Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Wilfred Owen
Curious to know whether that punitive instrument from the Kingdom of Fife, the Lochgelly tawse, is still being manufactured, I consulted the web. One particular firm of saddlers produced an especially robust two- and three-thonged heavy leather strap much sought after by Scottish dominies. Some would tote this instrument under their collar and down a sleeve, to be drawn with the practised expedition of a sharpshooter from the Wild West. Corporal punishment is now illegal in Scottish schools. A mother sought reassurance from her child’s school that her child would not be beaten, and when she received no such reassurance, she took the issue to the European Court of Human Rights, and won. Belting ceased, by law, in Scottish state schools in 1987, and in private schools a decade later. So the market must have dried up. But it occurred to me that there might yet be foreign interest, and that booming belt exports might be an economically healthy subsidiary to the UK’s prosperous arms industry. Why not?
Well! I rather regretted my researches. It appears that the tawse has become, in certain refined and sophisticated quarters, a sex adjunct. I curtailed my researches, but no doubt for the foreseeable future I will be regaled on line with all sorts of curious advertisements, for “accoutrements”.
The infliction of the strap was an everyday occurrence when I was in school. One teacher routinely belted you if you made more than two mistakes in a spelling test. I don’t think the word “dyslexia” was known at the time, or if it was, it would have been regarded as some kind of precious nonsense dreamed up by a bunch of lily-livered, ivory-towered liberal wets. Another teacher – his nickname was Moses, not because he was religious but because he had a huge black patriarchal beard – was the most ferocious belter I ever saw. Our day started with a ten minute head count in Registration Class; on Fridays this was extended for forty minutes and the registration teacher was charged to offer us a period of Religious Education. Moses’ idea of RE was to have us sit quietly and memorise two verses from a metrical Psalm. At the end of the period, he would select somebody at random to recite the verses from memory. Failure to do so resulted in the usual chastisement.
Most of us were rather fearful of the strap, and consequently the euphemistic warning, “If you don’t behave, I’ll warm your fingers” was sufficient to hold us in check. There was however a small cadre of boys who were forever being belted. On the surface it didn’t seem to bother them at all, and it certainly didn’t function to deter them from their aberrant behaviour, whatever it was. Girls were seldom belted, particularly as they grew a little older, but the first person I ever saw being belted was a girl, in my infant class. We were five years old. The last person I ever saw being belted was a friend of mine, who for reasons best known to himself decided to carve his initials on the surface of his desk. We were sixteen. As he extended his crossed hands I remember thinking, “Is this really necessary?”
I was belted on a handful of occasions. Mostly it was just for fooling around, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It taught me something about violence, which I observed repeatedly in my professional life, in the emergency department. Most violence is very sudden; it seems to arise out of nothing, and therefore it appears to be completely unpredictable.
Violence is a culture. When Germany started to rearm in the 1930s, one of the first things Churchill noticed from his vantage point in the political wilderness was that beatings in German schools were increasing in frequency and severity. It has been said that the most difficult hurdle to overcome in training conscripted infantry recruits is to brutalise them sufficiently that they relish bayonet practice.
I learned a lot in Primary School. I think I was lucky with my teachers. It seemed to me a benign environment. One of the first things I noticed when I went up to Secondary School was that the teachers addressed me by my surname and not my first name. I was depersonalised and turned into a cog in some sort of enormous Heath-Robinson contraption whose mechanism, function and purpose I did not understand. It all seems to me now like a wasteland. Vast tracts of it I have obliterated from my memory. I hardly learned a thing. Fortunately I was already well grounded in the three Rs. After all, if you can read, write, and count, you can pretty much do the rest yourself. It’s just as well. You can’t learn, if you can’t relax. Intimidation is the great enemy of education.
It is odd to think now that teachers who could not maintain discipline in class, and who did not belt, were disdainfully regarded as weak, by fellow teachers and pupils alike. I remember one such teacher who was summoned to the Headmaster’s office and was given a dressing down and told to toughen up. The Headmaster brought in another teacher, one of the school heavies, an enforcement bruiser (it was the bruiser who subsequently told me this). The Headmaster took out a tawse, threw it at the weakling, pointed to the bruiser, and said, “He’ll show you how to use it.” It’s all a bit reminiscent of John Wayne’s advice to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance: “You’d better start packing a handgun, pilgrim.”
And yet, any teacher who resorted to the tawse now would go to jail. Funny old world. It would be kind of interesting if one of these poor thrashed souls of yesteryear, or perhaps a group of them, in a class action, pursued their ancient tormentors in court, for historic crimes of persecution and violence. Like war criminals they might be relentlessly pursued, without statute of limitation, as by victims of a holocaust. Perhaps we will yet see these decrepit ancients with their zimmer frames, frowning in a puzzled and demented way, playing the amnesia card, as they are led into the dock. The wielders of the tawse may yet quake in their own shoes.