Buy this book from Amazon.com.
Please note - for the readers of Stand Before Your God, here are private photos taken at Eton College that we hope you enjoy.
Although he is only thirty years old, Paul Watkins has already published four internationally acclaimed books and been hailed as "a terrific writer" by The Washington Post, "a full-fashioned romantic" by The New Yorker, and "one of the most talented of a new generation of American novelists" by the Kansas City Star. Now, in this memoir about an American coming of age at a British boarding school, Paul Watkins makes a dazzling debut as a nonfiction writer.
There is no middle ground at boarding school. You must stand before your God and commit. Commit to the bizarre rules of your teachers, men capable of lashing or embracing you depending on their mood. Commit to the games, adventures, and whims of your classmates, a hierarchical clique of boys. Commit to the power structure and discipline of a school that has been educating boys since 1440.
From the age of seven until he was nineteen, Paul Watkins was indoctrinated into the traditions and idiosyncrasies of two of Britain's greatest boarding schools, Dragon and Eton. Perhaps every boy feels like an outsider at school, But as an American, Watkins really was a foreigner, a Rhode Island Yankee thrust into a strange new world.
With warmth and humor, Watkins vividly re-creates the joy and pain of growing up: the first time a boy must defend himself; learning to live apart from parents; dealing with death; confronting brutality; figuring out sex; the moments when a boy realizes his own strength and his own creativity.
Already a bestseller in England, where it was nominated for the Waterstone's/Esquire Literary Award, Stand Before Your God could "Become a classic," The Observer wrote. "Watkins writes with breathtaking surrealism, clarity and grace." He also recaptures the spirit and experience of childhood and adds his own powerful perspective to one of the great themes in literature: what it means to come of age.
In this enthralling and sometimes harrowing memoir, the acclaimed author of The Promise of Light gives us a masterly companion to such classics as Brideshead Revisited and A Separate Peace. Here are the masters who paddle boys for small infractions and then offer them sweets; the seniors who pamper pretty favorites and subject all others to humiliating servitude; the deep friendships and sudden, devastating betrayals. Above all, here is the exhilaration of a boy discovering his own capacities for learning and creativity, in a book that conveys with astonishing insight the pangs of growing up.
[on arrival, at Dragon School]
I swear I thought I was going to a party.
I had a new suit made of blue corduroy and new black shoes that came with a free pack of playing cards. I was seven years old.
My father drove me to a house that I had never seen before. Mother refused to come with us. The last I saw of her was a tear--blotchy face staring down from the window of our room at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford.
The door to the house opened, and a man with a stubbly chin shook my hand. He led me into a room where dozens of other boys in blue suits and black shoes were playing board games and trading marbles.
"Good-bye," my father said, and shook my hand. His face was hard and serious. He tasted the sherry that the stubbly man had poured for him. Then he put his glass down on a bookshelf and walked away from it.
I went around showing my cards to people. I said I knew some games. This place had a smell to it--boot polish and old bread crumbs and spilled milk gone sour and the flannelly warmth of our blue corduroy.
"This is a neat party," I told the man. His hair was threads of black and gray. It looked sharp, like steel wool.
"Did you say something?" he asked me.
"Where's my dad?" I flipped my cards from one hand to the other, hoping he would ask about them.
"He's gone." The man crouched down until I was no longer looking at the buckle of his belt but at his face. "Your father has gone home. I am Mr. Vicker and I am your housemaster. From now on, you must call me 'sir.'"
I reached out and touched his hair, sure that it would cut my fingers the way paper can cut you.
He swatted my hand away and stood. The hard creases of his trousers fell back into their lines.
"When can I go home?" I asked.
"You can go home in about three months."
"Three months?" His voice reached me as if it had been shouted into a canyon. I knew then that I had been tricked and that this was no party. I ran out to the road, through the part of the house where Mr. Vicker lived. This part had a different smell, of liquor and coffee and the sweetness of pipe tobacco sunk into the wooden floors.
The road was empty. The place where my father's rented car had been parked was empty, too. It was so dark I couldn't see the tops of the trees.
I didn't know how to get back to the Randolph Hotel and imagined that my parents had already left there. They were on their way home to America. Between me and them lay a long thundering journey with only a little airplane window to look out of and clouds like a cauliflower jungle far below.
I tried to remember if my parents had told me I'd be coming to this place. Perhaps they did. Most likely they sat me down and gave me a long talk, but I must not have been paying attention, because perhaps the television was on in the other room and I was trying to overhear the show.
I walked back into the house and asked Mr. Vicker, "Where's the ocean?" If I could at least find the sea, I thought, there might be some ship heading home, and maybe if I scrubbed the floors and washed dishes, they would let me stow away.
Whenever I talked to grown-ups, I looked down at my feet. My mother had tried to stop me doing this, but I couldn't help it. After I'd finished talking to Mr. Vicker, studying my new black shoes, I looked up. But he had walked off.
All of the parents were gone. Mr. Vicker cleared away the half-full sherry glasses.
The boys in blue suits still played in their room. A couple sat in the corner crying, but the rest seemed glad to be here. A few had gotten into fights and had bloody noses. Others sat trying to fix their new toys, which were already broken. I found myself a quiet spot between two garbage cans. I squatted down and watched the crowd, trying to measure out in front of me the space of three months.
For the first few days, I cried after the dormitory lights were out. I pressed my face deep into Oscar Bear's foamy yellow stomach, because I didn't want anyone to hear me. I didn't cry in the daytime, because there was too much else going on. After a while, I also stopped crying at night. Instead, I begged to be sent home. I didn't beg to the teachers or in letters home to my parents. I lay in my bed after dark and begged the great forces of magic, good or bad--whichever would listen--to send me back across the water. I offered up toys and money, then teeth and hair and fingers.
I imagined myself appearing suddenly on the beach. And I make my way up the steep slope of the garden and find my way inside. Wandering the corridors, I'd see the dining-room table, which had been made from the timbers of a ship. I'd see the lamp with the cracked blue glass and the painting of a boy on a green bicycle.
But if the forces of magic were hard on me that night, I'd appear farther from home---in Jamestown, maybe--and have to cross the bridge, hundreds of feet above the water, before I could reach the house. Or out on Dutch Island in the middle of the bay, where the black-and-yellow spiders lived. I'd have to swim across and scrabble ashore over the barnacled rocks. As their cruelty increased, the forces sent me farther and farther away. And they asked for more payment. Arms, legs, my sight. I gave them what they wanted. Some nights, if these dreams had come true, I'd have dragged myself home from the Canadian border blind and deaf and mute and on bloody stumps, with nothing more than my chin to move myself along.
The truth was that there were no deals to make. I would just have to wait it out. Sometimes I felt like a bug trapped in a bell jar: I could see outside and imagine all the things I'd be doing if I were free, but the only thing to do was wait until someone set me loose.
[wetting the bed]
The night we got back from the Guy Fawkes celebration, I wet the bed. I dreamed I was in the bathroom and in front of the trough and I peed and then woke up. Now, I figured, they would give me one of those plastic sheets to put over my mattress, which told everyone you were a bed wetter. Every time you moved, the sheet would rustle. It put you lower than the littlest Little Man, lower even than Bosom.
As quietly as I could, I pulled off my sheets. Everyone else was still asleep, Nightingale swinging his legs back and forth all the time the way a dog does when it dreams. I dragged the sheets to the bathroom and tried to wash out the pee in the toilet. I got water everywhere and started to cry because now the sheets were all wet and there was no way to dry them. It looked as if I'd stood on my pillow and peed all over the bed, not just a little in a dream.
I did wish I could die then, silently and without fuss.
Charlotte lived next to the bathroom and I woke her up with my crying. She walked in wearing a night dress that didn't even come down to her knees. She smelled of smoke and perfume and her knees cracked when she bent down to see who I was.
I had hidden my face in the wet sheet.
She knew who I was because I had a Green Bay Packers football helmet printed on my pajamas. I hugged her and pressed my mouth and nose into her stomach to stop the noise of my crying, which I could no longer control.
I said I would give her my pocket money to shut up about it.
I'd take out the maximum amount each week until it was gone and I'd give it all to her.
She gave me a clean sheet from the linen cupboard and promised not to tell and not to give me a plastic sheet, which would be the same thing as telling.
I made her swear on the Bible. She told me to hurry up and get back to sleep because I had a soccer match the next day.
One afternoon, coming back from Rugby, Cuddly told me I smelled bad.
I said the same about him.
Cuddly rested his hand on my shoulder. "No really, Watty. You do."
I felt like telling him that he was sometimes a little too honest for his own good. But I could tell he didn't mean any harm. So I kept my mouth shut.
That afternoon, we went into town to buy deodorant. But when we got to the pharmacy, Cuddly suddenly grew shy about buying deodorant, and decided to buy aftershave instead. I asked him what was any less embarrassing about buying deodorant. He gave me some long lecture, right outside the pharmacy, about how deodorant was for getting rid of a bad smell, whereas aftershave was only for getting your face to smell nice after a shave.
"But anyone can see that we don't need to shave." After half an hour of discussion, we eventually agreed to say it was a present if anybody asked us.
We bought a kind called Hi-Karate, because there was a commercial on TV where a man kicks and chops his way across town like Bruce Lee and then someone slaps him in the face with some of the Hi-Karate aftershave. The man looks relieved and says, "Thanks, I needed that." We had no idea what the commercial was about, but we bought the stuff anyway and it was damn expensive.
"It's for my uncle," we said in unison to the cashier woman.
"Oh, yes, I'm sure it is." she turned the bottle around in her hand, looking for the price tag.
"It is! It's for both of our uncles" Cuddly looked as if he was going to take a swing at the lady.
"Are they going to share it?" She punched the numbers into the cash register.
I wondered if it was going to be this hard every time I bought deodorant or aftershave. I wondered if I could just buy one giant size deodorant bar the size of a Volkswagen and have it last my entire life.
"Are they going to share it?" Cuddly imitated her shrill voice as we walked through the park on our way home.
I laughed, and then did my own imitation, as if we had come out on top of that little conversation, but we both knew the cashier lady had wiped the floor with us.
We stopped near the Cricket Pavilion and splashed the Hi-Karate all over each other. Cuddly got it in his eyes and staggered around blind with pain for five minutes. I splashed it under my arms and for the first time in my life I knew the meaning of excruciating. There was almost none left by the time we made it back to school.
Pa Vicker threw us out of the dining hall because he said we were giving off noxious fumes.
[about latest fad, at Dragon School]
The next new craze was to have a handwarmer. Handwarmers were small steel boxes, which came with fuel sticks and a velvet bag. You'd light a stick and set it in the box and then put the box in the bag. It didn't matter how hot it was outside. Suddenly you weren't anybody unless you had a pocket handwarmer burning a hole in your thigh.
Then, of course, the thing became to have the hottest pocket warmer--and of course that had to be Nightingale. He crammed his little warmer box with all the fuel sticks he could find and lit them and stuffed the whole bloated thing in his pocket. His pants caught fire and he had to pull them off in the middle of the playing fields.
Ma Blek sewed a patch over the burn hole. The corduroy line of Nightingale's trousers was going in a different direction from the corduroy of the patch, but Nightingale was not the sort to get worried about a thing like that.
"What I don't understand," Ma Blek said, "is why you bother to have handwarmers when it is warm outside. It's already cricket season, for heaven's sake!" We didn't have an answer. Handwarmers were the craze, and the fact that they had come along at the wrong time of year didn't make any difference to us.
[another fad, at Dragon School]
One year, we all wrote away to the Corona soft-drink company to get free stickers. Within two months, there wasn't a desk in the school or an ammunition can or a window that didn't have some smiling bubble-faced troll on it, advertising Corona. The company received so many letters that they wrote one of their own to the headmaster, who announced that the sticker supply line had been cut.
[after school activities, at Dragon School]
One boy named Sheldon set up a whole radio network connected by wires, which broadcast from a room at the top of the Big Hall. He called it "Dragon Radio" and spent weeks soldering all the wires together and buying up old radios to use as receivers. Sheldon gathered records from all over and got his parents to spring for a record player. He tried it out, and it ran great for a day or two, but on the third day, as Sheldon was looking out the window of his little broadcasting station, he saw Nightingale, who had been threatening him, trying to get a song called "The Sun Has Got His Hat On" played all week. But Sheldon didn't have it and besides, Nightingale had not been asking. He had been threatening. Sheldon saw Nightingale pick up the big old radio receiver set up on the windowsill of his third-story classroom and had to sit there helplessly while Nightingale threw it out the window. It sailed into space, trailing wires, and blew apart on the playground below. But not just that radio. The wires were all connected, so one radio after another flew across the classrooms and exploded against a wall or sailed out the window. Sheldon watched Nightingale smash the whole rig in less than ten seconds. He could have put it all back together, but by then his nerves were shot. "Dragon Radio" disappeared forever, and Sheldon was heard to be contemplating joining Pa Dimbleby out on his sheep farm in Wales.
A newspaper started up. The Dragon News. It was sold for 2p a shot. This was more money than Nightingale or Cuddlybum or I would ever have paid, but we strong-armed copies off some of the playground sellers, who gladly handed them over to avoid having their Teddy Bears injected with toothpaste.
[About GI Joe, at Dragon School]
When I arrived at school, the craze was to have a GI Joe.
I wished I could meet the real GI Joe. I wondered how it felt to have your face shrunk down small and remade millions of times, with lifelike fuzzy hair and sometimes a beard and sometimes not, saying Brave Things when the cord was pulled from your chest.
I had a GI Joe who talked. He used to have five different sayings, but after five minutes with Nightingale, the only words that ever came out of him again were "Mission Accomplished. Good Work, Men." In the games I invented, imaginary people were always doing things right, so GI Joe could pat them on the shoulder with his Kung-Fu gripper hands and say, "Mission Accomplished. Good Work, Men." My dad had bought a kit that made the GI Joe into a member of the French Resistance. He had jeans and a black turtleneck and a black plastic beret. I asked my dad if he didn't think GI Joe looked a little Patsy in a beret. My dad said the French Resistance were tough, so it was all right to wear a beret.
I worried that he didn't speak French when I pulled the cord. I was always worrying about the little things.
I used to carry the GI Joe in my ammunition can. I'd check on him in the breaks between class. Sometimes I'd hide him in a tree outside the classroom, where only I could see him. All through class, I'd catch his eye.
While I was in art class, GI Joe would be foxholed away in the shrubs.
He was foxholed one Saturday morning when a huge machine suddenly rumbled past the window, with one of the school's caretakers riding on top. It all happened very quickly. At first it looked as if the caretaker was riding a mechanical bull that had broken loose from its hinges and was stampeding across town, and he couldn't get off.
When I got to the window, I saw that he had been riding a power mower. Chopped grass lay pale green and damp in a mat along the ground. GI Joe was in the grass. I counted maybe fifteen pieces of arm and leg and sliced-up rubber beret.
I put all the pieces in my ammunition can and ran down to the river bank and didn't come back until the night ghouls chased me home.
I asked Pa Vicker to mail home the remains. I wanted to bury him in the yard at home, the same way I'd buried gerbils and fish and Timmy the Hamster, who got clawed out of his cage by the cat and Mother wouldn't even let me see what was left. Pa Vicker said I was being absurd, and for a while he acted as if he hadn't mailed the pieces, but two weeks later I received a package from America at Mail Call. There was a GI Joe in the package, with the same clear eyes and fuzzy beard and Kung-Fu gripping hands
[about comic books, at Dragon School]
It was a harsh punishment for Pa Vicker to confiscate all of Cuddly's comics, even if just for two weeks. Nightingale and I had come to rely on Cuddly for magazines and hardly ever bought them for ourselves. Cuddly didn't have to buy them. His parents had them delivered every week.
Thursday was comic-book day. Beano, Topper and Eagle and Look and Learn arrived rolled up into pipes. In every comic was a page where jokes sent in by readers were printed. A cartoon was drawn above them, which had some clown with sticky-out ears who said the funny thing.
Cuddly once had a cartoon printed in Beano. Nightingale and I could not hide our jealousy. The joke had a man driving his truck off the edge of a cliff. The man was leaning out the window and shouting "I just wanted to test my air brakes." He had gotten the joke off his father.
Nightingale began to send off cartoons every day. He stole them from me, stole them from Cuddlybum, stole them from Cuddlybum's grandma when she came to visit. He sent off the same joke that Cuddly had gotten published. Nothing ever happened. The reason it never did was because Nightingale's handwriting looked as if he was writing with a pen jammed between his toes instead of his fingers.
My grandma sent me a bunch of pre-addressed and stamped cards to write on and send back to her. I put white tape over her name and address and wrote down the Beano's instead. Then I sent out some jokes of my own, and even drew cartoons to go with them.
We spent money on joke books in town.
It got so we each had little notebooks for writing down jokes and brought our notebooks to the Sunday films in the New Hall in case there might be a joke from the movie that was worth writing down.
We also asked our parents for jokes.
My dad wrote back, "What has sixteen legs and two boobs? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
I sent it in. I figured, what the hell, and it was only when they did not publish it, that I realized how much I had wanted them to.
[about love, at Eton College]
Being clumsy and grubby was just fine with the rest of us, and sex of any kind at all looked good to Whittingham. By now, everyone knew that Villiers was in love with him and often took him to restaurants in town, where they ate truffle pate and roast duck and drank the orange-labeled bottles of Veuve Cliquot champagne. We asked Whittingham if he was in love with Villiers and he said no, but none of us believed him. They were serious about each other. The truth was that no one seemed to find it particularly strange that Villiers could be in love with Swish Trish Delish up in London and also with Whittingham here at school. And it was the same for Whittingham. One day I walked into Whittingham's room and found Villiers lying in bed with him. They were reading the paper together. Villiers ran his fingers through Whittingham's hair and Whittingham pretended not to notice.
A boy named Elliot also fell in love with Whittingham, and wrote him a long letter to say so. Whittingham threw the letter away, and somehow Manson got hold of it. This was about the worst thing that could have happened to the letter and to Elliot. It took weeks for the gossip to die down.
There was a joke running around the House that Whittingham and Villiers wore each other's undershorts, except it wasn't a joke. Whittingham had once shown me Villiers's name tag on the boxers he was wearing. There were a lot of things I used to think were jokes and laughed about and thought crude: Villiers would slap Whittingham on the butt and then Whittingham would slap him back. It was all a joke, but people would laugh a little too long and sometimes I'd see them winking at each other. Then they'd start laughing at me. I'd heard the rumors about what they did together, but I never really believed them. The whole business started to get on my nerves.
[about going to the pub, at Eton College]
Tap was a pub for Etonians only, in an unmarked house halfway down High Street. You had to be sixteen to get in. It was a sign that you were moving up in the school, and perhaps the biggest privilege that you could be sure of getting.
The walls of Tap were dark brown and drank up the light. It stayed crowded in the evenings, and people lined the staircase that led up to the second floor. There was a garden out back, where you could sneak a cigarette before the Poppers hunted you down.
Rupert and I sat shoulder to shoulder, with heavy pint mugs in our hands. I drank the rusty-smelling Blackthorn cider and watched the barman, who had one thumb missing and said he was a member of the Fascist National Front. I said I was surprised that I hadn't heard about the Andrews thing before. Rupert shook his head. He told me the school was very good at keeping scandal quiet.
"Well, usually," he said and nodded at an empty chair in the corner of the room.
That chair was Ziggy's chair. Ziggy was one of the scholars, and called Ziggy because of the David Bowie song about Ziggy Stardust. Our Ziggy had so much dandruff raining down on his shoulders all the time that people took to calling it Ziggy's Stardust. He was one of the cleverest boys in the school, but he couldn't play sports and never seemed to wash and, it was rumored, even had trouble doing up his own shoelaces.
There was a time when it seemed that anything that happened at the school was finding its way into the press. Some lord would be caught smoking and you'd read about it the very next day. For a while, the school couldn't plug the hole. They didn't know where it was coming from. Then somebody at the newspaper must have been threatened, because the school found out that it was Ziggy. He was always sitting in Tap in that same chair, all snot-faced and greasy-haired. People used to pile their raincoats on him as they went past into the room and he barely moved. He just sat there with a mug of beer and stared at the floor. But all that time, he was listening. He picked up any threads of gossip, and if you were going to hear it anywhere, you'd hear it at Tap. Then he called a newspaper in London and sold the information. Not cheaply, either, I'd heard.
Ziggy disappeared from school so fast that the only thing to remind us that he had ever been there was the faint smell of body odor that he left behind on his chair.