Tycoon behind Waterstones bookshop reveals in searing new memoir that he was sexually abused aged six by his prep school headmaster – and kept the truth bottled up for years
During the winter of 1942, my father was expected home on leave from his latest wartime posting. Then just three years old, I was beyond thrilled at the prospect of seeing him, filling the time until his arrival drawing special pictures ready to greet him.
And then one day there he was, in his uniform, standing in the hall. My father. Except, of course, that he was a complete stranger to me.
I had expected that he would reach down to pick me up, but he made no move to do so. I handed him my pictures.
And then I did something that may well have served to change the rest of my childhood — perhaps even my life.
‘Go away!’ I told him. ‘Go away. We were happy without you. Go away.’
Tim Waterstone, founder of Waterstone’s bookshops, pictured at his London home
He stood there, quite still, staring at me, horrified. He was clearly appalled. So was my mother. So was my sister, then aged 11. So was my brother, aged eight. So, no doubt, was the dog. I seem to have eradicated from my memory what happened next. I think my mother may have hit me. And who could blame her?
She would have understood only too well the root cause of this catastrophic insult to my father. With him away at war for all the years I had existed, I had, from babyhood, frequently slept in her bed. But now, each time he came home, this stranger, this big, uniformed man, would be with her there instead, in my place.
My father stayed with us for perhaps ten days before his leave was over. The day before he went, I was in my pyjamas and just about to go up to bed when I saw him sitting in his chair, reading a newspaper, waiting for supper.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, a wave of affection for him came over me. I knew I had done wrong when he first arrived and I wanted to make it up to him.
I went over and stood in front of him, reaching out my arms. But he shrank back into his chair and pushed me roughly off with both hands. ‘Men don’t kiss,’ he said.
I pulled back, horror-struck. All I had wanted was for him to reach out to me and perhaps touch my hands for a moment. I was three years old. That was all I wanted.
Man of letters: Tim Waterstone aged four
Young as I was, the snub — the spurning, coarse, insulting rejection of it — hurt. It hurt desperately. And his action that day seemed to set into being the future pattern of our relationship.
From that moment on, he never once attempted a physically affectionate gesture towards me. Not once. I saw other children laughing with their fathers, being picked up, swung about, pushed on swings, kicking a football, carried on shoulders. I wanted that for us, too. But never in all the years of my childhood did he as much as touch me, nor give me any praise. Nor, if it comes to that, did he in my adulthood.
I will never understand why. Perhaps my arrival in the world, way after my siblings, had been an unplanned disaster. Maybe he resented the affection my mother so openly lavished on me. Maybe it was my rejection in that dreadful incident in the hallway.
Whatever the reason, he and I spent all those years of ours together in mutual, numbed dislike. His weapon of choice — the weapon that no child can weather or combat — was sarcasm. Endless, witless, brutal sarcasm, mostly directed at me. And so the direction of my childhood was established.
Later, by the time I was 13 or 14, I had learned how to withstand the worst of his attacks.
And by the time I was 18, and on the point of leaving home, they had become little more than a distraction, an echo from the past — something I could now put aside and forget about.
But what had been done had been done. My father had damaged me and the damage had stuck. It’s still there. One legacy — and it is absurdly trivial — is that I cannot to this day watch a Fred Astaire film, so alike did he and my father look.
But a second legacy — and this is anything but trivial — is that without the trauma of that relationship, I truly believe I would never have broken out and fought the battles I did to create and succeed with Waterstones. That wasn’t just for me. It was for my father, too. Waterstones was me having the last word. Why else would I have named it after me?
And, of course, it was named after my father as well. I was hurling bottles at my childhood, which I could neither forgive nor forget.
Pictured: The exterior of one of the first of his 283 Waterstones bookshops
Waterstones, pure and simple, was aimed at my father. Well, that’s what a therapist told me a few years ago. And he was right.
In our house, there were just three books when I was growing up: a Pears’ Cyclopaedia, an illustrated volume entitled Our Heroes Of The Great War (of which I was particularly fond) and a handsome, abridged version of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. The rest of the bookcase in our sitting room contained my mother’s knick-knacks: little china figures, a pair of glass ducks and a tiny brass bell.
But in the middle of our village of Crowborough, East Sussex, was a bookshop called The Book Club, which opened for business shortly after the war. It was to become a major influence in my life.
The owner was the dauntingly severe Miss Santoro. During my frequent visits, I would often hear her being coldly unhelpful with her customers’ less-than-informed enquiries. But, once she got used to my incessant presence in her shop, Miss Santoro treated me with immense kindness, smiling when I arrived and providing me with a bench that she pretended was reserved just for me.
Often pointing me in the direction of titles she thought I would like, she was angry with me only once: when she saw me lick a finger before turning a page. I still think of that — and her — if I ever catch myself doing it now.
I don’t think I ever bought a book from her in all those years, although I certainly should have. I am sure I never thanked her properly at the time for her enormous kindness to me. I do so now, with heartfelt gratitude.
And I do so particularly as I have no doubt at all that it was Miss Santoro who kindled within me the bookseller vision that, three decades later, emerged into life as Waterstones.
Pictured: Tim Waterstone aged 15 months
The values that later became our stores’ very lifeblood were being tested out there and then before my eyes: the well-stocked shelves, the comfort and warmth of her shop, her extraordinary personal knowledge of books, her close links with the community.
Had she lived long enough to see it, my suspicion is that she would have watched me driving Waterstones into existence without a single ripple of surprise.
But my much-loved visits to The Book Club were a treat mostly for the school holidays. The reality was that these were colonial times and, in the early spring of 1946, my father was sent back to India by the tea-growing firm that employed him, while my siblings and I were packed off to boarding school.
I recall all too vividly, aged six, watching my parents’ ship drawing away from Tilbury docks, taking my mother away for what I had been told was to be ‘just’ two and a half years, but what sounded to me as good as for ever. I am not sure I have ever again experienced a moment of such despair.
My home until their return was to be Warden House, a dreadful, cheap boys’ prep school on the outskirts of Crowborough, which was, even by the low standards of those days, an absolute disgrace. It was, for want of a better word, a near brothel of sexual abuse.
I know that in the current climate, that sounds rather dramatic. But, just a few years ago, I learnt a most salutary lesson. I had been interviewed by a journalist from a major academic journal, who was there to ask me about my childhood education. In my description of it, I was painfully jocular and trivial and false about the things that had gone on at Warden House, along the lines of: ‘All that stuff never did me any harm!’
After the interview was published, a letter was forwarded to me by the journal from the wife of a California-based academic. In it, she told me that her husband had been at Warden House as well, a little after me.
She went on to explain that she profoundly resented the trivial manner in which I had treated the sexual abuse at the school in the interview, as if it had been an amusing little eccentricity at an eccentric little school. And here was the dreadful thing.
She told me that her husband had, ten years or so before, killed himself while only in his 40s. Killed himself, she said, because he had been destroyed by the sexual abasement he had been through at Warden House at the hands of the headmaster. Despite years of therapy, he had never recovered.
In the following weeks, I had, I think, four further letters forwarded to me from other former pupils of the school, all in the same vein, if none as tragic as the first. I felt reduced by them, and crass.
And so, because of that, and as a tribute to the dead academic and his bereft wife, this is the truth as far as I know it and it is going to be unvarnished.
The day boys were probably safe, but I doubt there was a boarder at Warden House who was not submitted to the headmaster’s attentions at some time or another. We always knew it was about to happen from the very obvious evidence inside his trousers as he walked about the classrooms.
On those occasions, a boy would be summoned up to his study, on some vague charge of untidiness or insolence or indolence, or something of that sort. Having locked the study door, the headmaster (a clergyman, incidentally) would tell the boy to take off all his clothes and then get down on hands and knees on a wicker deckchair with its back let down.
When the boy was on the chair and naked and kneeling, the headmaster would press the child’s head down, along with the small of his back, so that his bottom was pointing up at him.
He would then stand behind the boy, caning his bottom intermittently, hard at first, then quite lightly, as if playfully, while he opened his trousers and performed a sexual act on himself.
When he had finished, he would button himself up, tell the boy to get up and dress, and say to him something jocular and pleasant and friendly. He would then unlock the door, chuckling, and, quite unabashed, send him on his way.
It was the jocularity of the dismissal, and especially the chuckling, that was perhaps the most repulsive part of this performance — certainly for me. I remember that chuckling particularly.
It was the implied suggestion that it was all, all of it — the nakedness, his unbuttoning of his trousers, the caning, his sex act — just a playful, harmless game.
Tim Waterstone, pictured in July 1988
Apart from a general habit of him insisting on personally taking our temperatures when sick by means of inserting a thermometer up our bottoms, that was the total and complete pattern of it, as far as I know. There may have been more devastating occurrences for others, but I don’t know of it. That is my own account and it is the sheer brazen self-confidence of the man that strikes me in its telling.
And there is another factor lying in this, which may be the most sinister of all. For the headmaster’s wife was always about the place, bustling around, doing this and that. She would have been there in the building when the headmaster was walking freely around displaying himself, just as we boys were. Was she complicit in all of this? Did she know what was going on?
In truth, I don’t think that all this was a great source of damage to me. But I emphasise not to me, for it clearly was to others.
Somehow, I accepted it as a part of life — I didn’t at all understand what sexual appetite was about and, anyway, what upset me far, far more than this was the unrelated fact of having my mother away from me in India for such a devastatingly interminable time.
Others couldn’t put it behind them, however, and absolutely didn’t, as I saw in those letters. They were so critical of me, and I accept that the criticism was deserved.
For whatever reason, I hadn’t grasped the potential for real evil in what had transpired: the real evil of that chuckle; the real evil of introducing transgressive sexual abuse into the psyches of prepubescent minds, with the danger that it then becomes fixed there for life and fixed as the norm.
The school eventually closed down, I think in the early 1970s, and the buildings were sold off as a care home. But it should actually have been closed down in my time there, and could have been — by us boys ourselves.
The story had evidently leaked to the extent that a team of inspectors from the Department of Education descended one day on the school and interviewed each of us boarders, individually and separately. And we all lied — each and every one of us.
Anybody who spoke out to these officials would, in our view, be a traitor and a sneak.
And so the inspectors went away again. They had contributed to their failure by the aggressive manner in which they questioned us, without doubt. By the standards of today, their interrogation technique was crude and insensitive beyond measure. But off they went anyway and the headmaster carried on, just as before.
When my parents at last returned from India, I was dispatched to a new prep school — maybe they had heard the stories — and then, at the age of 13, to Tonbridge, a private school just a few miles from our home.
There, I fitted in fairly well, being a middle-of-the-road games player and middle of the road, too, in the classroom. My housemaster’s report at the end of my first year was near the mark: ‘Not, I think, a boy of advanced ability in any direction, and mildly subversive, but he does perfectly well.’
Despite all this, and despite my mother’s hope that I would become a doctor like my sister, I made up my mind that what I really wanted to do was go to Cambridge and read English. I faced up to it and told my mother the news.
She was disappointed, but placated by the thought that if I managed to get in, she would have two sons at the university, as my older brother, David, was already there. And that would be something to talk about — with faux modesty, of course — at her golf club committee meetings.
So I self-crammed, desperately, sat the Cambridge entrance exam and was eventually offered a place at the small, beautiful, central and welcoming — but perhaps rather less than academically distinguished — St Catharine’s College.
Among those in my intake was Ian McKellen — like me set to read English — and I was paired with him for our weekly tutorials.
We had stood in a group, looking at the notices to see who was teamed with whom, and, when he saw his partner was me, he came up in his roll-neck jersey, smiling, to say ‘hello’ in a pronounced Lancashire accent. I found him to be friendly and gentle and modest, and we had a very pleasant acquaintance.
Also among my contemporaries was Peter Cook, who declared one day that he liked my rooms at St Catharine’s more than his own on the other side of the road from us at Pembroke College, and, for two or three weeks, he pretty well moved in with me.
He used me as a stooge for his private rehearsing, either in the learning or perfecting of a script, or, just as often, in his wild drifts into experimental (but, as I saw, often quietly rehearsed) improvisation.
All round, I made happy acquaintanceships and one or two lifelong friendships in those years. An embarrassment, however, was the awful third-class degree with which I slunk away at the end of it (this subsequently a matter of constant glee, joy and gloating from my very unkind children).
You could say that, for that reason, my time had been wasted, but it absolutely had not. I loved — and, in my own way, used — every single day of my time at university.
I read absolutely prodigiously, in the company of people who also read absolutely prodigiously, and we talked and talked and talked. How can that be wasted time?
And, vitally, I spent a great deal of time browsing in Heffers, the city’s vast academic bookstore. For it was in Heffers one term-time afternoon that my moment of epiphany came to me — the epiphany as to what, in time, I would do with my working life.
Because that afternoon, I stood there in the store, staring round, enraptured, and, when a friend passed by, I told him that one day I was going to do this — like Heffers, but better than Heffers: the best in the land, and all over the land.
He reminded me of that very recently, delightedly, when we met at a Cambridge dinner as we are now: old men. That was a stunning moment of sudden, unexpected, joyful clarity. I was very lucky to have had it at such a young age and the moment it came, I knew that it was true.
That epiphany gave my life a personal goal, however unattainable it would seem for many decades to come.
The dream that had been born in Miss Santoro’s bookshop all those years before was a step nearer reality.
- Extracted from The Face Pressed Against A Window by Tim Waterstone, to be published by Atlantic Books on February 7 at £17.99. © Tim Waterstone 2019. To buy a copy for £14.39 (20 per cent discount), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Offer valid until February 2, 2019. P&P is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery.