This is the story of one of the last canings I ever received at school. It may even have been the last - it's certainly one of the last two or three but I can't really be quite certain if it was the last or not - the other two possibilities were certainly less severe and significant.
I was in Fifth Form, and I was 14 years old - as I've mentioned in previous postings I was considered to be something of a prodigy as a child and so I was allowed to enter the secondary part of my schooling two years earlier than was normal. By the Fifth Form, I'd also learned to work hard, and so despite being at least a year younger than any of my classmates, and two years younger than most, I was one of the highest academic achievers in my form. I'd made it my mission to be the Dux of Fifth Form - the first academically at the end of the year - in the hope that this would allow me to be made a prefect the following year despite my youth. I really wanted to be a prefect as I felt it would be of considerable advantage to my future after I left school - I was in the position of needing every inch of advantage I could get.
The normal methods of gaining the prestige in the school needed to become a prefect were closed to me to an extent by my age. While I wasn't bad at sport, I was still undersize and so couldn't compete to great advantage there. I wasn't on the VIII, or the XI, or the XV, or the XVIII, and it was fairly rare for anyone not on at least one of the First teams at Form V to become a prefect. The only real exception was the Dux of Fifth Form. He was virtually a token appointment - but he generally got there.
But I didn't pin everything on purely academic achievements. I tried to make an impact in any activity I could. I did my best on the sports field, I joined every school club I could and wound up running a couple of them, and - most significantly, about a third of the way through Fifth Form, I became editor of the school magazine. This became my pulpit to make sure everybody in the school knew who I was - and I used it. I catered shamelessly to the prejudices of my fellow students, I courted popularity by giving them what they wanted. Every sporting triumph was hailed as a mighty victory, every defeat was put down to biased umpiring - well, you probably get the idea.
Now, I was in Fifth Form at this point - part of the senior school. We were expected to be fairly mature, and most of the time I think we were. And it was assumed, to a great extent, that we were fairly responsible. And because of that we were given extra responsibilities and extra privileges.
One of these privileges was the right to travel into town unaccompanied. The school was fairly isolated, located between two large cities. There was a train station near the school, so getting into town wasn't difficult, but we were only allowed to do so if we had a good reason to do so - the most common reason were things like dental appointments. Up until Fourth Form, boys were not allowed to travel into town by themselves for these appointments - but from Fifth Form onwards, it was generally permitted.
Now my case created something of a dilemma. I was in the Fifth Form - and frankly, was probably one of the most responsible boys in the Fifth Form - but I was the same age as the average Third Form boy. There was also the problem that a couple of years previously (and I've written about this incident) I snuck into the city one afternoon with a friend and managed to get so convincingly lost that we were returned to the school by the police in the small hours of the following morning. That wasn't really my fault - but it did figure in the discussion as to whether I should be allowed to travel into town unaccompanied midway through my Fifth Form year.
I had a very good reason for wanting to travel into town - I needed to use the library to research an essay I was writing in an effort to win a scholarship - university was looming in my future, only a year and a half away, and I didn't have any real money to pay for further education. I'd been told by the Headmaster that this would be dealt with if needed, so I wasn't unduly worried - but I didn't want to rely on charity if I could avoid it.
In the end, after quite a lot of discussion, it was decided that I could travel into town alone - subject to some very strict admonitions about obeying every single rule of the school, about where I was permitted to go, and about what I could do while I was there.
In essence, I was permitted to travel only a direct route between the train station and the library - no deviations. That didn't worry me - the only other place I wanted to visit in town was on that direct route.
We had a day off school for some reason that week, I can't remember why, so I went into town on a weekday morning, and headed straight to the library - everything went smoothly enough, and I was finished all my research by early afternoon. I had the train timetable pinned into the sleeve of my blazer so I knew I had nearly an hour free before I needed to catch a train. So I headed to the other place I wanted to visit in town.
I can't remember what it was called - but it was one of the biggest bookshops I'd ever seen. It was a general bookshop, and also a newsagents - sold newspapers, magazines, and comics. All of us used to go in there whenever we were in town.
Now, because of my age, I had some friends in the lower forms - boys who rarely had the opportunity to get into town, even accompanied. They knew I was coming in, so some of them had given me some cash and instructions to pick up certain comics for them. Comics were a really big deal in the school for boys up to the Third Form or so. They devoured them, they swapped them, they shared them. Senior boys, like myself, were supposed to be above such childish things - but really, we weren't. We just concealed our interest a bit more.
So I headed to the back of the newsagent section of the shop to find the comics I was commissioned to purchase. There was a very large range there, but the range we were permitted to buy from was actually fairly limited.
My school was unashamedly Anglophile - everything British was worshipped within its walls. We were - and this was quite unusual in 1970 Australia, although hadn't been a generation earlier - more British than we were Australian. The school was modeled on British lines, our senior Masters were often English or Scots. We had boarders from England, we sang 'God Save The Queen' every morning. England was the cradle of civilization. The spell checker just changed civilisation to its American form, and I flinched instinctively.
On the other hand, there was America. America was seen in a rather different light. We liked America, we were taught that we had to be grateful to the United States for helping to save us in the Second World War, and because it was dedicated to protecting us (and the world) from Communism but... America was also seen as having too much influence on Australia and its culture. There were too many American movies, too much American television, America was crude and crass. The school walked a fine line when it came to the United States - we were encouraged to respect its achievements in areas such as space exploration, and defence - but we were discouraged from taking too much of an interest in its cultural exports.
In terms of comics, this attitude meant that there were strict rules on what we were and were not allowed to have. British comics were permissible, presumably because somebody thought they helped us maintain our links to the mother country.
American comics were deemed to be mindless trash and were banned. They were not allowed into the school, they were contraband, and possession was severely punished.
I picked the comics I'd been asked to buy off the shelves - and then walking to the counter a magazine caught my eye. A fairly plain cover - just a Christmas ornament on it. It was called 'MAD'. I'd heard of MAD magazine - I'd been deputy editor of the schools magazine the previous year and our editor had constantly raved about wanting to make our magazine more like MAD or OZ - he had a very serious interest in radical journalism, though there were real limits on how far he could take things with our school paper. I'd never seen MAD prior to this though, so out of curiosity I picked it up and leafed through it.
The first page I flipped to had a cartoon of a hippy being chased by a truncheon wielding police officer. I loved it - I had a real hatred at this time for hippies - I wasn't too impressed with the peace movement in general, but I loathed hippies. I continued leafing through - I remember a page about sewing machines - I don't really remember what else was in there (well, except for something I didn't notice at the time, but I'll describe a little bit later).
I decided to buy a copy - mainly because I wanted that cartoon of the hippy for my next issue of the school magazine - in the tradition of school magazines everywhere, I routinely stole material from other publications. So I headed up to the counter, placed the pile of comics and MAD in front of the assistant and started counting out my money.
"Hang on." She held up the issue of MAD. "This is American, I know the rules at your school." Not surprising really - this shop had a lot of dealings with the school, supplying most of our textbooks.
"No, it's all right - that won't break any rules."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." I was sure - it wasn't in the comics section, and it didn't seem like a comic to me. I did intend to check with my House Master before I lent it to anyone that there wouldn't be any objections but I would have done that with any magazine.
She shrugged, and placed it into the bag with the others.
I returned to the station, boarded the next train, and returned to school. The first thing I did was head into the old building to sign in - this was a fairly recent innovation - you had to sign a register whenever you were leaving the school grounds and sign back in when you had returned. Pinned to a noticeboard behind the register was a note.
"Rysher, report to Mr. Keanes immediately on return."
Mr. Keanes was our Deputy Headmaster and a man who, to be honest, scared me a great deal. Along with the Headmaster, he was the only Master in the school empowered to flog boys - that is, to cane them on the bare buttocks. He did not do this very often, but he inflicted normal canings an awful lot and rumour had it that the only reason he didn't flog more often was because he didn't want to undercut the Headmaster's authority by doing it more often than he did. Our Headmaster made ready use of the cane, including public beatings as well as flogging when he felt it was necessary, but everybody knew that he used the cane far less often than he could have. With Mr. Keanes, you had a very different feeling - to him the cane was as much a part of teaching as chalk and a blackboard, a tool to be routinely used without hesitation.
I don't want to give the impression he was some sort of sadist because that wouldn't be fair in my opinion. Really, he was just a very old fashioned Master. He was generally fair - but very severe when he felt a rule had been broken.
So when he said 'report immediately' I did just that - I ran to his office, and knocked on the door.
I opened the door, and stepped in. He was sitting behind his desk and rose as I entered the room.
"Put your satchel on the desk and step back."
He opened my bag and drew out the contents. He placed the comics in one pile, and the notes I had taken in another, and turned around to me with the MAD magazine in his hands.
"What is this?"
"Um... it's a magazine, Sir."
"It's an American comic."
"No, Sir, honestly Sir, it's a magazine," I stepped forward, "Please, Sir, let me show you."
He handed it to me, and I rather franctically leafed through it looking for something that was definitely not a comic by any definition. It took a while - I turned page after page after page looking for the material I'd seen in the bookshop. As I turned pages, I became more and more nervous - I remembered seeing lots of text in the shop - but now every page I looked at looked too much like a comic to get me out of trouble. I got almost to the back of it before I found the page with the sewing machines on it. He stood there as I turned page after page, and I could tell that he was not impressed by my claim that it wasn't a comic when I had to go nearly to the back cover before I found a page I would show him.
Finally I virtually thrust it at him, open to the sewing machine page, and stood there waiting to see how he'd react.
He stood there reading the page I'd shown him.
"Hmm, all right, Rysher... perhaps you have a point." He flipped back to the start of the magazine and started leafing through it himself. A smile appeared on his face, and I thought I was going to be all right. But he'd only turned a few pages before he stopped dead.
"Rysher - take off your blazer."
This was his normal prelude to a caning.
"Oh, please, Sir - it is a magazine, I really thought it was all right."
"It may be a magazine, Rysher - whatever you want to call it, it's absolute filth."
"Best nude performance by an actress. Best sex scene. Best performance by an actor playing a pervert. You disgusting boy."
I stripped off my blazer - I was no longer arguing. His tone of voice wasn't one that I was going to argue with. I had no idea what he was reading, but if that was at all accurate, I was in very deep trouble.
He strode over to an umbrella stand behind his door - where he kept his cane.
"Bend over and touch your toes, boy."
I did so rapidly. At this point, I was just glad he wasn't going to make me take my trousers down.
He had me in tears with the first stroke. And he delivered another five with considerable force. It was extremely difficult to stay bent over - I had no support and I constantly felt like I was going to fall over - but I didn't dare shift my position because I was so incredibly scared of this man.
When the caning was completed, I stood up. And I stood there trying not to bawl while he told me that he was going to have my pocket money stopped for a month because I obviously couldn't be trusted to spend it wisely. And he was confiscating all the comics I'd purchased.
At that point, I did start bawling, and he threatened to cane me again if I didn't stop carrying on like a baby. I managed to control myself after a fashion and explained to him that the other comics weren't mine - that I'd purchased them for my friends with their money. He stepped forward and loomed over me with his cane still in his hand.
"Did you buy that MAD for someone else as well?"
"Are you lying to me?"
"No, Sir, please Sir!"
"All right, take your comics and go - and don't let me see you again."
I left - and I ran for my House, where I charged into my room and threw myself onto my bed sobbing - he'd hurt me - he really had.
I heard someone at the door - and they moved away. A minute or so later I heard rapid footsteps and then sitting next to me was the School Captain, Charlie Blackwood - a year ahead of me, three years older - Captain of the XV, best all around athlete in the school, rough and ready, everybody's mate - everything I would have liked to have been.
"Christ, what's happened to you?"
"Mr. Keanes - six."
"What did you do?" I found out later he assumed I'd been flogged, because of the intensity of my reaction - I doubt he'd have been anywhere near as sympathetic if he'd known I'd just got a normal - albeit severe - caning. He coaxed the entire story out of me over about a twenty minute period. And then he left.
He returned after a few minutes - he had my blazer which I'd left behind, and he had the copy of MAD magazine. Pinned to the front of it was a note in Mr. Keanes handwriting telling me that he'd decided not to suspend my pocket money after all.
The magazine wasn't complete - the entire first story had been neatly excised with a razor blade - but everything else was there.
"You're not to let anyone under Fifth Form read it - Keanes said if he sees any junior with it, you're personally responsible, all right?"
"Yes - thank you."
"And I want to see you this evening before lights out."
"Yes, all right, Blackwood."
I took until dinner to calm down completely, and I quite literally did have a hard time sitting down at the evening meal - but I had to. Everybody in my house knew that I'd been reduced to bawling as a result of being caned that afternoon - I was in Fifth Form, and I needed to get my dignity back. To do that, I had to show no sign of pain or discomfort from now on. I didn't succeeded - but I succeeded well enough that everybody pretended I had.
Half an hour before nominal bedtime - for Fifth and Sixth Formers, they were fairly flexible on this point, I reported to Charlie's room.
The Captain of the School had a nice sized study/bedroom in the Old Building of the School. It was the only boys room in the entire school with a lock on the door. House Captains had their own rooms but no special right to privacy - their rooms were inspected as any other boys and could be searched as any other boys - but the Captain of the School had special privileges - at least officially. The clearest sign of this privilege was that School Captains by tradition used to keep a bottle of something which they could share with other Prefects (under strict conditions) - but Charlie had taken other advantages of his special status - he actually had about a dozen MAD magazines in his bookcase - I'd never been in the room when he'd been Captain, so I hadn't seen them before.
Sitting on his desk when I arrived was his cane - and that made me very nervous. He had every right to cane me - but I couldn't have taken it at that point.
"Hello Nathan, I won't ask you to sit."
"Close the door."
I did so - and he stood up, and picked up his cane.
"Do I have your attention, Rysher?"
"You're an idiot. What are you?"
"I'm an idiot."
"Do you know why you're an idiot?"
"Because you lost your bloody head, you little twit. I went to see Mr. Keanes after you told me what had happened. Why on earth, didn't you explain to him that you hadn't seen the story he was looking at?"
"I was scared."
"You MORON - because you're scared of the cane, you put yourself into a situation where you couldn't talk your way out of it. That is the most stupid thing I've heard in ages. Oh - I don't care how bloody sore you are, sit down now."
I sat on the wooden chair in front of his desk, he sat down on the other side of his desk, placing the cane on its top.
"Nathan - you are one of the most articulate people I've ever met. You should be able to walk into Mr. Keanes office with a copy of Playboy and walk out of it again with your hide intact. You have the gift of the gab - and you just let this happen."
"Hang on, I..."
"Shut up, or I will bloody well cane you, you smartarsed little wimp."
He grabbed the cane. "What did you say?"
"I said Fuck you - I've had six from Mr. Keanes today which I didn't deserve, so I'm not going to take your crap."
He grinned. "Good."
I was confused. "What?"
"Listen, Nathan - and I mean listen - you want to be a Prefect, don't you?"
"For Christ's sake, everybody knows it."
"OK - yes, I do."
"At the moment you haven't got a hope in hell. Because Mr. Keanes has part of the say. And he thinks you're a little coward."
"So, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to show him you're no coward."
"I don't know."
"Well, you'd better find something - or maybe not. There's no shame if you don't make Prefect - after all, you're two years younger than everyone else."
I left his room and headed to my own, where I went to bed.
I spent the next two days thinking about what Charlie had said. I scrubbed myself from the sporting teams that weekend - we were allowed to do this only once a season, and I headed down to the small cave like office behind the boilers from where I ran the school paper. We had an unusually sophisticated press set up for our paper - a gift to us from an Old Boy who was now very prominent in the world of newspapers.
I wrote my editorial, and I set up the front cover - most of the rest of the issue was already prepared. When I was ready, I took a copy to the Master-In-Charge who had final say over whether we printed or not - and had spiked an entire issue earlier in the year, and much to my surprise, he cleared it without any comment.
My previous editorial had been a tirade against the Vietnam Moratorium march, and the attempts by the communist Labor Party under Comrades Whitlam and Cairns to destroy the Australian way of life by making us all servants of Moscow - that was the general thrust of most of my journalistic efforts to date.
This time, my editorial was a piece about the evils of censorship - with specific relevance to the fact that American comics were banned in our school.
The front cover was regarded as rather surreal by most people in the school - who had no idea what relevance a picture of a sewing machine could possibly have to any of the stories inside.
But the person I wanted to get the message got the message. He made it known that while American comics would remain banned, 'humorous magazines' were acceptable, provided they contained no adult content.
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