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15 May 2017

Tears on my pillow: Secrets, crimes and schooling of a ruling class

Alex Renton examines the disturbing brutality of boarding school life.

By Ian Thomson

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.

In well-researched pages, the author maintains that “at least a quarter” of boarding schools in the 1960s (the high age of the boarding prep school) “harboured sexual abusers, and perhaps many more”. Forty years on, however, boarding schools remain the preferred vehicle for education among wealthy and upper-class Britons. Why? A significant number of parents use the system as a “dump” for long-term childcare, and because they believe it will equip their darlings for the competitiveness of adult life and maybe even make prime ministers of them. Snobbishness inevitably plays a part. “I come from a long line of boarders,” Renton lets on, adding that his mother’s tremendously “ancient family” had gone off to board for “11 generations”. Eton must have consolidated his ideas about the social group into which he was born and his status as a boarding-school boy of considerable inherited wealth and privilege.

Besides his own experience, Renton has accumulated a private archive of 800 other accounts of the “rotten” side of boarding-school life. At times the prose is a little clunky (“Humour, at its driest, marches alongside the stiffest of upper lips”), and no attention is paid to those who apparently adored boarding. But Stiff Upper Lip remains a very competent history-cum-reportage that will bring back unwanted memories in ex-boarders, myself included. My mother, a Baltic Russian refugee, was not at all surprised when I told her about the beatings at Brightlands. As a schoolgirl in Soviet-occupied Tallinn, she was taught that caning was a consequence of the British habit of sending children away from parental love. Our first fear is abandonment (our last, too): but such fears had to be beaten out of us. Thus my mother’s class was shown illustrations from Oliver Twist in which children were given cuts with a cane. The English were renowned then for their hatred of children; perhaps they still are. 

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This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning