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"He closed his warm thighs over our ears and jiggled" - Giles Coren recounts his schooldays

“He was brilliant and kind, preposterous and damaged, open and warm. He smelled of Old Spice. And when we were naughty, he made us kneel between his legs, closed his warm thighs over our ears, and jiggled.”
Giles Coren remembers his favourite teacher

I’m sitting in the private basement dining room of a steak restaurant off the Edgware Road. It is an old mate’s 40th birthday and as usual men only, maybe twenty of us, hunkered down in January over red meat and red wine, talking bollocks.

He’s a player, the birthday boy. And so there are national newspaper editors, Hollywood film directors, television and radio presenters, billionaires, jailbirds, and a certain PR guru, a good friend of mine, a master of the dark arts, who knows everything about everyone, because the chances are that it was him who did it to them.

After a while the talk turns to Jimmy Savile, who has just that morning been described in the newspapers as “the most prolific sex offender ever”.

“Jimmy Savile?” says our man. “He was a fucking beginner. In the Sixties and Seventies everyone in the business was at it. Everyone. All the time. By the middle of the Eighties, it was basically over. But if you were born a nonce in those days, you went into the church, into teaching, or into children’s telly. Savile is the tip of the iceberg. Just the tip.”

There is laughter. We love nonce talk.

“I’m not joking,” says our man. “Until the middle of the Eighties, children in this country were being fucked and fiddled with every minute of every day, everywhere, all the time, by everyone.”

We laugh and laugh.

“Okay, then,” says our man. “Who around this table can honestly say that they were never interfered with by a teacher, a priest, a scout master, or someone else in loco parentis?”

We quieten down. We look around. Nobody says anything.

“Right,” says our man. “And it wasn’t just the once, was it? So let’s go round the room.”

And round the room he goes, asking, “Be honest, how many men touched you ‘inappropriately’ when you were a child?”

And the answers come back:

“Um, two.”

“Three.”

“Just one.”

“Four or five.”

“More than I can honestly put a number on.”

“Three.”

“Two I can think of, probably more.”

The only man who comes back with the answer “none” is a BBC radio and television presenter, heart-throb and general good time Charlie.

“And how old are you?”

“35”

“Well, there you are,” he says. “That proves my point. Everyone else here is past 40. It didn’t happen to you because by the early Eighties it had been picked up and all but stamped out. It ceased to be the norm.

Me, I am 43. And when he comes to me I say:

“There was definitely one. Two. No, three. But one main one.”
   
And so for the first time in 30 years, I started thinking about the men who touched my arse and goolies in my youth.

There was an old guy on my bus route to school who used to try and handle my balls through my trousers. He had a classic flasher’s raincoat (one was totally aware of “flashers” in the late Seventies and early Eighties, but not actual paedos) and he carried a plastic bag of paperwork, and mostly I just felt sorry for him.

I never sat down next to him, obviously, but if he came upstairs and sat down and pinned you in, you just sat there hoping he didn’t touch you, and if he did you just shouted “Fuck off!” and he quietly got up and went downstairs.

There was Mr Dizer, my prep school Latin master, who never struck me as being in the same category, but touched my arse more than anyone else between the ages of nine and 11.

He was predominantly a spanker. He graded your Latin prep in words from “well done” down to “poor” and doled out spankings for below average work, ranging from one whack to six, depending on the gravity of the failure.

The boys due for spankings would queue up at his desk and as you came to the front of the line you had to lie across his lap and wait for his big hot hand to begin its work.

This would take the form of a slow slap with a cupped palm that compassed the full buttock. If you were getting six you were there for quite a long time, crouched over his hot groin.

We did keep our trousers on for this treatment, I should say that. But they were short trousers, of very thin grey flannel. There was a dispensation in the winter term if it got very cold, and then most of the boys would wear long trousers.

But there was a prize for boys who did not succumb to that weakness, and as I did not have any long trousers, I always won it. It was a single Mars bar and it was awarded, I suppose not coincidentally, by Mr Dizer.

I also realise now, only now, that he must have interpreted this naked-leggery of mine as a come on (in truth, my mum was a busy doctor and didn’t have time to go buying me trousers all the time).

And that must have been why he spanked me so frequently, despite my doing very well at Latin. And he must have interpreted the fact that I didn’t complain as acquiescence.

Although the truth is that he slapped me so much less hard than my father — who was an old-school whacker of his children from a long line of whackers — that I never thought of it as a problem.

Mr Imlay, the other Latin teacher, whacked me, too. But not for sex, for discipline. Although, again, compared to what I occasionally copped at home from my old man, if I clanked a fork at the table, it was laughable.

Indeed, I wonder if I exposed myself deliberately (though unconsciously) to the whackings of old men at school simply because my own father was so physically terrifying it was comic relief to watch weedier men try and impose themselves on me.

And maybe it led me into places I hadn’t planned to go. So anyway, there was the old boy on the bus, there was Dizer, and then there was Mr Guttman.

Charles Guttman was the best English teacher I ever had. He was the first person who thought I could write. And remained the only person who thought I could write for years. Indeed he may still be the only person who ever thought I could. Him and my dad.

But they are both dead now. So it goes.

My father, a famous writer, radio ham and television presenter, is well remembered by millions, in their hearts and on their bookshelves. But Mr Guttman is not.

He was just a prep school English teacher, a German Jew who came here as a child before the Second World War, fleeing Hitler, became a major Anglophile, a lover of Milton and Shakespeare, cricket, rugby and chess, a wearer of tweed suits and brown fedoras (and on football days a full referee’s outfit — black shirt, black shorts, black socks with white turnovers — to which he claimed to be officially entitled), a man who pronounced English with the devout correctness of an educated man born abroad, and had a nervous twitch: a full-body tremor that spoke of grim trauma in early youth.

He was a magistrate (juvenile division) and wore a primitive pager in his top pocket to keep him in touch with goings on in court, he said. But really it was so that his nonagenarian mother, with whom he lived, could contact him in an emergency.

He was brilliant and kind, preposterous and damaged, open and warm. He smelled of Old Spice. And when we were naughty, he made us kneel between his legs, closed his warm thighs over our ears, and jiggled.

He also manned the communal showers: stood there with his hand on the tap lever while two dozen muddy pre-teens frolicked under the spray in full view of the huge multi-sport changing room, and then, when he thought they were clean enough, turned the tap round hard to ice cold and giggled as they ran screaming from the water, their stick arms clasped across their chests, their little nuts shrivelled to raisins, their tiny penises bouncing as they fled.

That was why, in the non-soccer term, I played hockey instead.

I genuinely cannot remember what we thought about Mr Guttman’s intimate punishments at the time. Probably very little. When called for a jiggle, we went silently to the front of the class, entered between his knees, kneeled (facing outwards I am pretty sure) and waited as he nestled our head into his lap, then jiggled until our ears burned.

There was a frightful hoo-hah one summer, I recall, when someone carved “Gut Bucket is Gay” on one of the desks. Endless mass detentions failed to reveal the offender. And we had endless lectures about what a terrible and offensive piece of graffiti this was.

And yet, “gay” wasn’t the point at all. We just didn’t have a word for what it was. I suppose we reckoned that we were men, and he couldn’t keep his hands off us, and he was a man. So he must be gay.

But that graffito was the closest thing to a cry for help from a pupil that I ever saw. Nor was the school remotely interested in why this had been written. Only whom it was written by. (It was Bobby Drown by the way — I’ve been keeping that quiet for 32 years and I can no longer bear the weight of it).

And if they had found out, would they have done anything? Probably not. Because, like our PR guru said, everyone was at it. If you wanted to touch little boys, and you weren’t a Catholic or a DJ, you went into a prep school.

Can’t hardly throw the man out for doing exactly what he came here to do. And I don’t think I would either.

What harm does it do?

Mr Guttman pursued me for a long time, but by various accidents of the timetable I did not find myself in his form for the first three years, from nine to 11.

Unable to get at me in class — we made a joke of it for years, like flirting teenagers — he found other ways to make our paths cross: through house sports matches, swimming galas, day trips, and made a great thing of congratulating me on my exam essays, which he had marked, telling me how I was the best writer in the school.

At the time I wondered if he was after a friendship with father. My dad was everything Mr Guttman might have been expected to admire: a middle European Jew so completely and triumphantly Anglicised that he was editor of Punch magazine, a Radio 4 broadcaster and a columnist on The Times, which was laid out every morning on the table in the school library and venerated like the Ark of the Covenant.

Like Mr Guttman, my father dressed in tweedy jackets and hats (he called them “my English disguise”), loved cricket and rugby (without having played either of them) and worshipped at the altar of English literature.

Like Mr Guttman, my father gave me stories to read that were far beyond my years, and encouraged me to imitate their style. Like Mr Guttman, my father roared with delight when I succeeded. And like Mr Guttman, my father resorted to physical correction at certain impassioned moments.

Was that what drove me to seek out Mr Guttman’s company when the timetable kept us apart? Was it that a combination of literary encouragement and confusing physical violence was what I took to be “love”.

Violence and love were inextricable in my childhood. I became a violent man myself in a way that expressed itself exclusively in loving relationships.

Is it any wonder that I sought such closeness to this loving, charming, articulate and sweet-smelling punisher of small boys?

We had tiffs. On one occasion, in my final year, when he was my form teacher in Upper 6G and finally officially in loco parentis, I asked his permission to break off from the crocodile back from football to go into a newsagent to buy a comic.

This was strictly verboten, but he allowed it, so long as I promised not to buy sweets. I solemnly vowed. I bought the Dandy for 8p.

I spent the change from my 10p coin on two cola chews. I chewed one. Another boy smelt its heady synthetic whiff on my breath and told Mr Guttman.

Mr Guttman raged and shook. And then Mr Guttman cried.

That evening, I told my mother about it. So she dug out the writing paper I had been given for Christmas, the one with Nelson’s ship at the top, and sat there while I wrote Mr Guttman a letter of apology, revealing my admiration of him and my shame at the betrayal of his trust.

He wrote back accepting my apology and saying bygones would be bygones (I still have his letter). The following Monday he read mine aloud to the class, and everyone said I was gay.

After the day I left school, I never saw or heard from Mr Guttman again. I always planned to dedicate my first novel to him.

I kept planning that for years, well into my twenties, but the novel never materialised, and by the time it did, when I was 35, I had forgotten about him, and dedicated it to my boring old parents instead.

Which was much more suitable, what with its subsequently much-mocked, Bad Sex Award-winning scenes of violent anal rape.

Charles Guttman carried on playing chess for a few years with my oldest friend, in long, night-time games at his flat in Belsize Square in North London. But I have never asked my friend how those evenings went. And I have left his name out here, just in case.

Gradually, Mr Guttman faded from my memory, and then a few years ago I bumped into a fat, bald, middle-aged old banker who had been a couple of years below me at school, and he said, “Did you hear about Gut Bucket?”

I winced at the memory of the crude, unkind, very slightly racist nickname, and said that I hadn’t. But that I could probably guess.
But before I had guessed, he said, gleefully:  “Done by the News of the World. Big paedo sting.”

Which is what I would have guessed.

I heard it again from different people, and vowed to investigate, see if it were true, see how bad it was, and how he was. Where he was. Show support. Thank him for everything. Give him a hug.

I meant to. I meant to.

He’s dead now, of course.

I got confirmation of that from my old maths teacher, Mr Fitzmaurice, whom I took out for lunch because I have decided to write a book about him. About Guttman, not about Fitzmo.

Fitzmo is happily married with a daughter, still teaches part time at the school and never once put my head anywhere near his danglies. Why on Earth would I write a book about him?

Guttman’s is the story that needs unravelling: a German Jew who fled the greatest calamity of the modern age as a small child, never married, lived alone with his elderly mother, served as a juvenile magistrate, worshipped his adopted country in its every detail, taught small, privileged boys with great passion and sympathy, loved the sight of them naked in the showers and sometimes, when they had been very naughty, put their heads between his legs and jiggled.

So Mike Fitzmaurice told me that Guttman had died. That the story of the News of the World sting was true, but that it had been a relatively small item and that Mr Guttman (hard to believe today) had just carried on teaching.

Later, he disappeared to India and on his return, some years later, he bumped into Fitzmo on the street.

“He was with an Indian boy of about 14 or 15. He didn’t introduce him to begin with, but then it became awkward, the boy just standing there, so he did. But only to tell me his name. He didn’t expand on the nature of their relationship.”

They said their goodbyes. And a few years after that, Fitzmo heard he had died.

And I will write his biography. It is the least I can do. At a time when it feels like paedophilia is at the heart of every second story that makes its way into the front half of the newspaper, when I am looking hard for schools for my own children and realise that I am looking for nothing more than somewhere full of people like Mr Guttman, and when I am working out how best to discipline my own kids in a way that is entirely unphysical (for that is the only way we can progress as humans), it is clearly the only thing to be done.

I began my research, as one does these days, with an internet search. But the life of Charles Guttman has left almost no trace at all online. All I could find, by way of a memorial, was this:

MAGISTRATE WHO SPANKS BOYS RESIGNS FROM BENCH

MAGISTRATE CHARLES GUTTMAN resigned after it was discovered he posted adverts offering discipline to students. The JP who once held a position at Dulwich College Preparatory School in south London often sat while juvenile cases were being heard.

Guttman offered academic training, and preferred boys to be in shorts and vest. They were put through PE had cold showers and were given the slipper or cane throughout the evening or afternoon.

Boys booked in and went to his flat for lessons in Belsize Park near Hampstead, London.

And that just can’t be the whole story of any man, can it?