Our lady of perpetual leather

By Phil Somerville

The following is a bit of my life. The bit about going to a Catholic boys' school in Sydney in the sixties. Groaning Protestants out there need read no further.

I was never sexually taken advantage of by the Christian Brothers. By today's journalism, makes me a novelty.

But it wasn't all Snowcap champagne and fingerbuns.

It was a few years ago now. My daughter was nearly three. My mother was whipping a little subtle pressure onto me to have her Baptised. I wanted a nice, safe, white "naming ceremony". The solution: Laura would have both. I started hitching down the ex-Catholic's retro highway. It's the one you hope will lead to the sacristy door of a compliant priest who will Baptise your child without peering into the entrails of your own faith too closely. Many doors closed in my face.

My quest took me to a parish in the Blue Mountains where I live. My interview was with a middle-aged nun regarded locally as a bit alternative or radical. She was unable to convince the priest to do the gig, but within two minutes of meeting her she calmly said to me, "You've gotten a lot of pain from your religion, eh?"

My tears came with an immediacy that surprised only one of us. I felt foolish but also angry. I felt the impotent rage of being regularly belted with a leather strap for what I knew only too lucidly at the time were no good reasons. I remembered the ritual humiliation and emotional cruelty practised by certain brothers and lay teachers in the name of class discipline.

I don't feel that I was "abused". Life at the school seemed like the norm and there was no clear view to the outside by which to judge otherwise.

I commenced my time in third class in 1963 with my first teacher, Brother Devlin. He was young, enthused, "nice". I liked him. Until one day he questioned me about a composition I had written. It was a fictional adventure yarn in the first person, as assigned. I love words. I had stayed up until midnight to write and re-write it. I wanted to please my teacher. Brother Devlin insisted my parents must have dictated some of it, because it was "too good". He humiliated me by challenging me on this. I told the truth - that it was all my own work. He kept challenging me to confess for an hour or so after class - until I broke down crying and admitted to a crime I did not commit. I remember his satisfied and smiling attempt at compassion now that I had been broken. I never trusted him again.

Brother Devlin was also a keen practitioner of the strap. When deemed a warranted response to a transgression, the Brothers wheeled out an eighteen inch long walloper made from stoutly stitched layers of hard, thick, black leather. I, and many of the class, were thrashed across the hands for crimes against the state - forgetting homework, talking in class, smartarse backtalk. It felt like the devil had tattooed you with an oxy torch. The minority of Brothers and some of the lay teachers used this hateful phallus - some appeared to enjoy the kineticism of the whole thing.

It quickly became a source of juvenile machismo amongst the boys to show no upset or pain or outrage. A few particularly moronic lads even sought out such retribution, gleefully adding notches to their belts.

Over the years I was strapped for answering back, forgetting to shine the brass on my cadet uniform, not having my hair cut, being disruptive in class.

In first form (year 7) I recall an entire morning dedicated to a sort of merry-go-round of strapping. It was a maths class. A series of problems were set on the blackboard. We attempted them on paper. Brother X (I've forgotten his name, but X suits his personality) proceeded to go round each desk, ask us to read our answer and method of calculation. If wrong we were strapped once across the hand. Most were hit; it was a difficult calculation. Round and round the class he went, over and over and over until the correct answers emerged. I broke into tears and was sent outside. I could not stop weeping great heavy sobs. The Brother came out and consoled me so that I might turn off the taps. However I can clearly recall his anger and embarrassment at my loss of emotional restraint. When I finally stopped after thirty minutes he said he was astounded that anyone could have so many tears in them.

I know that they came from a sort of impotent rage and despair at the insane injustice of the way power was being wielded against ordinary, gangly kids.

The bigger canvas of rule by fear was parallelled by one within peer groups.

Schoolkids can be cruel - the yard is cruel. There were a few bullies who hit, and hit hard - real thuggery on occasion. Here I cannot avoid cliché, for I learnt to survive by being class clown. This got me some punishment inside the classroom but gained serious barrowfulls of playground cred. If I could make the King laugh, he wouldn't have me drawn and quartered.

One particular King was Johnny Horton. He was prematurely tall by 14, had good looks, and a number one crew cut at a time when it was fashionable only amongst school psychos. He used to carry a short length of lead water pipe. He would bring it out to help emphasise some dialectic point on Cartesian philosophy by whacking you on the back of the head. I learned to crack jokes he had never heard before, and generally larked about keeping the big beast soothed with pantomime, magic tricks, sound effects, and caricature. And in this manner I managed to avoid the counselling sessions with Mr Waterpipe.

A few years after he left school I heard that Johnny had been charged with manslaughter for knifing a drunk whom he thought was propositioning him. I don't know where he is today. Probably a librarian.

Defending yourself with humour can be addictive. I don't think I'll ever get beyond the methadone programme. I became a cartoonist to put some structure to my habit. I'm lucky; I earn a living from it. However it hasn't diluted the anger and the hurt. It hasn't resolved my turmoil about God, Catholicism, sex or lead plumbing.

Visiting the radical nun that day opened it all up like a cheap jack-in-the-box whose lid I thought was long nailed down. I have to defuse this stuff somehow; water it down and excrete it.

And without taking the piss.

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