Astonishingly, it was only in 1999 that corporal punishment became illegal in private public schools in the UK.
As a nine-year-old boy, new to this country, I wasn't at all sure why I was lined up alongside two other boys in the headmaster's study. Something about talking on the stairs, the grinning prefect had said, as we were gleefully pointed out in class. Marched off, nothing was said directly as the headmaster removed a long, thin cane with a hooked end from his desk drawer. He walked along the line and swished his cane into his palm. I remember that sound very clearly. I got the idea.
He flicked the end of it to tap the hands of the boy at the end of the line up so that he'd raise them in front of him, palm up. Once in the required position, he stepped carefully to one side, resting the cane at first lightly across the victim's upturned palm. He really understood dramatic tension, the sadistic bastard. With slow deliberation and intent, he raised it above his head before bringing it down hard and fast. The cane whistled evilly as it came down, but the boy was too quick and the cane cut nothing but air.
The headmasters face flushed deep crimson as he whacked the cane around the back of the boy's legs, barking, 'Hands out!'
Slowly a hand came up and this time the cane came instantly down in a whistling crack, giving the trembling boy no time to remove it. The boy snatched his wounded hand away to his chest. 'Other hand! Up! Up!' Barked the crimson faced torturer.
Another whistle, a crack of cane on flesh and a yelp. Twice more he repeated the punishment, extra, he said, for daring to flinch his hand away. 'Out!' He snarled, and the whimpering boy scuttled away clutching his hands.
The next boy didn't flinch and so received but two strokes. I was next, feeling terrified and weak kneed yet determined within myself that I wouldn't move my hand away. But somehow, out of fear, I couldn't raise my hands up level. 'Higher, boy!' he barked, flicking the underside of my hand to move it to the height he wanted.
And I didn't move my hand away. At least not until the cane raked across my fingers. Then I snatched it sharply to my chest, squeezing the pain away as best I could. 'Other hand! Other hand! Quick, boy!' The Master shouted through nicotine stained teeth, crucifix jangling and bouncing on its gold chain around his neck. Behind him on the wall was a portrait of Jesus, hands outstretched and heart ablaze. I stared at this image throughout the ordeal. But no help was forthcoming from that area.
The air cracked and agony burnt up my arm. And again. The second time the fire-pain seemed to sear my very bones. Dismissed from the study, the three of us sat in class, hugging our hands, tear streaked and miserable as the other kids smirked. I remember determinedly not crying. None of the boys did. Tears and sniffles perhaps, but bawling like a baby, never. It was the first time, but it wasn't the last. Cane or leather strap, as boys we were soundly thrashed as a matter of course for trivialities. Perhaps for darker pleasure. And only in 1999 did it stop.