Alex Renton finds our attachment to boarding schools inexplicable — despite being himself one of Eton’s finest ‘products’
“Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison,” observed Evelyn Waugh. But in the journalist Alex Renton’s polemical new book about boarding schools, the stories of institutionalised humiliation and endemic physical and psychological abuse are worse even than what an inmate might expect in jail.
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.
The courts are making it hard to report on child abuse in boarding schools – and children will suffer the consequences.
A very engaging talk despite the theme. Steeped in subject appreciation and emotional literacy.
At 07.09 Alex discusses a shocking outcome from research into boarding schools which was conducted in the late 1960’s by the eminent sociologist Royston Lambert. Of 1100 pupils interviewed at the time, 6% reported sexual abuse or having been ‘interfered with’ by an adult from the school. The work was covered up 1969.
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.