You have to feel a little sorry for Mr and MrsVaughan Wilkes, or 'Sambo' and 'Flip' as they were known to their charges. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they ran a preparatory school on the south coast of England. It was no worse than many other such establishments: the food was bad, the building underheated, physical punishment the norm. Pupils learned 'as fast as fear could teach us', as one alumnus later wrote. The day began with a frigid and fetid plunge bath; boys denounced one another to the authorities for homosexual practices; and daily morale was dependent on whether a boy was in or out of favour with Flip. In some ways the school was better than many: it had a good academic record; Sambo nurtured contacts at the most important public schools, especially Eton; and clever boys from decent families were accepted on half fees. This was a calculated act of generosity: in return, the boys were meant to reward the school by gaining academic distinction.
Often, this worked, and the Wilkeses might have had reason to congratulate themselves, in the early years of the First World War, for having admitted on reduced terms the sons of Major Matthew Connolly, a retired army officer, and Richard Blair, a former civil servant in the Opium Department of the government of India. The two boys, Cyril and Eric, each won the Harrow Prize (a nationwide history competition), and then took scholarships to Eton in successive years.The Wilkeses
must have thought their investments had paid off, the accounts balanced and closed.
But Englishmen of a certain class - especially those sent away to boarding schools - tend towards obsessive memory, looking back on those immured years either as an expulsion from the familial Eden, and a traumatic introduction to the concept of alien power, or else the opposite, a golden and protected time before life's realities intrude. And so, just as the Second World War was about to begin, the Wilkeses, much to their distaste, became a matter of public discussion and argument. Major Connolly's boy, young Cyril — renamed 'Tim' at St Cyprian's, and given the school character of an Irish rebel (if a tame one) - published Enemies of Promise. While describing in some detail the harshness and cruelty of the lightly disguised 'St Wulfric's', Connolly also admitted that, as preparatory schools went, it had been 'a well-run and vigorous example which did me good'. Flip was 'able, ambitious, temperamental and energetic'. Connolly, who leaned towards Edenic moralising (especially about Eton), recalled the vivid pleasures of reading, natural history and homoerotic friendship. He devoted several wistful pages to the latter subject. Enemies of Promise, published in 1938, must have felt to the Wilkeses as damaging as the fire which burnt St Cyprian's to the ground the following year. Flip wrote Connolly a 'Dear Tim' letter about the harm he had done to 'two people who did a very great deal for you', adding that the book had 'hurt my husband a lot when he was ,ill and easily upset'.
For the next thirty years, the debate continued as to the true nature of the Wilkeses - diligent pedagogues or manipulative sadists — and as to the wider consequences of sending small boys away from home at the age of eight: character-building or character-deforming? The photographer Cecil Beaton had been at St Cyprian's at the same time as Connolly and Blair, surviving on charm and the ability to placate by singing 'If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy’.