Lessons for life?

Founded on first-hand tes­ti­mony, this pas­sion­ate polemic against board­ing school pro­vokes se­ri­ous ques­tions, says James Fer­gus­son

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Doc­u­men­tary mem­oir Stiff Up­per Lip: Se­crets, Crimes, and the School­ing of a Rul­ing Class Alex Ren­ton (Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, £16.99)

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.

Stiff Up­per Lip is a fu­ri­ous, closely re­searched polemic against board­ing school, not only against prep schools, but the ‘public’ schools for which they are ‘prepara­tory’. Mr Ren­ton has talked to teach­ers, pupils, for­mer pupils, child psy­chol­o­gists, psy­chother­a­pists, trauma and abuse ex­perts, psy­cho-neu­rol­o­gists and writ­ers on child de­vel­op­ment; he has even in­ter­viewed at length, and gin­gerly, a school­mas­ter con­victed of hav­ing sex with chil­dren.

As well as the har­row­ing tes­ti­mony of his readers, he in­vokes elo­quent an­tique wit­nesses, from Roald Dahl and C. S. lewis to Ge­orge or­well, Win­ston Churchill and lord Ma­caulay. He ex­am­ines the ‘pro­pa­ganda’ ef­fects of school fic­tion, from Tom Brown’s School Days to Jen­nings and Harry Pot­ter—the Rugby of thomas Arnold cod­i­fy­ing an ideal school of ‘hard knocks’, Hog­warts its fan­tas­tic mod­ern ver­sion.

All is in­formed by Mr Ren­ton’s own un­happy his­tory; in a strik­ing set piece, he makes a beat­ing at Eton, where he bent over Swin­burne’s ‘flog­ging block’ to be caned by the head­mas­ter, the ‘quiet, wise’ Michael Mc­crum, into an ap­palling pot­ted his­tory of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment in public schools. As­ton­ish­ingly, this car­ried on into the 1990s.

Never mind his book’s por­ten­tous sub­ti­tle, no fee-pay­ing par­ent can ig­nore the pow­er­ful ques­tions Mr Ren­ton asks. In what ways can it be good to give your child wholly into the care of strangers at the age of eight? If you dis­liked board­ing your­self, how can you jus­tify send­ing your child to board? If you loathed the school you went to, why on earth send your child there? Haven’t peo­ple al­ways ar­gued ‘Well, ev­ery­thing is dif­fer­ent now’? Does what mat­ters dif­fer?

‘In what ways can it be good to give your child wholly into the care of strangers?

When he and I at­tended board­ing schools, we learned, some­how, to take for granted the dis­abling home­sick­ness, the feral bul­ly­ing, the ca­sual sex­ual abuse, the at­ten­tions of Capt Grimes (there was al­ways a Capt Grimes). My prep-school head­mas­ter was a ge­nial sadist with whom my fa­ther used to play ten­nis in the sum­mer hol­i­days. School­boys prac­tised liv­ing in two sep­a­rate worlds at once.

Yes, a lot has changed since our day, although Mr Ren­ton ar­gues for much fiercer reg­u­la­tion. But one thing, he em­pha­sises, hasn’t. Board­ing re­mains board­ing. At­tach­ment the­ory sug­gests that, if you take a child from its par­ents at the age of seven or eight, he or she makes a sub­sti­tute at­tach­ment. the school be­comes the ‘brick mother’. No won­der so many board­ingschool chil­dren have re­la­tion­ship prob­lems in later life and no won­der so many, through thick and thin, how­ever ghastly their school­days, ex­press loy­alty to their old school—their ‘Alma Mater’—un­til the day they die.

Fic­tion such as Tom Brown’s School Days is crit­i­cised for its role in ‘play­ing down’ the vi­cious culture of boys’ board­ing schools

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