When I was eight years old I was sent – alone – to a residential school for children with serious chest complaints, mainly TB and asthma, in Ventnor, Isle of Wight. It was the most miserable three months of my young life. It was run by Anglican nuns, all dressed in black, looking I thought like ravens, and strict to the point of cruelty. Brought up a Methodist, I had never seen nuns before. Parents weren’t supposed to visit. We could write home to them weekly, but only letters copied from the blackboard, telling them how happy we were. We knew these were vetted before posting. I devised a cunning code to counter this, which eventually worked; after those three months my father came to rescue me.
I had blotted this whole experience from my mind, until very recently, when I discovered some of my letters home in my late mother’s effects, and looked up the place – ‘St Catherine’s Open-Air School’ – via Google, where I found a number of reminiscences that sadly mirrored my own. One told of an ‘escape’ attempt by a group of older boys; ‘two of us reached the mainland’. Echoes of Colditz! So it wasn’t ‘just me’.
I’ve never wanted to revisit the Isle of Wight since, or even allowed myself to think of it: a psychological safety-mechanism, no doubt. Last week, however, Kajsa and I went there, as part of our South Coast tour, and looked up St Catherine’s. A kind school secretary showed us around. It has obviously changed enormously since the late ’40s. It now caters for children with other kinds of disabilities, and seems bright and friendly. And we didn’t spot a single nun there. I’m glad I went. It exorcised a ghost.
The episode did nothing at the time for my chronic asthma, which I continued to be afflicted with for years afterwards. I suppose I should be grateful – after all that has been revealed recently – that I wasn’t sexually abused there; unless the nuns’ ‘slippering’ of us on our bare bottoms gave them some erotic satisfaction. If so they were welcome to it. It must be awful being a nun.
And I really don’t think the experience had any lasting psychological effect on me. Unless it was to feed into two of my later prejudices: firstly against Public boarding schools; and secondly against the Catholic and ‘High’ Anglican churches. Those nuns! I still shiver when I see a nun in the street. Or a Muslim woman in full burkah, which reminds me of them. Which is not to say that either prejudice is unreasonable in itself. Just that in my case, they’re personal, too.