Unpublished Mail on Sunday Article

The Headmaster’s Son

It was a winter afternoon in 1981, my first year at the Kings of Wessex Upper School, and we were on the playing field for a games lesson.
Sixth former Johnny Radford had taken charge, whilst the games teacher enjoyed an unscheduled cigarette break. But instead of teaching us football Radford decided to treat me like a football and started kicking me around the pitch.
There were fifty kids out here. Why had he picked on me? I hadn’t done anything.
But it wasn’t about what I’d done. It was about who I was. I’d been singled out because my father was the headmaster of this school. And with no teachers around my Ready Brek style protective aura had fizzled out.
“Leave me alone!” I squealed, but my girly plea did not break his resolve. His boot bounced off my shins and I couldn’t help myself,
“I’ll tell my dad on you!”
It was the one and only time in my entire five years at this school that I broke the Headmaster’s Son Code: I had invoked my father and given Radford vindication for his otherwise unwarranted assault.
Because the only honourable way to get through this potential nightmare was never to acknowledge the elephant in the staff room. I had to learn to mentally compartmentalise my father and the headmaster as two different people. Like Clark Kent and Superman, they might look exactly the same and never appear in the same room at the same time, but I had to play dumb. Whilst Ralph Wiggum might call his teacher “Mum” I did everything in my power not to call my dad, “Dad” outside of our house. From 9am until 3.45pm he was Mr TK Herring BSc.
Of course the kids didn’t make any schizophrenic distinction – I was TK Junior and this kicking from Johnny Radford was, you’d imagine, just one of many I received on a daily basis.
Indeed a quarter of a century on when people find out that my dad was my headmaster, I can see the pity in their eyes. How awful must that have been for me? What psychological effect has it had? For five of my most formative years I endured the suspicion of all of my peers? Does it explain why I have become a socially awkward, irresponsible adult?
Was it as bad as people imagine?
Certainly I couldn’t win. If I was good at school the kids would assume, “He’s just being good cos his dad’s the headmaster!” If I was naughty at school they’d say, “He’s just being bad cos his dad’s the headmaster.” If I did well at exams they’d cry, “Well of course he did well – his dad gave him all the answers.” If I did badly at exams they’d simply jeer, “How thick is this kid? He had all the answers and he still couldn’t pass!”
I did really well at exams.
I had all the answers.
I was already a painfully uncool, swotty, spotty, podgy schoolboy, but conscious of their standing in the community, my parents insisted I wear the exact correct school uniform – not trainers like all the other kids, but sensible Clark’s shoes. I carried my books in a briefcase. I think I chose to do that, but evenso dad should have stopped me at the door and said, “Come on, there are enough reasons for everyone to hate you. Take this Adidas sports bag. Give yourself the chance of being liked!” I was also forced to join the brass band. So I also lunked around a trumpet case. It was like I was some kind of Buckaroo of bullying – “How many things can we hang on this kid before someone beats the crap out of him?”
Certainly there were some humiliations that I might not have had to endure had my dad been the postman or an armed robber. In the vote for Non-Sporting House Captain (admittedly not the most prestigious of posts), I was defeated by 300 votes to 3 by Steve Tozer, which wouldn’t have been bad had I not been able to hear the woomph of all those arms shooting up as I waited outside the hall and the derisory laughter as the margin of the defeat became clear.
Surely then I can pin my adult deficiencies on my dad… but hold on. Because I had a choice. My infinitely cooler sister chose to attend an educational establishment ten miles away rather than her father’s place. Did a part of me actually crave this strange micro-celebrity.
The light pasting from Johnny Radford was not one of a thousand incidences of physical abuse. This was the only time I was assaulted in my entire time at Kings. At Middle School I’d been thumped a few times – I was rather precocious and annoying – so did my parentage actually protect me? Far from becoming a comedian to fight off the bullies, maybe I was able to serve my comedy apprenticeship unimpeded because the bullies knew it was literally not worth the aggro.
It might have been worse if I’d been the son of one of the deputy heads: the pitbull-like Mr Booker and Mrs Thatcher’s less submissive twin, Mrs Spires, were the feared disciplinarians of the school. Dad was a somewhat benign and jolly figurehead.
There was just one moment of rebellion which threatened the fragile father/headmaster dichotomy. During the minute’s silence at the Ascension Day service, in front of the whole school, I produced the most enormous belch. Everyone collapsed into laughter, the headmaster was about to explode in fury, when he caught my eye, saw me red-faced and giggling, realised I might have been responsible and had to instantaneously respond. His two personas collided – he was the headfather – what would he do? Would be humiliate us both in front of everyone? Would nepotism spare the rod and save the child? Or would he punish me more than he’d punish anyone else, to show how fair he was by treating his own son incredibly unfairly?
He chose to ignore the incident, which I thought was rather weak, but it is only now that I think of any of this from his perspective. I have complained all my life about the hardship of being the headmaster’s son, but what was it like being the headmaster at a school where your son was a pupil? This burp put him in an impossible situation and in terms of protecting me from psychological scarring, letting it go was the least wrong option.
Plus he was my dad. He could punish me when I got home!
Interestingly if I ever meet anyone from my school the first thing they always ask me is “How’s your dad?” They had real affection for him and still do. Which worryingly means if I was unpopular at school…. it wasn’t anything to do with him. I would have lost that vote in any case though it’s taken me 25 years to realise this and Johnny Radford would have found some other excuse for using me for keepy-uppy practice.
It was