Wild ways tamed by Eton's big Mac

21st November 1997 at 00:00
My parents were both psychoanalysts and had fairly progressive ideas about upbringing but they also encouraged me to be quite delinquent. At my prep school I had learned to use my fists. After about two or three weeks at Eton somebody did something very minor and I hit him.

That was just one area of my delinquency. I didn't do any work. I was very self-centred and I thought I knew everything. I was very arrogant even though I had very little basis for being arrogant in terms of results. I was quite unpopular because boys like that are not nice to know, but my housemaster at Eton, David MacIndoe, who is now sadly dead, was very sympathetic to me.

The one thing that saved my bacon was that I was fairly good at sport - although very undiscip-lined and not as good as I should have been - and he took a lot of interest in that and really encouraged me. There's a sport that's only played at Eton called the field game which was the sport that I was best at. It's a cross between rugger and soccer, so you have a scrum but you play with a round ball and when it comes out of the scrum you have to dribble it. Being a massively selfish person, it suited me down to the ground.

During my last term I became the "keeper" of the field game. Normally, the person who is captain of a sport is ex officio in the school prefect system known as POP. But I was never allowed to be a member of POP because the housemaster had a right of veto and MacIndoe did this. He wasn't saying "You are irredeemable". He was saying "You haven't earned it because your performance early on in your school career was so delinquent, you would never be a suitable person."

Other boys who were in my house if they were to read this would say "Oh MacIndoe, he was bloody useless." And he was quite strange - he didn't have a natural gift for getting on with people - but in my case he made a huge effort which consisted of placing very clear boundaries of the kind I'd never had before.

I would come to him with an interminable series of disasters - having been caught smashing windows, done for endlessly breaking rules, or just not doing the work. He was incredibly tolerant. He would say "That's not good enough, you've got to do this and do it by such and such a time." If you didn't do it, he would be really quite frightening. But he had a very good control over it because he was actually a very good actor.

In my last term I went to watch the television in a room where we shouldn't have been and he found out and gave this great speech, saying "I've failed, I've failed - all my efforts have been in vain." I could see he was really acting and I thought: "You old ham!" MacIndoe taught Latin and English to the youngest boys. He used to set us very good essays. I remember one essay was "How would you murder the headmaster?" which caused enormous amounts of excitement and we spent hours trying to figure how to do it. I did it by killing his dog, putting the dog in the bath and rigging it all up to an electric fire. McIndoe was very good at capturing our imaginations.

He was tall and thin, with a very upright stance and he had a very wide mouth and huge sticky-out ears like a character in Mad comic. As a person he was very shy and inhibited. Every night the housemasters would do the rounds and if he dropped in, the small talk didn't exactly flow.

But he wasn't particularly arrogant, nor wishing he was doingsomething else and he didn't feel competitive with people who haddone more than him. He was quite content and really enjoyed his job. He had a great love of literature and the classics and would love to talk about those kinds of things.

As the years went by I slowly became slightly more socially acceptable. The turning point was when I was 16 and my father came down to take me out for a drink and said, "Let's face it, you'll scrape six bad O-levels if you carry on like this." So I suddenly changed my tune and started working really really hard and I managed to get into Cambridge.

McIndoe died not long after I left Eton. My last term coincidedwith his last term as a house-master. I remember seeing him two or three times after that - once at a reunion and another time when he came to my parents' house in Cornwall.

He had put up with a fantastic amount. I think he must have been rather pleased with himself because he managed to think of me as a rough diamond rather than a turd. A lot of housemasters would have flushed me down the loo but he managed to create some sort of dull shine before he left. MacIndoe's wife was a probation officer, so I suppose he was interested in trying to turn delinquents into useful members of society.

Neither of my parents was very good at saying "No means No" and being really consistent, but he instilled in me the experience of reward and punishment that I had missed out on. I'm sure he knew the effect he had on me.

Oliver James is a psychologist, broadcaster and writer. His latest book, Britain on the Couch, is published by Century

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