G.V. Chappell

Growing up straight

How my father laundered me through public school

  • From Spectator Life

Attending an English public school in the 1970s when you weren’t from that world was a tough gig. Mum’s family were from the East End. Dad was what might euphemistically be called a ‘wheeler dealer’. Having had little education, Dad was determined his children wouldn’t suffer the same fate. So my brother and I were privately educated from the age of four.

Cars, like everything else, were meant to be expensive but understated. Dad obviously hadn’t read that memo

At our public school, I was painfully aware of being an outsider. Although I spoke received pronunciation like my schoolmates – regional accents were verboten – I knew I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t share the same interests. I hated sport, especially rugby, and even now avoid discussing it.

Three afternoons a week, including Saturdays, we’d be driven in rackety buses with wooden benches to the school-playing fields. The drivers were mocked mercilessly for their local accents. Being selected for the 1st XV was what many of my peers dreamed of. Not me. If I played at all, I would squelch around miserably in the mud, hoping the ball didn’t come near me. If it did, I got rid of it as fast as possible.

Cricket was slightly less of an ordeal. Although I was terrible at it, it was at least warm and dry much of the time, and we’d be able to sneak off for a cheeky fag or an even craftier joint. One afternoon a week was devoted to the combined cadet force when pupils strutted around in quasi-military uniform. Being implacably anti-authoritarian, I opted for less martial pursuits.

One term, I signed up for a classical music group. An elderly master would play scratchy LPs on an ancient music system while we listened in mostly bored silence to the hiss of static. Alarmed by my shaved head, sta-prest trousers and Doc Marten boots, I was eventually told: ‘I don’t think this is for you, boy.’ Ironically, BBC Radio 3 is now my station of choice.

Things weren’t any better academically. Apart from the artsy subjects, I was stupefied with boredom during classes or else utterly perplexed. Success or failure were public affairs. As the marks were shared for an English paper in ascending order, I started to get cold sweats when mine still hadn’t been mentioned. I’d clearly done so badly that special forms of humiliation awaited me. Tears filled my eyes when I heard the name of the boy who’d come second. I was done for.

‘First,’ said the teacher, ratcheting up the dramatic tension by raising his eyebrows and pausing momentarily – ‘Chappell’. I was stunned. Not only was I to be spared ridicule, I’d come top. Rather than looking delighted for me, he merely fired the exam paper at my head.

Life outside school was very different to my schoolmates’. Although we had the trappings of success, my brother and I always knew our wealth was, at best, semi-legitimate. Being tipped out of bed during dawn police raids wasn’t an uncommon experience. Nor was the sight of our living room carpet covered in deep piles of cash. More money than most people would earn in a lifetime.

But conspicuous displays of wealth were considered vulgar at school. Cars, like everything else, were meant to be expensive but understated. Dad obviously hadn’t read that memo. For a while, I’d suffered the embarrassment of being dropped in a bright yellow Rolls-Royce.

Having done terribly in my O Levels, I was, nevertheless, allowed to stay on in the sixth form. But the archaic environment felt ever more suffocating. Chapel attendance on Sundays was compulsory regardless of the distance lived from the school. Dad told me to say I was Catholic, which I did, and duly found myself at a Friday service. My inability to follow the rituals blew my cover, and I was sent packing. I was then told to say I was Jewish. That didn’t work either.

Eventually, the law caught up with Dad. It was as much as I could do to scrape my way into university. Fortunately, Mum had managed to instil a love of reading in me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve hoovered up books, which helped compensate for my appalling academic record.

When he was alive, Dad would tell his friends proudly: ‘Course. My boy’s straight, you know.’ Which, among his fraternity, meant that I wasn’t involved in crime. The fact that I’m ‘straight’ is in no small part due to my education, however much I hated it.


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