My prep school didn’t have a playground, so our lunch hour was spent, Lord of the Flies-style, on Hampstead Heath. We’d set off at one o’clock and walk in pairs, disrupting the Range Rover traffic as Mr W——, our headmaster, conducted long lines of us across East Heath Road. Once we arrived, we’d sort ourselves into feral gangs and war over sticks and acorns.
When our hour was up, Mr W—— would bellow, “Lining up!” from the top of the hill. So we’d all line up, talking about the day’s battle, some of us nursing our wounds, others sipping their Capri Sun or root beer (there were a lot of American kids in my class).
Mr W——’s call of “Lining up!” was a declaration of peace. The sound calmed us down. It meant it was time to lay down our weapons and become normal nine-year-olds again.
Mr W—— was a nice man, a big, tall Old Etonian of the sort you could imagine accompanying kids on adventures on daytime CBBC shows. Once, when I cut my hand, he rushed me to a nearby private medical practice, which told us to go down the road to the Royal Free Hospital. That’s what we ended up doing, and any normal teacher would have taken me there in the first place, but I appreciated the way that Mr W—— had shouted at the unsympathetic private doctors. My hand was bleeding. Shouting was only appropriate.
He came out for dinner with my family when I passed the entrance exam for my high school. He was proud of me, and proud of my brother, too, who had got into the same school. Around this time, there were rumours that Mr W—— was having financial difficulties. Then he started showing up to work in a fancy car and people thought, “So much for rumours.”
A few years later, when I was 12, my best friend called me and told me to turn on the TV. London Tonight was on and there was an item about Mr W——, who’d recently quit as headmaster. I don’t remember exactly what the reporter said but, according to the Times, a police raid on his home had “netted videos and magazines allegedly showing children as young as five performing sex acts”. In summer 1994, the Independent reported that he had pleaded guilty at Wood Green Crown Court.
Weeks, maybe months, went by and I forgot all about the news. Then, on my way to school one morning, I saw Mr W—— strolling down Fitzjohn’s Avenue. He looked exhausted, greyer and thinner; as if he was dragging one foot in front of the other. When he noticed me, his eyes seemed to regain some of their old light and he waved. Here again was the headmaster who’d shout, “Lining up!” from the hilltop.
I vaguely understood that he’d done something terrible, but I was a kid and all of that was still incomprehensible to me. So I hugged him like I used to do and said, “Hello! Bye! Got to rush or I’ll be late!”
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine