Dursleys

“And here it is worth noticing a rather curious fact, and that is that the school story is a thing peculiar to England. So far as I know, there are extremely few school stories in foreign languages. The reason, obviously, is that in England education is mainly a matter of status. The most definite dividing line between the petite bourgeoisie and the working class is that the former pay for their education, and within the bourgeoisie there is another unbridgeable gap between the ‘public’ school and the ‘private’ school. It is quite clear that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happen to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colours, but they yearn after it, day-dream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch. The question is, who are these people?”

– George Orwell, “Boys’ Weeklies”

One reason why Harry Potter never appealed to me much as a fantasy is that Hogwarts and the Sydney boarding school I attended have a common ancestor – the English public school. Reading the first few Potter books, the world of team sports and house rivalries was intensely familiar. By transposing her posh school to a realm of magic, Rowling successfully renewed the genre that George Orwell describes in his essay “Boys’ Weeklies”: the school story. The august institution with its old stone buildings and extensive grounds; the expensive shopping expeditions that inaugurate each school year; the snobbery and emphasis on sport; all of this has been revived for new generations to find “thrilling and romantic.” It’s also so disconnected from reality that it’s harmless; the same cannot be said of schools like mine, which peddle the same fantasy in the real world.

Like Harry, I came as an outsider to this privileged world. My mother was determined to send me to a private school. She learned to value this from her parents, who worked overtime to put her older brother through Newington College. Her own education was not a priority; she went to the local public school and left at the end of Year 10. I think her aspiration for me stemmed partly from a sense of missed opportunity. My father couldn’t see the value in it and refused to pay for it. So I sat a series of scholarship exams and went to interviews. Finally I won a scholarship to a school in North Sydney – the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, or Shore, as it’s more commonly known.

The school imports English anachronisms wholesale, from straw boaters to the Latin motto and coat of arms to the culture of being addressed solely by one’s surname. It’s an attempt to create a sense of tradition and august history – as much as is possible in the shallow soil of colonial history. The tone is captured perfectly by the first few verses of the school song, with its strong whiff of Henry Newbolt and Kipling and the attendant imperial racism:

Here’s to the Shore boy who loves the school,
Be he scholard, or dullard, or wit, or fool,
If he never allows his love to cool
Tradit lampada vitai.

Here’s to the fellow who works like a black,
At his books, in the field, or at three-quarter back,
May it never be ours such workers to lack –
Tradunt lampada vitai.

Here’s to the Shore boy who never says die,
Though his oar may be sprung, or his bowling awry,
Five lengths to make up, or four goals to a try –
Tradit lampada vitai.

Though the second verse is now omitted, Shore’s values have not changed all that much since it was penned in the late nineteenth century. (It was the work of E. I. Robson, the first headmaster.) The “scholard” may be glimpsed “at his books,” but overwhelmingly, the imagery is that of competitive sports. It’s for this reason that Shore owns its rowing sheds at Gladesville, its playing fields at Northbridge. The school seeks to perpetuate an English ideal of boyhood dating from the Victorian era – to turn out young men like large dogs: athletic, good-natured, and slightly stupid. As Newbolt had it, “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This sports bias is certainly reflected in Australian culture more generally; what sets Shore (and its brother schools) apart is the way it employs sport in the service of a program of snobbery and social differentiation. The standard path for a Shore boy upon leaving school is a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney – he generally doesn’t attain the marks necessary for Medicine or Law – and then a career in finance, probably as a merchant banker. Given the fees involved – tuition fees begin at $24,740 in Year 7 and go up from there – only families from this kind of wealthy background can afford to send their sons to Shore. It thus becomes a loop of privilege, wealth begetting wealth, the school acting as guarantor of the younger generation’s moneyed future.

This privilege is immediately visible in the school grounds. The school perches on a hill above North Sydney station; walking along the main driveway, a perfectly manicured lawn tapers away to a magnificent view of the Harbour Bridge and Lavender Bay. There’s a red brick chapel, trimmed with ivy, for history; the driveway is lined with a specially cultivated yellow rose, the Holtermann’s Gold. One of the functions of all this physical beauty is as showroom: prospective parents taken on a stroll throughout the grounds can see immediately what they are paying for. The school has a particular genius for raising money and is constantly squeezing its alumni – known sentimentally as Old Boys – for cash to fund its latest building project. (Shore acquired the nursing home next door – which it had been eyeing for years – for $35.2 million in 2009.) The State and Federal governments assist it with funding worth thousands of dollars per student to supplement school fees, and generous tax arrangements that wave through donations to the Building Trust as tax deductions.

* * * * *

My Dursley phase.

My Dursley phase.

Shore was a useful education in class. I felt coarse there – physically, the fat kid in an environment that prized the athlete, but also socially, grubby and poor. This was relative – we were all, broadly speaking, well off – but I became intensely aware of the distinctions. I lived with my mother and brother in a duplex that she bought with her divorce settlement money in Lane Cove, a leafy, comfortable suburb in Sydney’s northwest. Most of my classmates came from the glamorous harbourside suburbs that stretch from Neutral Bay to Manly, or the genteel upper North Shore. Their houses were large; their parents drove luxury cars; in winter they went skiing. It came down to money and the ability to spend it and beyond any specific manifestation it set a tone: confident expectation, competitive flaunting and Protestant self-satisfaction in wealth. They were like shining faucets, secure in the vast reservoirs behind them, ready at any moment to turn on in a flood.

That had been my world too while my parents were married; now Mum went to work as a carer and a cleaner. She came home exhausted from this hard physical work and sank into a chair in front of the television. Most of my classmates’ mothers were the sorts of leisured women who pour their energies into the organisation of school functions; they had the physical refinement that results from extensive pampering. Mum was a brash, rather vulgar woman; she had long red fingernails and wore every piece of jewellery she owned at once, so that her hands and arms were a clamour of rings and bangles. The gap between her and the other mothers was glaring: I began to be embarrassed by her. I was learning to be a snob.

Putting on the school uniform, I clothed myself for this world: the polished black shoes; the grey woollen trousers and blazer; the white collared shirt; the blue tie with narrow white stripes; the straw boater. The uniform served a dual purpose; on the school grounds it served to efface our individual differences, but on the bus there and back it telegraphed our difference, our special identity as Shore boys. There were uniforms for our P.E. classes, for cricket, for rugby, for our drill as military cadets, for the chapel choir. This was obviously good business – there was a shop on school grounds selling Shore merchandise – but it also created a world. For every activity, there was an appropriate uniform in some way employing the school colours, blue and white. In everything there was a form to be observed.

This sense of order was seductive, and its pull was so strong that some boys never escaped it. Among the teachers there were a number of Old Boys: some were also boarding house masters, living with their successors in a state of perpetual adolescence. They left the school only long enough to get their degrees; many were confirmed, semi-closeted bachelors. Something in the place’s atmosphere encouraged this sort of stasis. Partly it was the all-male environment, a sort of gentlemen’s club in short pants; partly it was the sprawling school grounds, which encouraged a sense of self-sufficiency, of separation. It was a world apart. The glamour of its setting also played a role, and the school’s honoured place in the charmed, small world of the North Shore. There were some boys who, on leaving, could not think of any better place to be.

One school could not house and educate all the scions of Sydney’s wealthy; Shore is part of a network of boys’ schools called the GPS, or Greater Public Schools. (They are “public” in the British sense.) Comparison with these peers is an important part of one’s identity as a Shore Boy. It’s a given that Sydney Grammar boys are more intelligent; in Shore’s scale of values that doesn’t matter so much because they’re hopeless at sport. Riverview and St Joseph’s are Catholic and to be looked down on for that reason. Much like the Quidditch matches at Hogwarts, these rivalries were played out in sporting contests. Every year, the whole school was bussed out to Penrith to watch the Head of the River, a series of rowing races on the Nepean River. For weeks beforehand, special assemblies were held to rehearse our chants – known as “war cries” – from the sidelines: “We’re beating you again,” shouted to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”.

All of this would be unimportant and faintly ridiculous if the school were not also such a site of power. It’s no accident that both Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott attended GPS schools. The former Treasurer Joe Hockey held the seat of North Sydney. John Howard sent both his sons to the school. This is their world; these are their people. In our current Prime Minister’s suave self-regard, his sportive approach to public speaking, it’s not hard to discern the Sydney Grammar debater, the winner of the Lawrence Campbell Oratory Competition. Whether they come to this world as insiders, or are catapulted into it by their own exceptional qualities or the hard work of their parents, places like Shore have a chilling effect on empathy. Within the confines of the North Shore (or the elite universities that are the next stop in these young men’s careers) they are unlikely to encounter anyone outside their charmed circle of wealth. The lucky few who move upward are contemptuous of those who do not make the leap. In both cases, the men consider themselves exemplary and set things up to suit themselves and people like them. Schools like Shore encourage habits of mind that the powerful carry into public life. This proximity to power – its hand in shaping elites – is part of Shore’s glamour: it’s included in the price tag. It’s as potent as anything that emanated from Harry Potter’s wand.

* * * * *

Shore is close to other sorts of power. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney sits at the head of the School Council. On its website Shore describes itself as “a Christian school based on Biblical foundations”. In practice this means the conservative strain of low Anglicanism endemic to Sydney, represented until recently by Archbishop Peter Jensen and his brother Phillip. These people are for a literal reading of the Bible, prescriptions on sexual behaviour, and the church as a male space into which – like Shore School – women rarely intrude. These are the foundations on which Shore’s Christian program are built.

This program runs in tandem to the rest of the curriculum, rather like one of the esoteric classes introduced in each new volume of Harry Potter. There are weekly chapel services and regular Christian Studies classes. For most of the boys in my year these were a routine to endure. The chapel services were scheduled immediately before lunch: we sat hungry in the pews, sweating in our grey wool, wondering where we’d end up on the handball courts. Only the Chaplain had the power to release us; if we didn’t attack the hymns with sufficient gusto he’d hold us into lunchtime, until he could extort from us at least a facsimile of religious fervour.

The church’s positions on sexual behaviour were explained in our Christian Studies classes with crude metaphors and videos from America. Advising us to abstain from sex until marriage, the Chaplain asked us to think of our dicks as cars. Were they luxury vehicles that we reserved for special trips, or Datsuns we drove down every back road? A video from the Exodus ex-gay moment informed us that homosexuality was an illness that could be cured by prayer. We heard horror stories about the loosening sphincters of gay men, how they required adult undergarments in later life. All this had the full weight of the school behind it; the Chaplain spoke for the institution. (The same man, now a Canberra rector, recently spoke up for the opponents of marriage equality, accosting Bill Shorten after a church service.)

These messages had dangerous effects on those of us wrestling with our sexuality, particularly if we took the Christian message seriously. A boy in the year below mine came out to the Chaplain, hoping he could be cured. When he emerged from the Chaplain’s intensive program of prayer still gay, the noxious brew of guilt and internalised homophobia landed him in hospital. I didn’t confide in the Chaplain, but I too spent time in hospital, in my case after a suicide attempt. Many of the boys in my circle of friends at school have since come out; at the time, we took cover by turning on another boy. When he reported it, our behaviour went unpunished. This is the sort of culture protected by religious schools’ exemptions from Anti-Discrimination legislation. Their freedom to practice religion trumps the welfare of the boys and girls in their care.

Shore also put an emphasis on ‘service’. Monday afternoons were reserved for cadet drill: we came to school in green fatigues and black boots. We lined up on the school oval in companies, so that our teachers – transformed, for the afternoon, into little Mountbattens – could inspect the state of our uniforms. Though classed as a service, it was more an exercise in compliance with arbitrary forms of authority. After a year of this, we could, if we chose, escape into the Air Cadets (much the same, but with a light blue uniform) or shelving books in the school library (which at least had a concrete outcome). The position of prefect, likewise billed as one of service, occasioned a season of frantic politicking in Year 11. Candidates for the coveted blue tie amassed extra-curricular activities and attended leadership courses. This was a further function of our uniforms, to denote status: even the teachers attended assemblies in the plumage of their various degrees.

This ‘service’ and the Christian curriculum invests the school and its prosperity with a sense of inevitability – that God ordained it. This is another habit of mind that Old Boys carry into life, that they are not only wealthy but right and good. It consecrates self-interest. It lies behind the monstrous self-importance of the North Shore: the impatient jostling of its luxury cars; the loud, articulate voices that fill the restaurants at lunchtime; the casual racism; the gimlet gaze that places newcomers with unerring accuracy on the social and economic scale. Their religious education allows them to proceed through life with an unexamined conscience.

* * * * *

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ends with an epilogue in which we discover precisely what the future holds for each of the characters. There is something dispiriting in the epilogue’s tidy insularity, in which the hero marries his best friend’s sister and his best friend marries his other best friend. Nothing of importance has happened in the years since school (apart from the birth of a few children); the old resentments still hold (Draco scowling at them across the platform); there is no indication that the characters have met anyone new. One child is named after an old headmaster; he is already such an adept of Hogwarts ritual that his main anxiety is which house he will end up in.

Much as I dislike it, Rowling’s ending is astute about the hold that posh schools have on their alumni. Generations of the same family attend. Glossy magazines go out to Old Boys, soliciting donations. Brass plaques are affixed to benches. The boarding house master can be glimpsed in the photo of a rowing crew, twenty years old now. The closeted gay man, sad and inert, cannot permit himself love. The school’s standards and values can be hard to shake: even if you reject them consciously they continue to plague you, whispering that you’re a failure, a sinner, a Muggle. That is why I have no appetite for school stories.