The true meaning of sanctions. From bitter experience.

I was seven and a half years old when I escaped from boarding school in Dorset. In fact, I ran away twice in one night. I just didn’t want to be there, but that isn’t the whole story.

My grandfather was an exotic character, someone I seldom met but whenever I did, his adventures, the people he had encountered, and his amiable charisma added to his nearly mythical legend. He was tall, almost seven feet, impeccably dressed, tanned and athletic. His voice commanded any room, and his intellect was sharp. Although he counted world leaders among his friends, he preferred the company of writers and thinkers. When not travelling as an Ambassador with UNESCO he would return to his Fijian island in the South Pacific to write his memoirs. Sadly, termites ate them. He simply shrugged when he told me. It was rare that he should return to Britain.

After lunch one Sunday, on “Parents’ Day”, I was collected from school, driven to a nearby hotel and ushered into a side room where I was overjoyed and dumbfounded to find my father and grandfather comfortably seated taking coffee. The three of us spent a pleasant afternoon walking in the country. Actually, they walked together in deep conversation while I followed three or four paces behind, listening as best I could. The cream tea was nice at which my grandfather presented me with a wristwatch, a gift for all the birthdays he had missed, and then at four o’clock on the dot, I was delivered back to school.

I’m not sure how I felt, leaving them in that way. I’m guessing when I say it was a sense of something unfinished, questions unanswered, perhaps also of panic at not knowing when I would next see my grandfather or my father for that matter. I’m sure I must have felt excluded and ultimately rejected.

That night, lying awake in my still unfamiliar, cold and narrow bed my emotions must have turned from anguish to self-pity culminating in a terrible resolve to escape. To hunt down my father and grandfather and ask them one simple question, why. Why was I sent away to prison when I should be at home in the warm embrace of my family? So I did just that. I put on my dressing gown, crept from the dormitory, tiptoed down the long and elegant staircase, quietly unlocked the front door and ducked into impenetrable darkness beneath the conifer trees which lined both sides of the sweeping drive. It took a while but I eventually found my way back to the hotel.

Their initial amusement quickly gave way to restrained irritation. Father drove me back to school, Grandfather next to me in the back seats of the car, neither of them said a word. A thunderous headmaster greeted us and was suitably businesslike, with just the right nuance of obsequiousness, regarding the measures in place for the security of pupils in his care.

Once they had left, the headmaster turned to me and demanded I understand the seriousness of my crime and asked what it would take for me to think twice about repeating the offence. There was a yawning silence between us until broken by him informing me that he would reflect upon a suitable punishment and would let me know in the morning what it would be.

Back in bed, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep because now, added to my previous distress, I was also a very frightened seven and a half-year-old boy facing a sinister penalty. However, it gradually dawned on me that things couldn’t get much worse. In fact, I had nothing to lose, in for a penny, in for a pound. So, after waiting until I was fairly sure everyone in the building would be asleep and suspecting my previous escape route might be blocked, I crept along an endless corridor, found a fire exit and was away down the drive once more like a gazelle released from a poacher’s trap. It was exhilarating because this time I knew I was doing something naughty even though I wasn’t sure what was so bad about it.

My father and grandfather were sitting in front of a smouldering fire sipping brandy. They were none too pleased to see me. However, before they could object, the hotel concierge brought me warm milk and biscuits, she seemed to instinctively know I would be ravenous from the chilly night air and the nervous excitement of my adventures. We three, each of us the firstborn son of a firstborn son, sat in silence; the lighting was dim, the atmosphere heavy and menacing. I stared into the dying embers wishing for either one of them to say something, anything. Finally, just as I began slipping into a doze, Father slowly uncrossed his legs and said, “I suppose we had better get you back to school”. Nothing more was said.

That night, at 20 minutes past midnight by the clock on the headmaster’s desk over which I was draped, I received “six of the best” with a birch cane. There was blood and the welts took a few weeks to completely disappear but I had not flinched or made a sound.

He finished his business and stood me upright, turned me to face him and told me that life would provide many lessons in humility, “When a man’s true intentions are revealed and his actions are unacceptable, he must be sanctioned“. He added meat to the bones of that trite homily by saying, “Sanctions must be directly Targeted, Specific to reforming his behaviour and Immediately imposed”.

And to that list must also be added the word Brutal. Especially when dealing with war-mongering dictators such as Mr Vladimir Putin.

I have never run away from anything again. But it is not because of the beating I received.

The Seven Lamps of Civilisation

My past was created by others and handed to me on a plate, I could do very little but surrender. My present is of my own making, only possible because I rejected that version of myself.

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© Rod McRiven 2022

Pictures: Mitchell Luo and Alexas Fotos

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