The grim truth about what went on in British boarding schools from the 1950s to the 1970s is laid out in unflinching detail, says Ysenda Maxtone Graham
My blogging preface: Dear Times,
Forgive me for having copied and pasted, while crying over reading the review of this book:
There are some books you need to have a cleansing shower after reading, and this is one of them. Its subject matter — the physical, emotional and sexual abuse done to boarding-school children over the past century and a half, but especially in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and especially to boys — is delivered in such a relentless torrent of evidence, horror upon horror, that by the end of its devastating 384 pages I felt I was cowering in the corner of some cane-wielding headmaster’s study, whimpering: “Please, sir, no more, I can’t take it.”
Yet we must be made to take it, Alex Renton insists. We must be made to confront the fact that abuse was prevalent at hundreds of boarding schools; and the fact that parents connived in the system by turning a deaf ear to their children’s hints and a blind eye to their scars; and the truth that many of the perpetrators, even if the parents did complain, were simply allowed to leave the school with a good reference and do the same at another school two counties away.
Renton is a bruised 1970s survivor of Ashdown House in East Sussex, a prep school that was run by the terrifying flogger (and urbane charmer of parents) Billy Williamson, and where the maths master, Mr Keane, rummaged inside the boys’ shorts in exchange for sweets. Renton is still seething with rage at the vileness of a system that wrenched children away from home at the age of seven and sent them to live in bewildering places of institutionalised violence and abuse, with no recourse to justice or to the kind ear of a believing grown-up. Renton has the thirst for truth, and for exposing depravity, of a Gitta Sereny.
Ringing in his ears 48 years later are his mother’s briskly well-meaning words in the car on the way to his first term at Ashdown House: “Let’s see if we can keep a stiff upper lip, and our brows out, and our socks pulled up, and our best feet forward, all at once.”
Reading that, you can feel the carsickness and looming homesickness of that grim journey to the hellhole. However, a stiff upper lip was exactly what boarding-school boys did learn to develop when they were sent away for what David Cornwell (John le Carré) described as “sixteen hugless years”. They developed an upper lip so stiff that, as Renton mentions, this exchange between two Old Etonians was possible on the Waterloo battlefield:
Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge: “By God, sir, I’ve lost a leg.”
Duke of Wellington: “By God, sir, so you have.”
Sorry — that is actually funny. Any humour in this book is entirely coincidental. The subject is no laughing matter, as Renton discovered in 2014 when he wrote an article for The Observer about his Ashdown House experiences, and it brought forth an outpouring from readers; hundreds wrote to tell him of behaviour that would have counted as a criminal act at the boarding schools they had been to. Some had never afterwards been able to be in a normal, loving relationship with another human being.
In Stiff Upper Lip Renton brings together this mass of evidence and throws light on it with quotes and comments from literature — such as George Orwell’s spot-on observation that boys “think that misfortune is disgraceful and must be concealed at all cost”. Of all the quotes, ten words from Evelyn Waugh’s autobiography, A Little Learning, put the whole miserable situation in a nutshell in the way only Waugh could. “Some liked little boys too little, and some too much.”
One of the questions Renton tries to get to the bottom of is: why did the mothers go along with such a system? It’s pitiful to read letters from sons to mothers — Warner Hastings’s “this is an awful hole. I will never live through this term” and Peter Scott’s “OH DO TAKE ME HOME”, knowing that the mother would sigh, but do nothing about it.
Renton concludes that “mothers’ suffering became ennobled: a sacrifice done selflessly for the child’s good”. He compares this syndrome with Chinese mothers supervising the crippling of their children’s feet, and mothers going along with FGM (female genital mutilation) for their daughters. “Maternal instinct,” he writes, “is easily trumped by culture.” The chief reason his parents sent him away was that “everyone else they knew did it”.
The book is divided into 47 short chapters, each bringing a new facet to the onslaught; rarely does Renton relax the reins to let any schoolboy jollity into the picture. As with all books written in anger, it can get a bit samey — chapter after chapter exposing the cruelty of various “drunks in a rage” through the ages, ranging from the Yorkshire schoolmaster who sent boys out to choose the cane they were to be beaten with from the bamboo plantation in the grounds, to the founding headmaster of Radley who hugged a boy straight after caning him and wrote: “It was the most exquisite moment of enjoyment I ever had.”
They were bewildering places with no recourse to the kind ear of a believing grown-up
However, the sameyness is part of the point. Violence and depravity in these closed worlds were endemic to the point of tediousness. Not that every master was at it, but at most schools one or two were, and the general atmosphere was so harsh and loveless that misery became “normalised”.
Renton has the admirable journalistic urge to confront some of the perpetrators of evil. Through a man called David Findlater, who works in the treatment of sexual offenders, he manages to have a telephone conversation with a 74-year-old child abuser called “Maurice”, now out of prison.
The creepiest bit of the book, perhaps, is to read this man’s mewling self-justification for his actions. He was abused at his prep school by the master who ran the stamp-collecting club, and he found it pleasurable, so went on to abuse boys at the prep school in Surrey where he later taught.
“I literally loved the boys and they loved me. I was like an uncle,” he says. “Because of the positive side of my involvement with it when I was a boy, I was hoping in some way to extend it, so they would enjoy that sort of relationship.” As for the trend for arresting and convicting people such as him, he says: “We’re going way over the top in dealing with this matter, making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Time for a shower, as I’m sure you’ll agree, with the water turned up a notch hotter than usual.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939-1979 (Plain Foxed)
Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class by Alex Renton, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 384pp, £16.99
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