Stiff Upper Lip review: A book that asks ‘powerful questions that parents can’t ignore’
Alex Renton is a seasoned journalist, a war correspondent for the London Evening Standard who also worked for Oxfam in East Asia, a prize-winning food writer known for his campaigns and investigations and the author of a robust book about eating meat. He has got about a bit. But when, in 2013, two days after Christmas, he read a headline in the Daily Mail, ‘Boris school at the centre of probe into sexual abuse’, he says he burst into tears.
The prep school, Ashdown House, that he and Boris Johnson had attended was being investigated by police following allegations of historical child abuse. Four months later, having returned to the school for the first time, posing with his wife as prospective parents, Mr Renton wrote a long, moving article for The Observer, part personal, part dispassionate inquiry, about Ashdown House and boarding schools in general.
He had, he said, confronted his ‘demons’. But he also summoned up demons for his readers. Out of the enormous feedback he received then, this heart-breaking book has emerged.
An account of boarding school from a writer scarred by the experience is gripping if melodramatic, says Rupert Christiansen
Sunday Telegraph (via PressReader)
“The happiest days of your life?” This week in the Books Podcast I ask the authors of two recent books about boarding schools whether the system that has formed the characters of the British ruling classes for several centuries is a blissful idyll or the Stanford Prison Experiment in cricket-whites. I’m joined by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham, whose Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979, is a shrewd history of the fluctuating jollity of hockey sticks, and by Alex Renton, who in Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class argues that British boarding schools have for many years been incubators and enablers of sexual and psychological abuse, and have psychologically damaged whole generations of their alumni.
You can listen to our conversation here.
Stiff upper lip. There is no better name for the essence of classical Britishness. It is a phrase used the world over to describe us, sometimes in admiration, often in exasperation. It distils and bottles a variety of abstract British traits — the ability to laugh in the face of adversity, to keep calm and carry on, to take trouble full on the chin without complaint, to maintain an even keel and a degree of pluck — that together are the glue that bound the Empire. A very current argument says that stiff upper lips saw us through the Second World War, and so they will see us through Brexit. Rigidity below the nose (with a bit of hoisting up the chin)was, is and always will be the magic that makes Britain exceptional.
And now the heir to the throne has said that there’s “a time and a place” for stiff upper lippery, “but not at the expense of your health”. This lesson he has learnt as an air ambulance pilot, dealing at the sharp end with the epidemic of young male suicide attempts. His brother, Prince Harry, spoke out at the weekend about the years of “total chaos” in his twenties, coming close to mental breakdown, as a result of unresolved sadness over the death of his mother, at 12. Bottling it up isn’t healthy, the princes are saying. In fact, it causes more harm.
The scandal of child abuse in Britain’s boarding schools; writer Alex Renton joins us to reveal what went on behind the closed doors of these institutions and how he has dealt with what happened to him as a small boy.
BBC Radio Scotland (starts at 01:06:20)
Beaten, bullied, betrayed: Their parents sent them away for the best education, but generations of boys left boarding school traumatised for life
- Alex Renton was sent to boarding school Ashdown House in Sussex aged eight
- According to Renton, this enforced separation has had a catastrophic effect on the mental health of former pupils
- Some are unable to experience happiness because at a very early age they effectively walled themselves up for their own protection
- Emotionally stunted, physically and often sexually brutalised, they’ve stumbled through life with a nagging sense of being incomplete
The Stiff Upper Lip – George talks to Alex Renton, author of ‘The Stiff Upper Lip‘, as Renton uncovers the realities behind the culture of abuse in UK’s boarding schools.
In his new book, ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, the journalist, Alex Renton describes his torment at being sent away to board at the age of just eight. But he also documents the years of physical and sexual abuse that he says he suffered in school.
The Old Etonian John Julius Norwich, asked for a memory that he thought summed up the spirit of his school, offered the following: after a boy had killed himself “the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’” This strikes me as appallingly funny; or funny and appalling. It captures – in its black bad taste and high-stakes insouciance – some of what public schools teach their students. Nothing is so serious it can’t be a joke – and the joke, as Alex Renton notes, both fences with authority and obscurely reinforces it.
In 2014, Renton wrote in the Observer about his experiences in the boarding prep school Ashdown House, describing how he was sexually molested by a teacher; and how, when his contemporaries complained about abuse, they were themselves savagely punished for sneaking. In response to his article, he heard from hundreds with similar stories.
Here is a wide-ranging inquiry into the phenomenon of boarding schools in the UK. Renton paints a picture of class-based groupthink, made-up traditions, contagious snobbery and – in Larkin’s phrase – man handing on misery to man, and it deepening like a coastal shelf. It is striped with pungent quotations from those who have been through the system and been hurt by it. What’s most odd is that parents who had themselves been deeply unhappy at school went on, generation after generation, to send their children to the same places. Renton suggests that “normalisation” – rationalising the pain by deciding that it was good for you after all, or that your parents knew best – may be the psychological mechanism at work.