A journalist recalls an early experience.

by Alison Short

Until my retirement in 2015, I worked at the news desk of a national tabloid newspaper. I loved every second of my time in Fleet Street and, even though the arrival of the internet posed an existential challenge to the industry, there was always some dramatic new story which demanded telling. I was bloody good at my job, though I say it myself, calm, unflappable and with a reputation for nosing out colourful quotes from reluctant interviewees.

Like most other journalists of my generation, born in the 1950s, I served my apprenticeship on a local paper before graduating to Fleet Street. It was the best possible schooling in a profession which might seem glamorous to outsiders, but involves a lot of hard graft and, frankly, tedious assignments.

“You will need to earn your stripes in the provinces before working on a national,” counselled my Fleet Street mentor, George, a tough old boot who had served in the war and used military metaphors at every opportunity.

He was right. I did earn my stripes, in a series of extraordinary encounters with a truly remarkable woman.

* * *

The local newspaper which took me on served a small, largely rural, community in Lincolnshire. Life was pretty quiet and, even in the early Seventies, when these episodes took place, there were parts of the country which still seemed be stuck in a time-warp, as if the Swinging Sixties had never happened.

Most of my reporting assignments dealt with the small change of local life, from village fetes to burglaries to petty feuds between potato-farmers. I had a good time, made some good friends, but there was rarely anything to quicken my journalistic pulse. So, when my editor, a drunken old-style hack called Gordon, asked me to go to an obscure local girls’ school to interview the headmistress about their latest exam results, I remember rolling my eyes at the banality of the task.

Very little prominence was given to exam results in those days, and there was none of the nonsense of school league tables. Teachers were just expected to get on with their jobs and keep their charges out of mischief. The only thing that singled The Wolds School out from the pack was that, the previous year, one of its pupils had earnt a place at Oxford, practically unheard of in such a small school in such an unfashionable area.

“The new headmistress seems to have made a difference,” Gordon told me. “School used to be a complete dump. Poor girls bored out of their skull, waiting for it all to end. So if this,” he consulted his notes. “Hilary Underwood has found a way to make algebra interesting, we need to know about her. Good luck!”

The Wolds School was about ten miles from our newspaper offices, set back from the main road. It was late August, school was still out, so the remote grey building, with a hint of neo-Gothic in the architecture, looked more like a setting in a Victorian novel than a modern educational establishment.

“Emma Simpson?” said Miss Underwood, greeting me at the entrance, after I had parked my car in the drive. “You’re dead on time. Thank you for being so punctual. Do come in. Can I make you a cup of tea?”

Five minutes later, we were sitting in comfortable armchairs in her book-lined study, while she played mother and poured the tea.

My first impressions of were pretty positive. She was quite short, wore slightly clunky glasses and kept her hair in a bun. The skirt of her charcoal-grey suit was an inch or two longer than the fashions of the time dictated. But there was a faint hint of mischief in her eyes which suggested that she was not a stereotypical blue-stocking. I would have put her age in her early forties, although I later discovered she was nearly fifty.

“I gather your main interest is in our improved academic record?” she said, getting straight down to business.

“That’s right.”

“I’m very glad to hear it. So much of the press coverage which schools receive, particularly girls’ schools, focusses on frivolities like skirt lengths and jolly hockey sticks. People forget that the main purpose of a school is to instil leaning. Don’t you agree, Miss Simpson?”

“Well, I…“

“When a girl achieves something academically, it is always treated as somehow beside the point. Young Mary Church, the girl from the Wolds who won at a place at Oxford last year, was an outstanding mathematician, but my predecessor, I regret to say, failed to bring the best out of her. I took appropriate steps and, before long, there was a marked improvement in her academic record.”

I made nothing of it at the time, but her casual use of the word ‘marked’ was no accident, but a subtle clue leading me in a particular direction. Miss Underwood was clearly on to her pet topic and, while I scribbled down notes in short-hand, she held forth about the importance of girls taking their academic studies seriously. She then expatiated on a new initiative she had introduced in her very first term at the Wolds; half-term reports.

“All schools have end-of-term reports, and rightly. They enable parents to monitor their children’s progress or lack of it. But coming, as they do, after the end of term, they have very limited impact, in my experience. By the time school returns, important lessons have been forgotten. Half-term reports are a quite different matter. If a girl has under-performed in the first half of term, and the grades awarded by her teachers reflect that, I am able to intervene and see that girls who have been slacking buck their ideas up.”

“And how do you achieve that?”

The headmistress paused for effect and, in a spectral voice which I can still hear after all these years, said: “I cane them, Miss Simpson.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I said, I cane them.”

I was so astonished that the pencil I had been using to take short-hand notes fell to the floor and I had to scramble to retrieve it. By way of background, I should perhaps explain that my experience of corporal punishment, either in the home or at school, was virtually non-existent. I was an only child, my liberal-minded parents did not believe children should be spanked, and as my father was a diplomat, most of my education took place in international schools whose whole ethos was light years from the kind of old-school establishments in Britain where the rod still ruled. Obviously, I had heard the odd boyfriend reminiscence about the cane and the slipper and the strap and so forth, but such tales heard at second-hand are no substitute for personal experience.

Something of my innocence must have struck Miss Underwood because, without saying anything, she rose, crossed to a cupboard and returned carrying a crook-handled school cane which she placed on the table between us. It was whippy-looking, off-yellow in colour and nearly three feet long. As you can imagine, I could hardly keep my eyes off it.

“I paid less than a pound for that,” she said, with a wintry smile. “And I have to say that, in terms of raising academic standards at the school, it was the best money I ever spent.”

“Yes, I think I follow,” I said, still floundering. “So you’re saying that, if girls get bad half-term reports, you…” I smiled nervously. “I bet their hands sting.”

“Their HANDS?” Miss Underwood threw back her head and looked as if she was about to burst out laughing. “Oh really, Miss Simpson! I would never dream of hitting a girl on the hand. Perish the thought. Apart from anything else, it could impact on her schoolwork.”

“So how…”

You must be thinking me remarkably naïve and, looking back, I was. But it was honestly only now that the penny finally dropped. I stopped taking short-hand and just stared at Miss Underwood, who returned my gaze with the flicker of a smile.

“I do hope you’re not expecting me to give a demonstration, Miss Simpson?”

“Well, I hadn’t really, I mean, no, no, of course not, Miss Underwood. Unless of course, which is to say…”

“I had thought that old English expression ‘six of the best’ was familiar to everyone. I can see I was mistaken. All I can say, Miss Simpson, is that, if you want to experience my methods at first hand, as background material for your article, I should be happy to satisfy your curiosity.” With which she gave me a quizzical look and waited while I pondered my response.

Nearly thirty seconds must have passed before I said anything. There was a loud voice in my head telling me to make my excuses and leave. But there was also another, muffled, voice whispering: “Go on!” If I have a philosophy of life, it is to be found in the idea that you should try everything once, even things that are not obviously appealing. After all, if you don’t try them…

My mind was made up.

“If I understand you correctly, Miss Underwood, you are suggesting that I put myself in the shoes of a girl who has received an unsatisfactory half-term report and, er, take my medicine.”

She gave another of her wintry smiles. “I couldn’t have put it better myself, Miss Simpson. That is exactly what I was proposing. Are we on?”

I nodded nervously.

“Very well, Miss Simpson. Now I want you to leave my study, shutting the door behind you, and wait in the corridor until you hear this bell. You will then knock and wait until I tell you to enter. I shall then deal with you as I would deal with one of my pupils on half-term report. And to be absolutely clear,” she added, as I rose to leave, “I don’t want any backing out or shilly-shallying or having second thoughts. You have decided on a particular course of action. You must stick to that decision. I trust I make myself clear?”
I nodded again. My mouth was dry and my hand was shaking as I took hold of the door handle and made my exit. Part of me was kicking myself for my bravado, but I was also oddly excited. This certainly beat village fetes and magistrates’ courts and the other small change of provincial journalism!

I am not sure how long Miss Underwood kept me waiting. It was probably no more than five minutes, though it felt like longer, as the tension mounted. But then there was a ring of a bell, a barked “Enter!” and I found myself once more in the headmistress’s study, confronted by a very different headmistress.

While I had been in the corridor, Miss Underwood had cleared away the tea things and put on her academic gown. She was now standing behind her desk, holding the cane in front of her. She surveyed me coldly and there was not a hint of a twinkle in her eyes. It was like meeting a completely different woman.

“You know why you’re here, Simpson. Your half-term reports are very disappointing indeed. One teacher has given you a D for effort. Another says you are always looking out of the window when you should be concentrating on your lessons. That is simply not acceptable at this school. Let’s see if six of the best can help you buck your ideas up.”

Lecture over, Miss Underwood cleared a space in the middle of her desk, came round to my side of the desk and gripped me firmly by the arm. “Now, Simpson, I want you to bend over the desk and take hold of the other side while I prepare you for your caning.”
It says a lot of for the semi-trance in which I had spent the last ten minutes that, although I had worked out that it was my bottom that was going to be on the receiving end of the cane, I had given no thought to what, if any, clothing would be removed first. So it was a shock when Miss Underwood raised the navy-blue skirt I was wearing and folded it up out of the way. It was even more of a shock when I felt her hands go to the waistband of my white cotton knickers.

“But Miss Underwood!” I yelped. “I didn’t know…”

“Well, you damn well should have known,” she snapped, and for the first time there was real anger in her voice. While I was still frozen to the spot, she peeled my knickers right down, leaving me not just red with embarrassment by horribly vulnerable. “This is not a party game, Miss Simpson, and I warned you that I will not put up with any nonsense from you. You have elected to receive the same punishment as I would administer to one of my girls, and that is what will now happen. Now get over the desk and stay quite still. This is going to hurt.”

The suspense was excruciating. I felt the cold air on my bottom, then the cane tapping my bottom, then a sudden swishing sound followed by a loud crack. The pain was indescribable; a deep burning sensation, as if someone had taken a branding iron to my backside. Then the cane was being whipped back again.
SWISH! THWACK!
And again.
SWISH THWACK!
I had been told to stay still, so I did stay still, but only with extreme difficulty. I felt like hopping up and down on the spot or rubbing my poor throbbing buttocks to ease the pain. But there was something implacable about Miss Underwood with a cane in her hand. The first three strokes had been concentrated on the top of my bottom, but she now turned her attentions to the lower, tenderer half.
SWISH! THWACK!
SWISH! THWACK!
SWISH THWACK!
It was hell. It was agony. I felt like screaming blue murder. But deep down inside, I felt a tiny frisson, not of pleasure exactly, but of something that was not quite the same as pain, something that contradicted and enriched the pain. What was happening to me?
In a daze, I heard Miss Underwood say: “Now let that be a lesson to you, Simpson,” then tell me to get dressed again. When I was finally able to look her in the eyes, she smiled politely and, as if nothing out of ordinary had happened between us, asked me if I would like another cup of tea. Then, incredibly, we made small talk about geography A Levels.
“I do hope you have got enough material for your article, Miss Simpson,” she said, as we parted half an hour later. “I hope I don’t have to tell you that some of what passed between us must remain strictly confidential. There must be no reference to your own chastisement in your article. Or you will know about it,” she added, with a menacing glint in her eye.
‘Know what about it?’ I thought, as I drove off, my bottom still throbbing.
The riddle would be answered, in the most emphatic fashion, when I next met the redoubtable Miss Underwood.

The End
© Alison Short 2020