I will freely admit to anyone who asks me that the cane is my all-time favorite spanking implement. I never refer to the cane as a "toy"; to me, it's the genuine article. The photo above shows three of the eight or ten that I own. The one with the crooked handle is a special favorite. The person wielding a cane knows that they hold a tremendously powerful weapon in their hand. They have a psychological advantage before the first stroke lands. The person bent over for it either looks forward to it with eager anticipation or with such dread that the mouth goes dry and the knees shake. Having been born in America and educated here, my experience with the cane was limited to movies mostly. I say "mostly" because I did have a run-in with a cane as a 14-year-old eighth grader. My homeroom teacher taught Science. He was sadistic sort who, once he found a student's weakness, delighted in exploiting it. My friend, Cindy, blushed easily and he never missed an opportunity to torture her publicly. One day, when I was late for school (having overslept) he removed the doorknob from the door and forced me to stand outside knocking until he came to answer it. I knocked for ten minutes, all the while I could hear him inside giving the lesson to his first class. He was ignoring me. So I began to kick the door solidly and shouting "Let me in!" He came to the door angrily, his face as red as a beet. I went to my desk, where another kid was sitting and got my books for History class. "Just a minute!" he thundered as I headed for the door again. "You're late. What's your excuse?" I told him the truth, that I had overslept. He told me to get going.
Anyway, my run in with the cane came just after we returned from Christmas break. Mr. J. had taken a trip to Australia and the cane was a souvenir of his visit. It was summer in Australia and he rubbed it in that he had enjoyed 15 days of sunshine and warm weather while we had endured a frigid cold December. We were working on balancing equations and Mr. J. had given us an assignment to do some problems, which he now wrote on the blackboard. He was punctilious and a perfectionist--every 14 year olds' nightmare. He took the cane out of the cabinet where he hung his coat and held it out at its full length for us to see. I looked at Cindy and gulped hard. He laid the cane down on his desk next to the dreaded Magic Wand, the well-used wooden yardstick that he used to clear the halls of stragglers. Our classroom was in the gymnasium, which had two levels; the first was the ground floor and then the second floor, which we called the balcony because it resembled one. Anyone incautious enough to be caught bending over the railing of the balcony when Mr. J. was prowling the hall was likely to feel the Magic Wand across their bottom. A bent over bottom was a target too tempting for him to pass on. Kids who stood around outside his classroom between bells were also likely to feel the Magic Wand and hear the words "If you're not in my class, please make a forward motion." Seeing that cane and the Magic Wand side-by-side gave me the willies in a major way. I was a good kid and a good student. I feared physical discipline. He told us the cane was going to get used on anyone who he called up to work a problem on the blackboard who got it wrong because he would assume that they hadn't completed the assigned homework. A couple of my classmates went back to their desks from the blackboard with stinging legs. I was secretly happy that I had decided to wear tights under my dress that day in order to keep my legs warm. Now they would be my only protection against what I saw as an inevitable occurrence. He called me up, holding the chalk out with a smug grin on his face. I immediately recognized that it was something we hadn't covered yet. "Mr. J., we haven't even studied this yet", I protested. "Give it your best shot," he replied as I took the chalk. I did my best, but I got it wrong. He shook his head to tell me I hadn't got it right and made a turning motion with the cane. "Mr. J. this isn't fair," I said. "Bend over," he said, using the cane to point to his desk. What could I do? I bent over and there immediately followed three stinging slaps with the cane to the backs of my thighs. I returned to my desk with my legs smarting and plotting my revenge for this injustice.
As I said, aside from that one incident, my only other experience with the cane came from British films. I saw movies like "Great Expectations" (which featured a cane called Tickler), "David Copperfield" and especially "If..." I saw the latter film when I was in my 20's. For those who haven't seen the film, it's highly regarded as one of the finest films about life in a British boarding school ever made. It was released in 1968 and catapulted its star, Malcom McDowell, to stardom. McDowell played Mick Travis, a young man who returns to school with a mustache. The hierarchy of the school places the "Whips" at the top and the "Scums" at the bottom. The Whips are cane-wielding senior students and the Scums are the juniors who must either obey them or risk the cane. Mick, meanwhile, is determined to be his own man. He and his two cohorts become the scourge of the house. The head of the house is a senior student named Rowntree. He sees the three as a definite threat to the stability of the house. After one of their capers, he decides enough is enough and has them summoned. The three go rather nonchalantly to the office where three or four Whips, Rowntree heading them up, are gathered. He tells them they must surely know why they were summoned and the three profess ignorance. Rowntree explains that it's because the three off them have become a nuisance. It's not any one thing they've done, it's their general attitude. He tells them they're going to be beaten. The other two are smart enough to realize the hot water they're in and dutifully shake their heads when asked if they have anything to say for themselves. But Travis is different. If he's going to be beaten, then he's going to get his money's worth. He tells Rowntree all the reasons he hates him. Without responding to Travis' nasty comments, he tells them to go to the gymnasium, followed by a terse admonishment to wait outside. The trio marches off, still not overly concerned with what awaits them. Rowntree and the other Whips arrive shortly after and summon the first lad, who's name is Wallace. Travis and the other boy listen as the caning gets underway and, hearinf that he only got four strokes, breathe somewhat a sigh of relief. Wallace comes back in and the next boy is called. Now realizing that they are saving him for last, Travis relishes what he thinks will be a battle of wills between the two of them. Wallace drops his trousers so Travis can see his marks. Then the other boy comes in, having taken his four strokes. He rubs his bottom with a grin on his face. Travis almost doesn't wait to be called and in fact, is opening the door and going in as they call him. There is a large bar in the room. He's directed to remove his coat and lay it over the bar. Then he's told to bend over. He does so, spreading out his arms and appearing to make himself quite comfortable. Rowntree takes a run-up and brings the cane forward with all his might, savoring the satisfying swish as it flies through the air and then the sinister crack as it connects with the seat of McDowell's trousers.
I sincerely hope that he wore some sort of padding for this scene because, twenty-five or not, this had to be painful. Biographies of McDowell tell of how he was either caned or slippered every Monday at his school because he was so wayward and his familiarity with "assuming the position" shows. After taking four incredibly hard strokes with hardly a whimper, he stands up and picks up his jacket. But no, he's told they aren't done with him yet. He now knows he's going to be made a severe example of. The Chinese have a saying: "The nail that sticks out must be hammered down." Not only will he get more strokes than his cohorts, but the entire house is congregated so they can hear the punishment he receives. He puts his coat back over the bar, then nestles himself back in position for the rest of it. In all, he receives ten strokes. When the tenth stroke is delivered, he tells Travis to get up. He stands and we see him from behind, gathering his dignity and standing erect. But when he turns back around, his boyish blue eyes are wet and his face is tear streaked. A look of defiance is still there. He can hardly be blamed for the homicidal fantasies he nurses throughout the remainder of the film. Like Leonardo Di Caprio would do in "The Basketball Diaries", Mick dreams of shooting up the school. Di Caprio's character, Jim Carroll, tells the priest who paddles him (making him assume a humiliating position on all fours) that "in the next life, I'm gonna have the paddle!"
As Travis turns around and faces his tormentor, the look on his face is unmistakable: you may have broken my flesh, but you will never break my spirit".
I remember when I first saw this film how outraged I was by the barbarity of the system; one that gave an elite group of students authority over all the others. It was a system that encouraged abuse of power. There was no Internet in those days but I was able to get my hands on films that weren't being shown on TV because I had worked at the local library once and I was still friends with the guy in the AV department. I'd heard that McDowell took a vicious caning in that scene and I had to see if it was. As someone who has been under the cane (granted, only for play, my run in with Mr. J. aside) I know the damage it can do in the wrong hands. I have been caned before where blood was drawn (though not purposely) and also had them break on me. I've been given upwards of 80 strokes and had to call it a night because of the damage. Those of us who love the cane love it for just that reason. The cane isn't for the squeamish. I still remember the fear and trepidation I felt the first time I was caned. I wanted to experience it. I got six strokes, only two of them were hard. But they were hard enough to put a lump in my throat the size of an onion and make me squeeze back tears.
Do I love the cane? You bet I do. It has a long and elegant history and a well-deserved reputation. The cane has been THE symbol of parochial discipline for 200 years. Ask almost any British rock star or professional athlete over 40 and they probably have a cane story.
So the cane will always have a place in my toybag. And Malcolm McDowell is always have my awe and respect for the thrashing he took (padded though he probably was).