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School survival strategies

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How I came to possess 'mysterious powers' at school
Brian Aldiss Writer
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So, the time came when my whooping cough had disappeared and I was returned home, and there I became a very naughty and contentious boy.

So, I was returned home to East Dereham, and it's only in recent years that I've understood why I behaved so badly, why I started kicking the furniture, chasing the dog, doing I don't know what, crying, shouting. It was because a) I had been hurt by the way I had been sent away when I was ill, but more than that, I grieved because I was no longer in Peterborough with all those loving and intelligent people. Quite straightforward, quite straightforward. No mystery about it.

So, how could my father deal with this? Well, he could have been more loving and understanding, but he was busy. He had the men's outfitters to run. So, he had a brilliant idea: he sent me away again! He sent me to a preparatory school. In those days there were... perhaps there still are... preparatory schools. What they were preparing us for, God only knows. But this prep school was in Bacton, and Bacton was on the sea coast, rather nicely situated. It had playing fields and it had kind of gardens that the boys could tend, and a back gate. A very formidable solid wooden back gate, that if you dared to venture through it – which was strictly forbidden – if you dared to venture through it you could then see a shingly lane and a beach hut and pebbles and then the beach, and then the grey North Sea itself.

And so that was where I spent three years, and of course, I learnt to play cricket as all boys did in those days.

What else did I do? Ah, yes! I can't help thinking I'm making it up, but I know this is true, that we were strictly told that we could not take toys to school, but we could take other things that would contribute to our education. Very well. So, at five years old, my father took me and delivered me into the hands of Mr Humphrey Fenn. What a Dickensian name! Humphrey Fenn. And of course, there was something else to be distraught about, but my father, instead of kissing me goodbye, shook my hand and cleared off. Oh, God. I still hate that moment.

But, I brought with me the two objects that I was allowed, and one was a book called The Treasury of Knowledge – I still have it, upstairs – I've kept it! The Treasury of Knowledge. And the other thing was a microscope with slides that, again, my Uncle Bert had given me. I believe that was why I took it not for any obscure scientific reason, but those two things gave me a mysterious standing, because it turned out that most of the boys that went to Humphrey Fenn's preparatory school, were country lads. They had never seen a microscope before, nor had they ever had in their hands a copy of The Treasury of Knowledge. So this gave me a mysterious power.

Brian Aldiss (1925-2017) was an English writer and anthologies editor, best known for his science fiction novels and short stories. He was educated at Framlingham College, Suffolk, and West Buckland School, Devon, and served in the Royal Signals between 1943-1947. After leaving the army, Aldiss worked as a bookseller in Oxford, an experience which provided the setting for his first book, 'The Brightfount Diaries' (1955). His first science fiction novel, 'Non-Stop', was published in 1958 while he was working as literary editor of the 'Oxford Mail'. His many prize-winning science fiction titles include 'Hothouse' (1962), which won the Hugo Award, 'The Saliva Tree' (1966), which was awarded the Nebula, and 'Helliconia Spring' (1982), which won both the British Science Fiction Association Award and the John W Campbell Memorial Award. Several of his books have been adapted for the cinema. His story, 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long', was adapted and released as the film 'AI' in 2001. His book 'Jocasta' (2005), is a reworking of Sophocles' classic Theban plays, 'Oedipus Rex' and 'Antigone'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: prep school, separation, The Treasury of Knowledge, microscope, schoolboys

Duration: 5 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014

Date story went live: 17 August 2015