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Pockets of evil in England’s green and pleasant land

May 2, 2021

Once upon a time, as an eleven-year-old at one of England’s private boarding schools, I was dragged out of bed at nine in the evening by a fierce maths teacher and made to repeat the classwork that I’d royally screwed up earlier in the day. In my school report for that term, he wrote that “Royston gives a passable impression of a fool”. Perhaps that explains why I failed to see the beauty of numbers until someone invented the spreadsheet.

Sixty years ago, as I was struggling with quadratic equations, it seems that others were enduring an altogether darker experience.

Louis de Bernières, the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, has recently caused a stir by revealing the abuse he suffered while a pupil at his English preparatory school. Beatings, sexual abuse and mental cruelty abounded. For him and, it seems, many other boarders in such institutions, there was no escape. As a result, he says, he was permanently scarred, and unable to form stable relationships.

For those of you unfamiliar with the arcane world of English private schools, preparatory schools are where kids go between the ages of around 8 to 13. They are ‘preparatory’ because their aim is to prepare pupils for entry into a public school, which in fact isn’t public but private. Many of them are boarding schools. In my day, we only saw our parents every few weeks.

De Bernières asked for written contributions from people who suffered he did at a prep school. The Sunday Times published some of their stories. In common with his experience, the tales of abuse and suffering were quite harrowing. Many were left emotionally stunted for life. This was not a new phenomenon. As anyone who has read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and any number of other novels set in English boarding schools will know, private education in this country has a long history of malpractice that sits alongside its reputation for excellence.

I had two experiences of prep schools. My parents sent me to an establishment called Akeley Wood at the age of eight. This was in the early sixties, a few years before De Bernières went to his school. And then, after I left the public school for which Akeley Wood was “preparing” me, I worked for a summer term as a teacher at another: Port Regis.

I was lucky, or maybe I should give credit to my parents for choosing my school carefully. With the exception of the incident involving the overzealous maths teacher, nothing happened to me that you could describe as abuse, either physical or mental. In fact, I wore my school report as a badge of honour.

The fact that the teacher felt able to describe me as a fool to my parents, who paid the fees that kept him in a job, is an indicator of how these schools were a law unto themselves. One wonders what OFSTED, our education regulator, would have made of that report.

Nonetheless Akeley Wood was, as I remember it, generally a benign institution. Perhaps it was significant that the headmaster, who was also the owner, was married. Many of De Bernières’ correspondents wrote that most of their teachers were single. One of them recalled that the situation at his school improved dramatically when the head got married. The sixties was also a period when many World War 2 veterans were in teaching. At that time, there was no requirement for a private school teacher to hold any formal teaching qualification. An MA from Oxbridge, then something of a formality following after a first degree, was often all that they needed. So it’s not surprising that so many brought their physical and mental scars into private schools, where the only selection criterion was the approval of the headmaster.

Funnily enough, two of the most dominant personalities at my school were women. They were the matrons, who were tasked with ensuring our physical wellbeing. Misses Lawrence and Maber, also known as Beefy and Battleaxe, were a fearsome pair, at least to us. A reason, perhaps, why Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seemed an entirely believable character to me. Certainly mental wellbeing didn’t seem to figure strongly in their remit.

And yet, despite my being in the care of the odd and damaged characters whose eccentricities are obvious with the hindsight of sixty years, Akeley Wood gave me a decent, if traditional, education that enabled me to get into my next school with a minor scholarship. I didn’t find boarding a problem. Any unpleasant memories are largely overshadowed by good ones: sitting in the loo late at night reading Homer; trips to see Shakespeare in Stratford; tunnelling under snowdrifts in the great freeze of 1962; horse-riding through Stowe, a country estate full of endless gallops, surrounded by eighteenth-century follies. And then of course the teachers, the best of whom helped to instil in me a love of the written word, and a passion for history, especially of the ancient world, that remains with me to this day.

If there was anything that I blanked out, it’s stayed blanked out to this day, And anyway, I doubt if what I went through would be more difficult than that experienced by any number of kids at state schools at the time. Or so I believe, having spoken to many friends over the years about their school days.

My second encounter with a prep school was in 1969, when I took a summer job as a teacher at Port Regis. It was a good way of filling in time before I went to university. I got the job in the time-honoured way, thanks to influence. My younger brother was at the school at the time, so I imagine that my parents put in a word for me.

Which is how I ended up in a classroom at the age of eighteen, teaching a bunch of kids about the Battle of Cannae and much else besides. Port Regis was better-connected than Akeley Wood. At the time it boasted a couple of Conrans among its pupils, as well as a smattering of other scions of the great and the good. Later on, Princess Anne sent her children there. By the time I arrived, some of the old warhorses of the sort who abounded at Akeley Wood had started to retire, though there were a few eccentrics still shuffling over the polished wood floors.

Mr Mellor, the art teacher, for example, who appeared to have a weakness for the sauce, and always at breakfast replied to a cheery “good morning” with a bleary “is it?”. And the redoubtable Mr Winnall, who was fond of shooting and once caused all the pupils in one dormitory to wet themselves in terror when he came into the room late one evening, opened a window and took a pot shot at a rabbit on the front lawn. Or so the story goes.

Again, I only have happy memories of Port Regis, even if the experience of teaching for a summer term made me realise that I wasn’t born to be an educator.

I write this to point out that not every private boarding school was a hotbed of abuse whose legacy festered in those who suffered from it. Just as in the current era, when most private schools, often out of economic necessity, have converted from single sex to co-educational institutions, I can’t believe that all such schools are swamps of misogyny and male predation, despite recent scandals that might make you think otherwise.

The difference, perhaps, was that in the sixties the prevailing ethos was, as Prince Philip liked to say, you got on with it. In the schools De Bernières and his contributors describe, you ate the food you were given – all of it – even if it made you vomit. You accepted the beatings and the furtive fumblings of paedophile teachers. And, most extraordinary as it seems now, you practiced a code of omerta. You didn’t tell your parents. Even if you did tell them, they may not have believed you. So because you and your cohorts were all in the same boat, you found a way of dealing with the reality around you.

That wasn’t my experience, though just as a chimpanzee is only a few strands of DNA away from being human, it only would have taken a few small adjustments for my school to have been the same – a little less kindness, perhaps, or a less benign headmaster.

Things are different now, in that abuse can’t so easily be concealed. A best-selling author can unearth stories of cruelty from an earlier age. A Facebook campaign exposes widespread misogyny among pupils at co-ed secondary schools, both private and public. In today’s prep schools, staff who indulged in the practices of the sixties would end up in prison, and the schools themselves dead in the water. Thank goodness. The social media may be a malignant force in many people’s lives, but it has its uses.

Can we ascribe what others see as one of our national characteristics – the British reserve, the stiff upper lip – to the emotion-stunting educational regimes imposed on generations born into privilege? I don’t believe so. It’s a trite theory that doesn’t explain why so many of those whose parents relied on the state for education – the vast majority – stoically marched into the trenches in war time, worked in factories and fields for a pittance and when asked about their well-being would answer with the stock reply: “mustn’t grumble”.

The truth is that we’ve always grumbled, which is why over the centuries our grumbles have turned into civil wars, riots, industrial unrest and, more recently, Brexit. Though I’d never wish to downplay the harm done to Louis de Bernières and so many others of my generation, a fate from which I mercifully escaped, we should always remember that within each generation there are people who suffer in silence – even now, in an era when the social media has industrialised the expression of pain.

Perhaps the best way we can recognise historical suffering – for my generation will soon be history – is to shine a light on those who suffer today, and not just in our own country. There are plenty of victims of religious, political and societal abuse who deserve our attention. Silence is the friend of the oppressor, as it was for the little tyrants of our private schools. So we should complain and protest, so that suffering that’s happening around us is not revealed far too late for any remedial action.

Our forebears were right. We mustn’t grumble. Because grumbling simply isn’t enough.

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