate for almost 400 years. And then, in the 1920s, it was sold to Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, a well-born Brit and his American wife.
The Elmhirsts were progressives in that naïve, rather eccentric manner of early 20th century English idealists, and when they became friendly with Rabindranath Tagore, they unreservedly and uncritically embraced his theories on childhood education. They resolved to turn their new estate into a school, and their school was going to be co-educational and relatively unstructured, with few rules, no punishments, and no specific educational requirements or curriculum. Students would address teachers by their Christian names, and would be free to explore whatever aroused their curiosity and avail themselves of the teaching on offer as they pleased.
By the time my sister and I arrived, some of the purity of this vision had been compromised, and the school now prided itself on going about its educational business with rigor, teaching the traditional basics and getting its students into good universities. There was a school legend that a few years previous one student had done nothing but climb trees for an entire term. It’s possible, I suppose, that some particularly stubborn student could still have tried such a thing while we were there, but I never saw anyone try it, and I doubt very much he or she would have been permitted to return the next year. Many of our putative freedoms were largely cosmetic. I did stop going to my physical education class after the first couple of sessions — soccer wasn’t my game, and to be honest, neither was anything else; I’d hated PE in LA and was delighted to be able to skip it — and I also dropped pottery, for which I quickly discovered I had no aptitude. Those choices were apparently acceptable. But I doubt I would have been granted equivalent leeway with regard to academic subjects. And at some point in the years since the school’s founding, a night-time curfew had been established, and although we were allowed a certain specified number of hours by which to violate the curfew over the course of a term, our bedtime was recorded and the violations kept track of. Our days were scheduled with some detail (and, to my shock and horror, there were half-days of classes on Saturday as well as Wednesday), although on full days we had a block of several hours of free time after lunch, with classes resuming in the mid-afternoon and continuing until dinner.
Now, my sister and I weren’t actually forced to go. Dartington was ostensibly offered to us as a choice. But when you’re twelve years old, you’re susceptible to subtle pressures. Or maybe this, from my father, wasn’t actually all that subtle: “You don’t have to go, but you’d be crazy not to. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and I can’t believe you wouldn’t jump at the chance.” This isn’t verbatim, but it’s close. So the choice was, either go to Dartington Hall or be a boring, hidebound little nebbish and a profound disappointment to your parents. I didn’t have the fortitude back then to proclaim myself a boring, hidebound little nebbish. Today I’d wear it as a badge of honor.
But parental pressure wasn’t the whole story either. There were a few other considerations. I’m not proud of this, but it caught my attention that the brochure the school sent out seemed to promise I would be losing my virginity my first year as a Dartington pupil. “Love affairs among the students are encouraged,” said the brochure. In black and white! And it also extolled the nude swimming (only the brochure called it “bathing”) that was supposedly common in the spring months. Well, I was about to turn thirteen, puberty was mere months away, and I could anticipate the cachet back home in Los Angeles that would attend losing my virginity in the English equivalent of eighth grade. I’d definitely be the first on my block. Hell, my friends in Los Angeles would be dying of jealousy when I wrote them letters detailing the accomplishment (and you can be sure I would be writing lots of letters to that effect). So I can’t deny that that consideration went into the mix. Not that I was actually ready; I’m sure if anything of that nature had happened, it would have been an unmitigated disaster. But I wanted to be ready. I was eager to be ready. I convinced myself I was ready.
Still, lacking parental pressure, even with the tantalizing promise of pre-adolescent sex, I think I would have opted to return to the American School.
But I succumbed. And for a while managed to convince myself I was excited by the prospect. After all, everyone I knew was assuring me how excited I must be. I was willing to take their word for it. I didn’t yet realize that people always tell you that adventures they would never dream of undertaking themselves are exciting, and let you know how much they envy you. Why shouldn’t they? It sounds supportive; it’s the friendly thing to do. No skin off their noses.
We quickly discovered the school required some educational preparation. Along with our acceptances, Dartington sent my sister and me notification of what academic level students of our age were expected to have attained, and it was considerably more advanced in math (or as they say in England, maths) and the sciences than our American curriculum had provided. Our parents hired tutors, one for me in algebra and one for my sister in algebra and geometry. On my own initiative, I bought one of those “teach yourself” books at Larry Edmunds’ Book Shop in Hollywood in order to bone up on biology, and dutifully read through it. For a while. I got as far as paramecia.
My sister and I wouldn’t be utterly without familiar faces at Dartington. Tina, the daughter of family friends and fellow Angeleno transplants Norman and Betty Luboff, attended, and reportedly liked the school. My cousin Jan also opted to leave Los Angeles and attend Dartington the same year as Julie and I. I don’t know what her motivation was. My sister and I were quite good friends with her, but that surely wasn’t the reason. We weren’t that good friends. Maybe the brochure appealed to her. Maybe it was the nude swimming. Maybe she wanted to leave home. Or maybe, as with my sister and me, her parents presented it as an offer she couldn’t refuse.
There was another factor that would weigh on my Dartington experience, one which became clear to me only after we’d left Los Angeles behind and made our second move to England. Like a fish unaware of the water in which it’s swimming, I wasn’t clear about the extent to which I’d found a really lovely niche for myself in my hometown as I was turning thirteen. Both as a result of my father’s native restlessness and the changes in fortune his political situation brought, we’d moved frequently. I’d already lived in eight different homes in my life, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, and in London, and had switched schools and friends with almost every move. And it had been more unsettling than I realized; without knowing it, I was haunted by a pervasive sense of the instability and impermanence of everything in life. And if — this was even worse in many ways — if, as happened a couple of times, we eventually returned to one of the places we had left, the discontinuity always outweighed the familiarity. None of the things that had given me comfort were available anymore, or, if they were available, provided comfort. Thomas Wolfe had it right. As did Heraclitus.
So even at age thirteen, every purchase I had on my existence felt tenuous, precarious. Nostalgia, a sort of fantasy nostalgia for a life I’d never really experienced, was a constant companion. This feeling was so pervasive, so ingrained, I didn’t consciously realize I felt it. I’d always been able to make friends, that wasn’t a problem, but I had no confidence anything would last. And it wasn’t always clear to me where I belonged, where I could alight, what would qualify as home. But now, during my thirteenth year, I was in a school I liked, I had a circle of friends I enjoyed and who shared some of my enthusiasms, including a best friend with whom I felt in perfect, hilarious sync — my friendship with Andy is a subject for a separate essay, but we were as close as two friends can be — and perhaps as a consequence, or perhaps it was just a function of age, I had a developing sense of belonging, of some sense of stable ground under my feet. It was a bad time to undergo yet another major disruption. Particularly with puberty hovering in the wings, an inevitably gigantic disruption all by itself. But as I say, I didn’t realize how secure I was starting to feel until I suddenly noticed I no longer felt that way.
Nevertheless, while waiting to leave for England, and then, once there, waiting in London for the school term to start, I was still by and large sanguine about the prospect. Apprehensive, surely, but determined to look upon it as an adventure. And hey, maybe I’d lose my virginity (a thin reed I kept a very tight grip on). Even now, half a century later, those early autumn days in London remain incredibly vivid to me, each one suffused with the sure knowledge that life was about to change irrevocably. I recall taking a nostalgic bus ride to the American School in London just so I could re-experience my old commute (and I also recall my chagrin when I learned the fare I offered the conductor was no longer adequate — doesn’t anything in life stay the same?). I recall a Proms concert in the Albert Hall with Benno Moiseiwitsch performing Rach two, I recall a lunch on the boat, docked in Chiswick Mall, of our family friends Phil and Ginny Brown, I recall playing chess with family friend Peter Luboff (brother of the aforementioned Tina) in his parents’ luxurious flat near Holland Park with the early-autumn sunlight
slanting in through the front windows, I recall reading The Education of Hyman Kaplan while lying on my back on the grass in Regents Park and being approached by a drunk presumed pedophile (nothing happened; I played dumb and hightailed it out of there after a very brief exchange of words), I recall visiting the office of British screenwriter Sid Colin with my father and reading the opening pages of The Catcher in the Rye while the two men chatted. I recall going to see the Crazy Gang’s farewell show in the West End and wondering why the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it. I recall one evening watching BBC news on the small black-and-white TV in the flat my parents were renting and seeing a report on the death of Dag Hammarskjold. It’s not that any of these things were intrinsically noteworthy — well, maybe the death of Hammarskjold is an exception — but every trivial experience was heightened, was given weight and significance by the immense, unfathomable change in circumstance about to befall me.
My family visited Dartington once prior to the school term’s start. A sort of orientation visit. The countryside was stunningly beautiful, with a striking contrast of rich green foliage cheek by jowl with the austere immensity of the moors. (In my imagination, I could picture Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, a lonely silhouette staring out at the desolate landscape while contemplating giant hounds.) Totnes, the nearest town, was an ancient market town with plenty of character, funky and quaint at the same time. My family stayed overnight at a decaying hotel there, the only hotel in town, where the bell boy was a doddering, palsied old man in his 80s or thereabouts with his tongue dangling loosely from his mouth (my mother tried to dissuade him from carrying our bags, but without success), and where the sommelier actually urged upon my father a very sweet syrupy sauterne to accompany his filet of sole one night at dinner. This was clearly another world. Like a Pinewood comedy, except for the laughs.
We visited the school the next day. My sister, cousin Jan, and I were separately given intelligence tests by one of the two headmasters (they were a married couple, developmental psychologists Hu and Lois Child). I remember the one question I was unable to answer: Define the word “repose.” In retrospect, my failure to know that word seems symbolic to me. I believe I did fine on the test otherwise. After that little ordeal, we were shown around the facilities. I don’t recall having a big reaction to the tour. The venue seemed a little run-down — Foxhole School, the campus where we would be housed, had been built in the ’20s but looked considerably older — but since we were from Los Angeles, where practically everything was shiny and new, almost anything would have looked run-down to me.
Was I scared? Well, after we returned to London, as zero-hour loomed larger, I definitely began to wonder what the fuck I had gotten myself into. Worries I’d held at bay, probably through sheer effort of will or maybe just plain, old-fashioned denial, were beginning to clamor for attention. Going away to boarding school was acquiring a palpability it hadn’t had before — the visit to the school had of course added substantially to its palpability — and I wasn’t at all sure I liked that palpability one whit. It was no longer some theoretical thing out there in the distant future. The future wasn’t distant anymore. That everyone told me how lucky I was and how much I was going to love it provided a measure of reassurance, but cracks in the wall were definitely starting to reveal themselves.
The night before we were due to leave, my sister and I packed our bags. Quite a few bags, as I recall. I had a typewriter and a new portable gramophone in addition to whatever clothes I was bringing. That typewriter, which I had won the previous summer on a TV quiz show, was to become a source of schoolmate mockery once I got to Dartington, God knows why. It wasn’t really such an exotic device in 1961, I shouldn’t have thought, but apparently it was still an exotic device in Totnes, South Devon. At least for a child to possess. For what it’s worth, I kept that typewriter until several years after I’d graduated from college. It wasn’t a spoiled kid’s toy. It did yeoman’s duty.
When I saw the first Harry Potter movie, the scene at King’s Cross as children board the train to Hogwarts reminded me, reminded me keenly, of getting on the train for Devon at Paddington Station. It had much the same feel. A lot of kids excitedly or apprehensively jostling each other to load their luggage and clamber aboard. I do wonder what my parents were feeling when they saw us off. Relief? Remorse? Apprehension? Nothing at all?
Yom Kippur started that same evening. We Tarloffs were an aggressively secular family — I never went to synagogue, I hadn’t had a bar mitzvah at my thirteen birthday the previous summer — but I used to fast once a year all the same. Just as an exercise in self-abnegation, not for religious reasons. To see what it felt like. And perhaps, in some atavistic way I wasn’t capable of explaining to myself, to connect to my roots. So in addition to everything else, I was pretty sure I was going to be hungry my first day of school. (I didn’t yet realize — although, having already had some experience of British institutional dining, I should have suspected — that eating the food at Dartington was arguably even worse than going hungry. Dinner often consisted of a mound of tepid baked beans on a slab of toast. One of the breakfast specialties was white bread fried to a crisp in bacon fat. At most meals, marmite was provided as a condiment. Desserts were usually something along the lines of, and I quote, “treacle in custard.” Mind you, I ate it all — boredom usually overrode disgust — and gained quite a bit of weight in the process. But my letters home are full of complaints about how unappetizing it all was, and they were heartfelt.)
It was a long train trip to Totnes back then. Between four and five hours. It’s much quicker now, as I’ve recently learned from a glance at the British Rail timetables posted online. The only thing I remember of the train ride itself was a very poised, a rather dauntingly poised girl my age, seated next to me, asking to see my passport. When I obliged and she looked at my name, she asked, in her rather posh accent, “Ah you CHEWish?” She asked it in a reasonably neutral way, but I don’t believe I’d ever been asked that question in such a point-blank fashion before. It sounded a bit like an accusation, whether intended as such or not. I allowed as how I was. She nodded, satisfied, as she handed my passport back to me. It was impossible to tell what to make of that interaction.
We were met at the Totnes station by buses that drove us and our luggage the short distance to the school. The kids who were returning were in raucous high spirits; this was all familiar territory to them, and they were glad to see each other and apparently happy to be back. Which should have been encouraging, I guess, but somehow wasn’t. It just made me feel more isolated. My heart was beginning to sink. It had already grown dark and was quite cold, and everything about the afternoon was starting to feel alien and unwelcoming. When the buses debouched, we scrambled into the main hall where we got our room assignments — mine was in the new wing, which pleased me — went to our rooms and unpacked. Afterward, dinner was served in the dining room, but I, fasting, didn’t partake. Then we all elbowed our way to a posted notice in the entrance hall listing our class assignments. I wrote mine down, but I had no way of knowing whether I should be happy about them or not. I had no way of knowing anything.
We also received our “Useful Work” assignments that night. Dartington had what strikes me now as a very old-fashioned notion of a radical education, a sort of Fabian Society notion. I don’t say this critically; there may have been some wisdom, and certainly some decency, in the idea that we students, mostly from relatively privileged backgrounds, should also experience manual labor, and should spend some part of each day serving the community (that it also saved the school money was probably incidental). So the period after breakfast was designated “Useful Work.” It’s hard to argue with the concept, but nevertheless, the formulation has a slightly Maoist ring to my ears. Anyway, we were all practical assigned tasks to perform before the school day proper started. My first assignment, which I had for several weeks, was to clean and sweep the school halls. I didn’t know what I thought about that. Nothing good, obviously, but it didn’t sound dreadful, just boring. I later discovered that my sister was put to work in the kitchen, washing everyone’s breakfast dishes. She hated it.
During the first full day of classes, there was one isolated source of relief: Despite the ominous warning about academic requirements from the school brochure, I quickly realized I wasn’t at all behind the other students. In fact, with my Los Angeles tutoring, I may have even been somewhat ahead in algebra. I was more than comfortable in English; it might have been their language, but damn it, I spoke it like a native. History was English history, which was largely new to me, but quite interesting; we were focusing on Henry VIII’s tug of war with the Catholic Church. Lots of drama there, and my previous unfamiliarity with the subject wasn’t a problem. Music was taught by a composer named Timothy Moore, a big affable bearded fellow who resembled Johannes Brahms, and while I disliked the sing-along aspect (I’ve always resisted regimented activities) I relished the ear-training he threw in. Latin was taught by a gentle, earnest fellow named Robin Wood, soon to become a distinguished film critic (years later, Francois Truffaut would portray himself eagerly unwrapping Wood’s book on Hitchcock in La Nuit Americaine; Wood and I once had a lively argument about the auteur theory, and he was sweet enough not to dismiss my position out of hand, but to listen and take me seriously). Biology was…well, let’s just say the class hadn’t gotten to paramecia yet, so I was in okay shape there.
But still, in addition to the gnawing hunger I was feeling from fasting, I was conscious of a deepening feeling of despair. Homesickness is the simple explanation, and it was the explanation I embraced contemporaneously. But looking back, I believe the situation may have been a little more complicated than that. Yes, I missed my parents and the relative security of some place that at least felt like a safe refuge. But I also felt at sea; my fellow students seemed even more alien to me than the setting in the remote reaches of Devonshire.
And that too no doubt requires some explanation. In those days, urban kids presented a very different aspect from kids hailing from rural or even suburban backgrounds. Perhaps they still do. But a Los Angeles childhood was radically different even from the childhood experienced in other great cities. Later, when I returned to the American School and was surrounded solely by other Americans, kids from LA were immediately recognizable to one another on account of affect and attitude and personal style. And we always felt a kinship, even if we didn’t always like each other.
So while I’d hesitate to say I was more mature than my British contemporaries — I was still a child, and certainly lacked a firm sense of my own identity — I was definitely more sophisticated. My friends and I had shared a sense of humor, and an interest in the adult world, that was precocious and wasn’t feigned. It may have been healthier to extend childhood for another year or two, as my British contemporaries seemed to be doing, but that’s not how it worked in Los Angeles. We were, or at least aspired to be, hip. In any event, we understood what hipness was, and understood why it was deemed desirable. We were kids whose voices hadn’t yet changed, but we still could quote Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl and the 2,000 Year Old Man. We’d read adult books. I’d been passionately engaged by the recent presidential election; I could easily name every member of Kennedy’s cabinet. I’d been interested in the Scopes Trial and the Leopold and Loeb case, and was fascinated by the New Deal. I had developed an interest in classical music. And, as I’ve indicated, the prospect of sex fascinated and excited me, regardless of how out of reach it seemed. I was, in other words, conscious of a rich world beyond my more typical child’s concerns. I still watched cartoons, I still read comic books, I still ate sugary breakfast cereals, I still giggled at puerile pranks, but I had a wider awareness too. I didn’t sense a comparable set of interests in anyone in my age group at Dartington. The preferred school adjective of approval was “wizard,” and while I heard my classmates enthuse about wizard soccer matches and wizard cars and wizard adventure films, I didn’t sense much interest in the things that engaged me. I’d always made friends easily, every time we’d moved I’d managed it without too much fuss, but this time, for the first time, the obstacles looked insurmountable, the gap too wide.
I went to bed the second night feeling something akin to despair. And the second morning, after breakfast, during my Useful Work stint, sweeping the halls and picking up random bits of paper from the floor, one of my teachers passed by me and said good morning in a big booming voice. I could barely choke out an answering hello. I tried to hide it, but by then I was fighting tears almost constantly.
My first letter to my parents had been full of false cheer, a newsy account of my arrival and a description of my classes, but with my second, I dropped the mask. The letter was despairing. It was already clear to me how isolated and friendless I was going to feel. I wanted to go home. Or whatever passed for home. At the end of the letter, there was a pathetic P.S. request that, if my feelings didn’t change, I be allowed to leave at some point. And it ended, this letter typed on my much-ridiculed typewriter, with a handwritten addition: “I’m sorry I don’t like the school now.” In retrospect, I can’t tell if this was an attempt at passive-aggressive, guilt-inducing manipulation or a simple expression of regret, but I’m inclined to give myself the benefit of the doubt in that regard. I definitely felt like a failure, felt I was letting my parents, especially my father, down. Which of course added to my despair.
Now, I couldn’t sustain that intense level of misery forever. No one could. The crying stopped after the second day. A sort of routine began to set in, even if it was a joyless routine. Maybe that’s what prison life is like after the initial shock.
A few things became apparent quickly. I could handle the classwork fine. If anything, despite that ominous brochure, it was easier than what was demanded in the LA public schools of the time. While trying to be open to my classmates — and I was a reasonably friendly kid — I couldn’t establish a groove with any of them. I liked and looked up to some of the older students in the school, some of whom weren’t automatically rejecting of me. One referred to me as “precocious,” which I took to be a compliment, although in retrospect I’m not sure it was meant as one. Another, when I rather timorously asked whether it was annoying for me to hang around with him and his friends, was kind enough to say, “No, we just can’t understand why they’ve put you with your age group.” But nevertheless, I was keenly conscious of not belonging with those older others, of not really fitting in. And not all of them were nice about it. Some were perfectly happy to let me know my concerns were justified. Even gleeful about it, in that characteristically British, hyper-articulate, wounding manner (I’m talking about you, Andrew Tate, wherever you are today, and I hope it’s somewhere unpleasant).
It was also clear that those ostensibly encouraged “love affairs among the students” weren’t going to be coming my way in the foreseeable future. In the course of the first term, I think I did see one get initiated, between two of the older kids. In early December, at one of the dancing parties that were occasionally held in students’ rooms — they were called “sessions” for some incomprehensible reason — two attractive teenagers started dancing close and kissing and then slipped away, not to be seen again till morning. If it happened to anyone else, I sure wasn’t aware of it. Oh, except for two teachers; the spinsterish, pockmarked geography teacher and the hunchbacked maths teacher began an improbable relationship at some point, and afterward they were so publicly lovey-dovey it was obvious even to a thirteen-year-old.
But neither of those events conduced to my greater happiness, although I wasn’t so small-minded as to begrudge the two lucky couples.
It’s impossible to lay all the blame on the school, of course. Most of the students seemed to like the place. Family friend Tina liked it, my cousin Jan liked it. I thought my sister liked it until I learned otherwise a few months later. But it was definitely a bad fit for me. I couldn’t connect. Maybe for the first time in my life, I was simply unable to connect.
But as I was saying, after the first few days of almost unendurable unhappiness, things reached a sort of emotional equilibrium, and I could go about my business without fighting tears. Days tended to run into one another without much differentiation. I did my useful work (after a couple of weeks, I was transferred from sweeping the halls to acting as an assistant to the previously mentioned pockmarked geography teacher; she had me take a census of every map in the geography room, of which there were, as you’d expect, a massive number; it was a dreary business, but marginally better than sweeping floors), I went to my classes (except, as noted, PT and pottery, which I invariably cut), and I hid out in my room a lot, reading and listening to music and brooding. Puberty was striking. My situation made me moody, but so, I’m willing to hazard, did the new hormones flooding my system.
I don’t remember having an overwhelming amount of homework (or “prep,” as it was called). I did a lot of reading on my own. There wasn’t a lot to do otherwise, and there weren’t many people for me to hang out with. So I spent a lot of solitary time in my room reading. I pretty much devoured whatever books I could get my hands on without much in the way of discrimination.
I’d occasionally drop in on my cousin, her room one floor below mine in the same building, to shoot the breeze, and to chat with her new boyfriend Peter, who fortunately treated me decently rather than as a cock-blocking pest. I’d also talk to my sister now and then, although less than I might have expected (perhaps only because her room was on the other side of the quad). I’d sometimes talk to or exchange banter with one of the older kids, especially Peter Adler, the son of blacklisted American harmonica player Larry Adler, and himself a talented musician and a sort of BMOC, and someone I especially admired; but I was either too shy or too wise to crowd him very much. I’d play chess or read an American magazine in the common room.
During the long daily afternoon breaks I frequently took extended walks around the estate and surrounding countryside. The area was beautiful, the estate itself lovely and astonishingly variegated. There was lush meadowland and dense forest, there were the moors, there were winding country lanes, there was a quaint little country shop where you could buy “ice lollies” (the Devon equivalent of popsicles) and ice cream (Devon was legendary for its dairy products, and the local ice cream was instantly recognizable by virtue of its yellowish color and its rich mouth feel). The unassuming River Dart flowed nearby. Immediately behind the Great Hall, still occupied by the Elmhirsts, less than a mile from the Foxhole campus, was an ancient tilting ground with a straight line of twelve almost identical Irish yew trees, dubbed the Twelve Apostles (planted in 1830, I have since learned, partly in order to prevent the Elmhirst children of the time from witnessing the bear baiting that still took place on in the grounds). On a hill overlooking the Apostles and the terraced green tilting field was a stand of horse chestnuts and —somewhat incongruously — a large Henry Moore reclining woman. Many afternoons I would wander alone through a woodsy area and over to the estate, not entirely insensible of looking like a chubby, melancholy young Werther, or perhaps Beethoven stomping across the Heiligenstadt farmland, and lean against the Moore statue and stare out at the landscape. And, pitifully, fantasize that the Elmhirsts would see me there, alone and palely loitering, take pity on me, and invite me in for tea and/or sympathy. I would have been happy to forgo the tea.
Wednesdays and Saturdays, as I mentioned, were half days. Saturday was market day in Totnes, and I occasionally took the bus into town to look around. But in truth, there wasn’t much to do there, since I wasn’t a farmer with produce to sell or a craftsman with hand-made tchotchkes (South Devon was traditionally and remains a craft center in Britain). Sometimes I went to the cinema with some of the older kids, somehow gaining admittance to X-rated films — not porn, but films with adult themes — sometimes I just wandered aimlessly for an hour or two before hopping the bus back to the school and the lonely safety of my room. On excursions like that, I did, when I could, piggy-back on either my cousin’s or my sister’s circle of friends, but even when they were good-natured about my presence, I never shook the feeling I was there on sufferance, my presence tolerated rather than welcomed.
My sister and I returned to London once during that term, for the half-term holiday, which coincided with Guy Fawkes Day. I think the whole school emptied out for the long weekend. But it wasn’t a comfortable visit. I was glad to be home, or what passed for home, my parents’ newly-rented, rather cramped flat off Kensington High Street, but I was conscious that it constituted only a few days’ respite. And it wasn’t hard to notice my father’s impatience with my wretchedness, which I doubtless made little effort to conceal. We saw Oliver! in the West End, we wandered through The City looking into quaint old curiosity shops, we went to a big party in the country where, toward the end, “the Guy” was burned atop a huge bonfire. But the prospect of returning to Devon loomed over every event; my father’s irritability did too.
During the term, my parents visited my sister and me at school a number of times. My sister tells me they came every fortnight; I don’t doubt her, although I don’t recall that level of frequency or regularity. But in any case, on one of those visits, sometime in late November or early December, my father told me I could leave after the term ended. I was astonished; there had been no hint of the possibility of early release up to then. For a time, I was actually in a quandary about it: It was an outcome I’d been longing for, but I felt seriously guilty about availing myself of it. I verbally agonized over the decision, no doubt at maddening length, until my father finally cut me off: “Just stop. You know you’re going to leave.” So that was that.
I didn’t have second thoughts about the decision in the weeks remaining before the Christmas holidays. Life, however, was more bearable knowing I was going to be leaving soon. It lent the days a kind of poignancy. A number of teachers told me they were sorry I was leaving, which was nice. Not many fellow students did, though. On the plus side, nobody said good riddance. Not even Andrew Tate.
As things turned out, the aftermath required some luck, and I was lucky. Getting into the American School in London, a small school housed in those days in two old buildings on the eastern side of Regents Park, just south of the London Zoo — the school later became large and corporate, and relocated to a big state-of-the-art campus in St. Johns Wood — was ordinarily impossible in the middle of the school year. But some kid must have left the eighth grade after the fall semester, there must have been a slot to fill, because I was admitted.
My sister was scheduled to return to Dartington on the same day I started at the American School. I wished her good-bye in the morning before I left to catch my bus, asking her to convey my greetings to the few people with whom I’d forged anything resembling a bond. But then, when I got home that afternoon, there I found her, still in the flat. It turned out that when the time had come for her to leave for Paddington Station to catch the train to Totnes, she’d made a scene and refused point-blank to go. A far less demonstrative, more emotionally reserved person than I, she’d given zero indication she was unhappy at Dartington during the previous four months. Indeed, in the manner of older sisters since time immemorial, she’d even been a little supercilious — although not unsympathetic — about my own unhappiness. But when push came to shove, and to my parents’ surprise as much as mine, she’d literally threatened to kill herself if she was forced to return. So suddenly my parents were presented with having two kids in their lives once again, and crowded into the small flat they’d optimistically rented. We moved again within a month or so, keeping up the family tradition.
Before I end, I guess I need to acknowledge that my misery at Dartington was, to put it mildly, a first-world problem. Even at the time I would have freely admitted I was a child of privilege and was having an experience that many others would have coveted. But I’m not writing this as a memoir of abuse and deprivation, just as an account of a personal experience that left its mark.
As I suggested at the beginning, in retrospect the whole operation puzzles me. What was motivating my parents? If, some 30 years later, when I was a parent myself, my son had announced a desire to attend boarding school, I would have done everything in my power to dissuade him. For my sake, not his. I mean, why have children at all if you’re so eager to hasten their departure from your life? Once they go off to college you’re never going to have the same relationship with them again. Why not cherish it for the few years you’ve got?
I can only conclude my parents didn’t cherish it.
Many years later, decades later, when I asked them about the decision — and I swear to God I did it in a non-confrontational way despite continuing to harbor resentment about it; I was genuinely curious, so I deliberately tried to avoid sounding accusatory — but when I asked, my mother immediately got furiously defensive. I had apparently struck a nerve. “You wanted to go!” she fairly shouted, sounding like a little girl caught doing something naughty but determined to brazen it out. She repeated it even more vehemently: “You wanted to go!” And then, virtually in the same breath, she went on, “Of course we were eager to get you out of the house, we were looking forward to having that time to ourselves, but you wanted to go!”
It’s no exaggeration to say that after the Dartington experience, I never again felt 100% welcome in my parents’ house. Never. I felt like Robert Frost’s handyman, a person they had to take in even if they didn’t much want to. I’m not suggesting they were negligent or overtly hostile, and they certainly weren’t abusive. It was much more subtle than that. But I definitely felt it. I felt like an intruder. And here, some thirty years after the event, was my mother’s validation of that feeling. It was, oddly, almost a relief.
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