Today’s guest blog started its life as a letter to me from an old friend I’ll call just Mike. With his permission it is now turned into a book review and a memoir of Mike’s own experience of school life in the not-so-distant, but very different, era of the British Stiff Upper Lip. On a personal note, I might add that the author of the book under review emailed me about 18 months ago as part of his research. Why me? He made some reference to wanting “another voice on the culture” of boarding schools, even though he knew I had not attended one as a boy. Unbeknown to him, however, I did teach and live, briefly, at Ardingly College, a residential school attended by Private Eye editor and Have I Got News for You star Ian Hislop. He was a nine-year-old there in the prep school section at the time – not that I knew him carnally, unfortunately, or at all, as I was with the senior section. I think the author’s real interest, though, was my connection to a former prep-school teacher who is now in prison. He wrote: “I know that you are or were close to Charles Napier, and may think he has been unfairly treated.” Yes, I did think he had been monstrously treated, and still do, as I wrote in Hi, this is Charles. I’ve been a naughty boy…


So, over to Mike’s review:

Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, crimes and the schooling of a ruling class, by Alex Renton; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017

The book starts out well enough.  It is a crushing indictment of the worst aspects of private education in the UK.  Not only the schools themselves, but the parents who so willingly sent their kids away to board, in cold, cruel environments for twelve or thirteen weeks at a time, at the age of seven, or eight.

Even allowing for hyperbole in some of the complainants, I can clearly remember shivering with cold as I cried myself to sleep in my little iron bed; and at other times chewing my teddy’s ears because I was so hungry.

My second autumn, I cried because I told myself that the pigeons’ cooing in the eaves sounded so beautiful…  So beautiful that the sound made me weep?  Phew, where was my little head?

It was war time, so the food was doubly ghastly and I remember being made to sit for hours until I forced down a plate of macaroni-cheese — which looked like mouldy cats’ guts chopped up to me — because the rule was that we had to eat whatever was put down in front of us.  I did swallow it down, eventually, but then I sicked it up — so the victory was theirs.  And, of course, I had to clean up the mess…

Beatings were a commonplace, but enough of my own recollections, wretched though they were.  Suffice it to say that I have had a very bad couple of days and nights with the memories that the bloody book dredged up.

Yet these are mainly pertaining to the first part of the book, where Renton concentrates mainly on the coldness and the cruelties of that dreadful system.  The attitudes of some of the teachers and these being abetted by the parents involved, and ultimately, by the law of the land, are laid bare.  Renton’s views on child cruelty and the wholesale heartlessness of that system chime with mine.  He might be speaking for me…

Significantly, he speaks of what I would simply term ‘separation anxiety’ in young children.  Kids desperate because there simply was no-one to go to for help or warmth.  Except other kids — who also blubbed themselves to sleep…

It is the second part of the book that really depressed me, though.  Given that there clearly were some bad and ruthless ‘takers’ among the many teachers, who are now involved with the law — though Renton takes a broad, condemnatory brush to them all.  Even senior boys at prep schools (we’re speaking of 12-13-year-olds, now) are condemned for ‘raping’ younger boys.  Admittedly he does not condemn coeval activity and in fact, he quotes John le Carré in his meditation on the ghastliness of his own prep school — his first-hand experience of ‘sticky frogs’ clinging together for warmth in a freezing world of cruelty and despair — with the ring of absolute truth…

Dystopic?  Yes, and I feel, justifiably so, because one of the things Renton does address is the number of actual suicides among boys in British boarding schools.  But returning to Renton’s Poisoned-Gothic style in the second half of his work.  He brings on the big guns (sigh) of ‘attack’, ‘assault’, ‘abuse’, ‘molest’ and ‘victim’ as the standard terms, whether or not violence was present.

I know that I am the only one complaining about this linguistic dishonesty: but the whole argument of these passive-resultants — of these ‘victims’ — jars horribly with his descriptions of his own sexual contacts in which his own volition was very much present.  So, there is childhood volition, but when an adult is involved, this volition flies out of the window, apparently…

Then, of course, he tries to claim that ‘paedophile rings’ (sigh again) were formed among teachers in prep schools.  Operating as wicked cabals, no doubt?

I suppose we should be glad that he didn’t go on to claim baby-sacrifice on the nearby moors at midnight, but really the second part of the book is ghastly reading.

I never had an adult sexual contact at my prep, or my later boarding-grammar school; but there was plenty of sexual activity between the boys, including with younger ones.  But the whole edifice rested on consensuality. Only one senior boy, during my time at B—–, actually forced a junior boy and he was beaten up so badly that he had to leave.

I think there is probably a case for suggesting that Renton’s idea of forced sex is at least partially deflated by my own experience, and from conversations with other people who had gone through the same, or similar boarding experiences.  That is to say, if you made a proposition to a boy and he said no, you simply smiled and moved on…  This was because there were so many other boys who would ‘go for a walk in the water-meadows’.  And no, I’m not joking, and I suggest that where there were so many boys willing to play, then rape was redundant!

I sat in the back of the coach on my way home for the last time and I cried my eyes out.  I was sixteen and I was off to join the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice, and sexually speaking, I knew that my life was over!  A kind old duck sidled up to me and asked me what the matter was. What could I say? And yes, I did have a bitter sort of laugh about that, later on. And then, of course, I grew up!

Of course, my love-life wasn’t over, but the opportunities for adventure were very few and very far between as I scrabbled my way up through the service to become a pilot. For a start, how could I hazard my longed-for career as a pilot for the sake of short-term happiness?  The answer was no, and I only had to read the News of the World each week to know what was happening to fellow paedosexuals…  And then there were the Lord Montagu of Beaulieu scandals.

Back to Renton’s book. I admit that it hit me really hard. Not the Gothic descriptions of rapine, but the highly accurate descriptions of, particularly, those abandoned kids at that school’s front door. Renton asks the mothers. particularly: ‘How could you do it?’

The silence is deafening, of course. They would say because it was a cultural imperative and ‘everyone else was doing it’. Damn them!

Another memory. A boy called Harry. He was taller and stronger than me by a long way, but we were made to get into a ring and box. I was terrified, but more terrified of showing fear, so I went at him like a windmill. He simply dotted my nose bloody and then easily knocked me down with a second blow. Then the silly kid got into trouble for blubbing because he’d hurt me!

What absolute bastards those people were. We were seven and eight and we were supposed to act like vicious little men. Harry and I were good friends after that and he pretended to be a useless boxer thereafter. He used to just wave his gloves about and let other kids hit him.

How can I remember what happened as long ago as 1944? Christ, I can remember coming down the stairs to the smell of lumpy porridge in the mornings; the incredible stench of an outside urinal; the swish of the cane and delayed bite of the hideous pain. Oh yes and developing boils on my knees during my second year…  Many of us had boils. I wonder why?

Oddly, one of the few things I still like is lumpy porridge. I couldn’t face the day without it! Another positive is that when I went to No. 1 School of Technical Training — where the discipline was fierce — they set their ex-guardsmen drill instructors on us, I just smiled inwardly and thought: ‘This is easy!’

And when the big brutal senior entry came in to wreck our barrack room just before a kit-inspection, I thought nothing of it and had my kit ready in no time.  Truthfully, after boarding school, the training centre was a boat-ride.

I urge you to read the book if you have a strong enough stomach.

[Heretic TOC: This marks the end of Mike’s letter, but another one followed, after I told him I wasn’t that keen on subjecting myself to Renton’s antagonistically “Gothic” view of consensual sex between teachers and boys: we are more than sufficiently familiar with the ubiquitous “abuse” narrative. I don’t understand why Renton would be so hostile in the book, given that his attitude to children’s sexuality is by no means as negative as the “innocence” narrative requires. This relative reasonableness comes out in his conversation – we had a lengthy and perfectly amicable Skype chat –  and also in an article he did for the Observer in 2014, when he wrote: “Besides, the sexual abuses were, in my version of the story, just detail: the real narrative was of five years of deliberate crushing of our individuality, the suppression of emotional freedom. Sexual bullying seemed just a part of the violence and cruelty that was the basic currency of the school and hundreds like it; the tools with which it squashed our little forms into the mould.” What was wrong, then, he seems to be saying was the bullying, not sex per se. Who could disagree? But let’s continue with Mike’s second letter: ]

From my personal point of view, it is not the detail that matters. It is the desperation that I felt as a small boy, having no-one to turn to for help. When you were very new, trying desperately to remember complex school rules and weird traditions; being beaten for such ‘crimes’ as forgetting to change into house-shoes (sandals) when one came in from outside. Even as a small child, I was forgetful, so I got a lot of ‘stripes’ for that.

As for your attempts to get Renton to see that Charles Napier wasn’t the monster that he claims, well, that’s like the pissing-into-wind, one-sided-argument that we are all faced with in this world to today. The one-eyed paedophobe will go on using his maximum pejoratives, come what may?  Regardless of the truth and the realities of childhood volition? And yes, his professional pragmatism as a journalist would have come into the mix of hatred, rage and fear.

And yes, on second thoughts: don’t read the book! It is very depressing! Not least, because of the level of Renton’s obvious obsessive-compulsive ‘pursuit of justice’. Yes, he was flogged to within an inch of his young life by a ‘drunken monster’ — probably a sado-masochist; yet it is the sexual events of prep and public school life that he pours most of his Gothic passions into. So — as you say — he gives the punters what they really want to read? He sells the book with salacious references?

[Heretic TOC again: Precisely! There is a big market for misery memoirs in general but a much bigger one for “sexed-up” misery.]