There are lots of reasons why I write fiction for children. One of the biggest is the school I went to. I hated my time there with such vehemence that I can never forget it. Somebody, I forget who, said that a writer returns to the most intense period of his life for material. My time at school was the most intense period of my life – intensely bad. Since then I’ve had all sorts of powerful experiences. I have fallen in love, I have come very close to dying, I have watched cancer turn my mother slowly and painfully into a corpse, I have had my books published and I have helped my children grow up. None of these experiences, no matter how beautiful, no matter how tragic, has ever managed to erase, or even balance, the misery of my school life.
It was a Catholic grammar school. You didn’t pay school fees. Those were paid by the state. But you had to pass an exam called the Eleven Plus to go there and it was made very clear to you that it was a great privilege to attend. The school was run by Jesuit priests. If you don’t know much about Catholicism the term ‘Jesuit’ probably doesn’t mean much to you. I think of it like this: if the whole of Catholic clergy could be compared to the Nazi armed forces, then the Jesuits were the Gestapo.
Recently, I met someone whom I hadn’t seen for thirty -five years who had been at that school with me. He told me how the school caretaker had once stubbed out a cigarette on his hand. This didn’t surprise me nor did the fact that he reported this to no one. We never complained; we never told our parents. We knew there would be no point.
I remember in my first year entering the boys’ toilets to find that in the centre of a ring of silent watchers two boys were fighting furiously. One of them, taller but lighter, was bleeding copiously from his nose and there was blood all over his shirt and all over the floor. But it did not stop him. They continued to pound each other relentlessly until one of them, the taller boy, was on the floor. His opponent, a square shouldered block of a boy, immediately began kicking him mercilessly.
After this confrontation the two came to an agreement. The shorter, heavier boy who looked, in truth, like a man already, was to be the chief bully from that day on; the other, being slightly less efficient at violence, was to be his deputy. Together they ruled the roost in the years to come.
The teachers relied on bullying as a way of maintaining order, combined, of course, with corporal punishment. If you committed any offence, no matter how trivial, you could be given ferulas which was the name given to the thick length of rubber which was used to hit you. Ferulas were often dished out in an entirely arbitrary way. I remember a teacher once ordering a boy to receive four ferulas for ‘being so ugly.’
When we reached the sixth form the school bully and his side-kick were made prefects, just as we all expected them to be. This gave their behaviour official sanction. Not long after their promotion the side-kick walked up to me as I was sitting in the sixth-form common room talking to my friends. He bent down and put his face very close to mine. ‘I’m going to break you, Keaney,’ he said.