Alex Renton examines the disturbing brutality of boarding school life.
Short of prison, what can estrange a child so completely from parental love as boarding school?
Parents are replaced with new and often unsafe attachments; predatory abuse is not uncommon. My own boarding school in south London, called Brightlands (a misnomer for such a dark Victorian-era barracks), traded in beatings. Any of us caught masturbating or talking after lights out was made to strip in the bathroom down the corridor, where a sports master (it was always a sports master) beat us with a slipper. It was a shaming business that fills me even today with impotent perplexity. In some unformulated way, I understood that the punishments were a sexual outrage: the sight of livid marks on our posh white backsides must have excited that master.
At eight, in 1969, Alex Renton was sent to one of the country’s most expensive boarding houses, Ashdown House, a feeder for our most exclusive public schools (he later went to Eton). Young Alex knew nothing about the paedophilia and sexualisation of life at Ashdown, though his father (Tim Renton, later Margaret Thatcher’s last chief whip) must have had an idea: “Remember, if any of the older boys try to take you into a bush, just say ‘No’.” Naturally Alex had an abject terror of parental abandonment. Yet crying after lights out was punished with a beating. The headmaster turned out to be a sadist whose pleasure was to spank bared bottoms until they bled.
Renton, a “self-declared survivor” of sexual abuse, was frequently caned at Ashdown but, as he writes in this grimly absorbing account of British boarding-school life, it was not done to “sneak” on one’s tormentors. Boys had to take their punishment like men – like the men who meted it out. Life at Ashdown is so tear-jerking and brutal that Dickens might have invented the place. One maths teacher, Mr Keane, liked to offer sweets in return for a “rummage inside our shorts”. Renton told his mother about the fumblings but the headmaster’s wife managed to convince her that a formal complaint “would cause unpleasantness” and, anyway, “children made these things up”. Thus Renton was taught early on to expect disappointment.