I confess I found Alex Renton’s new book, Stiff Upper Lip, about private boarding schools in Britain to be disappointing. There is no doubt that, even in the relatively recent past, some of those establishments have, to use an expression beloved of those of us who affect a stiff upper lip, rather let the side down. But Mr Renton’s conviction that all private boarding schools were (he even suggests they still are) institutions devoted to the brutal, often criminal, treatment of children does him no credit.
Renton wrote the book because he went, in the 1970s, to a preparatory school where he suffered beatings and was once the victim of a sexual assault (a mathematics master gave him sweets in return for being allowed to put his hand up the eleven year old Renton’s shorts). His life, we are told, has not been easy. That is entirely due, he assures us, to all he suffered at his preparatory school. That may be true. I am in no position to judge. But I find it difficult to go along with his theory that all boys (and some girls) of roughly his age who went to boarding schools have had their lives destroyed by the experience.
I went to a boarding preparatory school and a boarding public school. When I tell you that the experience, while not being exactly pleasant, was not as dire as Mr Renton assures his readers it must have been, I face two hurdles. First, Renton says that the worst decade for abuse of boarding school children happened to be the one in which he was at school (the 1970s) and I went through both prep’ and public school in the 1960s, ten years too early. Secondly, he has a chapter devoted to explaining that those of us who claim not to have been abused are suffering from “false memory”: we have convinced ourselves that things weren’t too bad, but that is because we are “in denial” (there is a lot of psychobabble in the book). But, even though Mr Renton will assure you that I was the victim of appalling abuse and just don’t remember it, I will persevere with my criticism of his thesis.
What do I claim to remember?
I am going to be wholly frank.
I went to two prep’ schools. The first was enormously smart. It was Summer Fields in Oxford. It prided itself, still does, on getting more boys to Eton than almost any other prep’ school in the country. I was there from the age of seven to nine. I didn’t like it. There were times, of course, when I had fun. But, and here Renton is quite right, the endless slipperings and canings were thoroughly disagreeable. That said, corporal punishment was, in those days, the norm for boys, whether they were in “posh” boarding schools or in state day schools. What I had to endure was not vastly different from what most English boys had to endure.
But I accept there was a difference. The master, Mr Jones, who was charged with the welfare of boys of my age was unlike all the other masters in one respect. He caned us on our bare bottoms. Obviously, I now know that he did that because it gave him some sort of sexual pleasure. I can’t think of any other explanation. He certainly didn’t do it in order to cause us more pain: his beatings were much less painful than those administered by other masters.
It was appalling that a highly respected school like Summer Fields should have allowed a master to indulge his sexual fantasies by caning naked eight-year-old boys. But I honestly don’t think we suffered as a result, beyond the inevitable suffering inherent in being caned. It should never have been permitted, but we boys were wholly unaware of the pleasure Mr Jones got from caning our bare bottoms and were mostly relieved that we weren’t being caned by the masters who put a lot more energy into their administration of corporal punishment.
Summer Fields was a pretty dreadful place for a sensitive young boy. As I say, I didn’t like it. But I do remember being very impressed by almost all the other boys, who seemed to love it. And I honestly don’t think anyone was sexually abused. Yes, there was what would now be called physical abuse (all that caning), but that didn’t mark the school out from any others, whether private or state.
I must continue with my honest account of my school days.
Fortunately for me, the money ran out and a new school had to be found. For the next three years I went to a tiny prep school in the village in which we then lived. I was one of only three day boys (and there were only twenty two boarders). But, though a day boy, I was there for about ten hours a day (I didn’t go home until after evening prep). It was a very eccentric place. The headmaster was a hopeless alcoholic (he died in the pub opposite our house when I was twelve). There were four other masters. They were rather peculiar, but quite endearing. The Latin master used to give us glasses of his home made wine (though never enough to intoxicate us). One of the other masters encouraged us to imitate the headmaster’s wife during history lessons (she was quite easy to imitate). I suppose it is possible that one or more of those masters found small boys attractive. But none of them ever made any advances to us.
Then there was public school. Mr Renton tells us that all public schools were dens of iniquity, packed with older boys keen to have sexual relations with younger boys and masters who were confirmed paedophiles. Now, of course, teenage boys do tend to have a heightened interest in sex (even if they go to day schools, though I suspect Mr Renton would dispute that assertion). But I fear I can only report one incident of what would now be called “inappropriate behaviour” towards me. I was fourteen. It is not for me to say, but I was rather a good-looking child (you wouldn’t think it to see me now). An older boy, he must have been sixteen, took me behind the bicycle shed (that is true) and started to fondle me. I found the experience very distasteful. But it didn’t last long. When he realised I wasn’t entering into the spirit of the thing he gave up. I was, I suppose, disgusted by what had happened. But I was not traumatised (though Mr Renton will no doubt say I was). I didn’t report the older boy’s behaviour for various reasons. First, sneaking was frowned on. Secondly, he had caused me no injury. Thirdly, he was my housemaster’s son and I liked my housemaster who would, I knew, be mortified to discover his son was doing that sort of thing.
But that was it. No master ever tried to seduce me. No prefect made me get into bed with him. I sailed through five years of public school with nothing but a few moments of fondling from a mixed up sixteen-year-old boy who retired from the enterprise within seconds of embarking on it. And what he did could have been done by any boy of his age in any school, whether boarding, day, private or state.
I don’t doubt that dreadful things happened in some boarding schools. I quite agree with Mr Renton that it was madness to allow preparatory schools to be run without boards of governors and with no system of inspection. But I cannot accept that he is right to say, as he does, that no boarding school (other than a handful of “progressive” ones) has ever done any child any good. His book, I am sorry to say, ruins a good case by exaggeration on a gigantic scale.
But don’t let me put you off. Read Stiff Upper Lip and make your own judgment.